Year-ish in Review

The Ratty opened its pitches and published its first article in February 2020, which I’m sure we’ll reflect on for many years to come as some of the worst possible timing. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and at the time, we were beyond excited to put this thing out into the world. Publishing has been more sporadic than we would have liked. Getting pitches has often been an uphill battle. But we get it. Things have just been really hard. In addition to looking out for ourselves and our staff, we’re doing our best not to add to the already heavy burdens graduate students are carrying. So, we’re publishing what we can when we can, and continuing to support graduate student public scholarship to the best of our ability. 

This isn’t so much a “year in review” as a look back on everything we have done. In the midst of a global pandemic, we have managed to publish 10 pieces and pay our editors and our authors for their work. We’re choosing to think of this as a win. So, we’re pleased to share with you all a list of the brilliant scholarship that we’ve had the privilege to help share with the world. 

The Cows of Alabanda by Sam Butler

Traveling through modern-day Turkey for his research forces Classics PhD candidate Sam Butler to think more deeply about his role in the field of Classics and what it means to study Classics beyond just Greece and Rome. 

Fake News and the Agency of Women in Viking Age Iceland by Sarah Christensen

While many of us may have been introduced to the term “fake news” around the time of the 2016 US presidential election, the concept of “fake news” has been used to undermine women and their agency for at least 1,000 years. 

The Hebrew Bible from Below and Beyond by Shane M. Thompson

When most people think of the Hebrew Bible, they think of the area that is now occupied by modern-day Israel. But this view often overlooks the role of Egyptian and non-elite actors in the history and politics of the time. 

You Are What You Do Not Eat: The Problematic Relationship between Fashionable Bodies and the Consumption of Food from Nineteenth-Century France to Now by Elise Bouley

The image of the Parisian model dressed to the nines in couture surrounded by a lavish dinner setting while looking like they are undernourished is not new to your Instagram feed. Graduate student Elise Bouley explores the contradiction in these images and their deep-rooted past in French fashion. 

You’re Not Alone by The Ratty Team

In April of 2020 the pandemic was still new, but all of the financial, mental, and physical issues we are still struggling with today began to rear their ugly heads for graduate students in particular. Underfunded and under-supported, we turned to writing as a way to let out some of our feelings, feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, and guilt. Hopefully, this piece shows some of you that whatever you are feeling, you are not alone. 

Indigenizing Colonization: How Indigenous Knowledge Can Help Us Do Better When Looking to Colonize Other Planets by Sierra V. Kaufman

Colonizing a hostile planet like Mars can seem like an impossible task, until you remember that humans have done it before. Using her indigenous knowledge, graduate student and Shinnecock Nation citizen Sierra V. Kaufman studies how we might grow food on other planets. 

A New Personalized Cancer Treatment–Will “Gliatrap” Be Able to Lure and Treat Cancer Cells to Prevent Tumor Recurrence? by Yusuke Suita

A diagnosis of brain cancer has the potential to rank among the scariest experiences of your life. Glioblastoma in particular is especially aggressive, which means it is one of the most important targets of current cancer research. Graduate student Yusuke Suita works with a team at Brown University Rhode Island Hospital on an innovative treatment for glioblastoma. 

The Prospects for Limiting Nuclear War and the Strategy of “Escalate to De-escalate” – A Research Note by Daniel Post

The threat of nuclear war has been a political reality for many of the world’s superpowers for decades now, and experts are still debating the best ways to eliminate the threat. Sharing his preliminary dissertation research, Daniel Post critiques the “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, showing why ramping up may do more harm than good. 

The Hashtag that Became a Movement: #MeToo Fiction 2017-2021 and Beyond by Jess Amy 

In 2017 #MeToo became a worldwide movement, calling on survivors of sexual assault to share their stories and stand together in solidarity. Since then, the movement has found its way into contemporary fiction, working its way into the mainstream cultural conversation. 

BIOMASS: Exploring Sustainable Fuel and Alternative Power by Abdulrazaq Omo

The threat of climate change is immediate, and greenhouse gases sit at the center of the urgency. Is it possible to turn some of this greenhouse gas-producing waste into a viable fuel source. Abdulrazaq Omo walks us through the process of turning fruit waste into an alternative power source. 

You’re Not Alone.

We’re all on unsure footing here. We weren’t sure what this week and the return to classes — albeit in an entirely different format — would look like, and we weren’t sure what The Ratty would look like in the wake of the changes to the Brown community. Rather than pushing forward, pretending everything was functioning as normal, we wanted to address what this situation feels like to grad students. And because we are primarily a blog, we wrote about it. The rest of this article features our editors discussing how they’re dealing with digital learning, sheltering-in-place, and the world in the wake of the pandemic. I wasn’t sure how I was going to introduce such a peculiar, composite article, so to prepare you I thought I would provide a list of various titles this piece has been known by:

  • Ratty Editors Vent About Being A Grad Student During COVID-19
  • Ratty Editors in Isolation
  • Grad Students in Isolation
  • I Have the Drive to Create but Am Paralyzed by Anxiety, What Should I Do?
  • What If We All Just Vented Our Feelings into a Google Doc?

Professionally, I thought social distancing would be a cinch. I’m a computational chemist – no wet lab, no on-site instrumentation, no live specimens, and thus, no physical location required! Yet the strain to perform my work has… well… soared in intensity, weighing heavier each day, as the mental and emotional burdens grow.

I’m an avid climber and aikido practitioner – two physical, social activities that I thrived on. My drive to research was fueled by these outlets, and I called on them regularly to reset for each new day. Then, I was told to stop. To refrain from my restorative lifelines, in order to prevent the worst. Even though I understood, I felt wounded and afraid as my lifelines suddenly vanished.

I’m afraid to feel loneliness and despair. I’m anxious, uncertain of each step forward. I’m angry — regrettably, at myself — when I struggle to accept these emotional pains as “reasonable” explanations for delays. I yearn to return to our earlier status, to break free of this physical confinement and emotional turbulence. I continue to hope that this situation will evaporate. Yet, I accept that this may be the norm for quite some time.

So, I’ve begun improving how I carry this new burden. I’ve found time to self-reflect. I might be climbing my door frames. My friends and I, near and far, have embraced remote connectivity. For as long as this may last, I aim to be kind to myself, to create new outlets, and to brace for the rest of the ride.

-Len Sprague

Honestly, the week off before spring break came as a relief to me. I’m studying for my comprehensive exams, and I was being handed extra time to focus on my reading lists instead of class preparations. So I holed up in my apartment, surrounded by antiquated computer hardware and piles of what material I was able to grab from the library before it closed.

And I’ve been able to accomplish so little.

Comps are an inherently stressful time, no matter how often your advisors repeat the fact that they shouldn’t be. And I was already scared — afraid that I wouldn’t be a good enough student, that I would be deemed unworthy to continue my education here. But now, in addition to the fear that I won’t pass, that I don’t belong, there’s the fear of the Academia I will enter into even if I succeed. Job positions have been put on hold, hiring frozen, and some schools have even closed permanently. The world on the other side of these exams is unimaginable; right now, it’s hard to conceive that I can make it there, and that I’ll recognize the landscape if I do.

An excerpt from an email telling me an internship I applied for was no longer running.

And then there’s the guilt. I’ve watched my friends lose jobs and close their businesses in an effort to flatten the curve with no assurance that they’ll ever reopen. Others post about taking their family members to the hospital, sick with the virus, and being unable to visit them, to be with them as they convalesce (or don’t). I’ve been so fixated on my uncertain future that I’ve lost sight of what others have sacrificed, and while I know I have the right to my anxiety, I still feel guilty about being upset over *so* much less. So I’ve tried to donate what I can, especially to circus studios that I have counted as a second home, but now it’s near the end of the month and the declined payments and overdraft notices are coming in.

A screenshot of my email inbox, circa Sunday morning March 29.

And then I’m angry — at the people online who tell me it’s okay for this semester to be bad, that our energy should be spent not on ensuring “A”s in classes but on supporting our fellow humans. But it’s not okay for me to phone in my comps. And how dare all these talented artists and community establishments make their work available online, when I can’t spend my time accessing it because I have to study? And the nerve of my friends to want to check in on me and reach out over Zoom and Discord, when I’m staring blankly into space trying to muster the energy to do the work that I have to do?

I will take breaks in the middle of reading chapters to sob, and then, drained, try to find where I left off on the page. But it’s never what I remember reading.

-E.L. Meszaros

Uncertainty makes me uncomfortable and always has. I am an obsessive planner; keeping my life scheduled and in order does a lot to keep any anxieties at bay. This time of crisis is the clear opposite of planned and scheduled, which has left me feeling anxious in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. In perhaps a strange twist, I was able to get a lot of work done in the week off we were given before Spring Break. I dove back into projects with gusto, projects that had long been left on the back-burner of my to-do list. After all, I am in the humanities – if I am able to get my hands on reading material, I can do my job. Then communications from professors started to come in. 

I am very lucky to have some truly compassionate professors this semester. It is no coincidence that their classes were the ones in which I always felt time moved too quickly, where I wanted nothing more than to talk through these ideas for another hour. Emails from them have been kind, clear, and gentle. Reading them eased more anxiety than I could have guessed. However, these professors are contingent faculty, on the job market when most institutions have hiring freezes. I wish their compassion and understanding in this time when their tenured counterparts are not always doing the same could be rewarded with some kind of support. Of course, it won’t be. 

I tell myself that I am angry about how unfair all of this is. Unfair to those students who look to their schools as a safe haven from their difficult backgrounds. Unfair to those contingent faculty doing the most they can for their students while struggling with their own precarity. Unfair to those grad students who have been desperately seeking feedback from advisers and knowing there is no way they will get it now. But I think I’m mostly angry about the loss of the things that kept me sane throughout grad school that I no longer have access to, the things that my professors probably didn’t realize I needed to keep going with my work.

I miss my weekly climbing gym dates where E.L. and I would challenge our bodies and let off steam about the latest week as a grad student. I miss my early morning long runs where I got my head on straight before sitting down in my office. I miss my LGBTQ running group and the wisdom of people who had dealt with the same problems and always had ample advice. I miss my bookshelf. I miss riding my bike to campus. I miss a lot. For now, I try to schedule Zoom meetings with friends to get some or any of these back in any form possible. As classes start back up virtually this week, I guess I am waiting to see how successful these replacements will come to be.

Sara Mohr

I find myself in the fortunate position where I am able to continue my research unabated in Providence, while my family in Canada and India are also largely unaffected by the ongoing crises. Admittedly, there are minor inconveniences and a few challenges: using a slow VPN connection to transfer files back and forth from storage servers at Brown, finding new ways to exercise from a cramped apartment, and assisting bewildered technophobic professors with the transition to online classes.

However, I cannot complain too much considering the nightmare many of my international student colleagues are grappling with: the sheer frustration from their research coming to a grinding halt, made worse by the feeling of helplessness as the number of cases continues to dramatically increase back home for their family and friends. I can only empathize and offer words of encouragement. Know that we are all in this together, that our community is strong, and “this, too, shall pass”.

-Jay Bhaskar

We don’t have any answers. Everyone wears isolation and pandemic differently. We suggest that starting from a place of kindness and compassion is probably good, but we’re not sure what the next steps are. Brown Counseling and Psychological Services remain open — a good resource if you aren’t sure where to start. And in the meantime:

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.