Conference debrief: Towards a More Inclusive Classics (June 2020)

Classicists and ancient historians at all levels – students, postgraduates, schoolteachers, academics and researchers – across the world are invested in making our disciplines more inclusive, but the expertise in this area can be diffuse and disconnected, and our efforts are often piecemeal and dependent on individual interests and passions more than a cohesive plan. In this context, an event such as this two-day online workshop entitled “Towards a More Inclusive Classics” – organised by Prof. Barbara Goff (University of Reading), Dr Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis (University of St Andrews) and the Institute of Classical Studies – is useful for bringing together ideas from different career stages and career paths and from across the world. As well as seven papers from scholars at UK universities, there were speakers based in Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Italy and the USA; but the focus on group discussion after every panel – organised using Zoom breakout rooms – gave us the opportunity to learn from an even greater diversity of scholars and teachers. I greatly enjoyed the whole event, and was honoured to be invited to speak as part of the plenary panel looking at concrete actions and next steps. The papers were all very interesting and informative about their individual topics, but taken together with the wide-ranging discussions, the event provided quite a holistic view of how we can improve our academic discipline.

Several presentations spoke about the boundaries of the discipline – what counts as classics? – and how we can push these. Peter Kruschwitz (University of Vienna) argued for the use of short epigraphic poetry from across the Roman Empire as a teaching and research tool, to analyse how ordinary people thought about issues such as death, grief, ethnicity, language, localism, spirituality, identity, and the power of art; he recommended the translations and commentaries in Courtney’s Musa Lapidaria as a starting-point for such texts. Stephen Harrison (University of Swansea) gave a very impressive presentation about his skills-based approach to teaching about Ancient Persia, pointing out that the Ancient Greeks and Romans positioned themselves with reference to the past and contemporary East, not the future of the West. Sam Agbamu (RHUL), who opened the conference, described the need to look to other academic disciplines and to non-academic spaces such as solidarity networks and teach-outs in order to find the tools to critique the construction of the discipline, and argued for non-hierarchical methods of problem-based learning (such as collaborative translation and close reading where there are no right answers). Daniel Orrells (KCL), who gave the final paper, presented the benefits of looking at the history of the discipline, which can show how precious generations of scholars have also questioned issues of canonicity and misappropriation.

Other papers focused on teaching and learning practices which can improve how people engage with classics, and who feels able to do so. Danielle Lambert (KCL) talked about her experiences entering the discipline with no prior classical education, and of the need to remove barriers to entry in order to encourage people with different experiences and perspectives, which spoke to my own route into classics. Evelien Bracke (Ghent University) introduced us to a Belgian educational context which introduces streaming at a young age, and a fascinating project which counters this by taking after-school Greek into primary schools and raising the aspirations of students from low-income backgrounds. Two papers addressed how blogs can make key issues accessible to a wider audience: Sarah Marshall (Vasser College) presented in her work with ‘Pharos‘, a blog which challenges and acts as a corrective to racist or misogynistic appropriations of classics, while Charlie Kerrigan (Trinity College Dublin) talked about his blog ‘Confabulations‘ which uses less canonical texts to explore the postcolonial context of Ireland. Ellen Adams (KCL) spoke about accessibility in the British Museum’s Parthenon galleries for Blind and Partially Sighted (BPS) visitors, and how these tools can improve everyone’s engagement with and understanding of ancient sculpture. Similarly, the paper by Marco Ricucci (University of Milan) on techniques for teaching students with dyslexia explained that visualisation, a movement away from memorisation, and the use of spoken Latin can help all students in their language learning. Fiona Hobden, Kate Caraway and Serafina Nicolosi (University of Liverpool) spoke about their project to ensure that diversification of methodologies and voices could work consistently across their department, with strong student input, while Sharon Marshall (University of Exeter) explained the development of a creative project which allowed students to showcase their extracurricular skills and connect classics to their non-academic interests. These exciting projects and methodologies deserve to be used more widely in our schools and universities.

It is worth interrogating at this point the subtle differences between some of the terms used across the conference: accessible, anti-racist, decolonised, diversified, inclusive. (If anybody feels that my own instinctive definitions are too narrow, please let me know in the comments how you would define these terms!) I think we should aim for a mode of education, and a way for our discipline to exist, which encompasses all of these things, but often efforts to improve the discipline will focus on one with the exclusion of the others, and we need to be careful not just to go for the low-hanging fruit. It is very possible, for instance, to design a “diverse” module which includes a range of evidence from right across the ancient world but which is nevertheless inaccessible and exclusive and encodes racist and colonial ideologies; or to attract an ethnically-diverse student body without removing financial barriers or helping students of colour to feel welcome, valued and included. Similarly, it is possible to teach core or canonical texts and topics such as Homer and Virgil in a way which is anti-racist and more accessible to and inclusive of students from diverse backgrounds (although be careful not to disadvantage students who haven’t studied classical subjects and canonical texts before).

Accessibility is about removing barriers to access and engagement: media and spaces which require sight, hearing and mobility; educational barriers, such as language requirements; and financial barriers, including a requirement or expectation to attend summer schools, fieldwork and expensive conferences. Anti-racism is about unlearning (and avoiding the perpetuation of) white supremacist modes of thought which view white westerners as the epitome of civilisation and every other culture as inferior; and is about making sure that you work actively to dismantle racism in real life, not just in the world of thought. Decolonisation can be linked to anti-racism, as white supremacy is linked to colonialism and unlearning one can help to unlearn the other, but it also involves destabilising hierarchical models of power and knowledge based around an elite imperial centre; decolonisation also entails paying reparations or returning ancestral land to colonised communities, and ceasing to valourise historical figures who committed colonial atrocities. (This is connected to, but distinct from, postcolonialism, which is about centring the voices and specific experiences of once-colonised peoples who have achieved independence.) Diversity is about bringing in people or concepts who have traditionally been unheard or underrepresented, and can come in many different forms: including more female, POC or non-Anglophone authors on reading lists; incorporating methodologies from other disciplines, such as feminist criticism or queer theory; moving away from the canon to explore texts or events which are not as well known, including works of classical reception; having more students and staff members from marginalised backgrounds; balancing traditional modes of assessment against creative projects which use and teach different skills. Note that diverse doesn’t necessarily mean representative: a bibliography that is truly representative of the UK population (according to 2011 census data), for instance, would need to include more citations from women than from men, and would need at least 13% of its citations to be from non-white scholars. Diversification only becomes inclusion when you work to make sure that people and ideas from all backgrounds are valued, welcomed and allowed to thrive on their own terms and on an equal basis.

Inclusivity, as this conference made very clear, has to pay attention to all “protected characteristics” and other aspects as well, including race, gender, social class or parental wealth, visual impairments, specific learning difficulties, varying levels of prior knowledge and exposure to the field, different learning styles and alternative methods of assessment which build on students’ individual strengths, skills and interests. Inclusivity (like decolonisation) also emphasises that the knowledge and experiences which a wide range of people can bring to a subject will itself increase the quality of research and push the boundaries of scholarly thought and analysis. The workshop discussions also emphasised the need for academic communities to be more inclusive of educators at a primary and secondary level. Both sides can benefit from greater collaboration, which could be facilitated by organisations such as the Classical Association which cover both demographics: teachers would benefit from the subject-expertise, knowledge of texts and translations, and cutting-edge research and bibliographies which academics can provide, enabling teachers to cover less familiar topics and incorporate up-to-date theoretical frameworks; while academics would benefit from the pedagogical skills and knowledge of teachers who deliver material to students from diverse backgrounds, with different learning needs and styles, and perhaps no prior knowledge of the subject. For academics, this kind of public engagement can be a pathway to impact for REF, provided it is linked to their research. Without the support of universities, and more freedom from examination boards, teachers cannot teach outside the canon without massively disadvantaging their students; but unless changes take place in secondary education to ensure that classical subjects seem accessible and interesting to everyone, universities will find it difficult to attract and retain their desired diversity of students. (On the topic of exam boards, and the related idea of entry requirements for undergraduate courses, we need to resist any model of classical education which defers literary and historical analysis and engagement until after students have spent five years learning Latin grammar and vocabulary.) University lecturers and secondary teachers alike need continuing professional development and training around best practice, inclusivity, unconscious bias and anti-racist education.

Some of the presentations were from academics with enough influence and stability in their departments to introduce new modules or research projects and new ways of thinking which could be monitored, developed and honed over several years. During our discussions, several people raises the argument that the burden of making the discipline more inclusive is often taken on by students, postgraduates and early career researchers or those on fixed-term contracts. As such, changes can be localised and short-lived, relying on the work of individuals who are not in a position to effect long-term change. This is a wider problem with academia, of course; but I saw this recently in my department, when a group of final-year undergraduates (bravely) asked for a virtual meeting with staff to discuss diversification, and had to acknowledge at the end that they cannot help to create any systems of accountability because they are all graduating and moving on. We cannot depend solely upon students (who rely on their departments for fair marking and for references) and precarious staff (whose contracts are regularly up for renewal) to push for inclusive pedagogy when this risks earning them the label of troublemakers, and may damage their career prospects: permanent staff and senior scholars must speak up and engage with this work as well (as indeed, many do). However, several participants in the workshop mentioned the benefits of giving students ownership and a degree of control over their own learning, and we must make sure that student voices are heard. This is, in fact, a good argument for university departments to cover issues around gender, sexuality, ethnicity, power dynamics, global interactions, modern reception and creative assessment: students ask for this, may even expect it (depending on how they were exposed to classics in the first place), and tend to really enjoy it. Incorporating these elements and changing the way we teach (including at secondary level where possible) can help to raise student numbers and satisfaction rates.

This excellent conference gave me a lot to think about, both at the time and afterwards, and I hope I’ve managed to convey some of this to my readers. I felt that the discussions in the Q&A sessions and in the breakout rooms that I participated in were very fruitful, and I expect other participants would agree with me. The organisers of this event mentioned plans to collate some of the proposals suggested in the conference into a guide on how to make the field more inclusive; I hope this comes to fruition, but even if this is not possible, I look forward to seeing the collaborative work which will hopefully result from this wonderful event.

Postscript: I recently read a tweet thread by Emerita Professor of Literature at UC Santa Cruz, Margo Hendricks, which spoke about the problems of white scholars who are now pivoting to publish and speak about Black history (in this particular instance, Black Tudors). Professor Hendricks argued that, as academia continues to mistreat and push out Black teachers and researchers, and fails to retain and promote them for their work, these research areas (and associated public discourse) are taken over by white scholars who claim to be the authoritative voices in the field, even if they do little original research. She notes that such scholars often defend themselves with claims that they cite the Black scholars on whose research their own work is based – but citation is not enough to address the injustices at play here: “It is merely another means to effect/sustain white control over BIPOC academic research. To regulate our voices not just to the margins, but to make of us shadow puppets that validate your work.” This thread made me think about how diversifying the syllabus in a discipline such as classics can often mean that, instead of university departments (wracked by extreme budget cuts) hiring staff with specialisms in those areas, the scholars who are already in a job try to teach outside of their research areas. If hiring and promotion practices were more equitable, this would not be a problem; but unless universities diversify curricula by hiring more staff, then the diversification project will only further entrench systemic racism in higher education.

3 thoughts on “Conference debrief: Towards a More Inclusive Classics (June 2020)”

  1. […] Earlier this summer the ICS hosted a two-day online workshop, ‘Towards a more inclusive Classics’, organised by Prof. Barbara Goff (Reading) and Dr. Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis (St. Andrews). The organisers have since written reports about the event on their own institutional websites: you can access Dr. Petsalis-Diomidis’ piece here, and you can read what Prof. Goff has to say about it here. Meanwhile there is also a reflection on the workshop on the Mixed Up In Classics blog, written by an attendee – you can find this post here. […]


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