5 Things We Need to Sacrifice in Classical Studies

I recently saw a Tweet that emphasized the true purpose of anti-racism work: repair, restoration, and sacrifice where necessary. 

The third element – sacrifice – particularly struck me, especially as I was trying to think of what this week’s blog post would be about. It put the ongoing debates about the vitality of the field of Classics into a new perspective.

Those who have argued for ‘burning it all down’ know what it would mean to make sacrifices for the betterment of the discipline; those who oppose and criticize the idea of reforming Classics are simply afraid of a little discomfort. They would rather see a discipline rife with problems continue to thrive than sacrifice some things in order to at least begin to solve those problems. 

This makes me think of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s concept of ‘fear of a black planet’ — the fear that by giving black people any power at all, the cultural hierarchy would be inverted and white people would be completely powerless and oppressed. (A similar concern was raised about the term ‘intersectionality‘. Do I sense a theme?)

What would the equivalent be for Classics? Fear of a BIPOC discipline?

I’d like to say that this is only characteristic of the old, white, tenured contingency of the discipline, but that just isn’t the case. We all need to make sacrifices, some much bigger than others, if we want to make progress in making Classics an anti-racist discipline.

Books that are staples in the field of Classical Studies

Sacrifice the need to be an expert on everything

Despite the fact that I run a largely opinion-based blog, I am a firm believer in the fact that you do not need to have an opinion on everything. 

This is particularly true when it comes to voicing your opinion on things with which you have little to no experience. This particular phenomenon seems more frequent now that we’re all more online now than ever before.

The internet – and especially social media – is chock full of people who feel they need to be included in every trending debate under the sun. This is probably more trouble than it’s worth – especially considering how often such contributions lead to hostile situations (for lack of a better phrase).

What we need more of in this field are people who are readily able to recognize when they are wrong and own it. Sit with it for a while. Don’t be so quick to react and be on the defensive.

Sacrifice the hierarchical, teacher-centered classroom

I think the expert-complex contributes a lot to the need to present oneself as an authority figure in the classroom. 

In the past, when I was nervous about teaching courses on subjects with which I have little experience, I was told not to worry, because regardless of how much I actually knew about the subject, I still knew more than my students did. 

This advice was a comfort, but it also positioned me as the de facto expert in the classroom.

In addition to the expert-complex, the models of teaching that we are exposed to, and thus adopt and adapt, tend to reinforce traditional hierarchies in the classroom as well. 

In case you hadn’t noticed, there is no singular way to teach Classics. This is regardless of whether it’s a language, history, art history, or archaeology course. There is no template, no strict set of rules that you must follow.

Sure, it may be comfortable to continue to do what you feel has worked in the past. But keep in mind that what works and may be convenient for you, as the instructor, may not work for your students. Absence of complaint does not necessarily mean that nothing is wrong. 

Learn to be okay with a little discomfort, and try something new – like student-centered approaches to teaching.

Be open to learning new things and unlearning problematic behaviors and assumptions

Speaking of discomfort, letting go of our desperate need to be an expert in everything also means being more open to learning. No matter your academic background, there is always more to learn.

There is also always more to unlearn, especially regarding deeply ingrained problematic beliefs, behaviors, and assumptions that you may or may not recognize you hold or practice. 

Unlearning and learning are two sides of the same coin.

You unlearn those ideas and behaviors through learning and broadening your perspective of the world around you. Only then, once you are able to empathize with people who come from different backgrounds and have different experiences than you, can you recognize the problematic nature of your own beliefs, behaviors, and assumptions.

Sacrifice the idea that Classics is exceptional as a field of study

Putting Classical Studies on a pedestal above all other fields of study, particularly ones that complement it and occupy the same geographical space, is one such problematic behavior.

I will admit that I myself came to study Classics because it seemed shiny and exciting compared to the bleak and boring history of the United States. Those were the only two points of reference for me as a teenager – my high school offered courses on “World History” and “US History” and, after taking both, I decided that Europe appealed to me more.

But I know that for others, the history of the United States (and indeed other regions) has more personal value to them than does the history of Greece and Rome. For one thing, a person of color would often be hard-pressed to find someone that looked like themselves represented in a Classics textbook, classroom, or department. 

A recent Twitter discussion of “famous Classicist” lists – which are often almost exclusively white and otherwise unrelatable – on some department websites seems laughable and also cringe-worthy in the face of calls for more diversity and inclusion in our classrooms, departments, and institutions. 

If I had seen one such list as I was deciding what to major in, I probably would have chosen a different path. My sense of being out of place in a Classics department would have been much clearer then, rather than only really noticing and confronting my difference some years later.

Divest from traditional approaches to teaching Classics 

This is a big thing to tackle, and indeed an even bigger sacrifice to make. But it’s a sacrifice that I think is worth making if we want to make the field more accessible, inclusive, and diverse.

I think a lot about archaeology classes because I’m an archaeologist, but similar points exist about other kinds of classes, too. We’ve got a pretty decent chunk of summer left, so that means plenty of time to start thinking about your syllabi for the fall. 

(I don’t know why so many instructors are so averse to working on their courses over the summer – I would love the opportunity to work on it in smaller chunks over several months rather than try to throw together something mediocre in the last two weeks before term starts. But that’s just me…)

If you’re still with me, just hear me out. If you’re teaching a course you’ve taught before, most of the work is already done because a syllabus for that course should already exist. For those of you teaching a course for the first time, find a past syllabus that you can adapt. Once you have your syllabus, I want you to spend the next few weeks or months revisiting the topics, themes, readings, activities and assessments for your course.

Steps to follow

Step One: Ask yourself, how was this topic taught or was assignment done before? Really reflect here on everything from the way the topic was framed, to the visuals or texts used as examples, to the mode(s) in which the content was delivered, to the tasks that students completed for an assignment.

Step Two: Once you have had time to reflect, now it’s time to think about future iterations of the course. Ask yourself, how can this topic or assignment be structured to be more inclusive of and accessible to a wider and more diverse audience? If there are certain historical figures or scholars that you tend to privilege, consider why you tend to choose them and brainstorm alternatives. Additionally, acknowledge where you may not be as effective at discussing a particular topic and consider inviting guest speakers (and compensating them).

While summer should be primarily focused on rest, I really believe that it would be beneficial to instructors who are serious about making their courses more inclusive and accessible to start working on their syllabi now. We do ourselves and especially our students such a disservice when we leave this critical thinking to the last minute. 

Putting it off for a few months often turns into putting it off indefinitely, so I encourage you to start now!! Take the time to invest in your courses and your students.

Leave a Reply