Home > Notes From Athens > Inside Looking In: A Wondering about the American School of Classical Studies

Inside Looking In: A Wondering about the American School of Classical Studies

One of the most interesting things so far about my year in Athens is becoming re-acquainted with the American School of Classical Studies.  The American School is different things to different people; it’s a research library, a social club, a lecture venue, and the liaison between the Greek government and the American archaeologists in Greece.  At its heart, however, is the Regular Program.  I’ve been lucky enough to contribute to the Regular Program this year, and this has given me the opportunity to observe its distinct culture first hand.

Regular Members are good graduate students from strong programs who spend the academic year traveling around Greece to sites.  The students travel in a big bus together, live together in Loring Hall, eat together, study in the Blegen library together, and relax together.  The Regular Members have just returned from their final major trip (they have one more short trip to Crete).  The trips run about 10 days each and involve visiting numerous major and minor archaeological sites.  The members visit these sites in all weather and give short site reports — this past weekend we heard a site report on the Archaic temple at Isthmia in a steady rain.  In some cases, just visiting the site invokes a palpable machismo especially the combination of brisk, yet dignified, hikes up steep hills and relatively obscure sites (Askra is not technically obscure, but, say, Zarax in the Peloponnesus would perhaps qualify).  At the end of the trips, the students are a tired but, indeed, tightly bonded group.  A kind of archaeological boot camp!

From what I understand, this has been the deal, more or less, for the past 50+ years.  This relatively intense experience forges a bond of unity among the students and many identify their time at the American School as a unique episode in their academic development (many, for example, include their year or years here as a separate line in the education category of their CVs placing it parallel, as it were, with their undergraduate and graduate education).  I recently discovered that there is an American School Alumni Organization (although I might have known this before), and apparently regular members from various years get together at organized event at the APA/AIA Annual Meeting.

As I have noted elsewhere, part of the American School experience involves creating a scholarly and professional identity through formal academic exercises like site reports or “Tea Talks” (relatively formal presentation on ongoing research) as well as less formal behaviors like lunchtime conversations.  Even individual research becomes a communal event: regular members are each assigned space at tables in the main reading room of the Blegen library, for example, which allows them to observe each others’ study and research habits.  The line between personal and professional identity, which is razor thin among most academics, is blurred entirely at the school.  Until the recent opening of the impressive auditorium in Cotsen Hall, visiting lecturers and Regular members delivered talks in the dinning room and saloni of the Loring Hall, where the students live, dine, and relax.  Depending on one’s view of an academic career and the place of our discipline within the American academia, the conflation of the private and professional at the American School is either a pious invocation of traditional collegiate (or even older monastic) forms of academic culture or the kind of environment that promotes a kind of disciplinary, intellectual, and social cohesion (as a polite term) that can bewilder to our colleagues in other fields.  Moreover, the tendency of “American School people”, most of whom have a genuine professional and intellectual interest in the archaeology and history of Greece, to return to the school to contribute their time and knowledge ensures that the identity and traditions of the school as an institution are continuously reinforced (although this is not to imply that they are stable or unchanging). 

Having spent considerable time at “the School” over the last 10 years has made it difficult for me to assess its real impact on my academic and intellectual development (I did develop an interest in epigraphy here…) or to understand fully how the environment here shapes the discipline (in both intended and unintended ways).  It would be interesting, indeed, to consider how the environment of the American School — both through its expressed academic goals and its social and professional culture — has influenced the discipline of Classics and Mediterranean Archaeology in the U.S.  Do, for example, cohorts of regular members (and many scholars, even years after their time in Athens, remember the names of their colleagues in the Regular Program and have shared experiences) possess distinct intellectual or academic identities?  Do these cohorts exert power or influence outside the realm of the American School like fraternities at the big state Universities in the Old South?   Presumably it one could compare American School cohorts to those present at particular moments in places like the Institute for Advanced Study or Dumbarton Oaks.  It seems hard to imagine that the social experiences of each cohort here at the school, which in their intensity can approach a kind of hazing (hearing a talk about an Archaic temple in a steady rain!!), would have no impact on how the various interrelated disciplines (archaeology, philology, history, art history) developed.

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