In an April 2020 post for Eidolon, I gathered predictions on “classics after coronavirus.” Two years later, it’s hard to believe all that’s changed — and all that’s stayed the same. Thanks to advocacy for more inclusive and global approaches to antiquity, the term “classics” can scarcely be used without scare quotes. Even the simple preposition “after” seems hopelessly outdated: we’re all learning to live and work alongside a virus that’s here to stay.
Many of us have gained comfort with new technologies and embraced more global communities. Many have rebalanced work and life, for better or worse. Many others face continuing, or deepening, challenges: program closures, fewer academic jobs for more job-seekers, financial insecurity, travel and visa obstacles, greater demands on our time both domestically and professionally, physical and mental health struggles, identity-based harm and harassment. As usual, the hardship falls unequally: on Black and brown folk, queer and trans people, those working outside elite American and European universities, and early-career researchers who’ve had to think more cautiously and creatively about their futures.
So I’ve gathered a range of perspectives, some from original contributors to Eidolon – another much-missed casualty of the past years – others from leaders who’ve since emerged. Personally, I’ve never more keenly felt my luck, privilege, and responsibility in having a secure job or the need for communities of care like the Women’s Classical Caucus. I’ve been moved by the outpouring of aid and goodwill I saw toward scholars hit hard by the pandemic. Above all, I’m inspired by the vision, solidarity, and commitment to justice I see among younger members of our field.
Our discipline has spent far too much time cherishing people, practices, and ways of knowing that it now knows to be outmoded if not deeply problematic. It’s time to set down Anchises and lift Iulus onto our shoulders; to take this next generation’s guidance as we carry through this cataclysm. Quo res cumque cadent, unum et commune periclum, | una salus ambobus erit (“However things shake out, we’ll share both one common risk and one route to safety,” Vergil Aeneid 2.709–710).
Shelley P. Haley, Edward North Chair of Classics Emerita, Hamilton College, and Immediate Past President, SCS, 2022
During the first year of the pandemic, I was impressed by the unity, compassion, and empathy of the Classics community. The WCC and SCS worked together to fund and distribute COVID relief for the most vulnerable members of our society. We helped each other out locally on our respective campuses, nationally, and internationally, with guest visits to online classes and tips for teaching online and keeping students engaged.
So, with all this unity and collaboration, why do I sit here with my optimism for a bright future for Classics dampened and still out of reach? Partly because the country has not changed: anti-Asian violence continues to rise unabated; anti-Blackness is openly embraced through attacks on the 1619 Project and on critical race theory; anti-trans legislation abounds in various state legislatures. As someone who openly advocates critical race feminist theory, I feel attacked, demoralized, and dismissed. White supremacy still reigns supreme.
One of the most hurtful practices I endured during Zoom meetings made necessary by the pandemic was popcorn-style introductions, whereby the facilitator calls on someone and then that person calls on someone and so on until everyone is introduced. I noticed an upsetting pattern: even in majority BIPOC spaces, people of African descent were called on last and usually picked by another person of African descent. I was in a SCS committee meeting where I was the only BIPOC attending, and I was called on last. This dredged up hurtful childhood memories of consistently being picked last for any team or group activity. I was hoping the pandemic would have made people more aware of who is in the room.
Ky Merkley, PhD student University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Founder of Trans in Classics, Trans Rights Activist
When the pandemic forced us all online, it made all of us interact more widely, creating an opportunity for marginalized classicists to find and build community and resources. Trans in Classics came out of this moment and it has been a wonderful opportunity to interact with trans and nonbinary classicists from all over the world. As we attempt a “return to normal,” I feel that the status quo will reassert itself and some of these international community bonds will once again be seen as less important. As a grad student — a position where it’s already so very easy to feel alone — I worry this “return to normal” will further alienate marginalized grad students who often are already struggling to stay in the field. I can see the burnout that so many of us are currently experiencing, but we need to keep reaching out through the burnout and build community to help us through it all, rather than letting the most vulnerable of us fall through the cracks. A more diverse field leads to better scholarship, better community, and better teaching, but that can’t happen unless we enable to succeed those for whom academia is not naturally built.
Michael K. Okyere Asante, Lecturer, University of Environment and Sustainable Development and PhD Candidate in Ancient Cultures, Stellenbosch University
When I commenced my doctoral studies in 2018, I had high hopes that, by December 2020, I would have handed in my dissertation for examination. That hope was dashed by COVID-19. My progress was cut short, and this began a series of depressive episodes, coupled with the unfair treatment I received from graduate school when I finally returned to South Africa after borders were opened. Eventually, I had a complete mental breakdown, and I was forced to leave South Africa “for good.” It’s been two years, and I have not been able to return physically to my studies, not only because my funding ended in 2020, but also because I dread being marginalized in the space in which I worked, a condition further exposed by the pandemic. I have since been combining full-time work with my PhD remotely. Indeed, there’ve been many times when I questioned whether I chose the right career path and/or field. That question grew louder during the pandemic and it still rings loud today, but when I see the progress we have made with our advocacy and how this reflects in the interest students are showing in the field, I get the sense that we are doing something right.
Ximing Lu, Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Bucknell University
Upon graduation from Wisconsin last year, I had few options. As an international student, I could work in the U.S. under the OPT program, but I’m only allowed to hold positions directly related to Classics. I could also repatriate, but traveling to China during the pandemic was (and still is) extremely difficult. With rejections piling up and my legal status running out, I had been drifting between hope and despair until Bucknell called.
I moved to Lewisburg alone with two suitcases and a carry-on, just like when I first arrived in America more than a decade ago. I'm lucky to have found very supportive colleagues and friends who encourage me to explore new topics. Next semester, I will teach a Foundation Seminar on the lived experiences of Asian immigrants. One work we will discuss is Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire, a retelling of Antigone my former professor William Brockliss introduced me to. I’m just grateful to have an exciting and liberating job.
My update two years on is that Yale-NUS will be closing in 2025. We were told in August that this year’s admitted class would be our last, and that the National University of Singapore was exercising its unilateral right to dissolve its partnership with Yale University in 2025. As the director of our Common Curriculum, the general education program that introduced eight cohorts of Singaporean and international students to an interdisciplinary, global foundation for liberal arts education, this was a heartbreaking shock announcement for me and our community. Throughout severe restrictions in Singapore, our small college maintained mostly in-person classes with social distancing, kept international students from riskier countries safe in our residence halls, and connected on Zoom with students who couldn’t reach Singapore. Foreign faculty were not able to leave the country for two years, as borders were effectively closed to all but Singaporean citizens. Our first-year students were still reading Zhuangzi, the Ramayana, and Aristotle. Ancient texts continued to be our common frame of reference, the ideas we shared despite our isolation from the world.
This means the end of a promising example for globalizing, decentering, and even decolonizing ancient Mediterranean Classics by teaching a dialogic, comparative approach to global antiquity with colleagues from Chinese paleography, philosophical traditions in Sanskrit, ancient Greek, and Classical Chinese, and historical comparative linguistics. Our faculty and ancient materials were central to the foundational first-year curriculum and challenged students to confront enduring questions of human experience. While international collaborations in higher ed continue elsewhere, few of these programs have emphasized humanities or studying the past as powerful and relevant to undergraduate learning. It was exciting to address the recent demands for change that our field has been confronting in a new institution, and to see how remarkably successful an alternative model could be. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to bring together innovation and tradition at Yale-NUS in a more cosmopolitan political environment, before rising nationalism and the global pandemic reinscribed so many boundaries, both ideological and literal.
When we founded London Classicists of Colour in the middle of the pandemic, it certainly felt like we started underwater. However, over the past year, we’ve seen minuscule rectangles on Zoom “surface” into real faces, warm hugs, and friendship. Building connections online can seem tenuous, but seeing the same people unite over a common cause is both productive and rewarding. The pandemic has allowed us to grow larger than ever and connect with people across five continents. While this shows that the problem of decolonization is global, it reminds us that there is support to be found everywhere. Interested secondary students and retired academics alike have offered us support, resources, their perspectives, and their time, fundamentally shaping our bottom-up approach to decolonization. Being founded during the pandemic has ensured that we will continue using a hybrid format for our events, so that we may reach communities across the globe instead of just in London. It seems incomprehensible that we have expanded from a small group of isolated UCL students to a worldwide community, and we are so grateful.
Joel Christensen, Professor of Classical Studies and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, School of Arts and Sciences, Brandeis University
How many surprises and horrors have been added to our restless nights and tedious days since Nandini Pandey first asked us to think about Classics after COVID? Another election, an insurrection, a pandemic that won’t die because we refuse to kill it, global resurgences of fascism, the doomsday clock of climate change, and, horribile dictu, the specter of international war. In the face of all this, perhaps Classics after COVID is, to put it bluntly, a merely academic question. Are our only choices to give up, or go through the motions?
For me, a third choice starts with what scholarship does and can do; with seeing the work of teaching and writing as praxis; and with questioning the historical formation of our fields and their perpetuation of white supremacy and colonialism. How does our construction of the past support imperialism, the environmental ravages of capitalism, and the selfishness that supports billionaires more interested in impossible space utopias than in saving life on Earth?
Higher education is at several crossroads at once. We must learn the pressures our institutions face while evaluating our commitment to our disciplines. We need to change the standards and expectations of our fields, move towards models that embrace global antiquity, and embrace new voices while still preserving — and challenging — the knowledge of the past. We need both to challenge Seneca’s basic objection that we “learn not for life but for school” (non vitae sed scholae discimus, EM 106.12) and to show that the vita we learn for is a shared one that values the life and dignity of all human beings.
And, perhaps along the way, we can remember joy. Joy at life, at the possibility of learning from and with one another, and joy in the hope of tomorrows to come.
In the past two years, I left academia, did some freelance writing and editing, and then landed a job in Democratic communications. When I look back on my career in classics, I find myself missing the life I could have lived more than the life that I was living. Had I known what my other options were, I would have focused much more on the small handful of positions within academia that I truly wanted and meeting people doing interesting work outside of academia rather than applying to jobs that, in my heart of hearts, I didn't want. The lane for success for me, personally, was very, very narrow in academia. While not getting that tenure-track job is probably the most painful failure of my life, I'm grateful to be pursuing work now that allows me to live in harmony with myself.