Society for Classical Studies

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It’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo: you don’t notice it, but then something makes you switch between figure and ground, and there it is. That’s the way I felt after I returned on January 6 from the Society for Classical Studies meeting in San Diego. It had been, for me, an unusually pleasant meeting–I managed to schedule everything that I had to do on Friday, January 4, and so had all of the 5th to see some of the sights and visit old friends in the city.

So it wasn’t until I was back in Pennsylvania that I saw the headline: “After Racist Incidents Mire a Conference, Classicists Point to Bigger Problems.” (I’ll resist the philological impulse to emend “mire” to “mar.”) On Saturday, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, an independent scholar named Mary Frances Williams stood up during an open discussion at a panel celebrating the 150th anniversary of the SCS, formerly the American Philological Association, and suggested that Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an Afro-Latin assistant professor at Princeton, had gotten his job “because he’s black.” People in the room condemned her remark as racist, and some moved to take away her microphone. The SCS Board of Directors tweeted a condemnation of “the racist acts and speech that occurred” and expelled Williams from the meeting.  A few days later, SCS President Mary T. Boatwright issued a letter to the SCS membership affirming the Society’s need to “confront, meet, and remedy the problems so appallingly revealed in San Diego.”

I need to say at once that Williams’ remarks strike me as racist, as well as simply rude, and that they deserve condemnation. Classics, at least in higher education, does have a deserved reputation for being whiter and more privileged than many other disciplines in the humanities, and you’ll look a long way at an SCS convention before seeing any persons of color with badges hanging around their necks.

But just stand a step or two to one side and look at what happened through the lens of intersectionality. The situation at the SCS begins to look a bit more complicated once you recognize how different systems of social and professional stratification weave through each other. A white woman accused a black man of owing his job to racial preference, and so implied that he was unqualified; but also, a female, marginalized member of the academic precariat—an “independent scholar”—suggested that a member of academe’s elite, a male Ivy League professor, had not earned his privilege, whereupon she was promptly crushed by the profession’s establishment. The fact that her challenge was racist and wrong doesn’t, I think, change that dynamic.

Complicating our understanding of this incident doesn’t make the problems of racism and unjustified exclusivity in classics go away. Suddenly you see the arrow, but the E and X are still there. But the intersectional lens may help us see that the problems are not simply a matter of individual prejudice or personality, and that they are not confined to classics, or to racists.

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It seems that some—just how many isn’t certain—of the Britons who voted to leave the European Union now regret their decision. I can sympathize with them. In June 2013 the American Philological Association, of which I’d been a member since 1969, voted to change its name to the Society for Classical Studies. I voted for the change, but five years on, I’m beginning to wonder if I’d make the same choice today.

I was persuaded by the arguments that the APA’s president at the time, Denis Feeney, made in a letter to members: “philology” doesn’t convey much to anyone outside the small world of college and university teachers of Greek and Latin, while “classics” and “classical” are more generally understood to have something to do with the Greeks and Romans; if the American Philological Association was to appeal to a broader constituency, it needed a name that people outside our profession understood; and the APA itself was evolving from a learned society to a professional association with a public mission. (Professor Feeney didn’t mention another reason: to avoid confusion with the American Psychological, Philosophical, Planning, Payroll, and Plywood Associations–not to mention the African Paddling Association, Alaska Power Administration, and Administrative Procedure Act.)

All true, but there’s still that nagging regret, much of which, I suspect, is entirely personal. I’ve always wondered what to call myself. Am I a teacher? A writer? A classical scholar? Even, nowadays, an editor? When I look in the mirror, or at the books on my desk, or think back on my formal education, I find that “classical philologist” fits the case as well as anything. And when I scan the program of the SCS annual meeting nowadays, I see much that doesn’t speak to any of my possible professional identities (along with, I hasten to add, a great deal that does).

There are, also, some signs that philology is enjoying a comeback of sorts. Just a year after the APA changed its name, James Turner’s award-winning book, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton 2014), brought philology back into current debate, and the comparative literature people annointed philology as an “idea of the decade“. We classicists, or classical philologists, or whoever we are, have a way of jumping on a train just as it’s coming into the station, or off it just as it’s leaving–we embraced structuralism just as the anthropologists were abandoning it, and postmodern theory just about the time that it was beginning to wear out its welcome in English and comparative literature.

Still, “Society for Classical Studies” seems to be working as a name, and there is no truth to the rumor that when someone accidentally says “APA” instead of “SCS,” all the philologists in the room chant “drink drink drink” until the hapless person downs another one. I’m glad to be a member of the SCS, and my voter’s remorse is just a passing breath of nostalgia, worth a blog post but no more.

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