A Classic Anomaly?

By Grace Volante

CW: mention of sexual assault

My first foray into Classics saw me unknowingly sheltered from the wider problems of the discipline.  The enthusiasm with which my teachers delivered A Level Classical Civilisation helped infect me with the same enthusiasm, as did learning Latin with a big outreach organisation led by student volunteers.  In this way, I remained blissfully unaware of the realities of how the field operated.  It was leaving that protective setting that first made me feel like an anomaly.

My first inklings that I was an anomalous classicist arose at lectures and discussions by prominent academics, run by said outreach organisation for their benefactors and beneficiaries.  At the first event I attended, during a panel on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the head of the charity remarked that mortal women being sexually assaulted by gods (as often happens in Ovid) was actually a good thing for the women (though Natalie Haynes was quick to contradict him).  At the second event, he praised Enoch Powell’s oratory, classical learning and character.  

Anyone experiencing this may have concluded that these bigoted opinions were one-offs, and did not represent anything significant about the classical discipline; but the strange power dynamic which operated at these events was part of the reason that I never reached that conclusion.  Being heralded into the pristine Royal Society, where the benefactors look like they’re mates with the royals, and where the benefits of outreach are extolled on a distant stage, is an uncanny dynamic to enter as one of the charity’s beneficiaries.  Encountering the apparatus that funded my Latin experience, seemingly run by and for the most privileged, first gave me the feeling of being one of the odd ones out.  I became acutely aware that many facets of my background did not fit neatly into this oddly specific and prevalent élite atmosphere.

At school, it wasn’t seen as weird that I was applying for History and Classics at uni, and I had no reason to think that it was until I started the course.  I was interested in A Level Class Civ because I liked the stories, both mythical and historical, and I applied to study it at university for the same reason.

When I got to university, I had already been told by a member of the Classics Society that I was “well-spoken for someone from a comprehensive school” within the space of a week.  Looking back, this comment buys into the endlessly erroneous idea that Classics is “for” private school kids who inherit it, and have done so for centuries, and that students from state schools studying Classics are somehow exceptional in getting in and fitting in.

My second personal impression of this idea was formed at a pub in the summer of my first year, when an Etonian who had studied Classics at uni relentlessly quizzed me on why I was interested in Classics if I hadn’t studied Latin from a young age.  I told him why I’d picked the subject, but he just could not get his head around why I might be motivated to study it in the first place.  But what drove you to pick it for an A Level if you hadn’t done Latin before?  I got the sense that, had I started learning Latin from age 11 (and therefore probably have been to a private or grammar school), he would not have felt he had to ask me these questions.  This awkward interrogation only cemented the idea that some people, probably without even realising it, view it as inherently anomalous and just puzzling to be in Classics without having come to it through the “traditional” route.  In this pub conversation, I was evidence of deviation from the norm, not just interested in Classics in the way that other people can be interested in other subjects.  

In second year, this unsettling feeling returned when I encountered the patronising statement that I had “worked soooooo hard to get here” having come from a state school, which was followed by nods and mumbles of “well done” by the other boarding school kids at the party.  I felt instantly humiliated and slightly disgusted by this little incident, in a way that is difficult to describe.  This was the final nail in the coffin, the proverbial coffin being my sense that many saw my state school peers and me as anomalies in our uni setting and as classicists, regardless of statistics.  The statement was said as if university was the natural course for these privately-educated people, and that I had to “work extra hard”, without really knowing anything about me.  To me, this betrays an assumption about state schools and their students in general, despite the multiple facets and intersections of every state-educated classicist’s background.  Just how many of these innumerable factors go into one’s applications and acceptance into Classics at university?  The lack of nuanced perspective here betrays the narrative and ideology that goes into these assumptions.

What is the wider significance of all these scattered anecdotes, I hear you ask, which, fortunately, I can still count on one hand?  For me, they are not just a few dodgy comments from drunk university students and aged patrons of hallowed charitable institutions.  The import for me is that they reflect various realities about the demographics of Classics courses at university, and the experiences of students.  It is true that it is much harder for many state-educated people to go to university, and to even come to know what “Classics” is, let alone study it.  By the time I had compiled the experiences that dominate this blog post, I was becoming more and more aware of the overall situation regarding UK universities and state-educated students, and some of the differences in their experiences and opportunities.  It seems one must have Herculean bravery to take on a new ancient language (don’t worry, all classical references used ironically), considering how the university systems favour those who have already had the chance to learn them at selective or fee-paying schools.  And, of course, the state-private / selective-comprehensive education disparities are by no means the beginning and end of the élitism within Classics, and will combine with many other factors to keep selecting for the Boris Johnsons of the world as long as they exist.

But if I’m an “anomaly” according to this traditional view, then so are my peers at university, and those participating in projects that attempt to celebrate and encourage the diversity of classicists, such as this blog.  In the way that the Boris Johnsons in Classics are a numerical minority in society, they are ever becoming just one group in the field of ancient studies, as opposed to the sole demographic, and that in itself will change the dominant presentation and narrative of the field.  

On that note, we should not rest on our laurels, and we should not forget how far the discipline has still to come, but I do appreciate how antithetical to these élitist comments the rest of my experience at university has been, with its engaged and friendly students, and always welcoming staff.  It is very heartening to witness the increasing transparency of the issues touched upon here, and to see many people engaged in widening access through outreach, research, and public-facing Classics (as much as I have various bones to pick with Mary Beard).  We are finally seeing the presence of more than just a few hackneyed sides of the ancient world in popular culture (cf 300, and Homer and Aristotle as “the founders of ‘Western civilisation’”), this process fleshing out our collective picture of the ancient world and its reception.  These cultural phenomena, from ITV’s Plebs to Lizzo, will hopefully mean that the popular perceptions of the ancient world and those who study it will change, along also with the methodology and practices of the still-exclusionary discipline itself – in so doing, the field will come to better represent and welcome everyone, regardless of background and education.  There is so much more to be done, but I have confidence in the burgeoning movements which are slowly making the plebs feel less like anomalies.

FINDING MY VOICE AND HELPING OTHERS FIND THEIRS

Collection: University of Edinburgh; Persons: N/A; Event: N/A; Place: McEwan Hall; Edinburgh; Scotland; UK; Category: University Buildings; Description: Details from the ceiling spaceof the McEwan Hall during the 2016 refurbishment of the building.

By Dr. Alex Imrie

My route into Classics is one that has been deemed ‘non-traditional’ by some. I never had the chance to try ancient languages or Classical Studies at school; and beyond a unit on the Romans in Primary 5 and a couple weeks on the Egyptians in secondary school, I didn’t get to study any ancient history either. My interest in antiquity was nevertheless present from an early age, spurred by two distinct inspirations: watching films like Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus with my parents, and the fact that my grandfather became a porter with the National Museum of Scotland in my hometown of Edinburgh in the years before his death. I spent nearly every weekend of my early years in the museum, finding out about some object or another.

Despite this interest, I didn’t know about the existence of Classics as a distinct discipline until I reached university. I had arrived as a student enrolled in French (the subject I’d been best at in school) although, beyond a vague notion of becoming a translator, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to get out of my university experience. I was the first in my working-class family to stay on at school and thus I had no frame of reference regarding what to expect in higher education.

I remember the moment which set me on the path to becoming a professional classicist vividly, when I chose Ancient History as an elective course in my first year. Looking back, I am relieved that I went with my instinct and subject passion rather than doing what so many first-gen and marginalised students do, which is to try to craft a degree on what they are told is ‘useful’. Within the space of a year, I’d changed my Honours specialisation to Ancient History and never looked back, graduating in my new degree subject in 2007.

By the time I’d graduated, I knew categorically that this was the discipline in which I wanted a career. There followed a couple years working in retail (selling kilts, no less!) to support my wife through the final year of her medical degree and to raise money for me to commence postgraduate study. I started a Masters by Research programme in 2009, since I was aware already that I wanted to apply for a doctorate, but was terrified at the prospect of writing to such a volume. The MScR programme I undertook was fantastic for proving to myself that I did have ideas and that I could write to scale, but it also gave me the flexibility to start a steep learning curve with the ancient languages.

After completing the Masters, I was lucky enough to secure funding to support my moving on to the PhD immediately. The years of my doctorate were some of the most challenging and yet rewarding that I have ever experienced. If I lacked a frame of reference for my undergraduate degree, it’s fair to say that for a sizeable portion of the PhD I felt similarly out of place: impostor syndrome, which has stalked me for many years, was at its most brutal during this period. With the love and support of friends, family, excellent colleagues and stalwart advisors, however, I endured. Graduating in my doctoral robes remains one of the proudest moments of my life, showing that a boy who had grown up watching Spartacus and playing Rome: Total War could have a voice in a discipline that seems to many as being designed to be impenetrable to those with a just such a background as mine (and many others even more so).

It is in part that realisation which has informed much of my work and professional effort since graduating in 2015. In my research, I endeavour to use language in as simple a way as I can, so that my work is accessible to people regardless of how long they have been submerged in classical scholarship. It pains me to see interested people turned off by writing that is unnecessarily complex or wilfully pretentious. My research concerns the history of the Severan Dynasty: one of the most dysfunctional families to ever occupy the Roman imperial throne (and that is saying something!) If I cannot render this period exciting and accessible to anyone who might want to know about it, then I’m failing as an academic.

I am similarly motivated when it comes to teaching. I was fortunate enough to be taught by several lecturers who are excellent at their craft, and so I aspire to engender the same level of engagement I felt as a student in their classes. Classics is a subject which should inspire and challenge in equal measure. It is full of enthralling stories but would probably have been utterly horrendous to have lived through for many. The ancient world is simultaneously familiar and completely alien on a human level. The discipline is valuable in that it offers (among other things) a lens and filter to discuss subjects and issues which have real contemporary relevance, and yet the discipline itself is plagued by its own historical inequities and more recent misappropriations, both of which require to be challenged openly and robustly. For these reasons and more, the subject is a privilege to teach and a responsibility I take very seriously.

Dovetailing some of these themes together, some of my most important work over the last three years has been in the field of Classics outreach. In Scotland, Classics in schools imploded in the 1980s, and was at real risk of disappearing from the curricular map altogether, were it not for the stubborn ingenuity of teachers keeping the subject alive in a handful of state centres. In late 2017, I took up the position of National Outreach Co-ordinator with the Classical Association of Scotland, in partnership with the charity Classics for All. Since then, we have successfully brought Latin or Classical Studies to around 50 schools nationwide, with others preparing themselves to join our growing network. With each passing month, we are proving that there is an appetite out there for the ancient world, be it spurred by Percy Jackson and Horrible Histories, or simply by the enduring draw of subjects like classical mythology.

We have also been active with initiatives designed to render the ancient past accessible to as wide an audience as possible: running free online sessions through the COVID lockdown period, and offering friendly and accessible summer language programmes designed to fit in with work, childcare and other life responsibilities. I want our global Classics community to be more than simply those who win the crapshoot of securing permanent positions in self-styled ‘elite’ universities.

For me, this is something of a mission, bringing my personal and professional journeys within Classics almost full circle: offering young learners at primary and secondary levels an opportunity to engage with the subject I was denied the chance to experience as a child, in the hope of enthusing a new generation of classicists in Scotland who don’t feel ‘other’ or out of place if they decide that they want to pursue the subject further. We are still at the start of a very long road if we are to see Classics become a legitimate subject option for the majority of Scotland’s pupils but, in spite of the difficulties and issues we face, I remain dedicated to the cause and remind myself that Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all…