Published: Feb. 17, 2016 By

While the focus of classics might be an ancient, perished culture, student interest is far from dead

In the headlines, the words “humanities” and “crisis” are so commonly conjoined that you’d think that college courses on human thought, experience and creativity are collapsing like the Roman Empire. The story has more nuance than the headline, as the Classics Department at the University of Colorado Boulder illustrates.

It is true that students and universities have in the last decade favored the natural sciences over the humanities—which include English, history, philosophy and religion.

But in classics at the CU-Boulder, student enrollment has risen steadily for three decades, faster than the entire student population.

The department enjoys enduring student interest in classics, sometimes called the “root discipline of the modern humanities.” Classics focuses on the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages, literatures and civilizations; at CU-Boulder the department includes the ancient Near East and northern Africa in its studies as well.

Besides durable student demand, the department’s success also reflects a strong faculty—as measured by a long list of recent awards and grants.

Elspeth Dusinberre teaches a popular class called “Trash and Treasures.”

Elspeth Dusinberre teaches a popular class called “Trash and Treasures.”

Elspeth Dusinberre, professor and chair of the CU-Boulder Classics Department, readily acknowledges that no classics department is an island.

During the Great Recession, students, parents, legislators and university administrators often argued for the need to study highly marketable skills such as engineering instead of the humanities. Some universities considered eliminating entire humanities departments, including classics. Most of those cuts did not materialize, however.

It was in this uncertain context in 2013 that Dusinberre surveyed classics departments in the Association of American Universities, a consortium of the top U.S. research universities. She found that enrollment in classics departments nationwide was not plummeting, that enrollment over decades had seen only minor fluctuations.

Classics lets you study huge expressions of human curiosity, endeavor, creativity, exploration, adventurousness—and think about them in a way that is directly linkable to the kinds of things we are trying to figure out now as humans.”

What’s more, the number of graduates in classics at CU-Boulder rose nearly 60 percent from 1989 to 2015, university records show. That growth was faster than that of the whole CU-Boulder study body, which rose about 40 percent during the same time.

Dusinberre suggests that while some students enter CU with a pre-existing love for and a desire to pursue classics in college, most students discover the field after they arrive on campus, often while they are exploring the variety of educational options available at CU.

In many cases, students will take a course in classics because it happens to fit their schedules. Then, they’ll “fall in love with it,” she says. That affection seems to stem from recurring epiphanies in which students recognize the roots, the “hidden transcripts” of modern life — “whether it be democracy, a gilded dome on a Capitol building, defacing a political image or our approach to thinking about thought or literature.”

Students in classics “tend to be inquisitive, people who are curious about the bigger picture, people who really want to get serious grounding in multiple disciplines, and think about how they can work different disciplinary approaches together to understand a problem.”

Often, they are people who “simply love things,” such as literature, history, the outdoors, all of which classicists experience. “Or maybe they just love thinking about what it means to be human, which is perhaps what classics does best of all.”

CU students excavate the Villa of Maxentius in Rome. Photo courtesy of Department of Classics.

CU students excavate the Villa of Maxentius in Rome. Photo courtesy of Department of Classics.

Dusinberre frames the appeal this way: “When you study classics, you get to study ancient languages and ancient literature. You get to think about history and about multiple different kinds of evidence you can use in historical inquiry. You get to think about visual culture and material culture, how people created art or how people created everyday dishes for eating and drinking. You get to look at architectural expressions. You get to think about tremendous works of scientific inquiry and medical expression and navigational invention.”

“Classics lets you study huge expressions of human curiosity, endeavor, creativity, exploration, adventurousness—and think about them in a way that is directly linkable to the kinds of things we are trying to figure out now as humans.”

To muse over such questions, it helps to have good teachers who are themselves scholars. “CU has a long history of very fine classics professors,” Dusinberre notes. “I sure feel lucky to be a part of it. I don’t think it’s something one can take for granted.”

The department is not resting on its laurels. In the past year, for instance, its accomplishments included the following:

  • Dimitri Nakassis, a 2015 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” Fellow, was hired and will officially join the department in fall. (See related story here.)
  • Jackie Elliott, associate professor, won the Goodwin Award from the Society for Classical Studies, the nation’s top research recognition in classical languages and literature. (See related story here.)
  • Elliott also won the Classical Association of Middle West and South First Book Award.
  • Dusinberre won the Wiseman Award from the Archaeological Institute of America, received a College Scholar Award and was named Outstanding Faculty Graduate Mentor.
  • Andrew Cain, associate professor, won the Provost’s Faculty Achievement Award.
  • Sarah James, assistant professor, received a highly competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which awards grants to about 7 percent of applicants. (See related story here.)
  • Carole Newlands, professor, received a grant from the Loeb Classical Library Foundation and another from the Center for Humanities in Australia.
  • Newlands has been designated a Professor of Distinction in the College of Arts & Sciences. (See related story here.)
  • Laurialan Reitzammer, assistant professor, received a Faculty Fellowship. (See related storyhere.)
  • John Gibert, associate professor, and Barbara Hill, longtime Latin program coordinator, hosted the annual convention of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South.
  • Additionally, department members received support from Kayden Research Grants, the Graduate Committee on Arts and Humanities Visiting Scholar grants, the Arts & Sciences Fund for Excellence, and Arts & Sciences Support of Education Through Technology (ASSETT).

Although enrollment in the humanities at universities nationwide has fallen in recent years, the same is not true of classics, or “classical studies,” as it is sometimes called. Photo of Rome under stormy skies by Tyler Lansford.

Photo of Rome under stormy skies by Tyler Lansford.

One thing that characterizes classics scholarship today is its tremendous and, Dusinberre adds, “exciting” interdisciplinarity.

For instance, Dusinberre studies the ancient Persian empire that Alexander the Great conquered. “I need to draw on several sources, including written material and visual expressions, grand architecture and the humdrum detritus of everyday life, all kinds of things that show you how people lived, why they made the choices they did, and what they found important.”

Classical scholars employ new ways to view old stuff. These include imaging techniques that let researchers read what was written on ancient papyrus and clay tablets, multi-layered search engines to trace words and ideas across texts that span thousands of years, remote-sensing techniques including LIDAR, drone photography, GIS, and hand-held machines that can “see” long-faded paint or tell the chemical makeup of different metals, neutron activation analysis to show where ancient pots were made, and strontium analysis to uncover the diet of ancient humans and animals.

Such broad expertise and vivid experience deepens and broadens faculty members’ teaching, Dusinberre contends.

In the end, she suggests, students’ enduring interest in classics can be explained by a host of complex reasons, plus some basic ones: “It’s really fun. It’s exciting and interesting and blows your mind—and every day, it brings you revelations.”

Learn more about classics here.

Clint Talbott is director of communications and external relations manager for the College of Arts and Sciences and editor of the College of Arts and Sciences Magazine.