Dear Neville,

I read Jenkyns’ review of your book.  I’m sorry, but not surprised.   Classics is a discipline that likes to police its members.  I have often wanted to break up with Classics.  I never describe myself as such.  I’m a Roman Historian and Numismatist who knows a thing or two about the Hellenistic World and a little of what came earlier and later.  I’ve never paid dues to a professional organization with Classics in its name.   I wish I could write half as well as Josephine Quinn on why Classics is the wrong name for what we do.

I linger in my relationship with Classics in respect for my students and colleagues who remain attached to that disciplinary framing.  (I do fantasize of being poached by a History department from time to time though!)  I don’t want to (ab)use my white tenured privilege to flee the problems of the discipline when there is good work being done by the Sportula and Eos and others to show that Classics can be something different and better than it has been.  Maybe I need to stick around to aid and amplify the restorative justice work that needs doing, as best I’m able.

The reason I found Jenkyns review so disheartening is its publication on a platform designed to expand access to Latin and Greek, particularly in State Schools (= Public Schools to American readers).   In May 2016 I volunteered to be on a lunch time round table panel about Diversity and Ancient History in the classroom at a professional meeting.  It was organized by a graduate student, a person of color.   But no one else volunteered and I ended up giving an hour long talk on the subject to a packed room.  All I did was share something of how I teach gen ed courses at Brooklyn College and how I tie the material into the contemporary lived experience of my students.  Everyone was enthusiastic and kind in the group context.   The ‘kindness’ remained after the session but the comments changed.

The most common follow up statement I heard after the session was some version of “how interesting, but my students aren’t like your students, so it isn’t really applicable at my institution…”  The problematic implication being that nice middle class white ‘kids’ (because white people remain children even in college and perhaps into their 40s and 50s and beyond) don’t require a type of ancient history that considers matters of ethnicity, race, class, social justice, and historical abuses of power.

I wish I had known how to respond in the moment.

Far worse were the two senior eminent (white) scholars who privately and separately took me a aside to ‘gently’ explain I was doing it wrong.  “Greek and Roman literature isn’t Caribbean literature”, one told me.  I needed to make clear to my student population of primarily first generation Americans what they and all of us ‘owed’ to Greece and Rome and their gifts to humanity.  That it was impossible to learn the same lessons by studying other cultures, places, and periods, because the legacy of Greece and Rome was fundamentally not just more powerful, but also better and more beneficial.

The use of Caribbean literature as the example of choice by way of negative contrast displayed a deeply racialized thought-process.  The message I heard was that it was my job if I had such students (students of color, that is) to teach them why they ought to be grateful to European (white) civilization.  I felt cast into a colonial or imperialist missionary role.

The conversation with the other senior scholar, male this time, wasn’t quite so awful, but largely because I’d already been through the first one, and secondly senior white men tend to take a paternalistic tone when schooling junior white women.  Senior white women are, in my experience, far more direct.  He said much the same–leaving out disparaging comparisons to other cultures and their literatures–that Greece and Rome were different, more special, more worthy of a study.  I was going too far in suggesting we were one among many histories.  The Canon matters.

The graduate student who organized the event has left the field.

I think twice about these types of events now.   I listen harder when junior colleagues, especially colleagues of color share their own experiences of being policed.  It is way worse for them than I.  I don’t ask lightly for anyone to step into the fray and speak truth to power.

I am agnostic on the value of preserving Classics are a discipline under that name.  I am thus a crappy advocate for the field and would not place myself in such a role.   What matters most to me is how I hear my students and former students saying:

“These texts, these images, these histories, these landscapes, they resonate with me!”

What I try to say to them is:

“YES this gives me pleasure too! What do you see that I do not yet see?  Why do you think they resonate for you?  I see more when I look at the contemporary world when I bring my knowledge of the Classical past to it.”

AND, I’m not afraid to say that a big part of that past includes atrocious abuses of power.

We’ve not even gotten started cataloguing abuses of the discipline.  Pharos is trying to give us a modern baseline going forward but we’ve got centuries of crimes to face as well.

What scares me most about a review like Jenkyns is not the attempt to decentralize the analysis of abuses of power from any conversation on the future of the discipline.  That’s fine, I, you, others even smarter and more driven than us will continue that work, fueled by our frustrations and sense of justice.  The work will get done.

What really scares me is that it seeks to narrow the definition of what Classics might be and it does so in a space specifically designed to widen access.

What scares me is how I am reminded of the exhausting work of trying to say something positive only to be policed by our colleagues for not doing it right.  If you (an eminent scholar in your own right!) will be so critiqued in such a forum, where is it safe for other voices to emerge?

Frankly, I don’t actually care what Jenkyns thinks of your book.  I want to know if it resonates with graduate students from diverse backgrounds, from contingent faculty, from those who have left the field to find more meaningful work for themselves elsewhere, for those teaching in underfunded institutions.

Time is short, the useful review is one that tells me if I dare set it to my students or if they will roll their eyes, and shrug that I think it represents a way forward in a fraught and problematic discipline.

Respectfully yours,


P.S. Enjoy your work in the garden! And Theocritus 15 is one of my favorite texts for use in the undergraduate classroom!  It comes shortly after Lysistrata and excerpts of the Armenian version of the Alexander Romance and is paired with 17, and helps in the set up for Juvenal 10.

P.P.S.  I guess I better buy your book.

P.P.S. This post is getting a good deal of traffic.  Please consider giving to the Sportula.  The Sportula is a small group of Classics grad students who pooled their money to provide microgrants of $5-300 to undergrads with unexpected financial need.  These students are true future of our discipline.

2 thoughts on “Dear Neville,”

  1. Richard Jenkyns clearly published that review in the wrong venue, Classics for All. It should have appeared in Classics for the 1%, or Rhetorical Obfuscation, or Visceral Defensive Postures, or even Refusal to See.

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