How I was Kicked Out of the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting
by Mary Frances Williams
by Desmond Berg Posted on March 12, 2019, 3:21 pm
I am a Classics Ph.D. who recently attended the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS—formerly the American Philological Association), a yearly conference that provides papers on classical subjects and interviews for academic positions. I now regret doing so since some remarks I made at the conference led to me being branded a “racist” and the loss of my editing job with the Association of Ancient Historians.I don’t usually attend because of the expense—I’m an independent scholar and cannot rely on universities for reimbursement. But it seemed like a good idea to go since the weather is always nice in San Diego. A bonus was the USS Midway, now a floating museum. The Midway, a World War II-era aircraft carrier that served as the command center for the bombing of Bagdad during the Gulf War, is well worth visiting. On January 5 I decided to attend panel #45, a “Sesquicentennial Workshop”—it was the 150th anniversary of the SCS—titled “The Future of Classics.” It was described in the meeting program as “an open and free-form large-room discussion of what we think the trajectories of our field, broadly defined, will and/or should be, not just in the immediate future but for the next 150 years.” Based on the description (“discussion” is mentioned three times), the panel seemed like an opportunity to raise some questions and obtain some answers about what was happening in the field.
Although I am a Classics Ph.D. and a former professor, it has been some time since I taught. But I have noticed a decline in the number of Classics courses being offered at universities, a shift in teaching focus, and, at least this past fall, a concentration on archaeology positions in the academic job market rather than for Classics generalists. I thought that I might contribute to the discussion, and that by asking questions I might learn what was going on and what others thought about the direction of the field. I knew nothing about the people who’d been invited to speak.
A typical session at the SCS Annual Meeting involves six speakers giving papers, with a few minutes for one or two questions after each one, and usually lasts two-and-three-quarter hours. Papers are normally submitted through the Program Committee and classed by topic. However, this particular panel/workshop was atypical: the invited speakers, who only spoke for four or five minutes apiece, did not give true papers or have paper titles listed in the program, and therefore did not go through the Program Committee. Nor were they sponsored by any affiliated group as far as I know. Although Stephen Hinds (University of Washington) was listed as the organizer of the workshop, he did not chair the panel, keep order, call on members of the audience, or time the speakers. In short, it was an odd affair that seemed not to follow the (admittedly Byzantine) rules for SCS Meetings. The SCS Director, Helen Cullyer, was also present in the audience and gave a few anodyne remarks of welcome, but sat quietly throughout the subsequent uproar.
The first speaker, Sarah Bond (University of Iowa), emphasised how she runs the Twitter feed, Facebook page and blog for the SCS. This work gave her occasion “to reflect often on whether in the field of Classics we can separate the art from the artist.” Bond encouraged SCS members to consider the legacy of classicists like Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924), because he wrote:
…some of the most racist and abominable columns for the Richmond Times-Dispatch that we actually know of [sic], defending slavery, defending the South; and yet we continue to celebrate Basil Gildersleeve within our society. What does that say to the future classicists that are coming into the field?… It does not tell people of colour that it [sic] is welcoming to them.
From Gildersleeve, she went on to “other very influential scholars that oftentimes go silent at this meeting [sic]”. This was puzzling, but then she immediately clarified that she was talking about people “we don’t talk about, or we whisper about, because we know things, but we can’t say them aloud.” She recounted how she was “summarily cut off” in the question and answer period of a “digital pedagogy for mapping” conference panel by a “very prominent digital humanist” when she mentioned that that she no longer cited the work of a former Classics professor “because of the rape allegations against him currently.” An allegation against this scholar was made on Facebook in November 2017 of a sexual assault in 1985, but neither his university nor the police investigated the charge, and no formal proceeding has ever been opened against him.
From there Bond seemed to accuse all classicists (or maybe just the SCS) of taking part in a conspiracy of silence:
Because we are still about cronyism and supporting a very small group of people in many ways this can oftentimes silence other people. I too have had problems with whether to call people out or whether to say things, whether we should be anonymous or whether we should have a name attached to all the allegations that we put against people, but we have to think about the past of Classics and the present in order to make it welcoming for the future.
The way to correct this was to create “an environment for diversity and inclusion” by “calling out” “mistakes that we’re making currently and in the past” [sic].
Next she started talking about what another panellist would call “citational justice.” This is a process of “diversifying our footnotes, and trying to include more people, rather than following the same path that we have been led to our entire careers as classicists.” She described this as a way of “lifting as we climb.” The idea was that if you cite women [of colour] in your scholarship, instead of Basil Gildersleeve or “various scholars who are part of the canon,” then “that is how we are going to climb.”
Bond bemoaned the fact that her blog posts did not count towards tenure even though, puzzlingly, she has tenure, or so she told us. She claimed to have written over 170,000 words over the past two years on her own blog and various other blogs. This writing was the equivalent of “two books over the past two years that I got almost no tenure credit for.” She wanted to encourage universities to look at “outreach” activities like blog posts when assessing candidates for tenure and promotion in order to “break away from the monograph as the model for who gets tenure.” She objected to the fact that she was granted tenure only because of a single scholarly monograph.
Bond’s final topic was “inclusion.” She had been in charge of organizing Classics colloquia at her university, and claimed that “those panels represented what we believed Classics is and should be.” Over the past 10 years, there had only been three scholars of colour in any of these colloquia. She tried to make them inclusive by inviting even numbers of men and women, and bringing in as many women, people of colour, dance professors and other people “outside the traditional area of Classics” as she could. In Bond’s eyes, inclusion “begins in the local university, telling people of colour and women specifically that they can be a part of our field through simply presenting them with people who are not seen as the [sic] traditional classicists, i.e., white males, who are older.”
She was particularly concerned about “manels” (all-male conference panels): “having [people in the SCS] refuse to be a part of manels is one reason why I started WOAH,” she said. WOAH stands for ‘Women of Ancient History,’ a database of female ancient historians.
I was puzzled by Bond’s discussion of Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve’s commentary on Pindar’s Olympian and Pythian Odes (New York: Harper 1885) is still the best thing out there on all those odes for anyone studying the Greek text of Pindar, an incredibly complex and difficult poet of the sixth century B.C., who wrote odes for Olympic and other athletic victors (for example, victors in the chariot race at the Olympic Games). Gildersleeve is unlikely to be supplanted by those who work on Pindar; in fact, it is impossible to read the poet in Greek without Gildersleeve’s assistance with Greek grammar, myth, genealogy and history. It struck me as odd to argue that his scholarship should be disregarded because of articles he wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. There is nothing in his commentary (or his Latin grammar or work on Greek syntax) that comes even close to being racist. How can we not use him? Or is it fine to “use” anyone, even if they are racist, as long as they are not given any credit in the text?
The second speaker, Joy Connolly (the Graduate Center at CUNY New York), focused on what she called “the futureology of Classics.” The big trend in education, she said, was the rising cost of higher education; meanwhile, Classics was “not in growth mode.” Classicists needed to teach more students. “We have to decide what we want our field to be,” she said. We had to put more of our energy into attracting students to justify hiring replacements for ourselves when we retire. The future of Classics was really ours to make.
Connolly’s preferred vision of the future was, to my ears, rather alarming:
Let’s imagine a field… where language study is not the core, and courses in translation are so popular we can argue to support tiny language courses, because they will always now be tiny, and let’s remember that a lot of administrations are not going to support that solution.
She hinted that she wanted “popular engagement” to determine research topics, and questioned the value of traditional notions of Classics, asking why so many students wrote their dissertations on great works of classical Greek and Latin literature, instead of topics like indigenous writing in the Americas and technical writing.
Connolly seemed hostile to the study of classical Greek and Latin. She said that the ancient languages could not be taught anymore by Classics departments. She did not say why, besides cost. Instead, she thought that “we” should not require all classicists to teach Greek and Latin. “I think the field would be better served by training a next generation of faculty free and empowered to focus on teaching topics of broader interest.” Not Latin or Greek, in other words.
But the abandonment of philology, the heart of our discipline, means that there can be no true research in the field. We can have no new editions of texts, no new translations, no work on ancient history, no scholarly work on ancient authors, without knowledge of the languages. What Connolly seemed to be advocating is that classicists should discard the heart and soul of their discipline to make it more popular.
The final speaker, Dan-el Padilla Peralta (Princeton University), began by saying: “For the next few minutes I want to concentrate on the systemic marginalisation of people of colour in the credentialed and accredited knowledge production of the discipline.”
Apparently, the organisers of the SCS annual meeting had contributed to this marginalisation by holding the conference at a hotel in San Diego:
Already by the historical process of convening this conference in locations that are not only ludicrously expensive to travel to but that are rife with micro- and macroaggressions that target people of colour, the SCS does people of colour no favours.
Padilla mentioned “the revolting racial profiling” of two SCS members the day before, and discussed holding hotel and conference centre staff to “a racially equitable standard.”
But Padilla’s main subject was Classics. He said he wanted to displace “the pre-eminence and priority of white privilege and white supremacy in the discipline’s self-image.” He then talked about the shortcomings of scholarly journals:
I want to look at a blinding derangement: the responsibility of the major journals in the field for the replication of those asymmetries of power and authority that impoverish knowledge production in the field of Classics by perpetrating the epistemic and hermeneutic injustice of denying a space and a place for scholars of colour.
Padilla had conducted what he called a “data harvesting project,” as part of his “emancipatory” project of “citational justice.” He looked over his own course syllabi and reading lists for the purpose of “mapping the major landmarks of authorised knowledge production in this field,” asking himself: “How many women scholars appear on these syllabi? How many people of colour? How many women of colour?”
He attacked Basil Gildersleeve for starting a scholarly journal:
Although not normally acknowledged in the dossier of his most explicitly racist words and deeds, Gildersleeve’s founding of [the American Journal of Philology] in 1880 helped to shape American classical scholarship by spurring the development of a journal-centred disciplinary culture that has proven remarkably if unsurprisingly resistant to the pursuit of racial diversity and equity as a core objective.
Apparently, the entire discipline was riddled with this injustice:
If one were intentionally to design a discipline whose institutional organs and gatekeeping protocols were explicitly aimed at disavowing the legitimate status of scholars of colour as producers of knowledge, one could not to better than what Classics has done.
Padilla had compiled 20 years’ worth of data for the journals Classical Antiquity, the American Journal of Philology and Transactions of the American Philological Association to determine how much gender disparity there is in the field. He had also tried to find data on the racial and ethnic backgrounds of all the authors published by these journals.
Between 1997 and 2017, according to Padilla, none of these came close to achieving gender parity. To account for this, he claimed that “men receive more explicit encouragement” to contribute to journals, and suggested that the “extraordinary discretionary powers wielded by editors” be scrutinised, because “discretionary power can and should be flexed to progressive consequence and outcome.”
I wasn’t persuaded by Padilla’s “evidence.” Surely, to determine whether bias and sexual discrimination is the cause of gender disparity among these journal contributors, you would have to factor in the number of female classicists who had submitted articles in the same period? Was the acceptance rate lower for women than for men? Padilla said nothing about that.
Next, he looked at the “racial and ethnic makeup of the publication rosters” of journals, “the bleakness of which may not surprise some of you in attendance, but which still deserves quantitative exposition.”
As a rule, academic papers are submitted anonymously to journals, by email or through electronic journal software, and are read anonymously through peer review. There isn’t any indication on the paper either before publication or after that would tell an editor, reviewer, or a reader after publication the race or ethnicity of an author. How did Padilla arrive at his numbers? How could anyone know what he was claiming to know?
Padilla said he had exhaustively searched the internet to try to determine the racial and ethnic backgrounds of contributors to Classical Antiquity, the American Journal of Philology and Transactions of the American Philological Association between 1997 and 2017. He concluded that “the hegemony of whiteness is everywhere in evidence across the three journals”—between 91–98 percent of contributors turned out to be white Americans or white Europeans: “These percentages remind me of nothing so much as the figures for those intensely segregated suburbs that define the childhoods [sic] and adolescence of my partner; publication in elite journals is a whites-only neighbourhood.”
Padilla’s solution “for the wellbeing and the future of the discipline,” was for Classics to “de-colonise” itself: “The most fundamental question for the future of knowledge production in Classics is this: how do we recognise, honour and repair the silencing of the knowledges that people of colour carry?”
He called for “reparative epistemic justice,” and asked for holders of “white privilege” to “surrender their privilege”:
In practical terms, this means that in an economy of academic prestige defined and governed by scarcity, white men will have to surrender the privilege they have of seeing their words printed and disseminated. They will have to take a back seat, so that people of colour, and women, and gender-non-conforming scholars of colour benefit from the privileges, career and otherwise, of seeing their words on the page.
Was he explicitly calling for Classics journals to stop publishing the scholarly work of white men? Apparently, he was:
…this is an economy of scarcity that, at the level of journal publication, will remain to a degree zero-sum. Until and unless this system of publication is dismantled—which will be fine by me—every person of colour who is to be published will take the place of a white man whose words could have or had already appeared in the pages of that journal. And that would be a future worth striving for.
Padilla said nothing about merit, the content of the article in question, or how it was reasoned. He said that articles by white men should be excluded from consideration, regardless of their merit, if members of other ethnic or racial groups submitted work for publication at the same time.
Surely, this is just straightforward racism? Yet in response to these remarks, the entire audience of classicists applauded. Since an unattended microphone had been set up in the center of the room, attention shifted to the “discussion,” and someone encouraged members of the audience to speak. Because the conference program indicated that everyone in the audience was invited to speak as part of a discussion about “the future of classics,” I decided to contribute a few sentences on the stated topic.
I made a decision not to respond directly to what I had heard from the invited speakers, since it would have taken too much time. Also, I wanted to speak to the SCS as a whole, to classicists in general, and to the audience that was present, about Classics, not race.
I only wanted to make four very brief points, but I felt compelled to state at the beginning that we could not abandon the ancient languages because then we would have nothing left of our field—of all the egregiously shocking things I had just heard, that seemed to be the one that most cried out to be challenged. I then attempted to say the following:
1) It is important to stand up for Classics as a discipline, and promote it as the political, literary, historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and artistic foundation of Western Civilization, and the basis of European history, tradition, culture, and religion. It gave us the concepts of liberty, equality, and democracy, which we should teach and promote. We should not apologize for our field;
2) It is important to go back to teaching undergraduates about the great classical authors—Cicero, the Athenian dramatists, Homer, Demosthenes, the Greek and Roman historians, Plato, and Aristotle—in English translation in introductory courses;
3) One way of promoting Classics is to offer more survey courses that cover many subject areas (epic, tragedy, comedy, rhetoric, philosophy, history, political theory, and art history), or to concentrate on one area such as in Freshmen seminars, or through western civilization classes;
4) It should help with securing funding from administrators to argue that such survey courses are highly cost-effective: a student could learn a tremendous amount even if such a survey were the only Classics course taken. On the other hand, a seminar that concentrated on the close reading of a few texts would prove beneficial for all students.
Unfortunately, I was interrupted in the middle of my first point by Sarah Bond, who forcefully insisted: “We are not Western Civilization!”
What can one say to that? I didn’t respond; but as I then attempted to move on and make my second point, I was interrupted by her and others, and not permitted to finish what I had hoped would be four very brief statements. A member of the audience with no connection to the panel, Michael Gagarin (University of Texas Emeritus) rose, came over to me, and told me I wasn’t allowed to speak.
I had never been at an academic conference where a member of an audience had the power to forbid another audience member from speaking. I continued: “We don’t teach Homer. We don’t teach Cicero… Why don’t we teach Thucydides and Herodotus?… So I’m saying: Cicero has value. Homer has value. Demosthenes has value, because it will teach you about defending Democracy.” (Sarah Bond pointed out that these writers were “all men” and seemed to think she’d scored a devastating point at my expense.)
I then went on to say that I believe the journals publish articles on the basis of merit, not because of the race or ethnicity of the authors. Padilla then challenged me since I was clearly disagreeing with his argument, namely, that only black people and Hispanics should be able to publish in academic journals.
In the hope of making my position clearer—that race should not be a determining factor when it comes to assessing the value of scholarship—I said to Padilla, “You may have got your job because you’re black, but I’d prefer to think you got your job because of merit.” Admittedly, I was under stress and did not express myself as clearly as I might have done, but what I was trying to convey is that the principle he was advocating clearly didn’t apply to hiring decisions—and nor should it—because he had got his job on merit, not because he’s black. Indeed, if I thought the opposite, and I imagined there was a chance of him saying, “You’re right, I was only hired because I’m black,” that would have contradicted the point I was trying to make, which is that it would have been wrong to hire him based only on his race, just as it would be wrong for an academic journal to publish an article based on the race of its author.
Padilla did not respond to my point directly. Instead, he let out a whoop of what sounded like triumph. He then made the following statement:
I did not interrupt you once, so you are going to let me talk. You are going to let someone who has been historically marginalized from the production of knowledge in the Classics, talk. And here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you’ve outlined: If that is in fact a vision that affirms you in your white supremacy, I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies, that you’ve outlined [sic], dies, and that it dies as swiftly as possible!
* * *
The following day, Helen Cullyer, the SCS Director, sent me an email in which she forbade my attendance at the meeting on Sunday, the last day of the conference. Her email was sent at about 2:15 PM on Sunday, two hours before the end of the final meeting.
Her stated reason for expelling me was “harassment”: the SCS executive had unilaterally introduced a new measure about two months previously, stating that any people could have scholars kicked out of the annual general meeting for “stalking, queer/trans bullying, or hostility or abuse based on age, disability, religion, race or ethnicity.”
Cullyer gave me no chance to explain or defend myself, and since she was present in the audience, she knew what had happened. In her view, I had violated SCS policy by disagreeing with Padilla. A grown man with a position at Princeton was apparently unable to endure the trauma caused by a woman disagreeing with him and by asking rhetorically if he got his job based on his race. Yet it was fine with the SCS Director (a woman) for a man (Michael Gagarin) to try and prevent a woman from speaking—that’s not harassment, apparently.
I received another email on January 11 from the president of the SCS. This was sent out to all SCS members. In it she slammed the “independent scholar” who told a black professor that “he only got his job because he was black” and explained that the director had banned me from events and panels at the meeting. She bemoaned how terrible this incident was since she had worked so hard to prevent “microaggressions” at the SCS, adding:
But these and other immediate responses, such as the Board statement the SCS passed on the meeting’s last day, by themselves can do little to redress the real and deep-seated problems the incidents disclose about not only U.S. society but also about our field.
She flagrantly mischaracterized what I had said. She never bothered to ask me for my account of what had happened, or to ascertain why my views actually are, before sending out her email and characterizing me as a racist.
I received an email from the president of a different professional society, the Association of Ancient Historians (AAH). Serena Connolly (Rutgers University), yet another white woman, informed me that the little job I had with the AAH had ended. She stated that I was fired because of my comments at the SCS panel and because I was opposed to “diversity” (news to me):
I am writing to let you know that, as of this date, 11 January 2019, the Association of Ancient Historians will no longer require your services as Assistant Editor with the AAH newsletter. . . . The AAH is committed to diversity in all its forms—in our membership, the field, and in our scholarship. We expect that those who hold office in the Association or perform work for it share that commitment.
I do not believe that Serena Connolly was present at the SCS and nor did she ever ask me what had happened. Since I had been hired by and worked for the AAH Secretary, she arguably had no authority to fire me. But she was quick to do so, although we had never had any disagreements or conflicts and there have never been any complaints about my work.
To the best of my recollection, no one on the SCS panel ever used the word “diversity.” No one talked about mentoring, or encouraging all students. They did not talk about teaching or students, or classes or courses, or the challenges facing teachers, or helping scholars get published beyond Padilla’s suggestion of giving preference to non-white males; nor did they discuss Classics as an academic discipline (beyond what I have stated). This isn’t surprising because the panel wasn’t really about any of that, or even ultimately about race, but rather about how to destroy Classics.
Of all the academic disciplines, Classics alone has managed until now to withstand most of the corrupting influences of modern critical theory and “social justice” activism. Ours is the last bastion of Western Civilization in the academy. I wrote an email on January 11 to officials of the SCS to request an apology for their treatment of me, and to complain formally about the actions of the SCS director and president. In it I stated:
The ancient Greeks defined democracy as majority rule that must have equality before the law and freedom of speech. It is unfortunate that the classicists don’t know the value of their wonderful discipline and no longer accept free speech or due process. Without true equality in law, without free speech, democracy is destroyed. More than just Classics is at stake here.
The SCS responded on February 11, saying that Cullyer was within her rights to kick me out of the SCS Meeting because I “disrespected” Padilla and in doing so violated the SCS’s harassment policy and caused him “emotional distress.” They added that while my remarks on Western Civilization were “protected by academic freedom,” the comments I addressed directly to Padilla were not. They informed me it was acceptable for Bond to “interrupt” me and for Gagarin to forbid me from speaking because he “calmly” took the microphone from my hand. In sum, “academic freedom” is selective, free speech does not exist at the SCS, and I am not protected under the SCS harassment policy even though I was harassed, bullied and intimidated.
* * *
I came away from my visit to the USS Midway (in contrast to my visit to the SCS) profoundly encouraged. One of the docents, a Vietnam-era Navy fighter pilot, explained aspects of his profession to visitors and concluded by saying that we should remember that every single person on a U.S. aircraft carrier was equally important, whatever their age, race, background, ethnicity, or position, because every one of them had an important job to do, whatever it is, and that by doing that job, they collectively made it possible for the ship to sail and for the naval aviators to survive. Lives depended on it. And that ship, in turn, not only represents but is, in fact, the true defender of the West, its civilization, and its values.
The ship of state (to borrow an archaic Greek metaphor) of the Society for Classical Studies, and the field of Classics in general, requires a similar commitment on the part of all classicists, whether they are tenured or assistant professors, officers and directors of the SCS, part-time and temporary professors, independent scholars, undergraduates, graduates, retired faculty, avocational supporters, journal editors, and all others, to all do their jobs as best they can without regard for age, sex, race, ethnicity, etc. Only in this way will we avoid the infighting, excesses, discrimination, spite, harassment, inequality, suppression of free speech, and despotism that will sink our ship. Equally importantly, we must stand up to those who have no interest in the discipline of Classics or its survival—who even seek its destruction. We must defend the Classics; this is a war that must be fought and won.