Classics and Activism: A contradiction in terms?


Professor Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz of Hamilton College gave a keynote at our AGM in April. It is with great pleasure that we share the text of the talk that she gave.

I’m delighted to have been invited here to meet with you all—I was at the Feminist Sandpit in 2016, and have followed your activities with interest. Today’s topic of activism is one dear to my heart, and though I am mostly speaking from my US perspective, I anticipate a lively and informative discussion and look forward to moving forward together. Building coalitions is essential for progress.

First, I would ask what we even mean by activism in this context. Not much of what we do as academics counts as activism in the most obvious and political sense. Participating in world or local politics may even conflict with our professional roles. When I was in grad school in Chicago, for instance, feminist and anti-war demonstrations and meetings were all around me. How engaged could I be, given my time in the library instead of on the picket line? Then there is the question of what we study. The intellectual or academic branches of the civil rights and women’s movements (and later gay rights movement) have attacked the traditional curriculum, and in particular its domination by dead white men.  Classics certainly seemed guilty as charged—a canon of works by dead white men taught mostly by (barely) living white men. And the history of the field supports this critique because of the gate-keeping function of the study of ancient languages; classics was a central part of a liberal education, taken for granted for middle and upper class men. It was decidedly not useless knowledge: as Chris Stray and Phiroze Vasunia among others have argued, a classical education helped in the formation of white male elites and led to jobs in colonial management. Women and people of color were excluded.

The construction of antiquity as white and European persists in very troubling ways. In the last year, the web-based right-wing group Identity Europa has emerged and energetically claimed ancient imagery as its “own,” making reclaiming it part of America’s “becoming great again,” posting flyers on campuses in 2016. The former APA, now Society for Classical Studies in the US, replied first by defining antiquity as

“a complex place, with a vast diversity of peoples, languages, religions, and cultures spread over three continents, as full of contention and difference as our world is today.”  The statement then turns explicitly ideological: “the Society strongly supports efforts to include all groups among those who study and teach the ancient world, and to encourage understanding of antiquity by all. . . As scholars and teachers, we condemn the use of the texts, ideals, and images of the Greek and Roman world to promote racism or a view of the Classical world as the unique inheritance of a falsely-imagined and narrowly-conceived western civilization.”

Like many others of you, I’m sure, I am suspicious of traditional claims for classics’ importance and transcendent value; that tactic was associated with the denigration of other traditions. We have to find new reasons to study antiquity, especially as we do “outreach,” or “public engagement”; if we are selling the Ancient World, we have to ask why we are doing so (more on that later). In a recent article in Eidolon, Johanna Hanink put it this way: “the hard and rewarding work lies in figuring out how to keep doing what we do — studying antiquity and its legacy — while at the same time acknowledging, and further exposing, the damage done by the old hard line on Classics and “Western civilization.”

Classicists have responded to challenges to the field (the critique from the left, the unwelcome support from the right, and I would include here the nonpartisan attacks on the humanities as useless) over the last thirty or so years. In fact, like other disciplines, we have been mobilized by the women’s movement, civil rights and anti-colonialist struggles, the gay rights movement, and more recently by a growing disability rights movement. In the rest of the paper I’ll be looking first at activism in scholarship and teaching, then at efforts to change the profession, and finally at the ways in which classicists have been using classics outside the profession. Of course, the four social movements don’t fit neatly into the three topics, and there are some overlaps. But I hope you will be able to follow!

Let me start with scholarship and the women’s movement /feminism. Those of us coming into the field in the late 70s and 80s were facing a male-dominated scholarship dedicated to philology and the study of the public world, where women were silent and invisible. We were part of the generation of feminists calling for women to speak out, break the silence and bring women out of the shadows. In her path breaking book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (1975), Sarah Pomeroy called attention to “those people who were excluded by sex or class from participation in the political and intellectual life of their societies.” She boldly made the connection to the present. At that time, many of us did our research with passion and in the hope of being part of a feminist movement. As Amy Richlin put it in “The Ethnographer’s Dilemma”: “I write in anger, and I write so that oppression is not forgotten or passed over in silence” (in Arguments with Silence 293). In those heady days, we were optimistic about what our scholarship could do.

Like other feminists of the day, classicists tended to focus on women or gender only; by largely ignoring sexuality, race and ethnicity, as well as issues of disability, feminist classicists missed an early opportunity to pursue a really radical agenda. Sandra Joshel and Sheila Murnaghan’s volume on Women and Slaves came out in 1998; Feminist Theory and the Classics, published in 1993, was breaking news in part because the editors included work by and about women of color (the essays by Shelley Haley and Tina Passman). Since that time intersectional approaches have become more prominent, and race, class and sexuality have been increasingly interwoven in gender scholarship.

Interestingly enough, ancient Greece was used to validate modern same-sex love in research by the early homophile movement (see John Symonds, A Problem in Greek Ethics, in particular), and queer studies in classics developed in the wake of the gay rights and feminist movements. This contemporary work has tended to focus more on difference between then and now in the wake of the statements of the anti-universalist stance of Foucault and say David Halperin, and thus seems less avowedly political. But Halperin does envision his work as political in that it argues for sexual variety (Halperin 2002, 84). Research on ancient gender diversity responds to emerging topics, such as class and transgenderism.

As should be clear from what I said earlier about the history of the discipline, race (or “diversity” as it is blandly called in the US) is the most pressing issue facing us in the U.S. academy. The scholarship is burgeoning. Some have worked to debunk the myth of white classics, by studying the history of black classicists. Others have been actively studying the history of the field and its connection to colonialism and imperialism. Still others have studied the representation of race and ethnicity in the ancient texts as part of critical race studies. And more is coming. A recent conference “Racing the Classics” was the opening event in what promises to be a series organized by Brown and Princeton Universities; in the last two years, a Multiculturalism, Race and Ethnicity in Classics Consortium appeared as a facebook group, and now we have Eos, a new scholarly society devoted to Africana Receptions of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Eos represents a particular branch of reception studies, which have functioned to bring more women and people of color into our field of vision, and perhaps into the field itself. While I object to the word universal in describing the ancient texts, it is clear that they have continued resonance. Women writers and directors like Marina Carr and Cherrie Moraga, for instance, have rewritten Medea, and Rita Dove, Oedipus. Moraga and Dove are women of color and members of marginalized groups who are also turning to ancient plays for plot and structure.

Postcolonial classicists have turned to African, Caribbean, and Latin American versions which are used for insurgent purposes. And specific groups of marginalized people in the US have used the ancient Greek myths for reclamation and identity construction. In her forthcoming book, Melinda Powers focuses on specific U.S. performances that use “Greek tragedy as a framework through which to exercise identity practices that aim to take back, revise, challenge, ‘reclaim’, ‘resignify’ or ‘execute’ stereotypical representations of their respective cultures in the majoritarian sphere.”

These receptions are consoling to classicists like me. But I still fear that reusing the ancient material doesn’t show the continuing effects of colonialism (Goff, Williamson). As 19th century black Classicists could prove their humanity and intellectual worth by mastering the discipline; the same went for middle-class white women. Similarly the Greek plays may provide status – offering a skeleton big enough to fill large public spaces: Soyinka wrote his Bacchae for performance at the National Theatre, and Peter Sellars/Auletta premiered Ajax at the Kennedy Center. When Hamilton students asked Mary Kay Gamel why use the Greeks, she answered “Status.” Of course it is neither only insurgent nor only a matter of status: it is both. As Margaret Williamson pointed out in a review essay of several books on post-colonial uses of the ancient plays: the syncretism is real.

It is a question for academia as a whole as to whether such discursive moves make much of a difference: are they activist? Do we address current problems in our work on ancient sex, gender, race and ethnicity? If not why not? In part, we may have taken for granted gains; it may seem too obvious or ideological to do so. We are also no doubt disciplined by the discipline. Publishing in traditional journals and presenting at classics conferences further limits the impact we can have. Donna Zuckerman has launched Eidolon, and on-line publications may have a wider readership. Certainly Sarah Bond hit a nerve with her piece giving the evidence that the ancient statues were not white, given that she received death threats for her pains. Given my glass half full kind of nature (a version of “but what have you done for me lately”), I remind myself that our scholarship can change the way people think, and is thus a critical part of cultural if not material change.

None of the groups I mentioned has stopped with scholarship, however. In this next section, I’ll turn to the ways the caucuses and groups have worked to make the discipline itself more inclusive and diverse. Early feminist classicists started off with a fight to gain acceptance for their work. The self-conception of the discipline was (and still is in some quarters) that it was non-political and objective. Taking a position was anathema. That was a problem since feminist theory was and is closely related to politics. This still goes on to some extent. For instance, at a recent SCS panel, I heard Rosa Andujar challenge a speaker who had ignored the political implications of the “classical tradition” vs. “reception studies” he responded to her “energy,” but saying that he was trying to give a more intellectual approach, though he might personally agree with her.  Was he not taking a position implicitly? Accusing her of not being intellectual?

Feminists have to some extent succeeded – gender and sexuality are now considered legitimate topics of study. It was a struggle originally to get one WCC panel approved for the SCS, now papers on gender and sexuality are ubiquitous. There are also more women in the professoriate. Some feminist women are at the helm of the organization. Moreover, the structure of the SCS has changed with new committees attending to diversity, for instance. The Lambda Classical Caucus inaugurated an activism award about five years ago and has awarded it to someone in all but one of the following years. They have consulted with the SCS on trans and sexuality issues in the profession. They advocate when issues arise. It was novel for the SCS to make the statement it did about the misappropriation of the ancient world in those posters – and to take on harassment as an issue as it has done. Without pressure from the WCC and LCC, I am confident that none of this would have happened.

These feel to me like somewhat modest successes, but they are at least real. More challenging has been diversifying the membership in the profession. What or how are we actually doing? Given the dismal numbers of people of color in these fields (2% of grad students, 9% of undergraduates), I’d have to say not very well. Education is highly segregated in the US and in the UK, and poor people and people of color often don’t get the chance to study antiquity in general, or Latin and Greek, in secondary school. If they do encounter material from the ancient world, however, they may be turned on about it. But then the elitism and whiteness of the field may discourage these young people from pursuing classics as a subject.

From what Mathura Umachandran says in a recent piece also in Eidolon, it seems that not much has changed since Shelley Haley wrote about her experiences in Feminist Theory and the Classics in 1993. Umachandran’s grandmother asked her “why not study our classics,” and her interest in the material was almost eroded by her experiences in the profession.  She challenges those in the field to do “the work of self-critique at the personal and disciplinary level,” without which “the racial inequalities that are constitutive of the very idea of Western Europe will continue to poison the ways in which white, brown and black classicists interact.”

We need to be aware of how “the fragility of whiteness” is evident in the field’s resistance to making significant changes. Years after the formation of WCC and Lambda Classical Caucus, there will soon be an affiliated group for scholars of color in the SCS. Given the physical whiteness of our meetings, to say nothing of the conservatism of the structure of the meetings, they can be a cold and unfriendly place for the small numbers of people of color in attendance. A caucus can combat the status quo by creating a sense of a critical mass, as the WCC did for us. At the same time, the increased scholarship may also help attract students of color to the study of the ancient world by making its relevance clear. But given the job market and until we make the field more open, should we be recruiting students of color to it?? I’d love to discuss that later.

Other forms of diversity, such as disability, lag far behind these others. At a Roehampton conference in the fall, Annie Sharples argued that by making the field accessible to those with disabilities we will hear new voices: that will lead to a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of disability and impairment in the ancient world. Thus, changing the membership will change the scholarship. A pair of conferences organized by Kings College on disability will address the gap in scholarship, but it is not clear how it will engage the “forgotten other” to become subjects (that is members of the field) and not just objects of study.

How important is this anyway? After all, Classics and the academy in general remain the purview of an intellectual elite, so I would admit that we are not making wholesale cultural change by changing the CA or the SCS.

I can’t forget about pedagogy today though it fits in awkwardly – as it does in the profession as a whole. As feminists have long been aware, teaching ancient materials can be problematic especially if the instructor ignores the experiences of those doing the reading. Thus, in Amy Richlin’s 1992 essay “Reading Ovid’s Rapes” (reprinted in Arguments with Silence 2014), she asked “what happens when texts like these are presented to students as canonical.”  More recently in the States and UK there has been considerable debate as to what faculty should do with material that may be difficult for some students to handle, and Ovid has reared his head again in these conversations. In the mandatory core curriculum at Columbia, students read the Metamorphoses. According to an Opinion piece in the Columbia Spectator (2015), one student, self-described as a survivor of sexual assault, reported being “triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work.” The text and the classroom made her feel “unsafe” because the professor “focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery” when lecturing on the text. The article continues: “When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored” (April 30, 2015 Spectator).” The recent debate, written up in the UK Spectator, about Peter Jones’ Latin textbook, led him to say, rightly, that we should not avoid stories of rape, but interrogate them. That is fine if we really do so, however, and don’t merely give lip service to the task (Reading Latin, P. Jones and K. Sidwell). Rather than ignoring rape or censoring the readings, we can use the ancient material to analyze the issues, not to ignore them. Though I hate “workshops,” we need them because faculty who have no training may be dangerous.

We can also teach our material so that it raises questions. I teach a self-consciously inclusive version of tragedy in which I pair ancient and modern texts for largely political purposes. Rita Dove’s Darker Face of the Earth, set in the ante-bellum south, uses the Oedipus myth to bring up the question of how social conditions act as fate for her characters. And that once again enables us in class to discuss current events. What acts as fate in today’s world? Through making these connections my courses on the ancient material become political. And of course we can teach new courses, for instance those on the history of the discipline. They may not make for social change directly, but insofar as they reach individual students and make them think, they do have an effect.

I am arguing that teaching can transform students by getting them to ask the hard questions. If we teach by discussion, not lecture, there is a chance that we can actually give students tools that will help them understand those with different points of view and even to work with others different from themselves. Any literature course can have the effect of teaching students empathy, which is why scientists have increasingly recognized the importance of arts and literature in teaching med students. Especially in reading plays, we are forced to see multiple points of view. By reading we can begin to see how it feels to be “them.” Practicing these skills can give students a desire to make a difference, to do something.

So far I’ve been discussing how research and teaching have activist elements, as well as our efforts to change the profession itself – addressing its somewhat unsavory past. Modern versions of ancient plays can also reach a broader audience than our scholarship can have; the classics then can be used to build community. For instance, Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad links Electra to gang violence and revenge killing; he made sure that the audience at the Mark Taper forum would have a Latinx audience by busing people in from East LA. While providing welcome evidence that the ancient themes still have explanatory value (Alfaro also wrote a Medea and an Oedipus; cf. Padilla on rap, Eidolon), unless such an effort is made, playwrights using the Greeks are still addressing the elites (the theater-going public is very small, and classical titles may appeal to an even more select audience).

Now I want to turn to classicists’ efforts to address actual social ills, which is the most obvious meaning of the word activism. A group of SCS members brought Rhodessa Jones to perform at SCS; Jones is the founder of the Medea Project for Incarcerated Women and HIV circle, a group that works in jails and has produced 6 shows based on Greek myth. For this event, we partnered with GLIDE church, which has a very diverse congregation. This year we are bringing Alfaro to the meetings, with SCS support. Can we bring a larger audience to our meeting by including such artists and activists? Can we thereby interest our colleagues in social justice issues?

In the wake of the 2016 Rhodessa Jones smash hit performance, we created a new affiliated group called Classics and Social Justice. Our website claims that we do “Outreach that brings classics out of the academy and returns it to the least privileged in our society.” The group also brings people together who share an ideal of being engaged classicists. Our meetings draw people who have many particular interests and issues to address. What are we actually accomplishing? It is importantly a place for mentoring: there are more young people than senior faculty, but we make time to encourage these voices and to make space for them on panels and workshops. I am concerned that Classics and Social Justice finds it easier to organize panels and workshops than to launch new projects that are directly providing services or making changes. We have a list of best practices around disability on our web site, but we have not worked to put those into effect. Changing the discourse and the way we think about our field are important, but it seems somewhat narcissistic. How radical is that? You might say, not very, but by spreading the word, these panels inspire others to put their knowledge to work in the world.

How do we actually do that? Roberta Stewart is using a reading project of the Odyssey with vets, and she has worked with others to expand and bring attention to her program. Alex Pappas used the SCS meeting with Rhodessa Jones to work with her and teach trans women in the San Francisco jail.

A good number of classicists are teaching in prisons in the U.S., and that is my specific work. Mass incarceration is of grave concern in the U.S. where we imprison more people than any other nation (5% of the world’s population, but 25% of prison population). There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails. The racial dimensions are horrifying—young black men are more likely to go to prison than to a four-year college, much less graduate from one. The prison abolition movement calls for restorative justice and decarceration; they are part of a long game. In the short term there are smaller efforts to mitigate the effects of incarceration.

Why education? Overall, there is a strong correlation between prisoners receiving an education and their not returning to prison. But since the 90s in the US, when financial aid was cut for the incarcerated, many educational programs have been shut down. At the same time that educational opportunities in the prison were shut down, the money was diverted to building more prisons, instead of investing in education in poor communities.

That recidivism argument dovetails with a financial argument: it costs less to educate a prisoner than to imprison one. While both (recidivism and economics) make strong motives for teaching in prison, and lead to private or even state funding, they are also problematic. The utilitarian arguments detract from the importance of education for itself, and is part of what Michael Balfour has pointed to as the complicity of such programs with control. Like most volunteers, I believe in the liberatory power of education, and I don’t want to feel like an agent of the prison administration. I try to judge our efforts generously, as Stephen Hartnett suggests we read the essays in his book, Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, and Educational Alternatives (2011, 8) he asks us to “Let us open their chapters then, not by noting what they do not do but by celebrating what they do: share stories of using the arts and education to open the minds and life opportunities of students whose choices have been constrained. Here is a pedagogy of hope and empowerment, and, moving from there, perhaps of social change.”  In short, I try to balance awareness of what I am not doing (attacking the whole system) with what I am doing, teaching while also participating in local political initiatives.

As I said, many Classicists are teaching in U.S. prison programs. Some of these are in degree granting programs in major universities, some are state organized. Some faculty members get released time to do this teaching, some volunteer. There is a nucleus of us in the Classics and Social Justice group, and we will be presenting a panel at the SCS in 2019. I want to spend my last few minutes talking about my specific group. I participate in the Hamilton College book discussion group at a medium-security men’s facility in upstate NY. It is very informal, sometimes problematically so – we don’t have much support from the prison administration. The prisoners don’t get credit, and we don’t meet more than every other week. I am not aware of such programs in the UK; though there are theater programs in prison here, they don’t seem to use ancient plays. I was reluctant to teach tragedy at first, but I was inspired by the work of Rhodessa Jones and the Medea Project to try a performance of a tragedy. When that fell through, I continued teaching ancient material.

I want to share with you what some of the men have said over the years as a way of conveying what makes this kind of teaching worthwhile. Discussing the Agamemnon chorus’ line that “wisdom comes through suffering”, the men in the group asserted that they are learning a lot by being in prison – it is a necessary evil that leads to growth. When we discussed Socrates’ ideal of the examined life, they said that prison gives them the opportunity to reflect. When they compared prison to monks in other kinds of cells, I felt that was sentimental and brought up the daily humiliation they face. To my amazement, two man actually spoke approvingly of solitary confinement, a cruel practice in my view, arguing that it led them inside themselves. One man even said that he got off all of his medications while in solitary – as a good thing.

Here are some of the responses they gave when I asked about the value of discussions like ours for this paper and another one I’m giving at a prison conference. The first man to speak said that the ancient material was important because of the current influence it still has, giving architecture as an example. Another man said that I was restoring a patrimony they had been deprived of. But after that the conversation was more about how such discussions make us question our own morality and existence. That it teaches them not to believe what they’re told. That the questions we raise are challenging and raise important ethical problems.

At various times we discussed the role of this class in helping them avoid violence, revenge, anger; they thought it was giving them tools: “doing surgery on ourselves.” In short, they use the plays to think about themselves, and I encourage them to do so.

I want to underline the point that others who teach in prison have also made. It is not the texts so much that make the difference: Shakespeare, Dante, and others have similar effects. I do this work as a classicist, but also as a human being. And I speak to the men as human beings. That is the main thing about our discussions. The students come in large part for that intellectual AND personal interaction. In class, their opinions are taken seriously, and they are more than inmates. Unlike the prison norm, here, they are not known by their number or surname (or prison moniker). They call me by my last name or professor, as a sign of respect, but they are pleased that I call them by their given name.

In the end, I am not taking down the system, so in my youth I would not have thought it was activism, more a form of do-goodism. And we attract mostly white men, perhaps because we are all white who are teaching, so we’re not addressing the racism of the US prison system.  Nonetheless, I think this is important work. To do prison teaching, you have to believe that creating an oasis for a few individuals is worth something. It is certainly worth something to me.

In conclusion, let me say what must be obvious, with all my doubts about our efforts, we must all do what we can where we are. I’m a teacher, and Greek tragedy is what I know best, so teaching that is one place where I can be useful. I know I have touched on a lot here, and I would love to discuss it all with you, hear about your projects and begin to work together.



Works Cited


Alfaro, Luis. 2006. Electricidad. American Theater Magazine.

Atwood, Margaret. 2005. Penelopiad. Cannongate.

Balfour, Michael. 2003. The Use of Drama in the Rehabilitation of Violent Male Offenders. Studies I Theatre Arts Vol. 19. Edwin Mellen Press.

Bond, Sarah. 2017. “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color.” https://hyperallergic.com

Carr, Marina. 2002. By the Bog of Cats. Dramatists Play Service.

Dove, Rita. 2000, 3rd ed. Darker Face of the Earth. Story Line Press.

Gaca, Kathy. 2014. “Martial Rape, Pulsating Fear, and the Sexual Maltreatment of Girls (paides), Virgins (parthenoi), and Women (gynaikes) in Antiquity.” American Journal of Philology 135: 303-57.

Haley, Shelley. 1993. “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-empowering.” In Feminist Theory and the Classics, ed. Nancy S. Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin. Routledge. 23-43.

Hanink, Johanna. 2017. “It’s Time to Embrace Critical Classical Reception.” Eidolon: May 1. On-line.

Hartnett, Stephen. 2011. Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, and Educational Alternatives

Moraga, Cherrie. 2001.  The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. West End Press.

Padilla, Dan-el. 2015. “From Damocles to Socrates: The Classics In/Of Hip-Hop.” Eidolon: June 8. On-line.

Pomeroy, Sarah. 1975. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Schocken.

Richlin, Amy. 2014. Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women. University of Michigan Press.

Stray, Christopher. 1998. Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England.1830-1960. Oxford.

Symonds, John Addington. 1971 [1883]. A Problem in Greek Ethics. Haskell Hall House.

Umachandran, Mathura. 2017. “Fragile Classics.” Eidolon, June 27. On-line.

Vasunia, Phiroze. 2013. The Classics and Colonial India. Oxford.

Williamson, Margaret. 2010. Review of B. Goff, ed. Classics and Colonialism and C. Gillespie and L. Hardwick, eds, Classics in Post-Colonial Worlds. In Journal of Hellenic Studies 130.

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