How did I get here?
When Telemachus invites Athena-in-disguise to sit in his hall at the beginning of the Odyssey and he has already complained to her about the suitors, he asks, “Who are you and from where among men? Where is your city and your parents?” (τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν; πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες; 1.170). This line is repeated on several occasions during the Odyssey and forms of it echo throughout Greek literature. It even shows up in Roman literature as a bit of a proverb: Seneca has Herakles use this line to hail the dead Claudius when he arrives on Olympus (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 5). My friend Justin Arft is working on the poetics of this line, exploring how it engages with larger poetic traditions and functions as an authoritative marker for speech. It elicits a particular type of story and signals a special kind of world view.
For me, this line has always also functioned metonymically for social hierarchy. It is an indexing question to establish the addressee’s cultural position. The initial “who” of “who are you” turns out to be a mere introduction, signaling an insufficient framework. The subsequent questions flesh out acceptable parameters for defining this particular “who”: a generic person, a tis, requires a geographical origin (invoking tribal connections as much as spatial associations), a civic entity (the city here is certainly a type of state), and a family. And, given the importance of genealogy in myth and the flexibility of place and state, I think we have a rhetorical structure of increasing importance: space, state, and family. The last question, in epic at least, is about fame and noble birth.
During the past few years, I have been thinking about this question when I find myself out and about in the world, asking and being asked who I am. How we elicit information about people tells us something about how we organize the world in our minds. And how we answer these questions tells us something else about how we view ourselves and our comfort with this view. Social context alters the meaning of deceptively simple words. For instance, when people ask addressees of color where they are from, it often is a coded or subconscious attempt to establish an ‘ethnic identity’ or some hierarchy of citizenship. Who are you and where are you from is always potentially a probe to evaluate political status and social cache.
The functional question that communicates our modern values and social structures is that ubiquitous “What do you do?” This innocuous conversation starter (or staller) is a metonym for our capitalist values: we are defined by what we contribute to society, by what we produce, by how we may be commodified. Of course, we can put this another way: in a ‘post-aristocratic’ world, we are allowed to define ourselves by how we spend our time—what we decide to dedicate our lives to communicates our values. (This second take assumes that we have the power and resources to make these choices in such a way that there is a meaningful correlation between our activity in the world and our values; and, secondly, that vocation and avocation may necessarily overlap.)
Even though the Odyssey is a narrative of disguises and forestalled recognitions, it is one in which the question “who are you, where are you from” also points to established and accepted social boundaries (even if they are eventually transgressed or subverted). When we ask “what do you do”, it seeks to instantiate social relationships. I have spent so much time thinking about this because my life’s work is in a field where the boundary between life and work is blurred to the point of there being almost no distinction. And, although we live in a period where the answer to “what do you do” is more fluid than in the previous generation, the line between the workaday doing and the non-work living is less clear. (And, to be fair, for the working poor and a great number of people throughout the world, the whole notion of such a boundary to begin with is one of incredible privilege.)
My problem is not really with the impact of this fading boundary on me: one of the reasons I avoided pursuing other careers early on is I believed, correctly or not, that my current pursuit would not force some of the same stark choices as others—despite much evidence to the contrary, I still believe that my career as one where we are supposed to think about what life is for (even if we are not often encouraged to do so). My problem is with talking about what I do outside the academy, with naming it, with answering that question, what do you do?
* * *
“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”
ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·
Who are you and What do you do? I don’t come from a family of academics. I grew up in a lower middle class, rural area where most high school graduates did not go to college (and where high school graduates were only recently the majority). To say that I have class anxiety about being a Professor, much less a professor of Classics and one of Ancient Greek, is quite the understatement. I rarely use a title outside of work—my self-naming is so muted that when my son grabbed the mail one day and saw something addressed to “Dr. Christensen” he said “you’re a doctor?” To this I responded, “well, kind of.” In his consternation, he looked at the envelope, looked back at his mother—who is a dentist—and said, “wait, boys can be doctors?”
Where are you from? This is a question for people who are out of place, whose dislocation is clear enough as to be recognized before even hearing a name. How did I get here? Leaving home, getting a BA in the humanities, moving to New York and getting a PhD has separated me physically and ethically from all the people I grew up with and it has in many ways alienated me from my family. Anyone who has gone to graduate school knows that the process is intense and transformative intellectually; the part we don’t talk about enough is that it also constitutes a social metamorphosis: you are not only what you do, you are the people you engage with. ‘Who are your people’ and ‘where is your home’ are a critical part of Telemachus’ question—both communicate values and allegiances. Getting a PhD in the Classics complicates answers to both of those questions. The PhD changes the appearance and performance of social class; the rarefied air of that title “the Classics” makes us strangers even among our professorial peers.
The depth of my class and social anxiety is particularly felt in the way I change my answer to the question “what do you do”. When I go to birthday parties for my kids, while talking to other parents I almost always answer, “I am a teacher” and, more often than not, I consciously steer the conversation somewhere else. Part of the reason I do this is I don’t always handle the follow up question well.
True story: I was in a Starbucks in Milton, MA and I saw Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block. At my sister’s urging over text messages (she has seen NKOTB multiple times as an adult), I went and asked for a picture and had a fine conversation going until he asked what I do. I said, “I teach at Brandeis.” To the inevitable “what do you teach?” and the true answer (“Classics. Um, mostly Ancient Greek”) the response was a typical, awkward silence.
You can’t be what you were
So you better start being
Just what you are
You can’t be what you were
Is it disingenuous for me to say I am teacher? I know this title comes easily because it makes others less uncomfortable and because it is familiar to me—my mother, brother, grandmother and grandfather are teachers. But my commitment to being a ‘teacher’ flags when faced with class distinctions. When someone introduces themselves as a doctor, or a lawyer, or something like that, I am suddenly “a professor at Brandeis.” Oh, and if they get my class hackles up before then, I am in full force as the “Chair of the Department of Classics”. Like Odysseus himself, I change who or what I say I am depending on my reading of the audience.
And let’s not even get started on the measuring contests that ensue should an interlocutor be another PhD (where did you go to graduate school), a Humanist (what do you work on) or, heaven forfend, a Classicist (with whom did you work? “who is your doktorvater?”). And things can get awkward because there are class structures within our tribe: I still look young, so people will ask about tenure (to which I answer merely “yes” if the questioner is nice; or, “yeah, twice” if they piss me off) or if they are unsure about my contract status (when three-quarters of professors are not tenured or on the tenure track, this question is also about privilege and class).
Now, just to be clear—I have not planned out these responses and it is only through post factum reflection that I realize the manipulative variability of my answers. I am sure I am not the only person to adjust my answer to “what do you do” for social register. As a group, PhDs are in a strange social position: we are vilified by one political party for being liberal brain-washed brain-washers; other parts of society see us as underworked sops bereft of common sense. Embracing being a professor publically can just be awkward. People don’t really know what we do. Most people know what teachers do and either respect it or hold it in the light contempt we reserve for the service industry: it is a job that needs to be done, thankfully there are others to do it.
Who are you? I also feel jealous of this identity I only partially claim. Because of my youth and relative ease of character, students often take the liberty of calling me by my first name. Every time this happens, I freeze. I don’t want to be called by my first name because I think it creates too relaxed of an environment. I don’t want to correct the student because I don’t want to harm the rapport we have developed. I want to be called by my title because I earned it, dammit. And yet I don’t want to be called by my title because it is not (completely) who I am. So, I say nothing. I answer to my name even if that is not even a partial response to the Odyssean “who you are”.
To be fair, I think my ambivalence emerges in large part from both my experience in the academy and class associations of Classics. When I went to school as an undergraduate, it was really the first time I had ever encountered people with real wealth, new cars; this was the first time I met kids my age who didn’t need to work during the semester or the summer. My professors, however, were actually more like me: they drove older cars, dressed simply, embraced me in a way that never made me feel like I didn’t belong.
Graduate school was another story altogether. Perhaps it was the sheltered confines of my undergraduate institution or the particular people I encountered there, or, perhaps the conversations we had were just limited, but class distinctions I had never sensed before became quickly clear. These were deeper than my hatred for opera or the fact that I had never ‘summered in France’. I went from beer and chips to wine and cheese without any kind of a manual. I was invited to lunches and served oysters (which I did not know how to eat); I had to learn how to use my left hand with a fork, to select the right utensils, and on and on, always faking it, barely making it. I could not pronounce the names of French and German scholars—I have messed up Jacoby and been corrected so many times now that I cannot honestly say the word at all. On top of learning how to actually read Latin and Greek, I had to learn a different language of Class.
Who are your parents? When I grew up, we ate dinner between 5 and 6 PM. I found out that this was a sign of a working class family when one of my professors declared that “nobody I know seriously eats before 7 or 8”. During my third or fourth year, I was invited out with a visiting scholar and faculty members and given the honor of choosing the wine at dinner: this was paralyzing. (I punted and asked my advisor what her favorite was.) And this scene repeated: during campus interviews for jobs when I was straight out of graduate school (I ordered a Tempranillo because I could say the name). On the job market again, post tenure, I fled from the list of French wines to some familiar Italian names.
But this is not a sob story—I want to make it clear that almost all the advisors and professors I had and the people who took me to dinner for interviews and after conference talks were kind and well-meaning people. And I am pretty sure that if I admitted on any occasion that I did not know which fork to use, how or whether to put horseradish on an oyster, or anything about picking a wine, they would have been understanding and helpful. It was my own pride and the fear of sticking out that kept me from saying something. I was successful at faking it for so long in part because I look the part. I am white; blond and male. I grew up in New England and (mostly) speak with a generic Northern US accent. I know that the body I inhabit has been an entirely necessary armor for guarding against the suggestion that I do not belong.
Women and people of color do not have this armor and constantly undergo alienating experiences which force them to choose on a daily basis to fake it or admit to not being in the know. Indeed, wrapped up in my entire and momentary reverie about how to answer the question of “what do you do” is the acknowledgement that I can choose to answer this question in different ways in relative ease because my way through this world we share has been cleared in part by the structural prejudices and (dis)advantages created by gender, race, and (the appearance of) Class.
* * *
Diogenes Laertius, Ariston 160
“[He compared] the wise man to a good actor who could take up the role of both Thersites and Agamemnon and play either appropriately
εἶναι γὰρ ὅμοιον τὸν σοφὸν τῷ ἀγαθῷ ὑποκριτῇ, ὃς ἄν τε Θερσίτου ἄν τε Ἀγαμέμνονος πρόσωπον ἀναλάβῃ, ἑκάτερον ὑποκρίνεται προσηκόντως.
Back to Classics and Class
I have been thinking about all of these issues since the discussions raised by Grace Bertelli’s article “The Classics Major is Classist”. In advising undergraduates and MA students who think they want to go to graduate school in Classics, I have had to face the truth of Bertelli’s work on a weekly basis: everything about the way our discipline is organized is based on a post-Enlightenment model of a student who is prepared to contribute to scholarship by ‘rigorous’ training in Latin and Greek with sufficient knowledge of French and German to engage with scholarly debates. As Bertelli points out, rare is the student who has access to enough Latin or Greek before college to enter into the upper level credits needed to earn a degree.
I think Bertelli could even take this further: to have the time to learn Greek and Latin well as an undergraduate requires leisure that is often barred to students who have to work, compete for internships, etc. And, again, how many students who are not from a privileged background are prepared to do the extracurricular things we expects students to do? The entire apparatus of affirmative action which aims to create a diverse student body stalls out because no matter how many students we accept into our communities from diverse backgrounds, we do not do the hard work of providing them the resources necessary to make up for the deficient educational and social preparation many have due to the structural and institutionalized racism and classicism of our country. As Erik emphasizies in his earlier article the problem with the Classics is no so much the expected standards as the decades-long retreat from real substantial education for everyone.
On top of this, many of us who are in positions to change the narrative are too blinded by our own class experience or by what we think is the core nature of our field. We believe—or tell people we believe—that students who start Latin and Greek as undergraduates have the ability to move on to a graduate program if they just work hard enough, if they are willing to sacrifice some summer time or take an MA first. But, with the exception of a few of the new bridge programs that have been designed, we do not acknowledge that it takes financial and social resources to do these things. Many students do not have the money to take additional courses over the summer; many do not have the time and preparation needed to learn the languages thoroughly as undergraduates in time to apply to graduate programs. And, how many of us can really in good faith argue that it makes sense for students to take out loans to fund MA programs which may not get them into PhD programs which have only a marginal chance of getting them full-time employment afterwards?
This sense of mine has been sharpened over the past year as I have heard back from students who have had interviews and then gone to PhD programs. Students have been asked what their parents do for a job (for them to speak English so well); they have been warned not to be too political, because that has nothing to do with our field; Spanish surnames have been taken as a signal of Spanish-language mastery. Colleagues who are women are still told how and when and whether to have children (by both men and women). They are too young, perhaps, to be asked to choose the wine, but they are asked who they are and who their parents are with words that show they expect answers which signal the ways in which these students do not belong. These questions stem from a sensed dislocation, ultimately they are statements that the addressee is a stranger in this land.
Now, to be fair, apart from the particular ‘rigor’ of the training that is expected of a potential Classicist, most of these Classist (and worse) structures are part of American academia and not Classics in particular. When Erik wrote an essay on this site arguing that Classics is not uniquely Classist, this was in part his point: the material of Classics in the form of literature, history, and philosophy, is not essentially Classist in their values. (And I rue the world in which it is considered only acceptable for some to have access to this work.) But the more I think about the horizon of difficulty to have access to this work, the more I worry that the time and resources necessary to be able to engage with it substantially are so great as to create a de facto Class barrier. Unless our society changes the way we distribute wealth, the study of Classics beyond rudimentary language learning will continue to be impeded to the point of absurdity for most students. And, as Amy Pistone points out well in her reflections on Bertelli’s piece and Erik’s, language need not be the core of the study of the Classical world. Our reasons for demanding this are old-fashioned and almost always solipsistic. (But, for me, access to the ancient world through language is the sine qua non of what I do. So we need to be clearer in establishing the different ways we can engage academically with antiquity.)
We also need to understand that this field’s position in social Class in 20th century was an aberration. The Post WWII GI-Bill followed a burst of school building and educational egalitarianism after the Great Depression that had public school students in rural Maine (where I grew up) receiving access to Latin. When groups of students flooded college campuses over the next generation, a new crop of Humanists were trained. These Classicists of the baby boomer generation and its echoes are retiring now and they have shaped our field for many years. But many of them (and their students like me) fail to see that they are also a special few; that this educational egalitarianism was not actually open to all genders, regions, and peoples; that the duration of this openness was frighteningly short; and that our return from this historical openness is in all likelihood a return to a historical mean.
One of the things I have loved about my debates with Erik is how much I have learned from him about the history of Classical scholarship. I had vague notions of its major outlines before, but I was always mostly concerned with the Hellenistic editors of Homer. The story that Classical scholarship teaches us, however, is an important one when it comes to Class: a few of the most famous Classicists going back to antiquity itself were aristocrats with connections and money (think Plato and Seneca); but many others were social strivers (e.g. Cicero). Reading through Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists or Eunapius’ ‘sequel’ followed by Pfeiffer’s or Sandys’ scholarly history gives a deep sense of a Class continuity. Classical scholars have long been adjacent to political power and had some access to social and financial capital without being completely of that place. For every enlightened slave (Zeno or Diogenes the Cynic) or cobbler’s son who makes it (e.g. Johann Winckelmann), there are dozens of petty nobles who rise through rhetorical education (in the second sophistic) or ecclesiastical training (in the Renaissance) thanks to their hard work and the patronage of moneyed aristocracy, Church or State authority, or the fundamental equivalent. But, while Classicists were not the aristocrats themselves, their ability to become who they were was dependent upon their ability to please those in power. They did not have to answer the question of their country because they belonged just enough not to disturb those in power.
To this day, a large majority of professional Classicists come from a high enough class to have access to Latin and Greek before college; or, we were privileged to live in (mostly white) regions where (mostly heterogeneous) high schools were well-funded by communities that didn’t have to worry about paying for other people’s children to get an education (Yes, I am calling you out, Brookline, MA and Alamo Heights, TX).
All of this is to say that, yes, while the fundamental material of Classics is not Classist, the history of Classical scholarship shows that our field has long been dependent on Class structures for its support and for its validation. In the Renaissance educational treatises, or even in the letters of America’s Founding Fathers, you can see that Humanist education, too, was supported and encouraged for its practical utility: rhetorical prowess and clear, learned expression were much more highly valued as instruments of and tickets to power. So, in a sense, little has changed beyond the fact that we have a different perspective on which discipline can be best harnessed for utilitarian ends.
Those of us who teach or defend the Classics for pay labor in service of the existing class structure whether we like it or not. When people ask us who we are, because of what we do they assume that the answer to the question of “what is your country” will be simply “the same as yours”. Those of us who are Classics’ modern practitioners can probably find ourselves in the annals of a Sandys or a Eunapius: we largely come from middle-class or higher backgrounds and have used our abilities to gain access to a slightly different class structure. We are modern metics (those legal residents in ancient Athens allowed to ply a trade), working in the service of our own Class systems.
* * *
Seneca, De Clementia, 1.1.6
“No one can wear a mask for very long; affectation soon returns to true nature”
nemo enim potest personam diu ferre, ficta cito in naturam suam recidunt
A college education is, as several studies have shown, less of a means to upward economic mobility than a means of reifying social class at the higher levels. As social and political factors have constrained what courses are offered at state schools and as the cost of private institutions has skyrocketed, this fact has only grown more stark.
Where you go to college impacts what you study and what kind of training you get: at my last institution, a large state University over 50% of the courses selected were some kind of requirement; at my current one, this number is probably closer to 15%. Many students still meet their spouses in college or graduate school—this has the continued impact of concentrating financial resources among certain groups. And the professional and personal connections which are developed at elite institutions give people access to a range of resources that amount to easier access to additional education, more lucrative employment, etc. There is also a self-replicating effect: students from college educated families know how to navigate college better and make much more of the resources available from going to office hours, to seeking career counseling, and finding opportunities like Fulbright Fellowships and beyond.
Who are you and what do you do? I think I shy away from claiming myself as a professor not because I am afraid of being a class-traitor, but because I am exactly the opposite: I am a near ideal instantiation of a class-replicator. I want so desperately to argue that my field is not reserved for people of a certain class (or race, or gender etc.) but I know that our institutional structures render it highly unlikely for people outside a certain class to have the leisure and access to pursue the enlightenment it promises.
After Telemachus asks that leading question in the Odyssey, he continues, “what kind of ship did you come on? What way did the sailors lead you on to Ithaka? Who did they claim to be? For I don’t think that you came here on foot!” (ὁπποίης τ’ ἐπὶ νηὸς ἀφίκεο; πῶς δέ σε ναῦται / ἤγαγον εἰς ᾿Ιθάκην; τίνες ἔμμεναι εὐχετόωντο; / οὐ μὲν γάρ τί σε πεζὸν ὀΐομαι ἐνθάδ’ ἱκέσθαι, 1.171-173). Ithaka, if I may be permitted the fancy of allegory, is a place that is hard to get to, that is reserved only for those who are born there or who go through great trials to make it. If we want more people to be free to chart their own course, we need to offer even more assistance and truly acknowledge the difficulty of their journey. By failing to acknowledge the distance of this horizon and the fact that no one cannot make the journey alone, we inhabit mere fantasy and myth. This is our job; but it need not be our vocation.
Addendum, 4 hours after original post:
In addition to the articles about classics and class above, I also spent the past 6 months thinking about the work of Dan-El Padilla Peralta, and essays by fine young Classicists who discuss the challenges of being women of color in our field (Yung In Chae and Helen Wong whose conversations with me at Brandeis have been influential).
The response to the work of public Classicists like Drs. Sarah Bond and Donna Zuckerberg has also shaped the way I have seen the “class” part of Classics, too. I have added this addendum as a transparent addition because these voices have been part of a conversation in my head and they deserve credit for the good they are doing in the world.
Erik reminds me of the following anecdote:
Do you remember, on the day before you moved,[your spouse] had expressed concern about fitting in with the Boston elites, especially after spending so much time in the provinces? You said, “You’re a dentist and I’m a Greek professor – we’re not humble fucking people.”