Faculty Perspective: My Freshman Year

by David Roselli, Assistant Professor of Classics

The number one question I get in my field: “So why would anyone want to study that?” Lurking behind this question, however, is “You ain’t ever goin’ to get a job with classics.”

I am happy to say that this just is not true. But I am also not a missionary. Quite simply, there is something at stake in how we approach the past, and ancient Greece and Rome (two areas that I cover in my teaching) have, for better or worse, been astoundingly informative in the building of our country. But to get there—being able to understand what happened back then and how this has been transformed in the hands of scholars and politicians— requires some finessing in the classroom.

You cannot just dig yourself in the minutiae of the past—antiquarianism died out luckily a while ago, and any devotees tend to keep a low profile—but you cannot also simply focus on your own navel in the present moment. To teach antiquity requires some sensibility not only to the ancient material itself but how exactly we have acquired this material and how the past two thousand years have shaped (mostly unconsciously) our perceptions of it.

My first (and now the beginning of my second) year at Scripps has made me evaluate what exactly it is that I do.To start out, it seems that how one does what in the classroom is crucial.

Although most professors have enough confidence in their ability to teach, the idea of having a style in the classroom, well, might be asking a bit much.To be sure, teaching style is closely related to one’s value judgments (or social ideologies)—thus, perhaps, the perceived need to focus on the material to be taught and downplay the subjective aspect. For the desire to be fashion forward in academic circles could either smack of one’s leanings towards the latest theoretical fad or (what is worse) of a weak grasp on history. Structuralism’s infamous substitution of impotent wordplay for political praxis has not much helped the reputation of theory. Naturally, the latest theoretical trend need not play into the hands of a conservative political agenda. But you need to exercise some caution and scrutiny with your theory of choice lest it turn out to be favoring the restriction of the franchise to old white men.

Of course, the idea that the “texts” somehow speak for themselves (through divine intervention?) still has some followers. But not having a style can be the kiss of death. Student evaluations do help immensely in judging which way the wind blows in terms of effective communication, but there is a reason why we have leaders: they are supposed to lead.

The medium here cannot, of course, be the only message. If it were, I am not sure I would have continued to study Greek in graduate school. One of my first Greek professors had some rather unusual ways of teaching. Most of our sessions were conducted later in the afternoon, often on Fridays (try arranging that!), and held in a tiny office with bookshelves climbing forever upwards.

It was here that I came face to face with Thucydides, a Greek historian who wrote about the Peloponnesian War and was notorious (even in antiquity) for his difficult Greek. It was not easy going. My professor would chuckle before correcting my minor mistakes—not a mean chuckle, but a chuckle like “Thucydides really outdid himself with that construction.” At other times I thought his eyes might pop out of his head in disbelief that I had misconstrued an ethical dative. There was a bit of fear and loathing in all of this, but I kept coming back. It was above all, however, those moments when he would rummage around in the trashcan and grab a relatively clean coffee cup, while I sat there translating. He would open up a drawer, take out a bottle of whiskey, and pour himself a drink. All the while, he would never fail to suggest a correction or offer a smoother translation. Now that was some style. Of course, it left me with the thought that perhaps mine was the kind of Greek that led him to drink.

I am not sure I would want—or would be able—to replicate such a teaching style at Scripps. In my first year at Scripps, teaching Introductory Latin required me to come up with at times seemingly odd comparisons— odd perhaps in the eyes of students. In Latin, tenses are much more important than in English—they are actually used with great precision.Trying to convey the meaning and sensibility of the sequence of tenses in Latin to a student versed in English poses some difficulties.

I recall once how I ventured forth to talk about tenses and temporality. After explaining how tenses functioned in Latin, I related them to Umberto Eco’s musings on pornography. For Eco, you can always spot a porn movie since it is shot in “real time.” Hollywood films, by contrast, are much more comfortable with syncopated time and frequent jump cuts.The students looked at me rather oddly.Whether Eco was as inclusive as we would like concerning the definition of pornography is beside the point—he was driving home his ideas about narrative and time: pornography also did what it did through a specific type of cinematic temporality. Talking with a student from last year’s Latin class a few weeks ago, I was pleased to discover that she not only remembered this seemingly random remark of mine, but she also understood how it related to the verb system and the relationship between temporality and tenses in Latin.

Teaching history or literature classes poses its own set of problems. In trying to explain some of the complex developments in ancient Greek society, one is not aided by contemporary culture.The current trend of ignoring issues of ideology and class does not mean that such was always the case (and here by “ideology” I do not mean as in common parlance “your opponent’s wicked thoughts” but in its more philosophical senses).

In the introduction to the catalog for an exhibition in 1993 at the National Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, titled “The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy,” former President George H.W. Bush related the role of “national elections” in reminding Americans of the “importance of having and exercising the right to vote” with the “birth of democratic ideals” in Athens. This is something of an odd legacy, seeing that in Athens only citizen males were eligible to vote, while women, resident foreigners, and of course slaves did not have the franchise. Bush goes on to explain how the “ideas of Plato” influenced the Founding Fathers as they crafted a “just and enduring system of government.” Indeed they did read some Plato, but let us not forget that Plato was staunchly opposed to almost every development that came from the democracy in Athens.We might want to recall some of these conflicts in Athenian society before we eulogize the influence of Plato on our government. In my classes, I try to convey some of the peculiarities of these references to ancient Greece by having the students examine not only modern reconstructions of antiquity but the very material evidence that we possess. In this context there are lots of choices, since one course cannot adequately cover all the evidence. My choices often try to pick up the seemingly insignificant—”seemingly,” as these choices try to explain some of main contradictions of ancient Greek society. Take the parasol. This apparently innocuous item played a major role in the articulation of social relations not only in Athens but also between the wider Greek world and the Near East. Who would have thought? The parasol first appears in the context of royalty in the 3rd millennium—on a monument of Sargon, King of Akkad. Sargon was not carrying his own parasol but had a parasol bearer by his side (and yes it was hot in Akkad, but it was a “dry heat”). Parasols also pop up in Mycenean times on some broken pieces of potery. Archaeologists have even excavated a few parasols from the 7th century BC. It is from the 6th century BC, however, that we have many images of parasols in vasepainting. What is striking about these parasols is that they are used by males who are cross-dressing at a symposium— the ancient Greek equivalent of a good private party. These men wear female clothing, jewelry and carry parasols.At some point around the mid-5th century, Athenian vases continue to depict parasols, but they are more closely associated with women—and not just any women but women whose leisure is conspicuous. In the 4th century, parasols become a standard accessory of women in vase-painting.

In striking ways, the history of the parasol serves as a commentary on political and ideological changes in ancient Greece. Starting from the early communities led by powerful elites with international connections, going down to the 6th century when the symposium became one of the most popular ways for the elite to promote their lifestyle, continuing throughout the 5th century in Athens when certain segments of the male citizenry began to exercise more control over the political decision-making process and when overt expressions of social distinction (that is, after all, what the parasol was all about at first) were hushed up—it was OK for women to promote class privilege but not men—and finally down to the 4th century when the parasol became a common accessory that no longer conveyed economic and social superiority—how could it when every woman had one?—the parasol nicely helps to explain how culture and politics, how fashion and ideology were so closely interconnected and why such seemingly insignificant items are not only worth fighting for but also worthy of our attention if our students are to understand some of the ways in which society (consciously or unconsciously) functions. Simply put, the parasol was politic .

Keep in mind that this all too brief discussion tends to go over much better with my slides chronicling the evidence. There are also my expressive hand gestures as well. For it is easy to get excited about this material. The study of antiquity is never just a study of an ancient society. In some ways, such a study tells us more about ourselves than we would perhaps care to remember. But the costs of losing such memories may just be too high.