Burning Classics Down

Oh, Twitter!

I limit myself to fifteen minutes of social media a day (doctor’s orders). I say this to make clear that I did not follow the discussion, which (I was told) became heated, following this tweet:

What constitutes an academic field?

We are probably not talking about the study of the ancient world outside its professional and institutional confines. Let’s call this “amateur” Classics for convenience and without adding normative weight to the term. Optimistic Maximus feels confident this study will continue; pessimistic Maximus remains skeptical of professional classicists’ power to control and direct it. The field marked out for burning is, thus, the professional one. Even “professional” Classics can be usefully divided into two parts for analysis.

  1. The Idea of Classics: professional Classics constitutes an imagined space, a field, that is continuously redefined and refined. What are the boundaries that define the professional classicists’ intellectual area? What sort of work is inside, what outside these boundaries? Like everyone and their mother, I have a take on this hoary topic (What is Classics?). The book Postclassicisms is another place to explore the field’s intellectual structure (with Johanna Hanink’s review in the TLS). As I pointed out in my post on this book, there is another aspect of professional Classics that is less often discussed.
  2. The Classics in Institutional form: Classics is more than an idea. It is also a set of practices embedded in institutions, particularly universities. We can talk more easily about the ideas of Classics, but often struggle to talk about the practices and their institutional forms of Classics. Not only do practices and institutions differ internationally and intra-nationally, many institutional practices and forms are not unique to Classics, making them seem like part of a different topic. But the difficulty should not blind us to the fact that institutional forms and practices (e.g., job interviews, tenure-lines, graduate admissions, journal editorships, letters of recommendation, the structure of majors/programs, exams, grades) ARE integral parts of the field of professional Classics.

The Burning Stakes

Taking seriously the metaphor of burning Classics down means that we imagine what the professional study of the ancient world would look like if its current institutional position was removed: Classics departments abolished, current faculty reassigned or fired, graduate students and new faculty no longer employable as classicists. Classics Realism surprisingly coexists and is reinforced by an existential crisis felt by many professional classicists. Even as we struggle to imagine any other institutional structure of Classics, we face the obvious fact that many (if not most) institutions would be happy to see Classics go (University of Vermont’s actions are recent enough). Many certainly feel betrayed by the idea of burning down the thing that they are fighting desperately to preserve. A few very moderate responses to the initial tweet illustrate this dynamic.

The Burning Questions

The burning questions are many, but two immediately come to my mind. (1) What might a radical change actually look like? And (2) does the solution solve the problems posed the field’s relationship to White Supremacy, colonialism, etc.? People will obviously have different views of what burning it down might look like, depending on their analysis of the problem. Bond herself offers what I would call a utopian proposal.

The Burning Metaphor

In my earlier post about Classics and White Supremacy, I offered a metaphor taken from Wilkerson’s Caste:

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Maximus Planudes

Maximus Planudes

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The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.