One of the things that I wanted to do with Notes From the Apotheke was to amplify the voices and contributions of BIPOC scholars in ancient Mediterranean studies, at all levels and from all backgrounds. BIPOC in the field are invited to reflect on what brought them to studying the ancient world, as well as offer their opinions on the future of the discipline and share any work they are especially proud of or excited about.
Check out this brand new post written by Alex-Jaden Peart, an undergraduate fellow at the University of Pittsburgh studying the human body and its relationship with the environment in antiquity – the latest installment of this series!
Who are you?
I’m Alex-Jaden, a third-year undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. I am pursuing a B.Phil. (essentially, a bachelor’s degree that entails the production and viva of a master’s level thesis) in Classics and English Writing. Tentatively titled “The Affected Body and Its Environment: Investigating Ontological Formations1 of Identity and Embodied Memory within Greco-Roman Antiquity,” my thesis will survey engaged ontologies that relate to the human body and its relationship with the environment (my principal case study being the Erechtheion), mediated by theories of environmental determinism, in antiquity.
I am cherishing my generalist status before I become more disciplined. Apart from the various disciplines that I will be appealing to in my thesis, Black classicism, pre-modern critical race studies, critical reception studies (esp. in the Black Atlantic and the Caribbean), Latin and Greek pedagogy, and museum studies are other areas of interest.
Beyond the researcher, I am the son of Jamaican immigrants and a Delawarean (though I’ve called southeastern Pennsylvania home since early 2020). Quiet until you get me talking, idle until you get me moving, and sure until you get me curious. I love laughter, smiling, perfumery, and a whole host of little things. In essence, your typical human.
- Cf. James 2006; The concept of ontological formations refers to formations of social relations understood as dominant ways of living. Temporal, spatial, corporeal, epistemological, and performative relations are taken to be central to understanding a dominant formation. That is, a particular ontological formation is based on how ontological categories of time, space, embodiment, knowing and performing are lived—objectively and subjectively.
How did you come to Greco-Roman antiquity?
The beginnings of my peripheral interest in the ancient world are much the same as others: Disney’s Hercules, the Percy Jackson books and movies, and, of particularly piquant memory, Megan E. Bryant’s Oh My Gods!: A Look-It-Up Guide to the Gods of Mythology. I was fascinated about how deeply human—yet, simultaneously, larger than life—these divinities appeared. And, as someone who grew up nominally Pentecostal, they seemed a world away from the remote figure of the God I was raised to know.
Thinking about it now, I had an even earlier awareness of ancient Egypt thanks to Dr. Zahi Hawass’ Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. The world presented on its pages utterly transported my six-year-old self, and, even if I didn’t understand all the minutiae contained therein, I could comprehend its beauty.
After those early experiences, I began learning Latin in high school (an exceedingly rare occurrence these days and one that I know is a privilege), albeit unwillingly.
I had wanted to continue with Spanish, but my mother (and bless her for doing so) was strongly in favor of me learning Latin because, “‘Al, it’ll be great for the SAT!’” A classic (hah!) approach, and one that she had edified by talking about the etymology of the word “annual.”
I was reluctantly swayed by her pragmatic rhetoric. And that attitude, along with not getting along with Wheelock at all, caused me to nearly fail my first quarter of the language.
I knew that a change had to be made (and, though I don’t have the space to expand on it here, being the only Black student in class and fearing that I would be seen as incompetent by my peers if I continued to struggle was also a driving factor), and I had the great fortune of having a Magister (s/o to the incredible John Moore!) who was flexible and adaptable.
Thus, equipped with a new textbook (my beloved Familia Romana) and my left hand aching from (re)writing conjugations and declensions, I, as cliché as it sounds, began to fall in love with the language and thrive in the classroom. For, along with the language, the world I was learning about seemed simultaneously so far away yet close at hand, and that dichotomy is what kept adding fuel to the fire of my fascination.
There’d be days that Magister would toss me The Student’s Catullus (yes, I do remember the first time I encountered Carmen 16) to keep me occupied. And, by the time that I was a senior, I had been selected as the Academic Assistant to work with Latin I students, and such an opportunity was a transformative one and made me treasure being an educator. Few things have enlivened me like seeing a student have that moment of comprehension, all the more so if I had the privilege of supporting them in getting to that point.
Coming to university, however, I intended on becoming a pharmacist, and I had even been accepted into an accelerated six-year program for that purpose.
However, amidst COVID and reading a life-changing essay in May 2020, I had begun my college career with doubts in my heart about what I wanted to pursue, especially as I recalled the halcyon days of high school.
Ultimately, it was an Intermediate Latin Verse class in the Spring that put me (back) onto the track that I am today. Taught by the incredible and brilliant Dr. Marcie Persyn, we read and discussed Catullus(!) and Virgil, and the thought of having to fully turn to the world of STEM was one that appealed less-and-less each day.
I knew that I had to take control of my future. I scheduled a meeting with my freshman academic advisor (hi, Melanie!) who gave me the sagest advice that I could have asked for about self-determination, carving out a path for myself, and, simply put, options.
The hardest part was telling my parents, as I feared their reactions of me switching from an opportunity-laden STEM field to one that seemed much more tenuous and with much less payoff (puns intended). However, they were more supportive than I could have ever imagined, though I had known that my journey was going to be something of a heuristic one, since no one in my immediate family, though college-educated, had gone into academia as I hoped to.
With that in mind, I’ve made it the modus operandi of my undergraduate years to pursue every opportunity that I am aware of.
Whether that be in my capacities as a Latin and Greek peer tutor or Student Faculty Assistant (in which I liaise between faculty and staff, and, yes, if there were any doubts, let them be dispelled: staff do, in fact, keep everything afloat), each has graciously led me to skills and opportunities I could not have foreseen.
Writ large, this approach is one that I would not be able to enact without the numerous brilliant people who have shepherded and encouraged me:
The inimitable Dr. Ellen Cole Lee has been my guiding light in research and so much beyond that since I met her in Latin Prose Composition during the Fall of my sophomore year. Truly, I could not have asked to have been more fortunate as to have the chance to know and be taught by her. I owe her more than I will ever be able to give back.
Dr. Jacques Bromberg, a wonderful and generous scholar and individual, introduced me to the beauty of Ancient Greek, and he was my mentor for my first conference at CAAS this past October.
Dr. Maggie Beeler, our department’s archaeologist, truly awakened me to the interconnectedness of the ancient world and has advised me so thoughtfully about the field of Ancient Mediterranean studies and navigating it efficiently. Also, she’s just super cool.
Dr. Andrew Wein has complicated my research in the best ways by exposing me to the worlds of Homer and the Presocratics, and he is why I feel as though I am more of a Hellenist than a Latinist most days!
Last but certainly not least, my department chair Dr. Christian Wildberg has made me feel more philosophical than I ever thought I could be.
And there are a whole host of others (advisors, scholars, supervisors, etc.) outside my department who I’ve had the privilege of speaking, working, and meeting with who have marked me indelibly, and whom I will always hold the utmost gratitude towards.
Dr. Dave Wright, Hugh McElroy (when are the Ireland plans happening?!), Dr. Arti Mehta, Danielle Perry, Maya Chakravorty (who affirmed me when I needed it most at my first conference), Lesha, Josh a.k.a. General, Drs. Nappi, Derbew, Čulík-Baird, Bosak-Schroeder, Kennedy, and so many others.
I can say that my heart and mind are full.
What would you change about the field?
Of the many desiderata I have for the field, one that springs particularly to mind is language requirements.
As someone who is preparing to apply to graduate programs, I am aware of the communis opinio about the expectation that prospective students should have a firm grasp of Latin and Greek before applying (at least to philology and literature programs).
As stated above, I had the immense privilege of studying Latin in high school. Likewise, I started Greek early enough that I now have enough facility in it to be slated to enroll in a graduate seminar this Fall. But what about those who didn’t have the chance to do either? What about those for whom language learning is a particularly difficult endeavor and would benefit from thorough, protracted training?
Are they simply supposed to go onto (unfunded!) post-bac and taught master’s programs to learn the languages, accruing loans that they will be hard-pressed to be back as they potentially enter the vicious cycle of contingency (reminder: support your local union(s), y’all!)?
It’s the current nature of the beast, unfortunately. However, it’s something that the field will have to reckon with, if it is truly committed to diversifying itself, opening itself to individuals with alternative histories and epistemologies, and doing these things equitably and with an eye to liberatory politics.
If it does not, then epistemic injustice will continue to reign, and epistemic diversity will continue its excruciatingly slow trickle into the field.
What things are on the (front and back) burners?
“Too damn much!” – friends, family, advisors, the hoi polloi, etc.
In all seriousness, I am currently on my third research fellowship as an Undergraduate Fellow of my university’s Humanities Center, a privilege that has utterly transformed my research and will continue to do so.
As of writing this, I will be presenting “Divina Mens: Imperial Propaganda in De architectura 6.1” at CANE on March 17, 2023, a paper which, I am honored to say, received the Phyllis B. Katz Prize.
I also have had the extraordinary opportunity of being my university’s nominee for this year’s cycle of the national Beinecke Scholarship, so I am eagerly awaiting news on that front.
I am also going to be in Munich for two months of my summer doing a German language intensive at the Goethe-Institut and traveling around Europe when I can.
After that, as a Snowden Scholar, I will be partaking in Summer Seminar II “Locating Ancient Gender and Sexuality” at the American School in Athens! If anyone reading this will also be there, please hit my line!
(I also might be making a guest appearance at the Lechaion School’s dig in Corinth, but that remains to be seen).
Further afield, I will also be applying to scholarships and graduate programs, working on my B.Phil. (and maybe an additional honors thesis?) and at my jobs, and trying to take each day as it comes. Also, maybe publishing an article?!
For now, I’m loving all that I do and doing all that I love. And, really, what more could I ask for?
If anyone wants to reach me, I can be found on Twitter @alexjouranothen!
Lastly, I give the greatest thanks to the Dr. Nadhira Hill (and don’t wear it out, y’all!) for giving me the opportunity to write this feature.