What to Do With A Classics Degree: Social Impact Games

Very interesting interview in Fast Company … Jessica Goldfin has some really good advice in this one for those with a Classics-related degree who are hitting the job market:

As an undergraduate student of art and classical civilizations at Florida State University, Jessica Goldfin helped excavate ruins. Today, as special assistant to the president at the Knight Foundation and an advisor at the nonprofit Games for Change, she’s helping not only create the future of media but building better communities, too. Here, she explains how she’s spun internships and an eclectic resume into a career where innovation is the only constant.

FAST COMPANY: You have an undergrad degree in Art History and Classical Civilizations–how did you end up working at the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit that supports journalism and media innovation?

JESSICA GOLDFIN: When I finished undergrad, I wanted to be a career archaeologist. I like being in the dirt. After school, I got an internship at the Art Institute of Chicago in their publications department, which was the only way I could get in there. At the end of the internship, I was offered a job that was below the poverty line. Instead I went to the University of Miami and started a master’s program in communications studies. I realized that if you can’t communicate what you’re doing, it doesn’t really matter how great the work is–people won’t understand it.

At the end of my first year, I thought I should get an internship in communications stuff. This was 2007–before the market crash; Twitter was barely a twinkle in somebody’s eye, and journalism hadn’t completely gone through the revolution it has now. I saw an internship for the journalism program at the Knight Foundation, which is in Miami. I’d taken a class on qualitative research methods, looking at technological convergence in newsrooms, and I went in to the interview and told them all about convergence. Afterwards, Eric Newton, who was then the VP of the journalism program, told me, “You have no idea what you’re talking about, but you’re plucky.” But no one then knew what they were talking about. Two weeks into this filing internship, I was already so into it.

When my internship ended, I went on a dig in Petra, Jordan. When I came back Knight hired me part-time, and then I got a position as a program assistant, making grants and driving various foundation initiatives. After three and half years, the president of the foundation, Alberto Ibarguen, offered me a job working for him. There was no job description–I still don’t really have one. I said “Okay, let’s do it.” It took about five or six months to just understand the new position and get a grip on it. There were growing pains, but at 27 I felt a foot taller than I was at 26. I’m sort of a chief of staff–kind of connecting, aligning opportunities with people and resources better. Seeing the dotted lines between the dots.

What gets you so excited about the work that Knight is doing?

The Knight Foundation gives out $110 million a year for projects that support informed and engaged communities. We work across several areas, at the cusp of the future, trying to find people and innovators in whatever sector that can help pull journalism and arts forward. Every day there’s something different. How do you train your mind to see connections and overlap? All of us here are a bunch of workaholics driven by passion–we just kind of want to do stuff that’s progressive, not necessarily in the political sense but in the sense of, how do we move forward?

You were also passionate about archaeology–what did you learn from working on digs?

I fell into archaeology from art history, when I got hooked on Etruscan art. The first dig I went on was a summer in Chianti, Italy, with my mentor Nancy de Grummond at Florida State. I was the only undergrad invited to the dig. I was always the first one up, ready to do what Nancy needed to do. That was unfiltered time with her. I think you can learn any language, skill, or industry, but you can’t learn enthusiasm.

It wasn’t Indiana Jones stuff. You’d work 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. in trenches, going meter by meter. It’s organized deconstruction–like in maker culture, you’re taking something apart to understand how it works. You have to be organized and make sure everything goes in the right bag, note and measure any changes in soil color. Then when you’re out of the trench and back in the lab, you have to go back and make sense of the pieces.

You have to be well-versed in the history and context of the site you’re working on–while knowing that that’s less than 1% of the reality of what that civilization was. You’re constantly triangulating, comparing what you’re finding to what you think you know. The most depressing thing is to dig for weeks and months and then find Snickers wrappers and realize everything you thought isn’t true! It teaches you openness. You have to be completely open to new pieces of information. The best archaeologists are the ones who want to question, not just confirm a set theory or hypothesis.

You’re also on the board of advisors at Games for Change, a nonprofit that promotes games for social impact. How did you get into that?

In 2007, our president created the Knight News Challenge–an open innovation prize. Three of the first six winners were game-related. That was interesting to us. People were starting to explore socially oriented uses of games. In 2008, Knight sent me to the Games for Change conference. Like I think happens with a lot of young people in organizations, I got sent because I was the youngest person at the foundation. We were thinking maybe we could fund a game about the First Amendment. Now I know that was a horrible idea. But within the first hour at the conference, I remember thinking that if we were ignoring games we were doing a disservice to our mission.

Everyone in the world has played games since the beginning of civilization–they are a way of making sense of the world around us and of socializing. Think of how many people play Monopoly or World of Warcraft. Or Angry Birds–the cumulative time of people playing that adds up to 300,000 years! Games are compelling and fun, with these nonmonetary rewards that get people to do stuff. The Knight Foundation thought we could do something with using games as a tool to solve community problems or create more community engagement around particular places, and we started working with a game company called Area/Code [since acquired by Zynga] to think about some ideas.

So, what kind of “social impact games” did you come up with?

We knew when we started out that we wanted to explore the ways in which games engage players and how that might translate to real-world places and community engagement–but that was about it! We first worked with our program directors in five communities to identify issues that were topical and relevant. Before we even started thinking about what a game might look like, we first needed to understand the audiences we hoped to reach and the context on the ground to begin defining our design constraints. In the end we worked with Area/Code, the game designers, to create two very different games, designed with our partners, not for them. The trick was balancing the different areas of expertise. We knew we couldn’t just give a grant to Area/Code, because they didn’t necessarily know anything about what really made these communities tick. We also knew that we couldn’t just work with the community organizations on the ground, because they didn’t necessarily have the talent to design a game themselves, or the funding needed to create a good one.

The result was a game called Battlestorm in the Biloxi Gulf Coast region, which was designed to increase youth awareness and empowerment around hurricane preparation, through a real-world battle-game competition. In Macon, Georgia, we created a game called Macon Money, which focused on economic revitalization and creative place-making within the mile and a half College Hill Corridor connecting the local university to the downtown district. Macon Money really captured the community’s imagination–people were genuinely excited about this relatively simple game, which used an alternative form of local currency to encourage residents to connect with each other and support local businesses. People got half of a bond and had to find the person who had the other half in order to spend the money. And the coolest part is I got to take Otis Redding’s daughter out to breakfast to talk about why we want wanted to put her father’s likeness on the Macon Money bill–since Otis is from Macon–and she agreed!

So, how does someone like you define such a diverse skill set for a potential employer?

It’s a good question, because I’m actually leaving Knight this summer or fall. I told everyone early on–I wanted transparency, and my boss and colleagues have been very supportive in encouraging this next step in my career trajectory.

I wouldn’t trade my eclectic resume for anything, but I think the problem for a lot of intellectually curious people with eclectic backgrounds is thinking about careers by content areas of the places we’ve worked–as opposed to a skill set that kind of cuts across. I wear an ampersand around my neck that I got at a flea market–it’s a constant reminder to be open and remember to keep looking for connections at the intersections of things. You can learn the “language” of any job. The question is are you going to wake up and be excited about what you’re going to do that day.

I’ve had five offers–four of them for positions that I invented and pushed to make happen. Each is in a really different area–the thread is what I can bring to the table. I think my skills are in strategic operations–part strategy, part organizational development. How can you connect ideas, people, and resources? How do you enable people to be their best selves? That’s what interests me. In my job at the Knight Foundation, I’ve learned that leadership can be a lot of things. One is like a hammer–saying, here’s what we’re doing. But maybe power is in understanding others’ strengths, aligning them with the right projects, and enabling them to be their best selves. I don’t need to be the one with the idea. Who cares who makes the idea?–let’s keep it going and see what we can do with it.

Something About Classicists?

… or at least guys who like Classics and major social media? Check out this incipit of a piece from

Logo vkontakte.ru
Logo vkontakte.ru (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In Russia, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces stiff competition for the role of number one news-making internet wunderkind. His name is Pavel Durov.

Durov, 27, is the founder and CEO of VKontakte (“In Contact”), a Russian social network most easily described as a Facebook clone. Started in 2006, VKontakte has closely mimicked the American trendsetter in terms of design and functionality. With a natively Russian-language interface and a marked disregard for copyright laws — users can freely share music and movies — VKontakte has won a large following among users younger and less sophisticated than those of Russian Facebook. As of April, it had 16.2 million Russian users every day, compared with Facebook’s 2.3 million, according to research firm TNS. […]

… then later:

But it is Durov’s political activities, rather than his business dealings, that have put him in the spotlight. He has emerged as an unlikely star of the protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It all started in December, when the Federal Security Service demanded that VKontakte close down several anti-Putin groups on the site, claiming that they threatened state security. Durov responded with a cheeky tweet that included a picture of a hoodie-wearing German shepherd with its tongue sticking out. The groups remained operative. No reprisals followed, and Durov’s firmness earned him accolades in the blogosphere.

… which makes me immediately like this guy. Then it gets better:

Durov’s background and radical position play into the hands of Putin’s propaganda machine, which is doing its best to convince Russians that mass protests in Moscow and other big cities are the work of decadent intellectuals with no connection to the heartland and no regard for traditional national values. To Durov, the son of a prominent St. Petersburg classicist, contempt for these values comes easily, and he makes no secret of it.

So I try to find out more about his father and I come to another page which includes:

Pavel Durov was born in St. Petersburg, but spent most of his childhood in Italy, in the city of Turin. His father Valery Durov (who holds a Ph. D. in Philology) was working there. He went to an Italian elementary school, and after returning to Russia attended the Academy Gymnasium in St. Petersburg.

After school, Durov followed in his father’s footsteps. He attended the philological department of St. Petersburg State University and was preparing to become a translator. While studying, he created an online-library for his fellow students to help them share books and notes. All of a sudden, his invention became popular all over the University. Encouraged by this success Durov expanded by launching a University forum. Maintaining and developing it, he came up with the concept of a student social network.

… so perhaps even the younger Durov might be considered a Classicist of some sort. So I guess now when people ask “What can you do with Classics?” we can respond “become a social media giant.” QED.

Why Study Classics? Why not?

This one’s been lurking in my email box for a while … tip o’ the pileus to Dr Stephen Glass (emeritus, Pitzer College) who sent this along fom The Princeton Review: Guide to College Majors: 2004

“A classics major offers the opportunity to explore the beliefs and achievements of antiquity, and to learn just how profoundly they still affect contemporary civilization.

If you major in classics, you’ll learn Greek or Latin (or both). You’ll also read the great literary and philosophical works composed in these languages. Be forewarned, though: reading The Odyssey in the original Greek is a little on the demanding side. You’ll study ancient art, architecture, and technology too, and you’ll learn about Greek and Roman legal systems, social institutions, religious practices, and class distinctions.

We can’t overstate the value of a classics major. Check this out: According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, students who have a major or a double major in classics have a better success rate getting into medical school than do students who concentrate solely in biology, microbiology, and other branches of science. Crazy huh? Furthermore, according to Harvard Magazine, classics majors (and math majors) have the highest success rates of any majors in law school. Believe it or not, political science, economics and pre-law majors lag fairly far behind. Furthermore, classics majors consistently have some of the highest scores on the GRE of all undergraduates.

Shocked? Don’t be. One reason classics majors are so successful is that they completely master grammar. Medical terminology, legal terminology, and all those ridiculously worthless vocabulary words on the GRE (and the SAT) have their roots in Greek and Latin. Ultimately, though, classics majors get on well in life because they develop intellectual rigor, communications skills, analytical skills, the ability to handle complex information, and above all, a breadth of view which few other disciplines can provide.

… I think this (or something similar) is what was causing a kerfuffle back in December: Why Study Classics? Does It Get You Into Med School?. Whatever the case, I tend to think that last sentence is probably the best summing up of the benefits of Classics for the so-called ‘real world’ that I’ve read in a long time.

Why Classics?

Tip o’ the pileus to Rose Williams for alerting us to this piece in USA Today:

When college-targeted publications feature articles on topics like the highest-paying college majors or the college majors that are most likely to land you a job, things do not always look too good for people studying the humanities.

Humanities departments face budget cuts now more than ever, and for small subdivisions of humanities, like classics, the future is even grimmer. Even at top departments like the one at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, budget decreases affect the number of courses that can be offered each semester and the number of faculty the department hires.

Sometimes, when I tell someone I’m a classics major, they don’t even understand what the department is. Classics as in classical music? Classics as in 18th century British literature? (No and no.) Classics as in Greek and Roman history? “Oh, so you want to be a teacher.”

People who hear someone is a classics major usually assume that person wants to be a high school Latin teacher or a college professor. While many classics majors choose to earn graduate degrees in classics and become teachers and professors, there are many other fields that undergraduates can enter with a classics degree. But more importantly, there’s a lot to be learned from classics, regardless of your profession.

Classics is a popular undergraduate major for law school students, because it teaches you to think critically and formulate arguments. There’s nothing like the speeches of the fifth century logographer Lysias to get the legal mindset started! Many students who major in classics also choose to work in libraries or museums.

Even if you’re not planning to enter one of these fields, classics is still a great field to study. Yes, Latin is a dead language, and ancient Greek is tremendously different from modern Greek. Yes, these societies ultimately collapsed. No, people don’t have dinner parties and discuss the meaning of love, Symposium-style. But the influence of classics on modern culture is still prevalent today.

Take the Percy Jackson young adult book series, for example. The novels have been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 200 weeks, not to mention being made into a blockbuster movie franchise. The novels are based on Greek mythology, and their author, Rick Riordan, completed a Roman-inspired series following Percy Jackson’s success and an Egyptian-inspired series after that.

In cult classics that aren’t based in classical themes, the classical influence is still apparent. Harry Potter’s spells are a sort of Latin mash-up, and the names of many Pokémon derive from Latin roots.

Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins has stated in multiple interviews that the games in the series were based on the idea of the Roman gladiatorial games, and more than a few Hunger Games characters have classically inspired names. For example, the emperor Nero forced Seneca the younger to commit suicide for alleged participation in a conspiracy; President Snow forced the Hunger Games’ Seneca to commit suicide when he allowed tributes from a district other than the Capitol’s to win the games.

Even if classics departments are shrinking and students are moving toward more economically favorable fields of study, series like these show that people today are still very much interested in the classical world. And who wouldn’t be? The cultures are fascinating, from Roman feasts to Greek vase painting.

People say they study history because history repeats itself, but studying classics is so much more than that. The classical world heavily shaped the western one, and much of America’s founding was based in how the Roman Republic was run. Classical influences are everywhere, from Greek columns on government buildings to Philadelphia’s city layout, which was loosely inspired by the Roman road system.

The argument that classical studies are no longer relevant really couldn’t be farther from the truth. Sure, we don’t deal with the issues that characters in Greek tragedy faced. (Has anyone you know murdered his father and married his mother lately?) But the works of great tragedians reach something deeper, issues that afflict humanity as a whole. In Euripides’ Hecuba, the titular character suffers because of her willingness to trust people, eventually becoming extremely cynical. If you read the tragedy, her character transformation is remarkably similar to Taylor Momsen’s Gossip Girl character Jenny Humphrey’s change from innocent and trusting to high school queen in the show’s first two seasons.

The times and settings change, but human issues don’t. And classics, more than any other field (aside from philosophy), deals with these issues in a way that’s still relevant today, and will still be relevant in the future.

The bottom line is, you should choose a major you love, even if you’re not sure how it will help you in your career search. If you can defend what you’re passionate about (and still have the skills to do they jobs you’re applying for), your employer will see that passion. I’m not a journalism major, but my studies in classics have given me a different perspective in my editorial experiences and have never hindered my job search. So do what you love — and take a course in your school’s classics department if you’ve got some extra room in your schedule.