Graduate Education in Classics: A Continuing Conversation...

"Wir Philologen?" The Boundaries and Structures of "Classics" as a Professional Discipline

Opening Statement by Julia Haig Gaisser, Bryn Mawr College


Introduction: Definition of "philology"

I was asked to speak at this session as "the philologist", and so I will, as long as I can use my own definition of the term. I use philologist to mean a "word person", one who is absolutely convinced of the importance of Greek and Latin texts for the study of the literature, history, and culture of Greek and Roman antiquity.

Two Revolutions

In my professional lifetime there have been two in "philology" as I have defined it: New Criticism, and our present revolution - the rise of theory.

A. New Criticism

The new Criticism had the great merit of promoting the close study of texts and of making American and British classicists recognize that ancient texts are of literary, as well as historical, importance. (European classicists, especially in Germany, had been engaged in literary studies for some time, but that is a question for another occasion.) But it did nothing to lessen the image of philology conveyed by Nietzche's "Wir Philologen" of something embattled, narrow, adversarial. Since there is no time today to discuss classics as "embattled" and "adversarial" I will focus on the perception and treatment of our field as "narrow". The domain covered by Greek and Latin texts is not narrow in either space or time, but philologists have too often acted as if it were:
1.Narrowing of the canon
Most classics departments, and certainly most undergraduate departments, centered on 5th century Athens with a nod to Homer and the lyric poets at one end and to Catullus and Vergil (and nowadays Ovid) at the other. Several factors have contributed to this.
2. Narrowing of the field
This artificial narrowing of our field has resulted in the neglect and undervaluing of other periods that are not only interesting themselves but also (and this is of the greatest importance) force us to confront a set of questions that could be ignored or avoided, at least, in studying mainly the literature of 5th century Athens and 1st century B.C. Rome.

The Hellenistic Period, the Silver Age (so ominously named) Late Antiquity force us to consider mixed or conflicting cultures, marginalized groups like women, foreigners, and slaves, and the influences of the past as a palpable force on literature, politics, and society.

B. The current revolution

Our current revolution is focused on these periods and questions, (even 5th century Athens and Augustan Rome have benefited from the new interests), and new criticism and old fogey positivism are being supplanted by a host of theoretical approaches. That is the good news. The bad news is that the study of texts, which is the backbone of these new areas of inquiry, is falling on even harder times.
a. Student profile: current
Undergraduate enrollments in Greek and Latin are down. The students we do not get often lack the fire in the belly to push themselves very hard, and the ones who will work are often plodders - without the creativity benefit from our "2nd revolution". Undergraduates tend not to be readers (in any language) and are likely to be uninterested in literature.
b. Student profile: the future
Given the U.S. situation - we can increasingly expect the following profile for the next generation of graduate students. (We are already seeing the beginning of these tendencies.)

3. Conclusion: Prospects for "philology"

So where are we? I think we're at a moment when intellectual and scholarly possibilities in our field have never been greater, but where the pedagogical possibilities are limited and problematic. Some of our sub-fields may suffer less than others but literary studies have a great deal to lose - and we are at grave risk of being marginalized. I work, for example, in the area of imitation and reception, which, I would submit, are right at the heart of classical literary studies. How can I train my students in this field? And if I could train them, how should they be prepared to teach today's undergraduates? The issue, then is not "wir Philologen?" but instead "wo Philologen?" or rather "wohin Philologen?"