An Academic’s First Big Conference

The Society for Classical Studies, or SCS, holds an annual meeting each year. It’s an opportunity for Classicists from all over the world to meet, present papers, participate in panels, seek career opportunities, buy new books, and get the scoop on the latest scholarship fads in Classical Studies.

Okay, for those of you who think of Classics as “a bunch of ancient stuff,” the idea of fads or trends in scholarship might seem like a punchline. Trust me when I say that the field of Classics is alive, well, and ever-changing. As a classicist, you’re part of one of the oldest fields of “humanities” study that there is; it is, after all, the foundation on which the “liberal arts” are based. But the way scholars view the ancient world – and, perhaps more importantly, the focus which scholars have when they look at the ancient world – is constantly evolving. You can see just by glancing over the abstracts for this year’s meeting that classicists’ concerns range from the “classics” of classics, if you will – i.e. philology, comparative literature, history, and archaeology – to such vital and modern notions as the digital humanities, modern approaches to pedagogy, and, one of the panels for which I am most excited, “Classics and Social Justice.”

I am proud to take to my little blog here to announce publicly for the first time that I have the privilege of being one of those scholars presenting at the 149th annual meeting of the SCS. In addition, this will also be my very first time attending a major academic conference. And folks, I can’t wait.

There is a world of steps to take before I am ready to attend, however. I have to finish polishing my paper for presentation; this includes doing stacks and stacks of research to feel prepared for the Q&A section of things. But I also have to plan.

There are so many papers presented at SCS each year, and I want to go to all of them. For an academic, or at least for me, reading a list of paper titles feels like going to the Scholastic Book Fair in elementary school – that familiar, intense rush of excitement that comes from seeing a veritable fairground packed with new characters, new storylines, new adventures, and knowing you can only pick a handful to actually take. I want everything. I want to hear each talk, read each handout, listen carefully to each question and each response. Of course, my  aspirations are bigger than my attention span, and there is in all actuality no possible way to hear every paper at SCS. So that means prioritizing. It merits a different kind of research. And in my stationary-obsessed mind, it also merits a new notebook designated solely for SCS; something very scholarly-looking and professional, of course. I even just put in an order for some re-branded business cards.

So how do you pick? How many presentations can you possibly watch; more realistically, how much information can you reasonably meaningfully retain? Thanks to my well-organized music-loving partner, the most similar experience I can liken this conundrum to is that of the Music Festival lineup. He is meticulous about scouring the schedule and formatting his own spreadsheet of acts to attend. And that is the approach I plan to take to SCS, with the caveat that I also want to come at the conference from a new angle: which papers will I, personally, be best able to live-tweet?

Live-tweeting an academic conference is a somewhat debated practice, but it’s also a critical tool for disseminating ideas shared at the conference to those scholars who cannot attend. I have a minimal amount of experience with live-tweeting myself, from our Boston-Area Roman Studies Conference (“Ovid Over Time”) last spring, but I have a lot of experience avidly following other twitter-active academics’ live-tweets of conferences I was unable to attend. As I hope to move forward flexing my live-tweeting muscle, I also want to look into the etiquette and technique behind it.

And, finally, there’s research-research. Actual, bare-bones, bibliography-mining-style research. Digging up what I can find out about subjects, scholars, and the like before I attend. Brushing up on my knowledge of the key concepts and players in attendance this year. Flexing my research muscle isn’t a hard one – the trick will be balancing it with all of the critical research I have to do for my semester’s schoolwork and my winter studies.

Right now is the calm before the SCS storm, but I can see it all charging at me in the not-so-distance. In a mere matter of weeks, I’ll give a draft of my presentation in front of my cohort and faculty. This process is called a “brown bag,” and it invariably produces invaluable feedback. I’m immensely grateful to be in a department that is supportive and encouraging at every turn, and surrounded by a cohort that knows how to give exceptional constructive criticism (a criminally underrated skill in academia).

So I’m nervous, and I’m excited, and I’m grateful. I’m aware of the weight of this opportunity, and aware of the work it took to get here. And even though I still have plenty of work to do, I’m ready.

If you missed it, a link to my abstract – info on what I’ll be presenting at the conference – is available online! Click right here.


High on a hill

It is mid-July in Greece, it is hot, and as our bus pulls up the slope at the base of Mt. Helicon we can hear our busdriver arguing with Tina, our group leader. He is nervous at the prospect of driving the bus up the mountain. Mere days later, we will be careening through tiny roads deep in Arcadia barely making it past the opposing flow of traffic in torrential downpours; however, this is the first and only time that Panos, our driver, questions Tina about her travel plans.

Moments later, the bus begins to fill with dust from the red clay soil of the dirt road.
“He has to turn off the air conditioning,” Tina tells us.
After Panos drops us off we watch the giant, gleaming bus back slowly and expertly over the same road, becoming a tiny toy in the distance that we admire from afar.

But there it is.
The Valley of the Muses.

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Hesiod, the region’s most famous resident, wrote of its quality in his Works and Days that Helicon was “wretched in winter, blistering in summer, never good in any season.” But this valley is where the Muses came to Hesiod to teach him how to sing the truth, how to sing lies; this is where he became the poet to defeat Homer in competition. The muses used to bathe here, sing here, dance here, and one day they happened upon a cantankerous old shepherd to whom they gave a laurel rod and the inspiration to sing of the gods and the things that are and were.

Imagining anybody dancing in this valley – particularly that motif of bare feet of the Muses – is a challenge, to say the least. The ground is covered in the type of vegetation only sheep and goats could love; brambly, thorny, prickly varieties cover the ground; the sporadic olive tree offers extremely limited shade from the sun that beats down on the ground. The valley is full of steep drops, winding paths, and sharp rocks, all of which obscure the Hippocrene spring, sacred to the muses, and the winding, onerous paths to the site of the Museion itself. But all of these elements somehow befit the wily women we often imagine the Muses being – the divine women who coyly told an unsuspecting shepherd: “we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will it, how to utter true things.” Their playful nature resides in the manner in which the landscape hides different things; it feels as though anything could happen in this valley.

Before we begin our descent to the Mouseion itself, as we discuss the life and works of Hesiod while he was working on this hillside, I can hear a strange, erratic, ethereal music in the distance. It is a discordant sound; unpredictable, but strangely melodic. Different tones break through the air, the direction of the sound impossible to pinpoint – until.
I look up.
Leaping effortlessly among the crags and cliffs above us that lead to the summit of Mt. Helicon, a herd of goats looks half-curiously at us as they search for bits of plants in the crevices of the rocks.
In my weathered notebook I write:
In the valley of the muses we hear bells far away in the manner of otherworldly music. Goats descend from Mt. Helicon.
Full of everything, full of the sight and the sound and being there, I begin to cry. Tina tells us we are truly blessed. I feel a sudden sense of transportation, a heavy realization that this is an experience mirroring that on the same spot three thousand years prior, perhaps older; the sights, sounds, smells of this place, everything is the very same, including the spots where kids test out their jumping capabilities under the watchful eyes of mother goats.

In its heyday, people used to flock from all over to visit the Museion in the valley of the muses. What remains on the site now are the Hippocrene spring itself and a few sparse fallen marbles; however, it used to be an open-air sanctuary. I imagine statues of the muses and perhaps their associated gods hiding in the uneven landscape, exposed to the elements they spent so much time dancing and singing among. Here, ancient people would have poetic competitions, games, feasts, dances. We discuss the idea of having our own little dance. Tina says “I think we should share a cookie in the valley of the muses,” and we munch our treats before walking over the Hippocrene spring and back towards our bus.
At the spring, the perpetual song of the cicadas reaches a deafening height; they sing their hearts out in the sudden shade over the cool water. Several of us take relief in the cool waters of the spring.

Back on the bus, I write in my journal:
What does Mt. Helicon look like in spring, covered in wildflowers? In winter with possible snow? This is the valley of the muses where Hesiod was taught to sing. He said it was bad in winter and awful in summer and not great any time of year; he wrote it with the cynical affection only a person in love with his home can earnestly express.

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There and Back Again, or, A Reflection on Athenian Museums & Spelunking

I will preface this with a brief apology that my updates on life in Greece have been thus far quite minimal. I would blame this on the spotty wifi in Attica, but it is truly a consequence of my attempt to live, absorb, experience all that I can – an attempt that subsequently leads to a necessary investment in recovery at the end of each day. The wifi aspect of this journey was an interesting one. I am so accustomed to the luxury of outside communication at my fingertips at all times; on this trip, it was difficult to sign on just to check and respond to emails, let alone to keep in contact with my loved ones. I thank them, especially the ever patient and understanding N, for their understanding in what was a blur of intense and emotional experience; rather a tour de force of sorts of attempting to absorb as much as possible out of each new site, each new town.

I began this blog post back in Loring Hall after our 11-day trip around Attica, still letting the dust settle from our days on the road. I intend to detail as much of that trip as possible, but that is not for now. I find myself wanting to return to my first few days here and the embarrassment of riches I had already experienced before we even embarked on our bus around the country.

If you have been to Athens, it is likely that you have been to the acropolis. But have you ever taken the time to explore the caves that line the path up to the Parthenon there?

We spent our morning walking through the Exarchia neighborhood on our way to the National Museum of Archaeology. The anarchists of Athens hold Exarchia. It is rather haunting to walk by the massive, beautiful building of the old Polytechnic university and know that it is inhabited by anarchist squatters reclaiming this quarter of the city as their own. On the 17th of November, 1973, the Polytechnic was host to a student-organized popular uprising against the Regime of the Colonels. It is still celebrated as a national holiday today; Exarchia still embodies the fervent anti-fascist attitudes leading to the uprising some 40 years ago.

But in the heart of Exarchia, down the block from the Polytechnic university, is the National Museum of Archaeology. It is, as one might expect, overwhelming in its rich, vast collection. Though we spent only a morning there I can already confidently assert that I could have spent several days just poring over the material offered through its many halls. Here is where the contents of the “Treasury”of Atreus are held, amongst other infamous Ancient discoveries; the face that Schliemann beheld and took as Agamemnon’s will still stare you in the eye as you walk through the Bronze Age wing. When I speak of an “embarrassment of riches,” the immense collection at the national museum comes to mind. A veritable cornucopia of invaluable artifacts rests there informing one’s experience throughout Athens. Whatever you see there once rested on the landscape you traverse, spanning the cultural experience of thousands of different generations down to the prehistoric era. There is the marble universe of the classical period, the clay pots of the proto-, geometric, and post-geometric era, and the stunning collection of flawless gold from the Mycenaean era. For the moments you inevitably become overwhelmed by all there is to see, there is a gorgeous indoor garden cafe to rest and process.

Finished with the museum, we walked through Monastiraki, the flea market neighborhood of old Athens, to lunch of gyros and then up to the theater Dionysus. In the blazing heat we discussed the festivals, the incredible tragic works that would have been performed there. Standing on the ancient seats of the theater one looks out on the city replete with concrete now, but which once was mainly pasture and space. I tried to imagine the view, imagine what it would be like to watch a performance with the port of Piraeus in sight, vast fields, wandering herds of goats.

After the theater, we scaled the sides of the acropolis exploring the different caves there. The first is the immense cave to Aglauros, an elusive figure in myth. She is one of the daughters of Cecrops, the “snakey” (and thereby autochthonous) early king of Athens. The most popular variant of the myth cites the birth of Erechtheus, as a consequence of an attempted rape of Athena by Hephaestus; Erechtheus is born from the earth itself, pregnant by Hephaestus’ spilled semen. Athena entrusted a box which held Erechtheus to Aglauros and her sisters, warning them never to open it; however, as often happens in myth, this warning was ignored. Consequently, Aglauros and her sisters went insane and plummeted to their deaths from the top of the acropolis. In another variant, however, a cave dedicated to Aglauros feels more fitting: a prophecy foretold that Athens, involved in a protracted war, would find success if only someone were willing to sacrifice themselves for the city-state. Aglauros, hearing this prophecy, jumped off of the acropolis and saved the city. There are theories that young men would reenact this sacrifice in wartime – not actually sacrificing themselves, but as a show of respect for Aglauros and the prophecy that once saved Athens playing at self-sacrifice to recreate the same successful result. The cave is vast, and now home to a large bird’s nest; a panoramic view of the city sprawls beneath.

Further up from the cave of Aglauros is one to Aphrodite. This cave is particularly charming due to its continued use; dedications to Aphrodite are scattered throughout the ancient niches that were used for similar offerings thousands of years ago. One can see small notes folded up and tucked into crevices in the rock, hopeful wishes from new lovers. Dried flowers scatter the niches, and a stack of beautiful rocks which continues to grow in height.

Finally, there is the cave of Pan. Pan’s cave was dedicated to him during the Persian war, right before the battle of Marathon. Herodotus recalls that Philippides ran into Pan on a journey, who asked him why the Athenians didn’t worship him. “I like you Athenians quite a bit,” Pan said, “but you don’t worship me; I’ve helped you out before and I’ll continue to do so, but why don’t you seem to like me?” As a result of this conversation, the cave was dedicated to him.

Pan is one of my favorite gods. He’s actually the son of my all-time favorite god, Hermes. Pan is interesting because he’s this little magical woodsy fellow who goes about his business and essentially loves anybody who tries to commune with nature – but like all gods, he also has the capacity to be incredibly dangerous. The word “panic” derives from his name for the manner in which he is able to induce paranoid hallucinations in large groups of soldiers who begin to think someone is attacking them and subsequently attack each other. Like most individuals, he doesn’t enjoy being woken up during naptime – high noon, “Pan’s hour.” But in typical god-like fashion, grumpiness takes on a terrifying association when paired with the awesome power of any god. Basically, once you start to read through myth, you begin to gather that it’s not a good idea in general to mess with any of the gods.

The birth of Pan is a delightful story, and I will begin conclude this post on that note. The Homeric Hymn to Pan recounts how Hermes fell in love with a daughter of Dryops, and they had a child together – but Pan wasn’t an ordinary child. He was born with hooves and horns, and a full beard. While the daughter of Dryops sees this and runs away, horrified, Hermes is delighted, laughs, and takes Pan in his arms and brings him to Olympus.

The cave to Pan is just the sort of place Pan would love best. Lots of winding paths and varying entrances and tiny nooks and crannies to sneak into. It also has a little bit of a saucy reputation recounted in the Aristophanes play Lysistrata – basically, it’s a great place to have secret sexual encounters, but you might need to find a good place to purify yourself before you re-enter the citadel.

I will finish by including a translation of the Homeric Hymn to Pan, because I find it truly lovely and the cave of Pan has stuck with me as one of my favorite spots in Athens.

Muse, tell me about Pan, the dear son of Hermes, with his goat’s feet and two horns —a lover of merry noise. Through wooded glades he wanders with dancing nymphs who foot it on some sheer cliff’s edge, calling upon Pan, the shepherd-god, long-haired, unkempt. He has every snowy crest and the mountain peaks and rocky crests for his domain; hither and thither he goes through the close thickets, now lured by soft streams, and now he presses on amongst towering crags and climbs up to the highest peak that overlooks the flocks. Often he courses through the glistening high mountains, and often on the shouldered hills he speeds along slaying wild beasts, this keen-eyed god. Only at evening, as he returns from the chase, he sounds his note, playing sweet and low on his pipes of reed: not even she could excel him in melody —that bird who in flower-laden spring pouring forth her lament utters honey-voiced song amid the leaves. At that hour the clear-voiced nymphs are with him and move with nimble feet, singing by some spring of dark water, while Echo wails about the mountain-top, and the god on this side or on that of the choirs, or at times sidling into the midst, plies it nimbly with his feet. On his back he wears a spotted lynx-pelt, and he delights in high-pitched songs in a soft meadow where crocuses and sweet-smelling hyacinths bloom at random in the grass.

They sing of the blessed gods and high Olympus and choose to tell of such an one as luck-bringing Hermes above the rest, how he is the swift messenger of all the gods, and how he came to Arcadia, the land of many springs and mother of flocks, there where his sacred place is as god of Cyllene. For there, though a god, he used to tend curly-fleeced sheep in the service of a mortal man, because there fell on him and waxed strong melting desire to wed the rich-tressed daughter of Dryops, and there he brought about the merry marriage. And in the house she bare Hermes a dear son who from his birth was marvellous to look upon, with goat’s feet and two horns —a noisy, merry-laughing child. But when the nurse saw his uncouth face and full beard, she was afraid and sprang up and fled and left the child. Then luck-bringing Hermes received him and took him in his arms: very glad in his heart was the god. And he went quickly to the abodes of the deathless gods, carrying his son wrapped in warm skins of mountain hares, and set him down beside Zeus and showed him to the rest of the gods. Then all the immortals were glad in heart and Bacchic Dionysus in especial; and they called the boy Pan because he delighted all their hearts.

And so hail to you, lord! I seek your favour with a song. And now I will remember you and another song also. (Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White)

Muse with a view

Greece is a country immersed in mythology. Some stories are local, colorful, specific; some are vast and all-encompassing. These myths shape identity; provide etymology; teach lessons; are simply fun, bizarre, absurd, beautiful. Our seminar is entitled “myth on site” for a reason – every patch of every city in Greece is linked to a mythical past.

But the ancient myths of Greece are built into her countryside, her entire atmosphere, along with a new, pervasive cultural mythology as well. The myth of Greece: what she is, what it means to be in Greece, what it means to study Greek mythology, what that mythology has made out of her landscape and her people. There is myth behind the way the pilgrim comes to Greece. There is myth behind the way one walks through her streets. There is myth whispering out of her ancient temples that has grown out of the mythology that built them. Greece is living myth, not only in the sense that she maintains a visceral pride in her ancient heritage, but in the shape that pride has come to take. This mythology is, again, atmospheric; it is nebulous, somewhat intangible. More than any other description I might provide I would leave you with the unsatisfactory cliche that it is a feeling; Greece is a buzz you begin to sense when you start to explore her culture at a distance; Greece is a buzz that makes you feel you might be levitating as you traverse her land.

This feeling derives in part from the powerful understanding that your pilgrimage to Greece reaches back in a tradition so ancient you cannot fathom its depth and age and weight. But your journey to Greece will not match the arduous paths that those who came before you had to take to see her.

The Koile Deme is located in the Southwest of Athens, at the foot of the hills of the Muses and the Pnyx. The hills of the Muses are purportedly the place where Musaeus was born – a favorite singer of the Muses who used to sing on the spot and was later buried there. In contrast to this artistic myth, the Pnyx had a pragmatic political purpose in the ancient world: it was the meeting place of the ekklesia, a popular assembly open to all [male] citizens in ancient Athenian democracy. But Aristotle wrote “Man is a creature of the polis” because the Athenian citizenry lived by a cultural code that emphasized on a profound level the necessity of participation in a democracy. Such was this emphasis that men could actually be fined if they neglected to attend the ekklesia.

A visitor to Athens who docked their boat at the port of Piraeus would walk through Koile along the ancient road where Kimon was buried. They would cross the Long Walls on their way to the hill of the Muses. The Koile Deme has its own impassioned history; like the rest of the city of Athens, this deme belongs to her people; however, in the 1980s it was closed off to its own neighborhood by archaeological projects, open only to those willing or able to pay the fee to enter. The community, in response, stood up in a universal cry for reclamation of their own neighborhood. This is ours, this is where we live; you will not shut us out. The exclusivity of these projects, while sometimes enabling a city to profit on the curiosity of foreigners, risks alienating its own citizens. In this instance, the Koile deme was reclaimed. It is living myth, living history, and as such it remains alive, an active participant in the daily lives of the Athenians walking its paths every day.

From the Koile Deme one begins to ascend the Hill of the Muses. Even the sounds of the city are intact remnants of old: cicadas in the trees make the same rhythmic, melodic clatter of the ancient landscape. Through the olive trees that smatter the hillside in tenacious root systems on the sandy soil the Hill of the Muses rises. On all sides there is no view but olive, but caper flowers, but century plants adorned with carved names of contemporary Athenians and tourists alike. The grade of the hill goes from gradual to rather steep. The climb takes on an intensity in the heat; the olive trees are short, scrappy pieces of assiduous vegetation that offer little protection from the relentless Mediterranean sun.

And suddenly, as the hill begins to crest, you turn backwards. You can see the road from Piraeus. This is the view those who traveled over the sea would have seen; this is the journey that lay before you. What was once a vast countryside is replete with apartment complexes and busy highways and large industrial buildings, but there is the same sea beyond, and the same old roads; the metro still runs along what were the Long Walls; the road in Koile you’ve just traversed is still marked with rivets from ancient carts that moved upon it. Before you, there is the summit of the hill of the muses.

And then you step forward.

The first view of the Acropolis of Athens for any visitor is awe-inspiring. It is impossibly formidable. It is awesome and strong and intimidating, but it calls to you, beckons you forward. This isn’t yours, it’s for Athena. It isn’t yours, it’s for the Athenians. It isn’t yours, but it is yours, it’s open to you, and you, who have made the journey, are welcome, encouraged, to come closer. At the top of the hill of the Muses, you lose your breath. The climb has been steep. You remember, looking back, how long this same journey – a journey that took you maybe 24 hours; maybe less; maybe years of studying or saving; maybe you arrived on a whim – you remember, looking back, how long this same journey would have taken an ancient person standing in the same spot. You feel the weight of it, the weight of never being able to know the weight of that. But you do know, too.

You can understand why Musaeus and the Muses purportedly came to sing here.

A little further up the path, the last remaining shard of the immense Philopappos monument looms, lit up from behind by the sun and staking a large claim upon the Athenian skyline. The Philopappos Monument was erected by Giaus Julius Antiochus Philopappos in the 2nd century CE. Like most monuments in Greece, it is a prime example of sociopolitical propaganda. A blend of Roman, Greek, and Comogene culture harmonize in a triangular relationship to that which is the essence of Athenian culture: the Parthenon. Imagine the Philopappos as the point of an Isosceles triangle, the Parthenon and the Propylaea making the other points. As you stand under the shade of Philopappos’ monument, you look out upon the pinnacle of “Pan-Hellenic” culture. Moreover, its location on the Hill of the Muses is loaded with Athenian significance. In myth, this was not only a favorite dwelling for the Muses themselves, but it was a strategic point in the battle against the Amazons. The so-called Amazonomachy is repeatedly used by the Athenians to assert their authochthony – the fact that they came from the earth, have always been there, have roots going back to the first battles of gods and men.  Later, it was used in battle for the purposes it held in myth; the Athenians used it in the Persian wars and again in the Peloponnesian wars, and later it was taken up by the Macedonians for military purposes as well.  But the monument itself is not simply devoted to the assimilation to Athenian culture. Instead, it blends elements of Greek, Roman and Comogene culture to put Philopappos at home in all three. The lictor procession depicted on the monument ties back to one of the most solemn rituals in Roman culture. Meanwhile, there is a depiction of Philopappos himself, along with the name of his father, seated upon a throne – a dramatic, immense assertion through sculpture of his leadership and his claim to this ancient space. A small depiction of Heracles helps to bridge the gap between cultures, a hero claimed by the Comogenes and the Greeks, beloved by the Romans. It is likely that you have never heard of Philopappos; neither had I. But his monument dominates part of the Athenian landscape.

After the ascent some of us walk home through the national gardens. We walk through the manicured landscape past a small zoo with goats and rabbits and chickens into a park where a small brass band is playing “New York, New York” to a small crowd. The landscape keeps changing, moving, adapting; the people continue to live in their city just like living in any other city. But the currents run back to the river of a rich ancient tradition, a fertile continuous culture visible from every streetcorner Athens.

To Study in Athens

This past spring I received the news that I had been accepted to participate in a summer seminar at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens entitled “Myth on Site.” For those of you (probably most of you) unfamiliar with the world of Classics, suffice it to say that the ASCSA is a longstanding institution (est. 1881) of great importance to Greek and American culture at once. The ASCSA, as I have learned over the past 24 hours, contains three of the most extensive Classical Studies library collections in the world. To work here or to go to school here seems to mean the immersion of one’s self into a sort of fraternity; to attend the ASCSA is to build a home in Athens that will welcome you with open arms; a home to which you will want – ache – to return, to contribute. Those who work here speak of it with the faraway glint of a sacred shared experience lingering in their eyes. Already, 48 hours in, one cannot help but feel this sense in every marble stone and clay tile that makes up the school itself.

I sound dramatic, perhaps. Perhaps this is the highfalutin talk of those who hold a sentimentality for academia which others find gratuitous, smarmy, pretentious. But then again, perhaps you have never been to Greece; perhaps you have never been to Athens; perhaps you have never studied buildings and myths and people in libraries and bedrooms and living rooms across the sea only to find yourself one day wandering in the  same streets of the same city as those buildings and myths and people. Athens is a city; Athens belongs to her people; she has traffic and noises and smells; she has street performers and peoples’ markets (λαϊκή αγορά); there are crowded buildings, bustling cafes, and so many people. But Athens is an ancient city, and you cannot escape its venerable age in any corner. There are archaeological sites in metro stations, ubiquitous fragments of ancient columns, pot sherds strewn about the ground along with common litter. And then, of course, there are immense temples, powerful reminders of their storied pasts; then, of course, the Acropolis; then, of course, the Propylaea; the temple to Athena Nike; the Erechtheion. But above it all, she looms: the Parthenon, a glorious spectacle of marble whose enigmatic architecture lends it the illusion of bouncing off of the acropolis itself; its marbles stolen; its columns exploded by gunpowder; its insides empty of its titular goddess; its facades covered in scaffolding; nonetheless, there she is,  in all her looming, intense glory, presiding over the city, just as it was, just as it has been since it was built some 2,500 years ago.

To be a student in Athens is to participate in a ritual that has continued for thousands of years. To be a female student in Athens is to embark on an opportunity that was not afforded to your sex for some thousands of years; an opportunity for which women like myself fought for (thousands of) generations, and even at the ASCSA until the first female student was admitted in 1885 (Annie S. Peck).

So, here I am. And there is a lot I would like to say about it all, and a lot I want to write down – even just from today – before I forget. And I intend to do so here. But for now I wanted to take a moment for a brief introduction to just how heavy the weight of this gratitude is upon me, how immense the privilege set before me truly is, what a storied ritual I get to be a part of.

I am thrilled to share it with you.

Yet to the remnants of thy splendour past
Shall pilgrims, pensive, but unwearied, throng:
Long shall the voyager, with th’ Ionian blast,
Hail the bright clime of battle and of song;
Long shall thine annals and immortal tongue
Fill with thy fame the youth of many a shore:
Boast of the aged! lesson of the young!
Which sages venerate and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore.
Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage


A Toast

“May you live in interesting times.”

When I was working as an intern at the Massachusetts Historical Society in 2012, my boss, the preservation librarian, told me about an old saying: “May you live in interesting times.” The story goes that it’s said as a seemingly innocuous toast, but in reality it’s a curse: “Interesting times” are full of turbulence, strife, discord; “interesting times” are the opposite of peace and calm. To be born in “interesting times” is to face a lifetime of apprehension and uncertainty.

I think we can all agree that we are living in “interesting times.”

The past four months it has felt like everything has been piling on. Every time I get a news alert on my phone I have to brace myself for the worst – especially the past few days. At home and abroad, things are so “interesting” that I would give almost anything to return to the mundane. But I have been trying, hard as I might, as spring breaks through the wall of New England winter, to see glimmers of the positive. Through the storms and the turnover of the topsoil, beautiful buds still bloom. Grass can even break through concrete. Ivy can climb up any wall. And me, too – us, too.

When I get a particularly frightening or disheartening news update, or my twitter feed is a barrage of discourse on urgent matters, I occasionally slip into an existential quandary as to whether my chosen field is the best choice for these “interesting times.” How can I defend spending my days studying ancient literature, ancient politics, ancient history? Where does this field of study find its relevance in the modern world? A question I was asked to answer over and over in undergrad was “how do you defend the importance of a liberal arts education?” Going to a liberal arts college, I felt surrounded by a friendly bubble of like-minded people who were constantly offering up tangible answers to this question. But Classical Studies is like the original, and more selective, version of Liberal Arts. It can feel so far removed from where we are now. For many people, I’m sure it is.

But the reality is, there are countless ways that my field of study is relevant. There are urgent questions to be answered in Classical Studies. While I refuse to shut myself off to the present in my pursuit to investigate the past – as tempting as that escape can be – I can also see how learning from the past can enlighten the future. The precious material we have inherited from the ancient world reveals centuries upon centuries of “interesting times.” It reveals centuries of change, transition, turmoil, and turbulence. So that’s the thing about the “curse” – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We all live in “interesting times.” We always have. Sometimes some of us get what we want in one place, while others are facing their own bout of turbulence -but the dust never really settles, not for everyone, not all at once.

I know that my PhD in Classical Studies is not likely to win me a Nobel prize or bring me any closer to enlightenment. I know that I am not likely to be the one to save the world or bring us to a sate of peaceful monotony. But I do believe in learning and teaching how to think critically. I do believe that we can learn from the past and better our future. And I do believe that it is vital to take some time to appreciate beauty in this world – and the ancient world has an overwhelming wealth of beauty to provide us, along with its problems and strife.

A few months ago I joined a small local group organized to help one another cooperate in and encourage local activism. If you want change, the best way to try to ensure it is to have a hand in it yourself. I have been more politically active in the past six months than I have for the rest of my 25 years. But it’s hard not to get discouraged when you feel like you’re fighting against an indefatigable current. This won’t ever be over. That can feel daunting. But it has never been over before, and we owe all of the progress we’ve made to the individuals that kept fighting the current.

That said, you can’t fight continuously. At the end of this post I’ve attached a few photos of a zine I made in January to provide some affordable ways to take a break if, like me, you need a lot of downtime between the fight – and some of it needs to be alone.

There is a quote from the ancient poet Hesiod’s Works and Days which says “Badness you can get easily, in quantity; the road is smooth, and it lies close by. But in front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it.” It seems impossible that we will ever attain a state of peace. But until then, let us strive for excellence, and let us also strive to see the beauty on the hard road we take there. Let us raise a glass and proclaim: may we live in interesting times, and may we work together to improve them.

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Don’t hesitate to ask.

How a nightmare summer taught me how to ask for help.

I do not like to be bad at things.
I suspect this is more or less a universal trait. But it has also always been my natural impulse to give up on anything that doesn’t immediately and easily come to me as a natural skill. It is a stubborn old habit of mine: I want to immediately be the best at something. If that doesn’t appear likely, I instantly lose the drive to keep going.
This has rarely presented itself as an advantage.
In fact, it has made many of my pursuits, from academic to athletic to social settings, immensely difficult at times; it is also a natural quality that I continue to have to fight tooth & nail.
The fight has become slightly easier for two reasons: first, I know the signs of its emergence and have taught myself some techniques to execute a preventive strike before it gains momentum; second, and most importantly, I learned to ask for help.

Like most stories of this sort, I learned “the hard way.” And I learned the hard way over & over again. Truthfully, I am still learning; I am sure I will continue learning to ask for help for the rest of my life.
There is, however, a period of my life that stands out as the moment I learned how important it is to ask for help; that it is unavoidable; that it is crucial; that it is a strength.

I was 21 and living in Brooklyn with  my cousin and her husband while I participated in an intensive summer-long program to learn ancient Greek. It was essentially an “ancient Greek boot camp,” and I would later come to semi-affectionately describe it as “spending two months in a coma having constant nightmares and waking up to discover that you knew Greek.” I owe the person I am now and the place I’m in and the work I’m doing to this program; however, it was without a doubt the worst summer of my life, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
What’s more, I really wasn’t always sure I could do it.
The program was five days a week for twelve weeks from 9-5, with optional before-school reading groups and lunchtime grammar lessons. Every afternoon we would have a number of exercises to complete, and a whole new set of flashcards to make and memorize. It was A Lot – but, then, we were trying to learn the entire ancient Greek language in 12 weeks.
On our first day in the program our instructors gave us their phone numbers and told us that any of them would be available 24 hours a day to answer questions we had about assignments, and we shouldn’t hesitate to call them, even if it was after midnight.

My first week in the program did not go well. I had never taken an inflected language before, so I didn’t know what declensions were or what purpose they served. Moreover, I severely underestimated the pace of the program. I assumed I would have time later in the week to catch up on concepts we had learned earlier, but every day was a new chapter of grammar and an entirely new set of rules to learn. Before I knew it, I was drowning. I couldn’t catch up, I couldn’t calm myself down to try to move forward, and I felt ashamed. I was calling my parents regularly asking if they thought I should just quit, and voicing my concern over failure.

My rock-bottom moment of the summer came one morning when I slept through my alarm. I had never missed a day of the program. I sort of assumed that if you missed a day – a chapter of grammar – you would essentially be destined to failure and might as well not show up at all. I was stricken with panic and disoriented and crying on the train. I essentially dissolved into anxiety and shame. A stranger on a subway platform touched my arm and told me “whatever it is, it is going to get better. I promise you.” And whoever she was, I am grateful for her. But I showed up to the school still in a state. I ran to the bathroom to hide out and cry some more. Finally, one of the instructors happened to come in. She was an incredibly intimidating person, and I was afraid of her. Seeing her see me in this vulnerable state made me sick to my stomach, until: she grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me into a fierce hug.
“Hey,” she said “calm down. You are going to be fine.” She stared directly at me and said: “You are not failing. Okay? You are going to get through this.”

I pulled myself together.
I went to the head of the program and did something I had heretofore been too ashamed to do: I told him I needed help.

It is not surprising in retrospect that asking for help meant my work got easier. Admitting that I couldn’t understand certain things on my own by frustratedly re-reading the same paragraphs over and over at 2 AM was a turning point in the program. The head of the program told me things that, at the time, sounded radical to me.
“If you’re still up at 2 AM working on something, get some sleep. You can’t do this without sleep.” and “If you get stuck on a sentence from the homework, mark it as something you want to go over and move on. Don’t dwell on things you don’t understand; try to get as much of your work done as you can understand instead, and then go back to it. You might discover that coming back to it you have found the missing piece.” and “We didn’t tell you to call us any time of day for no reason. You should call for help, whenever you need it.”
But as shocked as I was to hear that I should give myself a break, coming from someone else it was an intense relief. I was burning the candle at both ends, and I was trying to do it on my own; the acknowledgment that this wasn’t sustainable was crucial for my own recognition of what I needed to do – not just to pass the program, but to stay sane.

I started going in for extra help every morning, and at lunch. I started calling instructors at all hours of the night, and then less so as I started to understand things on my own better. I found a partner to work with after class in the afternoons. I stopped being embarrassed to ask questions in class. And here’s the thing: I passed the course.

I know I’m not the only person who has this same issue with asking for help. I still have to remind myself to ask for help when I need it. I still need practice recognizing when I actually need help. We all want to prove that we can do things on our own – but it’s an incredible strength to admit when you can’t.

More often than not, asking questions and asking for help can help those around you. You can demonstrate that it’s not a weakness to need guidance or assistance with something. You could be asking a question that someone else is too afraid to ask.

As a teacher, I have tried to take my own lessons and help my students learn them in the not-so-hard way. I strive to encourage them to seek me out for extra help studying for exams. I urge them to feel confident and not to be afraid to acknowledge when they don’t understand something. I never want my students to feel afraid to come to me with any issues, and I hope that they don’t. A striking piece of advice from Stephanie McKellop on Twitter (@mckellogs) was to tell your students that asking questions counts for more than making comments towards a student’s participation grade, and I can’t think of a more ingenious system. Being in graduate school is a delicate balance between being a student, being a professional, and being a pedagogue. But the longer I stay in academia, the more I see how similar all of those positions can be. I see professors seeking advice from each other; I see professors treating grad students as colleagues; I see grad students asking one another for help and guidance; I see undergraduates treating grad students as professors and mentors. And I see that everybody struggles with imposter syndrome, and a fear of failure.

We can all always learn to ask for help. Hopefully it doesn’t have to keep being “the hard way.”