The Things We Carried from Classics

Now that we’re older and smarter, wouldn’t it be fun to go back to graduate school?

Well, perhaps it would be fun to audit classes.

I had two careers as a graduate student. First, I earned a master’s in classics.  Later, I took graduate classes in English.  I loved classics, but English was more fun.

English wasn’t “real” graduate school for me.  I enjoyed my English classes thoroughly, and felt no pressure:  I took them while I was looking for a full-time  job. During my Marvell phase, I  dashed off papers on “Ovidian Influences in Marvell’s ‘The Garden,’ ‘Hortus,’ and ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn.’ ”  I compared Marvell’s “On a Drip of Dew” to “Ros,” his Latin version of the same poem.   (Marvell was an accomplished classicist.) When I dropped off my papers, the professor was enthusiastic and said (s)he looked forward all day to my papers. At first I thought (s)he was mocking me–there is a  very high sarcasm rate among classicists–but no, she was pleased to meet  a Latinist.  And the atmosphere was very different from classics–less uptight?

Back in print.

Classics was a much more arduous affair, requiring more commitment.  Over infinite cups of Oolong, with my charming cat batting at my pen and dipping her paw into yogurt, I  spent hours translating Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio), Horace’s odes (Nunc est bibendum), and Aristophanes’s The Frogs (Brekekekex koax koax).  Sometimes I had to work from grimy photocopied pages.  Our professor distributed Xeroxed copies of an out-of-print edition of  The Frogs.   An entire Survey of Greek literature class was taught off Xeroxes. Whether it violated copyright law, who cared?

Naturally, being a student was not just about books.  I  loved Bloomington:  it was like my hometown, only prettier. My boyfriend drove me to Bloomington, and we lugged my very few boxes up two flights of stairs into a one-room apartment above Howard’s Bookstore.  I settled in with my cat, dictionaries, grammars, novels, and Rolling Stones albums, and missed my boyfriend when he left.  (Could I have listened to “Miss You” more often?) Between bouts of homework, I went to Howard’s, the Runcible Spoon (a coffeehouse), and Caveat Emptor (a used bookstore).  Walking down Kirkwood towards campus, I was almost bowled over by roller skaters.   There was a kiosk where people rented roller skates.

Everybody in classics knew everybody: it was a small department.  The grad students were a genial group, but two of my friends dropped out the first year.  I was indignant that we lost them.  The culture of graduate school can be grueling:  the work load is ridiculously heavy, and you have to prioritize.  I read all the Greek and Latin literature, but was willing to gamble on skipping that learned  article on  Greek and Sanskrit  in the American Journal of Philology. And if you couldn’t skip a few steps, you’d have a nervous breakdown.  On the other hand, perhaps my friends dropped out because they didn’t like the bullshit.

Fortunately, there were some friendly survivors.  A charming Englishman was always up for a party, though I regret to say he didn’t carry a teddy bear like Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited.  A Uriah Heepish character  always lit the department chair’s cigarettes and pulled out chairs for women but then inexplicably failed the Ph.D. Latin exam.   The brightest student by far was a lovely, well-dressed, unpretentious linguist who shared my love of Masterpiece Theater and lent me her copy of Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey stories.

My boyfriend finally moved in with me.  Thank God!  Here is a description of young love:  we spent hours at the library, doing homework in a glassed-in smoking room, really a kind of porch.  We sat there mainly because there were no windows above the second floor, and the  carrels made me claustrophobic.  Things smelled different in those days:  we didn’t smoke, but everybody was used to smoke.  There were smells of smoke, beer, hamburgers everywhere.

How on earth did we live off our $2,900 stipends?  We got that and free tuition.  Well, we had very few expenses:  just housing and food.  No work wardrobe, you could walk or bicycle everywhere, and many cultural events were free.  When we found our first real jobs in a city, we seemed paradoxically to have less money.  For several years we struggled financially.

I took the literature, not the stress, from the grad school experience, and honestly, a master’s degree helps in the workplace.   But what a system!  Perhaps it is has been reformed; I don’t know anybody in that world now.

6 thoughts on “The Things We Carried from Classics

  1. I love the glimpses into other people’s lives. My college experience was completely different from yours. In my high school, if you maintained a certain GPA, you were allowed to take up to two courses per semester at the local private liberal arts college. I did that and loved it, the pretty campus, the small classes. I think there were fewer than a dozen in my classes, very intimate. Then I graduated from high school and went to a state college nearby. The classes were huge and I lasted for only three weeks of freshman torture by upper classmen (wearing orange and black beanies was required or punished). That’s not what I was going to college for, so I dropped out. Despite dire predictions for my future, I’ve done just fine. So I’m basically an autodidact.

    • Oh my God, I would not have lasted with a beanie! Being an autodidact is good: that is the case with so many of my favorite writers. I wanted to be like Doris Lessing.:)

  2. Daily I listen to Bernard Mayes read aloud Boswell’s Life of Johnson. It is filled with Latin, and most unusually the reader reads the Latin aloud. He then translates. So daily I am hearing it. Once in a long while I get some. When Izzy sat in my car with me and we listened to Gaskell read aloud, I realized she used Latin. There was no English translation: not as many and didn’t go on for so long. Izzy would translate!

    Your depiction of young love reminds me of Jim and I when we went to graduate school at the same time, lived in a rent control apartment at the top of Manhattan and would take long walks with our dog. I’ve had my moments too.

    • I loved classics, but they lost so many people–and when there are only 12 to start with, that’s a problem. I’m an excellent exam taker, passed the Ph.D exam in Latin with flying colors , but five of the other six failed. So it was a golden time if you didn’t give in to the stress, and I loved the town. It was a great opportunity, though I can’t pretend I couldn’t visualize a more romantic life not spent in libraries~

  3. I have just begun to re-read The Secret History for next week’s book group and already I am longing to go back to University and start all over again. The first time round my grant was £32 a term, although board and lodgings were provided, but we managed. I did my other three degrees part time while working full-time, which was easier financially but meant I missed out on college life.

    • Oh, I loved The Secret History!
      £32 would be very tough. These stipends work depending on where one lives. Impossible in New York , possible in Bloomington.

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