Success in Classics

Maximus Planudes
5 min readFeb 17, 2019

A recent discussion concerning how some Ph.D. programs discriminate against students coming from terminal MA programs has elicited much well-deserved anger. It has also raised additional issues that need to be discussed. As the field as a whole seeks to redress its systematic exclusions and become more diverse, the function of gatekeepers must come under scrutiny and we keepers must subject ourselves to self-scrutiny. Hiring is an obvious gate that is well kept but so are graduate admissions. Most of the students I now teach would not be able to get into a Ph.D. program, for the simple reason that they have not studied the languages long enough. For example, Berkeley lists its application criteria: the following quotation reflects language preparation only (I’ve shortened it)

the committee is looking for, as a minimum, language preparation (that)… includes a full year of introductory language study, three additional semesters in central authors or texts of each language … plus two additional semesters of more advanced reading in either Greek or Latin. In practice, a student with two years of study in the weaker language is usually considered marginally prepared. Applicants in Classical Archaeology are expected to meet the same minimum standards of preparation as those in Classics.

So, we are looking, at minimum, of 3.5 years of one language and two of the other, with MA students expected to have even stronger preparation. I am not sure I understand the reasoning for the same requirements pertaining to Class-Arch: I would have thought that a student, say, wanting to work on Greek Archeology would be better prepared with significantly more modern Greek than Latin. But it’s not for me to say what counts as a prepared archeology student. I do want to register my annoyance that years of study serve as a proxy for measuring ability. Certainly, the heuristic has some relevance, but let’s remember always that it is a proxy measure and one that reproduces economic or situational privileges.

The issue of graduate admissions raised another issue for me, one that we need to think more about, as we go about our attempts to diversify our field. We need to address what we think it means to be a success. Let me start with what I believe to be the traditional narrative of success, which looks something like the five-act play of Titius (betraying my interests in Roman law and drama).

  1. Titius arrives at college and declares a classics major (success!).
  2. Titius achieves a BA in Classics and is accepted into a funded MA program (success!).
  3. Titius is accepted in a Ph.D. program (success!).
  4. Titius gets a tenure track job at a Ph.D. granting school, begins training Ph.D. students (success!).
  5. Titius gets tenure and starts placing his own Ph.D.s into TT jobs at Ph.D. granting schools (success!).

In each act, the perceived status of the school helps to further differentiate the level of success. Some Ph.D.s go to small liberal arts colleges, some to schools percieved as less prestigious, some to a long series of visiting or adjunct positions. Investment in the dynamics of institutional hierarchy contributes its own toxicity to our field (I’m looking at you, novae famae volent commentator on Indiana). But if this story-line feels at all familiar to you, if the story has affected you at some level, you understand how the implied narrative of success in classics structures our self-worth in the field.

It is true that the field has started to address acts 4 and 5, struggling to count so-called Alt-Ac jobs as a success. And rightly so, when, for example, only 3% of the university of Chicago students get t-t jobs at research schools. U.Chicago is an amazing school, with faculty at the very top of their field, training excellent graduate students. I can say this despite (or because?) they didn’t hire me! Yet I would be prepared to bet that the other 97% of Chicago PhDs would be excellent teachers and scholars, even if most will not get a chance to act out scenes four and five. We obviously need to rethink what we mean by success when only a tiny fraction of our students will achieve it through no fault of their own. I have more to say about these final two acts of the prototypical success story, but the conversation about it has already started and the problem is deeper.

Let’s look back at every act of this play and recognize how our investments in it harm our students and ourselves. When Titius gets into the Ph.D. program from his MA, it is rightly celebrated. Let’s cheer for him: heia, Titie! Let’s cheer for us: Yay, us! But Seius, his colleague in the MA program, decided to not pursue his studies in the Ph.D. Do we celebrate his story? We should! We should count Seius as just as successful at Titius, provided that the choice was not thrust upon him from some external cause (asshole faculty, stupid gatekeeping, toxic investment in the dynamics of hierarchy, we know the stories). By treating Titius as a success and Seius as a failure or somehow lesser, we place unnecessary pressure on our students to continue: who wants to fail? Who wants to disappoint? I believe that a student who studies classics and decides not to become a professional classicist can still be a success story.

I taught at a school with a terminal MA for a few years, so I understand how institutional pressures reinforce this investment. Our administration, always looking for proxy measures of success, asked for reports on how many MA students got into what Ph.D. programs. If a student decided not to continue, it counted against us. We trumpeted the student who went to U.Chicago and we were quiet about the student who went to teach Latin at a private school, though both received MAs from us. This was an administrative necessity, but much worse is if we internalized this dichotomy. We must be able to say honestly, “they both succeeded equally.”

I now teach at a small liberal arts college, where we faculty often focus on training majors to go on to graduate school. The college, however, primarily cares about them getting jobs. Going on to graduate school is something we classics faculty have internalized. What if a student decides not to? If we invest narrowly in the narrative of professional success or, worse, in the dynamics of hierarchy, then most of our students will be perceived as failures and we fail most of the time.

The first act, like the third, involves institutional pressures. We obviously need majors and bringing them in is a success. At the same time, we should not internalize institutional measures of success like the number of majors. Last semester a student in my Ancient Greece class came to me after the semester to tell me how much the class had changed her. We had played the Athens Game from the Reacting to the Past pedagogy. She told me that the game had helped her realize her own strengths and interests and she changed her major from psychology — to political philosophy. Clearly unaware of the internalized narrative of success in classics, she just wanted me to know that my classics class (maybe the only one she will take, though she tells all her friends to take them) was a key class in her own personal development. Her story too is a success.

So, as Classics continues to think about how it can develop and change, how it can become better, I hope that we each take some time to think about how we think, talk about, and measure what it means to be a successful scholar, teacher, and student of the ancient Mediterranean.



Maximus Planudes

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