Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.05.23

From the Editor's Disk

I was all fixed to say something a little less cheerful and more wry about the names on the APA ballot, when I suddenly noticed that I was making an unfair comparison. When I first started looking at these ballots (in the presidency of J.H. Oliver, if you must know), the candidates were all Old Guys, with the qualities that easily impose a thoughtless respect and deference upon the youthful reader. The list has changed very little that I can see (I don't know what political bent it betrays to say that I utterly failed to see the point of any of the write-in candidacies of recent years, and equally failed to see the point of the excitement they generated -- you can't look at these lists without thinking of Captain Renault and his crimebusting response to the killing of Colonel Strasser -- and that's because, God help us, we really are all alike, we classics professors, and that's a large part of our problem), but what makes the comparison I was unconsciously making is that it is much harder to defer to and stand in awe of Old Guys who are most of them my age or a bit younger. They don't make Old Guys like they used to, and I can be Exhibit A for that proposition if need be.

The new APA election questionnaire begins with this question for candidates:

What particular concerns would you identify as related directly to the office for which you have been nominated and how would you meet those concerns?

I read the responses with some care. The pre-eminent concerns of the profession's leaders as expressed here are twofold: (1) opening professional opportunities to those to whom they have been to some extent denied for illegitimate reasons; (2) establishing, maintaining, and enhancing interdisciplinary links with scholarly work being done outside the profession and by those inside the profession taking new tacks. The widespread consensus among candidates is that these are the chief issues and that these are the positions to take on these issues. Two candidates only of the 22 who addressed that question seemed to dissent from this view and did so in gnomic and obscure ways: they both teach the same subject in the same state of the union, which leads to interesting but inconclusive reflections. But even there, it was clear that the agenda has been set -- diversity in personnel, diversity in thought, and it is only a question of how we implement and argue about those issues.

Now as a lifelong member of the Future DWEMs of America, with a very cushy job to boot, I probably can't say anything about those subjects without being self-serving or hypocritical. The issues raised are indeed important ones, and it is a plain political and social fact of the profession -- pointed out several times in the answers given by candidates -- that neglect of them may very well lead to our extinction as a race of pedants.

But the unanimity is a bit striking nonetheless. I will advert to only two topics I missed seeing there.

(1) Only two candidates speak to the question of the quality of scholarly work and to thinking of how the profession's organization can maintain and enhance the quality of that work. One of those two is the most gnomic of twin dissenters, and the other is the second oldest in the whole group. Are we indeed satisfied that we are as a profession doing the best work we can do, subject only to a little more indisciplinary involvement? I can think of several different ideological positions from which that view could be controverted, in conflicting ways. Are we too polite? Or is the APA too much like a trade union for us to care? (I have had the feeling in past years that the APA's zeal for assuring job security and job creation takes that trade unionist quality, without always addressing whether the jobs are really necessary or deserved. The emphasis in this batch of answers on making interdisciplinary linkups is at least one form of addressing that lack.) I still fear that some of the emphasis in the programs laid out by the candidates have more to do with marketing (making us look interdisciplinary and relevant) than with product (building a better mousetrap). One concrete way to encourage better scholarship and better teaching is to pay closer attention to the candidate pool approaching graduate school, be realistic about its size, its strengths and weaknesses, and talk about how the pool can be enhanced before it gets to graduate school and how training in graduate school can counteract the deficiencies. It's like the classicist said:

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you've been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.
And of course we all know how the royals are doing these days.

(2) Only one candidate speaks realistically of the possible enhancement of what we do through adoption of electronic technologies, and that is again the second oldest person in the group, and he speaks only of using electronic tools for improving publication. Against that, one candidate has the truly awful idea that the APA should get involved in document delivery enhancement of ILL functions as a way of opening up library collections: the technological and especially legal ignorance in that proposal is somewhat frightening, to say nothing of the cheerful willingness to assume that librarians don't know what they're doing but we know their business better than they. Readers of BMCR will recognize by now that my e-zealot riff is warming up (for a radically opposed style of comment by a classicist journal editor, you could have a look at the editorial in the September 1992 Art Bulletin: it is remarkable how clearly people know what it is they are afraid of, however poorly informed they are otherwise), but I will keep it short. To me the notion that the new gadgets are just friendly helpers that we can use to maintain the status quo feels like a deliberate construction designed to convince everybody that Marshall McLuhan was right about people charging into the future looking into the rear view mirror. The motorcar, on that principle, would be useful mainly in helping the farmer get to and from the city a little more quickly. No, if we do not jump on the bucking bronco of technology and tame it for our purposes, it will handily stomp us into obsoletion. Tertium quid non datur. There are plenty of closed steel mills to warn us that large, well-financed, established institutional structures don't last forever. Colleges and universities are very curious, under-capitalized institutions, heavily dependent on their current cash flow. They don't have to survive. I was struck by that again with the story in the paper of the Lutheran church in Philadelphia that once had 4,000 registered members and drew 75,000 people to the first Easter sunrise service on the east coast. They closed last week, sending the last fifty members off to a church a mile away. On train and cab rides through our big cities, I am always struck by the preponderance of ecclesiastical architecture on the old urban landscape, and by the shabby hollowness of so many of those imposing shells. That could be us, troops, as the religion of the written word slips away from us.

JO'D 25 September 1992