Blog: Promoting Classics to the Public—What Worked, What Didn’t, What Could

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This article is an edited version of a talk given at the Society for Classical Studies 2017 annual meeting.

Last year the SCS dissolved its outreach committee and created a new Committee on Public Information and Media Relations. I was asked to chair it, and agreed. Our charge states:

The Committee promotes broad public appreciation for the ancient Greek & Roman worlds by spreading awareness of the activities of classicists in all forms of media and entertainment and developing ties with diverse media.

The following remarks give my views on how we can do that best.

1.Outreach should be the top priority.

Outreach should be the top priority of the SCS.

2.Go for numbers.

There are 361,000,000 people in the US and Canada combined. If we want to maximize impact, we must reach a ton of people—millions, not a few thousand. Thus, the SCS should redirect its efforts away from labor-intensive projects that cannot scale, such as visiting individual high schools. We should direct efforts toward the largest possible existing venues, audiences, networks, and distributors.

3.Engage with Hollywood movies and TV documentaries.

In 2009 I and several other classicists appeared as unpaid talking heads on Clash of the Gods, a low-budget History Channel documentary about Greek mythology. Almost nobody in the SCS has watched it, I expect (when I polled the audience of my 2017 talk, no one in the room had seen it). But it was translated into many languages, is screened around the world, and I still get emails about it. So, let’s find out who makes, edits, publishes, or solicits these shows, and make pitches to them. Be a talking head on screen, or advise them on background. (And no, there’s probably no money in it for us.) Similarly, the SCS should create an annual prize for the best Classics movie and best Classics documentary. Individual members can offer to create official tie-in events for new movies: panels, blog posts, debates, special issues, conferences, etc. Let’s engage with the next Gladiator or Agora or Hercules.

4.Cultivate national radio programs, large-circulation magazines, and specialty magazines with devoted readerships.

Pitch reviews of classical books to big magazines. Last year Princeton published a new translation of Cicero’s De Senectute in a boutique edition. Let’s get the word out to everyone turning 65—that’s one demographic we have long neglected in our outreach efforts, although the largest circulation magazine in the US is AARP The Magazine (it reaches ca. 22,000,000 people every month). Pitch articles on classical topics to specialist magazines (sailing, illness, relationship problems, parenting, riding horses, fitness, collecting stamps, knitting, music). Give them a classical take on the topic.

5.Leverage social media at your workplace

Schools, colleges, and universities are eager to show off what their faculty are doing, and have large networks. For example, the SCS Facebook page has 10,000 followers, but Cornell’s has 350,000.

6.Consider being more reserved about politics.

I realize this point is unpopular, so let me be quick to clarify it. I don’t mean change your politics, and I don’t mean avoid writing about politics. Like all citizens, we have the right and the duty to speak out against injustice.  I do mean that the SCS is not a political organization and that its 3,000 members have a variety of political views.

I also mean that we classicists speak and write about many topics that need not be framed in political terms. It’s no secret that the broad public is more conservative than academia. If we want to reach them—as we’re charged—let’s find productive and constructive ways to engage them so they don’t just tune us out. Diplomacy has its advantages.  And, of course, the more we encourage the public to engage with history through our shared passion, the more likely they are to learn from it.

How I spent 2016, and what I learned

In 2016 I decided to try many approaches to engage the public all on my own, with the specific intention of reporting on my activities at the 2017 meeting. Some succeeded, others failed. I adopted the startup approach: don’t be daunted by failure; brush off misguided criticism; don’t bother with perfection; do publish quickly and then tweak based on feedback; and do publish in non-classics venues on classics, rather than the other way around. I learned a lot.

I published big essays in Foreign Affairs and MadinAmerica.com, which tapped large new audiences (10,000–500,000+). I spoke about Greek mythology on the radio, reaching new people, though I’m unsure of the numbers. I pitched reviews and op-eds to many magazines. Most were turned down, but some succeeded. I have a review essay on Reginald Foster’s new Latin textbook coming out soon in the Weekly Standard (circulation 100,000); it’s surely the first review of a Latin textbook in a national journal of politics and culture to appear in a long time, maybe ever. I also learned that when you write for the broad public, criticism is inevitable, and may seem unfair. But it’s the cost of doing business, so be prepared for it.

By contrast, essays I published in Eidolon and Medium.com reached only classicists and only in small numbers (100–6,500 readers). The most successful of them was a series of blog posts called Hack Your Latin; I varied the length on purpose, and found that people loved the longer posts but regarded the shorter posts as clickbait, and got annoyed.

My experiment with Twitter proved to be a failure. I began by obeying the rules of etiquette, then breaking them deliberately to see what worked. For example, I retweeted my own material (a big no-no on Twitter), I pestered others to retweet for me, I stopped following others when they got political, and I refused to discuss politics myself. Many followers soon unfollowed me, but I still ended the year with more followers than I started (c. 600). The problem is that from start to finish, most of my followers were either classicists or friends of mine. My conclusion—again, an unpopular one—is that Twitter is an echo chamber. It’s terrific for communication among classicists and highly educated fellow travelers, but not beyond—certainly not for reaching millions of non-classicists.

My takeaways from a year spent in this kind of outreach:

•       The SCS needs new networks beyond Facebook and Twitter.

•       Large, existing networks and distributors are the way to go.

•       A public-facing, opt-in email list with giveaway content will probably work well.

•       Most importantly, we need to know what values the SCS wants to project publicly.

For 2017, our committee has developed three goals:

1.     Establish new awards for the five best public-facing works (book, article, review essay, movies, etc.)  

2.     Establish an opt-in database of SCS members’ expertise, with contact information.

3.     Begin collecting our own media contacts, and work with the SCS Communications arm to coordinate press releases about members’ activities.

I’ll have an update on all this at the 2018 meeting in Boston.

(Header Image: Media Interview. Image by stevebustin via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Michael Fontaine's picture

Mike Fontaine teaches Latin at Cornell University, where he was acting Dean of the Faculty in spring 2016. He has twice led the Paideia Institute's Living Latin in Rome course. He invites anyone with ideas for engaging the public to get in touch. fontaine@cornell.edu

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I'm puzzled by the commenting feature; I know I made one over a month ago but it seems to have vanished. Are you aware of problems with the site?

Not sure where that first comment went. Only I and the original poster have the power to delete comments, and I didn't do it. So it was likely a site hiccup that we haven't identified yet.

Will monitor the comments to see if they disappear again, but you should be okay to comment without issue.

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