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Blog: Classics Everywhere: Sustaining Classics in the time of COVID-19

The Classics Everywhere initiative, launched by the SCS in 2019, supports projects that seek to engage communities worldwide with the study of Greek and Roman antiquity in new and meaningful ways. In this post we focus on three projects that continue their activity through the COVID-19 pandemic.

With most states having issued stay-at-home orders for over a month now, many of the SCS’s Classics Everywhere funded programs planned for this spring have had to be postponed until the fall or even the following spring. Three programs in particular , have  found ways to carry on in the age of social distancing by making use of online tools, traditional post services, and see-through glass panels: a prison education initiative in San Antonio, Texas; Latin classes for senior citizens in Branford, Connecticut; and an art exhibition inspired by fertility rituals and symbols of the ancient worlds in Champaign, Illinois. Even in the midst of hardship and anxiety, these programs demonstrate how literature and language can sustain us.

One of the Classics Everywhere funded projects that is continuing, albeit with difficulty, is the Philosophy and Literature Circle, a prison education program in San Antonio, Texas. Housed in the Department of Philosophy and Classics and the Honors College at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), the Philosophy and Literature Circle is organized by Mel Webb, a Lecturer in the Honors College and the Center for Civic Engagement at UTSA, and Jessica Wright, Assistant Professor of Classics and Medical Humanities at UTSA.

The program is unique in that it brings non-incarcerated undergraduate students into a Texas state prison to discuss ancient and modern literature, thereby strengthening the participants’ reading, writing, and public speaking skills. This 12-week program creates a joint learning environment for approximately 15 undergraduate students and 15 incarcerated scholars ranging from their 20s to their 60s at the Dominguez State Jail. During this cycle participants are reading Virgil’s Aeneid alongside a selection of modern stories, poems, and philosophical texts, including excerpts from Book 7 of Plato’s Republic. SCS funding was used to purchase copies of the Aeneid as well as a thesaurus and dictionary for all students.

The course uses ancient and modern literature and philosophy to engage with what it means to be human, to live well and how we can best contribute to the flourishing of our communities. The UTSA students and the incarcerated scholars have been discussing the complexity of Aeneas as a hero, ideas of Roman masculinity, questions of human agency, and the unintended consequences of actions.

This semester Webb and Wright each met with the program’s participants once a week to create a collaborative environment where all could learn from each other. Webb offered a formal instructional session for the whole group, while Wright ran a peer support session for the UTSA students, joined by former participants and faculty volunteers. As a core aspect of the course, the program’s participants all exchanged written work under pen names for mutual peer reviews and then came together to discuss their work as a group. One of the incarcerated scholars reflected on his experience:

Participating in this program has opened my mind’s eye to a different outlook with a different perspective; to be open minded and to being a free-thinker. I enjoy seeing life, my world in a new way that I haven’t seen before. If we don’t understand something, we are encouraged to help one another as a group with no judgment, including the faculty and undergraduate students who attend. We all share knowledge and learn from one another, and that’s awesome!

After the imposition of social distancing rules due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the middle of March, the program had to forego its in-person meetings. Webb, however, was determined to continue the course because she considers it vital for the incarcerated scholars’ confidence building. Many of them have not taken a class for over twenty years. Many have never had a positive experience in a classroom. Since online platforms are not currently available in the prison, Webb developed the remainder of the curriculum for correspondence through postal mail.

COVID-19 has not stopped communication, it has just changed the medium with which we do it. UTSA undergraduates and incarcerated participants are continuing to exchange and comment on each others' written work. The incarcerated participants send their work to a P.O.Box that Webb set up, for Webb to scan it and post through the learning management site. Then the UTSA undergraduates write reflections in response to that work, and Webb prints and mails these back to the incarcerated scholars. There is also a reciprocal exchange, whereby the incarcerated participants comment on the UTSA undergraduates’ own written work, again via post.

In addition to snail mail, there is the use of Zoom. Former Latin and French teacher Susan Craig is also continuing her teaching amidst the COVID-19 restrictions. Craig received a Classics Everywhere award to purchase reusable technological equipment for teaching Latin at the Canoe Brook Senior Center in Branford, CT. After retiring from a 42-year career teaching Latin and French in secondary schools in Wisconsin, New York, Belgium, and Connecticut, Craig has spent the last six years teaching Latin at her local Senior Center, for a student body comprised of persons 60 years of age or older.

 Figure 1: Susan Craig and her senior Latin students celebrate the completion of their Latin I course in August 2019. Photo by Susan Craig.

Craig loves all languages. She speaks German and French, but she is particularly passionate about Latin and gets great joy from volunteer teaching in her town – so much so, that two years ago, she took on additional volunteer teaching at her local library. At the end of January, Craig combined the Senior Center section of Latin I with her students at the local library (40 years and older).

When the library and center closed on March 12 due to Covid-19, Craig remained in close contact with the program director and created ways to continue her classes remotely. She started hosting her Latin I class on Zoom in April, and uses email to send lesson outlines, worksheets, handouts, and internet links after each session. Her Latin II students – a high risk group all in their 70s or 80s – have resisted online classes with Zoom so far, as they prefer human contact. However, since social distancing rules might last much longer, especially for senior citizens, Craig is planning on offering over-the-phone technical assistance to encourage them to start Zoom classes soon too.

According to Craig, the participants are eager to learn and very appreciative. “Expanding their world is infinitely rewarding. The older senior citizens are outstanding role models for aging with pizazz,” Craig said. And they have all been particularly appreciative of continuing their Latin class while restricted at home. One of the senior center students said

I have been in Susan’s Latin class for over a year and a half. The opportunity to have the class by Zoom has been a real blessing for me. We are able to see Susan’s computer screen just as we see it in class, and so the learning is just as effective as if we were physically together. What a gift!

Another Classics Everywhere funded project that continues to draw an audience despite the COVID-19 restrictions is the Hive exhibition, a public sculpture and sound commission at Krannert Art Museum (KAM) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). This exhibition opened on January 30, 2020 and will be on view for a full year. Even though in lockdown, residents in Urbana-Champaign are still able to view the exhibition from the exterior of the building – from a number of public streets, walkways, and bike paths. The exhibition is housed in KAM’s 1988 Kinkead Pavilion, a postmodern addition that, as the museum explains, “presents the museum as a temple, with a Midwestern mash-up that makes reference to the ancient world through the structure’s large scale, classicizing columns, and inscribed frieze.”

Figure 2: Nancy Davidson and Lakshmi Ramgopal, installation view of Hive at Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2020. Photo by Fred Zwicky.

Hive features two pink inflatable sculptures by sculptor Nancy Davidson accompanied by a sound installation by multidisciplinary artist and Assistant Professor of Roman History at Columbia University, Lakshmi Ramgopal. The sculptures draw inspiration from Artemis of Ephesus, the famous multi-breasted statue of Artemis as a fertility goddess, and the beehive, which has often been associated with Artemis as a symbol of fertility and female power. Braids emerge from the top of the sculptures’ heads and reach the pavilion’s floor. As Davidson mentioned in a radio podcast about the exhibition, a hive is a “center of energy”, a place where like minds can come together to work.

Resembling the caryatids, another source of inspiration for Davidson, these feminized sculptures produce feelings of awe and respect and seem – at least from the outside – to physically support the entire pavilion. Ramgopal’s sound installation produces an alternation between arranged and unarranged vocalizing and breathing sounds she solicited from womxn-identified collaborators, a sample of which can be heard here. The sound erupts into the space and resonates throughout the installation and the museum architecture, as though the sculptures or the building itself are breathing. 

Figure 3: Nancy Davidson, Opening reception for Hive at Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, January 30, 2020. Photo by Della Perrone.

Co-curators Amy L. Powell, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at KAM, and Clara Bosak-Schroeder, Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are the originators of this project; they brought the two artists together in 2018 and asked them to collaborate in creating art for this particular space. Powell was particularly interested in the way this installation could transform one’s experience of the museum, while Bosak-Schroeder wanted to engage with art that would invite audiences to reimagine the ancient world and reflect on issues of gender, identity, and religion. Bosak-Schroeder brought a number of her students to the exhibition and is hoping to organize a faculty panel around it in the fall. The museum organized an artist talk during the exhibition’s opening, while their award-winning education team led by Kamila Glowacki was able to offer immersive programming surrounding the exhibition for K-12 schools before the museum had to close.

Figure 4: Lakshmi Rangopal, Opening reception for Hive at Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, January 30, 2020. Photo by Della Perrone.

Victoria Karnes, graduate student in Classics at UIUC, described the "thrill" of seeing Hive from the perspective of classical studies:

The burden placed upon caryatids is both present and absent in Hive, depending upon how you view it. The style of the pavilion in which Hive is housed makes the building look heavy, a little grandiose, and very stagnant, but Hive’s rounded shapes and ever-changing light and sound transform the building. Hive lives and breathes and breathes life into its surroundings.

Though no one can enter right now due to Covid-19, the museum’s sculptures are visible from outside at all times. The sight of them, especially enticing when their lighting design is on full display after dark, is building anticipation for the museum’s reopening. Many passersby have been seen staring at the exhibition and taking photos. Hopefully their curiosity will bring them to the museum when it reopens. Discussions are also ongoing about creating a virtual way to explore the exhibition.

Figure 5: Nancy Davidson and Lakshmi Ramgopal, installation view of Hive at Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2020. Adjacent to the installation is a bronze by Lorado Taft, The Blind, 1908, cast 1988. Photo by Della Perrone.

Although thousands of in-person classes, events, and programs have been canceled or postponed in an effort to battle the spread of this new virus, educators and artists all over the world are finding creative and innovative ways to continue their work without physical contact. From relying on the ever-lasting postal service, to using Zoom to offer virtual experiences or even presenting socially distanced art, Classics Everywhere award recipients have found ways to engage with their audiences and encourage meaningful communication in our altered present while staying apart. As Seneca said contemplating the happy life:

beatus est praesentibus, qualiacumque sunt, contentus.

A happy man finds satisfaction in the present, whatever that may be. 

(De Vita Beata, 6.2)

The next round of applications for Classics Everywhere grants is due May 15, 2020 and you can apply here.

Figure 6: The Caryatids on the south porch of the Erechtheion (420 BCE), Athens, Greece. Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

Header Image: Bee within a dotted border, with the Greek letters, Ε (‘epsilon’) and Φ (‘phi’), to either side, Obverse, Tetradrachm of Ephesus, 390-380 BCE, Silver. Photo via the Getty Open Content Program.

Nina Papathanasopoulou's picture

Nina Papathanasopoulou works as the Public Engagement Coordinator for the Society for Classical Studies, overseeing the Classics Everywhere Initiative and finding opportunities to bring together scholars and students of Classics with the broader community. She taught classics and theater courses at Connecticut College as a Visiting Assistant Professor from 2013-2019. She is currently living in Athens where she is excited to have joined the faculty at College Year in Athens. Nina specializes in Greek drama and mythology and her current research explores interpretations of Greek myths through modern dance, especially the choreographies of Martha Graham. ninap@classicalstudies.org

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