Changing Classics to Save Classics? A View from Below

Statue from Herodias Atticus' mini-Nile River installment near Marathon, outside of Athens.
By Rebecca Kennedy and Maximus Planudes

Changing classics?! Un argomento trito e ritrito, worn out, beaten as only a dead horse can be. It has urgency, however, for those whose livelihood depends on teaching, especially the contingently employed who only have jobs so long as classes are offered and there are students in the seats. As the pandemic worsens an already terrible academic labor market, humanists are likely to see even more difficulty in finding work as teachers and researchers. The numbers are bleak all around for the humanities, including “Classics.” People are rightly scared, an emotion not helped by the op-eds dropping every 10 minutes, insisting that we fear the “radical far-left wokeness brigade” who is killing the discipline. “Ignore,” they imply, “institutional disinvestments or the pressures of transnational capital. The real worry is wokeness ‘canceling’ Virgil.” Unhelpful.

This post is not a response to any of the “Discourse.” We’ve been thinking for a while about humanities in the university, the place of “Classics,” and what shape it may take under continuing disinvestments. MP, for example, thought about it as a member of the SCS’s committee for contingent labor; RFK, when trying to reconfigure a museum slated to be closed because “there just doesn’t seem to be any energy around it right now.” And our attention focused again when our college president and provost started to hold meetings with various humanities faculty to discuss, ominously, “the future of the humanities.”

We want to fill a gap, as it appears to us, by explaining a bit about the situation in our small liberal arts college. Many conversations, online, in the national press, and at our disciplinary conferences focus on Classics' complicity with white supremacism and our continued efforts to change the problems of racism that ravage our discipline. They focus also on the Ivy Leagues or Ph.D. granting institutions, or other traditional elite private colleges, where there are endowments and traditions and lots of faculty to fight with. And yet, many humanists work unnoticed because they fall below this prestige threshold or lower in the Carnegie classifications. They work in smaller programs and colleges, in community colleges, in secondary or primary schools.

Though starting small and local, we do offer some ideas for the academic “thought leaders.” Because the pressures on Classics don't only come from our entrapment with white supremacism but also from more mundane problems. What we hope our readers will see is that change is coming to Classics. It is, in fact, already here for many of us. Although we know that our specific situation does not necessarily generalize everywhere and that the US system will seem bizarre to many, we hope that the detailed local focus can (mutating the mutandas, ut ita dicam) prove some value to the conversation.


Before 2009, Classics at our small college had 2 faculty (philologists), housed in history (in the ‘80s), anchoring a program with colleagues in Art History, Religion, Political Science, and Philosophy. It was an interdisciplinary “studies” program. In the ‘90s, the classicists were moved into their own 2-person department. This division came from an initiative by the then provost, who was pushing hard for departments to create majors that would track into graduate programs and was made after an external review by 2 esteemed members of the discipline (one from a SLAC, one from an R1) recommended a stand alone department. Since entry to graduate programs in Classics is essentially determined by language preparation, the revised major centered on Greek and Latin. Even at that time, the number of language students was not overwhelming, but they dropped precipitously after the financial crisis of 2008. This was not a unique situation--check the minutes of the last decade of Small Liberal Arts Chairs meetings from the SCS; it is a problem for many. 

I (RFK) arrived in 2009 as the first department historian. Even with three faculty, Classics remained and remains one of the smallest departments on campus (it will not get any bigger). The pre-professional major was 14 total components--9 courses in Greek and Latin, 2 courses in translation (history survey or myth), and a senior symposium where students presented their senior thesis, along with a comprehensive languages exam. With 3 faculty and this structure, we offered a total of 15 courses per year (when all of us were there) and 10 of those courses were in the languages. The remaining 5 were distributed in myth, civ, and contributions to the university writing program. Our students were good at the languages, but had very little knowledge of the broader content or context.

Even then, the language-based major was just getting by, graduating about 4-5 majors a year (but our courses in translation were always full, just not with majors). But it was shrinking, and after 2012, the numbers dropped again. The enrollments in advanced language classes, the core of the major, could not enroll the minimum six required to run a class. Perhaps someone might say, “wait it out! The numbers may return” or “Bring them in through a large general course!" -- small program enrollments and majors are often built upon “cults of personality” of the professors and positive word of mouth among the students” helps -- or “New pedagogies and better marketing would resolve the problem of lowering enrollments.” Basically, “Do something to allow the status quo to continue!” Campa cavallo! How many years until a provost comes knocking on one’s department doors and asks whether you really need that 3rd tenure-line or those spousal positions? 

A change in administration allowed the department to shift from a pre-professional program, changing its course offerings and educational goals by emphasizing classes in translation, which were (and remain) popular. The department decided not to scaffold or make prerequisites for these courses--mythology, Greek and Roman history, literature surveys, special topic seminars; this openness allows non-major students to take any class that strikes their interest. We all had to adjust our pedagogy and reframe our expectations of what sort of background the students will have. They typically have none. The one class they take with us may be the only class on antiquity they ever take. We want them to get as much out of it as possible.  

We want to note that our most popular courses are Myth (easily the most popular), Greek and Roman history (which include role-playing pedagogies), and thematic courses on race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, law and democracy, war and society. Students love that most of our courses feature modern reception or explicit connections to the modern world. We often eschew the traditional research paper for more creative assessments. They love thematic courses and projects that have them thinking across genres, times, and spaces. The lowest enrolling classes are traditional seminars in translation on Roman authors like Ovid and Vergil, although Athenian Drama still fills. It seems to us that most students want courses that touch on issues of contemporary concern and allow for synthetic, critical, and creative engagement with the past. 

But what about Greek and Latin, you ask? Students still must take two semesters of one language for the major, and minors in both Greek and Latin still exist. We still teach first-year classes, although Greek often struggles to meet its minimum six. The rest of the language classes we teach as independent studies, that is, as overloads. We typically have about three to five students doing various independent studies for language work per semester. These classes are often 1 on 1 or in small groups of 2-3. 

[Begin rant: we get frustrated when people say we don’t care about the languages: dude, we teach them unpaid! We don’t even get to bank the credit hours towards future course releases (and we already teach five courses a year as full time and have to do general advising). Our life would be so much easier if we didn’t care about them. End rant.]

Our program is clearly no longer a pre-professional program. A student wanting to continue to graduate school will struggle to find programs willing to provide them with additional language training to meet their minimum expectations. We have had students, even underrepresented students, rejected from terminal MAs and new bridge programs for insufficient language preparation (e.g. a BIPOC student with 1 year of Greek, 3 of Latin, and French). For many, the costly post-baccalaureate programs are out of reach and who can recommend in good conscience that a student move to a new city or state and pay thousands of dollars on the off chance they may get enough experience to get accepted to a terminal MA next time? Even so, we aren’t upset that our program is no longer pre-professional; we do not believe the study of the ancient world needs to end in a Ph.D. for students to be successful. Rather than invest everything in a small handful of students who might get into graduate school, we believe our program should be welcoming and open to anyone, regardless of whether they take one class, five classes, complete the major, or only take a language for the general education requirement. #classicsforall

Still, we are conflicted about graduate school. On the μέν hand, we fully support students who want to continue their studies and do what we can to prepare them and help them, despite the lack of good teaching jobs (we are honest with them). On the δέ hand, it seems irresponsible to structure our work around a system that, even when it is not exploiting student labor, will not end in an academic job. Graduate schools still occasionally admit our students, so we hope that programs work hard (1) to provide robust job assistance for students to leave academia (we now have Christopher Caterine’s Leaving Academia) and (2) to de-stigmatize not getting a tenure-track job (success in Classics). And in the current environment, we do not mean just alt-ac jobs. We mean any goddamn job. Normalize humanities PhD-holders outside the academy in all and any form!

Our Classics (soon to be Ancient Greek and Roman Studies) program has de-centered the languages, not because we do not value them, but because broader social changes made it necessary. We would happily reinstate full languages course work if someone gave us a large endowment that allowed us to teach 1-2 person classes, but we would not go back to a pre-professional, language-centered program even if we could. We like and believe in our program. Classics should be for everyone and not just the few who will continue into a graduate program. For a while, it looked like ancient studies would not survive on our campus. We are surviving because we adapted on our own terms to the pressures facing not just Classics but the Humanities more generally. 

Not only small departments but even some middle and larger humanities departments are struggling on our campus. English, History, Religion, Philosophy all face similar pressures and are losing tenure lines or having them “held up.” A major factor is reduced student interest, while the typical academic department infighting continues to wreak its usual havoc. The administration has also been reallocating a small number of lines to our new interdisciplinary majors such as Global Commerce, Global Health, and Data Analytics. The first two majors are staffed primarily by qualitative social scientists and historians and even the third has social scientists and humanists involved. As skeptical as we were at first, these programs enroll and attract students to our campus.

We do not think, we should be clear, that these moves are some evil, neoliberal attempt to destroy civilization. They are pragmatic attempts to provide students and families what they want, ensuring the survival of a small midwestern college in an increasingly hostile landscape. Our sister colleges are closing departments, reducing faculty and staff lines dramatically, and even, in some cases, face the risk of bankruptcy and closing in the years ahead. There is a demographic drop in college-aged students coming, and many schools are simply unprepared to face it. College is also increasingly out of reach financially for many families, so we have to increase financial support to meet our enrollment goals because there are just fewer families who can full-pay, while recognizing that the pool of applicants is going to be shrinking. These new majors are helping us to bring in students who are skeptical of the traditional humanities thanks to decades of negative publicity and also want to study interdisciplinary subjects that they think will help get them jobs after they graduate.

Students and their families consistently cite these new majors as reasons to choose this college over others. It might be fair to say that if I (MP) am still employed in the Fall, I have these departments to thank. Not only do these students come to our college, but, because of the structure of the Global Commerce major, every single one of our department’s non-language courses counts towards the major--it’s basically a humanities major with a few business classes attached (taught, in fact, by the qualitative humanities and social science faculty). And these students love classes on Greco-Roman antiquity. 


We lay all of this out because, in part, small college programs face pressures that the prestige programs may not be facing, at least not yet. Many small departments, more subject to market forces and student demands, have already made the sorts of changes that some of our colleagues are now suggesting for the prestige programs. These suggestions scare a lot of people, who think it will destroy the study of Greco-Roman antiquity. Our experience, however, suggest that making those changes may be the thing that gives new life and energy to its study.  

Certainly, such changes fundamentally alter the way Greco-Roman antiquity is studied and taught, primarily by de-centering the reading of a few selections from golden-age Latin or Classical Greek authors. These traditional advanced language courses, often seen by our students as the last thing they can add to overwhelmed schedules, play a smaller role in programs. The numbers are anemic in many small programs already--we can no longer justify to our administrators emphasizing them in case one or two students might want to go to graduate school. We do not want or think the languages should disappear from our campus or from the discipline, but the number of students going to graduate programs with 3 or 4 years of both languages (especially from small programs like ours) is going to continue to diminish whether graduate schools change their requirements or not. 

These changes will also change the way we hire and are, in fact, the way we will justify to administration why they should let us retain our third tenure line when a colleague retires in a few years. We won’t hire another philologist. We don’t need one; all of the current faculty (including the spouses) can teach both languages and all of our core courses. We will justify hiring another faculty member by pointing to the excitement around and enrollment in our history and special topic courses. We will hire a material culture specialist who can add to what we already do and integrate with our colleagues in Anthropology, International Studies, Global Commerce, Black Studies, MENA, ENVS, or even Data Analytics. We will hire someone who can stretch us out of Europe further into Asia or Africa and past Alexander. Because this is what the university will most likely give us. In the end, we have and will have students that have a much broader and well-rounded understanding of the ancient world than our previous language-focused majors did.

Classics is changing whether people want it to or not. Graduate programs will have to decide what they will do about the situation. Under the current structures, the pool of possible students who even meet the minimum language requirements is going to continue to narrow. Eventually, it may be that only students from PhD and MA granting schools and a few select east coast privates remain who can enter the profession. How this will impact the continuing desire to make Classics less white and elite remains to be seen. But Classics is not defined by graduate schools and a classicist isn't limited to someone who has advanced levels of Greek and Latin only. We already know this.