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.”

You may ask yourself: how did I get here?

“How many of you are taking this course to fulfill the humanities requirement? It’s okay. Be honest.”

“How many of you are taking this course to fulfill the humanities requirement? It’s okay. Be honest.”
At the beginning of a new semester I always ask this question of my students. Almost every student in the room raises their hand. The courses for which I am a Teaching Fellow have been Classical Civilization courses; general examinations of hundreds of years of ancient culture, literature, history. As it fulfills the “humanities requirement,” the majority of the students enrolled in these courses has never taken another humanities course, and has very little experience with the humanities whatsoever. Consequently, both the material and the learning style itself are alien to them. The hands are shy at first; wherefore the “It’s okay. Be honest.”
My next question: “How many of you have already declared your major?”
It is still the majority of my students who – with confidence, this time – have raised their hands.
It is part of my gambit.
I know what I am going to tell them next.

I started college in the fall of 2010 certain that I was going to be a History major. Further, I was certain that I wanted to study 20th century history, with a focus on WWII. I enrolled in a 20th century history course. It was fascinating and thrilling and everything I knew it would be going into it, and I felt reassured in my predestined decision; in fact, I felt lucky. Those poor undeclared folks out there didn’t have the privilege that I had of passion and certainty in their direction.
Meanwhile, I enrolled in a French course to fulfill the college-wide language requirement and get it out of the way. I had taken French since I was 12 years old, culminating in an adequate performance on an AP exam in high school, and a burgeoning appreciation for New Wave film and Molière. I did not consider French to be a “passion,” but rather an adequately amusing necessity to get through my academic life. On occasion I felt it was a beautiful language. It was not a great concern of mine to keep going.
The French course in which I’d enrolled turned out to be much more challenging than that for which I was prepared. For the first time, my academic essays were written in French on 17th-Century French Literature.
I kept going.
By the end of my sophomore year, I had taken at least one French course per semester. The subject I’d taken to “fulfill a requirement” became my second major.

My switch to Classical Studies  was perhaps a bit more unpredictable.
It started with an ancient history course. And then a Classical Mythology course, taken just for kicks. And then a Latin class that I dropped halfway through the semester, certain I was stretching myself too thin for the sake of a subject I was unlikely to use for the rest of my academic career.
But my junior year I returned from a semester abroad in Paris to converse with my advisor, a professor who happened to bridge the classics and history departments, about my future.
It came out as a confession:
I think I want to be a classics professor.
This was returned with the simple question:
Are you ready for me to ruin your life?

I tell my students that as soon as I took my first Classical Mythology course, I knew I was screwed. I tell fellow classicists that it was actually the first time I read about the Gracchi brothers. Whatever the case, an insatiable thirst gnawed away inside of me until, against my better judgment, I surrendered to the simple recognition that I wanted to do this with my life, whatever it took.
In my last year and a half at college, it took:

  • One seminar on the Parthenon and a subsequent class trip to Greece
  • Enrolling in an introductory course meant for Freshman to fulfill a requirement
  • One summer (12 weeks) of intensive Greek at the CUNY SGI which almost killed me (and my poor mother)
  • Two semesters of Latin to barely scrape through the major’s requirements
  • Two advanced seminars in ancient Greek on the sophists and on Homer’s Odyssey

But I graduated with the double major that I had come to recognize I needed. And still, I wasn’t satisfied. To get to a PhD program, it took a post-baccalaureate year and uprooting a fairly new relationship (twice) and scraping by the GREs.

I don’t tell my students what it took.
I just tell them: “I switched majors halfway through my junior year. You never know what’s going to happen, or which class is going to be the one that changes your mind.”