“How Was the [Expensive Classics Event]?”: Income Inequality and the Classics

This is a companion to the earlier essay, “This is Not My Beautiful House: Classics, Class, and Identity”, which elicited a variety of personal responses from classicists and students about the myriad problems in the discipline. My contribution here, specifically, is to further articulate and contextualize my response to Amy Pistone’s asking “what can individuals maybe do to help?”


The title of this article is at the heart of my response to the question on what can be done to help to address the class-based challenges of studying the Classics. “How was the ________?”, whether the blank space is filled in with conference, study abroad term, workshop, or something else, is a question of access. Encoded in this question is the fact that one person had this access while another didn’t. It is an innocuous question, with an innocuous reply, that contextually is a perfect representation of Classics’ self-perpetuating economic inequalities. And these inequalities were regular features of my studies.

My formal involvement with Classics began when I was twenty-one years old, though in high school I had developed an interest in Greek and Roman history and was even able to take year of Latin before the program was cut. In my first years of college, I focused on social science courses in psychology, sociology, and political science, with an interest in labor relations. But after donating three years to these subjects, I didn’t feel the same love for learning them that I did when I was reading about the Peloponnesian Wars or Roman politics in my free time.

So, I switched to Classics, starting Latin coursework right away and Greek later (along with French in anticipation of graduate work). Now in my early thirties, I am still involved with the field as an adjunct instructor teaching Greek and Roman Civilization (while missing teaching Latin), and I also work outside of academia to pay the bills. At times I feel like I belong, but at other times I feel like a stranger in a strange land. This was the case from the beginning.

During both my undergraduate and graduate pursuits in Classics, I found myself uttering some variant of this “how was the ______?” quote almost every time I’d gone a week without seeing a classmate—or so it felt. On the same day that I was excited to use a coupon for $1 off the price of a pizza on my way home from an eight-hour shift at a liquor store, a classmate was, for example, touring the Alamo after the SCS Conference. Another classmate brought back some fantastic replica pottery and coins from an 8-week study abroad event in Greece a month or so earlier; I remember thinking at the time that the cost to bring the vases back on a plane was probably more than my disposable income for the month.

Asking about someone else’s experiences at a conference, study-abroad program, or workshop was at the same time painful and embarrassing. I received an (often thorough, vivid) account of a classmate’s engagement with the field in a way that I could only rarely—if ever—experience, and simultaneously I gave responses which made it abundantly clear that I couldn’t participate. Despite this, I was still genuinely interested in others’ more extensive involvement with Classics, through some combination of intellectual interest, living vicariously through my classmates, and being polite.

In upper-level undergrad and graduate courses, I just hoped the familiar classmates wouldn’t return with a question about my own travels. They almost always did, and I became better at changing the subject after a quick “no.”

These types of conversations—dialogues of coded income inequality—were not unusual to me even outside of academia, though. During my childhood in two small towns in the Midwest, my family toed the poverty line, between lower middle class and “lowest” (how’s that for an official socio-economic designation?). From elementary school onward, I listened to stories of Disneyworld during summer vacation and spring break trips to the beach. Later I would become a “first-generation” college student; I use quotation marks because my father attended college, but was not a part of my life past my infancy.

P. Mich 8.471 – Letters of Claudius Terentianus*

“My mother sold our linens for an as so I could go to Alexandria.”

mater m[e]a no[bi]s assem vendedi[t] lentiamina / [u]t veniam alexandrie

*My interests are in non-elite (“vulgar”) Latin; sorry, Cicero, Virgil, et al. Whenever possible I opt to use the words of people outside of Rome’s literary elite.


At any rate, by the time I arrived at a state university—after some time at a community college—I was quite accustomed to hearing about things I couldn’t do or have. Thankfully, my mother didn’t have to sell her linens so that I could leave town when the time came, unlike Claudius Terentianus’ mom. We have student loans for that now.

It wasn’t until graduate school and afterward that inequality in Classics, which had previously been confined in my cognitive space to my inability to contribute to travel-related conversations, became a more substantive obstacle. To be clear, it did not come from the faculty, classmates, or department at my state school, all of whom were wonderfully accommodating and committed to widening access to the historically isolated field.


The inequalities became increasingly problematic during the first year of my M.A. program, as I began to focus more seriously on a career profile and CV that would get me beyond the first rounds of application purges. Diving into research on proper Classics CVs, newly hired faculty credentials, and all of the other things that repel students from graduate schools and higher education, it quickly hit me like a speeding chariot that I would not have even the opportunity for success in this discipline unless I could afford to sacrifice thousands of dollars (in addition to regular expenses), and extensive time away from a family that at many times needed me nearby.

And even after all of that, I might only get a few more minutes of consideration before receiving a form rejection letter, if anything at all. The comments on Famae Volent were devastatingly discouraging, more so even than the bleak, more official career outlooks. Due to naivete and some strange sense of confidence (unusual for me), I persisted, and tried to make necessary preparations. I took a second job, and even a third job for a short time.

In the meantime, I enjoyed my coursework, teaching, and local Classics activities. I presented at special topics discussions and Classics outreach events on campus along with fellow classmates and faculty members. These were things I absolutely loved: Classics without the pomp and circumstance and the expenses. I could talk about Roman cuisine or cartography, or even Oscan, to people who seemed genuinely interested (or at least feigned it, because many would see me the next morning as their Latin instructor). I could introduce undergraduate students outside the field to topics in Classics beyond the survey courses in mythology or history, or the holy trinity of upper-level Latin authors (Cicero, Virgil, and Caesar). Often I would chat with students after class about some common linguistic differences between Latin and various Romance languages. “How do we know all of this?” was one of my favorite questions in these chats, because it was an opportunity to explore Latin in ways that a 50 or 90-minute class didn’t always permit.

On top of it all, I even thought I was sort of good at this stuff.


CIL IV.9131 – Graffito in Pompeii

“I sing of laundry-workers and the owl, not of arms and the man.”

Fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumq(ue)


“I want to keep doing this,” I thought at the time. It was the practice, the realization, of my long-held belief in making Classics more attainable to a wider educational audience, of getting students interested in a field that has a reputation, especially at state schools, of being stuffy, isolated, impractical, and representative of an outdated “great men” approach to history and literature (things paraphrased but overheard mostly while working in the anthropology and language labs as an undergrad, and before and after classes as a student and instructor).

I wanted to teach Classics at underfunded state schools or community colleges. I wanted Classics without the pomp and circumstance. I sincerely wanted to do all of the things that many Classicists turn up their noses at. At the risk of drawing political ire from readers, a classmate and friend once joked that I was the “Bernie Sanders of the department,” far more interested in epitaphs, graffiti, and curse tablets than anything ever pontificated by the likes of Lucan or Cicero (a lot of jabs at Cicero, I know). Far more interested in “the laundry-workers” than “arms and the man.” I’m much happier to come across a phonetic (mis)spelling in a contract from a merchant in Pompeii than to suffer through anything Statius ever wrote.

But the opportunity to do this was fleeting, and to continue it with any financial stability after my graduate assistantship ended would require things that I didn’t have or couldn’t do. Even the professors whom I admired so much and who shared my goals of public and accessible Classics had to regularly participate in the 19th-century rituals, and appease the gatekeepers of the old order, in their graduate studies. So, initially, I did what I could to ease my way in.

It was when I was able to attend a couple of conferences, as a guest rather than presenter, that I met classism in Classics face-to-face. I am rather shy in situations with such stark power dynamics, and wanted to get my feet wet in the environment and process before I tried to present at some point in the future. Even dedicated attempts at conversing and networking were failures. I didn’t have a prestigious school listed on a name tag, and I couldn’t go for dinner or drinks. It felt like the ‘in groups’, the people who would one day do the hiring and promoting, along with the people who would one day be hired and promoted, were an impenetrable phalanx, spears pointed outward toward the frightened barbarians. Or, described differently, perhaps they were the Classics equivalent of Regina George and her crew in Mean Girls (though, to be fair, none of them were actually mean).

On a couple of occasions during short exchanges with more traditional philologists, I lost what little attention I’d earned when I brought up my interest in non-elite Latin or quipped with a blasphemous tongue that I prefer reading graffiti to Cicero. I was a lesser scholar, a lowly M.A. student, interested in lesser scholarship. Although one gentleman did spend a few minutes telling me about his experiences with epigraphy during “the most amazing summer” in Italy.

For more than one reason, though my disillusionment was the dominant one, I withdrew from pursuing Classics-related goals, considering it an activity that had ruined many people with much more impressive credentials and extensive participation than myself. Nor did I feel that my ‘brand’ of Classics was appropriate or appealing to many programs.

“But,” to borrow from Joel’s article, “this is not a sob story.”

Before I started writing this, at least, I didn’t intend it to be a sob story. I generally don’t like to talk about myself, especially my academic experiences; my close friends still ask what exactly I studied or teach and why. That being said, I didn’t think a piece like this could be so therapeutic. But it is, and very much so.

Still, despite my struggles, I am a white male, and I did not suffer the disadvantages of scholars who are women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. I look the part, and learned quickly to play the part somewhat well. I have also had the benefit of amazingly helpful faculty members and mentors in both my undergraduate and graduate programs. No matter how personally helpful it is to air my grievances, I know that I did not, and still do not, have to endure the hardships of other people in the field.

By now you’re all asking “Is this guy ever going to get to the point?” Yes, and very shortly. But my criticisms and my suggestions are informed and shaped by my experiences. I am reluctant to separate the things I say about Classics from the things I have felt while a participant in it for most of my adult life.

CIL IV.10634 – A Graffito in Herculaneum

“By ignoring it, even the smallest problem becomes massive.”

Minimum · malu(m) · fit contemnendo · maximum

This, I feel, succinctly and quite poetically describes the current state of Classics. Decades of neglect and resistance have left the field broken. Structural and institutional problems of racism, sexism, and classism, things that the overwhelmingly wealthy and white male ministers of the field dismissed—and in many cases still do—have become mala maxima.

There are people whose experiences, scholarship, and dedication have made them far more competent and authoritative than I am on these problems, and I am grateful for their work: Rebecca Kennedy, Hannah Čulík-Baird, Sarah Bond, Grace Bertelli, Kelly Dugan, Amy Pistone, and Mathew Sears, to name a few. I am admittedly a latecomer to these dialogues and very much a novice, so I apologize for undoubtedly failing to mention other notable contributors or provide suitable media links to things I reference.

At the beginning of this piece I mentioned the question of access encoded in “how was the ______?”. What do I mean by “access” here? It is, simply stated, benefiting from exclusivity: student interactions with Classics in ways that are exclusionary to some. It is the availability of extracurricular educational, career-advancing avenues to students who have additional resources or privilege, the opportunities to become engaged in the field by virtue of one’s ability to pay or status.

Practically speaking, with regard to income inequality, it is paying for travel arrangements and meals and not having to worry about lost wages, in order to spend a week/month/semester at the American Academy in Rome; hopping on a train and paying for a couple of nights at the ‘discounted-rate’ Hilton near the conference; being able to spend $50 to have dinner and drinks and make yourself known to influential faculty members. Even before all of these become necessary, it is the tremendous upfront costs to study for and take the utterly discriminatory and unnecessary GRE, and unless one can navigate the labyrinth of waivers, to pay application fees.

It is “membership in the country club” of activities that advance students and careers.

Everyone who has engaged with academia is painfully aware (or perhaps gleefully aware, for a select few) that access is necessary. And, whether some are willing to admit it or not, these exclusionary activities carry a lot of weight with regard to acceptance into the higher ranks of the field, such as PhD programs and faculty positions. In decisions made across the world in Classics departments, the ability to afford plane tickets and fancy dinners, and the luxury of not needing a job while attending college are powerful factors in deciding who advances and who doesn’t. Fittingly for the dark side of Classics I will quote Darth Vader: “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.” All other things being comparable on two CVs, for example, the candidate who was able to afford summers in Rome and Athens, and who happened to have had a few glasses of wine with committee members at a conference in New York last year, has a notable edge over the candidate who didn’t.

To favor or require certain accomplishments in a discipline isn’t itself inherently exclusionary. However, when higher income is a prerequisite to these accomplishments, existing inequalities are perpetuated and students with access to more resources are at an immediate advantage. A graduate student in Classics should of course be able to conduct research and present findings, but the measure of successfully achieving this should not be $1,000 in travel expenses or meeting other exclusionary financial requirements. A seminar presentation on animal metaphors in Ovid’s tristia given by an economically disadvantaged scholar of color at Mississippi State should be considered valid scholarship alongside a presentation on animal metaphors in Ovid’s tristia given by a wealthy white scholar at Yale. But it isn’t. And this isn’t news to anyone.

I am not at all denigrating the substantive benefits that conferences and study abroad programs provide to participants. They are necessary for the advancement of scholarship and dialogue, and to ensure that scholarship itself is current. They offer the chance to immerse oneself in pertinent spaces. They provide practical experience, and are powerful incentives to maintain intellectual activity. This list could continue, although you get the point. We need events in Classics. We simply need MORE events in Classics, ones which are financially and geographically within reach to students who cannot meet extensive travel requirements.

P. Mich. 8.468 – Letters of Claudius Terentianus

“But nothing happens without money”

a[ut]ẹm sene aer[e] / [ni]hil fiet

As they exist now, events are expensive and inaccessible to the people who often need them most. In a field in which funding is increasingly hard to obtain, especially for the institutions most in need of it (I sense a trend, here), what are some things we can do to decrease the glaring effects of income inequality with regard to advancement and CV building? Many great things are already happening: expansion of need-based funding, travel grants, and microgrants from The Sportula. The necessity of these is, of course, indicative of tremendous systemic problems in education and society at large. As we work to remedy these, here I will try to limit my offerings to things we might do that don’t necessarily require wholesale restructuring.

I would like to also consider the question “what can we maybe do to help?” more locally. What can we do to increase access when it’s still not possible for students to study in Rome or go to a conference in Toronto? If these seem obvious, and many of them will, I apologize for the redundancy.

One seemingly simple suggestion, which I have discussed with students and colleagues at length in the past, is to bring the conferences to the students. This is already happening at several Classics conferences, at places such as Trinity College Dublin and (to a far lesser extent) on the SCS YouTube channel. Often the necessary equipment, including cameras, computers, and websites, is in place or readily available, and thus the additional costs are minimized.

At the risk of incurring the indignation of classicists, I would also suggest exploring the ways that event-related travel might benefit Classics programs at nearby colleges with fewer resources. Perhaps a blog or message board of some sort, or even a more formal SCS program could facilitate communication. I know well that many conference attendants are overworked and underpaid, and that asking for more sacrifice might be criminal. Still, it could mean the world to a student at a state “directional” school to have another classicist stop by the department for an hour, for a Q&A or a test-run for a presentation, while driving to a conference. It certainly meant a lot to me when it happened at my state “directional” school as an undergraduate, and it meant even more when the classicist remembered me a year later and mailed a few of us copies of his book. With networking being as important as it is, it is all the more imperative that students in need receive these opportunities.

Access also includes the ability to actively participate in production in scholarship, chiefly presentation and publication. We need a strong commitment to make presentation more locally accessible through departmental events such as seminars or panels. It is a common practice in many disciplines that should be entirely embraced by Classics. Students can enhance their CVs, gain experience for future presentations, and explore the field further. Faculty can learn more about the students in their program. It can only benefit everyone when students are given a space to present, explore their interests, ask questions, and discuss.

Many Classics undergraduate and graduate programs are fully engaged in this already, hosting events for students to present what interests them and what they are currently be working on. Too many departments, however, are not. These are the very events that kept me dedicated to the field during my worst moments. They positively impact enrollment, and even occasionally get the department a major or minor. For the students who can rarely (or not at all) travel, presentations like these can be tremendously beneficial opportunities; they no longer have to leave blank a ‘Presentations’ section on an application or CV.

The machinations of the traditional academic publishing process are certainly not a specialty of mine, although I am well aware of the costs and other impediments. Nevertheless, there are avenues through which we can allow students to make their research accessible: university websites, blogs, academia.edu, etc. Given the current demands of Digital Humanities scholars, the incentive to utilize these platforms and others is even greater. Of course, there are the questions of the peer review and editing processes with publishing of this type, and these are no substitutes for enduring the harsh comments of Reviewer #2.

What we can do with these types of publishing, though, is give students the opportunities to make their work, interests, and skills known to a wider audience, and familiarize them with basic techniques. Something like a departmental blog, even a student-run one, would provide students the chance to add something to the ‘miscellaneous’ category of an application and to have a semi-institutional place to present their work to those who might be considering them for employment or program acceptance.

Lastly, there is the problem of wider access to information itself. Well-supplied Classics libraries or reading rooms are a luxury that most schools do not have, and although many college libraries have much in the way of resources for Classics students, often more recent texts and journals are difficult to obtain. Even with extensive interlibrary loan options, time and availability restraints are often significant limitations. To the extent that it is possible without violating publishing rules, I hope to see more classicists make their work available online. I have been recently encouraged by efforts to make resources available by scanning and uploading them and so on.

Important also is that these activities are doubly beneficial, both for those students who wish to continue in Classics or a related field and those who don’t—or in the case of many, myself included, those who wished to continue in Classics, until they tried to continue in Classics. They build and require skills useful outside of academia: research, presentation, formatting, digital publishing, etc., all with considerably more freedom and agency than in traditional classroom activities. Speaking from experience, listing my presentations and discussing them during my interviews were important factors in securing a position in publishing. My experiences with digital platforms secured my part-time teaching position.

As I mentioned before, the recommendations here might seem obvious to many of you as you read this. And I hope that’s the case, because it indicates that, at the very least, options are being explored, and, optimally, implemented. But in my experiences at several schools and talking with a number of students, solutions are not being implemented or considered on a meaningful scale in the places they are needed most. The list of suggestions is by no means exhaustive or authoritative, but I can speak personally to the efficacy of my suggestions in my own academic and employment history, and I know they’ve done the same for many others.

Likewise, I know that the positive impacts of many of these suggestions are contingent upon much larger and more systemic problems in Classics and academia as a whole. That these might be small bandages for seemingly fatal wounds. My position, simply put, though, is that we should be considering anything at our disposal to help the students who remain dedicated to a field so callous toward them. In this case, as long as Classics requires tremendous personal financial expense to achieve success, we should be discussing as many ideas as possible to combat the inequalities created by such requirements.

Inevitably there will be the usual reactions against any substantive changes or moves toward inclusion and equity in the field. They will be the same reactions that remind me of a favorite quote of Sallust, filled with general disgust toward the desire to change a failing status quo. I find it quite a nice call to action:

“In every society the people who have nothing envy the good (wealthy), exalt the wicked, hate the old ways and long for new ones, and strive to change everything due to their hatred of their own condition.”

Nam semper in civitate, quibus opes nullae sunt, bonis invident, malos extollunt, vetera odere, nova exoptant, odio suarum rerum mutari omnia student (Cat. 37)

As I neared the end of writing this, I received an email about a wonderful-sounding graduate colloquium at the University of Virginia, titled ‘Vox Populi; Populism and Popular Culture in Ancient Greece and Rome.’ Let’s hope they livestream it, because the cheapest plane ticket I can find from Kansas City is $400, and I’m not sure I could get that day off work, anyway   : )

Brandon Conley is in an “it’s complicated” relationship with Classics. He has taught in Ohio, Missouri, and Tennessee, and is currently a Classics instructor at Michigan State University. He loves Twitter more than he should, and you can find him at @bc4503.

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