Questioning the study of the Ancient World with Matthew Mordue

The events of June 2020 have unearthed many uneasy truths about the reality of academia and age-old traditions of studying the ancient world – Classics being one of the more prominent subjects in the limelight. Though many are comfortable dismissing accusations of elitism, brushing aside the embarrassment of Classics’ imperial past, there are many divides and difficult issues that resonate in the subject today.

Elitism and gatekeeping are controversial yet common points of criticism, with institutionalised discrimination also coming to the forefront of academic denunciation. To put simply, if a Classics student is not white, rich, already competent in Latin at the age of 18, or even a cis male, they will find studying the subject a harder time than others. These topics of discussion are very difficult to engage with, for people on either side of those divisional lines, with some outright refusing to take part in discussing these stigmas for fear of being labelled snobbish/a toff/racist/sexist etc.

The reality is that confronting these tough issues is crucial to growing and developing, not only as a Classicist, a historian, or whichever you prefer, but also as a human being. Tackling discourse head on can help develop oneself, as it requires the confidence to express your opinions, the patience to listen to others, the ability to question their thoughts, and (most importantly) the wisdom to challenge your own. By being willing to challenge your own beliefs and having the ability to even change your mind (it’s okay to do so - we promise), it helps to produce a more round-minded individual.

The first step for dealing with these issues is recognising that they exist. As one advances through each stage of academia, some of the issues of elitism and gatekeeping may become gradually more prominent. With increasingly niche topics requiring knowledge from increasingly expensive books from increasingly selectionist institutions, alongside an increasingly higher expectation of language competency and fluency – it comes as little surprise that Classics can feel overwhelming. This level of specialisation, especially at PhD level, can lead Classics students to even question if they want to continue in their academic field. One PhD student willing to tackle these stigmas head on is Matthew Mordue from the University of Roehampton, who in his blog Classics and Ancient History Reflections seeks to tackle these tough questions about academia and the study of the ancient world.

Tell us a bit about yourself - what got you interested in the ancient world, and how did that lead to you becoming a PhD student?

I was not that interested in the ancient world when I was younger. I was aware of the Greek myths and thought they were cool but didn’t find any special value in them. My parents often used to make fun of me when we went on holiday, visiting great historical places such as Crete, and I had absolutely no interest in them. I didn’t get into the ancient world until I took Classical Civilisation at A-Level. I only took the subject because I didn’t know what to study and thought it looked vaguely similar to English Literature and History. I instantly loved it as soon as I started studying it. I was lucky because I had an excellent teacher and my school only offered Classical Civilisation once in its history. If I didn’t take Classical Civilisation that year, I probably would have no knowledge of Classics today. I decided early in my Undergraduate that I wanted to do a PhD, so it was a long-term goal to save up enough money to do my MA and then get PhD funding!

What sort of topics are you interested in? Are there any prominent ideas or theories in Classics that really stick out to you?

As will come as a surprise to nobody, my favourite author is Pliny the Younger! However, I like virtually every classical work I’ve read. I really love epics like the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid and Pharsalia. When I was younger, I was really into Plato and Classical Philosophy. I also appreciate authors who are otherwise unpopular, such as Silius Italicus.

I’m not really a big fan of ‘theory’ and find it really hard to understand. I sometimes joke to friends that I think modern theory, like post-structuralism, is all obscurantist and meaningless, but I wouldn’t say that seriously seeing as I haven’t researched the theorists enough to pass judgement!

On your blog, Classics and Ancient History Reflections, you have touched on topics that many people studying Classics might not be keen on admitting, such as fluency with ancient languages and the stress of pursuing academia. What do you think is important about discussing these issues?

I wanted to write about ancient language fluency because it’s a topic which I hadn’t heard many people speak about openly. It’s a dangerous cycle where people pretend to be more fluent than they actually are because of their insecurities, which leads others to do the same. I was very nervous about how that blog post would be received when I put it out there, but it remains one of my more popular pieces. It encouraged me to write my other blog posts!

When I wrote about the precarity of academia, I felt like a lot of people already felt the same way I did. However, I wrote about it because I wanted to confirm to anyone who might read it that others feel the same way. I think sometimes you can start to think that you’re maybe overreacting about these things in academia and I didn’t want people to feel that way.

And honestly, I partially made the blog because I felt like I needed some control back over my academic opinions. When you get to PhD level, you have to toe the line and show respect to your academic superiors. To have something where I could say what I wanted was important to me.

Do you have any advice for students or academics who might be experiencing self-doubt or similar issues while studying Classics?

When I was in my early twenties, I was really insecure about my ability in Classics because of my lacklustre Latin skills. I wasn’t aware of terms like “imposter syndrome” back then and wasn’t part of a Classics community, but I have an acute understanding of what it’s like.

One thing that I think is important to keep in mind is that Classics isn’t a fair subject. Those who have studied Latin and Greek since a young age have a clear advantage over you if you haven’t. My guiding principle is to focus on yourself and not compare yourself to others. I know it’s a hard thing to do because the academic industry is so competitive and you tend to measure yourself against those who seem more successful, but I don’t think it’s a healthy lifestyle.

In short, don’t spend too much time thinking about your language abilities and take pride in how far you’ve come. My practical advice for improving your Latin and Greek is to read as much as you can.

Should these academic stigmas be tackled more openly? Yes. I understand why people don’t talk about it openly, because you think you are going to annoy some people in power if you do. One of the things which I worry about sometimes is that my blog posts and Twitter page are going to annoy senior academics if I do go into academia. I’ve met some conservative students who refer to me as “that radical Classics guy” when they meet me. I find it funny because I don’t consider myself radical at all.

I think it’s important to talk about these topics openly and I try to give a voice to those who feel too intimidated to speak up. I’m aware that I’m writing now as though I think I’m really virtuous, but I’m aware I’m not special. I’m a fully funded PhD student and benefit from many forms of institutional privilege. It’s easier for me to write about this stuff than it is for others.

I think it’s important not to be too cynical and I’m careful not to be so myself. For example, I’ve heard some people call ‘Classics for All’ and the ACE project insincere and existing only to advance the careers of those involved. Now to be clear, I do have issues with some Classics charities for privileging Latin over Classical Civilisation, but I think it’s important to encourage those who are trying to improve. People should talk about these topics more openly, but I also feel they should be careful not to go too far in the other extreme and start harassing people who are trying to help but aren’t going far enough. I don’t feel we should be positive about everything though!

Do you have an ideal vision for the future of Classics? What direction do you believe the subject should be heading?

My dream is to have one Classics subject, I don’t mind what it’s called, and the student can go into the languages, history, archaeology, art, philosophy, and literature depending on what they do.

We currently have many different names for Classics, such as Classical Civilisation, Ancient History, Classical Philosophy, Classical Studies, and they all tend to be the same subject but with certain modules being compulsory. I don’t think this is helpful, because it feeds into the ridiculous hierarchy within Classics (Classics as best, Ancient History and Classical Philosophy as respectable, and Classical Civilisation and Classical Studies at the bottom). It’s also cynical financially, because all these subjects are basically the same degree at heart and the compulsory modules just limit student freedom. I know people who have studied Classical Philosophy, for example, and were disappointed that it was essentially a Classics degree, because they wanted more focus on Philosophy. I know a unified Classics degree might be unrealistic, but it is my ideal vision!

Matthew Mordue is a PhD student at the University of Roehampton. His interests are in Roman history, particularly centred around Pliny the Younger, and is also involved with his blog Classics and Ancient History Reflections:

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