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 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.
For the very first installment of this monthly BIPOC Feature series, I am deeply grateful to Maia Lee-Chin for being willing to share her journey and insights into the field.
Brief introduction to you
Hi! My name is Maia Lee-Chin and I’m currently a senior undergraduate at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. Being Black has informed basically all of my experiences in this field, and I’m super excited that you’re giving BIPoC scholars the space to share their joys, struggles and passions.
What do you work on?
Currently, I’m working on my senior research project, or as you might see me refer to it on Twitter, the Fenwick. I’m super proud of this project because it’s the highest academic honor that Holy Cross awards, and I’m the first Black woman to achieve it.
My project combines both the fields of Classics and Early Elementary Education. From an educational perspective, the goals were twofold: 1.) quantifying the effects of exposure to Classics on early elementary age students’ reading motivation and 2.) the volume of informational texts read.
From a Classics perspective, my interest lies in a place where most scholars do not explore: how can our studies benefit the public, especially marginalized peoples? I found that many articles, dissertations and published works were targeted towards other academics, further perpetuating the myth that Classics is inaccessible and elitist. I combine both of these interests by designing a curriculum on the Iliad for elementary schoolers, grades 2-4.
Honestly, the entire thesis came from the isolation I felt being the only Black person in the Classics department at Holy Cross. I tried approaching the problem from several lenses, mainly diversity and inclusion strategies, but the problems within our department were not only institutional but characteristic to the study of Classics.
It seems that scholars in Classics thrive on the field being inaccessible; it gives them a sense of prestige and power that they cannot receive from studying other fields whose scholarship are meant to be accessible to the public, like Education.
Instead of attacking an institutional problem, I chose to approach the issue of diversity in Classics as one of accessibility. If students didn’t have access to ancient languages, let alone ancient history or culture, how could we expect them to join a field that is marked by its exclusivity? Instead of focusing on the problem of diversity at universities, I chose to focus on the root of that disparity: the access that students had to ancient studies in their early education.
The hard part about doing accessibility work is not going into a situation assuming that Classics is actually beneficial to these kids’ lives. I mean I obviously have a bias; I’m on a full scholarship to study Classics, so it has benefited my life. But going into largely marginalized communities with the presumption that Classics is going to change lives is not helpful.
This is why the education component of my project is necessary– it quantifies whether Classics has had any effects on students’ lives, and if it is valuable to students’ development outside of the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
What made you want to study the ancient world?
I had always been interested in Classics; I just didn’t know what it was.
It began as an interest in Egyptian mythology back in elementary school. Later on, I was accidentally placed into Latin 1 during my freshman year of high school. I happened to be good at it and by the time my junior year came around, I was taking AP Latin and falling in love with the Aeneid by Vergil.
In Aeneid 2, there’s a story about the Trojan horse and a priest of Apollo, Laocoon. Laocoon tells the Trojans not to bring the horse into the city walls, but no one believes him. The gods become angry with Laocoon for figuring out the Greeks’ plan and send snakes to eat him and his twin sons.
Throughout the entire passage describing Laocoon and his sons being eaten by snakes, Vergil uses words that start with the letter ’s’ to mimic the sound of snakes. Latin made use of the power of language that I never thought was possible before.
The next step seemed natural: Ancient Greek. I took an independent study in Homeric Greek during my senior year of high school. I never really knew that I could do Classics in college until I stumbled upon the Bean scholarship at Holy Cross. I am really lucky to have that scholarship. I get to go to a school that gives me numerous opportunities to pursue what I love.
Education came in because I noticed a lot of inequities in the field of Classics. I was one of the only people of color in the Classics department and the only Black woman. It made me think a lot about power and privilege, and the reasons why I was able to take Latin in high school and continue doing so in college.
I think Classics has given me the tools to become a better thinker, a better writer, and a better scholar. Studying it in tandem with Education allows me to think about the best ways to provide access to something that I am passionate about and has changed my life for the better. It also allows me to think about how to go about that process in a way that is anti-racist and intentionally decolonized. Combining Classics and Education makes me think about my research in a way that is tangible and actionable. It makes me a better scholar.
If you could change one thing about the discipline, what would it be?
The world has a finite amount of resources, which is especially true in academia. I have developed the attitude that knowledge for knowledge’s sake will be the death of our field.
If any real changes are to occur within our field, we need to shift focus from philological projects that have no bearing on reality or our conception of society. (Philology was an easy target, but not the only approach to the ancient world that seems overdone to me.)
Philology is interesting to me! It’s something that I have found much fulfillment in! However, I think that the huge focus and push by senior academics towards traditional scholarship has overshadowed topics that are equally interesting, and probably more beneficial to the advancement of our understanding of humanity, and frankly, the relevancy of our field. And to be quite honest, I think that academics of color are most complicit in encouraging prospective scholars of color to continue the path of study that most have tread in the past.
They advise you to research topics on the path-well-traveled because it’s what allowed them to be successful in the field. There’s no confidence that a new path can be forged. Often it is our own well-intentioned mentors of color that prevent us from causing meaningful change in the field, easing the path of the scholars coming after us.
I guess, after that reflection, what I most wish could be changed in the field are the aspirations for its future. I think we are limiting ourselves in the changes that we’re ‘allowed’ to make, and it will prevent us from keeping up with the rest of the world.
Podcast and other public-facing scholarship
It’s actually really funny that you mention Manic Classics.
I was being interviewed for a Latin teaching position and my interviewer brought it up. I was so embarrassed. I really did not think that anyone would listen to it, let alone professors or prominent scholars. It was just my way of shitposting about Classics in a way that was accessible to my friends and other acquaintances who I thought might be interested in learning about Classics. It was never meant to be a serious learning tool for classrooms. But I am glad that people have found it useful.
You can find Manic Classics on any platform here. I haven’t done any episodes in a while– it took a shit ton of work to produce those episodes- researching and editing the footage was about 20-30 hours a week, which is a lot of time to spend on something that you are not getting paid for.
The only other thing of note that I’ve done was my Eidolon piece. It actually started out as a diary entry that I wrote in the summer of 2019. It’s really great that it has affected so many people, and I’m so happy whenever I see responses to it.
Not that it’s mentioned in the article, but it hints at what I love about Classics. I can feel deep kinship with ancient peoples who seemingly have nothing in common with me. I think that’s what I like most about academia. My musings about Classics can become something that is meaningful to other people and the field.