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The Next Chapter: Completing a BA & exploring what it means to be a New Classicist, with James Hua

As the world slowly and cautiously emerges from the grasp of lockdown, and with students throughout the UK receiving the results of A-levels and degrees, the prospect of continuing to follow their passions into higher education has once more become a viable option. Thanks to the monumental efforts of university staff and teachers throughout the study of Classics, many degree paths are offering the opportunity for students to continue engaging with the ancient world, through the implementation of secure, socially-distanced measures in order to ensure a comfortable, safe, and most importantly a happy environment for anyone wanting to move their interests into higher education – be it through an undergraduate or a postgraduate programme.

That being said, deciding to continue studying your passion at university level comes with a lot of responsibility, offering the chance to impact the world in more ways than one. Classics is far more than a school-trip to the Parthenon, or memorising Greek myths – though there’s plenty of fun to be had in both of those activities – for studying the ancient world also allows you to think about the world at large, playing with many multi-disciplinary areas, such as history, politics, literature, art, theatre, or even music. Critically analysing the ancient world allows you to engage just as strongly with the modern world, and by seizing the opportunity to explore this endless warren of ideas, it offers the chance of discovering something new about the world, and something new about yourself as well.

The study of Classics is an ever-turning wheel, and by engaging with the discipline critically and thoughtfully we are able to turn the wheel and keep pressing forward with new ideas for the 21st century – free from the brakes of crusty imperial thought and outdated ideas of sticking-to-one’s-own, never veering too far from traditionalist (and often elitist) philosophies about Classics that use a skewed view of history to view how the world works today. As Classics evolves, so too must budding scholars begin to engage with the social prospects of researching antiquity, warts and all. Perhaps a visit to the Parthenon may have more impact on an individual than it may at first seem.

But that doesn’t mean you cannot have fun with Classics! There is a whole world to explore, both modern and ancient, and Classics is an ideal place to properly begin engaging with the academic world, and the community at large. By studying your ancient interests in university, meeting new people, joining societies, chatting with world-experts of the field, there is the chance to start making a difference with what you learn and the chance to get up to some interesting adventures along the way. James Hua is one such scholar; having recently completed a BA degree from Durham University, James has been involved with many varied and intriguing projects throughout his time at Durham. From cycling down the Via Appia to organising the student-run journal Ostraka, the next chapter of his academic story looks onwards towards an MPhil at Oxford to research ancient refugee crises.

With your undergraduate years now complete, and an MPhil on the horizon, tell us about how you got to this point in your academic career. What got you interested in Classics and what steps led you to applying for a postgraduate degree?

I’ll preface my response by saying that I was very humbled to be asked by New Classicists to write for them, especially since I’ve read some of their feature pieces! Equally, I want to use this opportunity to discuss bigger issues about our subject of Classics today, alongside myself – the current climate has highlighted the need to reconsider our attitudes ever more urgently.

I was incredibly fortunate to grow up in Rome – I often say that the opportunity of accessing ancient monuments so easily entrenched me into Classics, but then again not everyone who studies in Rome wants to become a Classicist. So, location isn’t everything. What really interests me is how Classics makes you think. I remember being astounded by how neatly and logically Classical languages work when first learning Latin. An inspiring teacher for IB Latin, coupled with the thrill of learning Greek independently late at night and using Rome as my classroom, propelled me to apply to Durham in 2016, where I wanted to specialise in Augustan literature or Roman history.

I eventually developed an interest in Classical and Hellenistic Greek history. Did I betray my love for Rome? Perhaps. But this shift to Greece equally explains why I find Classics so interesting. The subject provides an amazing opportunity to make connections between different fields and re-interpret problems in new ways, which I find fulfilling on a personal level. What’s more, we’re lucky that we can test these ideas across a broad range of disciplines - interdisciplinarity in Classics gives us both the freedom to explore our own interests and to cultivate an open-minded ethos. Using this right, we can incorporate diverse voices and contribute usefully in discussions about the problems of today’s world. The direction I believe Classics needs to take now is to try to help tackle some of today’s problems – we should not be isolated in our own bubbles.

On this note, my MPhil application will give me the chance to realise this final point. On the one hand, given my enthusiasm for learning, applying for a postgraduate degree seemed the natural choice. However, the chance to make my research relevant to broader issues today also largely guided my decision. As I’ll discuss below, I will be researching population displacements and refugee crises in the Classical Greek world, with Prof Rosalind Thomas (I’m very excited!). So, I want to create meaningful research that makes use of various perspectives.

What sort of Classics-based activities were you involved with at Durham University? Would you encourage other young scholars to take similar opportunities?

The short answer – many! The really great thing about Durham, which sometimes I feel isn’t advertised enough, is just how many extracurricular opportunities there are relating to Classics for students. On the cultural side, I volunteered as a Youth Ambassador to Durham’s World Heritage Site, where we would organise exhibitions, study the site with experts, and take tours. I have also had great fun helping to catalogue the books in the Classic Department library, where I’ve met many of my best friends. On the academic side, lecturers helped me apply to many summer schools, both well-established ones like the BSA Undergraduate Course and newer ones like the ‘Lost World of Ancient Crete’, along with courses beyond my coursework such as with archaeological digs – my excavations at Olynthus even inspired my dissertation.. And there’s certainly more – I’ve written a piece on Durham’s website, “A Day in the Life of a Classics student”, detailing further.

But the activity which best encompasses all these areas, and which I dedicated myself to the most, was Durham’s student-run Classics Society. From emailing lecturers to invite them to talk with us and eagerly taking offer-holders on tours around the department, to organising trips to Hadrian’s Wall or the ‘Troy Exhibition’, translating the Antigone for production, and running our Society blog Ostraka, the Society really has something for everyone to get into – or rather has the full range of opportunities for students to become well-rounded. It’s here where you can appreciate Classics on your own terms. It’s also a way to become more involved with today’s world – our theme this year was interdisciplinarity and inclusivity, put into action by our BLM talk, LGBTQ+ series, and disabilities workshop. While I will miss the Classics Society as I move to Oxford next year, I’m certainly excited to engage with and help in extracurricular opportunities there and in the future.

So yes, I absolutely (and will pester incessantly on this point) encourage students to take up similar opportunities. They help you grow, meet people, and appreciate that often what we study is very much real to people: understanding that ancient sites are often an intrinsic part of multiple cultures is difficult to appreciate in a classroom. On the other hand, not all students can access these activities given financial or other constraints. Nevertheless, people seem to be becoming more conscious and acting - many summer schools are increasingly offering grants and re-writing their guiding principles. So do apply –who knows what positive, life-changing idea you’ll find!

How have you been faring during the pandemic? What things have kept you busy in recent months?

I’ve been very lucky during the pandemic – and I feel for my peers who went through difficult times. At first, being cooped up by myself in my small college room for three months aggravated the stress of having libraries and my working spaces close. But over time, it did present some new positives, and I learnt to adapt. Tesco shopping became more fun and I fear to admit I might have become addicted to Zoom. I saw that, if done right, the pandemic could be a real catalyst for change. So, I used the opportunity to change my lifestyle and become more conscious of the planet, the subject, and Durham. From taking Pythagoras’ advice of vegetarianism and helping the elderly in Durham, to going for daily walks, and tuning into countless online seminar series and online resources (Herodotus Helpline was always a favourite; I found myself enjoying the chance to help out in new ways.

On a broader scale, I’ve been reading up and educating myself about Classics and its own history, its problems, and how the pandemic is helping us tackle its deep-rooted racism, classism, Eurocentrism, etc. Many have shared meaningful work on these issues; some I found eye-opening were Eidolon’s series during the pandemic and many blogposts on ‘Mixed up in Classics’ and ‘Queer Classicist’, alongside seminal works like Said’s Orientalism. To reflect my readings in action, I helped to organise some talks with Durham Classics Society relating to the pandemic and a BLM talk with Prof Shelley Haley. All in all, as many others have, I’ve been trying to use these circumstances to improve personally and help tackle the long-overdue problems in our field.

As you have had the experience to cycle through Italy seeing ancient sites, do you have any favourites so far? Which sites are you looking forward to seeing in future cycle rides?

Ah yes, the cycling! I should start by saying that I am neither a professional cyclist nor an amateur archaeologist-traveller in the likes of Indiana Jones. It is also a privilege to be doing this – so I try to use these rides as a chance to help others learn about the sites. The thing that I love about cycling around ancient sites is that you can scrutinise the remains at your own pace; you can understand how they operated in their broader surroundings and landscape more holistically, and understand how a hypothetical ancient person might have experienced the site. Most importantly, it’s an eco-friendly and sustainable way to visit these sites in today’s world, which makes it all the more fun.

Most recently, I rode along the Via Appia from Rome to Ariccia (24km) to do justice to the many fascinating monuments on this segment of the road that Horace skims over in a single line of Satire 1.5 (egressum magna me accepit Aricia Roma…). I decided to make a Twitter thread of my journey to share pictures and information about the monuments, in the hopes that it would make them more accessible to a wider audience, and to discuss broader ways of experiencing sites. I believe that, wherever possible, studying the artefacts or primary sources first-hand is really important. I try to take the advice of Polybius 12.27 as my mantra, when he says we should not be armchair historians but investigate sites ourselves. But this is a highly privileged view and not accessible for all. What I do want to suggest is that by starting small and helping to share knowledge of these sites openly, or even getting outside to think about structures around you or engaging with a primary source in a new way, we can nurture similar learning experiences.

I also hope to cycle down the Appia to Brundisium one summer, or at least to Beneventum – or any ancient Roman road network at that. I always cycle into Rome when visiting sites or meeting friends; Ostia and the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina are other places too. And it doesn’t just have to be cycling – I recently walked all the way from Lake Fusaro/Baiae back to Napoli Central Train station and visited the ancient sites along the way, and am working on writing an article and making a video commentary about it. There’s certainly a lot out there - but remember to bring a spare tyre and pump, as I miserably forgot once and had to walk all the way home after I’d punctured my tyre half-way along my trip on the Appia, much like Horace had to face his own troubles!

What will your future research be about and what do you believe is the significance of researching such a topic?

As we’ve seen starkly in the past half year, with the pandemic and BLM movement, I think one thing we really need to start tackling head-on is both our society’s relationship with Classics and Classics’ usefulness today. I’m currently reading up on modern refugee crises in preparation for my MPhil research on population displacement and refugee crises in the Classical and Hellenistic Greek world at Oxford. One of the guiding reasons I decided to explore this was because its pertinence to today’s refugee crises provides a chance to share valuable contributions to modern discussions and efforts to tackle them. It could, in other words, be an opportunity to make some broader change beyond the field.

Given the chance both to craft your own research and to discuss your ideas with experts at deeper levels, the MPhil would be a perfect opportunity to do this. This topic will also enable a productive comparative and interdisciplinary approach. Indeed, I’ve found that it intersects in interesting ways with studies on the legislature and histories of recent population displacements. Hopefully this should allow me to make the most of our resources and Classics' richness to produce some meaningful contributions.

What I really hope to gain from it, as I’ve stressed above, is to use Classics to tackle some of today’s issues, as has been done for a long time. But as we’ve said before, we can’t get ahead of ourselves – Classics certainly isn’t always useful for everything, as much as we want it to be, and as we’ve recently starkly re-emphasised its limitations. Nevertheless, I do believe that the future of our subject lies in continuously making it relevant to today, at every opportunity - and I say it from the heart.

I hope to become a public-facing academic built for today. We need to move beyond simply fantasising in our own bubble - and a subject without a purpose is not helpful. Whatever happens over the coming year, I’m excited to get out there and help out, and start new conversations with academics, peers, and the general public. Because ultimately, I suppose, that’s what Classics is all about – just a big symposium where we try to think about the past in order to lift our heads out of the big krater of our contemporary, gorgon-faced problems.

A little bit about James: “I’ve just finished my undergraduate in Classics at Durham University (UK) this June, with a focus on Greek history and literature. An MPhil in Ancient Greek History at Oxford is my next step, where I’ll be studying refugee crises in the Classical Greek world. An Australian who grew up in Rome, I love cycling to ancient sites and going on summer schools, exploring cross-cultural interactions in all its facets, and hope to keep studying in the UK!”

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