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Black History Month: Lil Nas X, Lizzo, and Cardi B on ancient Greece and Rome

Many of our past blog posts have focused on Black history in the realm of academia and formal education. But visions of antiquity are not always created in formal classrooms – popular media more often create or reinforce popular notions of what antiquity looked like. This post focuses on Black classicisms, specifically, two recent music videos: MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) by Lil Nas X, and Rumors by Lizzo, featuring Cardi B. Both works are clear receptions of well-known (and in some cases, slightly-less-well-known) imagery from ancient Greece and Rome. In receiving the ancient world, these artists take part in a long tradition of Black classicisms: artistic receptions of the “classical” Greek and Roman past, which, broadly speaking, challenge white supremacist notions of who ‘owns’ classical antiquity and what the framework of classicism can mean. 

While the MONTERO music video (directed by Ukranian director Tanu Muino) is littered with classical imagery, the most prominent reference is the Greek quote from Plato’s Symposium (191a) inscribed on the Tree of Life: ἐπειδὴ οὖν ἡ φύσις δίχα ἐτμήθη, ποθοῦν ἕκαστον τὸ ἥμισυ τὸ αὑτοῦ (“when the nature was cut in two, each desired their other half”). In an SCS blogpost, Vanessa Stovall and Kiran Pizarro Mansukhani argue that the kiss Lil Nas shares with the snake, also played by himself, represents the longed-for Platonic reunification. Of course, since the snake is male, it also represents a recognition and acceptance of his sexual identity. In addition to its role as part of a queer reception, the Symposium passage also evokes the dual themes of masculinity and femininity. 

Tree of life in MONTERO music video with Platonic quote carved into the bark
(MONTERO, 1:09)

Throughout the music video, Lil Nas subverts normative gender roles. As a result, his consummation with the snake also represents a recognition and acceptance of masculinity that does not reject femininity. In doing so, Lil Nas self-consciously participates in a long tradition of other Black men, like Prince and Jimi Hendrix, who similarly undercut traditional white ideas of masculinity (see Steven Fullwood on this here and Lil Nas’ homages to both Prince and Jimi Hendrix). By using classical and biblical references to perform his experience as a gay, Black man, Lil Nas denies its common use of crafting a narrative of heteronormativity and masculinity. 

The music video for Rumors, also directed by Tanu Muino, likewise imagines ancient Greek art full of Black people. From the moment that Lizzo appears, a goddess within a Greek vase-painting, we are presented with a world of Black Greek art. Wall paintings and vase paintings feature Black people; even sculptures, which have so often been literally white-washed to evoke the universal and eternal state of white beauty standards, are gilded rather than white, and their bodies are fat, rather than skinny and visibly muscular, an aesthetic often tied or discussed as indicative of classical (and therefore ‘real’) beauty (see, for instance, this BBC article on the prevailing influence of classical sculpture on beauty standards).

Lizzo in 0:20 of Rumors video, dressed in long gold dress, surrounded by large ancient Greek style murals or various people gossiping, with golden statue groups on edges of frame
(Rumors, 0:20)
Lizzo in Rumors music video, in golen dress, surrounded by oversized Greek vases and arches reminiscent of Roman aqueducts
(Rumors, 0:38)

By inserting fat bodies as idealized bodies, letting the thin statues appear as rumor-spreading haters, Lizzo replaces this norm which is taken for granted across the English-speaking world. In her talk alongside Maciej Paprocki at AIMS 2022, Aimee Hinds Scott discussed the Rumors video, arguing that the music video re-envisions Disney’s Hercules (1997) as a Black reception that disrupts the male gaze through particular association with Thalia and focus on body positivity. Lizzo and her dancers become muses perched atop Ionic columns (see below, screencap 1:09), with power over the rumors that dominate press and online discussions about them. 

Lizzo and her dancers all dressed in flowing gold garments, dancing atop ionic columns with a mountain-sized butt far in the background
(Rumors, 1:09)

Like Lil Nas X, Cardi B and Lizzo also challenge dominant (white-centric) puritanical views of bodies, not only by centering fat people, mostly Black women, but also with their attitudes towards sex. While Lil Nas X gives the devil a lap dance before taking the crown of hell itself, Lizzo and her muses twerk atop columns and Cardi B shows her visibly pregnant body (evocative especially of Beyonce’s appearance at the 2017 Grammys while visibly pregnant) while sitting atop a prominently phallic chair surrounded by flying phalluses, also known as fascina/i. 

Cardi B seated on a penis-shaped chair, visibly pregnant in golden top, flowing white skirt, holding an unrolling scroll that appear to be tweets
(Rumors, 1:28)
Beyonce in her Grammys 2017 performance, visibly pregnant in a golden crown with flowing golden fabric behind her
(Beyonce in the pre-recorded video of her Grammys 2017 performance)

As Cardi and Lizzo take ownership of rumors about them and as Lil Nas X proudly assumes his new devilish (perhaps more fairly, anti-church/anti-Christian) position of power, they respond to longstanding white supremacist discourses which hypersexualize Black men and women. They are sexual on their own terms – haters be damned. 

In the United States especially, Black folks have long been intentionally excluded from learning about Greek and Roman classical antiquity, as we have mentioned in earlier blog posts. Nonetheless, Black artists have used and continue to use references to ancient Greek and Roman culture to resist and/or redefine racist discourses and, as we see in these videos, positively construct Black identity through the use of classical materials.

post by Mary Somerville and Devin Lawson

 

Here are some other Black classicisms worth checking out:

 

-Romare Bearden’s A Black Odyssey, a series of collages and watercolors based on Homer’s Odyssey

Harmonia Rosales‘ new exhibition, “Entwined” (see review by Dr Sarah Bond)

-Vanessa Stovall’s Twitter thread about the Odyssey and Get Out (2017)

Black History Month: Reclaiming Black Orpheus

Before we begin, here is a soundtrack for today’s post: Nigerian singer-songwriter Keziah Jones’ 2003 album “Black Orpheus” (Spotify Link; YouTube Link). I think that the best song on this album is the first: Afrosurrealismfortheladies (all one word with no spaces — a wonderful mouthful). 

I would also like to provide a quick summary of Orpheus’ story before I constantly reference it below. In it, Orpheus, an incredible musician, falls deeply in love with the mortal Eurydice. Filled with grief after Eurydice dies from a snake bite, Orpheus travels to the Underworld to bring her back to life, successfully moving the heart of the Underworld’s god (Hades) with his music. To get her back, Orpheus must follow one rule: do not look back at Eurydice until you have left the Underworld. Just before the journey’s end, Orpheus suspiciously glances back only to see that the Hades had kept up his promise. He can do nothing but watch his beloved as she is dragged away from him, never to see her again. 


Today’s entry for SPEAC’s Black History Month blog post series is a showcase of interpretations, primarily focusing on those of the famous 1959 film Orfeu Negro (“Black Orpheus”) made by the 20th century French film director Marcel Camus. Camus’ film is a very loose adaptation of the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes’ 1956 play Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception”). It was an important foundation for Black interpretations of classical myths despite the white director’s tone-deaf, whimsical portrayal of the Black Brazilian experience. In Vicky Gan’s 2014 Smithsonian article, Black Orpheus: How a French Film Introduced the World to Brazil, she describes the film as “… a literal coming-out party for Brazil in the European-American imagination”.

Both Camus and Moraes’ stories are set among the crowded streets of Rio’s vibrant Carnival, using the overwhelming quantity of colorfully-dressed partiers as visual representations of Orpheus’ dizzying journey through the Underworld. Camus’ approach, however, completely ignores the 1950s Brazilian trend of using black and white film to reveal the gritty truths of everyday life in the style known as Cinema Novo. One of the leaders of the Cinema Novo movement, Glauber Rocha, “… described the movement as an ‘aesthetics of hunger’ that would ‘make the public aware of its own misery’ and cast a critical eye on Brazil’s social ills” (Gan). Camus stomps on top of this, presenting to an international audience the idyllic fantasy of a foreigner serenaded by a smooth, catchy, and commercializable Bossa nova soundtrack (written by the brilliant Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá).

In his novel Dreams From My Father, President Barack Obama takes us through his feelings of discomfort when attending a showing of Orfeu Negro beside his entranced mother:

“I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different” (Obama 51). 

This photograph is from the official page of the Black Orpheus Musical

The topic of Black Orpheus is particularly timely as we wait for Colombian-born, Canadian-raised Sergio Trujillo’s soon-to-come Broadway adaptation of the same name. It will be performed at some yet-to-be-named time in 2023. From the promotional images, this play seems to be experimenting more with an interpretation of the Ancient Greek use of masks in tragedy than Camus’ Orfeu Negro did. Importantly, rather than claim Camus as a source of inspiration for a show directed towards an American audience (for whom Camus is assuredly more well-known than Moraes), the play emphasizes Brazilian representation by listing Vinicius de Moraes’ play as the primary source material without mention of Camus.

Orfeu Negro also inspired the chapter “Orfeu Negro / Black Orpheus” in Desiree C. Bailey’s incredible 2021 poetry collection What Noise Against the Cane (pages 54-56). Here is a link to her reading the poem aloud (the poem introduction begins at 22:38). In her live reading, Bailey calls the poem her way of processing her feelings after watching Camus’ film. She says, “[w]hen I encountered [Black Orpheus], I was like wow, these beautiful colors — and there’s so much about these people that I recognize in myself, in my people. But there was a lot that made me uncomfortable about the film” (Bailey). Her discomfort, like President Obama’s, comes from how cloyingly sweet the film is. Filled with sarcasm, Bailey’s “Orfeu Negro / Black Orpheus” thrusts a memorable, visceral description of her film-viewing experience before us: 

“I too from masquerade land. Asphalt sputtering, chomping on plastic beads and feathers, costumes re-singing histories of the flesh. My island a speck, a globe of spit slipping past the eye of the world. So I watch Orfeu Negro greedy for a glimpse of myself, a skip trick of light splayed out on the screen. My greed, my open mouth cares not for taste. I am almost ashamed. I want to be looked upon as the world looks upon Eurydice. Delicate, the way her pistil sways in the breeze” (Bailey 55). 


For more information about Black reinterpretations of classical myths, I would look to Patrice D. Rankine’s 2013 book Aristotle and Black Drama: A Theater of Civil Disobedience. It is a somewhat dense (but very interesting) analysis of some of the many Black playwrights who challenged the lack of Blackness in most interpretations of classical texts, presenting a whitewashed version void of even the slightest amount of diversity. Just a brief skim of the book will introduce you to the names of fundamental Black playwrights, whose plays you can watch online. Justine McConnell’s Black Odysseys: The Homeric Odyssey in the African Diaspora since 1939 is another useful introduction to Black interpretations of the classics, with hers focusing on post-colonial receptions of Homer’s OdysseyIf you are more interested in visual arts, the Eos Africana panel showcased a workshop on “Black Classicisms in the Visual Arts” in 2020 (I recommend keeping up with their posts in general to follow new, modern Africana interpretations of the classics).

I also really recommend checking out Vanessa Stovall. Her appearance on Liv Albert’s podcast “Let’s Talk About Myths” in which they discuss a variety of myths is very approachable. Above all else, Stovall’s Medium blog is a very engaging resource for getting a read on modern classical receptions. She begins her article “Antigone Unbound | Part I: Horror & Attic Black-Figures” with a still from one of Black Orpheus‘ many scenes of dancing (shown below). Though she does not mention Orpheus again, the use of this scene of revelry before her exploration of the possession of other classical characters (Antigone and Creon, Agave and Pentheus, and more) ties Black Orpheus’ Carnival neatly back to antiquity.

Finally, Hardy Fredricksmeyer (another reader of ancient texts) makes the same connection between Bacchic possession and the Carnival in his paper Black Orpheus, Myth and Ritual: A Morphological Reading:

“Perhaps in appreciation of some of the relation between ancient celebrations of the god and its own modern celebration, Louisiana calls the Sunday before Fat Tuesday ‘Bacchus Sunday,’ and one of the most important troupes and floats is called ‘Bacchus.'” (Fredericksmeyer 159).

Enjoy that grape-adorned float this Mardis Gras on March 1st! (The float is linked here).

Artist Spotlight: Shreya Ragavan ’22

Click the above thumbnails to see the full-size pieces and their captions! 

SPEAC Artist Spotlight:

Shreya Ragavan (they/them)
Bryn Mawr ’22
Psychology major, Classical culture and society minor

What initially drew you to the study of the ancient world?

Sophomore year, while looking to fulfill my “Inquiry into the Past” requirement, I stumbled upon the Golden Age of Athens course at Haverford. I’d never taken a classics course before, but I loved the Percy Jackson series when I was younger, so I figured I’d give the course a try.

Classics quickly became a source of light in my life. I eagerly looked forward to Athens class each week.

In the spring, I decided to enroll in Elementary Greek in order to fulfill my language requirement. The rest is history.

What aspects of the ancient world do you find inspiring for your work? 

I’m especially interested in emotions and affect, gender identity and expression, mental health and mental illness, death and the afterlife, etc. in Ancient Greek mythology and literature.

I also have an interest in classical reception, and in refashionings/ adaptations of Ancient Greek texts. Mythical figures often help me to feel understood at the same time as I seek to understand them. I am inspired by the ways in which mythical lives interact and intersect with our own.

What are your future goals for study and art? 

I’m hoping to eventually pursue further education in the field of classics, perhaps after a gap year or two. I’ve been looking into classics post-bacc programs for now.

The arts are undoubtedly a crucial part of my life. No matter where life takes me, I’ll always be a creator at heart. I am very excited to continue generating artistic work inspired by my passion for Ancient Greek mythology and literature in the future.

My dream career would likely be one that allows me to combine my passion for classics with my love of the arts (visual art, creative writing, and theatre). Who knows- maybe in 5 years you’ll find me auditioning for the role of Orpheus in Hadestown! (If I ever learn how to dance, that is.)

If you are interested in featuring your artwork on the SPEAC blog, email us at brynmawrspeac@gmail.com ! 

Black History Month: Carter G. Woodson

“The Association for the study of the Negro is standing like the watchman on the wall, ever mindful of what calamities we have suffered from misinterpretation in the past and looking out with a scrutinizing eye for everything indicative of a similar attack.”

—Carter G. Woodson (1936)

Carter G. Woodson was a Black educator, historian of Black education, and the father of Black History Month (incepted as Negro History Week in 1926). The second Black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1912 (the first being W. E. B. Du Bois in 1895), Woodson led a broadly accomplished life, but for this post, we want to focus particularly on the circumstances that led to his founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. 

Woodson was born in 1875, ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. As such, he was part of the first generation of Black Americans born into a post-slavery America and was educated by those who had illicitly and surreptitiously educated themselves under an oppressive anti-Black society and specific anti-literacy laws the pre-dated the foundation of the nation. Black people’s self-education and the passing of knowledge among their community, what Jarvis Givens terms “fugitive pedagogy,” was the sort of fact of Black history that Woodson sought to record and describe in his work (see The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861).

Nor did fugitive pedagogy practices become irrelevant after emancipation. Black education remained under assault, politically through white supremacists’ degradation of the idea of Black people’s capacity to learn and physically in the form of violence against Black educators and places of education. It was in this atmosphere that Woodson was educated, taught by his uncles, James and John, who were themselves engaged in learning in the freedpeople’s schools. From this starting point, Carter Woodson carried forward a love of learning and an appreciation for the history and precarity of Black learning.

In 1915, three years after earning a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, Woodson founded the ASNLH. In the beginning of that year, the film Birth of a Nation was released, heralded as an innovative achievement in film production, screened at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson, and widely protested by Black Americans for its portrayal of Black people and the Ku Klux Klan. It was also the 50th anniversary of Emancipation. That summer, while researching in Chicago, Woodson was invited by Ida B. Wells-Barnett to give a lecture in promotion of his first book on the history of Black education. Two weeks later, during the Illinois HalfCentury of Negro Freedom Exposition, Woodson worked at a booth selling books and photographs of historical Black figures, highlighting the history of Black political activism. In the third week of August, he began corresponding with Jesse E. Moorland, a minister from Washington, DC, proposing the creation of an organization “to save the records of the Negro that posterity may know the whole truth.” 

On September 9th, Woodson held a meeting with George  C. Hall, Alexander Jackson, William B. Hartgrove, and James E. Stamps at the Wabash Avenue Colored YMCA. The attendants discussed the release and reception of Birth of a Nation, the rise in anti-Blackness that it both indicated and stoked in American society, and Woodson’s idea for an organization aimed at protecting and teaching the true history of Black achievement. In January of 1916, their new association, the ASNLH, published the first issue of the Journal of Negro History. Both their association and the journal persist today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the Journal of African American History

In this time of renewed attack on the teaching of Black history in the guise of a moral panic against Critical Race Theory, it feels apropos to remember Woodson and his efforts in preserving and promoting the history of Black America, the full and true history of the American nation.

 

“Our modern word pedagogy derives from an ancient term for a slave who was tasked with teaching. The Greek paidagōgós, later Latinized as paedagogus, refers to a slave of relatively “high status” (if you will) who escorted children to and from a site of learning. Paedagogi were responsible for the moral development of their charges. They carried the children’s books, supervised them, and sometimes taught them foundational educational skills. This person—though enslaved—made learning possible. The enslaved also embodied unwritten lessons for the young master: they taught lessons of power to charges who wielded authority over them by virtue of their differentiated social status and bloodlines, and the former’s status as property. The perspective of the enslaved yields a dif­ferent script of knowledge, however, a witness to systems of power that rely on their subjection. This has implications for pedagogy in a universal sense, but it is particularly generative for thinking about pedagogy in our modern world, ushered in by racial chattel slavery.

In that fugitivus (Latin) means flying, fugitive, or running away (“esp. a runaway slave”) and that paedagogus names the slave who makes learning possible, paedagogus fugitivus, then—the fugitive pedagogue—might be interpreted as the absconded slave who disrupts the dominant, systemized protocols of knowledge production and transferal, how knowledge is produced and the conditions under which it is taught. In fleeing from their assigned role in the order of things, paedagogi inspire new lessons. Their flight prefigures alternative paths of learning, new systems and ceremonies of knowledge. An education beyond paths that serve as a pass-through initiation for those in power, where the paedagogus is simply a prop in the enlightenment process of young masters, the elite, those of noble blood.”

–Jarvis Givens. Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, 229-30

References

Jarvis Givens, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching

Associations for the Study of African American Life and History

Carter G. Woodson Portrait by Sassa Wilkes

Black History Month! A (very) quick history of African American Classics and Archaeology degrees!

We’re back with our annual Black History Month blog post series! Last year we focused each week on specific Black scholars, but this year we’re broadening our focus a bit. A new post will be up every Sunday during BHM, so check it out, and look back at last year’s posts!

This first post touches on the history of African American scholars of the ancient world– the first Black scholars who earned advanced degrees in archaeology and classics.  I wanted to point out how incredible these scholars were and give a little social context for their achievements. This post is way too short to cover these folks, so I’m including lots of links for further reading.



“Like a flash the past unrolled before my mind, my early Atlanta examinations, Calhoun’s famous challenge, that no Negro could learn Greek. For a moment I felt embarrassed as I faced my audience aware too that they must experience a peculiar feeling at the situation — a Negro member of that learned body standing in intellectual manhood among equals and where no Negro had ever been allowed even to enter, save as a servant — a Negro to discuss the writings of a Greek philosopher.”
William Sanders Scarborough, quoted in Ronnick’s The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship



The subject of last year’s SCS Presidential Panel, William Sanders Scarborough is widely considered to be the first African American classicist. Born into slavery in 1852 Georgia, Scarborough had earned a master’s degree from Oberlin college and begun a professorship in classical studies at Wilberforce University by 1877.

Soon after Scarborough became the first African American classicist, John Wesley Gilbert, born free in 1863 Georgia, became the first African American man to earn a master’s degree in Archaeology in 1891 from newly-established Paine College.

The history of advanced degrees in the US is a little complicated. But broadly speaking, the first MA and PhD degrees were awarded around the 1860s-1870s. So, you might be thinking “Hey, if Scarborough had earned his MA in classics by 1876 and Gilbert had earned his in Archaeology by 1891, that’s not too bad! The degrees were new, so that doesn’t sound too far behind!”

Unfortunately, unsurprisingly, this isn’t really the case, though. While Scarborough did earn his degree from Oberlin in 1876, this was a school that was known for being vehemently in favor of abolition and was pretty uniquely accepting of Black students… but even this ostensibly accepting school reinstituted racial segregation a few short years after Scarborough was a student there. And Gilbert’s Paine College is an HBCU, meaning that its intended purpose was the education of Black students and it too was segregated. I mention these details to remind us that despite the seeming quickness with which these two men earned their degrees, racial inequality and injustice pervaded everything they had to endure during the process (and beyond). Even as late as 1909, when Scarborough was the president of Wilberforce college, he chose not to go to the annual SCS (then APA) meeting because the venue chosen by the organization refused to serve a Black man. And of course these issues are ongoing!

Oh, and “Calhoun’s famous challenge” that Scarborough referenced up top? According to Scarborough, Calhoun had said “if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man.” In 1881, Scarborough published the first classics textbook written by an African American to prove just how ignorant, absurd, and flat-out wrong Calhoun had been.

One final note: though she received an undergraduate degree in the sciences, Enid Cook was the first Black student to graduate from Bryn Mawr in 1931– 46 years after the college opened. Just to add a little BMC history into the conversation!

Basically, even these massive achievements and contributions to our fields have to be contextualized with the fact that higher education was (and in many ways still is) highly segregated, unwelcoming, and violent toward African American scholars who worked against everything to earn their degrees.

References and further readings:
more information on John Wesley Gilbert

more information on William Sander Scarborough

“Re-rooting the classical tradition: new directions in black classicism” by Emily Greenwood (SPEAC2021’s keynote speaker!)

SCS blog post overview on African American classicists

another overview!

more on HBCUs and classics, focusing on Howard’s decision to cut their classics program





Call for Blog Posts!

    SPEAC is excited to invite guest posts for our blog! Until now, posts have been written by SPEAC members, but we want to open it up to the community! We are seeking posts from students across the Bi-Co from all departments at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These posts should have a read-time of about 2-10 minutes and be understandable for a general audience. Topics can be classics and archeology related generally, but we’re especially interested in topics relating to equity and social justice in some way.

Here are some examples of topics and formats that would be good:

  • A quick introduction to a topic you’re interested in
  • A reaction to an article 
  • A review of a myth-based movie or novel
  • An interview with a scholar and/or activist (including your favorite prof!)
  • A write-up about a BIPOC scholar in our fields
  • Study tips for FGLI students
  • A list of resources tailored to BIPOC students studying the ancient world
  • An opinion piece about some aspect of our fields and social justice
  • A creative piece: visual art, poetry, whatever you can think of!
  • Etc.!

This is a non-exhaustive list, so if you have an idea that isn’t covered here just send it our way and we’ll see what we can do! All submissions will be peer-reviewed by one or more SPEAC members, who will then publish it on the blog under that author’s name. We want this to be an opportunity for you to practice writing for the public and soft peer review– and did we mention this can add to your online presences and CV? This is a rolling deadline, meaning that submissions are always open!

Please send all submissions to brynmawrspeac@gmail.com with the subject line “SPEAC Blog Submission.” Feel free to ask us any questions at that address or reach out to any SPEAC member you know! 

Black History Month 2021

For Black History Month, SPEAC students compiled short biographies of Black scholars working today in the fields of Classics and Archaeology and sent them weekly to our mailing list. There are so many amazing Black scholars in our fields, and here are just a few that we wanted to highlight! 

Classics faculty members also presented short biographies of historical Black Classicists before the weekly Classics Colloquium (post to come!).

Continue reading Black History Month 2021

Notes from Fall 2020 Semester Check-In with Faculty

One of SPEAC’s founding principles is that collaboration between students and faculty is invaluable for effecting the changes we’re seeking. We recently held a meeting to update faculty on our projects from this semester, discuss our plans for next semester, and to provide a space for brainstorming potential interdepartmental projects that SPEAC could help implement. SPEAC was represented by a student from each of our four committees: Conference, Curriculum, Colloquium, and Website/Outreach. All interested faculty were invited to attend, from both Classics and CNEA, since we are an interdepartmental group.

 

SPEAC Fall 2020 Faculty Check-In Meeting 12/15/2020

Topics discussed:

  • A major goal of SPEAC is collaborating with faculty, grad students, and undergrads to make positive change in our classics and archaeology departments
    • This is the first of our semesterly meetings with faculty and students from both departments
  • We’re aiming for our conference to create a space for students to come together and talk about the future of the field
    • We have secured a $700 budget, which will be used to pay for the keynote speaker and logo
    • In future years we will ask for bigger budget to help pay for travel fees of conference participants.
    • Abstract submissions are open until January 1
    • We will take names off the submissions and SPEAC members (except those who submitted) will vote on which to accept
  • SPEAC is partnering with the classics and archaeology departments to host anti-racism reading groups
    • THURSDAY, JANUARY 28, 2 PM for first session (other details TBD)
    • Inspired by the First Fridays on Anti-Racism organized by Penn’s Department of Classical Studies
  • Curriculum committee is a new committee that came from students at the town halls asking for greater diversity in course offerings
    • We will form a group with Prof. Conybeare to create Ancient North Africa courses–this will happen early next semester
    • Prof. Conybeare has some research funding for up to two research assistants!
  • Different pages of our website: resources, conference CFP, links to departments’ social justice pages, blog posts with resources/activities, events
    • We will have a whole separate conference website soon and we just created SPEAC Instagram and Twitter
  • Colloquium committee has written and implemented a speaker style guide and assembled a diverse list of speaker suggestions for this year
  • Recruitment committee redid the classics recruiting materials for academic fair
  • We also want to reach out to and learn from other groups in the Bi-Co that are working on similar goals
  • We need to talk about intro language classes and the violence of language teaching, c.f. recent conversations on Classics Twitter
  • Olivia is the FGLI mentor, a FGLI grad student who’s a resource for undergrad students.

 

As always please email us with any questions!

Study Guide to Intro Greek and Latin

So, you just signed up for an introductory ancient Greek or Latin course! These languages have a reputation for being difficult and exclusionary, especially to students who come from academically-marginalized groups. Have no fear! Whoever you are, whatever your academic background, whatever your preferred studying style, and whatever your reasons for starting to take Latin or Greek, welcome! We are stoked to have you joining us! Here are some tools and strategies to help you feel comfortable and confident in the classroom, whether it’s virtual or face-to-face.

What to expect:

Most of the notorious difficulties of taking ancient Greek or Latin stem from how it’s taught, which doesn’t appeal to everyone’s strengths equally. You can expect your instructor to teach the language by explaining grammar rules of the target language (Latin/Greek, whichever one you’re learning) and asking you to practice translating the target language into English (rather than producing new sentences in written or spoken form). There are some programs centered around teaching and practicing spoken Latin and Greek, but in the BiCo, the focus is on translating literature.

Your instructor will use a set of special terms (in English) to describe how grammar works in Greek or Latin. While some (like “subject” and “verb”) are relatively intuitive, others (like “parse,” “partitive genitive,” and “relative clause of characteristic”) can take some getting used to. Some students may have experience with these terms already, but you do not need to start class already knowing them in order to succeed. For some students, these terms are helpful ways to remember how to translate between the languages; for some students, these terms don’t feel so natural. Whether these terms turn out to be your favorite thing about Greek or Latin class, or the most irritating thing about it, here are some ways to approach learning them:

– Ask for definitions (and redefinitions) of grammar terms if they don’t mean anything to you. Your instructor should remind you when they use relatively new terms, but in case they forget that the term isn’t part of your casual everyday vocab, just ask! (e.g. “What does ____ refer to/mean?” “How is a ___ different from a ____?” “Can you use a ___ in English so I can hear an example?” )

– Ask whether your instructor will require you to use those terms on assignments and assessments. They may accept answers that don’t use grammar terms, but which allow you to show what you know by translating or describing the grammar instead!

– Use these terms in your notes consistently, so that you get comfortable seeing them, using them, thinking about them.

– Study these terms like a set of vocabulary if you’re really dedicated to using them, but don’t find them intuitive yet.

Ask classmates, too! If you’re studying together, it’s a good plan to combine (not compare) your probably very different strengths.

Study Skills

There are 2 principles that seem to work really well for learning ancient Greek and Latin:

  1. Organize information so that you can easily refer back to it. Remaking notes after class helps your brain process and retain information, and you should consider it part of the process of studying
  2. Find ways to repeat all the important stuff until you can recall it without any external prompting. For example, faced with a blank chart, you can fill it out without hesitation; with your flashcards, you can remember what’s on the other side without hesitation.

There’s no single best way to practice these! As always, do what works for you, and do your best not to stress if your strengths aren’t the same as your classmates’. Rote memorization of charts of endings or forms for different types of words is a huge part of first-year ancient Greek and Latin classes. When you’re asked to reproduce these charts on an assessment, you’re often not told how to go from having the chart in your book to having that information in your head.

How to tackle charts and memorizing:

Your textbook will often present information in a way that is already quite organized–but that doesn’t mean that it’s organized best for you. Here’s a webpage that discusses several traditional note-taking methods, which you can use as inspiration. Play to your own strengths (and don’t worry if you’re still learning what those are–this is a process that takes some trial and error). Other helpful ways to organize notes:

color coding : organize types of information with your favorite pens (or crayons, or font color, or highlighting, or flash card color, or whatever).

rewriting or reshaping charts, for example, regroup endings in a different way than your book does, slice words up into different kinds of pieces (this will make sense when you start to see lots of different forms), combine charts to compare forms or look for patterns that hold across different charts.

flash cards : vocab is the relatively traditional choice, but feel free to think outside the box! Anything where you need to connect 2 pieces of information can go into flash card form.

study sheets : similar to flash cards, you can make a fold down the center of a page and put corresponding info (or question/answer) in opposite columns.

use jokes, puns, chants, songs, etc. to help you remember : many instructors and students will offer (or invent) silly mnemonics (many of them puns), songs, chants, and rhymes, but you can also find some online, as long as you’re wary of the source!

quiz yourself, quiz your classmates! A peer can help spot check answers, repeat charts, or redefine something confusing. Don’t focus on whether you and your classmate learn the same things in the same way!

Whatever strategies you choose, realize that you don’t have to stick to a method that isn’t working well for you. If you thought that songs would be the perfect way for you to remember endings, but have trouble remembering the same ending every time you sing the song, then try another strategy!

 

Once again, welcome to your first ancient Greek or Latin class! We hope this advice can help you feel comfortable bringing your strengths, skills, and background into the classroom! We also want to offer our support, so please feel free to reach out to us at SPEAC for whatever reason–even just to chat! You can email us at brynmawrspeac@gmail.com, or contact our graduate student FGLI mentor, Olivia Hopewell at ohopewell@brynmawr.edu.


       by Allison Eckert ’22 and Mary Somerville, PhD candidate

originally posted September 19, 2020