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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Sills

How Vain, Without the Merit, is the Name

Updated: Jan 25

My undergraduate experience is reaching its conclusion. I have a single essay and exam left to do, and am well into writing my dissertation. I am happy. I've worked very hard for nearly four years, I've been getting consistently gratifying results and *touch wood* I should soon have a shiny certificate with an equally gratifying classification on it.

As much as I'm enjoying writing my dissertation and eager to show my lecturers what I've been able to achieve thanks to their diligent tutelage, I'm almost reluctant for the writing to end. It's pure fun, even untangling historiographical problems or creating table after table of data. I am feeling the pride, happiness and self-worth that I found so elusive throughout my twenties, that feeling of professional fulfillment that was so sorely lacking. In short, my degree is doing exactly what I hoped it would do when I first took the academic dive.

The time has come for me to look beyond the bachelor's. I've spent some time combing through MA programmes, and I'm struck by two problems.

1) A lack of maintenance loan for postgraduates. I'll admit to my ignorance here, I knew that PhD students were desperately clawing for funding, but I didn't imagine that UK MA student loans might not even cover the degree fees (depending on university) let alone provide nothing for living expenses. I was made redundant during the pandemic, and my sector is barely hiring. More to the point, competition for positions is higher than ever. It seems cruel that one can't get get a better job without a master's now, but that one needs a job to survive a master's. Meanwhile, getting a new job whilst starting a postgrad degree AND raising a child AND preserving my fragile mental health seems like an overwhelming ask. Surely it's inevitable that one will suffer? Perhaps this is the government's way to weed out the weak, of which I am evidently one. I am an unemployed, working class mature student with a small child and a mental disorder. Survival of the fittest. I will struggle. Upward mobility without familial wealth/working every second of the day is as mythical as a plesiosaur in a loch. Being able to study without huge financial stress would be rather nice. Even with an alumni discount if I stayed put, a single year MA will be logistically harder to manage than four years of a BA.

2) The second issue is titles. Once I'm finished with the MA, I'll be marketing myself as what? A classicist? Given the list of MAs I can afford and am eligible for, none of them are called Classics. As I've discussed before, my lack of languages precludes me from such courses. From what I can glean, if you haven't had experience of languages by the time you apply for a master's, then you've left it too late. Personally I am not worried about it. I've already written about the decision to switch from a Classics degree to Classical Studies after my first year, and as far as university experience goes I've yet to regret it. If I'd have spent time working on languages, potentially up to 8 modules of them, that time combined with compulsory core modules and a dissertation would have left so little time for anything else. As it is, I've instead tackled archaeology, philosophy, politics, history and literature in translation. As the years went on, I increasingly appreciated the variety. I'll never be able to choose between Greece/Rome/their neighbours and luckily I had enough room to study them all. All in all, the breadth of a Classical Studies degree has been broader and more fulfilling. It is so rewarding to enjoy your work, and realise you have a talent in it, rather that to toil and struggle and reap minimal rewards.

Several things have converged this week for me to ponder. A chapter of my dissertation tackles terminology; scholars ancient and modern have disagreed over the correct titles for a category of monuments in a specific era/region. None of the buildings in the group particularly conform to a single purpose or type, and their hybridity has caused confusion and incorrect naming for millennia. Each scholar has their own rubric and none matches another's. Out of all the monuments in my study, very few are the stereotypical design that their classifications suggest. As such, outdated names need a rethink, because the old names invite muddles and misinformation.

In my final undergraduate module, we're discussing superiority and inferiority. Who gets to decide who is inferior? What are the criteria? Is superiority conferred at birth according to ethnicity or homeland? Is collective inferiority decided on battlefields or by climate? Can individual talent override the inferiority that others have assigned to you? If these boundaries are impermeable, then names start to really matter. Dorian or Ionian. Hellene or Mede. Roman or barbarian. Your origins, over which you have no control, can gild or tar you with a categorisation in which you will always remain. We're historians; how many examples can we each come up with where personal and professional ineptitude barely scratches the gold flake, and how many brilliant people from the other side of the tracks had to overcome excessive hurdles to be taken seriously?

Names matter. Family names, national names, the name of your school, your university, your gender identity, your sexuality, your ethnicity... None of these names have any deciding factor on your intellect, talent and potential. But they're there, and we've been making assumptions based on them for millennia.

And so, names are important, and a name, chosen or otherwise, can mark you out as superior or inferior, which can also matter. Neither name nor categorisation need be accurate, but implications are still an issue and can be manipulated. Finally, I was asked to think about what a classicist is. Surely this is defined already, so let's compare a few online dictionaries:

  1. OED: Classicist 'A student of, or expert in, the classics; an advocate of classical education.' Oof, that just brings up questions about was Classics is, and what a classical education requires, if that ever was ever set in stone. A quick search of OED for 'classics' comes back with 'the branch of knowledge concerned with the languages and literatures of Greek and Roman antiquity.' So for the OED, a classicist is someone who can read ancient literature. And is not Or, after all.

  2. Cambridge: Classicist 'a person who studies ancient Greek or Roman culture' - I'm going to assume culture extends to materials, but even if it doesn't, this one does seem to differ from #1. But, when one searches for Classics, one gets 'the study of ancient Greek and Roman culture, esp. their languages and literature.' A very revealing clarification!

  3. Merriam-Webster: Classicist 'a classical scholar.' Classics 'of or relating to the ancient Greeks and Romans or their culture,' and Classical 'of or relating to the ancient Greek and Roman world and especially to its literature, art, architecture, or ideals.'

  4. Collins (UK): Classicist 'a student of ancient Latin and Greek' Classics 'a body of literature regarded as great or lasting, esp that of ancient Greece or Rome' or 'the ancient Greek and Latin languages.'

None of these definitions exactly match. If I were to apply them to myself, Oxford and Collins immediately dismiss me as Not a Classicist. Cambridge can't decide, depending on the entry. I'm apparently classicist adjacent? But the emphasis on a classicist having languages is strong. Of these dictionaries, only one concludes that I am firmly a classicist. But then, Merriam-Webster is American, and people Do Things Differently Over There.

It comes down to And Languages versus Or Languages. Sondheim wrote a beautiful lyric that immediately springs to mind: When you've had an And and you're back to Or, makes the Or seem more than it did before... When I was studying ancient history And Latin I was miserable and stressed, when I went back to Or, ie ancient history with a dash of archaeology, I was contented and thriving. If the dictionary definitions are intransigent, for all their vagueness, then in the UK at least, I am Not A Classicist. My future degree titles confirm it. Classicists have Classics degrees, and The Rest have Studies/Civ/Ancient History/Ancient med or whatever polite name a university can come up with for Not Languages. I'll repeat, for it apparently needs repeating, that I prefer Classical Studies. I'm therefore eternally grateful for Not Languages courses. I'm shit at languages for a myriad of reasons. Regardless of what I could have done with a different tier of childhood education, I suspect I may still not have found languages particularly fun. It's neither where my talent nor interests lie, and I've been happier and more successful since jettisoning languages from my schedule. I still immerse myself in the study of the ancient mediterranean, so am I a classicist after all?

What even is a classicist? I suspect that like dictionaries and scholars of roman entertainment venues in the Hellenistic east, we all have our own definitions and preconceived ideas when it comes to semantics. To quote South Park of all things, all characters and events in this blog – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional...

I hardly need to draw a caricature of the eccentric Oxbridge don, a group who never seem to near extinction. They have remained in place for centuries, replacing themselves with the next copypaste generation. They may not be individually politically conservative but boy oh boy, don't suggest any changes to their Of Yore curricula. As antique as their subject material. Likely to go a bit eccentric/batty in their old age and start throwing stones at undergraduates. I'm definitely not one of those.

Or perhaps one immediately thinks of the ECRs and postdocs that make up a large swathe of Social Media Classicists. Some of these are not cishet men! Most of them are insanely talented, and nice to boot. Some are First Gen. Many recognise and acknowledge their privilege, and seek to give others a hand. Generally, I like these classicists. They've frequently offered their time, expertise and advice, freely and gladly. Do I want to be one? Not really. The idea of entering a Battle Royale for a minute number of precarious fixed-term posts, dependent on me publishing reams and reams of unpaid research that is put straight behind a paywall makes me queasy. I greatly admire those who throw themselves into the maelstrom, but feel no such need myself, much in the way that I admire those who cagedive with great white sharks or jump out of planes. And so I'm not one of those either.

Perhaps I could look at the Iconoclast Classicists. Iconoclassicists? If you don't know one personally I highly recommend seeking one out and making an introduction. They're the ones who can see just how skewed and broken the system is, and loudly point out the flaws. Where some see sacrosanct institutions, the iconoclassicist (I'm going with it) fulminates on the disparities and exploitations built into their very foundations. These are the lecturers who teach their students about LibGen and SciHub. These are the lecturers spearheading decolonisation of curricula. These are the lecturers advocating for minority students. They don't take the brutality of academic hoop-jumping quietly or accept it as a reasonable status quo. They may have hammer and sickel posters on the walls of their office, they may swear like sailors, and rumours of dramatic clashes with university management abound. They wield megaphones at picket lines, declaiming budget cuts, precarious contracts and grad student exploitation. Their own tenure and the comfort it brings has not affected their principles. They won't be pulling up any ladders, but you will find them lowering some ropes. I love them for it. I fully support iconoclassicists taking down systems from within, whether loudly or by stealth. I suppose I admire this category more than any other, but I'm not sure I am one. Less of a iconoclassict, more of a stan. You have to be within something to bring it down from within.

Then of course, there are my peers. Naturally the most populous group on social media, their variety is stunning. Some are still recognisably achingly posh. If their private school wasn't Eton, they claim they 'barely count' as privileged, and they can be carbon copies of endless Oxbridge cohorts that have gone before them. At many universities the privately educated still make up the majority of students. Some get the corners knocked off, some will never realise how fortunate they are. And yet, thanks to degrees that require no previous language experience, these cohorts are now increasingly populated by talented students from a wide range of backgrounds. The 93% Club motto is one of my favourites: We believe where you're from shouldn't impact where you're going. Current and recent undergraduates of all types are consistently some of the funniest, kindest and admirable people in the twitter community. An increasing number of them don't look or sound anything like the Old Guard and Classics will be all the better for it.

Of these subgroups, of which the above are just a sample selection, there is demonstrably a huge variety. The spectrum, under the current and inadequate definition, ranges from emininent scholar to those who scrape a Desmond Classics BA.

Maximus Planudes, among others, has proposed a new metric for what Classics, and by an extension a classicist, is. A classicist is someone who seeks to understand the ancient world with whatever tools they have at their disposal. I like this idea, and endorse it. Personally, I am of the opinion that if you study anything to do with ancient Greece or Rome, you can call yourself a classicist. That said, I still don't want to, neither does the academy want me to. Why else does it bend itself into knots making sure everyone knows that languages are my sole deficiency, via the names of my degrees? So instead I declare myself an ancient historian. This has elicited some strong reactions, so I feel that I need to explain myself in tedious length, because some people Do Not Get It. I decided some time ago to categorise myself as an ancient historian. Reactions ever since have included but not been limited to:

  • Why?

  • We already have a name for what we do

  • That's not what I would call myself

  • The term classicist shouldn't make you feel inferior

  • Call yourself a classicist, it'll be a middle finger to the conservative classicists

  • Why, though?

  • Fuck the gatekeepers!

  • Oh god, I hope you don't mean that I have to call myself something else!!!

  • Anyone can and therefore should call themselves a classicist

  • The stereotype of a classicist is a myth, so what's the issue?

  • I rather like calling myself a classicist, and you should too!

  • Seriously, why though?

  • I respect your decision but am not going to stop talking about why I think differently to you, implying that actually I don't respect your decision all that much

Reactions I would have liked but did not get:

  • Cool

  • Nice!

  • I accept that and will shut up now, for I respect you too much to quibble

  • I support this and will let you have the last word on how you choose to identify yourself

We've already established that by British dictionary definitions, I am not a classicist. And Languages. Not Or. We've already established that I am perfectly happy with that. We've already established that none of my degrees are called Classics, but by a number of imaginative alternatives. I'm perfectly happy with that too, perhaps I wasn't once, but feelings change. We've already established, in my last post, that even those born without a silver spoon or even an inherent linguistic flair see Classics as 'pure' and Everything Else 'impure.' That, I'm less happy with. And as Thucydides will tell you, perhaps ultimately no one group is inherently superior to another, and perhaps a name is just a name, but when someone wants to weaponise that name it can be devastatingly effective.

Classicists like to state ad nauseam that Classics is For All, and is a myriad of disciplines under one, shiny-happy umbrella. In which case, everyone would be a classicist. But is this a utopian illusion? If the lines between traditional and unconventional classicist are becoming increasingly blurred with each new cohort and each new beginners language/non language course, it stands to reason that the term classicist should similarly widen. But I suspect the eradication of the many negative connotations behind the term and field will be a slower process. The furore over the Burn It Down suggestion, an ocean away, was met with hand-wringing. After all, everyone knows we're not racist in the UK... Racism is but one form of an ingrained feeling of superiority over another group. And we do have a superiority problem(s) here. So, yes, the field is reeking of toxicity and gaffertape is not enough to fix the cracks.

So why my assertion that I'm very much an Ancient Historian? It could be suggested, and indeed has, that this is rather a Judaean People's Front/People's Front of Judaea situation. The implication to this is that I am making a stand over something that doesn't need a stand. That we can all acknowledge toxicity , and that if we agree that Classics should be for all, then I am being stubbornly bellicose over a non-issue. But Classics is not for all, nowhere close. I've already documented the gatekeeping of a bloody hashtag, of all things, I've heard peers recount their accents being ridiculed, and the suggestion of a switch from Classics to Everything Else is still universally given in the same tone such as an oncologist might deliver news of terminal diagnoses. Let's not forget the collective circlejerk philologists enjoy when someone naively misuses the Greek alphabet.

For those without languages, post-grad options are limited meaning that job opportunities (already rare as hen's teeth) too often become pipedreams. People who fall/are pushed out of the system feel like failures. And that's for people who want an academic career. Alt-Ac is derided. Writing a general audience paperback or documentary series invites sneers I'd only reserve for habitual criminals or Tory politicians. How dare we suggest that someone with a BBC radio show or brace of wildly popular myth retelling novels be called a classicist? "We love outreach" starts to sound like a lie when white-hot scorn is poured on Alt-Ac success stories. Perhaps there is some jealousy behind it? The audacity of people who refuse to be exploited! And still, it seems to genuinely flummox some people that not everyone wants to be called a classicist! Classics says it wants diversity; in its people, its pathways, its careers. But if individuality is welcomed, why does everyone need a homogenous title? "Yass queen, smash the stereotype, be unique! But no, not like that!"

I know why people want to be classicists. I know that for many, precarity, exploitation, stress and woe are a small price to pay for an office in the ivory tower. I know why people who will never get admittance still want to call themselves classicists, because admittance is a lottery that a minority will win and talent is never the sole deciding factor. Academia is by design a fortress. The 'superior' will breach the keep. The 'inferior' will be left in ditches or skewered on palisades. Rejection is a feature of its architecture. And if you choose, you can try and scale the walls. I'll cheer you on. Just understand that the defenses were built by those who drew up their own definition of superiority.

Some of us may instead choose an alternative path. We may reject the idea of conquering the castle designed to keep us out. We may actually prefer the alternative paths that we carve out for ourselves. We may wear our Everything Else names with genuine pride. I like the clarity of 'ancient historian.' I like that it takes me beyond the borders of Greece and Rome. I like that it's egalitarian from inception. I like that people don't require me to explain what it actually is.

Names matter. The ones we choose for ourselves are easier to bear than the ones imposed upon us. If Maximus Planudes and others like them had 'sown' the field, perhaps I wouldn't be having this conversation, but they didn't, so here I am. I tweeted recently that 'All classicists study the ancient world, but not all who study the ancient world are classicists.' Immediate reactions included a gif of someone eating popcorn and a quote-tweet wondering if I was trying to start a fight. What I wanted was to highlight that one does not have to accept the name assigned to you. You can choose which fits you best, or write a new one. I wanted to highlight that for a lot of us, most of the fun about studying the ancient world is Everything Else. That some of us actually do better there, feel more at home, and create great work. That we have such a great variety of scholars, from diverse backgrounds and from all kinds of alma maters, and that there are superstars of all specialities. Despite conservative pushback, the future of the field will depend on providing and promoting choices. That could and should extend to names.

Names matter, and perhaps we should all think about why we have such a compulsion to relentlessly debate others with the names they give themselves. Because when we do that, it can be demeaning, distressing and humiliating. Essentially, I don't mind if those who haven't mastered languages call themselves classicists. The system that tries to tell us what we are and what we're not is a creaking wreck. I tried to give a fuck about it, but found I had none left. Your definitions may differ from mine, your desires may differ from mine. That's OK. My skillset may differ from yours, and my ambitions may not align either. That's OK too. Call yourself what you want, and I shall call you want you want to be called. All I ask is that you let me do the same, sans interrogation.

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