Turning Off the Lights

What's it like to be a liberal arts college's last classicist -- a one-person department a college decides it can live without?
March 4, 2010

In this era of financial turmoil in higher education, many arts and humanities programs have found themselves in the cross hairs of budget cutters. Some proposed cuts have quickly attracted national or even international opposition. Think of all the outrage, for example, about Brandeis University's plan (since put on hold) to sell off its noted collection of modern art, or of the budget cuts that for a time endangered the future of the Louisiana State University Press.

In both of those cases, and many others, prominent academics and scholarly associations organized petitions, lobbied key decision makers and shouted to anyone who would listen that these cuts simply could not be made. Thousands of students in California are expected to rally across the state today to protest various cuts to California's colleges and universities.

But there are also a lot of people and programs this year that are being eliminated with hardly any attention at all. These programs are on hit lists precisely because they are small, because they are not famous and thus they don't have thousands of supporters organizing petition drives and rallies.

Stephen Clark has since 1988 been the only classics professor at Centenary College, a liberal arts institution in Louisiana. This week, the college decided to eliminate the Latin program, which has been the focus of his career as a tenured professor. While there is an appeals process, the college earlier indicated that tenured professors in departments that are closed would probably lose their jobs.

At Centenary, much of the discussion about which programs to eliminate focused on size, and Clark makes no claims that Latin classrooms are packed. Enrollments of five to seven students are good for upper division courses and most years there are only a few majors, sometimes just one.

That focus on size (as opposed to whether a discipline should be taught) has a number of traditional disciplines in trouble at many institutions. The University of Nevada at Reno this week announced plans to eliminate German studies, French and Italian. Philosophy is under review at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Baker University eliminated political science. Centenary isn't just eliminating Latin, but a bunch of other majors -- generally with low enrollments -- such as physics, performing arts and German studies. (For various reasons, German is taking a lot of hits this year.)

Centenary officials say they have nothing against the programs that are slated for elimination, but want to create funds to invest in growth in new areas. With about 860 students, the college needs to balance student interests with what it can support financially, they say. "We're trying to look into the future, and part of that is streamlining the program so we can invent new programs," says Rick DelaHaya, a spokesman.

What Clark's situation illustrates is that some number of professors this year are experiencing not only the potential loss of a job, but the experience of being the last to teach the subjects for which they feel passion that their institutions no longer share.

Clark says that he understands that the experience of being the sole professor in a discipline strikes many as odd. He recalls being at a national conference some years ago when a prominent classics professor asked him, "Don't you get lonely?" He says he never felt that way. Clark first got excited about Latin at Yale University as an undergraduate (where he originally focused on music), and earned his doctorate at the University of Iowa. "I made a commitment to Centenary early in my career," he says. "I felt I had intellectual material that would be useful at a liberal arts college."

He says that, of course, he would have preferred to have had colleagues in the field over the years. But he values his colleagues in other disciplines at Centenary, fellow Latin scholars he meets through disciplinary groups, and the independence that has left him with no fear of departmental politics.

"It has really been my Latin program to teach," he says. In fact, there wasn't a major when he arrived, and he primarily had students fulfilling language requirements, but he managed to get the major created after about a decade at the college. He is proud that some of his students have gone on to become academics, inspiring students elsewhere.

He has a four-four course load, typically assigned to teach one section of French in addition to his Latin courses. For many years, he added (without extra pay) a section on Greek because he felt that his classics students needed some exposure to that language as well.

Dee L. Clayman, president of the American Philological Association and a professor of classical studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, says that the one-person classics program is a reality at many places.

And while she favors larger departments, she thinks that the emphasis of colleges on number of majors (which are bound to be low for a one-person department) undervalues the work of any sole classicist. "So many of our departments are so small, and yet they have an outsized role in the educational environment. They put everything in the humanities in a historical perspective," she says. Rather than talking about the small number of majors in a one-person department, number crunchers should think about "the one heroic person, who is almost always teaching more courses than the official number, and probably teaching intense intermediate and advanced courses on the model of independent studies."

Clark says that once students have learned the basics of Latin, much of the instruction is based on very close readings of texts, with students translating and analyzing. It is a very personal, direct instruction, line by line, passage by passage. While that may sound, well, old-fashioned, he says that he considers classics "as the model of the liberal arts," in which students know that they are not getting job training but learning "how to find insights" in a text removed from them by language, culture and time. In teaching students those skills, Clark says, "we are preparing them for their careers, but not for some narrowly defined career."

"This is all about ways of thinking, of organizing the world, about equipping students with the real ability to communicate."

While Clark says he worries that "Centenary is about to lose a good deal" in eliminating Latin and other offerings, he does not speak with bitterness. The administrators are "thoughtful" and trying to do what they think is best for the college, Clark says. "I just feel that some very regrettable things are happening."

At 56, and with a need to stay in the Shreveport area because of his wife's job, Clark says he isn't confident he can remain a college professor. He will need to replace his income (about $52,000 a year) if his job disappears, and says he may have the most luck looking for Latin jobs teaching in high schools. "I think I'll find something. I'm not in a panic," he says. "Still, I was thinking walking up the stairs at the college today about missing the kind of real interchange I have here, teaching the great poets."

James May, of St. Olaf College, says that "as a provost who is faced daily with the challenges of budget, I can understand the need to cut costs and the impulse to go for small programs." He says that there are many classics programs with between one and three faculty members, especially at institutions like Centenary where they are part of larger language programs. "I realize that the small programs are the ones that will be most easily targeted, for lots of different reasons."

May happens to be a classicist himself, and he argues against the logic of focusing on such programs. "I think it's very difficult to make real strides in budget reduction by cutting one or two people in one department or another department," he says. So the budget gains from eliminating such departments aren't huge.

But May also makes an educational argument. "Anyone who knows a lot about the field of classical studies knows that it is the original interdisciplinary study -- and classicists are trained in language, literature, linguistics and history," he says. Colleges talk about wanting to promote interdisciplinarity and global awareness, May says. The ancient world "was a pretty global society," he notes, "and when you eliminate a person whose main thrust has been the study of antiquity, you are eliminating a natural interdisciplinary person."

Lindsey Monds, a senior Latin major at Centenary, says she understands that if the cuts there "are based on numbers," then Latin would be on the list. But she says that the loss will be real for future students who won't be able to experience what she is able to do now. She's read many of the classic works in English and says that does not substitute for reading and thinking about them in Latin. She says that the beauty and power of the language in, say, the death of Priam in the Aeneid, bring her to tears in Latin. "It is not as powerful in English."

Something important is lost, she says, if she's the last Latin major. "It's really sad to me. It's as if somebody took away the reading of Shakespeare," she says. "Latin has been studied, these poets have been read, for as long as Jesus has been worshiped. That's a really long time."


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