Our incoming co-chair, Virginia Campbell, reports on the recent AGM.
In April, the WCC UK held its third AGM, with a programme dedicated to the theme of Activism. This is a topic that brought together different strands of conversations, discussions and criticisms, mostly from previous WCC events. Our focus was how we, as individuals and as a group, can effect change within our discipline, HE generally, and in the wider world. To this end, the programme was quite full – including two speakers, a workshop, a panel discussion, and spotlight talks.
Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz opened the programme discussing her work teaching Greek literature to prisoners. As someone who was one of the organising members of the WCC in the US in the 1970s, has worked in various prison systems creating spaces for education and outreach, and is involved with the committee for Classics and Social Justice, she has spent a large part of her career embodying the idea of activism in combination with the discipline of Classics. She spoke not only about her work as an activist but also as a Classicist, and the importance of using our discipline for good. ‘We are disciplined by the discipline,’ she said, but scholarship can change the way people think if we find new ways to study antiquity whilst simultaneously deconstructing the idea of civilisation as a Western, white male construct. Her ways forward include teaching material that will be problematic to many people in the room, combating the use of ancient history to justify white supremacy, and negotiating the line between doing what we do versus acknowledging the damage done by traditional notions of classics.
Spotlight talks then featured speakers discussing work using aspects of Classics and Archaeology to educate, promote a sense of community and well-being, and give voices to traditionally under-represented or marginalised groups by approaching the ancient world from different perspectives. For example , one speaker addressed the political nature of teaching Virgil’s Georgics, which is not just about philological skills or the appreciation of beauty, but about the most pressing of current social issues and how to challenge the workings of power; and how Roman imperial actions against colonised peoples, including cotton groves in Ethiopia, were used to justify British colonial policy.
Outreach, widening participation, and the promotion of Classics were the focus of a panel discussion, with invited speakers from UCL, Birkbeck, Oxford, and the ACE (Advocating Classics Education) programme. As UK HE has increasing demand for outreach and public engagement activities, this discussion was both thoughtful and practical, providing useful advice on how and why we engage in such activities, and how to think clearly about motivations and processes for inclusivity, real engagement, and successful events. The aim of classics outreach should not always be about recruitment, but about how Classics can be used to give participants something else: confidence, interest in related subjects, or new way of engaging. It benefits us too: it helps reduce jargon, thus improving research and helping us all break open our bubbles and engage with something different. Outreach includes widening participation for those who do not traditionally view university as a viable option, as was highlighted by Paulette Williams discussing the work of Envision, a programme based at UCL.
The afternoon began with a workshop facilitated by Advance HE, an organisation that includes the Equality Challenge Unit, which works to support diversity and equality in HE. The session focused on asking participants to think about race and privilege in different ways, how this affects access, choices, inclusiveness in our discipline, and HE as a whole. This was a difficult and thoughtful exercise, but was only the beginning of a continuing dialogue within the WCC regarding issues of race, class, gender, and the intersectionality of these identifiers within Classics and HE. As our membership, like higher education itself, is comprised of people from a wide range of countries and backgrounds, we notice especially that the challenges we face are specific and situated. For example, whilst the UK has a lot to learn from the US in terms of race, we also need to be mindful of the very specific ways in which racism and empire developed and exist within the UK and the histories of our particular communities.
The programme concluded with Donna Zuckerberg, the editor in chief of Eidolon, an online publication for articles about Classics. For those unfamiliar with Eidolon (and I strongly suggest you check it out), whilst it is primarily for the Classical community, because it is online and aims at a wider, non-scholarly audience, it can also draw the ire of sections of the public. A number of public historians in the US and UK have, in the last year, been the target of trolling and hate speech online. In an environment where public engagement and impact are increasingly necessary for the UK academic, this was a cautious reminder that public facing work can come at a high personal cost. Further, as explored in research such as ‘Kill All Normies’ (Nagle 2017), such trolling and abuse are methods used systematically to mainstream misogyny and white supremacy. Donna reminded us to think critically about our positionality as Classicists, and our discourses, both within and outside of the academy. Donna has now written up her address for us, and it is well worth reading.
Overall, the day was intense, thought provoking, and challenging. There was much said that was disquieting and difficult to reconcile for us as individuals and as a group, and whilst the event has concluded, our discussion has not. In that sense, then, the purpose of the programme was achieved, in that it has made us all think about what we do, how we do it, why, and how we can do better. We recognise, for example, that our choice to have two white keynote speakers was not representative of what we hoped to achieve. Many of us are still thinking about our own reactions to the day, the challenges that we face as an organisation, our discipline and what we ourselves can do. In other words, this work has only just begun.