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 the latest installment of this series — a post written by Kiran Mansukhani, a PhD student in Classics at Brown University!
Introduction and Work
I’m Kiran (he/him), a first-year PhD student in Classics at Brown University. I just received my MA in Classics from The Graduate Center, CUNY. I also received a post-baccalaureate certificate in Classics at Columbia University and an AB in Philosophy from Bryn Mawr College. I’m mixed Indian and Filipino by way of the Southeast Asian Indian diaspora, with both sides of my family spread out mainly around the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines.
My interests exist between classics and philosophy.
Generally, I think any study of metaphysics and epistemology in antiquity should be grounded in an understanding of the political and literary milieus within which that thought was shaped. On the classics side of things, I’m broadly interested in Plato’s Theory of Forms, from literary techniques employed in descriptions of the philosopher’s relationship to Forms, to the reception of the Forms in 20th Century political thought from the Global South. This work is guided by philosophical topics, such as the concept of epistemic injustice and the history of external world skepticism.
Overall, I’m interested in who Plato considered a knower, what he believed we can know, and how later political theorists interpreted these ideas.
Journey to the Ancient World
While helping me choose which foreign language to learn in middle school, my father pointed at the Latin option and said, “Oh, Latin could help you become a doctor!” So, I chose Spanish. I then avoided Latin and medical school for the next ten years. Now that I’m doing a doctorate in Classics, I regularly remind him of what he said all those years ago.
As you can see, I was a relative latecomer to the discipline. Despite doing my undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr College, I hadn’t received a clear explanation of what classics was until the end of my junior year.
By then, I had become somewhat jaded with philosophy after a seminar on Derrida. His Dissemination seemed to contradict everything I had learned about Plato as a philosophy major. Arguments for definitions of Greek terms also appeared conveniently circular, though I realized I couldn’t fully articulate my own counterarguments without working knowledge of Ancient Greek. That was when I first wanted to learn the language, but had no idea where to do so. For a few months, I bemoaned the fact that Ancient Greek was a dead language, only accessible to older generations of European schoolboys and clearly no longer taught in the 21st Century.
Finally, in a group meeting for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a classics professor came and explained exactly what classics departments teach. Absolutely elated that I could learn Ancient Greek, I jumped into a summer intensive (and haven’t looked at Derrida since).
In that intensive, I had the privilege of being taught by Ashley Simone.
Ashley was, and remains, one of my role models for what a classics professor can and should look like. I nearly failed Ashley’s class. I would have done so if she hadn’t taken the extra time in office hours to work one on one with me. There, my Greek slowly improved, but Ashley went above and beyond. She listened to my anxieties about my complete dearth of knowledge about classics and applying for graduate study in the US as a child of immigrants. She encouraged me nonetheless.
By the end of the summer, I passed Ashley’s class and began to apply for post-baccalaureate programs for classics on her advice. I got into both programs I applied to partly through her recommendations. After the postbac, I ended up staying in classics.
Future of Classics
Many of my friends and colleagues have already spoken to the metadisciplinary conversations that need to happen in the field. So, I’ll use this space to outline some more practical concerns I have. Admittedly, some of these are US-centric, but I hope a few speak to those held outside of the US.
First and foremost, no discipline can have a future if there is no one left to teach it.
Graduate students and adjunct faculty are most students’ first introductions to the discipline. That is why classics departments need to be involved in university-wide changes that improve the wellbeing of all graduate and adjunct workers.
This includes supporting unions which negotiate for contractual wage increases proportional to the cost of living, healthcare benefits, the fidelity of grievance procedures such as Title IX hearings, and the conversion of adjunct lines to tenure-track positions. Of course, unions shouldn’t be burdened with the task of reforming the entire US academic system.
Teaching and research, however, is labor. Those who perform these tasks need the appropriate labor protections that allow them to work in safe and sustainable conditions. Otherwise, the discipline will continue to lose talented scholars to more secure industries.
Speaking of safety and sustainability, this field cannot have a future if we remain ignorant or worse, apathetic towards larger political and environmental conditions.
COVID-19 taught us that academic norms need to be reevaluated in the face of crisis. Now, with ever-rising inflation and global warming, issues raised prior to the pandemic can and should be scrutinized more deeply.
Global inflation and goods shortages require that we consider the cost of books, articles, and commutes in course design and research.
If textbooks for a classics course cost more than a month’s worth of groceries, is that a class worth taking? How does an extended gas shortage affect a professor’s ability to commute to their own office and finish research projects before their tenure clock is up?
Global warming also poses real dangers for archaeological digs, summer programs, and in-person conferences. If these remain required components of academic work, even as temperatures continue to rise, there should be discipline-wide guidelines to ensure people can safely engage in the field.
A discipline’s continued relevance should not be defined solely by the contents of syllabi, but how it responds to the practical challenges of the present.