On Classicist Privilege

Scene: a campus pub somewhere in the Midwest. A mixed crowd of graduate students and faculty sit at a long table as a waiter goes around taking orders. Your AUTHOR is sitting across from FRED. This is not his real name.

AUTHOR: I’ll have the steak and chips please.
FRED: Putting all that Stanford money to good use, huh?
AUTHOR: I…I’m allergic to everything else on the menu.

Both look awkward. End scene.

At the end of last November, the leadership of the Society for Classical Studies released a public statement affirming that the Society “supports efforts to include all groups among those who study and teach the ancient world” and “vigorously opposes any attempt to distort the diverse realities of the Greek and Roman world by enlisting the Classics in the service of ideologies of exclusion, whether based on race, color, national origin, gender, or any other criterion.”

The statement, coming on the heels of the election of Donald Trump, was part of a broader conversation about how and when academics should participate politically and/or in support of social justice as academics. If academics are in pursuit of truth and knowledge, how can we avoid political speech in the age of fake news, an age when feelings are more important than facts and when unexamined fears drive everything from Islamophobia to reproductive rights to legislation governing where people can go to the washroom? At the same time, what is the relationship between the speech or actions of an individual academic and the institution they teach and work at?

The Society’s statement has prompted lively debate and self-examination within the discipline. In mid-December, Jeffrey Duban (author of The Lesbian Lyre: Reclaiming Sappho for the 21st Century, delightfully eviscerated by Edith Hall in the TLS) sent an email to the entire SCS membership suggesting that “[t]he classics have never excluded any group from participation” yet “because of their painstaking precision, have always been and will continue to be an elitist enterprise.” Such elitism, Duban claimed, “has nothing to do with ‘race, color, national origin, gender, or any other criterion.’”

Duban subscribes to a myth many of us hold dear: that academia is a meritocracy.

The classicists I know are, without exception, intelligent, curious, hard-working, talented individuals. It’s tempting to say that they are here solely because of those gifts, and that people who do not posses them go elsewhere. Tempting, and also naive, given the sea of white faces and the preponderance of “manels” at many a classics conference. The missing puzzle piece, of course, is privilege.

To take my own academic path—the one I know best—as an example, I can tell you a story about my own talent and hard work. I tested out of the first year of university and completed a joint honours degree in three years. At the end of university I got into multiple funded PhD programs. Since then I have been working hard, taking as many teaching opportunities as I can, and presenting my work at several conferences a year.

I can just as easily tell you a story about the unearned privilege that got me here. My family was financially stable enough that my parents could homeschool me, allowing me to cultivate my budding interest in the ancient world and learn Latin and Greek much earlier than many of my peers. As a Canadian citizen, I had access to a world-class undergraduate education at a fraction of the price my friends in the States were paying. I had many unbelievably kind and giving mentors at McGill whose letters of recommendation were vital in getting me into graduate school. My doctoral program gives me a living stipend: I have more time to work and think than someone working part- or full-time during their PhD. My parents are both healthy and I have no children, so I am not geographically restricted or time-crunched in the same way a grad student dealing with elder- or child-care would be. As a white, cisgendered, thin person, I don’t have to devote daily energy to processing racist, transphobic, fatphobic, or otherwise hateful comments.

Both of these stories are true, and both of them are inaccurate in isolation. It is, on a slightly broader scale, the problem “Fred” and I negotiated in the scene at the beginning of this post. “Fred” pointed out a privilege I had that he, as an unfunded MA student, did not. My response was to say, though not in so many words, “Oh no, I’m not privileged! I’m doing this because of a medical condition which you are privileged not to have.”

I’m not proud of this.

What I needed to remember in that moment, to quote Roxane Gay, was that “[t]o have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.” (Bad Feminist, 17) My relative privilege in one area does not cancel out my lack of privilege in another—but that doesn’t make the reverse true.

I’ve been thinking about this in light of Eric Adler and Johanna Hanink’s recent Eidolon articles about the ways in which the SCS annual meetings structurally reinforce hierarchies of privilege within classics. Although I’m a grad student several years from the job market, many of these structures already benefit me in some ways. Adler mentions the impact of nametags on how networking occurs at the SCS:

Attendees walk around SCS meetings bedecked with official nametags, which provide them access to the scholarly papers and other events. These badges include two pieces of information: the wearer’s name and — more importantly — university affiliation. For many at the SCS, it appears, the latter datum serves to sum up the value of the person wearing the nametag, so potential interlocutors can quickly determine whether he or she is worth approaching. Friends and colleagues have assured me, sometimes with mirth and occasionally with horror, that they have witnessed scholars stare intently at their name badges, only to dart away, lest they waste their time schmoozing with a nobody.

I’m not in attendance at the Toronto conference this year, but my name badge from last year (somehow still lingering in my desk) reads “Lizzy Ten-Hove, Stanford University.” How much did that institutional stamp of approval affect the conversations I could join and the scholars I was introduced to? How much did it affect how those people remember or assessed me?

Johanna Hanink’s article focuses more on the social side of the SCS conferences, rightly pointing out the ways in which wealthier departments’ private events can “thicke[n] the atmosphere of in-group elitism.” Because of the department I am in, I was invited to one of the private parties she mentions, whisked away in a black bus “conspicuously stationed, for a while, outside the conference hotel.”

These ways in which the system supports me rather than others don’t erase the real difficulties and contingencies of my position: I face uncertain job prospects down the road, and struggle financially in this high-priced area despite my stipend. I find myself (like many women within and without academia) taking on service positions and emotional labor on behalf of my students. Even a wealthy department like Stanford Classics is tightening its belt.

It certainly doesn’t feel like the academic privileges I have are ones that can be useful to others; I can wish that everyone had a place on the black bus, but I’m not in charge of the guest list.

What then? Do I throw up my hands? Plot to become head of the SCS and usher in an “iron age of political correctness,” to quote Jeffrey Duban’s reactionary email once more?

Perhaps someday I’ll be the one organizing a cocktail party for a big name department. It’s statistically unlikely, but possible. If that happens, I can think about ways to make such an event more inclusive, paired with an open, non-alcohol focused event, less ostentatious, etc

Meanwhile, I can consciously fight the assumptions that academia’s hierarchical culture and meritocratic mythology drive me to make about people based on their institutions.

I can remind myself that I am at Stanford because of hard work and intelligence, yes, but also a great deal of privilege and luck.

I can work hard to make as much of the privileges and opportunities I have as possible, while being tactful about them with others.

I can donate what mites I can to the General Fund supporting travel bursaries so that independent scholars, adjunct faculty, and unfunded grad students have a better chance of attending the annual meeting.

I can be more open with my advisors about the fact that I am interested in a position at a teaching-focused institution as a career, not as a waypoint on a quest for tenure at an R1 institution.

I can work to educate myself about intersections of identity and the ways they impact my students in the classroom—and, in turn, my peers and I in our classrooms, on the job market, and so on.

And I can continue to add to this list as conversations occur, as the Trump administration changes the cultural landscape, and as my own position and privileges shift.

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