by Peter Zelchenko February 27, 2009
UIC's Ancient Greek language courses, and its Latin major -- part of its Classics Department -- will sing their swan song, according to a December article in the Chicago Flame. "Actually, it's a suspension," says Prof. John (J.T.) Ramsey, head of the department and a bona fide (that's Latin for "good faith") classics nerd. For 28 years, faculty at the school have been offering these classes on their own time, at virtually no cost to the university. Pretty good deal for UIC, but they want to close them down in two years. Suspension calls for virtually no paperwork, but it also means the classes can be reinstated at will. Think of it as a layoff.
I called Prof. Ramsey to see if anything had changed since Obama took his oath to save the world.
GB: So, is there any positive development since December?
JR: I wish I could say that there was light at the end of the tunnel, but I'm not reading anything to that effect from the administration. They're holding firm [on intending to suspend the Ancient Greek classes]. We'd like to increase the numbers. I think we can do better.
GB: What will Greek really do for a student in today's world? Isn't it rather irrelevant to, say, a job in web design or engineering?
JR: In fact, we're trying to document this. We are tracking down alumni and asking them to contribute to our web page. We will feature a couple of recent grads. For example, a former student of mine had a joint major in chemistry and Latin. He went to medical school and is now a pathologist. Wherever he's gone, what has impressed people is that he had studied Latin. It is a training of the mind and of the culture. Being a major in Greek or Latin, you read some of the best philosophy and the best history, the masters, and you learn the techniques of problem solving.
One of the first students I ever taught at UIC is now a very successful lawyer. He only took two years of Latin, to fulfill a language requirement, but he credits Latin with giving him the training he needed to be intellectually a good lawyer. With it, he can catch the nuance of what a text is saying. He can read closely and watch for ambiguities.
GB: You don't learn problem solving when studying other languages?
JR: Other languages call for memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules; once you've mastered those you can pick them up rather rapidly. But Greek and Latin are highly inflected languages in comparison.
[inflection: Noun and verb endings follow strict and relatively elaborate formulae -- called declensions and conjugations, respectively -- which cue the reader in to what part of speech is being referred to and allow a subtle latitide of meaning based on a word's position in a sentence. English is very weakly inflected: we have "s" for plurals and a few verb changes, but very little compared to highly inflected languages. Modern languages like Russian and German also have more inflection than English, but not as much as the ancient tongues. We'd never say "Around the corner came the cat" and we'd rarely write it. But the more inflected a language, the richer the games you can play with word order and word economy, intensifying the meaning in amazing ways and calling for deeper analysis.]
GB: Has Greek broadened you in your life and career?
JR: I am interested in ancient science and astronomy. I gave the Webster Lecture this past fall at Adler Planetarium ("When Did Comets Become Portents of Disaster in the Greco-Roman World?"). I like to think I can think and write and speak clearly; you don't have to be a classicist to do that, but it certainly encourages you to think about the way you express yourself.
My colleagues feel the same way. We feel we are providing an education not only to equip people for the real world but also for refinement of the culture, and appreciation of the beauty of language and of art. ...
[Educational Interlude: Here are lines 770-773 from Aristophanes' The Birds:]
[John Hookham Frere, 1839] Thus the swans in chorus follow, / On the mighty Thracian stream, / Hymning their eternal theme, / Praise to Bacchus and Apollo:
[Nice ABBA rhyme scheme; it swings in this capable translation. It's what we need out of Aristophanes. Because here's what it looked like originally:]
[Aristophanes, 414 B.C.] toiade kuknoi, / "tio tio tia tio tio tiotinx," [swan song in Greek] / summige boen 'omou / pterois krekontes iakchon Apollo, / "tio tio tio tiotinx," / ochthoi ephezomenoi par' Hebron potamon,
[I'm sure the above sounds as musical to an Ancient Greek as Freres does to us, if not more.]
[Peter Zelchenko, 2008] (Such)(the swans): / teww teww tiaah teww teww teeeeeeen, / (Commingled)(loud cry)(united) / (Feathers)(beating)[to](Dionysus)(and)(Apollo) / teww teww teww tewwteeeeeeen, / ([on] the bank)(sitting)(Hebros)(river)
[And this from Eugene O'Neill, Jr., the suicidal East Coast nepotiste, socialite, swiller, classicist, mortal scion of the immortal playwright:]
[Eugene O'Neill, Jr., 1938] So the swans on the banks of the Hebrus, / tiotiotiotiotiotinx, / mingle their voices to serenade Apollo, / tiotiotiotinx,
[Wouldn't it be nice to sit around all day on the veranda and swill whiskey and translate Ancient Greek till you were dead? I don't think either O'Neill or I did a very good job of improving on Frere's 1839 translation. End interlude.]
JR: ...When you called my office, I was just looking at [the narrative poem] Ovid's Metamorphoses with a second-year student. We were analyzing word order, position of the words, doing a deep analysis.
There are students coming here not knowing what the classics are. We want to do a better job of marketing ourselves. One of our students, not a classics but a business major, is working with our department to try to make our program more interesting to students.
We have a big event coming. We're having a professional actor come and do the Apology of Socrates. We're hoping to make it a showcase for our program, to help draw more interest.
Monday, March 30, 2009, 4 p.m.
UIC Lecture Center F, Room F3
Yiannis Simonides in "The Apology of Socrates"
Simonides dresses in ancient Greek garb, does a one-man show that heavily draws on Plato's version of Socrates' speech in his immortal defense against charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and of atheism. (He was found guilty and had to take hemlock.)
There's also the Tracy Lecture:
Friday, April 3, 2009, 3 p.m.
UIC Student Center East, Room 509
The 26th Annual Tracy Lecture, by Richard Thomas (Harvard)
"Reading Virgil in the Nineteenth Century: Berlioz to Tennyson"
Prof. Ramsey thinks this lecture will be "very accessible." It "examines the reception of Virgil, particularly his Aeneid, through the eyes of poets and writers in the 19th Century." Thomas' theme is that the view of these interpreters was largely unaffected by scholarly preconceptions about the poet.
GB: Don't you think that by getting rid of this foundations of Western culture the administration is cutting our civilization off at the roots at the worst possible time?
JR:I can fully understand this from a dean's point of view, having been one myself. I can see how with an economic crunch like this every available teaching resource has to be put to the best use. We've been told, you can teach Latin all you like, but Greek has such small numbers. We're asking, let us have a little time to make some significant adjustments: curriculum, teaching staff, advertising the class. We're rewriting our whole major; I'm struggling to see how we can do that without Greek.
There's a lot of feeling that we have to hang on to this gem that we have in the Classics Department. Three years ago, we had an external review by professors brought here by the IBHE mandate. [The Illinois Board of Higher Education rules require that schools that receive state funding be peer-reviewed for performance.] Professors from Princeton, Washington, and Duke came and spent a couple of days, talked with faculty, students, alumni, visited classes, and wrote a report. They were full of praise for what we were accomplishing.
(c) 2003-2009, Peter Zelchenko and Gapers Block