Originally posted at https://classics.unc.edu/2023/12/31/in-memory-of-sharon-james/.
Sharon L. James, Professor of Classics at UNC-Chapel Hill, passed away on Thursday, December 28, 2023. To call her teaching “influential” and her work “groundbreaking” feels incommensurate with the profound impact she had on students, colleagues, friends, and scholars worldwide. Her scholarship changed the fields of Roman comedy, Roman love elegy, and women in the ancient Mediterranean. She continues to influence academic discourse through the work of the many students she trained and the countless scholars she has inspired. In addition, she was a vibrant personality in and out of Murphey Hall, what more than one of her protégé/e/s has called “a force of nature.” She was loud, sharp, funny, intimidating, a whirl of colorful shawls and snorting laughter, “a crusty marshmallow,” and one of the world’s best conversation partners, on topics ranging from Latin poetry, to fountain pens, to double cousins, to gardening tomatoes, to vague pronoun references, to the burgeoning family of birds that nested on her bookshelf one April. We loved her.
Professor James received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley, with a dissertation on parents and children in Homer, Vergil, and Dante. She taught at Hamilton College, Bryn Mawr College, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, before coming in 1999 to UNC-Chapel Hill, where she taught for the next 24 years.
Her 2003 monograph, Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy, reoriented the study of Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid by conclusively demonstrating that the docta puella at the heart of the genre is a meretrix (sex laborer), not a citizen woman. The book is foundational reading for every student of the genre—and the methodology of gendered reading Professor James employed in the book has resonated far outside the field.
Professor James was a pioneer in the scholarship and teaching of women in antiquity, even though the charge of teaching women in antiquity was one thrust upon her when she arrived at UNC, on the grounds that she was, well, a woman. She developed rigorous, wildly popular undergraduate courses on Women in Greece and Women in Rome—many UNC alums will never forget how vividly she debunked the traditional narrative about the abduction of the Sabine women, assisted in class by undergrad and grad volunteers—as well as the world’s first graduate seminar on Women in Antiquity that combined material culture and philology, a course co-taught with Sheila Dillon of Duke University. Because of that course, Professors James and Dillon were tapped to edit Blackwell’s A Companion to Women in the Ancient World (2012), which was likewise the first interdisciplinary collection of essays on that topic, and has already become a landmark study in the field; the two of them subsequently co-edited the four-volume scholarly anthology Women in the Classical World (2017).
In recent years, Professor James worked tirelessly to edit the unpublished works of the late Barbara Flaschenriem, an important interpreter of Propertius, and bring them to print alongside new work by today’s leading Propertian scholars in Golden Cynthia (2022). Professor James’ own 2020 essay on “Plautus and the Marriage Plot” (in Blackwell’s A Companion to Plautus), which shows how the Roman comedian Plautus is disinterested in his genre’s typical obsession with citizen marriage, promises to change the trajectory of Roman comedy studies to the same degree as her Learned Girls and Male Persuasion changed elegy studies. This essay offers a preview of Professor James’ monumental monograph on women in Roman comedy, unfinished at her death.
Professor James wrote many influential articles that are staples of research for students of comedy, elegy, and gender. “From Boys to Men: Rape and Developing Masculinity in Terence’s Hecyra and Eunuchus” (in a 1998 special edition of Helios that Professor James also edited) broke with scholarly tradition by shifting away from the citizen masculine perspective and acknowledging sexual abuse and enslavement as an embodied experience for women. She continued this work with “Trafficking Pasicompsa: A Courtesan’s Travels and Travails in Plautus’ Mercator” (New England Classical Journal, 2010) and “Reconsidering Rape in Menander’s Comedy and Athenian Life” (in Menander in Contexts, 2013). Professor James also made significant contributions to pedagogy in Classics with her years of work and scholarship on teaching sexual violence in the classroom, including her articles “Teaching Rape in Roman Elegy” (in A Companion to Roman Love Elegy) and “Talking Rape in the Classics Classroom: Further Thoughts” (in From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classics Classroom).
The NEH Summer Institute for Higher Educational Faculty on Roman comedy in performance, which she co-directed with Timothy J. Moore (Ph.D. ’86) and hosted at UNC in summer 2012, was a signal accomplishment for Professor James. Over the course of four weeks, she and Professor Moore worked relentlessly to introduce a cohort of young scholars to cutting-edge scholarship, pedagogy, and practices related to the performance of Roman comedy. Professor Moore recollects, “The idea for the Institute was Sharon’s, and she took the leading role in shepherding our proposal through the NEH. When the time for the Institute came, Sharon, as the onsite director, handled almost all the local logistics. Watching how effectively she dealt with everything … was an inspiration. Equally inspiring was the care and attention she paid to the needs of each of the 30 NEH Summer Scholars.” The public impact of their Institute reached far beyond the Institute itself: the videos they produced have been viewed more than 35,000 times, in 130 countries, and have become indispensable teaching tools for high school and college teachers. Their initial Institute was so well-received that the NEH repeatedly asked Professors James and Moore to run it again and, in summer 2023, they got to see its second iteration take place at Boston College. Half a dozen of the participants in the 2012 Institute went on to become respected experts of Roman comedy in their own right and served as visiting scholars at that 2023 iteration to pass along that mentorship for another generation, a testament to the shaping role she has played in the discipline.
As a teacher, Professor James was simultaneously uncompromising in her rigorously high expectations and deeply compassionate in her pedagogy. In 2013, she earned UNC’s William C. Friday/Class of 1986 Award for Excellence in Inspirational Teaching, and in 2021, she was recognized by the UNC Board of Governors with their system-wide Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her course on Ovid and literary theory, which she brought from Bryn Mawr to UNC, introduced dozens of students to ideas that fundamentally challenged and enriched their thinking, and resulted in numerous publications by those students in peer-reviewed journals, as well as a two-decade retrospective she published in Classical World in 2015. She was scheduled to teach it again this spring.
Professor James’ graduate and undergraduate courses on Roman comedy and Roman elegy were the stuff of legend in the department. Her 2006 Roman comedy class, for instance, filled the Classics library with uproarious laughter, enough to convince comedy-skeptical colleagues to reconsider the genre’s merit. Her courses were not only legendary but also notorious—the workload for one course was impressive, but to take two at once was a feat. It was an honor to be known by other faculty as “one of Sharon’s students.” And Professor James’ teaching echoed far beyond the hallways of Murphey, as Roman comedy scholar and friend C. W. Marshall attests: “When I was invited to come speak to her grad students, I was floored by the depth and compassion that they all demonstrated for the female characters in Roman comedy. Though I had written a book on Plautus, I had not fully seen these characters as individuals until I was part of a thoughtful conversation as Sharon’s students argued about the different experiences being modeled by the women, each of them referring to the characters by name. It was both dizzying and delightful, and set a pattern that helped establish a major theme in my scholarship for the past 12 years.” Professor James’ departmental colleague and longtime friend James J. O’Hara expressed how having her as a colleague was a key reason he decided to come to UNC (a feeling he says is echoed by several other current faculty), and how her presence on the faculty attracted graduate students who were a joy for all the faculty to work with, whether or not they ended up dissertating with her.
For many scholars, Professor James was the first person to introduce them to issues of social justice in research: how even the choice of a topic can be political, how to work with what we have and to try to learn more about what we do not, and why it even matters in the first place. She always urged her students to find their own path, expertly guiding them as they were beginning to generate their own knowledge. Caitlin Hines (B.A. ’13) reflects, “Sharon refused to let you doubt yourself. Most of my achievements … have been the result of Sharon encouraging me to try things I didn’t think I was qualified to try. She was fierce and relentless in encouraging us to believe in our own talents and effusively joyful when we succeeded just as she suspected she would. I came to treasure the response that I knew she would send when I wrote to tell her of a new success: ‘I am delighted, but not surprised.’” Erika Weiberg (Ph.D. ’16) adds, “I do not think I could have finished a Ph.D. or a book without her constant support, pep talks, and stalwart belief in me and my ideas. At a moment’s notice, she’d meet me at a coffee shop … or get on the phone,and tell me precisely what she thought I needed to do to overcome whatever hurdle I was facing. When many others did not believe in me, she did, and it made a world of difference. I know I am not the only one who felt this way—how many young scholars in our field have persisted because of her support?”
Professor James was an outstanding, beloved mentor. “Sharon was always so proud of her students,” says Rachel Mazzara (B.A. ’13). She believed that mentoring was a lifelong relationship, one that ended not with graduation, but extended throughout her students’ careers (even when they were hiding from her as she came down the hallway). She was her students’ champion, ever and always. She taught us all the value of institutional decorum, never to mention our hypotheses about Ovid’s exile in mixed company, and how to be more confident (“self-deprecatory remark omitted!”). She established the Placement Service at UNC, committed to seeing all graduated students fully employed. Her work as Placement Officer set a new model for the field for professional development, and she created the gold-standard format for a Classics c.v.—one can always recognize a c.v. in the James lineage. Comedy and elegy scholar and Professor James’ dear friend Amy Richlin says that “she was the greatest grad director in my 44 years of experience in the field: with her students every step of the way, exhorting, pushing, cheering them on, spending hours and hours of her great force of mind and heart.”
Professor James supported students’ first steps into the world of academic publishing, helping them create networks with established scholars, editors, and junior colleagues—if she had a friend somewhere, she connected them. Emma Warhover (Ph.D. ’21) remarks, “she demanded excellence, but didn’t demand that excellence manifest itself in any one particular way.” She would check in year after year, offering collaboration, brainstorming, a second set of eyes on a piece of work, research material, and congratulations as her former students passed milestones. Erika Zimmermann Damer (Ph.D. ’10) recalled how supportive she felt Professor James was when starting her family during graduate school: “Sharon happily helped me plan taking a parental leave, and simultaneously helped me through the daunting process of entering the job market, when Helena [Erika’s first child] was 8–10 weeks old. I’ve heard stories of bad mentoring in graduate programs, but I never experienced a second of it at UNC, and from Sharon, I never got anything but intense support and generosity.”
Professor James’ mentoring has provided a template for how to nurture the academic aspirations of our own students and support them long after they are no longer students, but friends and colleagues. Jermaine Bryant (B.A. ’19) shared about how Professor James kept for years a cognitive map he’d made for his senior thesis and gave it to him the last time they saw one another in person; he adds, “There are many memories of Sharon that are dear to me: perhaps most dear is her telling me I could be a classicist if I wanted, something no one had ever told me before.” John Henkel (Ph.D. ’09) remarks, “she was just so damned influential on everyone that she touched … she formed me in ways that continue to pay out in the way I think about mentoring and friendship with my students.” Arum Park (Ph.D. ’09) adds, “More than twenty years after we first met, I still looked to her for guidance and solace. Just a few months ago I was venting to her various professional frustrations. She validated my feelings and told me, ‘You deserve to be seen for who you are.’ I think that pretty much encapsulates what made her such an extraordinary professor: she always tried to see her students for who they were.”
Professor James was a constant advocate for women in Classics and higher education as a whole, and her work was recognized twice by the Women’s Classical Caucus, with an award for her special contributions to feminist pedagogy in 2008 and another for her dauntless leadership in 2017. She was key in the recent creation of the International Ovidian Society. IOS founding president Alison Keith, another of Professor James’ close friends, writes, “The International Ovidian Society was Professor James’ brainchild, and she roped colleagues around the world into helping her launch it as efficiently (and ruthlessly) as any ancient Roman empress or new comedic serua callida. Her vision for the Society has been fully realized with the establishment of a genuinely inclusive organization devoted to the study of Ovid, with attention to all media and time periods, and committed to supporting students and younger scholars.” Professor James held numerous national leadership positions in the profession, including chairing the Society for Classical Studies Membership Committee (2018–2021) after serving as one of its inaugural members (2014–2018); sitting on the editorial board of the journal Mouseion (2012–2015); and serving on the prize committee for the American Journal of Philology (2016–2018).
At UNC, Professor James participated in Project Uplift and the Carolina Millennial Scholars Program, which provide mentorship for students from underserved communities. In the Department of Classics, she was an integral member and leader of graduate admissions and coordinator of the department’s outreach efforts. She was also the faculty advisor for the Underwater Hockey Team, a personal point of pride and evidence of how far and wide her esteem among undergraduate students extended.
In her local community, Professor James contributed to both the Freedom House Scholars and the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers rehabilitation programs, teaching students to explore Greek tragedy while reflecting on how ancient literature can help us with our everyday challenges. Derek Keyser (Ph.D. ’11), one of her co-instructors in those programs, recalled, “She helped show me the value of classical literature outside the classroom. She brought a lot of energy, compassion, and humor to those sessions.” She was also deeply committed to public scholarship and engagement, serving as an audience talkback discussant for many productions at UNC’s Kenan and Playmakers’ Theaters.
Professor James is survived by her husband, Corry Arnold; sister, Heather James; and beloved dog, Palaestra.
Cinis hic docta puella fuit.
by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad (Ph.D. ’12), Christopher B. Polt (Ph.D. ’10), and Serena S. Witzke (Ph.D. ’14)