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.

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.

The Secret History—of Philhellenism

Donna Tartt. The Secret History. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

On the first page of The Secret History, we learn that the novel’s protagonists have murdered one of their classmates. The rest of the novel explores the tangled circumstances leading up to this murder, and its consequences. 

I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?

This line—Professor Julian Morrow’s customary signal that his classics classes are about to begin—neatly sums up what is, to me, the most fascinating aspect of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Through the eyes of Richard Papen, a transfer student from a blue-collar background trying to blend in with his elite and privileged classmates, we see an environment with all the claustrophobia and turmoil of many campus novels (Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons springs to mind): academic stress, sleepless nights, sex, drugs, alcohol. But when authorities investigating Bunny’s death start uncovering Hampden College’s thriving drug trade, Richard and his friends welcome it as a perfect distraction from the truth. The real problem is not that Morrow’s students are downing a staggering amount of alcohol, but that they are caught between the phenomenal world and the sublime.

To put it another way, the students are caught between Apollonian and Dionysian visions of the ancient world. In the classroom, they read Plato and Thucydides, compose essays in Greek, and discuss erudite philosophical problems. When Richard first joins the small group of under Morrow’s tutelage, he notices that “[h]is students—if they were any mark of his tutelage—were imposing enough, and different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world” (31). Outside the classroom, the group—led by the quietly brilliant Henry Winter—begins to explore the ecstatic side of Greek culture, attempting to recreate mystery cult and Bacchic revelry.

The division between these two experiences of the classical past—Apollo in the daytime classroom, Dionysos in the nighttime woods—is powerfully evoked. Equally compelling is the impossibility of these students maintaining such a double life, of ever fully leaving the phenomenal world behind when they depart for the sublime. Richard constantly expresses surprise at his friends’ composure: he fully expects silent Henry, suave Francis, or the twins Charles and Camilla to betray themselves in word or manner, and, in a sense, the group’s descent into chaos after they murder the sixth classmate, Bunny, accomplishes just that. The cold, rational mask inevitably slips to reveal the irrational reality beneath.

These binaries are, of course, modern paradigms, more to do with the various waves of philhellenism that have swept the western world since the Renaissance. We have idealized the Greeks as quintessentially civilized and enlightened, or as uniquely expressive of raw, primitive emotions that we now repress. The Greeks are poster children for Victorian education, and they are free-spirited forerunners of postmodernism. 

What this accomplishes, both for Morrow’s students and for real life philhellenists, is a sense of exclusivity. Richard is particularly vulnerable to this, eager as he is to escape his unremarkable, suburban childhood. “Hoi polloi. Barbaroi,” he thinks to himself when he interacts with students outside the classics department (147). This is precisely what so many of us think, armed with the ability to read an ancient tongue—whether we choose to think of it as Apollonian or Dionysian, it is very easy to feel like initiates in the Hellenic Mysteries, guardians of an ancient, dying heritage. The Secret History concentrates these tendencies by making the reader a member of this miniature cult, in on the secret, shaking our heads at the barbarous and short-sighted many.

I do not wish to imply that the Hampden College classics department, with its one professor and its six students, is in any way an accurate representation of classics as a discipline. Morrow’s pedagogical methods are unorthodox and of dubious effectiveness—his students somehow manage to be at once deeply familiar with the entire canon and uncertain whether or not Greek has an ablative case—and many of the views he espouses are almost ludicrously Victorian. I have enough respect for Tartt to think that these inaccuracies are part of her characterization rather than misconceptions on her part. 

In spite of this, The Secret History captures vividly some of the dangers inherent in studying the classical world. It is so easy to idealize, so easy to create from our own values and longings a society completely other and completely praiseworthy. Classics certainly needs advocates, individuals able to demonstrate the value of learning languages in which you will never be able to order a hamburger and learning the history of a people you will never meet. But it also needs to avoid perpetuating a world made up of initiated classicists and the hoi polloi. 

I deeply enjoyed The Secret History; its pacing, its preoccupation with beauty, its insider-outsider narrative forever poised between belief and disgust. But I do fear that those outside of classics will think that classicists really do look like Julian Morrow or Henry Winter—debating in Greek, espousing an ancient philosophy, coldly excluding the unwashed masses.