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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.

The Slow Grad Student

Even before I moved to the birthplace of countless task management systems, to-do list apps, and productivity manifestos, I was a time management enthusiast. From middle school on I would craft detailed weekly assignment schedules for myself and my long-suffering younger sister, also homeschooled. I reverentially checked off each task as I completed it; my sister cavalierly obliterated hers with black marker. In university, I kept David Allen’s Getting Things Done (fondly abbreviated “GTD”) checked out for months at a time. Since starting my PhD I’ve attended multiple workshops on time management for grad students promising to help us get our lives together with timeboxing and color-coded Google calendars.

Now color coding and making lists of actionable items aren’t necessarily unhealthy responses to the anxieties which come along with a heavy, varied workload. However, as Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber point out in The Slow Professor (Toronto 2016), time management becomes problematic when it shifts the burden of responsibility for a culture of overwork and pressured productivity onto individual scholars. It’s not the system that’s the problem, it’s silly old me, inadequate as usual.

Berg and Seeber conduct the first review I’ve seen of time management literature aimed at academics, noting that much of it seems either “Machiavellian”—shift as much as you can onto your graduate students or research assistants! (18)—or geared towards providing us with “yet another club to bash [ourselves] over the head with” (Rettig 27, qtd 22). They quote suggestions to work 55 hour weeks (more before tenure), fit in reading at the park with your kids, carve out 12 hour grading marathons on Sundays, wake up at 3:30am to get some writing in.

Their criticism of this literature echoes writers like Cal Newport and David M. Levy, who have spoken out against the “fragmentation of attention” ushered in by the tech boom and a corporate culture of constant connectivity. Over-planning our time and fostering a sense of time-poverty can interfere with what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as “flow,” impeding our ability to produce creative work. “We need…to protect a time and a place for timeless time,” Berg and Seeber argue, “and to remind ourselves continually that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work” (28). They go on to suggest several concrete strategies for protecting what Newport calls “deep work”: become deliberately less connected, say “no,” schedule a rhythm of uninterrupted “timeless time,” take breaks, focus on shifting “our perception of the passing of time” (32).

Berg and Seeber focus on faculty, but a lot of what they have to say applies equally to graduate students, with an important difference: as both students and researchers, we are subject to the pressures of the publish-or-perish competitive culture, but also subject to our advisors’ and professors’ perceptions of/participation in those pressures. By this I mean both that our advisors play a huge role in shaping our time management norms (“don’t say yes to too many departmental service tasks” versus “here are fifteen hours’ worth of research tasks for my project for you to complete”) and that when our professors are overworked and overcommitted, the quality of pedagogy and advising they bring to the table is significantly less.

How do we navigate as individual grad students relating to individual professors within the broader academic culture? How do we maintain our sense of agency when there are so many systemic factors at play? And as small fry in the academic sea, how much can we do to protest the culture of busyness without risking our own place within a system where our position is far more precarious than that of our tenured advisors?

I see one promising possibility in Berg and Seeber’s call to stop seeing the “time crunch” as a “personal issue.” As individuals, we may not have control over the system or how we will be evaluated on the job market, but we can try to change the way we talk to our fellow grad students—and our advisors—about time, tasks, and working hours. We can take advantage of the flexibility many of us have in our schedules especially at the dissertation stage, not to work longer hours, but to maximize “timeless time” for creative work—and help others give themselves permission to do the same by opting out of the competition around working hours.

Above all, we can recognize that our professors have no more or less time in their days than we do. If we continue to subscribe to the cultural stereotype of the absent-minded professor with time to spare, can we really expect our advisors to let go of the idea that grad students are lazy procrastinators who don’t know how good they have it?

On Having a Life in Grad School

Veterani of a survey course I took a few years ago will probably remember our professor advising us to “read all the Latin you can now, because after grad school you will have a life.”

Now, I doubt that the professor—who on other occasions has counselled me to make sure I leave time for friends, health, and fun as well as Latin—meant anything more than “life gets busier and busier the longer you live it, so carpe that diem now.” But the statement reflects a broader cultural expectation about grad students: we should dedicate our waking hours to our work with monastic discipline, or risk failure in our programs or on the job market.

Eighteen hours a day is a number one of the senior faculty members here has given as an ideal.

Eighteen hours a day.

Far better minds than mine have written about the tendency we have in the ivory tower to be competitive about long work hours and unhealthy habits. After all, in a publish-or-perish environment, it’s natural to fetishize productivity. The academic system rewards people who are available to students, active at conferences and on committees, yet still manage to produce a steady stream of good research.

All these things take time. People with less time—those who don’t have partners to help them with housework, meals, or childcare, those with temporary illnesses or long-term disabilities, those facing the daily wear and tear of any kind of discrimination—are at a disadvantage that the academy is only just beginning to address.

To prepare for the job market, grad students in my field usually have to publish several articles in addition to their dissertation, have a steady conference record, and a lot of teaching experience.

Oh yes, and we also need to do all of this in five years.

It’s no wonder we and our advisors start rushing around like the White Rabbit—we’re going to be late with everything!

We’ve just finished the annual general exam season here, and the competition around working hours was more evident than usual.

“Did you get some time to relax after your exam?”

“Nope! Too much work to do.”

“Have you seen the library copy of [text] around anywhere? It was here when I left at one last night, but I can’t find it this morning.”

When conversations start to sound like this all the time, I start to avoid my ordinarily lovely department. I work from home, from coffee shops, from the local public library—anywhere my working hours can’t be observed. I’m getting everything done, but I’m ashamed of not working more.

You see, my dirty secret is that I work 6-8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week. Sometimes a little more. And sometimes a little less.

If someone finds out about this, I find myself frantically trying to justify what I expect will be interpreted as laziness. Usually I end up either oversharing about my various health problems or condemning myself as weak.

“Welcome to the humanities,” a professor in undergrad once told me. “Where you always associate leisure time with guilt.”

I’m not saying that academia is the only place which encourages unhealthy work habits—heck, I live in Silicon Valley—or that grad students necessarily get the worst of it. But the pressures of going through rigorous training for a competitive job market find a particularly convenient outlet in our cultural stereotype: the quasi-nocturnal grad student who works at all hours, is too busy for social occasions, and neglects basic self-care.

And while the self-neglecting grad student is relatively low on the list of negative stereotypes I’d like scrubbed from our cultural imagination (let’s start with “boys don’t cry” or “ambitious women are bitches” first!), it’s one I feel especially ashamed of buying into. Even knowing that I do more and better work when I sleep, take care of my health, hang out with friends, read a novel before bed, knit to a 90’s sci fi show with my cat purring beside me, I still feel like a worse student when I fail to conform to the cultural stereotype.

So my challenge to myself for this academic year is this: I will not try to justify my working hours to anyone. I’ll do the best work I can and let it speak for me.

Because really, it should be normal to have a life in grad school without feeling like it’s a double one.

Democracy

Alecos Papadatos, Abraham Kawa, and Annie Di Donna. Democracy. London: Bloomsbury. 2015.

I have been wanting to read Democracy since I first heard about it last September at a colleague’s dissertation defense. Aside from the fact that it is a graphic novel about ancient history which references Josiah Ober’s Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens as a major source, I had read and enjoyed Papadatos and Di Donna’s previous collaboration (with Apostolis Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou), Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth. How would the same group handle the Cleisthenic reforms? And how would they do so in the context of the economic and political upheaval in modern Greece?

The short answer is: very well.

The novel is framed as a tale told beside a campfire by an Athenian soldier, Leander, over the night before the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). His story begins with the tyrannicides, Harmodias and Aristogeiton, and continues through the conflicts between the Pisistratids and Alcmaeonids to the eventual establishment of democracy by Cleisthenes. Leander is very much Cleisthenes’ man, first meeting the exiled Alcmaeonid in Delphi, and later speaking up for him against Isagoras. At each step Leander encourages his fellow Athenians—whether in the lead-up to the Cleisthenic reforms or in the lead-up to Marathon—to look for the connections between all these different phases. “You people have no memory?” he shouts incredulously at the Athenian crowd (122).

It is, perhaps, the Athenian crowd—the mob, the gaping demos—that is the true hero of the story. As Lysander recognizes, its memory is short and its heart fickle. “There’s something monstrous about crowds, you know,” Cleisthenes tells Leander.

Solon saw it it in the disenfranchised, the poor masses not benefited even by his laws. In horror, he saw that to control it, he’d have to become a tyrant….Peisistratus came to power because of Solon’s reluctance to act. And even the tyrant didn’t slay the monster. He manipulated it, controlled it. (98)

The sentiment is echoed throughout the graphic novel—indeed, Cleisthenes’ words return to haunt Lysander in dreams. “There’s something monstrous about crowds, you know. Belonging can be a horrible thing” (169). In one of the work’s strongest passages, Apollo, Athena, and Dionysus stand over an unconscious Lysander, discussing human nature in explicitly Birth of Tragedy terms. “You and your nineteenth century, Apollo. What next, you’ll be quoting Nietzche? You are only going to confuse the readers” (170). Is democracy ultimately Apollonian, or is it a form of Dionysian chaos?

The question—as Apollo’s claim to be “everywhere at once, wherever and whenever there are mortals that know of [the gods]” suggests—is one which resonates not only with Greece at the turn of in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, but also with Greece of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries CE. Although the authors have stated that the novel was not conceived with contemporary events in mind, I couldn’t help thinking, seeing a (historically uncertain) police force of Scythians patrolling the streets of Athens, of the military police in Athens under the Colonels, and of the many more recent clashes between riot police and protestors in Syntagma Square as I looked at cinematic angles of terrified women and children in scenes of mob violence.

Visually, the novel is beautiful, with Papadatos’ spare drawing style and panelling choreographed expertly with Kawa’s script. Annie Di Dura’s coloring is gorgeous—the final spread of Greek soldiers rushing towards the Persian army at Marathon into an orange-pink sunrise, for example, made me linger long after I had finished reading the last words.

Democracy is a fresh and innovative take on a turning point in history, a beautiful and sobering reminder of how contingent and unexpected democracy actually is.

 

Master and God

Lindsey Davis. Master and God. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2012.

Lindsey Davis is best known for her two delightful historical mystery series set during the reigns of Vespasian (Falco) and Domitian (Flavia Albia). Her mysteries are well-researched and well-plotted, with the wry sense of humor that tends to characterize my favored mystery series—Lord Peter Wimsey, Amelia Peabody, Cormoran Strike, and Brother Cadfael all make me laugh more than shudder. When I found a copy of Davis’ stand-alone novel, Master and God, I couldn’t wait to crack it open and immerse myself in the back-streets of Flavian Rome.

Set over the entire fifteen-year span of Domitian’s reign, from the death of Titus through the “Reign of Terror” and Domitian’s assassination, the novel centers on the on-again, off-again romance between Flavia Lucilla, a freedwoman hairdresser, and Marcus Vinius Claudianus, a member of the Vigiles and, later, the Praetorian Guard. As is almost obligatory in historical novels, the two become closely involved in the great political happenings of the time. Lucilla is the Flavian ladies’ favorite stylist, and the novel abounds with lush descriptions of the notorious elaborate hairstyles of the period, as well as wig-making episodes as a nod to Suetonius’ snide comments on Domitian’s sensitivity around his baldness. (Janet Stephens has a fantastic tutorial on how to create a Flavian coiffeur, should you so desire.) Once he is promoted to the Praetorian Guard, Vinius is constantly at the emperor’s side, apart from a not-so-brief stint as a prisoner in Dacia.

The romance between Lucilla and Vinius is—as is to be expected over a fifteen-year plot—continually interrupted by both external and internal factors. With Vinius especially Davis has done an excellent job painting a character whose devotion and strengths in one area of his life (his military career) interfere with other areas of his life (his five marriages before Lucilla). Lucilla suffers a bit from what I like to call “plucky maiden syndrome,” assuming an independence and status which strains credibility for a woman of her social standing in the period. 

The attention to detail which is characteristic of the Falco and Flavia Albia mysteries is on display here, too, for better and for worse. As always, Davis vividly conjures up ancient Rome’s bustling side streets and ramshackle tenements, but once she moves into the forum or the palaces, she wanders dangerously far into the realm of over-exposition. A description of the placement of the famous equestrian statue of Domitian, for example, reads suspiciously like a very dry report I once gave on Statius’ Silvae 1.1. Many chapters begin with a protracted history lesson on, for example, the military situation in Britannia, the tactical reasoning behind Domitian’s attack on the Chatti, even Quintilian’s Institutio Oratia. Davis’ love for the period is clear from the way she writes these expository passages, but the novel would have greatly benefited from careful editing to incorporate necessary information within the action and dialogue.

Davis’ typical brand of humor is also evident, though, sadly, not nearly as often as in her mysteries. My favorite example is the inclusion of a guard dog answering in public to the name “Terror,” and to “Baby” in private.

I don’t think Master and God would be the first Lindsey Davis novel I’d recommend to a friend—The Ides of April still holds that place—but, for those who enjoy (or can stomach) a generous helping of overt exposition, the novel gives the reader a beautifully visceral sense of Domitian Rome, with all its dirt and paranoia.

Nerds²

NerdsPosterIt’s not often that you get a chance to participate in two versions of the same show less than a year apart. I’ve had the opportunity twice before—once, playing Rosalind in As You Like It with two entirely different casts, and again with two productions of the Hippolytos, once as Hippolytos and once as stage manager—but this year I had my first experience doing so from the director’s standpoint.

Last May, Stanford Classics in Theater mounted a Silicon Valley adaptation of Aristophanes’ Birds, reframed as Aristophanes’ Nerds. Instead of the Athenians Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, we introduced two Wall Street suits, Pete and Dick, who abandon the world of finance for the sunny prospects of Silicon Valley. (Precisely how sunny they are is a matter for debate, but that’s another story.) Pete and Dick enlist Tim Tereus (“senator turned tech guru”) to win over the nerd population with a daring plan: by leveraging their control of the nation’s data, the nerds can “starve out the government and become masters of [their] own destinies.”

The May production was shaped by an almost comical series of unfortunate events. Several of our actors had to drop out due to work or illness, the performance space we booked lost our contract and gave our dates to someone else, and our original director left the project. I received a field promotion from assistant director to director, the cast and crew pulled together, and we managed to come up with a full, fun production.

When the SCS Committee on Ancient and Modern Performance invited us to remount the production at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting in SF earlier this month, I was overjoyed. Having been part of repeat productions before, I knew that the number of insights you gain in the process of adjusting to different audiences, actors, and spaces are enormous. We would face a new set of challenges, but we would also have many creative opportunities we hadn’t had in our beleaguered May production. I would be able to block the show in its entirety, rather than picking up where another director with a very different style left off. We would be able to shape our space to encourage more audience interaction than had been possible in our less-than-ideal lecture hall. New faces, making up about half the cast, would bring new energy to the veteran nerds.

The two biggest challenges for the CAMP production proved to be (1) our one-day rehearsal time, and (2) an audience of classicists more familiar with the original Birds than with the geography and culture of Silicon Valley. The first of these was much less of a hurdle than I’d thought it would be: I and the rest of the crew planned the day meticulously, the cast were attentive and energetic, and, miraculously, no one’s flight was delayed enough to disrupt our schedule.

The second was a more interesting problem. How well would our SF references (both Science Fiction and San Franciscan) carry over to a broader audience? Would an audience of classicists find our tech jokes funny, or simply confusing? Would conference goers return to their hotel rooms after the show saying, “The douche-moron δύσμορος pun was funny, and it was a hoot to see pictures of Richard Martin in nerd glasses, but the rest of the show fell flat”?

Fortunately, the audience was much nerdier than I had given them credit for—and, if the epichoric Silicon Valley references became too much, there were always plenty of dick jokes. But my worries reflect a broader issue in modern productions of ancient comedy. Aristophanes is highly topical and extremely political, continually engaged with the community and events around it. If you watch a production of the Knights without knowing who Cleon is, or see the Lysistrata without swotting up on the eel economy of Boeotia, it really isn’t that funny. In order to give modern audiences an authentic experience of Aristophanes, such references need to be updated to more familiar parallels. Who would want to see a production with projected footnotes explaining each joke?

(The necessity of adaptation is discussed at greater length in SCIT’s recent Eidolon article, and was the topic of CAMP’s fascinating panel at the SCS, “New Skin in Old Wineskins: The Place of Athenian Drama in Modern Society,” organized by Eric Dugdale and Rosanna Lauriola.)

But, in adapting comedies to engage with our own communities and politics, we run the risk of becoming as obscure as Aristophanes, given a few years or a new audience. For example, the May production of our show featured Chris Christie as Heracles. As witnessed by a recent SNL sketch, Christie has largely dropped out of sight, eclipsed by the rise of Donald Trump. Accordingly, we updated our script to include Trump as Heracles (played, with delightful Trumpian facial contortions, by Don Lateiner). Once November 8 passes, however, our script will become more difficult to convincingly update, its entire final scenes requiring significant rewrites.

Should we worry about this? Not necessarily. I would argue for an “adapt early, adapt often” approach to ancient drama. Each readaptation, whether on film like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq or on stage like Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, gives the audience a direct experience missing in productions which attempt to be period accurate. Over time, the accretion of such adaptations bears witness to a larger truth about ancient drama: the timelessness behind its topicality. There will always be a power for the underdogs to overthrow (Birds), a loud and unscrupulous politician to lampoon (Knights), conflicts between rich and poor (Wealth).

The chance to remount a production less than a year after its original production drove home both the power of topicality, and the continuity of the structures behind this topicality. We had no trouble finding a new Heracles figure. The audience had no trouble relating the Nerds to the original Birds. Old jokes and new worked together as beautifully as our half-and-half cast.

In fact, my only real disappointment was that no one laughed at the Lando joke this time around. You would think that would be even more topical than last May, wouldn’t you?

Forward and Back

Image: University of Alberta Press

Annabel Lyon. Imagining Ancient Women. Henry Kreisel Lecture Series. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.

The end of December and beginning of January is always my favorite time of year. Not because of the season—I’m more of a leaf-peeper than a snow-lover—but because it is inevitably a time of transition. Say what you will about the futility of New Year’s Resolutions, the chance to look back on the year that has passed and look forward to the year to come is a gift.

One tradition I have for this liminal time is to look up my favorite authors to see whether any of them will be publishing books in the new year. Often I’ll also discover older works of theirs that I haven’t yet read.

I made such a discovery while looking up Annabel Lyon. I’ve written before about her second novel, The Sweet Girland its wonderful approach to women of the past. So I was delighted to find Imagining Ancient Women, a published version of a lecture Lyon gave at the University of Alberta in 2010, and read Lyon’s own thoughts on the possibilities and risks of historical fiction about women.

Lyon begins with the broad suggestion “that literary fiction is uniquely poised to perform an important ethical function in our lives—namely, to teach us compassion, a deep and lasting understanding of the other—and that historical fiction, with its particular tradition of focusing on moral problems and injustices, offers a particularly interesting tool for performing that function” (6-7). Because of this, historical fiction is prey to a number of didactic pitfalls, including “easy moral outrage; forbidden love; and excessive decoration” (7), all of which she later gathers under the umbrella of escapism (44).

As an avid reader and would-be writer of historical fiction, these are familiar problems. I need only look in my own creative writing drawer for an outline of a tale involving a Puritan physician who falls in love with a Catholic woman and helps her to act on a stage which is forbidden to her as a women and abhorrent to him as a Puritan. There are even enthusiastic lists of the names of diseases (“flux,” “burnt blood,” “wolf”), Elizabethan slang (“shog off!”), and various articles of period clothing.

(Needless to say, the project needs work.)

Lyon gives some beautiful examples of novels which avoid these problems, then turns to her own problems imagining herself into the confined world of Greek women.”To an ancient Greek,” she claims, “I am a man….I operate in my society with all the freedom that a man in the ancient world would have operated in his” (20). She admits that she has difficulty understanding “how every last ancient woman wasn’t driven by the strictures in her life to suicidal depression” (33).

Rather than taking the morally easy route of presenting an ancient woman who rebels against these strictures, or is in fact driven to despair, Lyon gives her character all the options available to her in antiquity, taking her cue from Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Pythias becomes a priestess, a midwife, a hetaira, and, eventually, a wife.

Lyon beautifully describes Pythias as “my Philoctetes, the creature who both repels and inspires compassion, the ancient self I can choose to befriend, and enrich my own modern life thereby” (51). In other words, Pythias and her author are both looking forward and back with a Janus-like attention to both modernity and antiquity. To “inhabit the past” (51) we need just enough anachronism that characters are recognizably and sympathetically human, but not so much that we retreat into a complacent moral high ground.

On Teaching for the First Time

I’ve spent the last few days grading papers. Soon I will email each of my students with comments and grades, thanking them for their contributions to the class, for their insights, questions, energy, and humor. I may teach some of them again—some may even turn out to be Classics majors—but this will probably be my last interaction with many. I’ll see them on campus, racing their bikes towards the engineering quad. Perhaps they’ll shout a greeting, and I’ll wave back.

These students were my first. When they walked into the classroom on the first day, I tried not to let them see how terrified I was. I worried that they could tell that their TA was only five years older than them. They all, I was certain, would hate me and try to switch to the other section of the class.

But they didn’t. For four hours a week, they came eager to discuss Plato and Augustine, Kafka and Richard Wilbur. As I became more comfortable facilitating discussions, my sixteen students started to facilitate themselves. Instead of always addressing me, they spoke to one another, picking up problems and questions their classmates brought up. We read excerpts from Antigone and the Aeneid, broke into small groups to hunt for metaphors in Confessions Bk. X, wrote speeches for a symposium on friendship, held heated debates pitting Manichaeism against Neoplatonism. We discussed big ideas like courage and love and the problem of evil.

About halfway through the quarter, I stopped being terrified and started to enjoy myself.

How lucky am I, I thought, to be teaching these students? These students were all freshmen, taking the first writing course of their college career. All of them were intelligent, ambitious, curious, engaging. They came from all over the world, from different cultures and religions and socioeconomic backgrounds.

I feel rather guilty; I learned far more from my students than they learned from me.

I remember being surprised, my first term at university, at how invested my professors were in me—in my interests, my ideas, my well-being. Even though I was in several large classes, my professors took time for me. My survey professor talked to me for an hour about epic elements in The Rape of the Lock. My theater professor let me write a ridiculously ambitious paper comparing Racine and Euripides. I wrote a sad poem, and my poetics professor asked if I needed someone to talk to. My Greek professor listened when I said I was homesick, and gave me a hug.

Part of the reason was that I was there. I was (and still am) something of a keener, and showed up to office hours regularly, asked questions, sent emails. A bigger part is that I had wonderful, warm-hearted, and student-oriented professors, right from my first semester.

But now, sitting on the other side of the desk, I can see another part of the equation. My students are eighteen years old. They are full of ambition and ideas and optimism. They are full of doubts and uncertainties. Many of them are away from home for the first time, excited and nervous. Over the next four years, they will question their plans, their beliefs, their identity; they will change and grow in a thousand dimensions.

At twenty-three, I’m certainly not done asking these questions myself, nor am I very much further down the road of self-discovery than my students are. But I have just enough distance to see how beautiful this moment is. I’m curious to see what my students do next. What will engage all the intelligence and curiosity I’ve observed over their first quarter? Which ones will be doctors, writers, engineers, preachers, actors? How many of them will keep thinking about Socrates and Augustine and how the mind is like a bat, precisely?

I’m invested in my students, not because they show up to office hours, but because they are so worth investing in. They are fascinating, intelligent young women and men who are going to do amazing things with their lives. And I am one of the lucky people who gets to see them start.

I’m sure that I will become just as fascinated by future students, that I’ll keep learning from them term after term. But I’ll always remember these sixteen freshmen, my first students. If any of you are reading this—thank you. I can’t wait to see the wonderful ways you change the world.

The Professor Is In

Image via The Professor Is In

Karen Kelsky. The Professor Is In. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015.

The academic job market is a monster lurking under most grad students’ beds. Hiring works in mysterious ways, and even when you have, as I do, supportive advisors and resources for professionalization available through your institution, anything that further demystifies the monster is welcome. 

I’ve been a reader of Karen Kelsky’s blog since I started grad school, and have often turned to it for succinct, practical advice on things like writing conference abstracts, organizing my CV, putting together a five-year plan that includes goals and milestones that don’t necessarily show up in my department handbook. Kelsky’s background is in anthropology, and after fifteen years on the faculties of various institutions, she left academia and took her anthropologist’s ability, as she puts it, “to take taken-for-granted, implicit knowledge and defamiliarize it” in order to provide information to “Ph.D. job seekers and graduate students…about the job market and the academic career” (394).

The Professor Is In, like the blog that shares its name, offers frank, no-nonsense advice about everything from how to write a grant application to what to wear during a Skype interview. About half of the material is reworked from the blog, but I found that reading chapters I already knew in blog post form within the broader arc of a book allowed me to better understand what lay behind various pieces of advice. This context mitigates one difficulty with the book: Kelsky’s advice is often so starkly direct that it can read more like the ten commandments than career advice. One particularly striking example is chapter six, which lists “six attributes that characterize the effective tenure track job candidate,” including:

Productivity: You will have a record of professional accomplishments beyond the requirements of your graduate program. These will include major publications such as a signed book contract…and/or refereed journal articles, national and international grants, high-profile yearly conference activity, invited off-campus talks, substantive solo-teaching experience, and illustrious scholars writing your recommendations. (46-7)

Passages like this are certainly helpful reference points—I sent a picture of one of of Kelsky’s “six attributes” to some friends, joking that I needed it on a t-shirt—but need to be read in tandem with chapters scrutinizing the academic system and why it works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be) the way it does. For this reason, I would unhesitatingly recommend the book above the blog.

Kelsky is up front about the fact that her advice necessarily relies on generalizations. Every grad student and every job seeker in each field will have a different experience, and the job market does involve chance at some point—I’d point fellow Classicists toward Joy Connelly’s “Job Market Handbook” for some advice specific to our field. One of the most useful chapters of the book, from this point of view, is chapter sixty, another blog-like list, this time of 111 transferable skills to jumpstart thinking about possible careers outside the ivory tower. Because so few faculty members have experience pursuing alternative career paths, at least in the humanities, and because of the stigma attached to “dropping out” of academia, it’s hard to have conversations about the topic of alternate careers. Eleventy-one transferable skills are a helpful starting point for considering possibilities outside the academic shire.

The major complaint I have about the book is the amount of space devoted to promoting Kelsky’s relatively new one-on-one coaching services; at several points, the book feels like promotional material, complete with customer blurbs. 

The Professor is In is good advice well worth reading, with the caveats that go along with any job market advice. When you’re trying to slay the monster under the bed, you can’t ignore it or let it rule your life with fear, but no one strategy guarantees victory.

Rhesus

Whatever your opinion on the authorship of the Rhesus—Euripides? His son? Agathon?—it is an unambiguously odd play. No prologue, a Hector who seems more interested in sleeping than fighting the Trojans, a Paris who thinks his judgment of Aphrodite was the best thing that ever happened to Troy. It’s a play that would have driven Aristotle mad, full of characters who begin to act like tragic heroes and then never reappear. The ending (such as it is) invents a mother for Rhesus in the person of an unidentified Muse who steers the play hard right into mystery cult.

It’s one of those plays you never really expect to see a production of. And when you do, you must drop everything to go see it.

Image source
Image source: Christina Georgiadou

Katerina Evangelatos’ production of the Rhesus, part of the 2015 Athens Festival and running through August 9, takes place on the archaeological site of Aristotle’s Lyceum. It’s an appropriate choice for a play billed as by “Ευρίπιδη [;]” given that the identification is conjectural. The site only opened to the public a few years ago, and consists of low foundation walls, part of a bath complex, and a well-tended park surrounding it.

Evangelatos connected her production to the site right away with a “peripatetic” portion of the performance. The audience was divided into four groups, each of which was led to a different side of the site as the chorus entered, marching like sleepwalking versions of the guards outside of parliament at Athens. As the audience was shepherded between vantage points, the chorus fell into and out of small groupings, jumping over walls, wrestling in the dust, scattering paper flowers, all while passages from the Physics and On the Interpretation of Dreams were read over the loudspeaker.

The experience was rather baffling—my modern Greek skills are barely up to the challenge of asking for directions, much less following Aristotle—but the choreography was impressive, and the Dreams especially is a good choice given the play’s recurring themes of sleep. I don’t think that the peripatetic aspect added anything from an audience perspective; the guides in charge of shepherding the audience were in need of practice, and the movement was distracting.

When the Euripides (?) portion of the performance began, it was very clear where Evangelatouswould stand on the question of whether the Rhesus took the place of the satyr play: she thoroughly embraced the humorous and nonsensical aspects of the play. The Trojan camp became a bizarre and charming combination of Neverland, Calvinball, and the Hardy Boys. Hector was kitted out in an oversized Napoleon hat and an extra-long telescope, while his soldiers were armed with buckets, mops, and wooden swords over costumes evoking a 1940’s summer camp for boys.

The choreography (Patricia Apergi) was the star of the production. The ensemble leapt, danced, fought, and climbed with a ferocious energy and athleticism, their movements reinforcing the humorous and innocent delivery of the text with pure physical comedy. The chorus provided the characters as well, individual chorus members donning or doffing costumes as necessary. Standout moments included Dolon’s scene, in which Dolon races all the way to the other end of the site in his eagerness to spy on the Greeks before Hector manages to call him back. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the actor playing Hector doubled as Athena—an good reminder that the original performance would have been a man acting as Athena acting as Aphrodite. Athena’s interactions with Paris, a Linus-like character dressed in a sailor suit and toting a butterfly net, were handled beautifully as a point of tension between the childlike/dreamlike performance and the very much adult and serious themes of war, death, and love.

In all, Evangelatos’ Rhesus was a refreshing and wonderful experience. By reframing the play as Hector’s dream, she embraced the absurd elements of the text and made the disjointed plot an asset rather than a problem.