Write-up: Classics and Social Justice at the 2018 SCS (Boston)


By Hannah Čulík-Baird.

The Classics and Social Justice group had a productive time at the SCS in Boston this year. Even though the Bomb Cyclone made it difficult for many to get to Boston, we nonetheless had a packed house for our open meeting on the afternoon of Thursday January 4th 2018. Thanks to Lindsey A. Mazurek, we can share the notes from that meeting with you — see the end of this blog post.

On Friday 5th January, we kicked off the meeting with an 8am panel organized by Jessica Wright (USC) and Amit Shilo (UC Santa Barbara). Elina Salminen (U of Michigan) began the panel with her paper, “At Intersections: Teaching about Power and Powerlessness in the Ancient World.” Salminen spoke about how she uses Community-Based Learning (CBL) in her pedagogy, describing a class on issues of equality in the ancient and modern worlds. Salminen had created this class with an audience in mind of students who couldn’t see how the ancient world connected to issues in their own lives. Community-Based Learning is any kind of learning that takes lessons outside of the traditional campus environment, through volunteering, organizing etc. One of the issues with CBL, according to Salminen, is that it requires greater planning up front to make room for both scholarly content and the practice of community work. Salminen also noted that the students who were attracted to this class on ancient and modern social justice were generally not Classics majors, the majority of them were women, and many of them identified as people of colour. Classics classes, Salminen said, which include this kind of diverse material and practice attract a more diverse selection of students who therefore end up taking a Classics class as part of their humanities requirement. One of the themes which consistently reoccurred in Salminen’s experience of teaching in this way was the fact that discussing modern problems of social justice alongside ancient texts allowed students to see more in the ancient material. Students learning about human trafficking in Michigan today, Salminen said, really changed how they viewed Aristotle’s statements about ancient slavery. Salminen included a student testimonial on her handout, which read:

“I feel like learning about slavery in ancient Greece is such a separate topic for me because it feels just like history of something that just ‘happened’ and was a ‘product of its time’. When I read Aristotle, these are the excuses I personally give him for his views on slavery. However, is this what future generations will say about our huge human trafficking problem nowadays? That we didn’t know better and are simply the product of our times?”

Casey C. Moore (Ridge View High School) skyped into the SCS panel session to give her paper, “Engaging Minority Students: Modifying Pedagogical Practice for Social Justice.” Moore began by noting that even though she teaches in an area that has a large population of people of colour, Latin and Greek language classes remain majority white. Most teachers, Moore said, are far removed from the areas where their minority students come from, both psychologically and geographically, and must make an effort to speak to their students’ context. Invoking bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, Moore noted that education is about freedom. Educators at all levels see educations as mastery of curricular content, but best the teaching has a student leave class having had the experience connect to their personal life. Moore has students write a weekly journal entry which can have anything to do with what the students are learning in class. The most valuable aspect of this, Moore said, was that it gave her a chance to establish a personal relationship with the students through their writing.

Rodrigo Verano (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) gave the third paper at the panel, “Reading Homer in and outside the Bars: An Educational Project in Post-Conflict Colombia.” Verano began by noting that an issue with Homer and other classical texts is that students, already familiar with the literature in some way, tend to skim read the text, bringing out the things they were already invested in, not new ideas. Colombia right now, Verano said, is going through a moment where it is transitioning from war to peace. In such a context, the Odyssey can be read in a new light. Verano showed the audience an image of Alex Sastoque’s Metamorphosis or La pala de la paz (Museo Nacional de Ejército, Bogotá, Colombia), saying that this image seems to emblematize how Colombia faces the classical.

With this in mind, Verano brought together university students and the incarcerated to meet and read Homer in post-conflict Colombia. In a piece written by Verano for the Universidad de los Andes, Verano wrote that the discussion focused on issues of justice, especially in the context of the process of seeking peace after conflict. Verano has put together a volume on this work with contributions from seven university students and one inmate, A Ítaca desde el Guaviare. Mirando el posconflicto colombiano desde los poemas de Homero. One of the issues that came out of the Q + A after this paper was the different ways in which the incarcerated engage in writing. Those in the audience who had also worked with the incarcerated noted that in some cases, inmates did not want to write; in others, the prison wouldn’t let written material leave the facility. A theme that wove its way throughout the panel is that social justice work is not the same everywhere: it has to happen where you are, with the resources and circumstances that are available.

Molly Harris (University of Wisconsin – Madison) was the fourth speaker at the panel, with her paper, “The Warrior Book Club: Advancing Social Justice for Veterans through Collaboration.” The Warrior Book Club began in 2016 at the University of Wisconsin – Madison as a discussion of war literature, classical and otherwise. Harris gave an extensive list of modern works which deal with working through issues of modern warfare through ancient accounts: Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam (1994), Odysseus in America (2002), Lawrence Tritle’s From Melos to My Lai, Peter Meineck and David Konstan’s Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks (2014), Victor Caston and Weineck Silke-Maria’s Our Ancient Wars (2016), Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives, Theater of War, Roberta Stewart’s reading group. Asked after the panel whether the group plans to read poetry, Harris responded: yes, women’s poetry  — Scars Upon My Heart, written by women warriors of the first World War; Powder, written by women in the ranks from Vietnam to Iraq. I have written elsewhere about how Harris’ presentation of a bibliography was an invitation for anyone interested to do this kind of work themselves. Harris noted that one of the early issues with the reading group is the status of the classical texts themselves: readers tend to think that the texts have been assigned (Odyssey, etc.) because we’re supposed to find the “answers” there. This means that the facilitators of such work need to make it clear that discussion and dialogue is the main goal, not to arrive at a specific conclusion (much like Moore’s invocation of bell hooks, who encourages teachers to have students stop seeing them as the center of all authority/knowledge production). Harris also brought up an important point when she described her own contact with the media as part of this project. Scholars often don’t know how to speak with journalists or the public at large. Being public facing isn’t easy, but it is important. In the Warrior Book Club, Harris said, the topic of translation was of great interest: obscenities in Lysistrata spoke to a veteran who remembered how his Iraqi translator deal with obscene graffiti.

The last speaker on the panel was Amy Pistone (Notre Dame), who skyped in to give her paper, “First Do No Harm: Responsible Outreach and Community Engagement.” Before appearing on the screen, she tweeted the handout to her paper:

Pistone began by laying out the best practices of social justice work, emphasizing the fact the classicists engaged in this kind of work should have a clear vision of precisely what their role is — why are you doing this particular work with this particular community? Where does Classics belong in this dialogue? Pistone reiterated a much discussed issue, that of the language of “outreach”, which suggests “in” groups and “out” groups.” When asked in the Q + A  what term she prefers, Pistone said that she like the words “community” and “connections.” Pistone noted that it is not enough to say that the world needs Classics. Like Moore, Pistone made the connection between education and liberation, this time invoking Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and ideas of critical pedagogy as concerned with “critical consciousness”, liberation as a transformational praxis. Pistone also noted that we need to rethink classical exceptionalism, invoking Rebecca Kennedy. Pistone also recommended Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all too, noting that “white folks” is distinct from the race of the teacher, but rather describes a eurocentric pedagogy which focuses on teaching hierarchies.

See below the notes from our open meeting on Thursday January 4th, compiled by Lindsey A. Mazurek. A pdf version is available here.

The CFP for our panel at next year’s SCS in San Diego (2019) is already available. Read it here and consider sending an abstract. 

CSJ meeting 1CSJ meeting 2CSJ 3CSJ 4



Congratulations to Professor Roberta Stewart, recipient of the 2017 Outreach Prize!

Professor Roberta Stewart, known to a broad audience for work reading Homeric poems with veterans, has been awarded the 2017 SCS Outreach Prize. See the statement of the SCS below.

The SCS Outreach Prize Committee has awarded the 2017 Outreach Prize to Professor Roberta Stewart of Dartmouth College for her work in developing book discussion groups on the Homeric poems with military veterans. Professor Stewart’s long-running initiative is now a major collaborative project of Dartmouth College and New Hampshire Humanities, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Award Citation

Even in today’s busy, noisy, and self-absorbed world, the passionate, quiet, and selfless work of the individual does not remain unnoticed. We are proud to offer the 2017 SCS Outreach Prize to Roberta Stewart for her tireless pursuit of healing and social justice (in New Hampshire and Vermont) through engaging veterans in reading and discussing Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. By teaching them how to appropriate the two epics as living texts, she has given veterans, as one of them put it, the controlling voice in processing their experiences and their Odyssean stories of homecoming in particular.

Since she has taken Homer out of the classroom and into the book group more than a decade ago, Roberta Stewart has demonstrated that anyone can read Homer and that the figured world of the Iliad and the Odyssey cannot be overestimated in our own days. Teaching empathy, it enables veterans to create a self-narrative that helps them to overcome trauma, and it enables the community to negotiate reintegration.

Driven by her own empathy, Roberta Stewart first proposed book groups to her local VA. In summer 2016, helped by a grant from the NEH, she trained three-person teams consisting of a veteran, a scholar, and a clinician to co-lead a 14-week discussion of Homer’s Odyssey with veterans and service members in four parts of New Hampshire.

Though Roberta Stewart insists that the real work of the Homer book groups comes not from her but from the veterans themselves, we want to express our respect and gratitude for her truly inspiring work in the field of outreach. We are, again, delighted to present Roberta Stewart with the SCS Outreach Prize. Thank you for your admirable work, Roberta!

SCS Outreach Prize Committee

Barbara Weinlich, Chair

Daniel Harris-McCoy

Emily Allen-Hornblower

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!

Reading Communities and Re-Entry


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.