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Blog: Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities: Inclusivity and Accessibility in the Study of the Literature and History of Ancient Greece and Rome

Sappho reading one of her poems to a group of friends. Red-figure vase by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BCE. National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities initiative (AnWoMoCo), launched by the SCS in 2019 as the Classics Everywhere initiative, supports projects that seek to engage broader publics — individuals, groups, and communities — in critical discussion of and creative expression related to the ancient Mediterranean, the global reception of Greek and Roman culture, and the history of teaching and scholarship in the field of classical studies. As part of this initiative, the SCS has funded 111 projects, ranging from school programming to reading groups, prison programs, public talks and conferences, digital projects, and collaborations with artists in theater, opera, music, dance, and the visual arts. The initiative welcomes applications from all over the world. To date, it has funded projects in 25 states and 11 countries, including Canada, UK, Italy, Greece, Spain, Belgium, Ghana, Puerto Rico, Argentina, and India.

To keep the study of the ancient world vibrant, vigorous, and innovative, it is important to draw new audiences and elicit new perspectives in its exploration and analysis. It is often new people and their experiences that can generate new ways of understanding, pose new questions, focus on new issues, draw new connections, and propose new methods of inquiry. This post focuses on two projects that promote inclusivity and accessibility. The first one involves the creation of a multimedia e-book intended to support LGBTQIA+ communities, while the second aims to offer a bardic experience of Homer’s poetry to a wide variety of audiences in all 50 states.

Queering the Past(s): A Multimedia E-Book

Keen to facilitate the teaching of ancient sexuality, queer relationships, identity, and sexuality by high school teachers in the U.K. and the U.S., Nancy Rabinowitz, Emerita Professor of Comparative Literature at Hamilton College, and Marcus Bell, a Ph.D. Candidate in Classical Languages and Literature at Oxford University, are collaborating with a number of academics in the creation of a multimedia and interactive ebook, Queering the Past(s).

Having received funding from Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities (AnWoMoCo) and from the Classical Association of Great Britain, the international group of scholars is developing material for the book. The goal of the project is to provide information, advice, and resources to support teachers and high school students in their junior and senior years who are thinking about LGBTQIA+ identities, histories, literature, performance, thought, and politics.  

Chapters will focus on specific figures of the ancient world, exploring their representation throughout the ages and their significance for LGBTQIA+ history and modern readers. Figures such as Sappho, Achilles, Orestes, and the Roman emperor Elagabalus are examined in various ways to help teachers and students question contemporary social norms of sexual and gender expression. Chapters will include analysis of ancient practices as well as discussions of contemporary issues. The chapter on Sappho, for example, will treat the history of Lesbos from ancient times to its role as a haven for refugees today.

While the e-book’s authors are largely academics and its content will be based on the best contemporary scholarship, including books on the effectiveness of using the ancient world and its material objects to teach diverse and difficult subjects, writers and editors aim to present the content in a way that is pedagogically accessible and helpful. The project team is collaborating with experts in the field of education as well as in the area of health and human relationships, and receiving support from the Archive of Performance of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD), which also has experience in creating multimedia e-books.

The book aims to encourage readers to explore their own feelings and experiences regarding identity. This, for example, is a sample of the introduction to the word “lesbian” written by Ella Haselswerdt, Assistant Professor of Classics at UCLA:

Did you ever wonder where we got the word lesbian for women who love other women? It actually comes from an ancient Greek poet, Sappho, who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea [map inserted here]. She wrote poetry describing her love for other women. Because of this theme in her poetry, Lesbos*, the place where Sappho lived, gives us our word “lesbian.” Sappho also wrote many other kinds of poems—some about love in general, some where the beloved seems to be male, some about her daughter—we’ll talk about them later. So was she a lesbian, in our terms (a woman exclusively sexually attracted to other women) or not? You might think of her as queer, or as beyond easy categorization. These are some of the many issues that surround this famous poet, and why antiquity can be good to think with.

The project team hopes that by presenting information on ancient myth, literature, and material culture in a straightforward and engaging way, this book will inspire high school teachers to use ancient materials in facilitating queer-friendly conversations on sensitive and difficult topics. Rabinowitz explains their source of inspiration:

Marcus and I were working together on another project when we realized that, in order to reach school age students, we’d have to do something digital. The idea of an e-book was born out of a desire to reach more people than you can actually go out and talk to. At the same time, we were very aware of the struggles that young people can have with identity issues, as well as the mandate in the U.K. that schools actually offer a queer-positive curriculum.

Funding from the SCS’ AnWoMoCo initiative is helping with authors’ compensation and with hiring outreach consultants. Arlene Holmes Henderson, Senior Research Fellow in Classics Education at the University of Oxford and at King's College London, will help connect the project with teachers in public and private schools all over the U.K, while Annika Shore, Director Of Education at Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, has experience working with schools in the U.S.

This fall, Rabinowitz and Bell will be running two pilot focus groups, trying out the material on select teachers and their students, and gaining feedback to solidify the book’s content, methodology, and presentation. Rabinowitz points out that it is important to hear from teachers about how they think the material will work with the age group they are targeting. “Our goal is to help staff and faculty address the sometimes-difficult topics of sexuality and gender,” she noted.

JOE GOODKIN'S ODYSSEY IN HOMER, ALASKA

Almost a year later than originally planned, Joe Goodkin, a Chicago-based singer and songwriter, was able to put to use the funding he received from AnWoMoCo for a live performance of his original one-man folk version of Odyssey in Homer, Alaska, on June 18, 2021. This was Goodkin’s first live performance in 16 months, and the 42nd state in which he has performed. Though most of Goodkin’s performances have been part of academic programming at high school or college institutions, this performance was part of a new effort to broaden and diversify his audience by organizing community-oriented performances in all 50 states. For this new effort, Goodkin gives an introduction about the poem, its characters, and the setting in which the poem was performed, trying to create a more intimate relationship between himself and the audience, and to transport the audience into the world of oral poetry and bards.

This recent performance took place at the Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer, Alaska, an artistic community largely dependent on fishing, and one of the most isolated locations in which he has performed. The live audience was small and had limited experience with Homer, the Odyssey, and ancient Greece. The performance was also broadcast on the radio, with hundreds of listeners, creating a new challenge for Goodkin as he worked to create a meaningful experience both for those present and those listening through the radio.

Figure 1. The venue for Goodkin’s Odyssey at the Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Joe Goodkin.

Figure 1. The venue for Goodkin’s Odyssey at the Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Joe Goodkin.

In rewriting the Odyssey for a modern audience, Goodkin centers on the theme of identity and, in his words, “privileges the evocative nature of performance over narrative.” He narrates the story in the first person, switching between the perspectives primarily of Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus. Appropriately for a poem about identity, the changing perspectives allow the audience to witness the characters taking on different roles, depending on their needs and desires.

For Goodkin, the venue and circumstances are also always critical in determining the tone of the performance. The trip to Homer was his first journey after 16 months bound at home. The travel, especially the four-day drive to Homer from Anchorage and a stop along the way at the remote fishing village of Whittier, informed Goodkin’s retelling of Odysseus’s journey to faraway lands in the first half of the poem. Being in Alaska — where daylight in June lasted for almost 20 hours, with just a few hours of darkness each day — Goodkin felt a connection to the land of the Laestrygonians, where Homer explains that “night and day is one” and “a man who needs no sleep could earn a double wage” (Odyssey 10.84–86) since the day is continuous. In the long Alaskan day, it was easy to imagine the routine described by Homer in which “the herdsman driving in his flock at the day’s end calls to the herdsman driving his out as the day begins” (Odyssey 10.82–83).

Goodkin believes that his Odyssey can function as a pathway into the ancient world, providing ways for the audience to relate deeply to the characters and their experiences:

When I perform my Odyssey, my goal is to bring the audience a version that is closer to the original bardic experience we read about in, for instance, book 8 of the epic. My hope is that, through my songs, a modern listener can maybe more easily access what is universal about the story, such as questions of identity and home and relationships between fathers, mothers, and sons, while still being aware of what is uniquely classical about the characters and how they behave and feel. This show in Alaska was particularly vivid and special, because I had not traveled to perform my Odyssey (or any music) in 16 months, but had instead been performing entirely over Zoom. Singing my songs from home made me think more about the second half of the poem, the arrival and recognition stories in Ithaca, whereas traveling to perform made me think more about and connect with Odysseus’ travels.

Figure 2. Goodkin performing his Odyssey in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Asia Freeman, Director of the Bunnell Street Arts Center.

Figure 2. Goodkin performing his Odyssey in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Asia Freeman, Director of the Bunnell Street Arts Center.

Both of these projects focus on engaging new audiences in the world of the ancient Mediterranean through the study of mythical and historical characters, from Odysseus to Sappho to Elagabalus. It is often the connection audiences feel with such characters, and their attitudes towards such vital human areas of experience as family, sex, and personal identity, that stimulate them to further their own inquiries into the distant past, in their own ways and for reasons meaningful to them. Queering the Past(s) offers many windows into the lives and works of such figures, while Goodkin’s Odyssey invites us to momentarily live and feel through its characters in the ever-renewed, ever-changing moment of performance.

The next round of applications for Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities grants is due October 15, 2021. You can apply here.

Nina Papathanasopoulou's picture

Nina Papathanasopoulou works as the Public Engagement Coordinator for the Society for Classical Studies, overseeing the Classics Everywhere Initiative and the projects it funds, and is a member of the Classics faculty at College Year in Athens (CYA) where she has been teaching since January 2020. Nina received her PhD from Columbia University and specializes in Greek drama and mythology. Her current research explores interpretations of Greek myths through modern dance, especially the works of American artist and choreographer Martha Graham. From 2013-2019 she taught classics and theater courses at Connecticut College as a Visiting Assistant Professor. She enjoys living in Athens with her husband and two daughters. ninap@classicalstudies.org

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