CANE 2017: “How We Can Make a Difference: Classics, Social Justice and Outreach”

By Dominic Machado and Roberta Stewart.

On July 11 in Providence, RI, we held an hour-long workshop at the Classical Association of New England Summer Institute, called “How We Can Make a Difference: Classics, Social Justice and Outreach.” We hoped to start a conversation about how we as teachers can use the study of antiquity to engage with diverse populations and how our interactions with these populations can enrich the study of Classics. We are glad to report that the event was a success. The workshop had more than thirty participants, roughly half of the Summer Institute’s attendees.

The workshop as advertised in the CANE Summer Institute Brochure:

This workshop will be a discussion of how we as teachers can use the study of antiquity to engage with diverse populations and how our interactions with these populations can enrich our study of the subject. We will focus on what we as classicists can bring to the most marginalized social strata (e.g. minorities, the incarcerated, war veterans, those suffering from disabilities, etc.) as well as how we can work to include the perspectives of such groups in the study of the Classics. The workshop will feature a brief introduction to the Classics and Social Justice initiative as well as two short presentations that will outline our outreach experiences with war veterans and minority groups and share ways to get involved in similar initiatives. The rest of the time will allow participants to share their own experiences working with such populations or to ask questions about getting involved in their own outreach initiatives.

We began the workshop by providing a brief introduction to the Classics and Social Justice initiative and its goals. This was followed by two short presentations in which we discussed our own outreach experiences and offered some thoughts on how to get involved in similar initiatives. Dominic discussed how classicists can make a difference in the country’s educational crisis. He stressed that our knowledge of Latin can be a powerful tool for improving literacy and bringing new educational opportunities to underserved minority communities. He noted that it was essential that this outreach be combined with efforts to make our field more attuned to the unique experiences of these communities (e.g. reading the Aeneid as refugee narrative). Such perspectives are not only tremendously useful for underserved populations, but will produce new and exciting ideas in our field.

Roberta then shared her experiences teaching a class at Dartmouth College called “War Stories.” The course required students to interview a veteran and write a response paper detailing their interaction as a part of their final project. The results showed just how powerful outreach can be. Roberta read excerpts from several final papers which revealed how transformative the experience of interviewing a veteran was for her students. Their preconceived notions of what it meant to be a former soldier were completely shattered. Even more importantly, the responses that Roberta received from veterans were similar in tone; they appreciated the sensitivity and patience of the students who interviewed them and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to share their story.

The second half of the workshop took the form of an open discussion. Participants were given the opportunity to share their own experiences working with underserved populations or to ask questions about getting involved in their own outreach initiatives. The discussion was lively, informative and productive. Teachers talked about the barriers that they faced in trying to do outreach in the past. Others responded to these concerns by discussing creative solutions they found to bypass the administrative red-tape that prevented them from taking part in such endeavors. Though the conversation was very wide-ranging, there was one common thread that ran throughout: the participants wanted to learn more about outreach. In fact, the participants encouraged us to conduct a follow-up session at CANE annual meeting this coming March. We are currently putting together a panel proposal for the meeting – we welcome any submissions or suggestions from blog readers – and we hope to continue our discussion about outreach soon!

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Reading Communities and Re-Entry

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Thetis gives her son Achilles his weapons, detail of an Attic black figure hydria, mid 6th c. BCE.

Roberta Stewart. This piece was originally read as a paper at the 2017 annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Toronto.

We have been reading Homer in small groups (strictly combat veteran, co-ed) as a way to explore modern veteran experience and return from war. The groups provide a venue for a form of teaching as community outreach that facilitates individual engagement with a text as a basis for self-authored narratives about personal experience. The work is premised on the dialogical relationship of reader and text, validating equally male and female, academic and non-academic readers as authoritative interpreters of Homer. While war can silence language, literature can break the silence and give words to those coming to terms with their experience. War stories are cultural artifacts by which societies have processed the experience of war in order to create a usable past. Communal discourses aid personal narrative construction and identity formation. We are all narratives in process. The Homeric text provides a salutary distancing and deflection that allows homecomings to emerge as historical problems of the human condition. That has been the work of the past nine years (see Amphora 2015).

This past year Dartmouth collaborated with NH Humanities on an NEH grant proposal that represented two crucial advances in the Homer book group program: to scale up the programs and to develop veterans’ roles in programming. First, we proposed to train teams of facilitators for book groups throughout NH. I made the case for the program, Kathy Mathis (NH Humanities) made the case for the needs of NH veterans (8.6% of the population). The training sessions paired academics, mental health clinicians, and veterans, to create teams of facilitators. We practiced not teaching Homer: to make the text not us the subject, to ask volunteers to read passages aloud (and so build community), to use open-ended questions (“what’s going on…”) that lead to implications (“how does this relate to you…does Homer get it right?”), not questions that have right answers that require expertise or special knowledge. We developed strategies to encourage engagement, to allow their reading to take priority, to remain ourselves teachable. Three participants of these new groups, two vets and one academic, were interviewed on NHPR in November 2016 and the program became one of the top ten of the year. We brought civilians and military together into dialogue around a book and helped to bridge the military/civilian divide.

The Hanover groups regularly combine veterans ranging from the Korean war to the current conflicts, include all service branches and both officer and enlisted. The 14-week program of 1.5 hour sessions allows for a diverse group of veterans to create a community of respectful engagement and interaction. The Portsmouth facilitator reported similar dynamics among a similarly diverse group:

The common denominator of all having deployed to combat zones as part of their military service trumps all other differences.  Veterans are telling their stories and listening to the stories of others with genuine interest and respect. 

A former collaborator now runs book groups in Maine and has reported similar experiences of community formation. He emphasized the importance of time spent on task: veterans have complained that a six-week program reading Aeschylus Oresteia was insufficient time together, both to develop familiarity with the language and to feel comfortable enough with each other to discuss frankly the text and their reactions to it.  The book groups provide a mechanism for community building around the shared experience of a book, and the text provides a mechanism for self reflection and narrative construction about personal experience.

More important, the second innovation: Veterans, particularly members of Dartmouth Undergraduate Veterans Associations, served as collaborators and consultants for the development of the training program. We made veterans authoritative voices in an academic discussion about the development of curriculum designed for veterans. Veterans were thus not consumers of programming but authors of it. To prepare for the workshops five DUVA veterans, one local veteran, and I read and reviewed a substantial list. Three of the veterans had seen multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan; two had seen service in the 90’s, and one in Vietnam.  The criteria for selecting readings, as defined by the group: literature “that really touched on the struggles of reentry … of reviving one’s previous self and place in society.” Truthfulness mattered, and the absence of cliché. Homer won out, because he represented the salient issues of re-entry and offered a salutary distancing to avoid triggering. The distancing enabled communication. Remarque’s The Road Back took second place. One DUVA vet remarked, “This is exactly how I felt when I came home.” Veterans wrote the reading questions for the training workshops and we partnered in leading the discussions. Each selected a passage, read it aloud, explained why it resonated with his experience, and opened up the discussion for comment. Most of the modern war literature was rejected as exaggerated or inadequately reflecting the reality of combat/homecoming or triggering or focusing on problems (“feeding the public perception of veterans as “triggered” to commit violence“). Nevertheless the vets taught the literature that they objected to and explained why it offended. Each was challenged to identify a piece of modern literature that did reflect their experience respectfully and truthfully. The final list: “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (Eric Bogle, 1971), Tim O’Brien, The Things That They Carried; “The Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed (a poem about the care of a military rifle, framed as a garden in springtime).

The result: a multi level and directional discourse among military and non-military about war experience. Veterans collaborated in identifying modern literary war stories to complement the Homeric narratives and gained control of the discourse about war and veteran’s experience.

The results have been what we would all wish for, mutual understanding, or, as one veteran remarked, “I felt respected.”

Anyone interested in advice on starting a group should contact Roberta.Stewart@Dartmouth.edu.

American Veterans for the National Endowment for the Humanities

Author: Peter Meineck (@PeterMeineck).

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We have all heard that the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts are both facing extinction by the new Trump administration. Although, we know nothing concrete yet it seems as if the White House has been heavily influenced by a 2016 report from the Heritage Foundation, that states:

Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants, and scholarly journals, regardless of the works’ attraction or merit. In the words of Citizens Against Government Waste, “actors, artists, and academics are no more deserving of subsidies than their counterparts in other fields; the federal government should refrain from funding all of them.”

This is truly alarming and mischaracterizes the essential work that both agencies undertake nationally throughout all 50 states. With this in mind, on Saturday February 25th the Society of Artistic Veterans along with Aquila Theatre’s Warrior Chorus program (which is funded by the NEH – http://www.warriorchorus.org/ ) held a public event in Battery Park, New York City to bring awareness to the NEH’s role in funding Veteran’s programs. Called American Veterans for the National Endowment for the Humanities this event gathered 16 former and serving members of the Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy to perform a simple yet powerful act – public readings on the theme of democracy.

The readings included several from classical literature, including excerpts from Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles; Oedipus Tyrannus, Euripides’ Suppliant Women, and Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians, alongside readings from de Tocqueville, Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Booker T. Washington and Robert F. Kennedy.

The setting was more than appropriate as Battery Park is a storied location in American history: it was the last place the British held before leaving their former colony after the American War of Independence, and Castle Clinton, which stood opposite the event, was the entry point for millions of immigrants entering the United States for the first time. The park also looks over Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, with the World Trade Center close by. These symbols have taken on a powerful new resonance over the past few weeks and hearing this diverse group of American veterans reading literature and rhetoric on the meaning of democracy was indeed a powerful experience, especially in this age of incendiary discourse generated by 140 characters, hateful slogans, and double-speak sound bites.

The Vets read their scenes three times from 1pm to 4pm and attracted an enthusiastic crowd of supporters as well as many passers-by. Some 500 flyers were distributed and the event was widely circulated on social media. We are now planning another such event in Washington DC and encouraging the Warrior Chorus groups in Texas and California to stage similar gatherings. The readings will be posted on-line at – http://www.warriorchorus.org/ so that others may download and use them in their own local areas.

Veterans occupy a unique position in American society at the moment in that they are perhaps among the few groups that can bridge the enormous gulf between the Left and Right in American culture. Having served their country and been deployed in war zones, many of them feel very strongly about their oath to protect and preserve the constitution, civil rights, diversity, and free-speech. Arming them with classical literature and the American rhetoric and hearing them recite it live and in public makes for a very powerful statement about the need to defend democratic institutions. The sign of one member of the crowd captured this perfectly by quoting John Jays: “Knowledge is essential for the survival of the republic.”

Two moments to highlight: Vietnam Veteran, former Marine and well-known actor Dan Lauria (the father on The Wonder Years) made a powerful comment about what may lurk beneath the move to shut down the NEA and NEH, namely the removal of the tax deduction given to donations to arts and humanities organizations. Lauria compared this to nothing less than “Nazi book burning” in that it would devastate the Arts and public humanities. The second was one of many spine tingling moments when the words spoken by the Vets took on a specific resonance. James Stanton, a former Air Combat Command B-52 Squadron Commander, part of the so called “Nuclear Triad”, read the speech that RFK gave in Indianapolis on April 4th 1968, the night MLK was murdered. After quoting Aeschylus, the speech closes with these words:

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

This project also intersects with Aquila Theatre’s next production Our Trojan War, which restages scenes from Homer and ancient drama alongside the original works of veterans to ask fundamental questions about democracy, inclusiveness, leadership and the treatment of others. This will be presented on a short national tour in March 2017 and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April 19-23, 2017.

If you have Vets in your classroom/communities, encourage them to speak about their feelings about democracy and what they fought for. Use classical texts as a means of framing productive and informed dialogue about important themes – leadership, ethics, diversity, refugees, nationalism, federalism, division, war, diplomacy, bigotry, free speech, and knowledge. This is a time when classicists can provide depth, context, exemplars and meaning and above all start to shift the public discourse away from the slogan and back towards knowledge, nuance, complexity and compromise.

Peter Meineck
Professor of Classics in the Modern World, New York University
Founding Director, Aquila Theatre.