What Would You Add/Drop/Change/Keep the Same about “Classics”?
Classics Ph.D student Ethan Ganesh Warren and associate professor Nandini Pandey recently spoke with the SCS Blog, at the invitation of AAACC co-founder Chris Waldo, about their experiences as South Asians in ancient Mediterranean studies. They share with Sententiae Antiquae the second half of their conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, about things they’d keep or change about “classics” — that name itself, though used throughout, being one obvious candidate.
Nandini: I was going to ask if you wanted to play a little game with me. I do this one midterm evaluation that asks every student to pick one thing they’d add to your course, one thing they’d drop, one thing they’d change, and one thing they’d keep the same. And I wondered if we could do that for “classics” as a field right now. What would we add that isn’t already happening?
Ethan: One thing that I would like to see is more courses that cover broader topics in antiquity, [like one we teach at UT-Austin] called “The Ancient Mediterranean World.” The first thing we talk about is how the idea of “the West” or “the Mediterranean” is extremely problematic because that spans multiple continents and multiple climates and multiple cultures … from Babylon, Sumer, Egypt, Israel, all the way up until Greece and Rome. And we end up forming links between all of those cultures. I think courses that help you see similarities and share experiences between cultures are super cool and underutilized in colleges in general.
Nandini: I love that. And I would add to your “add” that I would really love more training in grad school or at other levels to prepare us to do that kind of teaching [in keeping with recent interest in global antiquities]. I know it’s intimidating for any of us, after the depth of training we receive in a couple cultures, to branch out and feel like amateurs. I think it’s actually okay to be an amateur; I wish that we would embrace the fact that we’re always learning and we don’t need to stay forever within our dissertation fields. But I would love serious training on those cultural interactions really emphasized as part of the curriculum instead of [treated as] a throwaway option. [The same goes for interactions between antiquity and the present.] My students always love when we add some thought to the modern world — conversations about cultural interactions or appropriations or intersectionality with a classical twist. So I find that using Eidolon articles or bringing up modern angles is a great way to start or end discussion [that could also be better modelled in graduate school].
<We rave about Antigone in Ferguson and the brilliant discussions it’s generated in our classrooms, then move on to what we’d drop.>
Ethan: One thing I would drop is the idea that you need a fully complete resume to get into graduate school. And what I mean by that is a lot of professors, when a student comes to them with an interest in graduate school in classics, say, “Okay, you need four years of one language, three years of another. You need experience in this and this. … And it would also help to know either French or German or Italian.” And that can be severely limiting to students who didn’t have access to that sort of thing in high school. … If you put all of these qualifiers in, then it’s frankly impossible for a student who comes into college without any knowledge or practice in classics to go to graduate school … and become a professor or be a part of the field, right? And that can be severely limiting and it’s frankly not true. I mean, I was lucky to have a lot of high school experience in Latin, but I didn’t take any classics courses my freshman year … by the time I was doing advanced Greek, I was a second-semester junior. I didn’t have any German or French. And I got into a good program out of undergrad because I worked hard and I had a lot of confidence in myself and I had people tell me that I could do this — but I don’t think everyone has that. A lot of places, professors tend to gate-keep the field, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Nandini: And even your saying that you “only” had a certain amount of Greek by your junior year is already amazing, right? Many people, especially ones who fall in love with classics late in their college career, might not have access to even one Greek class — but they could have so much to bring to the field. So I fully endorse that and I want to add for the record that you may have more Latin right now than I did by the time I became a professor. <They laugh; Nandini attended a public high school with no Latin program and stumbled into classics as an undergraduate.> But there’s a kind of virtue in coming to the field from a background that wasn’t about rigorous language training from the very beginning. I think that actually you sometimes have more insights or you can be a little more creative in your outlook.
So I totally agree with you and I would add, as a corollary, that I’d love to change our ideas of what expertise looks like, but also drop the expectation of total comprehensive synthetic knowledge of everything ever written on a particular author. Which is something that [we faculty often] perpetuate with the way that we do grad school reading lists and design exams and [compose] footnotes that last pages. It creates so much fear and intimidation. I mean, if you’re a Vergil scholar like me and you feel you need to read every one of the hundred thousand things ever written about a particular passage, you would never write a word. So I think that we need to start modifying that culture for sure.
Ethan: Also, to add onto that, letting students know that it’s okay to skim articles. Because I think this is one of the dirty secrets of academia, especially when you first get into graduate school. You have a thousand lines of Latin to read for one class, plus five or six articles and you’re not going to be able to physically do that with two or three other classes. And I think a lot of professors try and keep the secret that people skim … and that’s okay. You don’t have to read every single word of an article. If you can understand what the author is doing, the logic they’re using, and at least some of the references they’re making or some of the source material they’re citing, that’s good. And that’s especially good for a college student.
Nandini: Absolutely. And there’s this old ethos, or maybe it’s more an aesthetic, where [professors] would cultivate the aura of somebody who has completely memorized the entire classical corpus. They would sit in the front at lectures and trot out verbatim citations in the original language. There is something incredibly cool and wonderful about that and I love many of those people who can do that. But for a long time, that was what I thought was the only way to be good at this field. And the truth is that in our information age, where we can instantly call up any article or look up any text, that kind of memorization expertise is getting not outdated but replicated. Because as you say, it’s more important to know how to read than to have fully memorized every single thing, because you can always [look them up if you need]. Or if you have the skill set of designing a good argument and understanding where it needs evidence, and understanding how to critique the scholarship — if you have all that, that’s actually much more important than having a bunch of bibliography at the tip of your tongue.
Ethan: One thing we would change — do you want to go first on this one?
Nandini: I think this current digital age allows a lot more potential for conversations and collaborations across institutions. I’ve gotten so much during the pandemic from chatting with other BIPOC classicists or grad students at different programs than mine [often while] giving visiting talks from my living room. I really love the ability to move around so freely in terms of conversations and support networks. And so I guess I would just keep going in that direction. I think it’s really healthy [that WCC, AAACC, and other organizations] are building mentorship relationships that reach beyond your specific department. Because in some of my darkest times as an academic, when I felt bullied or harassed — and believe me, this happens in grad school, but it keeps happening; getting a job is not the end, getting tenure is not the end of microaggressions or gatekeeping — in those situations, it’s having friends outside of my institution that has really saved me. And I would wish that for anybody else in this field.
[Academia] can be very isolating, and there’s this false perception that everyone gets it except for you — that they all know what they’re doing and they’re all understanding that article or writing that paper perfectly on the first try. I think that we need to make [classics] a less lonely endeavor — we need to make it much more supportive, much more sociable. And we need to break those little monopolies on authority and power that are the academic department, and reward and compensate the time that people spend on [building relationships and support structures that cross institutional boundaries].
Ethan: Bouncing off of that … another thing I would change is broadening the requirements for the [undergraduate] major. So not necessarily saying, you need this many hours of Latin and this many hours of Greek, and this and that specific class. Because while it’s definitely helpful and while that could make you a potentially attractive candidate to graduate school, there are a lot of people who know [canonical authors] like Ovid and Vergil really well … People who are interested in something different like bioarchaeology or digital humanities are also super attractive to graduate school. … And that could be beneficial because it helps students develop skills to be competitive in and get jobs outside of academia too. Because if we’re trying to get students to come and get Ph.Ds in classics, then promise them all tenure-track jobs afterwards, then we’re kidding ourselves and them. So developing skills that can be attractive in other fields and other endeavors after the Ph.D is something that I would like to see.
Nandini: Absolutely — there’s no categorical difference between academic and “alt-ac” skills. There never has been nor is it healthy to act as though there is. We need to make sure that graduate school is always helping people develop skills for a [range of future job possibilities]. And we should start welcoming and rewarding different kinds of output … than just the standard dissertation. There’s this standard format that frankly is not even a book — [most dissertations] require years to become good books. We could encourage writing that’s a little less formulaic, a little less self-credentialing and boring, and start helping [grad students] make products that people [outside our narrow band of academia] actually want to read or use. We can reward more public-facing work, but also applied projects like digital humanities or commentaries or pedagogical projects or art installations or programs that are aimed at bringing more diverse students into classics. I think all of those things should count as end goals of your time in a Ph.D program … because obviously the model that we have is not working for all but a very few.
Last question — what would you keep the same?
Ethan: One thing I’d keep the same is the growth in discussions like this. Because as you said, for the longest time, [grad school was considered] this pipeline toward a job in academia … but that’s not realistic [for all]. That’s not saying that you shouldn’t pursue that goal, but you should also know about other options available to you. And I think this growing conversation has been super beneficial for graduates — it’s definitely been beneficial for me.
Nandini: I couldn’t agree more. And my answer for “what I would keep the same” is you. I just want to ring-structure back to the email that you sent me all those years ago [when you read my 2018 Eidolon piece about diversity in classics]. That really helped me at a time when I was feeling very isolated in a red state after the Trump election. I started writing publicly because I didn’t know what else to do with my time and frankly, digging deep into footnotes and spending time in the library on the commentaries started to feel less fulfilling intrinsically. I needed to figure out a way to reach out and reach more people. And so I started writing for Eidolon in a really dark place, but I had no anticipation of how much uplift I would get from people like you and how fulfilling it is now for me to watch you grow and change and do the great work you’re doing — and have this wonderful conversation with you. So thank you very much.
Ethan: When I encountered your article, I was also in a dark place. I was interning and we had just had a lecture where I had been singled out by someone. They had later asked me where I was from and when I told them Wisconsin, they did the classic, “Oh, well, where’s your family from?” It was a stressful time because I had been getting that a lot. And I read your article and feeling that someone understood what I was going through really helped me continue on in the field. So thank you for that.
Nandini: And turning back to ancient thought: to know that other people have dealt with [these questions of identity and belonging and path-finding] before, even if they didn’t look exactly like us — that gives me a sense of radical continuity and compassion across cultures and across generations and across space now too. So here’s to many more such conversations.