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Classics Adopts Reform

Department eliminates general exam and adopts less stringent requirements

By Alex M. Mcleese, Crimson Staff Writer

In an effort to attract more students and reduce the twelve pages its requirements fill in the student handbook, the Classics department unanimously approved a final draft of a new, more flexible curriculum on Tuesday afternoon, according to the department’s director of undergraduate studies, Mark J. Schiefsky.

The new set of requirements no longer includes the department’s unique general exams or its decades-old mandatory reading list, although they remain popular with many students. Its seven tracks of study are being reduced to two—Classical Civilizations and Classical Languages and Literatures. The latter track will require fewer language courses than current language-intensive tracks.

Now that a final version has been agreed upon, the proposal will soon be presented to the Educational Policy Committee. Schiefsky, who is also a professor in the department, said that he hopes the curriculum, which was approved in draft form by the department in December, will be approved soon so that much of it can be implemented next year. It is unclear how requirements for current concentrators will be affected, he said.

The revisions were designed to improve the concentration’s flexibility and accessibility to students who have not previously studied classical languages, Schiefsky said. He added that he decided to initiate the curricular review last semester because the concentration’s requirements had become incoherent, the general exam system was not working well, and he was encountering students who were discouraged from joining the department because they did not think they could “manage” the curriculum.

He said that the changes were not prompted by “a sense of crisis about numbers declining or anything like that,” noting that the department has seen a stable 12 to 20 concentrators per class in recent years.

The Classics department joins Harvard’s English and history departments in revising concentration requirements to make them more flexible.

The Classics department will continue to require one semester-long sophomore tutorial on classical civilization. It is also reviving a required junior research tutorial that will prepare students to write theses.

The two new tracks will require relatively few semesters of languages, which Schiefsky said he hopes will attract more concentrators. Classical civilizations will require four language courses, while classical languages and literatures will require six—down from eight in the current language-focused tracks.

The department has gradually been expanding its focus beyond language to increase its emphasis on other fields, like archaeology, history, and philosophy, Schiefsky said.

“We don’t intend to stop teaching Greek,” Schiefsky said, “but there are also interesting things you can say about Greek texts even if you don’t know the language. Classics is not something accessible only to those willing to learn Greek for six years.”

Professors decided early in the review process to eliminate the general exams and the accompanying mandatory reading list, said Classics junior class representative Veronica R. Koven-Matasy ’10. Schiefsky said the general exams were cut for many reasons, including that they discouraged students from exploring material outside the mainstream and bored faculty who were forced to teach the same texts year after year.

“No other Classics department has a general exam for undergraduates,” Schiefsky said. “Our general exams were in effect qualifying exams for Ph.D and M.A. candidates...That’s not what the concentration should be. It should be part of a liberal education.”

Many current concentrators said they are sad to see the general exams go.

“I’m conflicted about getting rid of generals,” said Koven-Matasy, who has been studying Latin for nearly a decade. “I’m attached to the idea of a very high standard expected of Harvard students, and I like the idea that we have a test.”

Scott J. DiGiulio ’09 said that the generals improve the concentration’s social life. “It helps to create a kind of solidarity among seniors,” he said. “We’ve worked towards this thing together for almost two years now, and it’s really helpful to bring us together as a class.”

“We recognize the sentiment,” Schiefsky said, “but we also feel very strongly that it is necessary to reach out to students.”

—Staff writer Alex M. McLeese can be reach at

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