Classicists and Lit Majors: Observations on Two Distinctly Different Nerd Groups

What I’ve Learned as a Double Major

All nerds are not created equal.

By Lauren Diethelm, UC Santa Cruz


I started college as only a literature major, but the department at my school is pretty tiny.

After realizing I was going to be taking classes with the same fifty students for the next four years, I decided I couldn’t do it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m friends with the Lit majors—I’ve lived among them and adopted their ways—but there’s no denying that Literature majors are some of the most pretentious people I’ve ever met. Do not ask about Ginsberg or Shakespeare if you want to join the conversation at all.

Classicists, on the other hand, have happy hour every week at a local burger place to talk a little bit about Tacitus, but mostly to drink and eat french fries. As I take more and more classes in both departments, I’ve realized a lot of little things, but one big thing: I’ve made my bed, and now I’m lying in it, drowning in term papers.

1. Lit Majors Are Great at Bullshitting

Any student will tell you that about 90 percent of the papers they turn in are complete bullshit, and really, they are. Mine are. And yet, I’ve gotten so good at making stuff up that sometimes I write something and think, “Wow, I could actually believe that.”

The line between bullshit and truth gets very blurred, and eventually no one can really tell the difference.

This is beautiful when it’s three a.m. and you really just want to stop thinking about Shakespeare’s appraisal of comic drama.

(I just turned in a paper on this—I have no idea what it means.)

But sometimes I step back and listen to the things I say and the things my peers say, and I think if I see one more classroom full of people agreeing with something that’s so obviously made up, I will scream.

2. Because They Actually Know Very Little

Most of my friends are lit majors; we’re writing constantly, for pleasure and for classes, and we read even more than that. But put us in a room with people asking for the difference between “affect” and “effect” or “its” and “it’s,” and we’ll look at each other blankly before reaching for Google.

3. Classics Majors, Conversely, Are Thrilled When They Don’t Know Something

There are zillions of papers about how much classicists can’t or don’t know, and we love it. One of my classics professors was literally jumping up and down with excitement talking about how little we know about the Eleusinian mysteries.

Another made us read a whole series of essays written about a death mask that may or may not be really Agamemnon, the conclusion of which was basically that we’ll never really know.

There’s no bullshitting, no pretending to hold an opinion you don’t really actually hold and no shame in being excited about saying I actually have no clue about this. This atmosphere creates a really hilarious discourse in which different scholars write papers purely to call other people’s research wrong.

How they can do this when they don’t know any more themselves I will never know, but reading thinly veiled essays by highly respected academicians that basically say “That was stupid and you’re wrong” is pretty entertaining.

4. Why Literature Majors Say “I just thought it was interesting that…”

They have nothing else to say about it.

They want you to notice that they notice it, and know how smart they are for noticing it, but they don’t have anything to say about it. In a perfect world, they would love for you to offer an opinion that would allow them to talk about it more, but that’s all they’ve got.

This happens almost exclusively in literature classes, because after an hour of people just repeating the professor’s opening remarks in different ways, someone’s gotta branch out a little, even if they don’t think the branch will hold much weight.

5. Lit Majors Take Themselves Way Too Seriously

Seriously. Why does everything have to be a work, or a piece—why can’t it just be a novel? And why do we have to say things like “What is the play trying do to in this moment?” Because, listen, I promise, the play is trying to be a play.

There’s nothing else it can do except be a play. What are we even really asking when we ask things like that?

Also, I’ve started noticing that none of us can just read a book just for the hell of it anymore. I was reading on an airplane once and the woman next to me asked if I liked the book, and I told her that yes, actually, I did, the author was doing these really interesting things with form and voice (that I then proceeded to list for her) that really deviated from the rest of his body of work.

What? Why couldn’t I have just said the book is good, I recommend it? I wasn’t writing a paper or talking to a professor and still this is how I chose to talk about literature—it’s inescapable. Remember, you’re here forever.

6. The “Lit Major Style”

I don’t know what it is about lit majors and messenger bags, but I swear to God I don’t think I’ve seen a single man in the department carry a backpack. I don’t understand this at all, because I routinely carry around way too much stuff to fit in a messenger bag, and I know they do too, so where is it going?

As a side-note, this has become such a thing that there now exist water bottles that are large but thin rectangles, to fit perfectly next to your books in your messenger bag. Nothing can interrupt the line of the bag, obviously.

Also, desert boots. Almost exclusively. I don’t understand that either. We all have almost the exact same semi-round semi-transparent glasses frames—you know the ones, your lit professor probably wears them too. You would think we would notice all of this and branch out a little, but apparently we have some kind of precedent to uphold.

7. To Be a Classicist, You Have to Be Pretty Damn Smart

Or maybe just really good at memorizing things, but still. I was told that to be a “real classicist” I would need to be fluent in Latin and ancient Greek. (There’s a reason “It’s all Greek to me” is a phrase that exists—Greek is hard.) They all just seem to kind of know everything, right off the top of their heads.

My Latin professor can scan poetry she’s never seen before as she’s reading it out loud. She can quote Ovid perfectly from memory, in Latin, in verse.

She says things like “I know more about the Republic than the Empire, but…” before talking at length about the Empire anyway.

In the ancient Mediterranean everyone had pretty much the same name for generations, but all of my professors know what Marcus or which Fabius I’m talking about immediately. Granted I’m just a baby classics major, but it’s still unbelievable to me.

8. Adults are Very Worried about My Future

I tell adults in my life what my majors are and I can see them all holding back the same question: What on Earth are you going to do with that? This is not comforting.

My inbox is flooded with emails from the two departments’ advisors about graduate school information, resume workshops, internship opportunities, advice from alumni on How To Get Jobs With A Humanities Major—you name it, I have it. This is not comforting either.

That being said, it really doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. No, Mom, I don’t have a plan, but I can write a damn good paper on gender construction in ancient Greek myth, so really, what else do I need?

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