Classicists without Borders

reaching hand

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski, via flickr

Classical outreach programs are proliferating. See, for example, the ones at Oxford, the University of Cincinnati, the Classics in Communities Project in the UK, and the variety of outreach initiatives at the SCS. The problem with the term outreach is the slight air of desperation. There must be people “out” there who have never heard our message, who need to be “reached.” Hands extend into a void, waving cheerfully at passersby, signaling for attention, anxious not to be ignored. I  believe we should think less in terms of reaching out and more in terms of service, of finding places where our skills are needed or welcome, even when those are not the places that our ordinary professional lives typically take us. Possibly the best current example of this is the series of workshops run by Classics in Communities, bringing support to those in schools with no Latin programs who want nonetheless to teach Latin. I can think of two other areas where there is a certain void, a space where the voices of Classicists without Borders would potentially be welcome, even useful, but have not so far been heard very much. The first is podcasting. The podcast medium is widely enjoyed as recreation be people as they exercise, walk, travel, go about housework routines, etc. This is an audience hungry for new content, eager to explore new ideas, and interested in all sorts of things. Perhaps they studied Latin at school, or have always had a love of mythology. The mechanics of producing and delivering podcasts to this audience are well within the technological competence of most classicists. Success in the medium, as with much teaching, requires a conversational style, a sense of humor, and an ability to tell stories. A second area is that of digital project reviews. The vast majority of people who are not professional classicists find their information about the classical world on the internet, and there is a heartening proliferation of good quality digital projects about the ancient world. Still, there is a good deal that is slapdash and ill-informed. Who can tell the difference? Classicists can. Where is there a reliable venue of critiquing, evaluating, and commenting on digital resources? Nowhere. The SCS Communications Committee (which I currently chair), among its other activities, is creating just such a venue as part of the SCS website and blog. When qualified review of open digital resources becomes as routine as it is for monographs, the prestige and the quality of open online publications will rise. The SCS Communications Committee has created a clear set of guidelines for such reviews, and is actively soliciting reviewers and projects to review. Please leave a comment if you have any suggestions for this, or ideas about other “Classicists with Borders” initiatives.

9 thoughts on “Classicists without Borders

  1. Chris,

    I entirely agree with regard to the concept of “outreach,” though I’m not sure that philosophically an alignment with MSF is much better. They’ve got all sorts of ethical problems of their own based on their operational structure, as well as have faced some pretty heavy critiques about the philosophy of their operations generally…

    That said, the bigger problem that I have with all of this is that it simply doesn’t address the real set of fundamental issues at play. Classics has, for the last hundred and fifty years (at least) adopted a reactionary and externally focused approach to evaluating challenges that the field faces. We are always oriented toward the outside world: our field’s problems and challenges come as a result of a lack of understanding on the part of everyone else, not as paradigmatic issues for us to solve. I think we need to flip the script and contemplate the possibility that the outside world may in fact be right, i.e. that it actually has understood what we have to offer and it has rejected it for logical and grounded reasons. What does our reality look like then? How might we have to reflect on the way that we have structured our field and the modus operandi we employ in it? What I’m suggesting here is that it might be quite beneficial for us to take the skeptical route and interrogate our own epistemes and habiti at this juncture. To offer briefly such a reading, here’s what I see in the current operation of Classics:

    1) Our pedagogy is dated, both in terms of general instructional theory and in terms of language instruction specifically. Our most advanced instructors are, in general, ~30-50 years *behind* the research in Second Language Acquisition theory & instruction. Those are our top people, not the ‘average’ teacher on the K-12 or post-secondary levels. In terms of the professorate, an understanding of the current landscape on this front is even less developed in our average K-12 instructor. This impacts everything we do both operationally (What courses do we offer them? How do we design them? What outcomes do we set as goals? How do we build our curricula? etc.) and in terms of the results that we see from our efforts – i.e. student retention and investment.

    2) Our theory is dated. Though there are a decent number of Classicists with a strong theoretical background, the field broadly delineated is behind the times compared to many of our colleagues in other humanities and social sciences fields. Because we are delayed in finding, analyzing, and deploying contemporary philosophical realities, we are behind the times in generating research and publications that rely on them and confront the world on the terms according to which it is actually operating. Chris Celenza highlighted this imperative a decade ago: “It is imprudent for a scholar who is dealing with ideas in the past to be disconnected from the ideas of the present, and too many critiques of traditional models of truth and the way language reflects it were advanced in the course of the previous century for us to ignore them” (The Lost Italian Renaissance, 58).

    3) Despite the efforts of people like you who do see the valuable ways that we can leverage current technology to support our work, much of the field is still stuck in a pre-internet mode of thinking about an deploying those tools. We (in general, and I include myself in this) aren’t leveraging technology successfully to meet the challenges we face in terms of the research and institutional thinking we’ve currently got going on, let alone the imperatives implied by #1 and #2 above or the realities of #4 below.

    4) The biggest issue at hand for us right now is the issue of relevance and meaning, and the field simply doesn’t do a good job at deploying strategies that reach these goals in a valuable way for the lay person. There are several reasons for this, but the underlying issue is that Classicists generally deploy arguments and methods that make sense to Classicists, *not* to people whose dispositions are different from ours. If/when we do attempt to appeal to a broader audience, we most often do so with at troped and fictionalized image of the person/people we’re speaking to, without effort to understand what it is they’re really looking for and without moving our appeal from the logical to the affective realm. If we aren’t winning students’ hearts before their minds, we aren’t going to be nearly as successful as we otherwise could. Paideia’s outreach on this front has been monumental and should serve as a wake-up call to the field. Anthony Grafton’s observations in his article about the organization should be giving pause to instructors across the country and prompting them to re-evaluate their current operations. Is that happening? To offer (in my humble opinion) a better model of how we *should* be engaging the outside world, I’d suggest we look at Eidolon. That journal is a *very* strong example of a positive strategic shift to meet these needs more directly and in a way that appeals to a broader lay audience with intellectual interests outside the ~800 BCE – 500 CE timeframe while generating relevant space for the Classics in the modern world. We need more of what they’re putting out. Lots more.

    In sum, I think we need to make sure our own house is in order before we start turning to look at the outside world. We need a Kuhnian paradigm shift in just about every aspect of the field, and the sad part is that I’m not only *not* seeing that coming from most people, I’m seeing them fight against it OR (what’s worse) ignore it in favor of attempting to spur “outreach” as if the problems we’re confronting aren’t situated squarely in our own domestic space (so to speak). Without seriously questioning and engaging with these issues as a field and, in the process, perhaps confronting some very difficult/painful/challenging realities, I am simply not convinced that *any* intervention we make is going to be of much help in the long term. (Rick LaFleur’s “The Teaching of Latin” or a casual reading of the last ~100 years of APA/SCS/ACL history should be enough to highlight the cyclical – and therefore systemic – nature of these issues, highlighting a pattern that in terms of enrollment numbers and data shows us to be circling the metaphorical drain.) The research literature on organizational systems operation is clear on the realities that we are facing, their causes, and even the processes and tools we could use to confront and address them productively (most valuably perhaps via a strategic model called ‘systems thinking’ – see, e.g. Senge “The Fifth Discipline”). The question at hand isn’t about how we engage the outside world with more outreach, it’s whether we’re brave enough to engage each other in the sort of critical dialogue that will allow us to overcome the systemic issues (especially epistemes and habiti) currently at play in our model of operations.


  2. Just a quick observation (I might do a more extensive blog post on my thoughts when I get time) which piggybacks on Alan’s point 3 above: we have to give up on the idea that assorted professional organizations even get the concept of ‘outreach’. They’ve had two decades (at least) with amazing technology which is clearly ‘outreachy’ enough to bring together people around the world who otherwise wouldn’t even know of each other’s existence. I’ve campaigned for years for organizations like the APA/SCS to take some sort of lead in ‘outreach’ but their greatest effort — Amphora — was pretty much still tied to the print paradigm and aimed almost exclusively at ‘friends of friends’. Currently, twitter is possibly the greatest outreach tool there is out there and the professional organizations presence on it is virtually non existent, even at conference time. If one of these organizations had even a smattering of interest in actually doing genuine ‘outreach’ (which I take to mean ‘promotion of classics/archaeology outside of the walls of academe’) they’d be analyzing the twitterfeeds of the twitterati who regularly post on such things and whose ‘followers’ number many times more than the press runs of the journals put out by the organization. There are plenty of folks out there catering to an audience thirsty for the sorts of things that Classicists provide and there are plenty of folks in that audience. In the age of twitter and facebook, we don’t need to worry about ‘relevance’ … the audience who knows we are relevant will find us. We just have to be there.

    • The whole profession owes you a massive debt of gratitude for what you have done with Twitter and Explorator. My sense is that the SCS leadership is trying to do more, but doesn’t always know quite how. Your work is a shining example of how, and I should have mentioned it the post.

  3. Worth remembering that the ‘Roman Society’ and the ‘Hellenic Society’ have in their formal titles the words ‘The Society for the Promotion of…’. On twitter, but do these societies have clear target audience or an articulated public engagement strategy?

    It often feels that twitter communities are filling a void. The blog built around the films ‘A Glimpse of Teenage Life in Ancient Rome’ and ‘Four Sisters in Ancient Rome’ is pretty low key, but has provided further information in response to thousands of comments on YouTube. Not saying this is perfect. We added a script-writing competition to engage a bit further.

  4. I always wonder about the ‘outreach events’ we read about at the big conferences … are they ever advertised in a place where ‘regular people’ would see them? How many non-members are even aware that such events are happening? Are non-members even allowed to attend the conference?

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