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Blog: Women in Classics: An Interview with Dee Clayman

Dee Clayman is Professor of Classics at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). She was born in New York and earned her B.A. from Wellesley College in 1967. She received her M.A. in 1969 and her Ph.D. in 1972, both from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Clayman is an expert on Greek poetry, particularly of the Hellenistic age. Her publications include Callimachus’ Iambi (1980), Timon of Phlius: Pyrrhonism into Poetry (2009), and Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt (2014). She is currently at work on a new Loeb volume of Callimachus, as well as collaborating with Joseph Farrell on the Oxford History of Classical Literature. A pioneer in the field of digital humanities, Dr. Clayman has worked extensively with classical bibliography in print and online. Through her work on the Database of Classical Bibliography (1986-2009), the Oxford Bibliography Online (2009-2018), and L’Année philologique (2015-2019), she has made great strides in documenting the history of research in the field of Classics and in streamlining access to it. She served as President of the American Philological Society in 2010. 

CC: How did you come to Classics?

DC: In high school I studied Latin for four years. I was at a private school on Long Island. My Latin teacher was – I’m struggling for the right word here – uninspiring. He never talked about history, culture, archaeology, or any of the interesting topics good teachers introduce to inspire students. I’ve tried to think about how it was that I managed to dedicate my life, my professional life, to Classics, in spite of him. I now think that the texts themselves that called to me in some way.

CC: Which texts called to you?
DC: The first was Cicero. Many young students hate Cicero, but I loved the way he wrote. I loved his periodic sentences and his snarkiness. 

CC: What was your family culture like around Classics?

DC: Zero. Neither of my parents had graduated from college. My father went to City College for one year and then directly to law school, and my mother enrolled in a junior college that was essentially a finishing school. They didn’t care at all what I was studying because they thought I would just get married and have children. I did in any case get married and have children. Now I have grandchildren too. It all fit together in the end. 

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Figure 1: Dee Clayman in 1968. Image used by permission of Dr. Clayman.

CC: Tell me about your experience in college.
DC: I went to Wellesley in 1963. It was very conservative in many ways, but I was blown away by the women on the faculty. These were the first women I met in my life who were articulate and intelligent, and who were doing interesting and challenging work. None of the women I had met as a young person could be described that way – they were all frustrated housewives.

In Classics, I found inspiration in Barbara McCarthy, who was a very small woman with a huge personality. I also studied with the Latinist Margaret Taylor, a very unusual person. I thought, at the time, that she was as old as Methuselah, but she could still stand on her head! Another important influence was Mary Lefkowitz, who was just starting her career then. I attended her thirtieth birthday party at the College and also her eightieth not too long ago. These women taught me the joy of Classics. They were full of stories of travels to Greece. They showed me how to be a scholar. Mary introduced me to L’Année philologique, which became an important part of my life’s work.

These women were also the first to explain to me the importance of the American Philological Association, as it was called in those days. I was inspired there to begin working in quantitative stylistics, which I learned about from a paper in 1973 by David W. Packard. He is known now as a philanthropist, but I knew him as a brilliant scholar. His paper was about a computer program that he had written based on a description of Greek style from Dionysius of Halicarnassus, differentiating “smooth” style from “rough” style by the use of certain consonants and sound combinations. With this program, David demonstrated that the song of the sirens in the Odyssey is uniquely smooth and contrasts dramatically with the rough speech of the Cyclops. At the time, I was puzzled by the difference between Homeric verse and its imitation by Apollonius, and I was searching for a way to measure degrees of difference between them. I thought that maybe this was one way I could do it.

CC: Were there many computer programs for Classics?

DC: None at all. It was hard to get started, because the only digital texts available were through the nascent TLG. I contacted the Director, Ted Brunner, and he sent me reels of magnetic tape of Greek poetry. At first, I used an IBM mainframe programmed with punch cards in Fortran. Later I was given access by friends in the Physics Department to one of the first “mini” computers, which were big enough to fill this room that we’re sitting in! I used the first version of the Unix Operating System, and I learned to program in the C language. I wrote all my own programs, did all my own text processing, taught myself statistics, and then wrote some articles and gave some talks demonstrating the results.

But I saw two things that disturbed me. First, nobody in Classics seemed to care what the results of this kind of work were. When they saw graphs and numbers, they looked the other way. Second, the people who did that work were not getting tenure. There were very few Classicists involved in quantitative studies in the late seventies and, with a few exceptions, none of them seemed to do well professionally.

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Figure 2: Punched Card from a Fortran Program, 1970’s. Image
from Wikimedia Commons.

CC: What kind of questions were you trying to answer with computer programs?

DC: I wanted to know if quantitative models could distinguish between classical and later Greek style. The results were promising. I published papers on sentence length and on sigmatism in TAPA, and then I saw that further progress would depend on finding a good statistical model for natural languages. I experimented with several possibilities and the most promising seemed to be Time Series Analysis, as I demonstrated in “Time Series Analysis of Word Length in Oedipus the King,” which was published in 1987. I think that may be my most frequently read article – but not by Classicists, by linguists!

Because of my work on quantitative analysis, I was invited by the APA to take a hand in the digitization of L’Année philologique in the 1980’s. Roger Bagnall wanted Classicists to have an online bibliography like the MLA’s. When he was Secretary-Treasurer of the APA he went to the NEH and got them interested in the project. There was a roadblock because the volumes were copyrighted, and it was necessary to get permission to put them online. With this in mind he approached Juliette Ernst, who had been editing L’Année since the 1920’s. She was a kind of saint of Classical bibliography. Juliette had a certain way of doing things, a certain way of filling out the fiches in her beautiful French longhand. During the Second World War, she kept the bibliography alive by going back and forth from her native Switzerland, making clandestine border crossings to occupied France to bring her proofs to the printer. She did not trust computers, but over a year’s correspondence she agreed that the digitization could go ahead. This was in 1989. Thirty years later, the project is long complete, and I have just finished my term as President of SIBC, the governing board of L’Année philologique

CC: Juliette’s work during the war sounds like a movie waiting to be made!

DC: She is one of my personal heroes. 

CC: How would you summarize the importance of L’Année philologique?
DC: It has been the international record of scholarship in our field for close to a century. It is exceptional among bibliographies because it has been so comprehensive over so many years. The accuracy rate is very high, and the abstracts can be a real help in deciding whether or not to read further. It is the envy of many other fields.

CC: Tell me about your first job.

DC: I was in New York at the time, finishing my dissertation while my husband worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. I was offered a part-time job teaching Greek at a small men’s college while the lone classicist was on sabbatical. After I started teaching, I realized I was pregnant with our first child, but I didn’t tell anyone there. I just wore voluminous peplum coats. The young men I was teaching were so naïve that they didn’t notice. Nobody noticed. One day I called the dean to say I was going to be out for a couple of weeks because I had just had a baby, and the faculty members were shocked. They had no idea! I went back two weeks later to finish the semester and the Faculty Council sent a lovely baby gift.

Then I started looking for another job for the following year and I was offered an adjunct position at Brooklyn College. The Classics Department at Brooklyn College at that time was chaired by Ethyle Wolfe, who was a tremendous personality in our field, especially in the New York area. She became another important mentor for me. After two years, I got an offer from Brooklyn College for a tenure-track job. I still have that line, even though I am now at the Graduate Center. 

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Figure 3: Brooklyn College.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

CC: What was it like to be a Classics professor at CUNY in the 1970’s?

DC: It was very fulfilling. The wonderful thing about the City University is that the students we teach are extraordinarily diverse. Many of them are first-generation Americans and they speak dozens of different languages at home. They are highly motivated, and they study as if their lives depended on it, because in many ways they do. As a faculty member at CUNY, you have a chance to make a difference in a student’s life that you might not find at an exclusive, private college. 

CC: Tell me more about your work on Greek poetry.
DC: I have written about Greek poetry from all periods, but principally from the Hellenistic age. This was a time when the Greeks discovered the rest of the world and had to redefine themselves in this larger context. I am also interested in the work done at the Library of Alexandria, where Callimachus could look at the sum of the total of Greek literature and try to organize and categorize it. It was Callimachus, for example, who arranged Pindar’s poems by the site of the games, grouping together the Pythian Odes and the Olympian Odes, etc. He and his colleagues also collected information for its own sake, like the names of rivers and the names of nymphs that they gathered from reading older texts.

The Hellenistic Greeks were also the first editors. They realized that when texts are copied by hand all kinds of errors creep in. Scholars like Zenodotus and Aristarchus collected copies of the Iliad, then compared them with each other and made judgments about what they thought Homer had actually said. They often disagreed with each other, but from this work they produced more consistent editions. Some editing had already happened in Athens, of course, but it had to happen again and again, and it is still happening.

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Figure 4: Dee Clayman circa 2000. Image used by permission of Dr. Clayman.

CC: I sense a relationship between your interest in bibliography and L’Année philologique and your interest in these scholar-poets of the Hellenistic age.

DC: I think that is true. It is not hard to imagine Hellenistic scholars writing some early bibliographical software. The continuity of scholarship appeals to me: the gathering of information, the collecting of books, then finding tools to make the most of the books. Of course, a lot of information passes orally. That is still the case, which is why computer instruction has not taken the place of a teacher in a classroom, face-to-face with students. But I do put value on the preservation of knowledge, the passing of it to the next generation in every form, first written, now digital. I certainly understand the urgency of getting as much print material digitized as possible because the day may come when there is no print, when books are no longer to be found. On the other hand, there is nothing that disappears faster than digital information. We’ve all had the experience of accidently deleting days of work. 

CC: How has the role of women changed over the course of your career?
DC:  I certainly, like all of us, have been horrified by the revelation in recent years of how much misogyny there still is in our general culture. It is really frightening, and I think many women, especially younger professional women, have been surprised by it.

In Classics, I feel there is still reason for optimism. Over my own professional lifetime, I have seen the number of women in our field grow exponentially and I’ve seen them take their place at the head of important institutions and research projects. For this we can thank the pioneers of the 1960’s and ‘70’s who articulated the issues and made their voices heard. 

CC: How do you balance your obvious interest in human relationships and your digital work?
DC: Even in digital work, you need allies. You need colleagues to bounce ideas off of and to get ideas from. There are many opportunities for creativity in digital humanities, though I imagine if you look at digital humanities you would see far more men in the field than women, because that is what the digital work looks like outside of Classics. It does not have to look that way. 

CC: What projects in digital Classics are particularly inspiring at the moment?
DC: The projects making virtual reproductions of ancient monuments are very exciting. For the first time, people can see what an ancient city really looked like before it disappeared or was overrun by later development. Visiting a ruin in situ is powerful, but you can have a different experience online where you can see all the parts of an ancient city juxtaposed the way they were at a particular point in time. 

CC: It sounds like you are still very excited about the field.

DC: I am. I really am. I think a part of my brain lives in antiquity. I love meeting other people who have the same view of life, people who are engaged intellectually with the present and the deep past simultaneously.

Header Image: Mosaic depicting Euterpe, the Muse of music, found in the Roman villa of Els Munts (Altafulla) (Photo by Caroline Léna Becker under a CC0). 

Claire Catenaccio's picture

Claire Catenaccio is a scholar of ancient drama and its modern reception. She is currently writing her first book, which explores monody, or solo actor’s song, in the plays of Euripides. She has published on the imagery of dreams in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, on singing heroes in Sophocles’ Trachiniae, and on the transformation of the myth of Orpheus in the Broadway musical Hadestown. As a dramaturg and director, she has worked extensively with modern stagings of ancient texts. She teaches as a member of the faculty at Georgetown University.

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