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.