“How many of you are taking this course to fulfill the humanities requirement? It’s okay. Be honest.”
At the beginning of a new semester I always ask this question of my students. Almost every student in the room raises their hand. The courses for which I am a Teaching Fellow have been Classical Civilization courses; general examinations of hundreds of years of ancient culture, literature, history. As it fulfills the “humanities requirement,” the majority of the students enrolled in these courses has never taken another humanities course, and has very little experience with the humanities whatsoever. Consequently, both the material and the learning style itself are alien to them. The hands are shy at first; wherefore the “It’s okay. Be honest.”
My next question: “How many of you have already declared your major?”
It is still the majority of my students who – with confidence, this time – have raised their hands.
It is part of my gambit.
I know what I am going to tell them next.
I started college in the fall of 2010 certain that I was going to be a History major. Further, I was certain that I wanted to study 20th century history, with a focus on WWII. I enrolled in a 20th century history course. It was fascinating and thrilling and everything I knew it would be going into it, and I felt reassured in my predestined decision; in fact, I felt lucky. Those poor undeclared folks out there didn’t have the privilege that I had of passion and certainty in their direction.
Meanwhile, I enrolled in a French course to fulfill the college-wide language requirement and get it out of the way. I had taken French since I was 12 years old, culminating in an adequate performance on an AP exam in high school, and a burgeoning appreciation for New Wave film and Molière. I did not consider French to be a “passion,” but rather an adequately amusing necessity to get through my academic life. On occasion I felt it was a beautiful language. It was not a great concern of mine to keep going.
The French course in which I’d enrolled turned out to be much more challenging than that for which I was prepared. For the first time, my academic essays were written in French on 17th-Century French Literature.
I kept going.
By the end of my sophomore year, I had taken at least one French course per semester. The subject I’d taken to “fulfill a requirement” became my second major.
My switch to Classical Studies was perhaps a bit more unpredictable.
It started with an ancient history course. And then a Classical Mythology course, taken just for kicks. And then a Latin class that I dropped halfway through the semester, certain I was stretching myself too thin for the sake of a subject I was unlikely to use for the rest of my academic career.
But my junior year I returned from a semester abroad in Paris to converse with my advisor, a professor who happened to bridge the classics and history departments, about my future.
It came out as a confession:
I think I want to be a classics professor.
This was returned with the simple question:
Are you ready for me to ruin your life?
I tell my students that as soon as I took my first Classical Mythology course, I knew I was screwed. I tell fellow classicists that it was actually the first time I read about the Gracchi brothers. Whatever the case, an insatiable thirst gnawed away inside of me until, against my better judgment, I surrendered to the simple recognition that I wanted to do this with my life, whatever it took.
In my last year and a half at college, it took:
- One seminar on the Parthenon and a subsequent class trip to Greece
- Enrolling in an introductory course meant for Freshman to fulfill a requirement
- One summer (12 weeks) of intensive Greek at the CUNY SGI which almost killed me (and my poor mother)
- Two semesters of Latin to barely scrape through the major’s requirements
- Two advanced seminars in ancient Greek on the sophists and on Homer’s Odyssey
But I graduated with the double major that I had come to recognize I needed. And still, I wasn’t satisfied. To get to a PhD program, it took a post-baccalaureate year and uprooting a fairly new relationship (twice) and scraping by the GREs.
I don’t tell my students what it took.
I just tell them: “I switched majors halfway through my junior year. You never know what’s going to happen, or which class is going to be the one that changes your mind.”