Yale University

As the field of classics struggles to recruit scholars of diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise, Emily Greenwood, chair of Yale’s Department of Classics, has distinguished herself as a trailblazer in the study of how the classics are received throughout Africa and the Caribbean.

In October, the Classical Association of Atlantic States held a panel in honor of Greenwood and her pioneering work. This event would have probably drawn just three or four people had it been held a few years ago, according to Patrice Rankine GRD ’98 — a panelist and professor of classics at the University of Richmond. But the room in Philadelphia where the October panel took place was packed — a testament to the groundbreaking nature of Greenwood’s research. Rankine said the panel’s focus was an affirmation of the relevance of Greenwood’s work, which diverges from a discipline that once focused solely on ancient Greece and Rome.

But although works like Greenwood’s are receiving more recognition in the scholastic community, the number of underrepresented minorities working in the classics generally remains small. According to Greenwood, she is one of just 10 black classicists in tenured or tenure-track positions at U.S. colleges and universities. She noted that they comprise less than 1 percent of faculty in classics departments nationwide. At Yale, she is the only underrepresented-minority scholar of the 14 faculty members in the department.

The problem of diversity within the field of classics extends beyond demographic statistics. Despite its broadening, the field of classics is still facing challenges when tackling narratives of “race and whiteness in ways that often go unmarked,” Greenwood said.

The diversity challenge

Greenwood, who grew up in Malawi before permanently moving to Britain at the age of 11, said she found that her classmates and professors in her British undergraduate and graduate programs were reluctant to talk about race. But she said coming to Yale was a liberating experience.

“Although there are quite acute problems with diversity and lack of representation at a university like Yale and nationally in the U.S., there is at least openness to having these difficult debates and conversations [in higher education here],” she said.

Classics faculty members interviewed by the News said that their department would benefit from an increase in diversity in classics faculty ranks. But a variety of challenges obstruct efforts to attract underrepresented minorities in the classics.

According to a data set from the Society of Classical Studies, a professional body for classics in the United States that collects information from candidates who applied to work in classics departments, the field lacks black scholars entering the discipline. Of the 466 candidates who supplied information about their race and ethnicity in the 2015–2016 academic year, only one person identified as black or African-American. The disparity was the same in the following school year, with only one of 488 candidates identifying as black or African-American.

According to associate professor of classics Andrew Johnston, classics departments nationwide must reach out to a wider range of students by “communicating the relevance and the potential of the classics to all students.”

“In my opinion, addressing this imbalance starts with rethinking and re-envisioning what the discipline of classics is — or could be — and for whom it matters. In short, everyone,” Johnston said.

Other classics scholars interviewed also identified the lack of support for less traditional forms of scholarship as an obstacle to diversifying faculty ranks. Rankine said that the field of classics has become a more diverse place, but that Greenwood’s work is still “pretty exceptional and somewhat marginalized.” Yale Latin professor Christina Kraus seconded that notion, saying that the challenge to the diversity in the field was the “perception that this has been a white and European-centered discipline.”

But she added that this perception was changing. Kirk Freudenburg, also a professor of classics at Yale, said that the “old and venerable” field of classics has begun to attract more students of non-European backgrounds.

“Somewhere down the line — and hopefully soon — we will have a more diverse new generation of professors teaching the classics and giving their unique perspectives to the field,” said Freudenburg. “These things take time, but I think we’ve made a good start on the project here at Yale, and we are especially fortunate to have Emily Greenwood leading the way.”

A battle with ‘tokenization’ 

Greenwood’s colleagues said that she broadens the scope of recognized academic works in the classics. Although Johnston said Greenwood’s earlier work was “more traditional in many ways” —  her first book, published in 2006, focused on Thucydides — she received much acclaim for her 2010 book “Afro-Greeks: Dialogues Between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century,” which focuses on the reception of the classics in the English-speaking Caribbean in the 20th and 21st centuries.

“With Emily, there was this perfect constellation of intellectual abilities and interests and expertise that really came together, giving her the perspective to ask these questions that had not really been asked,” Johnston said.

But Greenwood — who came to Yale in 2009 before publishing the book that further solidified her leadership in reception of classics — said that she was recruited as part of a University diversity initiative that launched in the 2005–2006 academic year.

She said that the same diversity initiatives that focus on hiring underrepresented minority scholars can also “minoritize” people.

“You can bring underrepresented scholars in and yet make institutions very inhospitable for them by sending out signals of what kind of academic works are recognized,” she said.

Greenwood said that at times, it can be difficult for classicists of color to “negotiate intellectual agency and merit” in the midst of diversity initiatives that see them in terms of a underrepresented minority identity.

Greenwood added these diversity initiatives are positive but insufficient and called for a commitment to making diversity of thought an inherent portion of University conversations.

“All academics would like to be notable for their intellectual and pedagogical contribution to their field, rather than the color of their skin or other ways in which they are seen to diverge from an institution’s norms,” said Greenwood. “Part of the ongoing transformation of the discipline involves marking and analyzing the relationship between the study of Greece and Rome and the complex politics of race in the modern world. Thankfully there are many scholars now doing this work.”

Carly Wanna | carly.wanna@yale.edu