5 notes about taking Ancient Greek at Vassar

Courtesy of artistbrenda via Pixabay.

If you had told me in the fall of my sophomore year that I would be translating 2,700-year-old Homeric Greek by my senior year, I would have laughed. But after several life-changing experiences, here I am, about to graduate with 5.5 units of ancient Greek. I write about my experiences not despite the pandemic, but because they’ve been so central to my perspectives and resilience in the face of this unprecedented tragedy and uncertainty. If anything, contemporary events have shown me the hollowness of the criticisms of studying so-called “impractical subjects.” I hope that in the following five observations about studying ancient Greek at Vassar, readers may gain a window into the experiences available in this kind of study, and be able to question their own assumptions about studying a “dead” language.

Before I begin my list, some history is needed: Vassar’s curriculum was first among women’s liberal arts colleges in America to include ancient Greek. The study of Greek has been a cornerstone of the humanities since the College opened its doors. Unfortunately, this fact reminds us of the history of the study of Greco-Roman antiquity, and the elitism that has both stained its study and rendered it inaccessible. It’s important to note that the label of “Eurocentric” is a misnomer because the civilizations and literature of ancient Greece and Rome existed long before anyone dreamed of a European country, and are more complex (including racially and otherwise) than appropriations by European colonial powers or the United States. It is this appropriation of classical antiquity that has been primarily done in Europe (in the historical sense), that is Eurocentric. Within this context, Vassar’s Greek and Roman Studies Department is a trailblazer among departments, not only by changing the Department’s name but also by documenting appropriations, discussing the discipline’s complicity and making its study accessible and interesting to all with periodic courses that touch on the powerful ways antiquity has been subverted and used in African, Caribbean and American contexts in pursuit of liberation. 

Wonder is an important part of education.

We all chose to come to a liberal arts college for different reasons, but each of us knows that a Vassar education is more than just career preparation. The intangibles matter. Through my studies in Greek, I’ve learned that wonder, as a feeling of awe before complexity, beauty or impossibility, is central to education. After all, education is about more than just acquiring information; it’s also about exploring and opening the self to new possibilities.

In the spring semester of my junior year, I remember struggling to translate some of the choral odes in the Bacchae, a play written in the 5th century BCE by the Athenian Euripides. Working on the surface level of translation, I could connect the dots between grammar and word definitions. But that left me unsatisfied; the lyrics still weren’t making sense. I was feeling ἀπορία (aporia), which is Greek for “lack of egress.” In short, I felt trapped. So, I had to descend to deeper levels of cognition where words and definitions fall away, and where instead I could perceive with images and sensations. After struggling to connect lyrics that spoke of a fawn fleeing the hunter, the feeling of wind on your neck when running and the joy of being alone in the green forests, I understood for the first time in my life the paradoxical nature and experience of freedom. It was an experience with the sublime. Wrestling with the Greek led me to a moment of aporia, and then to a deeper understanding of life. This experience continues to impact me and the choices I make.

Serendipity is powerful.

As a first year, I thought I knew what to study, and like many others, I had an unhealthy relationship with uncertainty (it was a dreaded thing to avoid at all costs). Coming into college, I even knew which study abroad program I would embark on. I didn’t end up participating in that abroad program, and taking ancient Greek has brought me to places I thought I’d never go, both around the world and in my mind. Every summer, the GRST Department funds archeological digs or language programs, so I went to Greece in August 2019 for a language program. It was a privilege to read Greek in the Garden of the Muses, where I could pick ripe grapes from the vines above as we read about another ancient garden. As a low-income student unfamiliar with the liberal arts model, I was afraid of majoring in something without a clear career path. But over the years, I’ve come to recognize the power of serendipity as it has guided me to new intellectual worlds and career possibilities. And I’ve learned to include uncertainty as I chart a path through life that prioritizes my happiness.

Find your ἀγών (agōn).

“Passion” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially at this stage in our lives. For many of us, it’s become grating to the ears. Although in some sense I can say I’ve found my passion, taking ancient Greek has helped me to make some important observations about this business of finding your passion. Sometimes, it’s about finding your agōn, too (briefly, it can mean a struggle, giving us the word agony). My last semester, I chose not to continue with Greek because the seminar topic didn’t interest me, and I made the usual mistake of relying on a faulty assumption. I sat in on the Greek seminar to finalize my choices. As the class struggled with the unwieldy structures and prose of Xenophon’s Greek, I felt at home. This was a familiar struggle, one that had nurtured me, so I stayed.

It’s not a dead language.

Ancient Greek is often labeled a “dead” language because it is no longer spoken outside of academic settings. Allow me to complicate this label. I’ve read The Odyssey in translation and some of it in the Greek, and the experiences are wildly different. In the original, I came to see the epic as a living story—one whose antiquity came to me in the most surprising ways, and where Odysseus’s homeward journey came alive within my own subjectivities, a journey whose scope expanded beyond any story I’ve encountered and where I felt small in the presence of human ingenuity. How will the story encounter you?

Learn how to learn. 

There’s a reason why people say “it’s all Greek to me!”—it’s a difficult language, to say the least. The beginner course is usually a challenging two-unit intensive in the spring semester, but it helps you become an excellent learner. Because you’re facing so much new information and so many new patterns, you must take some risks and experiment with your learning style. I became deeply aware of how I learned. My intuition for acquiring information has been invaluable as I’ve faced different intellectual challenges over the years. And you won’t be learning alone— you’ll access a conversation that’s been happening for thousands of years. As I drafted my final paper for the Odyssey class, I consulted scholarship all the way from the 20th century CE to the 3rd century BCE.

I’m probably graduating into the worst labor market in decades and an economic depression. It’s the perfect time for the critics to swoop in and ridicule my choices for not capitulating to capitalist pressures. However, my classical studies and encounters with ancient Greek remain an integral part of who I am, from my sense of justice to my vision of making the world a better place. Above all, my experiences have taught me of the indomitable human spirit, and a sense of humility before the possibilities of the unknown.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for your article. I graduated from Vassar with a degree in history with a focus on Victorian architecture. I have had a very successful career. You will do well!

  2. I entered college as an accounting major (practical major), earned a D+ (impractical beginning) and then switched to my real interest, English. Graduate school in American Studies and , long story short, I’m beginning my 30th year in administration (academic advising) and teaching literature and composition. You’ll use your writing, reading, and critical analyses skills to weather the current economic storm and to do well in life. As Thoreau writes, “That day dawns to which we are awake.”

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