Reflections on Doing Public Scholarship

This August, I participated in a faculty symposium on my campus where I was one of 6 faculty reflecting on different aspects of what it means to do public scholarship or be a "public intellectual." It was really interesting to listen to my colleagues who either study public intellectuals of the past, study attitudes towards them today, or engage in different types of public scholarship than I do (theatre making as public scholarship, science blogging on the Discovery channel, etc.). 

One of the things that became pretty clear in the discussion is that if you are a white man, being a public intellectual is not as hard as it is if you are in some way something else. I have decided, as I prepare to head off to the annual conference for classicists and archaeologists that will be happening come hell or 'Bomb Cyclone', to post my remarks reflecting on the value of public scholarship from the symposium.


There are lots of great reasons from someone in a field like classics to engage in public outreach--it increases visibility of the field, helps entice donors to digs, increases the number of students who may want to study it and reduces the number of parents who don’t know what classics is. My own experiences and those of a number of my colleagues in Classics and ancient history (and our Medievalist colleagues), however, have shown the risks as well. The general public that tends to be interested in things classical is not necessarily the general public that one hopes to attract. While there are good people who took a class or two in college or even did their undergrad in it who want to connect, a large demographic of the public interested in classics are white people who view classics as “western”and therefore “white” history or who are openly supremacists and neo-nazis. They appropriate antiquity in a myriad of ways to support their dreams of a “white nation.” Public engagement for us, as a result, comes with both risks and rewards. 

Classics has a long and complicated history with respect to modern race constructs and justifications for colonialism and imperialism. Over the course of the last 40 or so years, however, the field--at least a portion of the field--has been coming to grips with its biases and complicity and sought to correct the historical record by engaging critically with past scholarship, with new archaeological and material artifacts, by widening the canon of authors and texts we teach and research on, and, more recently, by engaging in more public outreach to make all of this research accessible to a wider public. Many in the public, however, prefer the 19th and early 20th century writings about ancient Greece and Rome--writings that are in the public domain-- and that their ideologies depend upon. They do not take kindly to the so-called “Social Justice Warrior Revisionists” who are indoctrinating the youth in colleges and who are set on destroying the “foundations of western civilization.”

My colleague Prof. Sarah Bond, whose story you read about in one of the pre-symposium readings, is only one of several classicists who have found themselves in the cross hairs of white supremacists and right wing media for trying to bring what is established fact among scholars into public spaces. Sarah has a personal blog, publishes a regular column in Forbes, and also does invited pieces, like the one in Hyperallergic that earned her a large number of anti-semitic and sexist comments and even threats of violence. She is a member of our national organization’s outreach committee and had not considered it dangerous before. That can change quickly if you work in what is often called “identity politics”--Sarah doesn’t normally, but her art history article touched a nerve with people who want classics to be white history for white people and any hint that the ancient Mediterranean was “diverse” raises a cry from them.

Sarah’s article was in a popular publication, but others are being targeted for their scholarship in academic journals and presses. Her case, though, is illustrative of how the targeting works--first, her article was picked up by an intern at Campus Reform, a group that considers itself a policer of liberal academics. They like scholarship on climate change,  studies on “whiteness”, gender and sexuality studies, diversity in the classical world, etc. They write an article about it, typically one that misrepresents what the scholar actually writes. This then mobilizes a literal army of trolls who begin to attack the author in the comments sections to their article, in emails or, more frequently, on Twitter. They sometimes contact university administrators making threats or calling for the person’s firing. Sometimes, as in the case of both Sarah and another one of her colleagues at Iowa, the scholar might receive a call from the schedulers on the Tucker Carlson Show, which one should always, I am told, reject. If you are lucky, you both published in a forum that helps moderate the threats and work at a university that mobilizes behind you and provides you risk management and legal support, if needed. Sarah was fortunate on both counts, others are not so lucky.

If any of you are not aware of the current situation surrounding Prof. Tommy Curry, a philosopher at Texas Tech, you should look it up. Lack of institutional support for his public scholarship has left him living under continuing threats of violence. When we do public scholarship, the question of how it “counts” or where it “fits” in our roles at the university, something our colleague Paul Djupe's survey engaged, matters, as does how our institutions support us. And it is something I’ve thought lot about as I’ve made my return to public engagement. Because it isn’t just a matter of whether it counts for tenure and promotion, but whether our institutions--institutions that benefit greatly from the work of public scholars--actually support us if things get messy.

I first considered venturing into public scholarship back in 2009. I had an opportunity to be a “talking head” in 3 episodes of a History Channel international series (sorry, no aliens). Filming was fun, the reactions of my friends and family when they saw me on TV was fun. Not fun were the sexually harassing and disgusting emails I starting receiving (and occasionally still receive) from men whose only response to women being experts in anything (and I was the only woman in 2 of the episodes, one of 2 in the other) is to try to make them go away. And that’s what I did. But last year something changed my mind.

Another colleague of mine, Donna Zuckerberg, found herself last November the recipient of anti-semitic and sexist threats on Twitter, in emails, and in comments on an essay she wrote calling upon the field of classics to engage more directly in the teaching and researching of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, the positions of women and slaves in antiquity. Her own research has focused on the way Men’s Rights Activist groups and so-called “Red Pill” communities on the web appropriate classics to justify and support their idea about women and race. Her work bringing this material to the public has put her in their crosshairs, especially since she has opted to forgo a traditional academic career to create and edit an online magazine called Eidolon for bringing the work of scholars to the general public. What institutional support does she have?

S0, my return to public-facing work started with me asking Donna what the Women’s Classical Caucus, an organization I currently co-chair, could do to support her. It ended with me writing for her. I was, you might imagine, a little apprehensive. But, as a specialist in race and ethnicity in antiquity and the reception of these ideas in modern race science, the best thing I could do to support her and others was to write about it for the public.

Since my conversation with her in January of last year, I have written 2 articles for her magazine (one published in May, the second in Sept). I’ve restarted my blog (previously untouched since 2014), where I focus mostly on the way the intersection of ancient views of race and modern one, of racist appropriations of the classical past, and sometimes, women and gender. I am also using the blog to promote better public knowledge about the diversity of the ancient world and for providing material for learning about it. To that end, I have created an online bibliography to which my colleagues have also begun contributing for the study of and teaching of race and ethnicity in antiquity and I make my  own syllabi available to anyone who wants to adapt them. I’m also participating in public syllabi projects. I’ve also been invited to participate in a number of conference panels or workshops on classics and white supremacy. 

The audience for my public scholarship is both my colleagues in classics and anyone in the public at large who has interests in the classical world. Frequently, the readers who have the most issue with what I and my colleagues say about race in antiquity are the non-professionals. As one commenter on a said “It seems that opinion is divided with professional historians and classicists on one side and interested lay people on the other.” So, one of the questions I have had to consider when it comes to audience is what do “interested lay people” have invested in classics?

Many seem to be invested in the idea of a fully “white” antiquity, which suggests they may not want to hear what I and my colleagues have to say.  So, part of my public engagement goal is to try to sway those who can be swayed to love the classical world for reasons other than a false fantasy of it being a white wonderland and to get them to embrace a more accurate picture of the past. I also try to demonstrate how modern misconceptions came into being--though it is challenging to get people to understand that pointing out past racism in classical scholarship isn’t an accusation of racism in all current admirers of antiquity. I’ve been accused of betraying my race, of trying to induce white guilt, and even of hating classics. The toughest part of public engagement for me really is not replying to everyone who is wrong on the internet.

These are the risks. But, there are rewards as well--Prof Bond’s article and the response to it have engendered real conversations concerning the display and teaching of classical art. Donna’s journal Eidolon, has a regular readership of around 10,000 now and just celebrated its 2nd anniversary; it has been inspiring a more diverse classics and  giving voice to many in our field who haven’t felt like they couldn’t speak before.

For me, the rewards have been more personal. I feel invigorated doing the work and I’ve been thanked by younger scholars for bringing issues of racism and classics’ role in it to more public attention. In a field that is over 90% white, being public and reflective about our own history as a field can make a big difference. We need to own our past and recognize how embedded racism (and sexism) are in our field.

Over the last year, white supremacist’s love for the classicists has manifested in distressing ways and the question of the risks vs. rewards for public scholarship has become all too real. But none of the women I know who are doing this work--and the people doing this work are overwhelmingly younger women in the field--are not backing down despite the threats. And, far from intimidating me into hiding this time around, the attacks on my colleagues and friends, and the open references to things classical by white supremacists in their hateful manifestos and recruitment campaigns, have galvanized me to do more and to work with others to create support for any scholar in our field who chooses to use their expertise to inform public debate.

The question of support should concern us all, though. Was Prof. Bond supported by her institution because her work was not directly related to contemporary race and so the response easily classifiable as absurd? My own public scholarship engages directly with racism today and how classics is used to support it. Would my university support me if I were threatened for that writing? What can and should universities do to be prepared for the possibility that they too may face a challenges of public outrage over public scholarship by their faculty? And what about our colleagues who may not be full-time faculty, who may be graduate students, who may not be directly affiliated with a university but are members of our profession and our professional organizations? What can our professional organizations do to help?

We live, for better or for worse, in interesting times, and now more than ever, I’ve come to believe that those of us who can participate in public engagement should--even though the risks are real and the rewards are not necessarily always immediate or clear. And I hope that as more faculty decide to use their expertise to inform public debates more institutions will support them in doing so.