With the thermometer outside registering a frigid 29 degrees Fahrenheit at 7am on Thursday, April 19, 2018, a cohort of undergraduate Classics students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) launched their Homerathon: a marathon reading of Stanley Lombardo’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, which ran non-stop until 3am the next morning. The event taught students and listeners a lot about the difficulties and benefits of the ancient tradition of oral poetry—but brought Classics back out into the public sphere and made an argument for its relevance today.
Unlike some other Homerathons, this event took place not in a classroom or [heated] auditorium hived off from the general public, but on the main quad in front of the student union, where thousands of students cross every day. The readers and participants were not just Classics students and faculty, but a diverse admixture of university administrators, local politicians, high school students, military veterans, and all variety of random passersby—not to mention Lombardo himself. The event, in other words, was meant to be public-facing—facilitated by the Department of Classics and Religious Studies, but targeted at the wider university and local community. At its height, more than 200 attendees were present, snacking on food and coffee provided by our several sponsors, lounging on the grass, or just chatting with their friends. It was a beautiful spring day in Nebraska, and hundreds of people hung out to listen to Homer.
In a time of sweeping budget cuts to public higher education and continued skepticism about the role of the humanities—especially at UNL, where an incident with Turning Point USA last year put the university directly in the crosshairs of fiscal conservatives in the state legislature—our goals with the event were twofold: (1) to make a case for the vitality and value of Classics and classical literature, and of Homer in particular, to university stakeholders and the broader Nebraska community at this specific cultural and historical moment; and (2) to give our students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience organizing and executing a large-scale event, helping them to cultivate some of the transferable, “practical” skills so highly prized by skeptics of the liberal arts.
Students were at the heart of organizing and putting on the event. Brooke Mott, a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring both in Classics and Fisheries and Wildlife (with an emphasis on conservation, and a goal of working in the National Parks) took the reigns of the event. Working closely with my colleague Mike Lippman, Brooke received support for the project through UNL’s Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience (UCARE) funding scheme. I talked to Brooke about the challenges of pulling off the Homerathon, what she learned in the process, and what’s in store for next year.
Undergraduate research need not end in a standard 5-page-paper only read by student and teacher. As Brooke recounted in comments to the SCS Blog, there is much more than meets the eye to putting on a public Classics event, including social networks, project management, leadership, methods for outreach and inclusion, and the hazards of Midwestern weather.
Give me a sense for how much work this involved. Did you know what you were getting into when you agreed to take it on?
Brooke: When I first agreed to take on the project, I didn’t necessarily know what I was getting into. Originally when Dr. Lippman and I started talking about the event, we discussed how large and dramatic we could make it, but talking about it and making it real are two different things. The most important thing for me to remember during this process was that the Homerathon was not just for the majors or the university, it was for the community, for all the people who enjoyed poetry, history, and war. I started by contacting local businesses and community members to try and get support and guidance. Our most influential ties were with the local coffee house, The Mill. I met with them multiple times and they not only agreed to sponsor us by donating coffee all day, but they worked with me on how to reach out to the community; they gave me names for their friends who were influential in Lincoln and encouraged me to write and practice elevator speeches to become more confident when pitching to other people.
Organizing everything by yourself must have seemed like a daunting task. What kind of help did you get from your peers?
Brooke: Since the Homerathon was a rather large project and I was only just one person, I enlisted the help of a multitude of other students. I invited some trusted individuals to lead committees focused on food and entertainment, on reaching out to students and veterans, and on finding guest readers. Many of these individuals were students who, like me, loved Classics, but still had a multitude of other passions and interests that expanded far past our little college. There were people who liked graphic design, who had experience in theater and stage managing, and who were ecstatic to promote our event through social media.
Did everything go smoothly, or did you encounter any challenges in delegating assignments?
What I had to learn from working with so many people is that if someone is failing to do what they said they would, you can’t be afraid that calling them out will cause you to lose friendships. If someone is falling behind or neglecting their duties, as a project leader you must take the initiative to make them address the issues. And if they can’t, you can always find someone else to help.
What would you say were the major lessons you took away from this?
This project changed how I viewed the way Classics fits into the world and how there is a lot more it can teach me than just history. This wasn’t just a little project for the Classics students anymore, it was about stepping into the business world, figuring out how to be a part of the community and growing as a department. I worked on a project that taught and refined skills that extend far beyond any classroom. I learned how to work with and approach the community—that you should be confident and prepared. As a leader, I realized you must play to people’s strengths—find their interests and work with them so they have ambition.
The Homerathon helped me to grow as a student and a person and I can’t wait to do it all again, but this time with the Odyssey. ‘Nobody’ will be there, will you?
Header Image: Homerathon poster, designed by Matthew Loar.
Matthew P. Loar, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Matthew P. Loar is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. His primary research focus is Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire, and especially the ways that literature of this period invoked and manipulated myth in an attempt to navigate and normalize this transition. He is the co-editor of Rome, Empire of Plunder: The Dynamics of Cultural Appropriation (CUP, 2017), and his work has also appeared in Classical Philology and Classical World.
Brooke Mott, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Brooke Mott is a fourth year undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, currently earning degrees in Classical Studies and Fisheries and Wildlife. She is originally from Omaha, Nebraska, but has spent a lot of time traveling. Through the study abroad program at UNL, she adventured to Africa in the summer of 2017 to study conservation and then to Greece the summer of 2018 to study the ancient sites and histories. She is a second year Teachers Assistant in the department and has just finished her year presidency of Classics Club. Currently she is working on UNL’s second Homerathon for April 2019. After graduation, Brooke is planning to attend Graduate School and further her studies.