Decolonizing a Myth Class

This post is an explanatory (and exploratory) framework for a website I have started for a course on Classical Mythology. This website is developing as the central ‘text’ of my Classical Mythology Course at Brandeis University. The website and the following discussion are intended as adaptive and evolving responses to teaching Greek myth. 


Since the events of the most recent SCS Annual Meeting and its subsequent coverage, I have been thinking a lot about the state of the discipline of Classical Studies and what I can do (as well as what I must do) based on the various roles I play within the field and the University. I have been listening carefully to what people like Joy Connolly, Yurie Hong, and Rebecca Futo Kennedy have to say about the measures we can institute now, in the medium term, and in the long term; I have also seriously contemplated what Classicists of color have to say about themselves and the field—learning a lot in particular from Dan-El Padilla Peralta, Nandini Pandey, Jackie Murray (through her deep and powerful interview with Scott Lepisto on Itinera), Mathura Umachandran, Yung In Chae, and my own student Helen Wong, whose critique of my department’s focus on “Western Civilization” has been eating away at me for months now.

Through conversations with some of these generous people as well as other friends and colleagues (including Suzanne Lye, Amy Pistone, Kelly Dugan, Tara Mulder, Caitlin Gillespie, Robyn LeBlanc, Hilary Lehmann, Curtis Dozier, Justin Arft), I have clarified for myself that my actions must be commensurate with the roles I play. But they also must be made with the help of and participation of others. (And this is why I am trying to name everyone I have spoken to and listened to about these issues: none of us will change our fields alone; none of us is in this alone.) Envisioning and creating a community is essential, especially when the odds can seem so long and the voices eager to dismiss the need for change so many.

For me, this means trying to align my values with my actions over several separate domains: my ‘scholarship’, my work as a midcareer reader and editor, my role as department chair and in university governance, my mentorship of students at the graduate and undergraduate level, and, finally, but not of least importance, my role as an instructor. While these roles naturally influence each other, the classroom is a place where I know I can take direct and immediate action.

I am going to be working with my department to alter our curriculum, and to change the language of our mission (to align with what we actually do), and to reconsider the way we train graduate students. And I will likely write some posts here and there to talk about these efforts. But, for now, let’s talk about Classical Mythology.


Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

I have had training at two institutions for what was called “Affirmative Action Advocacy” at one and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” at the other. For the most part, my training has not been about creating inclusive classroom spaces or diversifying our disciplines; instead it has been about the workplace and hiring practices. At Brandeis University, I have learned a lot from training in our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion over the past few years, and I think that the basic distinctions plotted by each category are useful both for understanding the manifold character of problems in our field and for adapting our classrooms.

Diversity is something most people can understand to an extent: it means creating and valuing a space that has people from different backgrounds, religions, language groups, genders, sexual orientations and identities, and abilities. But diversity alone can be no more sophisticated than collecting baseball cards if we do not recognize that because of structural and institutional prejudices (racism, sexism, ableism, and on…) the individuals who are representative of diversity do not start with the same knowledge, skills, or emotional stances towards education.

Equity means making the effort on institutional and individual bases to redress the unequal starting points (and this often gets some people riled up because equity is about achieving fair outcomes, but not about giving everyone the same thing). And Inclusion means modifying the space to accommodate the different abilities and perspectives of our community.

I have taken the trouble of spelling this out in part because there is much opportunity for confusion and in order to make my starting point clear. A good exercise before engaging in this activity is to take a self-test for implicit bias. I also think that Robin D’Angelo’s  “White Fragility” is an essential read. In addition, check out Amy Pistone’s round-up of a SCS workshop “Centering the Margins: Creating Inclusive Syllabi” (with Suzanne Lye, Yurie Hong, Robyn LeBlanc, and Rebecca Kennedy).


What is Decolonizing?

Decolonizing is a process with philosophical underpinnings in the middle 20th century which seeks to de-center the works of European colonial authorities, to recenter global voices which have been marginalized from our history and literature, and to re-frame the past by listening to the voices of those marginalized by their bodies and class. Decolonizing also means reading the work of scholars who have been traditionally marginalized from our fields and re-introducing non-canonical subjects as a historical corrective.

For literature courses and history courses, this process has been ongoing as curricula have change to be more inclusive and re-analyze the past from perspectives outside Europe and the United states. But this movement is not just about changing the content of our courses; it is also about the way we run our courses and treat the people who take them. Such a movement has, of course, been ongoing and has created its own series of backlashes from the staid and deceptive work of Harold Bloom to the more aggressive onslaught of Who Killed Homer.

The various disciplines of Classics have been slow to respond to this movement outside of various forms of reception studies because Classical Studies has been so thoroughly identified with Europe and, as Rebecca Kennedy has shown in a pretty convincing twitter thread, was intentionally weaponized as part of “Western Civilization” to justify and enforce colonialism, slavery and their associated horrors. As Cate Bonesho has recently argued, part of our disciplinary inheritance is denying connections with the Ancient Near East; and as the reactions to Martin Bernal’s Black Athena reveal, our field has mobilized to defend the centrality of European exceptionalism within the last generation.

So, the first question is: can you decolonize the classics? Can we decolonize a tool of colonialism? While the answer is complicated, I think we certainly can: courses that have focused on sexuality and gender, slavery, race and ethnicity, and non-canonical texts have sought to do this in their own way. But what about a myth course?


Decolonizing a Myth Class

There are, I think, two chief aspects of dealing with a Classical Mythology course. One has to do with the courses’ intention; the other has to do with its content. Some institutions and instructors may decide to go the way of Eva M. Thury’s and Margaret Devinney’s excellent Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths (Oxford, 4th Edition). This book focuses on kinds of narratives across cultures (tricksters, heroes, creation stories) and does an admirable job of integrating major scholarly approaches with clear tellings of the myths involved.

The problem with this text is that it is a little expensive, the publisher puts out new editions with some frequency (changing page numbers, undermining the used book market), and the authors can’t sidestep the fact that the process of canonization in Europe has preserved sophisticated versions of the Greek and Roman narratives and, further, that our aesthetic and academic expectations have been shaped by the canon. I taught using this book for many years and found that the aesthetic inheritance of Greek and Roman materials causes students to ‘marginalize’ material from other traditions in their reception. (That said, I would recommend trying out this book to anyone who is starting a myth course from scratch)

Additional considerations when choosing how to teach a myth class include: the competence of the instructor and the curricular/educational intention behind the class. Let’s take up the second thing first. When I teach myth I always start with a discussion of why it is important to teach a myth course. I introduce what I see as the different methods (Edith Hamilton-style anthology vs. literature based deep context) and an overview of why we might even teach myth.

In the process of introducing the course, I explain that one longstanding reason for teaching myth is “cultural literacy”, namely that since so much of “western culture” is shaped or informed by Classical Myth, one needs to be conversant in it to ‘decode’ it. I trouble this notion from the moment I introduce it, emphasizing that (1) there is no single Classical Mythology (anthologies like Hamilton’s select and present narratives from different periods and social contexts erratically) and (2) “western” reception of that non-singular mythology is uneven and spectacularly strange. Artists and authors revel in the odd and obscure: any course of study set up to provide someone with cultural literacy would be a banal trudge through disconnected detail rendered for erudite allusion.

Yes, I tell my students, a Mythology course can function to educate us about elements used in the creation of the “Western Canon” and can thus be indispensable in mounting a critique of it. But I position my myth course as being about storytelling and the way that cultural discourse functions to shape the way we view the world and what we think our roles in it can be. In approaching myth this way, I start with a healthy dose of cognitive science and psychology on how stories shape the brain and our perception of the world; I also include information on the definition of discourse and ideology from perspectives informed by sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and post-modern theory. As such, I argue, myth should be taught with cultural contexts in mind and with an emphasis on the way stories are altered for specific needs and how they function to enforce and explore dominant ideologies.

Understanding how myth is part of how we see the world and how we are initiated into the act of understanding it, I tell my students, is part of developing a personal “user’s manual” for the human brain. Any deep well of traditional storytelling presented within the right framework can help us achieve this knowledge—any body of narrative from Mesoamerican, South Asian, African, East Asian to modern science fiction can contribute to the same ends. Cultural distance, indeed, helps us appreciate how storytelling shapes us. And instructor competence is critical in unpacking and reshaping the reception of myth.


Basic Principles of the Class

Much of what follows reflects what I do in many of my courses. But I have benefited a lot from talking with Kelly P. Dugan who was kind enough to share her syllabus for a myth course with me.


One principle central to my ‘decolonizing’ of a myth course is transparency about what our goals are in the course and what my basic principles are in teaching it. While I do believe deeply that other storytelling traditions could do the same work, I cannot fully decolonize my myth course (that is, integrate other storytelling traditions into it) because of my own competences and because of the particular advantage myths from Greece and Rome present: anyone who speaks a European language or is engaged with the popular culture wielded as its own form of discourse by these language groups comes with a familiarity in the basic narrative patterns, assumptions, and aesthetics which are embedded in them. Introducing greater justice and equity in our culture means tackling these forces and assumptions head-on. From the foundational narrative of the triumph of patriarchy to the adoption of “the hero’s journey” as a dominant narrative paradigm, the traditions of Greek storytelling continue to have powerful (and often harmful) effects on our world.

On one test of decolonizing the curriculum, then, my approach is an abject failure: but this is, I think, a fate and a challenge all Classical Studies curricula must face head on: our subjects are products and producers of a racist paradigm. We can, I believe, start the hard work of transforming this paradigm on multiple fronts. Within the framework of a course on myth, I think this means we need to focus on the stories and how they functioned within their cultural contexts and also how they are ‘re-purposed’ as ideological tools in different contexts.

Rather than replicate some of the problems of an anthologized myth course which elides cultural differences, I teach an almost entirely ‘Archaic Greek’ myth course which traces the ‘teleologically’ minded cosmic history generalized through Panhellenism in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE. I pay particular attention to providing studies with multiforms or allomorphs (terms I privilege over ‘variant’, which reifies the idea that there is a ‘master’ narrative from which other traditions diverge) and also to contextualizing these multiforms within particular places, periods, and expectations. I also heavily emphasize that the process of Panhellenization is one of ideological force, defining ‘Greekness’ by exclusion primarily through the creation of a unified other. In addition, I take every opportunity to reiterate the pluralism of “Greekness” (different dialects, peoples, polities, values) and the multicultural origins of much of what we have received as Greek.

The primary content of my course, then, is not particularly remarkable—I use Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and the Homeric epics with supplementary material drawn from Apollodorus, Ovid, Greek poets, and fragments I have translated on my own. I have begun the secondary step of decolonizing by providing students not just with the multiform traditions from ancient Greece but also to modern critical responses from diverse scholars (where possible).


Affordability and Accessibility

The biggest step I have recently taken is the creation of a website which uses only free sources for the core readings in the course. Rather than expect students to purchase a large selection of books, I have found appropriate alternatives online and have supplemented with my own translations where necessary (most of them from this website). I have created this space as an evolving and open course for others to use if they see fit and for even those outside of the academy to use as a starting point for researching Greek myth. Each class day has a brief summary, a list of authors who are discussed in the course that day, links to the open source translations, links to blog posts with additional information, and links to articles. There is a page for resources for researching Greek myth; there is also room for adding material by and for students. I am still working on ways to include my powerpoint slides on the website; for now, all slides are available on the University LMS for students. Since the LMS is clunky and not available outside the Brandeis community it is important to me that course material be made fully public.



Developing new materials and responses to myth over time requires a level of knowledge I could not hope to attain on my own. Students have a large range of knowledge and experiences and bring a lot to the course. I encourage students to share links and material with me and I will integrate their work (when they do it and if they wish it) into the course over time. Sometimes this means I have to have difficult conversations in class about why Sparta is less than cool or why Jordan Peterson is a dangerous ideologue, but these are important moments in helping students develop a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle material from the ancient world. Even though I spend a the bulk of the course on Early Greek material, I use the last few weeks of the course to highlight how ‘Greek’ material is adapted to new contexts (and how different ‘Roman’ material is) and how storytelling functions as myth in modern genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction.


Course policies

An essential pedagogical understanding is that students bring different experiences, learning modalities, and skills to the course. Some will have a strong grasp of the concept of discourse; others will know myriad details of myth which escape me (as happens every semester). I believe that a course must be created in such a way as to allow all students to succeed in attaining its stated goals. Many students are new to college and need to work or have other reasons for not being able to attend all classes: all students can make up any class or missed quiz by completing extra credit.

Because students have different responses to exams and come with different preparation for studying, I have an adaptive grading process. This means that all exams can be made up to full credit (in addition students can earn ‘extra’ credit at any time in the course by writing responses to supplementary material posted on line). This also means providing students with plenty of extra time for exams and assignments and honoring all accommodation needs without creating obstacles. Finally, the course’s activities need to be aligned with its goals: the course starts out lecture heavy to help create a common ground, but I increasingly move toward discussion and workshops. The final assessments are student-designed projects that allow them to work and rework ancient narrative structures. (In earlier versions of the course I have had some success in bringing storytellers to class and having students retell myths in their own words.)


Some Future Plans

I teach this course every other year. In addition to updating course materials and continually adding in the work of underrepresented authors and linking to comparative myths in other traditions (a particular weakness of the current format), I need to improve the accessibility of the course. I will eventually create audio versions of each class; but I also need to work with my campus accessibility services to make sure that the powerpoints and website material can work for students of varied abilities. One of the reasons I chose to use wordpress instead of my campus LMS for the material beyond opening up the course to the world at large is that the wordpress site populates to mobile devices fairly well.

In general, however, I hope to benefit from students and researchers who care enough about myth to add to the material on the website. I look forward to any comments and additions and will integrate them as I can. Please email me ( if you would like to be able to add supplementary material directly or if you have any advice for uploaded the powerpoint slides to the website. I am also profoundly unvisual and have an (unjustifiable) antipathy towards video. I would be particularly grateful, then, for links to appropriate, useful, humorous or otherwise significant video clips. Finally, I would like to integrate more material about reception, but this is another one of my weaknesses.

Farnese Sarcophagus from Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

Against Pedantry

“..[D]on’t listen to the pedantic and specific precepts of grammarians; but heed your own ear…”

non finitiones illas praerancidas neque fetutinas grammaticas spectaveris, sed aurem tuam interroga

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.21

When I was applying to graduate school and asked what it was like, I remember my first Greek teacher telling me a story about his PhD qualifying exams. During the two-hour oral component, some eminent professor of distinguished achievement remained conspicuously silent. When he did speak up, he looked critically at the examinee (a Homerist) and asked a single question: “What is the name of Odysseus’ mother?” My teacher could not remember and it caused enough trauma that this was the story he used to characterize his experience in graduate school almost 30 years later.

When I was in a PhD program myself, this anecdote was the first thing that came to my mind as I looked over the returned draft of the first three chapters of my dissertation. Most dissertations leave behind them legacies of confusion, shame, and pain. Mine was not completely traumatizing, but that’s because, after struggling for six months to write over 100 pages of well-footnoted dreck, I had the audacity to throw everything away and start from scratch. During a feverish long-weekend in February 2006, I re-started from page 1 and ended up writing the first draft of a ‘chapter’ that, at over 100 pages, became the first three chapters of a messy, long, but ultimately ‘successful’ dissertation. (Spoiler: I passed).

When you submit chapters of your dissertation to advisors, the ensuing period of silence can be maddening. (And sometimes that long wait never ends.) When I did receive a marked-up version of my magnum opus, I scurried away from my advisor to start poring over his responses, hoping for some clue that I was on the right track, to divine some sign of my future. And inside: Corrected misspellings; Commas inserted and deleted; A Greek accent was repaired. The longest actual comment I could find was scrawled next to a footnote: the word “Phaeacia” was scratched out, next to it: “The Phaeacians live in Skheria.”

This was not the first warning I received in graduate school about the world into which I was seeking initiation. Any failure to translate adequately in seminars was met with sudden questions about obscure aorist stems. In casual conversation, I remember being corrected for calling someone “long-lifed”, when the right way of saying it is “long-lived”. But I am a blustery and confident sort. When I was asked in a seminar why I didn’t know the defective aorist of bainô, I responded, probably with a bit of acid, “because I am a student. I am here to learn.”

The first lesson I was taught in graduate school was either to shed the Socratic notion of owning up to my ignorance or be prepared for shame as a reward for my loyalty to Platonic dogma. The second lesson was really just the application of one I already knew: the best defense is a good offense. Know the nitty-gritty details; and, if you don’t, just put someone else on the spot first.

precise man

Continue reading “Against Pedantry”

Annual Atopia: The Not-Top 10

Yesterday I posted a list of the top 10 posts on the site based on page-views. Sometimes we can guess which posts are going to generate some traffic; other times, we are surprised both by those that are popular and those. Here’s a list of some of my favorite posts that didn’t make the top 10.

1. Tessered Latin and Greek: A Lexical “Wrinkle in Time”

Mimi Kramer wrote a great story in the Daily Beast about Greek (and a little Latin) in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This blog has a little cameo…

2. The Difference of A Year: Some Links to Classicists Fighting the Good Fight Online

One of the things we don’t do enough on this blog that I want to try to do more of next year is promoting others’ work online (and off). In this post we highlighted some of the critical work Classicists are doing today. Several months later, the importance of their efforts has only increased.

3. Skatokhasm: Another Word You Know You Need

We posted a good deal of political material over the past year and got some minor abuse for it. It is hard to choose from the many absurd things we posted in response to the degeneration of our public discourse, but this riffing on shit-hole, σκατοχάσμα is one of my favorite.

4. Philology at Dinner: How I Began to Love Classics

Erik wrote a moving and important essay about what drew him to Classics. I have reread it many times. You should too.

5. Parenting While Teaching Greek Badly

I wrote a few essays this year that were deeply personal. This one is a little more uplifting than my bit on death. Also, while I certainly live the latter on a daily basis, I am all the more certain with each passing day that I will miss the parenting and teaching badly the most.

6. Tell Me Aristotle, Why Do We Have Butts?

Dr. Rebecca Raphael mentioned this passage on facebook and I had to post it. It is everything the world needs right now.

7. In Defense of Obscenity

Erik wrote this piece as part of defending the use of the colloquial and obscene from the ancient world on this blog and in the classroom. It emerged in part from an ongoing discussion about our discomfort with how popular the Tawdry Tuesday posts are. I don’t think we’re done figuring this one out, but I think we will keep returning to this post to think about it.

8. Humanizing a Monster II

This is the first album review to appear on the website! Erik writes movingly about the way Moonface engages with the story of the Minotaur (from his perspective) and humanizes both the monster and the audience by doing so. I have been listening to the album regularly since he posted this.

9. Newly Discovered Text: A Late Antique Dialogue on “The Etymology of ‘Mimosa’”

Benjamin Eldon Stevens posted a funny meme on twitter about the etymology of Mimosa. I butted in and added a different etymology. It turned into a blogpost.

10. The New Sappho Poem: a Student Commentary

This post is the product of work some of my Greek Lyric Class at Brandeis did. It is probably the best thing we did in class over the semester. (Note: teaching lyric is hard!)

Honorable Mentions:

“Your Father Does Not Dine With Us”: Orphanhood and Dehumanization
Science and Humanity
No, Internet, Kerberos is Probably Not “Spot”
Classroom Confession: I am a Terrible Teacher
What Does Helen Look Like?

Drinking Meme

Some Cool Projects from Greek Classes

Zenobius 1.89

“The doors of the muses are open”: a proverb applied to those readily acquiring the best things in their education.”

᾿Ανεῳγμέναι Μουσῶν θύραι: ἐπὶ τῶν ἐξ ἑτοίμου λαμβανόντων τὰ κάλλιστα τῶν ἐν παιδείᾳ.

I have shared some of my successes and failures from Greek Classes before on this site–I like to celebrate student achievements where I can and also share the little bit I learn about trying to get out of their way while they are in the business of actually learning. Two of my colleagues at other universities have shared some of their student projects this semester, and I think both projects deserve wider notice.

Podcasting the Iliad

Dr. Deborah Beck at the University of Texas had her students produce podcasts on specific passages from Homer’s Iliad. (Deborah has created a great list of instructions she is happy to share with anyone who contacts her.) Each podcast lasts about 12 minutes and can be listened to in sequence or as a standalone piece. The podcasts started as class presentations and were be expanded with reflections on the process of preparing a class as well as the content. The podcasts are produced by the students and they are of a fine quality–they are listenable, personable and enjoyable. The discussions are deep and indicative of sustained and meaningful engagements with the text. After just a few minutes of listening, I became convinced that this is a project worth repeating.

Dr. Beck starts the project off herself with a nice introduction and a discussion of Iliad 22.199-213. In looking at Hektor’s flight from Achilles provides her an opportunity to think about divine engagement in the war “helps to …make the Iliad a universal story of loss and war rather than a more simplistic and less interesting victory song of the Greeks.”

The first student presentation by Ethan Russo looks at Achilles’ reflection on Hektor and his treatment of the body. Ethan emphasizes the emotive experience of reading the passage out-loud as a method in re-embodying the text. The third episode turns to Andromache’s laments for Hektor and how the narrator characterizes her ignorance (“evoking the distance between Andromache’s expectations and reality”). Sam Ross’s reflections on presenting this text in class are a personal and useful reminder of what it is like for anyone to plan a class.

Altogether the podcasts provide an intimate view of the tools and assumptions that shape the way we read Homer together. Claudia Cockerell brings us to the beginning of book 23 in the 4th episode and asks us to think about the catharsis of the coming funeral. She starts with a reading of the appearance of Patroklos at the beginning of the book and “the fact that Patroklos thinks they will be able to embrace one more time further underlines how little he knows of the current situation”. Claudia communicates her own deep conflict in witnessing the dream sequence and being unsure of which character deserves our pity.

In Episode 5, Austin McDow  expands on the simile which precedes Priam’s supplication of Achilles in the middle of book 24 (24.424-506). Austin does a great job of invoking the basic themes of Priam’s katabasis before turning to the simile–he summarizes how his fellow students responded to his simile and the potentially ungovernable range of responses to such a charged moment.

In Episode 6, Rachel Pritchett focuses on Achilles’ response to Priam’s request–she surveys each of Achilles’ speeches in book 24 to show how each one of them emphasizes “important insights into the character’s worldview, emotions, and sympathies.” Staying with this movement, Trey Timson uses Episode 7 to talk about Achilles’ myth of Niobe in book 24. This paradeigma (a hero’s telling of a previous myth for a specific purpose) is one of the more hotly debated topics in Homeric scholarship.  Trey brings together multiple interpretations and the conventional tale to bear on the strangeness and power of this moment. He notes smartly that ancient audiences might not be troubled by contradictions–he sees a blend of different traditions operative at the same time. (He spends an extra bit of time focusing on the importance of sitos (“grain”) in this passage.)

Episode 8 (which comes a bit out of order) looks at the final 100 lines of the Iliad. Lauryn Hanely  provides a proud overview of the poem’s end, starting with a tangent about the importance of a three-act structure for works of art, separating the poem into three parts. For her, books 23 and 24 present the denouement of the three-part movement. Lauren goes through the powerful laments that close the epic’s final book

One of the neatest things about this project is that it is clear that the students have listened to each other both inside and outside of class and that their interpretation of the poem is a both a product of and producer of a community, the very thing the Homeric poems are too.

Gnomologium Vaticanum, 469

 [Plato] used to say that someone being educated needs three things: ability, practice and time.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔλεγεν ὅτι ὁ παιδευόμενος τριῶν τούτων χρῄζει· φύσεως, μελέτης, χρόνου.

Lysias Puppet Show

Dr. Suzanne Lye’s Greek class at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill did a puppet show based on Lysias’ “Murder of Eratosthenes”.

Ok, this is awesome. Puppets? Murder? There is something for everyone! In all seriousness, it is a great exercise for teamwork, pronunciation, and a deeper understanding of the speech. The show replays part of the case–this is some Law and Order stuff here–which means students have to investigate material culture and the legal background more extensively than one might in a typical class.

If you have any great projects with an online presence, let me know. I would be happy to share them.

Image result for homer's iliad

Stob. 2.31.38

“Noble Socrates reproached fathers who did not teach their sons and then, when they were destitute, took their sons to court and sued them as ungrateful because they did not support their parents. He said that the fathers were expecting something impossible: those who have not learned just actions are incapable of performing them”

Σωκράτης ὁ γενναῖος ᾐτιᾶτο τῶν πατέρων ἐκείνους, ὅσοι <μὴ> παιδεύσαντες αὑτῶν τοὺς υἱεῖς, εἶτα ἀπορούμενοι ἦγον ἐπὶ τὰς ἀρχὰς τοὺς νεανίσκους καὶ ἔκρινον αὐτοὺς ἀχαριστίας, ὅτι οὐ τρέφονται ὑπ᾿ αὐτῶν. εἶπε γὰρ ἀδύνατον ἀξιοῦν τοὺς πατέρας· μὴ γὰρ οἵους τε εἶναι τοὺς μὴ μαθόντας τὰ δίκαια ποιεῖν αὐτά.

“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.

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

“This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity

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?

*                                   *                                   *

Odyssey 19.203

“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.

knight 2

Continue reading ““This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity”

Leave Your Homework to Sunday Night? Philo has Some Words for You

Philo, The Preliminary studies 29.166–7

There are those who, when they encounter the frights and horrors of the wilderness with complete endurance and strength complete the contest of life, after preserving it unsullied and unconquered, holding fast against the compulsions of nature like poverty, so that they subdue hunger, thirst, cold, and heat and everything which enslaves other people through the great abundance of their strength.

The cause of this is not simple toil but toil with a certain sweetening. For he says “the water is sweetened” and the work that is sweet and attractive is also called “love of labor” (philoponia). For in work the desire and longing and and love of finer things is sweet. Let no one turn away from this kind of suffering, nor let anyone believe that when the table of the feast and happiness is called “bread of suffering” it is for its harm rather than profit. For the soul which is chastened is fed by the instructions of education.”

οἱ δὲ τὰ φοβερὰ καὶ δεινὰ τῆς ἐρήμης πάνυ τλητικῶς καὶ ἐρρωμένως ἀναδεχόμενοι τὸν ἀγῶνα τοῦ βίου διήθλησαν ἀδιάφθορον καὶ ἀήττητον φυλάξαντες καὶ τῶν τῆς φύσεως ἀναγκαίων κατεξαναστάντες, ὡς πεῖναν, δίψος, [ῥῖγος,] κρύος, θάλπος, ὅσα τοὺς ἄλλους εἴωθε δουλοῦσθαι, κατὰ πολλὴν ἰσχύος περιουσίαν ὑπάγεσθαι. αἴτιον δὲ ἐγένετο οὐ ψιλὸς ὁ πόνος, ἀλλὰ σὺν τῷ γλυκανθῆναι· λέγει γάρ· “ἐγλυκάνθη τὸ ὕδωρ,” γλυκὺς δὲ καὶ ἡδὺς πόνος ἑτέρῳ ὀνόματι φιλοπονία καλεῖται. τὸ γὰρ ἐν πόνῳ γλυκὺ ἔρως ἐστὶ καὶ πόθος καὶ ζῆλος καὶ φιλία τοῦ καλοῦ. μηδεὶς οὖν τὴν τοιαύτην κάκωσιν ἀποστρεφέσθω, μηδ᾿ “ ἄρτον κακώσεως” νομισάτω ποτὲ λέγεσθαι τὴν ἑορτῆς καὶ εὐφροσύνης τράπεζαν ἐπὶ βλάβῃ μᾶλλον ἢ ὠφελείᾳ· τρέφεται γὰρ τοῖς παιδείας δόγμασιν ἡ νουθετουμένη ψυχή.

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