Classical resurgence delights Clay
To understand the human condition, Professor Jenny Straus Clay recommends a regular dose of the classics.
Photo by Stephanie Gross.
Classics professor Jenny Straus Clay attributes her passion for ancient texts to their timeless relevance. She credits her students and a tight-knit, dedicated department with making her 22-year tenure at the University of Virginia extremely gratifying.
“The attractive thing about classics is that the central themes of those old texts are life’s fundamental issues. Human issues, political issues, social issues are stripped down to the basics,” which, according to Clay, often compel lively classroom discussion. Clay gives the example of Plato’s “Republic,” which engages third-year Greek students in debate of such timely matters as equality of the sexes and citizenship. “My students get into the issues and see the relevance in their own lives, even though they may be struggling over the form of the verb.”
Clay talks like a proud parent about her students, many of whom stay in close contact over the years. “Our students work very, very hard and are committed to learning for its own sake,” said Clay, who is quick to point out that classics majors are required to specialize in either Greek or Latin, but also study both languages. “There’s a lot to learn. Greco-Roman antiquity spans nearly 1,500 years, two cultures and two languages, so it’s very comprehensive and very complex.”
Her pride also extends to the department. “Since coming to U.Va., I have seen the classics department grow into a highly respected and nationally recognized program. Achieving this level of excellence has demanded steady determination and effort from every one of our faculty,” she said.
Clay is deeply troubled by how the financial crisis besetting the College of Arts & Sciences will affect the small department and faculty morale. Still, the former department chair perseveres despite ominous budget cuts. “Last year, the department graduated a bumper crop of 18 majors,” a nearly 100 percent increase from just a few years ago, said Clay. “The word is out. The classics, I believe, are thriving.”