I'm sharing parts of an article from the University Times today. You can read the full version here.

In a rapidly evolving and diverse world, one of academia’s oldest disciplines is struggling to evolve. Classics has long been a staple of academia throughout human history, but the discipline’s place in the 21st century represents a key struggle between traditionalism and modernisation – a struggle between new forces trying to reinvigorate the discipline and deceased – primarily straight, white and wealthy – men.

Most bibliographies for an ancient history module will consist of men like Thucydides, Herodotus and Suetonius, which doesn’t exactly make for a diverse reading list. Men even dominate modern scholarship on the subject. Dr Rebecca Usherwood, Assistant Professor in late antique and early Byzantine studies, teaches Sources and Methods in Ancient History and Archaeology at Trinity and is currently writing a book on the Constantine period. Encouraging students to engage critically with the past to consider how the context of our own time shapes our understanding and analysis of antiquity, Usherwood’s section of the module promotes the idea of diversity within the subject.

"I work on late Roman political history. It’s quite common that I’m the only woman on the conference panel. If I submit something, the blind reviewers would most likely be male."

A lack of female representation – much like the prejudices in the subject itself – runs deep, giving rise to worries of “tokenism”. Usherwood admits to such fears:

"Sometimes, I sit and wonder if the only reason I’m on this panel is so it isn’t what we call a ‘manel’, and I get invited to do more stuff I think because of that."

 This is something which few of her male counterparts can relate to. However, Usherwood, in the face of such adversity, refuses to accept that this is just the way things are and should continue to be.

"I think the best thing to do for the students is to problematise the issue and say, ‘look, this is a problem, and you should notice that it’s there’. I think we’re moving towards thinking about why these imbalances come out and how we can address them in a non-aggressive way."

It is clear from conversations with students that there is a real interest in the topics of diversity that Usherwood discusses. Amy Cox, a first-year ancient history and archaeology/classical civilisation student talks about her passion for Penthesilea, an Amazon queen from Greek mythology and a figure within classical myths that doesn’t conform to the gender norms in antiquity. She is a warrior queen who goes toe-to-toe with Achilles (mythology’s greatest warrior), with her death immortalised by the Attican potter Exekias.

For LGBTQ+ people tackling the classic, analysis of the classical world is based primarily on a hetero-normative approach. This is most evident in many older translations of Sappho’s Ode to Aphrodite which identify the subject of this lyrical epic as male. While scholars such as Theodor Bergk as early as 1835 read the subject as female, a broader agreement on this proposal did not emerge until the 1960s. Sappho herself is now seen as a lesbian icon by many LGBTQ+ classicists. In fact, the word “lesbian” literally derives from the word “Lesbos”, the island from which she originated.

As with any other discipline, classics is facing an existential evaluation of its place in the 21st century. But we are beginning to see an evolution towards a more diverse interpretation of what the subject means in the world today and towards a more inclusive approach to teaching classics. It is clear, however, that conversations like the ones happening in Usherwood’s and Sinclair’s classrooms are helping to break down the elitist barriers around classics.

How these changes will fully manifest themselves is still unclear, but the discipline will have to be creative to keep up with the 21st century. Perhaps in the future we could see local groups celebrating the Festival of Dionysus, or the government promoting classics in Deis schools.