To President Garimella, Provost Prelock, Dean Falls, and the Board of Trustees,
I write to you as a lecturer in the Department of Classics and as a Vermonter. As you can imagine, I’m devastated by the news of the proposed elimination of our majors, minors, MA programs, and our department. As a lecturer, I’m concerned about possible layoffs. As an educator, I worry about the education UVM will be able to offer students in the future.
But I am especially saddened as a Vermonter, and as one who earned a BA in Latin and Greek and an MA in Latin and Greek from the University of Vermont. I want you to know who I am, not as a number in a spreadsheet or as the last remaining lecturer in a “low enrollment” department. I am the demographic you claim to support.
I was born in Vermont and grew up in Stowe. I was raised by a single mother who struggled to support me and my two brothers on one income. Growing up was hard, but education always came first in our household. High school was painful. During free periods I hid from my peers in bathroom stalls, chain smoking cigarettes as I attempted to parse out Virgil’s Latin. To say that Latin saved me would be an understatement. It gave my life meaning; it gave me something to focus on besides the shame of poverty and my desire to disappear. My high school Latin teacher, Karen Knapp, played no small role in ensuring that I graduated high school. She met me early in the morning to let me into the computer lab to type papers. She met me in the evening to read Virgil.
Karen Knapp also earned her MA in Latin and Greek from UVM. Phil Ambrose, now retired, supervised her thesis. When I graduated from high school, I went to Bard College. I took courses in Latin and Greek. Intellectually, the college was a good fit, but the isolation and loneliness of poverty was unbearable. I didn’t understand that how I felt about myself and my potential was not a reflection of who I was, but of poverty’s power to silence. I needed the support of my family and friends in Vermont. I needed the mountains and the lakes that provided refuge in high school. I knew that Ms. Knapp went to UVM. My professors at Bard spoke highly of the department and its nationally recognized reputation for philology.
I transferred to UVM in my second year as an undergraduate in January 2000. Jacques Bailly was my advisor; Anne Clark, the chair of Religion, chaired my senior thesis committee. I took courses with Robin Schlunk, Robert Rodgers, Barbara Saylor Rodgers, Phil Ambrose, Mark Usher, and, yes, Brian Walsh, my professor and colleague whose contract was not renewed in 2018. I pursued a double major in Latin and Greek, and in 2004 I entered the MA program in Latin and Greek. When I applied to the UVM grad program I was working full time. I couldn’t afford GRE courses or books, and I could only afford to take the exam once. Fortunately I was awarded a Graduate Teaching Assistantship and taught Latin 001 and Latin 002 both years, while also waiting tables in the morning.
As a student, 481 Main Street was my home for four and a half years. During an especially bad breakup, 481 Main provided refuge, and Latin and Greek offered a safe haven from the turmoil of my mind spiraling into worst-case “what if” scenarios. I eventually earned a PhD in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin, but not before returning to Stowe High School where I taught Latin for two years when Karen Knapp passed away. After being abroad for four years, the communities in which I was so heavily invested, and which had invested in me, brought me home.
In 2011 I returned home again to UVM, this time as a teacher. The past ten years have been difficult, especially those years when I was offered part-time contracts without benefits. I supplemented my income by adjuncting at Middlebury College, where, one semester, I even taught Sociology of Gender. I could have easily given up on Classics and found a different line of work, but I remained firm in my conviction that the discipline was important. As one of our Classics students, Meghan Keefe writes,
History must always be studied and can serve as a guide or a caution to us in the present. To label the stories of the past unimportant is anti-academic. In addition to this, the larger discipline of Classics is undergoing radical change. For the first time the stories of women, slaves, metics, and the lower class are sought out and listened to. The elimination of the discipline as it works to become more equal would be a great shame. Furthermore, ancient perceptions of sexism, xenophobia, and racism persist in our society today, and understanding the roots of these institutions is essential to deconstructing them.
Classics and the study of Latin and Greek are living disciplines with living bodies of knowledge that require care and attention. Eliminating our department and our majors, minors, and MA programs is not only an attack on the liberal arts, but also the principles of the Common Ground and the potential for classics to contribute to important conversations regarding identity, power, and community building. The methods of the Classics, grounded in close textual analysis, seek to reconstruct the past as separate from the self, yet as the past becomes more distant the operations of power, invisible in our own present, are rendered visible. This moment of clarity is empowering. It changes how students see themselves in relation to the institutions that order their lives. When issues of identity and power are addressed through discussions of the ancient world, it is easier for students to engage critically: the ancient world is not their world. This distance means that students enter courses on relatively equal footing, which provides clarity that might otherwise be obscured by their own privilege or lack thereof.
The transformative and liberating power of classics became most apparent to me two years ago when I taught Mythology in the women’s prison through the UVM Liberal Arts in Prison Program. The course provided a space for women to ask questions, engage in dialogue, and challenge one another intellectually. The students struggled, but rose to the occasion. The women in the course didn’t know that such courses could be taken, that such material could be learned: they didn’t know what there was to be known. In this class, we discovered our shared humanity and created a community.
Like the women in the myth course, students don’t know the full range of their educational options or potential. They don’t come to college planning to major in Greek or religion. They gain exposure to these disciplines through institutional support and distribution requirements. If we lose these courses, students will suffer an immeasurable loss. The real threat posed by these cuts is the loss of our own intellectual freedom to discover and pursue our passions. These courses not only enrich individual lives, but can make the world we inhabit safer and more equitable. We need STEM. But we also need the humanities and social sciences. We should not be forced to compete for resources. We need to work together. We need the humanists and the social scientists doing the hard labor of critiquing the questions asked by science, how those questions are informed by racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. We need Classics because Classics offers an entry to these difficult conversations about the ways identity shapes the knowledge that is produced and preserved. Classics connects us to our shared humanity, both the good and the bad. We learn about democracy from the ancient Greeks, but we also learn about slavery, and how inextricable it was from the functioning of the Athenian city-state. Classics forces us to examine more critically the foundational myths of our society as we build a more just and equitable future.
You claim that students will be able to take our courses in the future, but by terminating our majors and minors, you are eliminating important communities of shared knowledge, both among students and faculty. Majors exist for a reason. A college education is more than collection of courses from different disciplines. One of the pleasures of teaching is watching our majors and minors connect through a shared passion of Greek, Latin, and ancient Greek and Roman cultures. While I look forward to future teaching opportunities, I mourn the loss of these communities. I mourn not bearing witness to the transformation of students as they build their knowledge base.
By eliminating our department you ensure that our course offerings in the future will be diminished. Without a department, how can you promise that those of us whose contracts are not renewed or who retire will be replaced? Without a department, will it be easier to justify not hiring the expert in Latin poetry or Greek literature? Will the courses we currently offer be available to students in ten or twenty years? Or will our courses be retired with the faculty who teach them?
The UVM Classics Department gave me a life a worth living. It provided me with an intellectual home, and it continues to foster my intellectual development as an academic. How will students like me, a low-income student from Vermont, study the Classics, Latin, and Greek if you eliminate the Classics Department? UVM is a land grant institution. As President Garimella noted in a January 2020 op-ed in the Rutland Herald,
Count me as a true believer in the land-grant mission and among its greatest fans. The first land grants, so called because the U.S. government donated federal land to each state to establish a university, were a brand new idea: higher education for everyday people focused on the practical subjects of agriculture and the mechanical arts, whose purpose was to improve the economic and cultural wellbeing of the people in their state.
UVM has an obligation to its local community. The university’s plan to eliminate departments fundamentally calls into question its commitment to the liberal arts. How does diluting the liberal arts experience contribute to the “cultural wellbeing” of Vermonters? As Garimella notes, 40% of UVM graduates remain in Vermont. That their children and grandchildren will not have access to a comparable education in the liberal arts at their state university is unacceptable.
I’m heartbroken that others may not have the opportunities I had. If you care about your students and your Vermont community, I ask you to reconsider these cuts.
Jessica Penny Evans
BA, Latin and Greek, UVM
MA, Latin and Greek, UVM
PhD, Trinity College, Dublin
If you would like to show your support to the departments and programs included in the most recent round of cuts, please consider signing these petitions, or writing letters to the President, Provost, and Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont.
Are you a former or current UVM student? Want to help? Please consider leaving a comment here about your experiences with UVM Classics.