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Karia, Then and Now

The Cows of Alabanda

For historians, it is easy to view the past as a hermetically sealed world, like a petri dish that we can subject to tests and analyses without fear of contamination. However, this failure to admit that we are implicated in the very thing we are trying to study can allow ideas and practices to fester, unnoticed until some jolt forces us to confront them. Too often, however, this perpetuates problematic ideologies and ignores the fact that many of these historic sites have a modern presence — with modern people living modern lives — too. It wasn’t until I had the chance to travel to the places I had been studying that I received such a jolt that led me to question my role within my field, and my field’s role in the world.

Well, how did I get here?

On a hot afternoon in June of 2017, I found myself wandering over the remains of Alabanda, and around the small cluster of houses of the modern village of Doğanyurt that perch atop them. Alabanda was an ancient city in the Southwest corner of what is now Turkey, and through the centuries was inhabited by native peoples, Greeks and Romans before being abandoned. 

When returning from my research in the field, I found some buildings, a tomb, a theatre, the course of a wall running up over the hillside; the blare of the call to prayer. For someone who studies the ancient Aegean World, it was an idyllic end to the day.  

Image of the ruins of a Roman Theater in Alabanda. Photo taken from above with rocks and dried shrubs in the foreground. Semicircular stone structure with trees in the background in the middle of the image.
Alabanda. View looking down at modern village over the ruins of a Roman Theatre (Photo by author)

When I headed back to my rental car, I found a local farmer was watering a small herd of cows nearby. Summoning up all the Turkish I had learned over the past year, I greeted him with a simple “Merhaba!” (Hello).

He seemed nonplussed that I should know even that much Turkish, but we managed to strike up a very simple conversation. I asked him what he thought of the ruins, and the fact that he lived on top of the ruins of a 2000 year old city. 

“Not much,” was his philosophical reply. He explained that he and his father had been employed to help excavate the city whenever the archaeologists came by, but beyond that, he did not profess any particular attachment to the heaps of stone and brick.

“And you,” he rejoined, “what brings you here?”

I struggled to formulate an answer. To be sure, in Turkish, I only had the vocabulary of an 8 year old, but as I stood there face to face with this man and his cows, it wasn’t my vocabulary that made it hard to formulate my response. What indeed was I, an American student from Suburban Philadelphia doing wandering around this out-of-the way village in southwest Turkey? 

Reflecting on this experience has opened a whole host of other questions about my position in my field and in the world, as well as the responsibilities someone who studies people long dead has to the living. 

Getting into Classics

Here at Brown, I am in the Ancient History Program, which is co-sponsored by the Classics and History departments. I identify more with the Classics department because that is the world I have lived in, well, half my life I suppose. I had the fortune of being able to take Latin classes starting in 7th grade, and even Ancient Greek in 9th. I stayed in Classics because I had good teachers and liked learning the languages. It wasn’t till the end of college that I really became interested in studying history, rather than literature. 

More and more, I became interested in studying the native inhabitants of what is now modern Turkey. Now these peoples have long been known to Classicists but only indirectly: here is no surviving literary tradition in their own languages so much of what we think we know about them comes from Greek and Roman sources. Unfortunately, the one-sided and often prejudiced views of the Greeks and Romans seeped into later views of the natives (as Edward Said documents, Orientalism has a long pedigree). 

Map of Ancient Anatolia, depicted with land in shades of ivory with ocean in brown.
Map of Ancient Anatolia © Finley, M. I. (1977). Atlas of classical archaeology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

The upshot is that we don’t actually know much about these peoples. With my research in the Ancient History Program here at Brown, however, I am trying to rectify that situation by looking at other kinds of evidence, such as material culture and the small amount of inscriptions written on durable materials that has survived. But in order to do this, I have had to step beyond the bounds of what most consider the traditional turf of Classics.  

Classics is usually defined as the study of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, their history, culture, literature, etc. For centuries, it has been a cornerstone of elite, liberal education in the West. As such, it has remained a generally conservative field, slow to adopt innovations in theory and practice. Moreover, it has a lot of colonial, racist, and sexist baggage: the Spanish conquistadors saw themselves as new Romans, bringing civilization to the New World; the Nazis idealized the ancient Spartans as models for the Ubermensch; and the Alt-right is using Stoic philosophy to “prove” that women are irrational and emotionally unstable.

Scary stuff, and not something that makes one proud of one’s field. But as one who loves my field nevertheless, and wants to help it change for the better, I see setting a new research agenda as one small way  to tackle this baggage. At least, this is what I thought as I headed to the coast of Turkey in 2017.

Colonization of the past 

On the one hand, I felt I had to attempt to slough off my field’s colonialist baggage by focusing on other ancient Mediterranean cultures besides the Greeks or Romans. Post-colonial theory has made its way into Classics, and with it the realization that — surprise, surprise! — the Greeks and Romans may not be the best sources of information about all the peoples they traded with, fought, and conquered. So I hope that in my research, I am helping to de-center the Greeks and Romans.

But on the other hand, while trying to escape the colonialist perspective of our sources, am I just perpetuating the colonialist practices of western academia? One of my favorite quotes is L. P. Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” But just like any country, the past can and has been colonized. In this case, I am talking about the process by which American and European scholars claimed Greco-Roman history as their own, thus denying it to the modern inhabitants of places like Greece and Turkey. So, when I went to Turkey just to look at its ancient monuments, and asked people if they cared much about them, was I not just perpetuating this trend? 

Fringes of Classics 

Even apart from these questions, my choice to study the ancient inhabitants of Turkey has consequences for my possible career in Classics. Although  the field is trying to evolve, I still feel very much like this research lies on the fringe. Even to my own colleagues I often have to explain a lot (like, why DID I take a class in Hittite, a language even older and deader than Latin?) And yea, it makes me nervous about the job market; what school needs someone to teach their students about the Lydians, Karians or Lykians —  names no one has heard of? It may be hip to say you’re studying “ancient subalterns,” but can you make a career out of that in a field that in many ways is still focused on a canonical set of texts?

Is this a pigeon? meme, with a man in glasses gesturing toward a stone structure with Greek letters and the caption reading "Is this classics?"
Well, is it? (Meme modified by author)

Now I admit, researching on the fringe has pushed me to make connections with other departments; I’ve taken classes in Archaeology and Assyriology and the connections I’ve made with people in those departments have meant the world to me and my research. In fact, one of the biggest reasons I came to Brown was the promise of low disciplinary walls — and in this I have not been disappointed. I do believe there is much to be gained in questioning disciplinary boundaries. 

So, to end this the way I end all my papers: I don’t have any clear-cut answers. 

As with any career, being an academic requires a balancing act between the practical and aspirational. What I can say is that it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work of being a grad student, focusing only on what you are doing and not thinking about why you are doing it and who it might affect. 

Karia, Then and Now
Karia, then and now.Left, a carved stone from the temple to Zeus at Alabanda; right, a shop in the resort town of Bodrum. The axe was a symbol associated with Zeus in ancient Karia. (Photos by author).

At Alabanda, and everywhere else I visited in Turkey, I could not escape this question of who; for everywhere around me, people were making their living on its ruins, through tourism connected to it, and under biases baked into it. The question of who owns that past and who gets to shape it is far from academic. 

Welcome to The Ratty

Public scholarship is a critical component of research work here in 2020. Reaching out to wider public audiences allows scholars to generate interest in their subject matter, cultivate relationships with other scholars, institutions, and funding sources, and combat dangerous ideas that pervade often insular fields. Yet despite the value of public outreach (and the high quality of our education here at Brown), we are not provided with any training in how to engage in such scholarship.

That’s where The Ratty comes in.

The Ratty is a blog for graduate students at Brown University that is designed as both a platform for showcasing public scholarship but also a means by which students can get the training they need to become public scholars. 

Graduate students will write and publish an article that presents their research in a way that the public can grapple with but that doesn’t speak down or obfuscate complexity. They will work with our team of trained editors to create an article geared toward a public audience building from standard academic research models. Through this process, grad students will learn more about the differences between academic and public writing, will gain experience in pitching and editing, and in the end will be able to point to a digital publication of their writing and a digital author page of their contributions.

With The Ratty, we’re trying to fill a couple of gaps we’ve noticed from our own experience: the gaps in public scholarship training, but also the gap in just experiencing the editing process. Much of the time we submit papers to our professors and we get their feedback, but that’s it — you can choose to never open that feedback document and never submit a further edited version of your work. But it’s in that second back-and-forth that you really start to make big changes and real productivity happens in your writing. 

This interaction, however, can be pretty emotionally trying, especially if it’s something you’ve never experienced before. Sure, we’ve all probably been gutted by critique on papers from teachers, but we haven’t necessarily had to push back against their critique and we haven’t had to respond to any of the more emotional changes that have been asked of us. That part of the editing process can be vicious, and this is true in grad school as well as in academic publishing. It’s another one of our goals with The Ratty to help students get used to the editing process in a way that is a little kinder. The world is often unkind, and we don’t have to be that way. 

But we’re not limited to articles! The Ratty also wants to work with students who are interested in showcasing their research in other media — videos, comics, mixed media, etc. While our editors are specifically trained to work with public writing, we also understand that writing isn’t always the best way for students to showcase research, and it’s not always the way that the public is most interested in engaging with you. If you have ideas for other formats and styles of presentation, The Ratty is interested in hearing about it.

We’re also interested in using The Ratty to help train graduate students in Public Scholarship in other ways. Every day we interact with interesting people on Twitter, Instagram, etc. who are really committed to public scholarship, and they all do it in very different ways. So, we are planning to host a yearly speaker series, “The Ratty Presents,” where we bring in people who engage in public scholarship from lots of different fields. This will hopefully allow us to continue to evolve our understanding of public scholarship and push the ways in which The Ratty can help graduate students at Brown engage with the public.

There is real life inspiration for our logo: Daryl (2018-2019), who has carved a place in our hearts and in our branding.

So that’s what The Ratty is and what we hope to do with it, but why is it called The Ratty? Our inspiration is, perhaps obviously, our community’s nickname for Sharpe Refectory. “The Ratty” is something that the students call this dining hall — it’s not University-sanctioned, but the nickname is still known and used outside of the study body. The Ratty, too, is a student-led initiative. A lot of people are frustrated with how the job market has changed, the rules for PhDs have changed, but our training hasn’t been updated to reflect that at all. The Ratty is about taking back at least one aspect of our education. We’re going to take the reins and train ourselves in how to do those things that we know are important.

Right now, the entire team of The Ratty — from managing editors down — are women, people of color, or both, which speaks volumes about who feels like they need to push the boundaries of academia. These are the people who feel like they’re kept out of the traditional model that we’re still trying to use to train our PhD students. This further solidifies our commitment to working to bolster our training through The Ratty in order to help especially those people that academia often leaves behind.

So join us! You can pitch us to work with our editors in bringing your research to a public audience, and we’re always interested in training more editors. The Ratty is reclaiming student space in scholarship, making it public and loud. Sometimes it takes a small rat to make a big change.