Back in November, Hannah Chinn '19 wrote about the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) Conference on the Ancient World.
The Conference was convened by Wynter Pohlenz Telles Douglas and Ana Alvarez Guzman in partnership with the Classical Association of the Atlantic States; Bryn Mawr Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies Department; and the Classics Colloquium. Nine Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows from around the country presented their work to both colleagues and a broader Tri-College audience. This showcase of undergraduate research sought to bolster interest in studies of the ancient world and create a community of support for Scholars of Color to consider careers in academia from which they have been historically excluded. The conference organizers look forward to future renditions of this conference with steadfast support from the College and its Classics, Archaeology, Art History, and Philosophy departments. The nine participants of the conference share their reflections of the experience below.
The success of this conference has caused me to reflect on the brilliant scholars of color who are also doing wonderful work within their respective fields and did not get a chance to participate in this inaugural conference. Within the fields that focus on aspects of the ancient world, there is an insidious and lazy notion that the reason that these fields are not more diverse and lack racial equality is because people of color don’t exist within these fields or aren’t interested in such subjects. This notion erases the wonderful scholars of color who already exist within the field and works to discourage others from joining and feeling as though they would be treated with respect within the fields. Besides the wonderful scholars who participated in this conference, others who are passionate and driven to making contributions to their fields include: Leah F. Bórquez '20, Sashini Kannan '19, Cristian Espinoza (HC), Qinghong Wang (Mount Holyoke College '19), Danielle J. Perry, (BMC grad student), Jake Kwon (HC '19), Yusi Liu (BMC grad student), Caresse Jackson (Princeton University grad student), Chris Gipson (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Lex Ladge (Reed College), Christopher LaSasso (CUNY Brooklyn College), Rikki Liu (Reed College '19), Lillie Izo (University of Richmond), Tara Wells (University of Maryland grad student), Kiran Pizarro Mansukhani (Columbia University SPS '18). This is only a small fraction of the scholars of color who currently exist, and they all represent a part of an exciting future for our fields. I can’t wait to see the amazing things they will continue to accomplish!
I was very lucky that Wynter recruited me to help organize this conference that was very much needed in the discipline—the importance of diversifying Classics and Archaeology needs to be stressed from a very early moment in young academics' careers and this was one of our aims in putting together this conference. If you give a platform to young scholars of color to present their work at the undergraduate level and allow them to collaborate with other fellows, that will provide them with a network and experience that will reverberate throughout their already promising careers. I am very confident in that those who participated in the conference will move on to become distinguished professors who will serve as role models for those potential scholars of color who will subsequently be inspired to see someone much like them lead a classroom. I myself hope to become one of those professors striving to make academia accessible for minorities and eventually promote the field of Classical Archaeology in my hometown: San Juan, Puerto Rico.
I found this conference to be an inspiring presentation of what marginalized groups have to offer in our understanding of humanity's past. Being present allowed me the opportunity to interact with a diverse range of individuals, each with their own fascinating perspectives on the many factors that have shaped modern civilization, from the art of 13th-century Mesoamerica to the dialectic prose of 1st-century Rome. The chance to speak not only with other aspiring academics, but also graduate students and faculty members eager to provide guidance, was a true privilege, and one which I hope to help others share. I hope to create a level of understanding within the world of academia where people whose backgrounds have given them particular insight can share and act upon that insight for the benefit of others without feeling any sense of personal or professional risk. While the rules of a system are certainly important, it has been all too easy throughout history for those same limitations to be abused in letter and execution until they only restrict the people they are ostensibly meant to protect; it is imperative to understand the part that informal, independent human perception and bias plays in the creation of environments that are contemptuous or hostile towards particular thoughts, actions, or ways of life. Perhaps even more important, however, is the idea of opportunity. While many people from marginalized backgrounds have faced great struggles in academic spaces, a strategy that has been even more harmful is the subtly enforced absence of such people from those spaces in the first place. Often, the narrative is upheld that skewed representation of diverse thought and being is an entirely natural coincidence, conveniently passing over those who are made from birth to feel that such a position is beyond them. Ultimately, no effort for improvement can be undertaken if certain people do not even believe themselves adequate to be a part of the community. This may be the greatest change I hope to bring to pass: the ability of more brilliant minds to see a place for themselves in the world of academia and reach to claim it without a hint of doubt.
The conference that took place at Bryn Mawr allowed me to meet other students with similar interests in the ancient world and create connections that I hope to foster in the future. I appreciate Wynter and Ana’s drive toward gathering top-notch students to present their astounding work. I enjoyed being the sole art historian in the conference and that I brought an aspect of the ancient world—the ancient Americas—to light. I come from a community college and an underrepresented background. I then transferred to my current institution and have been involved in Mellon Mays ever since. I hope to enroll in graduate school soon and continue studying art history, to eventually mentor other students and to spread a positive message across academic circles. Being a Mellon Mays fellow has brought me so many privileges; I find my role now to impart knowledge to other young scholars of color and those who wish to be allies in the field. Moreover, I find tangible connections with other fellows meaningful and impactful on my own growth as a person.
As a creative (and I consider academia a fundamentally creative enterprise), I have never read a piece of literature within or without the academy that was not in some degree interdisciplinary— it is the interaction of disciplines, power, knowledge, identity, and cultural formation that determines the power of any analysis or creative work, and determines its power to affect readers in an impossibly vast swath of potential experience. Personally, in presenting on foreignness in Petronius’s prose at the MMUF Conference at Bryn Mawr, I was attempting to put my finger on a thread of thought in antiquity that seems consistent with this: we can read in Petronius valences that include knowledge of, contempt for, and a certain enjoyment in depicting the world of a sordidus Graeca urbs, a creative elision between analyzing and producing the culture in which he lived. That’s what I do as a creative writer and citizen, and what we’re all doing. It’s why placing interdisciplinary thought and interdisciplinary studies at the heart of what we do—not just as academics of Western antiquity and Mellon Mays fellows but as people alive and thriving at the heart of a modern culture—is vital to any field that continues to breathe in the 21st century.
The conference provided me with meaningful personal and professional connections that I would not have otherwise. Even as a Mellon Fellow, I seldom meet other students of color studying classics or philosophy. The conference was full of enthusiastic students of color who share a mutual appreciation of Classical Philosophy, including funny quips from Socrates and the details of Aristotle's ethical theory. I have started friendships that will carry on through the rest of my life and career. I am grateful to have shared that environment with my fellow scholars.
For me, being a Mellon Fellow means researching what I am interested in, especially if it is interdisciplinary. I have been studying Latin for a while and I really enjoy it. When I came to college and discovered Political Science, I found a way to engage with ancient thinkers about questions that we still ask today. I divided most of my time between those two departments, but there was something missing: anthropology. I have taken maybe five anthropology courses during my time at Bryn Mawr. Anthropology offers a way to connect the theories that I am thinking about to a physical, tangible place. I like making connections between these departments, but sometimes that is challenging in other classes. As a Mellon Fellow, I am able to integrate concepts, theories, stories, and ways of thinking from these different departments into my research. I was able to do this at the Ancient World Conference. My presentation was on corruption in democracy. In that presentation I attempted to provide an answer for “what is Just?” by relating it to the movie The Incredibles
. It helped me to think about the question more clearly and it is a great movie. During the question and answer part of the presentation, I was able to bring in something I was reading in my anthropology course about Guinea to emphasize a point. My Mellon Mays research is a place for me to expand my network for thinking about issues that matter to me. Making these connections are so important to me because they stretch the way that I am able to think.
When my abstract was accepted, I grew nervous. I had never put these thoughts on paper before; this conference motivated me to write my ideas down and formulate arguments from what had been just ideas. Attending the MMUF Ancient Civilizations conference allowed me to experience a part of the ancient world outside of my own. I was significantly encouraged to explore Nubia’s involvement in the Levant. More specifically, since the conference, I examined Nubia’s interactions with Assyria and Israel in eighth-century BC. While collecting data on Nubia, I came across an archaeologist, Debora Heard, a woman of color, who is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. After messaging her she connected me to a network of Black archaeologists that I didn't know existed. The Society of Black Archaeologists is a vital source for those looking for other people of color in Archaeology. One of the most significant takeaways from this conference is that our voices are needed. Through our different backgrounds and life experiences, we have each gained a unique lens, which renders our ideas unorthodox, while scholarly.
Keep in mind that many innovations were at one point unconventional. Conferences such as this and the academic networks that develop help to get our voices heard. Networks like SBA, African American Male Research Initiative (AAMRI), and the Onyx Honor Society that help cultivate black excellence are invaluable. They are safe places that nurture trajectories. My hope is that through my work and work of my colleagues we will set a tone, but also spark curiosity for future ancient historians and archaeologists in Ancient African and Near East studies. I want to thank my family for their love and support. Also, Dr. Kaplan for helping me move forward and guiding my research and Dr. Toribio for always motivating me.
Camila Reed-Guevara is a senior Classics and Philosophy double major at Emory University. Camila is also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honors society, a Woodruff Scholar, and a recipient of a Halle Center grant for International Research. Camila’s research interests center on themes of slavery and education in stoic inflected texts and is currently thesis-ing on Seneca the Younger and his philosophy on ethics. Her research interests stem from her love of Seneca’s letter 88 and she can’t imagine a life without academia so she is currently applying to graduate programs to continue her dream of an academic life. Besides Philosophy and studying the ancient world, Camila is passionate about dancing and running a radio show at her university. She is grateful to her parents, her mentor Dr. John Master, and her Mellon coordinators and cohort at Emory university.