Write-up: Classics and Social Justice at CANE 2019

Write-up: Classics and Social Justice: Works in Progress, Working towards Progress – A Summary of the Classics and Social Justice Workshop at CANE 2019. By Dominic Machado.

On March 10, we held a workshop, entitled Classics and Social Justice: Works in Progress, Working towards Progress, at the Classical Association of New England annual meeting at the College of the Holy Cross. The event was a continuation of a series of earlier workshops on Classics and Social Justice at CANE and the CANE Summer Institute over the past two years. This year’s workshop sought to expand upon these earlier conversations by highlighting new projects that employ Classics as a means towards community building and social progress.

The workshop was very well attended, with roughly 50 people present, and lasted for 90 minutes. The meeting featured three short papers discussing a wide range of topics. Maia Lee-Chin (College of the Holy Cross) spoke first and described her experiences creating and implementing an Aequora program as a high school and college student. She discussed the differences that emerged in creating programs in both English and Spanish-speaking contexts. She also enumerated the difficulties and unanswered questions related to using Latin as a tool to aid students in underserved districts.

Dominic Machado (College of the Holy Cross) talked about the need to find new models for the public presentation of Classics. He argued that doing so was a necessary corollary to important work being done to delegitimize supremacist and misogynist appropriations of the Greco-Roman world. To provide an example of how such work can be transformative, he discussed Martin Luther King’s use of classical references in his sermons to create a narrative of inclusiveness and equity.

Roberta Stewart described recent work in the Troy to Baghdad/Homer4Vets program. She discussed how in an American society in which less than 1% serve and must return to the 99% civilian society a community book group program can harness world literature to create community for U.S. veterans within ‘home’ contexts. She argued that reading world literature provides veterans the opportunity to identify and develop a vocabulary for communicating and interpreting military experience as a premise for imagining or re-imagining their own personal life narratives of deployment and return.

These papers sparked much discussion about how we can continue to promote the advancement of justice in our field, particularly in the wake of the racist events at the SCS meeting in San Diego. Particularly notable was the mention of the potential of non-violent communication training as a way to facilitate difficult conversations about our field both inside and outside of the classroom.


CFP: ‘Antiracism and Action in Classics’ – MRECC panel for CAAS 2019

We are putting together an MRECC panel proposal for CAAS 2019 which will take place October 10-12 in Silver Spring, MD. The panel topic will be Antiracism and Action in Classics. We welcome papers on any related subject including training, pedagogy, departmental restructuring, policy changes, activism, etc. We are looking for at least 1 or 2 more presenters to join the proposal. If you are interested in joining the panel, please email me directly (kpdugan@uga.edu) with a 150 word abstract by Monday March 11th at the latest (the sooner the better as the panel proposal is due March 18th). Faculty and students of color and anyone from traditionally underrepresented groups are especially encouraged to present on our panel. Thank you!

‘Teaching Tragedy to the Incarcerated,’ by Nancy S. Rabinowitz.

Teaching Tragedy to the Incarcerated. Presented by Nancy S. Rabinowitz at the ‘Diversity and the Study of the Ancient World’ conference at Roehampton University, November 2017. 

This brief presentation will focus on my experiences teaching Greek tragedy in prison—a marginalized and highly racialized space in the U.S. While this work is unlikely to change the profile of the field (the prisoners are unlikely to become academics), it does work to increase access to it. Thus, it is my most direct form of social justice work.

The U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation. There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years. As Michelle Alexander has argued in her book, The New Jim Crow, this is effectively a form of slavery; one of the men I teach in prison reminds me that the 15th amendment outlawing slavery did not make it illegal to make slaves out of felons. In prison in NY state the daily wage for jobs ranges between .10 and 1.10. Mass incarceration is also clearly institutionalized racism. Young black men are more likely to go to prison than to get a four-year college education, and black men are five times more likely to be in prison than white men (in some states that is 10 times, according to the sentencing project).

While there is an active prison abolition movement in the U.S., there are also attempts to ameliorate the existing system through the arts and education. Federal grants for higher education for inmates dried up some years ago; state and private funding is flowing more freely again because there is a growing consensus that having received some form of an education helps convicts stay out of jail once they get out. We can’t make grand claims based on the small numbers, but even if the consensus is mistaken, education is of value and should available to prisoners, the students said when I read them this paper.

We also can’t really generalize about prison education. Programs differ from one another. For instance, some lead to a degree, some are single courses, and still others are not actually courses, just volunteer discussion groups (that is where I fit in). In college prep or college courses, the men get credit, write papers, and take exams. The teachers grade them! Classicists participate in a broad range of ways from one of the most formal (the Bard Prison Initiative) to one of the most informal, my own. There are similarities of course – security at all facilities, for instance, and the fact of surveillance. But differences emerge as well from the kind of institution served. Are the incarcerated men or women? Are the facilities a jail or prison, are they medium or maximum security? Is it a program heavy facility or one with few programs?

Inside/Out, a Temple University initiative with many other university partners, integrates college students and prisoners in the same room. As a member, Sara Rappe at University of Michigan taught Classical Civilizations 479, “Socrates and other Prisoners of Conscience,” to a class of 30 students, 15 outsiders and 15 insiders. They discussed Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi, Gandhi, King, Angela Davis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Much as I would like to do so, however, I could not offer such a course where I live and teach because of strict rules about the ages of volunteers.

Some of the initiatives come from colleges and universities themselves, some are organized on the state level. For instance, the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) is an association of higher education institutions in New Jersey that works in partnership with the State of New Jersey Department of Corrections and New Jersey State Parole Board, to (a) provide higher education courses for all students under the custody of the State of New Jersey while they are incarcerated, and (b) assist in the transition to college life upon their release into the community.

What are we actually doing when we teach ancient material in prison? In an essay in Eidolon Jessica Wright points out a conundrum: “Choosing to teach Latin in prison — placing Classics at the center of a social justice initiative — made it even more obvious to me how right Greenwood and Vasunia are. . . . [about the place of Latin in colonization] Program directors asked us to send any Latin graduates their way. Introducing Latin as the foreign language option magnified the specter of the exceptionalism of Classics in ways that felt at odds with the (anti-imperialist, anti-racist) project of prison education.” In order to mitigate this contradiction, Wright changed her pedagogy from traditional methods to a more open process. As a result, she had a student say to her that “the classroom was the only space in which he felt safe to say “no” — that is, to disagree both with his peers and with figures of authority, “without fear of retribution.” Prisoners were appalled at her notion, and they have now asked me to teach Latin and/or Greek. They’d love to learn a language.

My program in a men’s medium security facility has no infrastructure and little official support, though Hamilton does provide the books for free; it is never clear that they will arrive safely at the school building, where I teach. The prisoners don’t receive credit, and all of the teachers are volunteers. We don’t meet more than every other week. The shifting population characteristic of medium-security prison is part of the problem we face teaching there. Preparing for this talk, for instance, I did not know who would be in class, who would have gotten the books, and if they would have read the book. The first night I only had two men; thereafter different problems emerged. More recently, I had a different two, and one had been out of the facility so did not have the book. Nonetheless, we had a great conversation. The population of the prison is mostly black and Latin, but my group has always been disproportionately white. So the new audience here is class based more than racial, but of course, these men have been marginalized and isolated by virtue of their incarceration.

Initially I was reluctant to teach tragedy because I assumed other modern texts would be more relevant to the students. Indeed, outsiders have challenged me on that basis—why not teach black writers instead (though that was based on a false assumption of the racial makeup of the group). Working with Rhodessa Jones, whose Medea Project has built plays around 5 ancient myths, inspired me to try a performance of a Greek play. I assigned Antigone and Fugard’s The Island, based on Antigone. The first time we read it was hilarious. There was lots of fooling around, as in The Island, about playing Antigone and Ismene–a little exaggerated imitation and joking about playing her with “the girl’s voice.” When I called on one man, a big guy who is clearly devoted to body building, to be Antigone, he said he’d never live it down in the weight yard—and the others laughed at the image. The play never came off because I broke a cardinal rule: I was punished for taking something from the men out with me.

I did not give up on tragedy, however. Since then we have discussed many plays, Philoctetes and Ajax, the Oresteia, and Medea, some of them for publication on the APGRD’s web site and in preparation for this talk. In what follows, I will share what my students have had to say with you. The prison administration is very reluctant to have us write, in part because of anxiety about their reputation. But there is another more positive reason for caution which I share: I don’t want to exploit my students. I am committed to treating the men as co-authors, but they cannot be here. Thus, I share my writing with the group before presenting it; they are invested in my writing and presenting their voices publicly. When at one point, I suggested that perhaps we should not bother going forward, they were adamant that we continue. One man explained why contributing to the Medea volume was important to him: he got to hear his own words and those of his friends; he was proud, and glad that they were able to be heard via my speaking. Another man agreed with him, saying how happy he was to be part of something beautiful that was bigger than prison.

When I come in, I often ask how they are doing. That conversation may take quite a while if someone is facing a parole hearing, for instance, and wants to talk it over with us. This is one place where the prisoners can talk freely: there is no guard in the room, and it is quiet. Prison is always noisy, and the men in the group find many of the conversations outside annoying and stupid. I learn a lot during the “check-in.”

Of course I’m not officially there to get educated, but let me share with you what they had to say about the plays we read from their positions. For instance, interesting questions emerged in our discussion of Agamemnon: what will be waiting for you when you come home? What happens to children in the absence of the father? What happens to the children when they witness violence between their parents? Could Agamemnon have done it any other way? Did he go to Troy because he wanted the wealth of Asia—// to drug money? embezzlement? Why did he bring home his “whore” and ask his wife to take care of her?? And for themselves: How do you remain a dad? What does it mean to be separate, miss family events?

A lot of our conversations centered on masculinity, making the connections to the men’s own lives. Who was the father figure, the model for them? Is it the cool dude, the basket player? Most of them say they grew up without men or models of healthy fathers in their lives; several of them have many children with different women and are not in touch with them. They talk extensively about the pressure to be a man, to be tough, in prison, though the threat of rape seems to be less pressing now than it used to be. They explain: “Who is a real man in prison is defined by what you see; it is superficial and external.” There is pressure to “Get your weight up,” but another man asserts that you don’t have to be huge: it depends on character, there is another way to dominate a situation. One of the men cultivates a calm attitude: waiting on line at the water fountain in the yard for instance, when the macho man thinks he can just cut in, this individual lets him. His attitude is “I can wait.”

There is another strong message, some say, that masculinity is control over yourself and others; don’t be sensitive, don’t get involved. But other men disagree, saying, you don’t have to follow the code: one older, religious man is proud of intervening to help someone out. I wonder how much he gets away with because of his age, race, or years on the inside. In prison, fights do not typically cross race or age lines.

The ancient warrior code of honor seems relevant in prison. In discussing the Ajax, I introduced the idea of Bryan Doerries’ program—he discusses Ajax and Philoctetes with vets—and they saw the parallel more with other kinds of violence rather than war. For instance one man agrees that in prison there is a code of masculinity that requires fighting, but he does not have to fight a kid who thinks he’s tough. Honor is about saving face with your peers. Another sees the similarity to white motorcycle clubs and gangs; that is a warrior culture more than the military.

For some the loss of an inside or a sense of self while in prison is a grave concern. What happens to the “real you” with all this pressure? Will you take prison behaviors with you (like taking your silverware off the table in a restaurant out of habit?)? There is ambivalence about how much control they actually can have, how much choice is available to them. When we discuss the gender conflict in Agamemnon, they have a clear interpretation of why Aegisthus is so violent in the end. They understand it as a response to a lack of power: “Because incarcerated men lack power, lack control and are therefore deprived of traditional measures of masculinity, they also attempt to gain it by putting others down; they need to assert themselves because they are not certain of themselves.” Aegisthus’ domination by Clytemnestra comes through as a reaction in his relationship to the chorus.

As with my Hamilton students, personal experiences color reception. When we discussed Orestes in Libation Bearers and Electra saying he must act, they saw it as about themselves, saying things like this: “Now is the time! Your life is in trouble. It is time to change, face the beast.” They see that every moment is a choice. They talked about the need to be responsible, accountable, and they blamed the characters who were not. In general, the prisoners in my class do not deny that they committed the crime; they are willing to do the time.

We have had wonderful conversations about some of the big ideas. For instance, when we discuss the gnomic statement that “wisdom comes through suffering” in the Agamemnon chorus, the men assert that they are learning a lot by being in prison—it is a necessary evil that leads to growth. Reading The Apology, they said something similar: that prison gives them the opportunity to live an examined life; we discuss the differences between their lives and the lives of monks in other kinds of cells, and I bring up the daily humiliation they face. How similar are they really to monks? What is it on the outside that distracts from philosophy?? One man had a great deal of sympathy for Odysseus in Ajax, in fact more than one, when he pities Ajax, saying “It makes me see that we who live and breathe are nothing more than phantoms, or insubstantial shadowings.” (Taplin 123-6) They connect with the idea that the gods have power over Odysseus and Ajax.

In short, the incarcerated men use the plays to think about themselves, and I encourage them in this. We discuss at various times the role of this class in helping them avoid violence, revenge, anger; they think of it as giving them tools: “a way of doing surgery on ourselves.” I want to underline the point that others who teach in prison have also made. It is not the texts so much that make the difference. I do this work as a classicist, but also as a human being. And I speak to the men as human beings. That is one of the main things about our encounters. The inmates are not numbers in there. Their opinions are taken seriously, and they are more than their crime.

So to come back to my doubts: this is not the revolution of course. It is perhaps putting garlands on the bars. In the end, to do this work you have to believe that creating an oasis for a few individuals is worth something. This is a program for the few, a handful out of a population of 1800, but it is worth something to the ones who come, and therefore to me. Recently I have felt like abandoning the course because so there are so many obstacles in the way. But then I have a wonderful session and realize that it is too much fun to give up.

Let me end with a quote from one of the men from the early days of the program: “The Greek tragedies really did provide me with an opportunity to think very seriously about what makes me tick. Why do I make the decisions that I make? Where is the precedent for this or that?” He had earlier said that the group has “become like a therapy session.”  I feel that in the prison program, more than at Hamilton, I can directly help people to live the examined life, and participate with them in examining my own. Given the maleness of the texts and the environment, the men recently asked me what I got out of it. I told them that as a feminist critic, I need to understand masculinity. But the truth is simpler: I enjoy teaching there (when it is going well). There are limits that we must observe, but within those boundaries we are free to fly high.

CFP: Ancient Tragedy and Modern Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants

Call for Papers – Theater of Displacement: Ancient Tragedy and Modern Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants

CAMP Panel, 2020 SCS Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Organizers: Seth A. Jeppesen, BYU; Chiara Aliberti, BYU; Cecilia Peek, BYU

In Euripides’ Trojan Women, Hecuba and her fellow captives use a wide array of verbs for speaking and singing as they struggle to make their voices and stories heard in the face of repeated attempts by the men in the play to silence them and relegate them to the status of possessions rather than persons. Similar attempts to silence or disregard the plight of modern refugees and migrants are apparent all around us, from the newly energized nationalist movements in Europe to the tear gas canisters lobbed at women and children along the U.S.-Mexico border. As Nadia Murad has shown (The Last Girl,2017), one of the most powerful ways of combatting this oppression is to open a dialogue and listen to the voices of those displaced by war as they tell us their stories. Bryan Doerries (The Theater of War, 2016) has shown how Greek tragedy can be used to initiate conversations regarding combat trauma, mass incarceration and end-of-life care and encourage recognition and healing for those involved. Luis Alfaro, in turn, has demonstrated in his recent play Mojada how well adaptations of Greek tragedy can address issues facing modern migrants and immigrants. Many Greek tragedies deal with displacement caused by war and characters who seek asylum from other cities and governments (e.g. Aeschylus’ Suppliants, Euripides’ Trojan WomenHecuba, Andromache, Helen, Suppliant Women, etc.) There is much potential for scholarship and performance that uses Greek tragedy not only to elucidate the current refugee crisis but also to raise awareness and provide healing and understanding to communities. This panel invites papers that explore themes of cultural and physical displacement in Greek Tragedy and potentially draw connections between ancient literature and the current worldwide refugee/migrant crisis. Potential topics include, but are not limited to:

  • The language of displacement and/or silencing in Greek tragedy
  • Greek tragedy and historical displacement in 5th century Greece
  • The effects of war and violence in Greek tragedy
  • Modern reception of Greek tragedy in the context of refugees, migrants, and immigrants
  • Greek tragedy and public humanities projects that deal with issues facing refugees, migrants, and immigrants

Abstracts should follow the SCS guidelines for individual abstracts and can be sent by email to ksburns@uic.eduReview of abstracts begins March 1, 2019. Abstracts received by March 15 will receive full consideration. Please ensure that the abstracts are anonymous.  In accordance with SCS regulations, all abstracts for papers will be read anonymously by the panel organizers, who will serve as referees. Those selected for the panel will be informed by March 30.

Edited volume: “Teaching Classics to the Incarcerated”

The prison teaching subgroup of the Classics and Justice Affiliated Group of the SCS has been presenting work in a variety of venues over the last several years. We are now editing a volume on “Teaching Classics to the Incarcerated” for publication in the Routledge Focus Series. We are asking for the submission of brief abstracts (350 words) by March 15. If you are currently teaching in a prison or have done so in the past, we welcome your participation. We want explicitly to invite submissions from the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.

Our hope is that the volume will offer a comprehensive overview (or at least one as comprehensive as possible) of the wide range of incarcerated individuals – male, female, or gender non-conforming; young or old; serving long sentences or about to be released; etc. – who are reading and discussing classical texts and of the different ways in which they are approaching and reinterpreting them. The essays that we are envisaging will have a length of ca. 4000 words and will present either a practical or theoretical approach.

We have already had a very positive conversation with the press, and once we have all the abstracts in, we expect to be able to submit our proposal quickly, at least by the end of April. Full essays would be due at the end of October.

If you are involved in prison teaching but do not want to write an essay, we would like to know about the program you are in. And again, submissions from the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated are especially welcome.


Emilio Capettini (ecapettini@classics.ucsb.edu)

Nancy Rabinowitz (nrabinow@hamilton.edu)

Short reports on ongoing CSJ activities (January 2019)

Clara Bosak-Schroeder, Disability:

Disabled classicists had their first meetup in San Diego after sharing support and advice over Slack in the Fall of 2018. Krishni Burns (UIC) and Clara Bosak-Schroeder (UIUC) organized a panel for CAMWS 2019, “Learning Disabilities in the Classics Classroom.” Future projects include increasing accessibility in scholarly publishing and at the next AIA/SCS. To get involved or join the Slack, contact: cbosak@illinois.edu.

Nancy S. Rabinowitz, Prisons:

Since its inception, the Classics and Social Justice group has been home to those of us who are involved in prison teaching. While we have held several meetings at regional associations, and have participated in round tables at the SCS, this year saw the first SCS workshop specifically on teaching the incarcerated (see earlier blog post). This public event is the first (we hope of many) acknowledgements of the importance of this branch of social justice work in Classics: we mean it when we say classics for all!

The prison group of CSJ is about to launch an effort to find out who in the field is doing prison teaching, so that we have a fuller picture of what can be done with ancient materials. Finally, we are also planning to publish a volume on prison teaching (currently talking to Routledge). Please send materials and queries to Nancy S. Rabinowitz: nrabinow@hamilton.edu.


Responses to the SCS/AIA

We wanted to recognize and commend the departments and institutions who have made official statements condemning the racist events that took place at the 2019 SCS/AIA. If your organization or department has made a statement that is not included here, please let us know and we will include it.


UCLA Department of Classics

University of Washington Department of Classics

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Classics


The Sportula

The Women’s Classical Caucus

Ancient Philosophy Society

Society of Classical Studies

Women’s Classical Committee UK

Council of University Classics Departments, Institute of Classical Studies, and the Women’s Classical Committee UK


Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Rebecca Futo Kennedy

Josephine Quinn