The sub-group on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Chronic Illness of the Classics and Social Justice group affirms its support for The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ensures that all children with disabilities have equal opportunity to public education. Research shows that students with learning disabilities like dyslexia have especially benefited from learning Latin. As a result of our extensive experience with these students, teachers of Latin and other classical subjects recognize the vital necessity of the law that protects their rights in the classroom. We also affirm our support for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects postsecondary students with disabilities from discrimination. In light of the Education Secretary’s professed ignorance of IDEA and the alarming increase in the public mocking and stigmatizing of those with physical and mental disabilities, we must renew our commitment to making classical studies accessible to all.
Author: Chris Mowat (@)
This weekend, the LGBT History Project North East team put on a day of public talks at Newcastle Civic Centre (UK). There was a diverse range of presentation by both academics and non-academics on the history – as well as the present and the future – of LGBT+ and minority sexualities.
The Project makes its aims very clear from its tagline: “No longer edited, covered up or erased”. Gender and sexually diverse people have always been on the margins of history, passed over for a focus on the mainstream. This was particularly evident from Liz Rees’ discussion of Jennie Gray, born in Gateshead as Robert Coulthard in 1887. Through archive work, Rees was able to pull moments of Gray/Coulthard’s life, mostly newspapers talking of “his” arrest for “loitering in women’s clothing”. It is unfortunate, however, that it was only these moments of public “unmasking” that we are able to glimpse their life. Other talks took a more intimate nature, with people sharing their personal histories, and engagement with the LGBT+ community. You can find a storify of some of the live-tweets from the day here.
One thing that I am taking away from the event – beyond the knowledge directly shared – is the importance of validation. A few of the talks discussed representation and its importance for bringing understanding and acceptance for LGBT people (which, as keynote Lisa Power MBE put it, “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this sh*t”). But this is something that goes both ways, too: validation is something that makes us feel more confident in ourselves and who we are. It is perhaps easy to forget, when we are discussing the deep detail of whether Greek and Roman societies were “before sexuality” – and what that even means – that history and the classics can bring that validation. When an overview of bisexuality in history (briefly) mentioned that “even Achilles had a boyfriend”, the room was fascinated to hear an aspect of Homer’s poetry that is clearly less seen by the public eye. In academia, we can argue the precise status (and perhaps ambiguity) of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship, but we should not forget that that the very basis of that discussion can bring a sense of normalcy to someone who might otherwise feel alone, different or unaccepted by society.
The Classics can be brought to the public, at any level, to help them find themselves. That chance to see someone like yourself in the history books should not be underestimated. The LGBT+ community has come a long way in the past couple of decades, but now as much as ever its position of acceptance is precarious. History and the Classics can bring a strength to that community, another voice validating identities past and present: we’re here, we’re queer and we always have been.
Author: Debby Sneed
I am not disabled.
I have never before had to “out” myself, for anything. But since I began researching disability in ancient Greece, I have become self-conscious about my able-bodiedness. Through my research I know and appreciate that modern identity is different from ancient identity, that there is no way to trace a continuity of identity from past to present, and that modern identity categories, with their attendant attitudes, expectations, and experiences, cannot be transported into the past. If my modern identity is technically irrelevant to the past identities that I’m studying, why do I feel like it matters?
It seems like every book or article by a disability studies scholar starts with an explicit statement of the author’s identity, establishing why they are enfranchised in the debate. It makes me doubt that I can say something meaningful if I am not disabled and am not close with anyone who is, or that I should even try. A lot of my colleagues who study identity or historically marginalized societies are sensitive to the kinds of issues I myself am having, but it’s difficult to articulate why.
My most recent discomfort can be traced to two problems. One is easier to articulate and is ethical in nature. I’ve been applying for a lot of fellowships and grants lately and I’m worried that people will assume that I’m disabled. Here is an actual paragraph from a recent application I submitted for a fellowship:
Research into ancient perspectives on disability can also help broaden the modern academic field of view. Two significant corollaries of identity studies are, first, that the identities of modern researchers affect the questions they ask and the interpretations they accept and, second, that researchers tend to study those aspects of the past that they themselves are familiar with in the present. By these tokens, the diversity of modern researchers is critical for progress. This is as true of archaeology as of any other discipline, but because archaeology is such a physically and emotionally demanding field of study, it is not considered accessible to or by students with mental and/or physical disabilities. This stereotype prevents people with disabilities from pursuing archaeology and the lack of the physical presence of disability in classrooms, on excavations, and in academia generally means that research agendas do not typically integrate questions about disability, its material correlates, and its lived experience in the past. My project not only incorporates disabled members of ancient Greek populations into broader considerations of ancient history, but also has the potential to highlight the intellectual space available for disabled students within Classics and archaeology.
Please ignore that it’s long-winded and consider how much it could sound like I am disabled and I want to increase the visibility of people like me in academia. With every application I twist myself into knots trying to find a way to make it clear that I’m not disabled. I struggle with the possibility that someone might read my application and give me additional consideration or even award me a fellowship because they think they’re giving it to someone who’s disabled. I want to be woke to the issues that disabled academics face without pulling a Rachel Dolezal and benefitting from a minority identity that I do not have. But how do you say “I am not disabled” in a non-weird way? (Seriously, how do you? I’m open to suggestions.)
The second problem is more difficult to explain. As someone who is not disabled, I cannot understand what it means to be disabled, most especially in terms of the barriers that disabled people face as they attempt to exist in an able-bodied world. I can imagine problems, such as how stairs would be prohibitive to people who use wheelchairs, but I cannot really understand what it means to live every day with a visible or invisible disability. And no matter how many books and articles I read by disabled people, I will never understand it, not really.
This is a problem for me as a researcher because it means that I am more limited in what kinds of questions I can ask and interpretations I can come up with. Let me give you an example. Right now I am working on a conference paper in which I argue that ancient Greek architects took account of mobility-impaired visitors to religious sanctuaries when they constructed a building’s entrance with either stairs or a ramp. Ramps in general have not received serious scholarly attention and, in fact, sometimes architectural plans of ancient temples leave off the ramps altogether, as if they are not an integral feature of the structure. I attribute this gap in scholarship to the able-bodiedness of the field: most of us have never actively thought about how we get in and out of buildings and, because we don’t think about it for ourselves, we don’t often think about it for the ancients. My research into disability studies makes me more aware of disability issues than the average scholar and it wasn’t a big step for me to consider access when I looked at ancient Greek architecture. But my ability to think about what would or would not have been relevant for disabled ancient Greeks is limited to what I can read about, which is further limited to what folks in disability studies write about.
These problems are not surmountable, and there are surely more than two anyway, but these are two I have encountered recently.
I don’t have answers, but I am confident about a few things:
- I can say something about disability in ancient Greece that is not just valid, but also meaningful, as long as I am sensitive and diligent about incorporating appropriate theories and methodologies.
- I don’t have to identify as disabled in order to do justice to disability in the past. With disability comes a concept of normalcy, and everyone has a stake in that, just like everyone has a stake in gender.
- I am not responsible for the assumption that the only people who study disability in the past are themselves disabled. Still, I am aware that it exists and that I must be careful not to imply that I am something that I am not.
A disabled scholar would write a different dissertation, but it’s not just because of their disability, it’s because of their myriad life experiences that I didn’t have. Given the politics of identity, though, I think it’s important to be upfront and also self-reflexive, to think about the problems of your own identity and how it affects your research program.
Author: Zach Elliott (@zbradleyelliott). This is the second in a two part piece on a project to study African American views of Classical education from testimonies archived by The HistoryMakers, which contains thousands of hours of narrative from African Americans in all fields. Part I was written by Joel Christensen (@sentantiq), and can be read here.
When I was first approached to work on a project studying oral histories of African American experience in Classics, I saw it as an opportunity not only to perform research that might aid in addressing the endemic lack of diversity in the field, but also to give back to the movement that allowed me to pursue graduate study. I chose to attend my undergraduate college primarily because of the financial aid package, and my ability to attend Brandeis University as a graduate student depends on being in the first cohort to receive the Diversity, Excellence, and Inclusion Scholarship (DEIS). The DEIS program aims to provide students with a non-traditional background for academia (e.g. those from underrepresented minority groups and first generation college students) access to Master’s programs so that they can later pursue doctoral study when they otherwise might have lacked that opportunity. To put it directly, without active attempts to provide access to higher education for people in situations like mine, I would not have been able to work in a field where I believe I can make meaningful contributions.
The research we have conducted using The HistoryMakers archive profoundly undermines the narrative that Classics lacks diversity because it is an inherently “white field.” Many of those interviewed reference ancient works of literature. Many tell stories about how classical education contributed to their personal and intellectual growth. Many point to teachers and professors of ancient languages and Classics as mentors and role models. These oral histories suggest that the issues surrounding diversity in Classics arise not due to the content but rather access and presentation.
Randolph Michael McLaughlin, a civil rights lawyer and former director of the Social Justice Center at Pace University Law School, addresses the perceived whiteness of Classics directly when describes his time at Columbia University and the value of his classical education:
“I mean, positively, I hated Columbia as a student, but, now, looking back on it, that was a classical education that I got. That was a great education because I can converse with anybody about practically anything and you have knowledge. That says–I say I was classically trained. You have a base of knowledge about a lot of different–that if you just became a political science and that was the track you were on, you wouldn’t have that base. It was liberal arts education in the highest form. I know there’s been a lot of opposition to that method of education–you know, they call it studying dead white men. Well, you know, sometimes they got something to teach us and you gotta study everybody.”
Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, draws attention to the lack of opportunity and the intersectional issues in the ability to pursue Classics and academia more broadly:
“And they were women who, if they had lived in my time, would have been classics professors or could have been if they wished to, instead of Latin teachers. A Latin teacher could have been a mathematician as opposed to a math teacher, an economics professor as opposed to an economics teacher and so it goes. And now, and so that’s who my teachers were. I had a few men, but mainly women.”
Callie Crossley, an award-winning broadcast journalist, expresses her issues with classical education:
Crossley: “And a very strong liberal arts institution. More to the point, I feel very strongly about liberal arts education, and it was–it’s one of the best you can get.”
Interviewer: “–It’s almost a classical education?”
Crossley: “Not classical, classical in the sense of, you know, Homer or nothing, you know, (laughs) it was–it was much broader than that, but it definitely emphasized the variety and an openness, remember I came from a house with emphasis on openness, about all of the things that one could learn and the ways in which one could learn and analytical reasoning and all of that, and it was a big emphasizer. Wellesley [College, Massachusetts] is huge on writing.”
These three examples are indicative of the sentiments expressed in many of the oral histories and provide a framework to rethink the way Classicists approach diversity. Classics, when made accessible and presented as one, non-exclusive avenue toward liberal arts education, holds value for all groups. The study of Greco-Roman antiquity is not owned by the monolithically white, imagined community of the “Western world.” To adapt Thucydides, Classics is not just a possession for all time, but also for all people.
For more on the project, see my other blog posts with the links below. When new material is posted from the project, you can find it on Joel Christensen’s website, his twitter feed, and my twitter feed.
- An Introduction to the HistoryMakers Project.
- The Honorable Russell B. Sugarmon on Classics in his early life.
Randolph Michael McLaughlin (The HistoryMakers A2005.130), interview by Shawn Wilson, 06/08/2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Randolph Michael McLaughlin describes his interest in pursuing a law career. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=321244
Shirley Ann Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2006.102), interview by Julieanna Richardson, 09/22/2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Shirley Ann Jackson discusses the racial composition of the segregated and integrated schools including Barnard Elementary School. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=29402
Callie Crossley (The HistoryMakers A2013.118), interview by Larry Crowe, 04/23/2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Callie Crossley talks about her positive experience at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=64692
Author: Joel Christensen (@sentantiq). This is the first in a two part piece on a project to study African American views of Classical education from testimonies archived by The HistoryMakers, which contains thousands of hours of narrative from African Americans in all fields. Part II was written by Zach Elliott (@zbradleyelliott), and can be read here.
Usually around the first of every year as I gear up to attend the SCS Annual Meeting, my wife—who is Indian and Muslim—starts to troll me, asking “how does it make you feel that only white people care about the Classics.” I used to bluster; I used to draw on my training in rhetoric, and marshal periodic sentences with rising tricola to defend my field (and myself). But, lately, I have mostly just been shaking, then nodding, my head.
Until this year I taught at a large, public university that served a minority-majority population and enrolled some of the largest numbers of veterans in the country. I cherished this job precisely because of the opportunity it provided to bring Homer, Plato, Thucydides and Sappho to first generation college students. But in the decade I was there, I came to understand that access to this material was limited by a range of institutional challenges: underfunded, undermined public schools at the secondary school level, political hostility, structural prejudices, and, frankly, outright racism.
Our public discourse about education has been dominated by questions of demonstrable economic utility. ‘Esoteric’ fields like the Classics (and History!?) are constantly under siege with questions about how our classes translate into jobs. Many of us spend countless hours crafting arguments about how learning Latin and Greek or studying history, philosophy, and literature provides students with the critical thinking and writing skills to succeed in any job. We collect data on GRE, MCAT and LSAT scores. We make websites and powerpoint presentations. We write these goals into course objectives and assessment plans.
None of this is intrinsically unjust, but by defining the importance of education purely in terms of economic utility, we are acceding to a system that defines the worth of a person in terms of financial potential. Even worse, when we cancel programs or limit what we teach because it will not be useful to a certain economic class, we are complicit in a system that says “this kind of education is not right for these kinds of people because they need to worry about working or ‘more important’ things.” In a country where class is almost entirely inherited and in which race and social class reinforce inequality, this is part of institutionalized racism. When politicians, coordinating boards, and even deans demand that students from certain backgrounds be trained primarily with a view towards future employment, they might truly believe that they have their best interests at heart. However, the outcome of denying courses of study to some students reifies Classics as a discipline of a leisured elite, impoverishes the range of voices and responses our generation can bring to the ancient world, and enacts a paternalistic delimitation that is racist in effect if not intent.
* * *
When I left my first university for my current one, I was excited in almost every way except for one: I knew I was giving up a mission that allowed me to answer my wife’s question honestly. And I know from talking to many people in the field that there is a desire to do more, to advance our field in different directions, and to make our world better at the same time.
Classics is not alone in facing uncertainty in our political and economic climate, but our discipline faces some of the starkest numbers when it comes to racial, religious, and even gender diversity. One area where we have made progress in the past generation is gender equity, but even there, we have to increase the number of women in permanent and tenure-track jobs. Moreover, we need to find more ways to give them support and recognize the institutional and structural obstacles they still face. We cannot hope to make significant and long term gains in terms of undergraduate diversity if we do not change the composition of the professorate.
One aspect of the pursuit of social justice in our field must be how we work to diversify our own ranks. The SCS and other organizations have created minority scholarships which can have a real impact on student lives. But we could do more—especially those of us who are in stable positions. Nationally, we can raise money to fully fund underrepresented groups at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate level. (I for one would happily forego an annual meeting or two and dedicate the money I would have spent to this effort). At our home institutions, we must work both inside and outside our departments to hire these PhDs and mentor them. We also need to listen to what they say about their experiences and safeguard their careers as if they were our own.
Further, we must also remember that the way we teach Classics can contribute positively to social justice. It is an act of resistance and a reaffirmation of a universal right to knowledge and independent thought to teach marginalized and disenfranchised communities. (And an act that often requires new pedagogical approaches.) That resistance can come in many forms, but it most definitely means more active outreach by Classics faculty to underrepresented groups. As Timothy Joseph recently demonstrated, Plato’s Socrates was an inspiration and a metaphor for Martin Luther King Jr. And this was no mere flight of fancy: as Thomas E. Strunk argues, King’s engagement is a powerful testament to a tradition of liberation philology.
As Classicists, most of us are trained to argue for the importance of our field—we can point to its influence on major figures in our intellectual history from philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, through artists, authors, dancers, musicians and more. Our luminaries and forebears receive the past and engage in critical dialogues with it. By denying access to the Classics and by not actively recruiting students from underrepresented groups, we bar communities from a conversation and the tools of language that have shaped our politics, religions, and aesthetics. Our duty is not to champion the superiority of one culture over another, but to ensure that no matter what body or class you were born into, you have the opportunity to hear, to understand, and to join this conversation in a meaningful way.
* * *
To engage in this type of social justice, we need to get into spaces where students and the public at large can hear us. For those of us who are in traditional educational institutions, this also means we have to figure out how to get new students into our classes. As a discipline, one of our challenges in facing demographic shifts alongside economic and cultural tides of late capitalism and the information age, is, not unironically, a lack of clear and actionable information. How do we even begin to address issues of perception among various groups without a clear idea of what such perceptions are? (As a good friend has told me, the first step is asking.) And, more importantly for a movement concerned with social justice, how do we learn to hear the voices of marginalized groups?
Even the most rigorous classical philologist is to an extent engaged in cultural histories—we should apply some of our academic training to these problems: admirably, classicists like Michele V. Ronnick and Margaret Malamud have already charted the course in this direction. But oral interviews, surveys, and archives allow us the opportunity to listen to personal testimonies of African Americans (and others). Archives like those collected and curated by The HistoryMakers, moreover, also provide a searchable database of transcripts.
With a small grant from the office of the Provost at Brandeis University (dedicated entirely to paying a graduate student fairly to do the archival research), our project is to collect and analyze what African Americans say about the Classics in the late 20th century and afterward. The testimonies are mixed—while many interviewees do position classical education as a vehicle of liberation, many also see it as an extension of elite values and power. The oral testimonies, we suspect, will echo many of the conclusions reached in Malamud’s recent book African Americans and the Classics (2016). At the same time, they attest to a deep diversity of responses to Classical material.
Admittedly, the aims of the project are rather modest given the magnitude of the challenges we face. But I try to imagine the aggregate effect of sharing this material online through my website and twitter feed. And, more importantly, I try to take seriously the potential exponential effect of teaching Classics from a social justice perspective: if only one graduate and one undergraduate a year leaves my classroom with the ability to communicate the importance of Classics for all people and to understand social justice from a diachronic perspective, then over the years they will influence many more lives. Finally, and perhaps optimistically, I imagine the combined effect of my colleagues all over the country doing the same thing.
Thanks to Suzanne Lye for constructive criticism of an earlier draft. Special thanks as well to Shahnaaz for having the patience and kindness to teach me what it means to be someone else for the last 20 years.
Founded in 2015, the Women’s Classical Committee UK (WCC UK) aims to support women who teach, research and study classical subjects as well as to promote feminist and gender-informed perspectives in classics. Part of WCC UK’s mission is also to advance equality and diversity in the field, and it is with this in mind that we have been taking steps towards improving the visibility of women classical scholars. This includes, for example, thinking about ways in which we can ensure that women’s writings and viewpoints are represented in our curriculum (see these practical tips for feminist pedagogy in classics), or working to uncover the hidden stories of women classical scholars of the past (as in this recent publication). We have also been taking steps to redress the gender imbalance on Wikipedia; with over 5.3 million articles and 800 articles added everyday, Wikipedia is often the first port of call for those seeking information about a topic or individual. Of approximately 200 biographies of classical scholars who are featured in the online encyclopaedia, until recently only around ten per cent had women as their subjects. It was with this statistic in mind that the WCC held a one-day ‘editathon’ to start working towards a better representation of women scholars online. This training event was held at the Institute of Classical Studies (London) on Monday 23rd January 2017 and was supported by trainers from Wikimedia UK – most of them as volunteers. We welcomed around 20 participants, including those joining remotely via Skype as well as face-to-face. The event brought together academics from a range of career stages and backgrounds, including those from outside academia with editing expertise. Our aim was to host an inclusive event which allowed all participants to collaborate in producing good quality reference material to boost the online presence of scholars who had, until now, been un- or under-represented on Wikipedia.
This project chimes with wider initiatives within Wikipedia to increase the representation of women on the site; these include, for example, the Women in Red project and 100 Women (run in conjunction with the BBC). Our trainers also explained how many of them spend time working to ‘de-gender’ existing entries, for example by ensuring that women are mentioned by their names, titles and specific roles, rather than in generic terms such as ‘the woman’, or being described merely as the daughter or wife of a male subject.
Some of the participants have shared their own thoughts on the day elsewhere: you can read Leen Van Broeck’s blogpost here, and view Ellie Mackin’s vlog (which also offers some useful tips for those new to editing) here. As a result of the WCC UK editathon sixteen new Wikipedia articles focusing on women classical scholars were created, and a further three existing articles were expanded. The event provided an informative and supportive introduction for people editing Wikipedia, in some cases for the first time. It also helped to raise awareness about the male skew that dominates the information found on Wikipedia, and gave people the tools to challenge this imbalance. There is still, however, much more work to do, and we plan to capitalise on the enthusiasm generated by organising future training sessions in other locations, as well as by holding a monthly remote editing session. The first of these will take place on 22nd February 2017 between 1pm and 3pm UK time. Please feel free to join the initiative and spread the word: for further information on how to get started with editing visit the WCC Wikipedia project page. You can also follow WCC UK on Twitter (@womeninclassics). For Wikipedia editing we use the hashtag #WCWiki; a Storify of tweets from the first event is available here, and you can view a short video from the event, produced by Wikimedia UK, here.
This year’s SCS meeting saw the official launch of the new Affiliated Group for Classics and Social Justice. We hosted two very successful events—a round table attended by around 40 people, and an open meeting, where almost as many showed up. There were not even enough seats in our room to accommodate all the interested parties! In recognition of the immigration issues and other difficulties members faced in getting to Toronto, we streamed the meeting; you can view it at our Facebook page. We are also maintaining a listserv (contact Nancy Rabinowitz, firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to it), a blog, and a Twitter account (please follow @classics_sj).
The new Affiliated Group has been discussing issues of concern to classicists for around a year now, since the Rhodessa Jones performance at SCS 2016. Members presented a panel on Prison Teaching at CAAS in 2016, and we are planning a panel at the SCS in 2018 (see the CFP on the SCS website and on our blog and Facebook page; abstracts are due by January 31st).
The topics of interest to members of the groups assembled were wide and various; we have formed committees to think about ways to address them. Of course there are significant overlaps between these, and we hope to address those in our activities.
Economically disadvantaged (Amit Shilo, email@example.com)
Immigration/undocumented status (Dan-el Padilla, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Prisons (Nancy Rabinowitz, email@example.com)
Women-gender-sexuality issues (Amy Pistone, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Veterans (Roberta Stewart, Roberta.L.Stewart@dartmouth.edu)
Mental health/disability issues (Clara Bosak Schroeder, email@example.com)
We are very grateful for the enthusiastic welcome given to our new group, and look forward to meeting more of you at regional meetings or at the next SCS.