Wilson Shearin, Classics Ph.D., 2007
Classics, Ph.D. class of 2007. Wilson Shearin is a Berkeley Graduate Fellowship recipient.

Few disciplines are as traditional, in every possible sense of the term, as the field of Classics. Indeed, it could be said that Classics – the intensive study of Greek and Roman literature, language, and culture – is an originary site for the notion and study of tradition. traditio (a noun: “handing over, delivery; the handing down of knowledge”) and its cognate tradere (a verb: “to hand over; to hand down”) are both Latin words. These two terms encode a double sense: first, the notion of making a present-time gift and second, the notion of wisdom handed down through time. One powerful example of this duality is the Homeric rhapsode, a bard who professes in each performed song to enact “Homer” – the ever-same, traditional poems by the ever-same poet. Yet each performance is a different event. Ancient evidence suggests that different performances produced drastically different, if structurally similar, poems. Each performance thus relies upon tradition (traditio), even while it delivers (tradit) the present-time gift of a new poem.

Students of Classics likewise feel this double temporal pull as they sit each day, reading and translating in the present, all the while consulting voluminous, Victorian-era dictionaries and grammars, the crowning achievements of centuries of weighty Wissenschaft. This double temporal pull has different effects in different places. If one gives too much weight to the volume of knowledge handed down through time, Classics and its centuries of scholarly knowledge can hardly escape seeming burdensome. If, on the other hand, one ignores this tradition, Classics begins to lose much of what makes it distinctive: it is a discipline that works precisely by thinking through tradition. It accomplishes its analyzes by re-vivifying “dead” languages and lost cultures.

Such a background is particularly relevant to the study of Classics at UC Berkeley, where a Berkeley Fellowship happily allowed me to pursue my graduate studies. Berkeley is a place where the weight of classical tradition is managed in a deft balance with the concerns of the present moment. Indeed, it is perhaps unsurprising that Berkeley is famous as the institution where the present-time, oral performance of the Homeric rhapsode entered scholarly concern. Until the work of Milman Parry – an Oakland resident and Berkeley student – in the early twentieth century, scholars read Homer as simply a literary text, ignoring the role that present-time performance played in shaping those textual traces.

Today’s Berkeley integrates the present into the study of Classics in different ways. Berkeley has pioneered the goal of educating its graduate students not only in the rigors of traditional Greek and Latin philology but also in cultural studies and modern theoretical approaches to literature. Berkeley’s Classics program is one of the few in the world that not only encourages its students to pursue approaches from neighboring disciplines like anthropology, comparative literature, and rhetoric, but it effectively requires them to study these approaches, having long since established an introductory “theory” course that first and second-year graduate students take alongside other more traditional fare. This fact makes Berkeley a department that has institutionalized its own tradition – that of innovating and re-inventing the Classics.

My own experience at Berkeley led me from being a well-trained reader of Greek and Latin – one who joyfully consulted and digested traditional learning – to questioning more profoundly the edifices upon which that learning is built. Whereas I once exerted myself in the aim of gaining more direct access to the greatest authors of antiquity, I now study the cultural forces, both ancient and modern, that shape that access. While I have not lost my respect for the enormous learning that shapes the study of Classics, I have become more intrigued by the way readers, scholars, and various material media shape, indeed are an essential component of, that learning. My research once focused on the ways in which language failed to capture the metaphysically ineffable; now it studies the ways in which texts manifest, even if they do not foreground, traces of their physical production. An interest in the eternal has yielded to an interest in the way the present inflects the eternal.

Having completed my graduate work at Berkeley in December 2007, I now am moving on to a postdoctoral position at Stanford University. I am excited to continue my research – not in the knowledge that I have left behind a traditional interest in the ancient world but in the knowledge that my graduate years at Berkeley have allowed me to join a new tradition, one that celebrates rather than shuns our own (and Classics’) physical, material connection to the present.

— Wilson Shearin

Categories: Student & Alumni Profiles

About Dick Cortén