“The man-hunter and the job-hunter have succeeded the hunter and warfare and welfare merge in a way of life as completely as any Paleolithic or Stone Age society.”
–Marshall McLuhan, in his 1971 Convocation address at the University of Alberta.
26 December 2022
I had not previously been a radical job-seeker until April of 2020. Prior to this time, I had been active in seeking tenure-track jobs in Classics and Ancient History, but only rarely looked beyond these opportunities. (You can read about the present state of the job market in Humanities disciplines here and here.) It was in April 2020 that the university I was working for in Edmonton announced that they would not proceed with their scheduled courses for spring and summer, adapted to the pandemic-induced online mode of delivery.
This meant that my job for the summer, to teach Classical Mythology, had been canceled and I was out $7800 for July and August, on which my family of four was going to survive until my regular teaching resumed again in September 2020. We had our second child in September 2019 and my wife, a high school teacher, was just gearing up to return to work after her maternity leave. (Learn more about how maternity leave is punished in education and academia here.)
So, April arrived, and I had nothing lined up to carry us through beyond the first week of July. Luckily, the course I usually teach for a college in Cold Lake, AB, is set up as an online course, so that proceeded as usual, and I had a steady income from when teaching ended at my main employer in Edmonton until July.
At this time, I was working a three-year Sessional-Extended Contract, which includes guaranteed 3-3 teaching from September to April, compensated at 7800 CAD per course. Usually, I taught nine or ten courses per year between Edmonton and Cold Lake, bringing my income to what I would consider sustainable levels, between seventy and eighty thousand Canadian dollars.
The pandemic-related work stoppage was a big shock for me, as it came on the heels of two tenure-track searches for Classics faculty at my main employer, where they had passed me over. Now, I was laid off in the most sensitive time, when the Canadian Prime Minister was frequently on the news asking institutions to retain their employees as much as they could, and I realized I could not keep doing the same things and expecting different results.
I changed my academic job-search strategy to apply also for the short term, visiting positions. We had had a family agreement that we would only move if I got a permanent job, because my wife was happy with her work as a teacher. Now, because of the pandemic and hiring priorities, I could no longer rely on my main employer in Edmonton as a stable source of income. I needed to work at a different university, so I cast my net wide.
At the same time, I was idle and frustrated during the first pandemic restrictions, having only my online employment in Cold Lake as a connection to the outside world. I went looking for local jobs, and I started serving as a handyman for the condo corporation where we owned our home, and started delivering food for an organic food start-up in Edmonton.
This gave me renewed confidence. It felt OK that I had lost my ordinary work and picked up these odds and ends. But something else was about to change as my main employer, who had just laid me off, sent me a new contract for September, asking me to sign by a certain date, and Memorial University asked to discuss my application for the 8-month Visiting Assistant Professorship.
Long story short, I took the Memorial offer. I told my employer in Edmonton that I couldn’t teach for them in 2020-21, we sold our house, and moved from Edmonton, AB, to St. John’s, NL. The shock of moving from the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in Canada to the highest, at the same time as living apart from everyone in our new home because of the pandemic, took its toll on my family. My wife doubted whether this had been a reasonable choice for us.
This shock wore off in about nine months and we started to enjoy our time here very much; life and work returned to normal. Everything was about 30% more expensive than we were used to, but we adjusted. What we, and everyone else on earth, did not expect was the massive inflation of late 2021 and 2022. The shock of that put me back in my April 2020 mindset.
We did the math. Over the course of 2021, I lost $7000 dollars in purchasing power. That’s a big hit to a $56,000 annual income. (Yes, I am one of those who moved across the country for lower pay and more prestige.) In 2022, my salary lost another $7000 in value. Now, I am working my visiting professorship for $42,000 in 2020 dollars. This is very bad.
I had free time coming after I submitted grades in December, so I took a risk and worked as a mall Santa for two weeks. That was the very definition of an “odd job,” but it bought our family what we would consider an ordinary Christmas, which we otherwise would not have been able to afford.
The Santa job ended, and here I sit, working as a security guard in a hotel. I hope that working this job part-time alongside my full-time academic work will help us survive the global affordability crisis, and I hope the best for everyone struggling with these issues.
Kevin Solez, PhD
Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador St. John’s, NL, Canada (email@example.com)
I’m obviously not the first one to say this, but the AP Latin curriculum isn’t good.
In several different ways, it seems like the content of the course is slowly deteriorating over time. I’m sure some here can recall the days of four different tests, each covering a different Roman author. That’s right, four. Nowadays, it seems as if the College Board has really limited the curriculum as a result of the lessening number of students taking the exam (4,899 in 2021).
The effect of this lack of students? A curriculum that awkwardly shoves together two authors in a way that isn’t conducive to educating modern high school students. It hops back and forth between Caesar and Vergil for each unit—in such a way that your average juniors and seniors can struggle to gain a truly strong footing in the material. It’s a little strange.
There’s also an absurd amount of vocabulary. Based on the research of other teachers, there are nearly 11,700 words that a student must understand over the course of the syllabus. This amount of new vocabulary is much more than what the beginner Latin reader is used to dealing with in their first few years of the subject. It’s not to say that it’s impossible, but it is difficult if you’re in your third or fourth year of the subject.
The other aspect of this current AP curriculum that doesn’t exactly appeal to your average teenage high school student is in the subject matter inherent to these pieces. Commentarii de Bello Gallico is dry and does a tremendous job detailing the frequently boring military exploits of the Roman army in Gaul. For every chapter explaining the specifics of a battle, there are five more examining how Caesar sent a dull letter to a commander that one time.
On the other hand, Vergil’s Aeneid is much more interesting. There are lots of references throughout the text and its narrative serves as a nice introduction to the wider world of literature for newer Latin students. In fact, it inspired me to read other works of Roman poetry that I enjoy.
(Personally, my passion for authors like Catullus and Ovid was directly inspired by my work with Vergil this last year. It was the first time I had been exposed to this kind of poetic literature in my education, and now it’s my main interest in the subject. My favorite genre of these works are the semi-autobiographical elegies.)
However, there is one massive flaw with both the Aeneid and Commentarii Bello Gallico that each AP Latin student has to contend with. There is a total lack of variety in the material provided.
I don’t think I’m asking for too much here. This last year, I completed the course with five of my peers, and we were all shocked by something as simple as the lack of a relatable female voice. I can’t remember a single named female character in De Bello Gallico and the non-male characters of the Aeneid don’t exactly get much, either.
You have Juno and Dido, who are both characterized as “crazy” in their opposition to Aeneas. From the opening lines of the epic, it is established that Juno is defined in the story by her conflict against Aeneas’ journey to founding Rome. Similarly, Dido is at first portrayed as the strong female ruler of Carthage, but after Aeneas departs at the request of Mercury, she becomes a crazed lunatic who commits suicide in a famously elaborate fashion.
The other prominent female characters don’t exactly have much to offer. Venus exists entirely as a mother figure in respect to Aeneas, and Lavinia acts as nothing more than a prize to be won at the end of the narrative.
The response to this shouldn’t be “well that’s how it is,” because there are countless examples of prominent, more defined characters throughout Latin literature.
And so, my peers and I, inspired by this notion and a friend’s passion for typesetting, decided to pursue our own educational resources for newer Latin students that featured these uncommon figures. The process for us consists of taking texts from books like Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves and resources like Tufts’ Perseus Digital Library and Oxford Scholarly Editions and adapting them to lower reading levels. It’s tedious and not exactly entertaining, but it’s been insightful to go through all these different resources and pick certain texts to adapt. Hopefully, this can become a resource useful for high school and lower-level teachers. Based off of the formatting of other educational texts, here’s a section I adapted:
Luke is a rising high school senior from outside Philadelphia, PA. He was new to the subject entering his freshman year, but has since fallen in love with Classical languages and culture to the point where he hopes to study it in college. His personal interest is specific to Roman poetry, but he has experience with traditional Greek authors as well. Outside of his academics, Luke enjoys theatrical performance and filmmaking.
“Once I add a few more things, I will complete my proposals. Beyond all other things, it is necessary that fathers, by avoiding transgressions and doing everything that is required, offer themselves as a clear example to their children, so that when looking at their father’s life as if in a mirror they may turn away from shameful deeds and words. Whoever makes the same mistakes as those for which they punish their sons become their own accusers under their sons’ names without realizing it . Men who live life poorly in every way do not possess the right to criticize their slaves, much less their sons. In addition, they could become their sons’ advisors and teachers of crime. For whenever old men behave shamefully, it is by necessity that their young are the most shameless.”
“I’d be happy if I could ask you what kinds of books you like to read the most? Is it the works of Plato or Antisthenes, Archilochus or Hipponax? Or do you look down on these books because you prefer the orators?
Tell me, have you read Aeschines’ speech Against Timarchus? Or, do you know all those things and comprehend each of them but instead dip into Aristophanes and Eupolis? Have you even read The Baptai, the whole play? Did nothing in it change you and were you not embarrassed once you recognized what it was about? Someone might, in fact, be especially amazed at what kind of a spirit you have when you touch your books or what your hands are like when you unroll them.
When do you read? During the daytime? No one has seen you doing that! Is it at night then? Do you do it after you have given out orders to these guys or before? But in the name of Kotuos, don’t dare to do this kind of thing any more. Give up the books and pay attention to only your own affairs”
“I admit that I now have a bit of a different opinion from what I believed before. Perhaps it would be safest for my reputation to change nothing which I not only believed but also approved for many years. But I cannot endure knowing that I misrepresent myself, especially in this work which I compose as some help for our good students. For even Hippocrates, famous still for his skill in medicine, seems to have conducted himself very honorably when he admitted his own errors so his followers would not make a mistake. Marcus Tullius did not hesitate to condemn some of his own books in subsequent publications, the Catulus and Lucullus, for example.
Prolonged effort in research would certainly be useless if we were not allowed to improve upon previous opinions. Nevertheless, nothing of what I taught then was useless. These things I offer now, in fact, return us to basic principles. Thus it will cause no one grief to have learned from me. I am trying only to collect and lay out the same ideas in a slightly more sensible fashion. I want it made known to all, moreover, that I am showing this to others no later than I have convinced myself.”
Ipse me paulum in alia quam prius habuerim opinione nunc esse confiteor. Et fortasse tutissimum erat famae modo studenti nihil ex eo mutare quod multis annis non sensissem modo verum etiam adprobassem. Sed non sustineo esse conscius mihi dissimulati, in eo praesertim opere quod ad bonorum iuvenum aliquam utilitatem componimus, in ulla parte iudicii mei. Nam et Hippocrates clarus arte medicinae videtur honestissime fecisse quod quosdam errores suos, ne posteri errarent, confessus est, et M. Tullius non dubitavit aliquos iam editos libros aliis postea scriptis ipse damnare, sicut Catulum atque Lucullum et… Etenim supervacuus foret in studiis longior labor si nihil liceret melius invenire praeteritis. Neque tamen quicquam ex iis quae tum praecepi supervacuum fuit; ad easdem enim particulas haec quoque quae nunc praecipiam revertentur. Ita neminem didicisse paeniteat: colligere tantum eadem ac disponere paulo significantius conor. Omnibus autem satis factum volo non me hoc serius demonstrare aliis quam mihi ipse persuaserim.
I can remember almost exactly when I decided to stop pursuing a University job. It was sometime around 8am on a nondescript Thursday in February 2018 – and I was in the back of an ambulance. I didn’t know at the time, but the impact of a van driving into me while I was cycling to the station an hour earlier had broken my pelvis in several places, and was about to mean 10 days in hospital and another 3 months on crutches. It also made me realise that even thinking about turning down the full-time, well-paid, likely-to-go-permanent, school teaching job put on a plate in front of me just a few days earlier was sheer madness.
All this sounds very melodramatic – but it is absolutely true. For all the brilliant things about the still very new job which I was commuting to when the accident happened, I really did think it might have been in my best interests not to stick with it, but to take an enormous gamble on a lectureship coming up for the following September. How had it taken something as serious as hospitalisation to make me realise I’d had a genuinely very good deal already land in my lap, and that it was OK to stop pursuing the Elusive Permanent Academic Job which everyone kept telling me was within my grasp eight years after being awarded my PhD?
Don’t let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
Just one more application, one more term, one more year… I spent the next couple of days (it might have been more, or less – blame the morphine or oxycodone) idly following the UCU strike on Twitter and pondering my life choices. Maybe all this was a sign. I don’t want these reflections to be another sad tale of the woes of academia. There are enough of those, and many far sadder and more upsetting than mine. I’m not after pity in writing this. Instead this is a cathartic warts-and-all tale about my experiences of finding a life outside the Ivory Tower, a life that can be just as fulfilling intellectually – if you want it to be.
On paper I’d had a pretty good run: in 2010 from the September straight after the PhD three years at one place (actually a succession of three one-year jobs, because the Faceless Uni will commit as little long-term cash as possible), then a prestigious post-doc for three years, then a single semester job that then gave me another semester part time. This last job was actually in the city where I had been building a life with my partner for the previous 10 years or so: prior to this a lengthy weekly commute had been the norm.
Apart from getting a book out – that’s a whole other tale of woe, tardy reviewers, crying, and email-management ineptitude at an Unnamed Publisher – I felt like I’d done everything right. I was now getting shortlisted for the permanent posts I was applying for, but never quite making first choice. And by September 2017 I had had enough. I wasn’t about to apply for a(nother) temporary job 400 miles from home. I felt by this point I was worth more than this. As a former Head of School once said to me, ‘it’s a war of attrition’, before regaling me with tales of his back-to-back postdocs. And in this war my nameless enemies were starting to win.
So in November 2017 I went for, and got, a temporary, part-time school teaching job a short commute from home. And after a very short time, this place really felt like home. Maybe part of it is down to size: there are some 100-ish teaching staff, and I know most of them by name. I know who Senior Leadership are, the people actually making the decisions which affect me and my life. They speak to the staff – their colleagues – at least once a week. I have even spoken to them socially. At all of my other institutions I wouldn’t have been able to pick those running the University out of a line up. There is also as much free tea and coffee as you can drink, in actual pottery mugs rather than immediate landfill, and in the halcyon pre-COVID days, free cake and cheese straws: this was all far better than a sad brew in a paper cup from a soulless, expensively-branded University outlet – and you didn’t have to pay £1.50 a pop for it out of your own pocket. This job made me realise how utterly expendable I had been to my employers for most of the last decade. This school made enormous efforts to get me back after the accident when I was ready, rather than simply replacing me to suit their own needs because it would have been easier. That is not to say that my immediate colleagues in Uni Land had never fought tooth and nail to keep me at the end of my six separate contracts – I’m certain some of them really did – but in the end there is only so much academic departments can do in the face of The System, and the Giant Balance Sheet which must exist in all Higher Education Establishments. I’d simply been a faceless figure in the expenditure column. Here, I was Dr Coker, valued and respected Teacher of Classics, the one who keeps introducing herself by accident to students with her first name because old habits die hard.
And it’s not that I hadn’t felt good at my job before, but I was good at this job, and I enjoyed it. I even started to dare to have fun at work, discovering that there is almost nothing 15 year olds won’t do for a Party Ring (= type of cheap UK biscuit), and that there can be immense joy in teaching younger students.Nothing gives you more instant feedback than a room of teenagers, and nothing also says appreciation like a hand-made card with a drawing of a pelvis on it with a pink heart, seven weeks after you start your new job. Weird, absolutely, but also peculiarly endearing. It’s not that students of 18+ are incapable of such displays of affection – nor indeed those University staff who teach them – but there is a genuine sense of community at my workplace which I had not realised I had been missing. I’m not in need of constant praise, but more positivity in the previous decade would have been nice. I think of myself as mostly pretty emotionally robust, but my experience of academia is that it is fundamentally set up to make you feel like a failure, regardless of your status. Got a PhD? Well done, but you need to publish it. Got a your first temp job? Great, but, you know, it finishes in 10 months so get writing that postdoc application, sort your publications out, and then get applying again. Finished that article and sent it off? Good news! If you are really lucky, you’ll get some feedback within a year, and Reviewer B won’t question the entirety of your knowledge base with his (and I think the pronoun is more likely correct there than not) anonymous acerbic vitriol.
Four years on and for all the positive things about the now not-new job, the truth is I’ve only recently stopped feeling like a failure because I’m not in The Club any more. This change in status has been the hardest part of the transition, such is the way in which academia wraps up your own personal identity with that of your intellectual achievements. I’m still invited to give papers or public talks from time to time, and do various kinds of reviewing for well-known journals which definitely helps me prove to myself I have what it would have taken. I submit the odd conference abstract, and am beavering away when time allows on various publications including The Thesis Book (a.k.a. The Millstone Round My Neck). I’m doing this now because I want to, because there is a reason I went back to Uni to do an MA, and then a PhD, which was because the Real Jobs I had in between my studies were boring and unfulfilling.
But what am I now, what label do I put on myself? I have an Honorary Research Fellowship at my nearest University, which keeps me an academic email, unfettered library access and perhaps some small amount of kudos. ‘Independent Scholar’ sounds like I am deliberately claiming some kind of maverick autonomy which I’m not sure I am. ‘Gentleman Scholar’ of course is even worse, not least because I don’t define myself as a man, gentle or otherwise. I take heart from the acknowledgements which fill the early pages of LSJ (the big lexicon of ancient Greek) to all the ‘non-professional Classicists’ in non-University settings whose own expertise was invaluable to this monolith of scholarship. I’ll just have to be me, and pick my own way through this identity crisis. We’re beyond labels now, right…?
Remember that to change your mind and to follow a new directionis not to sacrifice your independence. It’s your own action which brings this about, through your own impulse and judgement, and your own mind.
Most importantly, and this shouldn’t be unsurprising but somehow I feel I need to say it, loudly enough that those those who are thinking about jumping ship and doing something beyond academia can hear: I Am Ok. I haven’t lost all my intelligence and experience. I still have Dr in front of my name, which perhaps ironically is used far more now I’ve left HE than when I was in it. My publications still count – though just for me and some higher ideal of the search for knowledge, not for any bureaucratic exercise (UK-based folks will know all about REF) or because I need them for a promotion.
My friends and family still love me, and am proud of me, even my friends who still work in the sector (of course!). Some of them are actually more proud of me now for having had the confidence of my convictions to decide to follow a different route than one which is, let’s face it, not always what it is cracked up to be. What’s really empowering is that once you’ve escaped the Ivory Tower, you may well be invited back in from time time, but you don’t have to say yes unless you want to. Leaving academia teaches you that it’s ok to say no – and incidentally makes you realise how much of the academic discipline operates through good will and favours beyond formal contracts of employment.
Four years on, do I regret any of my time in academia? Absolutely not. Do I think it’s a ‘waste’ not having ended up in Uni-world? No, no education or experience is a waste. And, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t try my best. If it is a waste, then that’s not on me. At the very least, those jobs all paid the rent ,then the mortgage, and led me to see places I would never otherwise have been. I’ve also picked up some wonderful people along the way, whom with any luck I will keep by my side for the rest of my life.
But let’s not pretend academia is peopled entirely with the great and good, since we all know absolutely that it is not. There are plenty of low-level miscreants alongside the infamous headline cases. I’ve met some people who should never be in charge of anything, yet somehow are running the show, and regardless of this a few of these people will probably end up with buildings named after them. I’ve sat in front of interviewers who were on their phones under the table (I’m pretty sure this guy does now have a building named after him, or at least moved on with a massive promotion), and others who genuinely nodded off during interviews.
I’m sorry, I’m really not that boring: if you have so much work to do that you can’t stay awake in my interview – and by the way, I’m sure that work didn’t involve reading the course materials you requested I painstakingly prepare for this interview which you clearly haven’t even bothered to open – then the system really is broken. And also, by the way, as someone in charge of that system or at the very least complicit in it, maybe you should try leading from the top and enacting change? Earn your massive salary by thinking about those who might need you to represent them for once. Has academia has left me bitter? Yes, and disappointed that my experience of working in it was not what I had hoped it would be.
I still occasionally look at adverts for positions when they come round, but with an odd mixture of masochistic voyeurism and relief. The job market has only got worse in the last four years, compounded now of course by the uncertainties of Brexit and COVID-19, which in all honesty makes me realise that my decision in the back of that ambulance four years ago was undeniably the right one. Never say never, but at the moment I’m glad to be out of it all.
As I sit here at my desk at home in my very comfortable study pondering the last decade or so, the story of the last decade doesn’t look like failure, even though from time to time the pangs of self-doubt whisper in my ear that it is. Carving your own path is hard, but untrodden ways can come with their own sometimes-unexpected rewards, and be absolutely worth it.
Amy Coker has a PhD in Classics from the University of Manchester, UK. She taught and held research positions in University-land for the best part of a decade after her PhD, before jumping ship to school teaching (11-18 year olds) in 2018. She still manages to find time to think and write about Ancient Greek offensive words, pragmatics, and historical linguistics, and to do what she can to make Classics a better place. She can be found on Twitter at @AECoker.
There are those who, when they encounter the frights and horrors of the wilderness with complete endurance and strength complete the contest of life, after preserving it unsullied and unconquered, holding fast against the compulsions of nature like poverty, so that they subdue hunger, thirst, cold, and heat and everything which enslaves other people through the great abundance of their strength.
The cause of this is not simple toil but toil with a certain sweetening. For he says “the water is sweetened” and the work that is sweet and attractive is also called “love of labor” (philoponia). For in work the desire and longing and and love of finer things is sweet. Let no one turn away from this kind of suffering, nor let anyone believe that when the table of the feast and happiness is called “bread of suffering” it is for its harm rather than profit. For the soul which is chastened is fed by the instructions of education.”
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 Fergusonand 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.
“Perikles was a student of Zeno the Eleatic too, the one who concerned himself with nature in the manner of Parmenides. and who practiced a type of refutational logic which would trap his interlocutor. He was, as Timon of Phlias quipped, “a man whose tongue worked both ways, with irresistible fury, Zeno, a universal prosecutor”.
But the one who spent the most time with Pericles and who chiefly endowed him with a stature and outlook more impressive than any demagogue’s and who totally raised up and praised the worth of his character was Anaxagoras of Klazomene. He was a man people of that time called the Mind because either they were amazed by his understanding which appeared so great and nuanced regarding nature or because he was the first who didn’t make chance or necessity the ruling force of the universe but instead Mind in its pure and simple form…”
“People of every age enter this classroom. “Do we grow old only to follow the young?” When I go into the theater as an old man and I am drawn to the racetrack and no fight is finished without me, shall I be embarrassed to go to a philosopher? You must learn as long as you are ignorant—if we may trust the proverb. And nothing is more fit to the present than this: as long as you live you must learn how to live. Nevertheless, there is still something which I teach there. You ask, what may I teach? That an old man must learn too.
But the human race still shames me every time I enter the school. Near to that theater of the Neapolitans, I have to pass that house of Metronax. There, the place is packed too as with a burning desire they judge who is the best flute player. The Greek horn and a herald bring a crowd. But in the place where we seek what a good man is, where how to be a good man may be learned, the smallest audience sits and they seem to most people to be up to no good in their pursuit. They are called useless and lazy. May such derision touch me. For the insults of the ignorant should be heard with a gentle mind. Contempt itself must be held in contempt as we journey toward better things.”
Omnis aetatis homines haec schola admittit. “In hoc senescamus, ut iuvenes sequamur?” In theatrum senex ibo et in circum deferar et nullum par sine me depugnabit ad philosophum ire erubescam?
Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est, quemadmodum vivas, quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris, quid doceam? Etiam seni esse discendum. Pudet autem me generis humani, quotiens scholam intravi. Praeter ipsum theatrum Neapolitanorum, ut scis, transeundum est Metronactis petenti domum. Illud quidem fartum est et ingenti studio, quis sit pythaules bonus, iudicatur; habet tubicen quoque Graecus et praeco concursum. At in illo loco, in quo vir bonus quaeritur, in quo vir bonus discitur, paucissimi sedent, et hi plerisque videntur nihil boni negotii habere quod agant; inepti et inertes vocantur. Mihi contingat iste derisus; aequo animo audienda sunt inperitorum convicia et ad honesta vadenti contemnendus est ipse contemptus.