History of the Classics Dept.

Monmouth College


by Thomas J. Sienkewicz


Classics has had a significant presence in the curriculum since Monmouth College was founded in 1853 to train Presbyterian ministers and teachers. For many decades there were two Classicists on the faculty, a professor of Latin and a Professor of Greek, and most, if not all students, studied at least one of the two ancient languages. Until sometime in the 1930's the study of Latin or Greek was required for graduation from the college.


Until the college’s ties with the Presbyterian Church began to loosen in the mid-twentieth century, Koine Greek was taught on a regular basis for students planning to go into seminary. By the mid-1980's such students were a rarity.

Gamma Omicron chapter of Eta Sigma Phi, the national Classics honorary society, was founded in 1956 and plays an important role in the department.


The Classics Dept. maintained a faculty of two until the death of Harold J. Ralston, Professor of Greek in 1971. The next two decades were particularly challenging ones financially for the college and no permanent replacement was provided for Prof. Ralston. Until her retirement in 1981 Prof. Bernice L. Fox struggled to offer a full Classics program by herself. She taught all levels of Latin language and literature, plus Classical Mythology and Word Elements and occasionally added Elementary Greek as an overload. She still managed to produce a number of outstanding graduates, several of whom made the teaching of Latin their careers and at least two earned Ph.D. degrees in Classics or fields related to Classics. She was also very active in the Illinois Classical Conference, the state organization for Latin teachers.


In the early 1980's the college received a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to establish an endowed chair in Classics. The purpose of this chair was not to enhance the Classics curriculum but to ensure its long-term survival. Thanks to a generous gift by Mr. Keith Capron in honor of his mother Minnie Billings Capron, the endowed chair in Classics became a reality a few years later.


In 1984 the college hired Thomas J. Sienkewicz as professor of Classics and offered him the endowed chair the following year. When he was interviewed, Sienkewicz was encouraged by both President Haywood and Dean Amy to develop ways to make the Classics more central to the Monmouth College curriculum and more attractive to more students. It was understood that the emphasis of the new Classics curriculum would be on exposing large numbers of students to the Classics rather than producing large numbers of majors or minors, although the college still wanted to keep those options open to those students who desired them.

In the fall of 1983 the Western Illinois Society of the Archaeological Institute of America was founded at Monmouth. Over the years, this society has sponsored hundreds of archaeology lectures on campus.


In 1985 Sienkewicz radically changed the emphasis of the Classics curriculum from a traditional language-based program to a more flexible one incorporating the study of  the Latin and Greek languages into Classics courses taught in translation.  The core of this curriculum is the triad course, taught for Classics, Latin, or Greek credit, based upon the individual student’s skill and interest. This type of course brings into the same classroom students who have varying degrees of language skills with students who can only read the material in English. All share their own unique perspectives on the material. One advantage of the triad course, which has since been adapted at several other small liberal arts colleges, is that a small faculty can maintain core courses in language and literature for majors and minors while still offering courses in translation for the general student body. As a result nearly every course taught by the Classics Dept. fulfills some requirement in the general education curriculum at Monmouth College.


In 1987 Mr. Capron provided some additional funds to create a dedicated classroom for the teaching of Classics, with state-of -the-art equipment and appropriate interior decorations. In 1998 the college updated this classroom with the addition of computer-projection capabilities.


The triad course generally works well although Sienkewicz has regularly had to teach at or above the official full-time load in order to meet student needs. The system seemed to work better under the term-system which Monmouth used until the late 1980's than under the semester-system. The term system simply allowed a single professor to teach more courses per year than a semester system does.

In 1997 the college added a second tenure-track line in Classics. Since 2010 the department has regularly offered Greco-Roman and World archaeology courses.  In the same year, the college received as a gift a major collection of North American artifacts, mostly from Warren Co. and the surrounding area.  An archaeology lab was built in the Hewes Library to store this collection and provide opportunities for students to have hands-on experience working with ancient artifacts.