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Classics goes high-tech at Stanford

STANFORD -- Susan Stephens pulled a book off a tidy shelf near her desk and opened it proudly.

The recently published work was a study of the Greek and Latin origins of orthopedic terms. Its author, surgeon Mohammed Diab, had been a double major at Stanford in human biology and classics.

"He's so typical of our students," Stephens said of undergraduates in the Classics Department, which she chairs. "He's written this incredibly learned history, and he's had so much fun writing it."

Although Diab is not "doing" classics for a living, he still calls Stephens periodically to chat or to double- check a fact for a medical lecture he's preparing.

"He just loves the material," Stephens added. "And that's what I regard as the value of the kind of classics education you get here. It's really about turning out intellectually diverse people."

Stephens' enthusiasm cuts like an incandescent arc through the gloom that threatens to envelop the study of classics on many campuses today. At a time when the current issue of the journal Lingua Franca is running an ominous headline that asks "Can Classics Die?" and reporting that the venerable field of study "has arrived at a precipice," the small but vigorous department at Stanford is taking several innovative steps forward.

  • Classics professors are offering four new thematic courses this year -- on the history of medicine, liberal education, slavery, and women and violence in Greek religion -- in an effort to make ancient materials more relevant to today's students.
  • Professors and students increasingly are turning to sophisticated computer technology to access Greek and Latin texts, look up archaeological digs and download course readers.
  • In a broadening of the traditional focus on Greek and Roman culture, the department is redefining the boundaries of the ancient Mediterranean world to include Egypt and the Near East.

"A real sea change has been going on in classics for the past 25 years, and we're now in the position of having to redefine the discipline," Stephens said. "I find that pretty exciting."

Ian Morris, a young British classicist who was recruited this year from the University of Chicago, echoes Stephens' optimism about the role of the classics today.

"We've always taken it for granted that classics meant Greek and Roman history and literature, but it's only in the past 200 years that people have said, 'These are the things you should study to the exception of everything else,'" he said. "Now, because of the questioning in the humanities and social sciences about the whole notion of Eurocentric traditions, we're beginning to think more seriously about what we're doing."

An internationally recognized authority in both Greek history and archaeology -- and a former lead guitarist for a heavy metal band -- Morris is the first of several new hires the Classics Department expects to make in the next few years. He was recruited as a full professor at age 35, not long after a colleague of his was appointed to a chair in ancient history at Princeton at the age of 37. The two appointments, Morris said, are just one indication of the significance of the changes that are taking place.

"The general impression one gets of classics today is confusion and disarray," he said. "The field has run into a period when a lot of elder statesmen don't seem to have a clear vision of what should be going on, and one of the clearest signs of that is the fact that fairly young people all of a sudden are getting top jobs."

Morris is pulling together texts as he refines a new course he'll be teaching in spring quarter, "Slavery Ancient and Modern." By comparing practices in classical Athens and Rome with those of the American South and 19th-century West Africa, he intends to give students a glimpse of what he calls "the universals" of slavery.

"Most of us find it hard to imagine a situation in which we'd be able to get up in the morning and look at ourselves in the mirror, knowing we were slave owners," he said. "It's very difficult for the modern person to grasp."

Several other courses currently are being developed in classics. Stephens, who served on the faculty task force that studied the Western Culture program in the late 1980s, says much of the credit for the new directions goes to her younger colleagues.

"We've been talking a lot in the department about our undergraduate programs, and they've been saying, 'You know, it really makes the most sense to organize the material this way or that way,'" she said. "So we're looking at more thematic courses because we think students care about 'slavery' in a way that they may not care about 'epic.'"

Enrollment in several classes has doubled in the past four years, and the department also has been attracting undergraduates who start out taking art or history courses and then want to learn more about the classical components of the material. Classics faculty teach Humanities 61, which often draws 300 students, during the first quarter of the Cultures, Ideas and Values track, and last year the department's "Greek Mythology" course enrolled about 270 undergraduates.

"What we're trying to do is to reach a broader population of undergraduates and graduates," said Stephens, who earned both her bachelor's degree and doctorate at Stanford. "It's not necessarily to 'sell' them on classics, but to make the ancient material more available to them."

In "Humanities 311: The Classical Seminar" that she is teaching this fall, for example, the 10 graduate students poring over classical texts from Homer to Augustine represent a wide range of majors, including Spanish, philosophy, Slavic languages, Chinese history, drama, modern history, and modern thought and literature.

Coming up in winter quarter is another new course from the department, Assistant Professor Martin Bloomer's "History of Liberal Education from Greece to the Renaissance." In addition to examining the connections between concepts of democracy, education and literacy, students will look at the broad social and political roles played by education.

"A large gender component in the course will discuss where women fit in over this long period," said Stephens, who in the early 1980s served on a task force charged with recommending women for tenured positions at Stanford. "What kinds of things are said about educating women? To what extent are they excluded, and why? How does education train men in socially acceptable roles?"

Bloomer's colleagues are keeping close watch on the first step he's taking down a technological path they all soon may be following: His course reader will be available to students on line or on CD.

Gone are the days spent in dusty library nooks with crumbling manuscripts. According to Stephens, today's classicists are "real techies."

She plugged in her first computer 18 years ago, and has been tapping into data banks and printing vocabulary worksheets ever since. She doesn't need caps for Greek letters displayed on her keyboard because she memorized the positions long ago.

"I think classicists in general are much more technologically advanced than most humanists," said Stephens, a former associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. "Probably it's because we work with realia and tend to be more oriented toward data and physical things than a lot of literature faculties."

She also points out that the department has "some very hot computer stuff."

Lisa Maurizio, a visiting assistant professor who specializes in the history of religion, spent the summer getting Perseus, a project developed at Harvard, onto the Stanford network. Greek and Latin texts previously had been available with the Ibycus program, but when students bring Greek texts onto their computer screens using Perseus, they not only get translations and vocabulary help, but they also can call up maps of the ancient world, pictures of buildings and art works, and photographs of archaeological sites from the classical to the Hellenistic period.

"I use a lot of slides in my lectures, and this will allow students to go back to their lecture notes in their dorm rooms at night and click onto various gods and goddesses or battles of titans and giants," Maurizio said.

For a field that traditionally has focused on texts dating from the 8th century B.C., the technological advances of the past few years have been staggering. But the implications for new directions in research are even more expansive.

Papyrology, Stephens' field of specialization, is a good example. New in classical terms, the discipline was launched at the turn of the 19th century when papyrus manuscripts written in Greek were discovered in the refuse heaps and abandoned foundations of Egyptian towns, where the arid climate and covering sands had helped to preserve them. Among the thousands of papyrus rolls, 35 fragments of unknown Greek literature now have been found that show how Hellenistic culture absorbed ancient legends from Egypt, Babylon and the Crimea.

In her new book co-authored with John J. Winkler, a Stanford professor of classics who died in 1990, and published last month by Princeton University Press, Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments, Stephens situates each text within the field of ancient fiction. She writes that the scholarship under way today "leaves us unsatisfied with previous answers."

Roger Bagnall, professor of classics and history at Columbia University and president of the American Society of Papyrologists, calls Stephen's book a "breakthrough work."

"It is hard to think of another work which does so much to make fragmentary material from Greek literature preserved on papyrus accessible to someone not prepared to work through broken lines in detail," Bagnall wrote in a recent e-mail interview. "The reader finds both philology and literary judgment (and even a sense of humor) throughout."

Stanford's Ian Morris adds that the study of papyrology today is "new and very trendy stuff" that is changing the way cultural history is studied. Computer technology is one factor in the equation, as scanners replace binocular microscopes and tweezers, enabling thousands of fragments of text to be entered in data bases. At the same time, scholars like Stephens are using papyri to explore the Greco-Roman world after Alexander, and the results of that study are expanding the concept of the classical world to include a wider Mediterranean sphere of influence.

"The field I'm working in is really cross- disciplinary -- it's half-Egyptian and half-Greek," Stephens explained. "We're looking at a period when Greek was the language of the ruling class, and the nominal language of people who were Syrian or Persian or Egyptian.

"And we're asking, What did it mean to be an upper-class Persian, or an upper-class Egyptian, with a 3,000-year history of your own, who suddenly had to become Greek or Roman?"

The interaction between an older Egyptian culture and an imposed Greek elite produced the kinds of cultural overlays that Stephens says fascinate today's classicists. To explain its significance to 18-year-old freshmen, she often uses the example of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which many students grew up watching on TV and in movies.

Why are the turtles so large, she will ask. Because they've adapted to a state-of-the-art topic -- pollution. Why are they "ninja" turtles? Because of the Japanese influence today. Where do their names come from? A bow to Western culture and Renaissance artists.

"Sure, they're fun movies, but the whole phenomenon is so typical of what culture is really all about, in the influences that come from so many different directions," Stephens said. "It was true in the ancient world, it was true in the Renaissance, and it's true in our world. And it's yet another example of why we need to be informed about our culture."

Andrea Nightingale, an assistant professor specializing in ancient philosophy who has a bachelor's degree in classics from Stanford, remembers her early grounding in the Mediterranean sweep that the classics department is emphasizing today.

"Susan started her course on Egyptian history when I was an undergraduate here, and even then it was a big draw," Nightingale said of the course she took from Stephens. "It sort of amazes me that she started so early on all of this material, before anyone else was even thinking about these things."

Nightingale, who is developing an ecology course that draws on humanist perspectives, directs the undergraduate program for the classics department. She now lectures in the same Structured Liberal Education track of the Cultures, Ideas and Values program that she followed as an undergraduate. Her experience at Stanford and her doctorate from the University of California- Berkeley, give Nightingale an insider's eye and an outsider's perspective.

"Given that we're quite small, we're never going to be able to compete with the big programs that are covering every single base in classics," she said. "So our feeling is, why not go for more distinctive, more original kinds of scholars?"

When classicists are asked about the top departments in the nation, three programs inevitably head the list -- Berkeley, Harvard and the University of Michigan -- with Princeton, Yale and the University of Texas at Austin close behind. The differences in size between those six departments and Stanford's are telling.

While most schools accept eight or 10 graduate students each year, Stanford takes three or four. At Michigan three faculty work in the university's distinguished papyrology collection, but Stephens is the lone papyrologist at Stanford, with no collection. While Berkeley has more than 25 faculty listed as part of its ancient history group, Stanford fields two. Michigan has six ancient historians to Stanford's two, six art historians to Stanford's one, six archaeologists to Stanford's . . . none.

The department now is beginning to rebound in strength after being depleted by a number of recent retirements and resignations. Professors Emeriti Mark Edwards, Tony Raubitschek and Michael Jameson continue to bring their expertise to the study of Homer and Greek history. Dean of the Chapel Robert Gregg is an important scholar of religion, Jody Maxmin is an expert on Greek vase painting, and Michael Wigodsky explores Hellenistic philosophy. Visiting lecturers Patrick Hunt and Steven Johnstone contribute experience in archaeology and Greek history, respectively.

The future of classics at Stanford, say some observers, is partly contingent on the university's commitment to the discipline.

"In my 20 years here, we've been through the best and worst cycles, and a department our size is always in a fragile state," said Marsh McCall, former chair of the department. "The university, from the president on down, has to decide whether it thinks that a first-class classics department is part of the basic definition of being a world- class university. And if the university decides that's the case, then it has to maintain the department at a certain billet strength."


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