After centuries of being the core of university education, the study of ancient languages and civilizations has had to compete with an increasingly broad array of disciplines.

But students in the Yale Classics Department say they enjoy the close attention they receive as part of a small program, and professors say the department continues to improve by focusing on two of its biggest deficiencies. An expanding faculty is broadening the department’s course offerings, which students complain have been limited. The University is also making physical improvements to Phelps Hall, the department’s aging home.

This comes at a time when classics, which suffered a nationwide decline in the 1970s, continues to prosper as a discipline.

“Business is good,” Princeton classics professor Denis Feeney said. “The number of classics majors has gone up, and there are more people taking Latin in high school. Maybe it’s due to Gladiator and things like that.”

How small is too small?

While the department is one of Yale’s smallest, Classics chairman John Matthews said that the number of students majoring in Greek, Latin or classical civilization has doubled since last year.

Classics Director of Undergraduate Studies Stephen Colvin said the department wants to increase in size, but having small classes is also beneficial.

“We are happier when more people want to take our classes, but if you are taking Greek, it’s a very intense experience, so smaller classes might be an advantage,” Colvin said.

Averill Harrington ’03 said majoring in a small department has many advantages, such as personal attention from the director of undergraduate studies and small classes.

“I’ve been able to have several professors more that once, thus enabling me to get to know them better and for them to get to know me,” Harrington said. “I’m sure this will prove quite helpful later on when I need recommendations.”

But Charles Umiker ’03 said the narrow selection of professors can be limiting.

“This semester I’m taking a class from the same professor I had last semester,” Umiker said. “There aren’t many professors to go around.”

Amin Benaissa ’03 said in an e-mail that the diversity of the course offerings balances out the small size of the department.

“The department is rather small compared to other universities (e.g. Harvard, Princeton), but that is made up for by the diversity of the faculty and its interests — with the result that the courses offered, while perhaps too few, provide a wide-ranging selection of topics and authors,” he said.

Colvin agreed that with courses offered in ancient history, literature, philosophy and linguistics, diversity is one of the department’s strengths.

Filling in the gaps

Colvin said the department has been understaffed and limited in its course offerings as a result of the retirement of several professors, but said a handful of new hires have alleviated some of the problems.

“There was a huge gap because of demographics where we lost a lot of our senior faculty,” Colvin said. “The last couple of years we have been struggling to give the full range of course offerings, but I think this year we are back up to full strength.”

Junior professors Celia Schultz and Carlos Norena are new this year, and Corinne Pache and Shilpa Raval are both in their second year with the department. Senior Latin professor Susanna Morton Braund also joined the Classics Department in 2000 from the University of London.

Braund said she was glad to be one of the first of the new batch of professors hired by Yale.

“Yale Classics has a long history,” Braund said. “The idea of being involved in restoring what was a great department to greatness was very attractive to me.”

Braund said that the administration has encouraged Classics, which currently has only three active senior faculty members in the department, to expand.

“If we wanted to compete with Harvard, Princeton and Brown, then we would need to hire more senior faculty,” Braund said. “The administration is very supportive. They want us to go out and hire new people.”

Robert Kaster, the chairman of the Princeton Classics Department, praised the growth of Yale’s department.

“Yale has a very strong program, and they have made some very strong recent appointments,” Kaster said.

Harrington said she thinks the new faculty members are improving the reputation of the department.

“[They are] really helping to up the status of the department both in the University and as a classics department around the nation,” Harrington said.

Benaissa said that while the new faculty members are exciting, the department is dominated by young professors and could use more weighty veteran classicists.

“The new faculty appointed to fill gaps left by retiring faculty consists predominately of young, active, dynamic and fresh people,” Benaissa said. “This is a good thing, but the number of the younger generation in the faculty does seem to make the department a little unbalanced.”

Fixing Phelps

As new professors have arrived on campus, they have settled into offices in a building that is itself a classic. But the University is improving that part of the department as well.

Matthews said the air system in Phelps Hall was updated in the summer of 2000 and the outside windows will be replaced this summer.

Colvin said the improvements to Phelps Hall are being made on a rolling basis so they will be the least disruptive.

“It’s not a question of money,” Colvin said. “The University is perfectly willing to renovate. It’s a question of how best to organize it.”

Umiker said he does not mind “the general sense of decay” of Phelps Hall.

“Phelps Hall is dusty and falling apart, kind of like the Roman Empire, these days,” Umiker said.

Braund said while the building still has a long way to go, the improvements are a positive step.

“I’d love to see us in a state of the art facility like Linsly-Chittenden, but Classics is never going to have the clout of English,” she said. “We are heading in the right direction.”