Chapter Five. Students
Students, of course, are present in every chapter of this book, sometimes explicitly, sometimes vaguely in the background, so it might seem unnecessary to have a chapter entitled “Students.” But it is necessary. Without students, there is no university. And there is information concerning students–a miscellaneous and difficult-to-organize batch of material–that does not fit neatly into any other chapter and that may help to fill out the picture of students that emerges from the other chapters. I include it here.
Demographics. By the end of the Second World War, civilian enrollment at Chapel Hill had fallen to fewer than two thousand students, but in the decades after the war it grew rapidly: to some seven thousand in 1957, fifteen thousand in 1969, nineteen thousand in 1976, and eventually some twenty-five thousand students. The total enrollment–undergraduate, graduate and professional–was 24,635 in 1999.
There were noticeable changes in the composition of the student body over these years. The percentage of women students, originally zero, increased steadily, especially after 1963. In that year, the university began accepting women as first-year students, whereas previously women had been accepted only after two years of college elsewhere (primarily at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, in Greensboro), or into a graduate or professional program. Women still made up only 47.1 percent of the student population in 1976, but by 1981, just five years later, 54.4 percent of all students were women, and in the fall of 1999 there were 9,355 women undergraduates and 6,079 men; thus the undergraduate population in 1999 was just over 60 percent women.
Similarly, the numbers of African-American students increased gradually if somewhat erratically. The first African-American students were admitted in 1951, but they were admitted to the law school, not as undergraduates. African-American applicants were first admitted as undergraduate students in 1955; they grew over the course of the next two or three decades to constitute roughly 8 to 10 percent of the student body, and in the fall of 1999 there were 2,419 black students at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, and professional), out of a total of 24,635 students. From the teacher’s (that is, my) point of view, the real change came in the mid-1970s. Before that, there were always some black students, though not many, in my Latin and classics courses. But about 1975 I began to have African-American students who were not only bright, but well-trained. It seemed to me that we were beginning to see an influx of black students who had been taught in first-rate schools. I attributed this, rightly or wrongly, to busing, which had begun a few years earlier and which put African-American students in primary and secondary schools that had strong academic programs.
Meanwhile, other ethnic groups–most notably Asian, but also Hispanic and American Indian–were increasing in numbers at Chapel Hill, and by the fall of 1999, out of the total of 24,635 students at all levels, 1,227 were Asian, 350 Hispanic, and 164 American Indian. But the statistics are deceptive. Large numbers of minority students are important from the perspective of society as a whole, but from a teacher’s point of view, a single student with a different point of view can change a whole discussion. Once I had a very bright student whose family came from Iran. In a class on Roman religion, I described some of the many divinities the Romans had, not only the great Olympian deities like Jupiter and Venus, but also smaller, less powerful but still superhuman ones, such as water nymphs and the spirits who inhabit particular woodlands. My student had a question: Did the Romans have genies? I was stunned: I had never thought of the minor divinities of Rome as genies, and my student’s question made me, and his fellow-classmates, rethink them. Were Roman demigods like genies? On another occasion, I had a student from India, a practicing Hindu and a believer not in monotheism, but in polytheism. For her, the world was filled with gods, some great, some less powerful, and her thoughts and comments on Roman religion were an invaluable resource for my other students and me as we, caught in our western traditions, tried to conceive of a world with many gods.
Dress. Students’ attire changed rapidly as fashions came and went, but there were a few trends that continued for some decades. In the 1950s and 1960s dress was still relatively formal. Men tended to wear shirts with collars (usually button-down), not t-shirts, and to tuck them into real trousers with creases. The men wore shoes, often loafers, sometimes without socks. Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s students began to dress more casually, and shorts and t-shirts, with gym shoes or sandals on their feet, became the norm in warm weather and not uncommon even in colder months. When they did wear warmer clothing, the men tended to wear blue jeans and sweatshirts instead of sweaters or sport coats. Casual dress continued as the normal day-to-day dress right through to the end of our period and beyond.
The dress of women evolved in parallel with that of the men. When I began teaching, many of the women students came to class in a skirt, roughly knee-length and often pleated, with a flower-print blouse, and simple flats on their feet. This was true even of one undergraduate I had who rode a Harley Davidson motorcycle from her home to campus. As time went on, the skirts grew shorter, but they were still skirts. As with the men, there was in the 1970s a shift to more casual and comfortable wear: a t-shirt with or without a sweatshirt, and shorts or stretch jeans. The shorts grew shorter and shorter over time. In winter, tall boots tended to replace the sandals and gym shoes. At all times, if you stood in the Pit watching the undergraduates, you would see a few women in skirts, sometimes ankle-length, but the most common dress was t-shirt and shorts in hot weather, sweatshirt and jeans in cold.
A brief digression: faculty too moved toward more comfortable clothing. In the 1960s, instructors generally wore a jacket and tie, but by the end of the 1970s many faculty had abandoned jacket or tie or both. I continued to wear a tie for a couple of decades, as a kind of symbol of my professionalism and a way, especially in the early years when I was only a little older than my students, to establish a distance between myself and them. But wearing a tie was, from the 1970s on, entirely optional and increasingly rare. It had not always been thus. In the summer of 1964 or 1965, as a graduate teaching assistant, I was teaching an elementary Latin class in a first-floor classroom in Murphey Hall. It was July, and by late morning it was stiflingly hot, so I took off my sport coat, though not my tie. Albert Suskin, the chair of the department, happened to be walking back from Y-Court, where he had gone for coffee, and he saw me, jacket-less, through one of the large windows. After class, I was called to the chair’s office, where Nancy Honeycutt (the departmental secretary) informed me that Professor Suskin had seen me, and that I was expected to wear jacket and tie at all times while teaching, no matter the temperature. A similar story involves a graduate student. He was taking his preliminary PhD oral exam–two and a half hours of questions–on a hot midsummer day, and he chose to wear a short-sleeved shirt under his jacket (with a tie, of course). At the end of the examination, he went to the chair’s office to find out if he had passed. Rather than immediately tell the student the result of the exam, Professor Suskin lectured him on his attire: “On formal occasions, we always wear long-sleeved shirts, not short-sleeved ones.” Only after the lesson in sartorial manners did the chair tell the student how he had done on the exam. (He passed.)
October 15 was a special day, dress-wise, whenever I was teaching “The Age of Augustus.” It is the birthday of Vergil, the great Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid, and since the Aeneid was the most important work we studied in that course, we celebrated Vergil’s birthday in the way that many Romans marked the birthdays of family members who had died. The Roman custom was to visit the tomb of the deceased and have a little celebration with bread, honey, wine, and perhaps other food and drink. Wine was out for us, of course, because most of my students were under twenty-one, but we could have bread (usually baguettes, which I cut into smallish pieces) and honey and something, such as mineral water, to drink. I asked the students to get dressed up for the occasion. Confusion ensued: church dress-up? or party dress-up? I specified the latter. The women tended to remember. The men often forgot, despite reminders. But when they did remember and all were assembled, they looked very sharp indeed. We left our classroom for the last ten minutes of the class and went outside, where, under the towering poplars in the quad between Murphey and Saunders Halls, we praised Vergil and had a little bread, honey, and Perrier. The switch from loose-fitting t-shirts, gym clothes, or jeans to neat and handsome outfits, on both the men and the women, was stunning, and the students were surprised at how good they looked.
Athletes. Over the years, I had quite a few students who were active on athletic teams. Greek Mythology tended to attract volleyball players, I don’t know why. They were good reliable students. After class, if they had questions or problems, they would come down to the front of the room and stand before me, much taller than I and swaying gently, like giant oak trees (or so it seemed to me). Over the years, I had one student who played on the women’s soccer team (an excellent double major in Latin and Biology) and one on the men’s lacrosse team (introductory Greek; another serious and bright student). A men’s varsity tennis player one spring missed many classes—he was always flying off to tournaments here and there—but somehow managed to do all the work and meet all deadlines. A member of the men’s golf team took my graduate-level Latin course in the Roman historian Tacitus, although he was only an undergraduate. His Latin was excellent.
The revenue sports were special cases. In the 1960s, considerable numbers of football players took lower-level Latin courses because they needed to satisfy the language requirement and preferred not to take a language that would require them to learn to speak the language. (Conversational Latin has always been a part of our introductory courses, but usually only a small part.) Some of the football players were very good students. I once had a quarterback and tight end, both of whom did well despite a problem early in the course. The problem was simple enough: they turned in identical homework papers. I wanted students to learn from one another, but I also wanted them to do their own work, not simply copy from a classmate, and in this case it was not clear to me if one had copied the other’s work. We met, they told me what they had done, and we discussed how they might study together and still do their own work; I had no further complaints. I also occasionally had students who played club football. They exemplified what you hope for in college athletics: they did their academic work and then, as time permitted, enjoyed playing their sport.
Then there was men’s basketball. A very tall substitute center once took “The Age of Augustus.” He was a solid student, well above average in the class. It was fascinating to watch him fold his tall frame into one of the little desk chairs in the classroom. One semester, six or seven of the men’s basketball players, including the starting five, registered for and began taking my Greek mythology class. Greek mythology is a challenging course: not only is there a lot of memorization, but we read the whole of Homer’s Iliad, six Greek tragedies, and several other ancient texts. The basketball players sat far in the back of the lecture hall, great tall presences made more obvious because there were several of them sitting together, a row of super-tall students. Their attendance was spotty at best; after four or five classes they came hardly at all; and I soon learned that they had dropped the course. Meanwhile, down in the very first row there was a bright young woman, taking extensive notes and questioning me closely to be sure she had things right. When the basketball players dropped the course, she disappeared, and my teaching assistants and I concluded that she must have been assigned to help the athletes master the material.
Getting Along with Students. Students often run into the complications of life, and teachers may need to relate to them not as teacher-to-student but as person-to-person. Grandparents and favorite aunts died. Students caught the flu, missed the bus, were snowed in. Severe allergies and broken legs happened. One student was in the habit of coming to Greek class while high, on marijuana I suppose; but he was still able to do the work. A student missed an hour exam because he had a glass eye, dropped and broke it, and was reluctant to come to the exam without a replacement. Sometimes people had serious problems with a partner or spouse. Pregnancies, both planned and not, could complicate schedules. The mother of an excellent student in Greek mythology was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and for nearly the whole semester my TA’s and I followed her downward spiral and tried to help our student keep up with the work. The student, despite the situation, did well in the course.
Faculty were expected to hold office hours, roughly four hours per week, during which time students could drop in with any problems they might have. Through the 1970s and 1980s, most faculty left their office doors open during their office hours as a way of encouraging students to come see them. Students sometimes took advantage of this. Once a student came into my office about twenty minutes before ten, took a seat, and told me cheerfully, “I’ve got twenty minutes until my next class and didn’t have anything worthwhile to do, so I thought I’d come in and chat with you.” Students did not feel limited to the posted office hours, and most simply sought out their instructors whenever it was convenient for them; no need, they reckoned, to wait for a specific hour. And in that they were right. If their instructor was available, the best time to talk was when the problem, whatever it was, was fresh in the student’s mind.
When students missed a class, they usually did try to find out what had been covered, or if any announcements had been made. They did this by consulting friends, often copying the notes those friends had taken, and sometimes by checking with their instructor. There was a standard question when they came to their teacher: “Sorry I missed class on Monday. Did we do anything important?” I found it tempting to take this literally and reply, “No, nothing we did was important,” but of course it was just a conventional way of asking what we had covered, and so I would tell them that.
Three Things That I Learned an Instructor Must Never Do
- Give an exam or have a paper due on the day after Hallowe’en or on the day after any UNC-Duke basketball game.
- Joke about exams. It can be tempting to tease one’s students (“This is going to be a tough exam”), but one must not do that. For students, exams are a serious matter, and they are never in a mood to joke about them.
- Use sarcasm in class. You will humiliate one student and alienate all.
Junior Classical League. Granted, members of the Junior Classical League were not UNC students, but every year they demanded our attention and occupied some of our time all the same. The Junior Classical League (JCL) is a national organization of high school Latin students. Once each year, in late spring, JCL programs from all across North Carolina came to Chapel Hill on a Friday and Saturday for a day’s worth of workshops, programs, and, above all, competitions. They competed on Latin grammar, Roman history, mythology, and other subjects. They prepared and performed skits, some in Latin and others in English, and they gave speeches. There were scrapbooks, catapults, costumes, and arts and crafts. There was a College Bowl-type competition and a chariot race, with student-built chariots and girls as horses. Some eight or nine hundred high school and junior high students came to Chapel Hill for the convention every year from at least 1963, Murphey Hall was their headquarters, and the Department of Classics assisted them in various ways, which evolved and changed over the years.
The most obvious thing we did was help them secure appropriate classrooms, auditoriums, and playing fields. Planning began about a year ahead of the event, and one or two persons from the department were needed to work with the JCL officers and advisors and to reserve the rooms and spaces the JCL would be using. At the time of the convention, the department–both graduate students and faculty–provided judges and graders for many of the competitions. In the 1960s and 1970s, graduate students in the department graded all of the academic contests, which for the most part were long multiple-choice exams. Later, that grading was done electronically. Small committees of faculty and graduate students watched and ranked the skits, examined and judged projects, and made up questions for the College Bowl-type contests.
Nine hundred high-energy students tended to stress the aging Murphey Hall, especially toward the end of the century. Once, a toilet in the men’s room on the first floor became clogged and was flushing repeatedly, so that water was pouring out onto the floor. By the time I was alerted to this (I was circulating to make sure things were going smoothly), the water had made its way across the floor of the men’s room, out into the corridor, and across the corridor into the large lecture hall, Murphey 111. It being a Saturday, calling Buildings and Grounds or Housekeeping was not an option, so it fell to me to fix the toilet. I did.
Graduate Students. Graduate students are not simply older undergraduates. They are pre-professional, and they work hard and incessantly not only because they love the field, but also–and in this they differ from most undergraduates–because for them it is their profession, their future. They are in many important respects junior colleagues of the faculty. Most are supporting themselves on a limited, often severely limited, budget. They are generally hungry.
Graduate students had much to do. They took courses in Greek, Latin, or archaeology, or some combination thereof. Quite apart from their courses, they read widely in ancient literature in preparation for the MA and PhD written and oral examinations. The department expected all graduate students to be able to read (not necessarily speak) German and French, and it was helpful to know Italian, Spanish, and other modern languages. Students specializing in Greek or Latin literature were asked to have a basic knowledge of Greek and Roman history and to take at least one graduate-level archaeology course. The archaeologists, for their part, were required to know either Greek or Latin plus the modern foreign languages, and to learn the techniques of archaeology. That usually required them to spend one or more summers (or years) abroad, taking some part in an excavation. Because they had so much to do, graduate students guarded their time carefully. One wintry Friday shortly before Christmas, when I was a graduate student trying to finish a paper, it began to snow. I was working in Wilson library, and an announcement came that the library would be closing early that day, at 3:00, because of the snow. I was angry. I needed those late afternoon hours, I wanted to continue working and finish the paper, and what was a little snow anyway?
Courses taken, exams completed, there was the MA thesis to write, and following that the PhD dissertation. The Master’s thesis was a substantial work of original research, often around a hundred pages in length. The faculty hoped that students would finish the thesis, and thus complete work for the MA degree, by the end of their second summer in residence, but in practice students most often wrote the thesis during that summer and the following fall. They thus obtained the MA at the end of five semesters of work and immediately started preparing for the PhD exams, which they would take in the course of their fourth year in residence. Once they successfully completed the exams, they began work on a dissertation. The dissertation was by definition an extended piece of writing that would present the results of original research, and not all students who began work on a dissertation completed it. Some were not suited by temperament to undertake long research projects. Some tried to do too much, became discouraged, and drifted away. Some gathered the necessary materials but found writing difficult. Others, in the course of their work, came across other fields or problems that were more appealing to them and so left the classics. But many did complete the dissertation, despite the challenges it posed.
Most graduate students supported themselves through a combination of jobs within and outside of the department. Typically, a PhD candidate would work for three years, and sometimes more, as a teaching assistant (TA). TA’s taught elementary and intermediate Latin courses, discussion sections of large lecture courses, and occasionally other courses such as Greek mythology and etymology. Graduate students might also work as graduate assistants, helping faculty in large lecture courses by refiling slides that had been used in lectures, grading exams, taking attendance, and the like. Finally, a graduate student might serve as an assistant in the departmental library or as assistant to the faculty liaison to Davis Library, as an assistant to the faculty member in charge of l’Année Philologique (an international classical bibliography), or as a research assistant to a faculty member. In all of these appointments, graduate students worked under the supervision of faculty, and they learned about the several aspects of the profession: teaching, from designing courses and examinations to everyday class instruction; current trends and methodologies in research; and public service. Thus the assistantships performed two functions: they provided students with financial support, and they formed a critical part of a student’s training. Our graduate students completed the degree with more hands-on training in teaching than was usual in American universities. In the classics department, students seldom and perhaps never held two assistantships at the same time.
For all of these positions, graduate students received a stipend that was never quite enough to live on, plus reduced tuition for the semesters when they held an assistantship. Most had to have another source of income. For many–and this was true of me when I was a graduate student–this was a spouse who could hold a job. Others took second jobs in the university, working in the library or, late in the century, in one of the computer labs. Still others worked at whatever job they could find, wherever they could find one. The job just needed to have hours flexible enough for them to attend classes and prepare for their exams. Graduate students seldom had extra money. They were not in danger of starving, but they were ever grateful for free food. Any candy, any nutrient of any sort, that was set out on the table in the common room, was soon consumed.
Not all students who entered the graduate program ended up with a degree in classics. Students who did not complete a PhD, like those who did, had many options. Some went on to law school or medical school, found a job with the CIA or the state department, or entered banking or the business world. Some students went into education, in some cases teaching at secondary schools, in other cases finding careers in administration. Others continued their studies, but in different fields such as physics and computer science. The students’ ability and training in languages, as well as the analytical and communication skills they had developed through their classical studies, were often highly useful in their new professions.
 Second World War and 1957: William D. Snyder, Light on the Hill: A History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill and London 1992), 229, 260. 1969: Record of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Undergraduate Bulletin (Chapel Hill 1969), 17. 1976: Record of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Undergraduate Bulletin (Chapel Hill 1976), 18.
 First African-American students: L. J. Toler, UNC News Service Press Release, “Carolina to celebrate 50 years of African-American students,” Nov. 27, 2001. Statistics for 1999: Office of the Registrar, Chapel Hill, statistical reports, “Student Counts by Ethnic Group – Fall 1999,” 7.
 Unfortunately, this did not seem to result in increased numbers of African-American students majoring in classics, continuing to graduate school, and entering the profession. The number of African-American majors, and of African-American teachers of the classics at the college level, remained consistently low until 2000, and is still low.
 Office of the Registrar, Chapel Hill, statistical reports, “Student Counts by Ethnic Group – Fall 1999,” 7.
 Saunders Hall was renamed Carolina Hall in 2015.
 On these exams, which were extensive, see below in Chapter Eleven, “Grading and Evaluating.”
 Students who had written strong term papers in graduate courses could ask for permission to bypass the writing of an MA thesis, and the faculty were inclined to grant such permission. That would leave the student ready to start work toward the PhD exams and a dissertation at the beginning of their third year in residence.