“How did I get into Classics?” an Interview with Lauren Nguyen, GSI

September 13, 2023

For the first interview of this series, I’m actually going to be interviewing a GSI, rather than a professor. It was really important to me that I started here because the first seed of this idea actually started in her class. Lauren Nguyen was my teacher for Latin 1 during my first semester here at Berkeley, and I remember having a really interesting conversation with her about the elitism we’ve dealt with in our respective academic careers. Something that Lauren and I have in common is that we both come from public schools, in places that aren’t exactly known for their academic excellence: I come from Wisconsin, and Lauren comes from Georgia. Latin 1 was honestly a life-changing course for me because it really solidified my interest in language, translation, and the ways that the interpretation and reception of language can affect culture. I hadn’t ever realized how engaging, and even interdisciplinary, an intro-level language course could be.

To start us out, Lauren, I’d love to hear you introduce yourself: What are your goals in academia? How did you come to study Classics? What kinds of things do you enjoy doing in your time outside of academia, and do you see them informing your studies?

First of all, thank you so much for having me start out your series! I’m so happy that you enjoyed Latin 1 and were able to use it as a starting point for exploring the intersections of language, reception, and culture.

My name is Lauren Nguyen. I am currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Ancient Greek and Roman Studies here. I think the easiest question to start there is “How did I get into Classics,” because it’s such a strange and specific field. I think I told you before—I went to public high school in Georgia, and the Latin teacher at that high school was also the swim coach, and he ran an extracurricular program for middle-schoolers where they could come in for a 0 period class before school and do part of Latin 1. He was a really fun and engaging teacher. It started out as him bribing us to come in with donuts every Thursday, but then I fell in love with it. I mean, that’s a bit of a cliche, but I did. I thought that there was something so compelling and resonant in the study of this language. I owe a lot to him. He didn’t just teach me Latin; he also encouraged me to go into Classics in undergrad, and to go away from home, and not to take on a more practical degree (like chemical engineering, which was my second choice). He was the person who encouraged me to read unusual texts; he let me read Juvenal and Statius as a senior in high school, and Statius is what I ended up writing my undergrad thesis on, so his influence is really still there with me. 

He laid this foundation for me, where Latin was something that was fun, and it was accessible, and it was also something that came with a community and a sense of belonging. I think that’s part of why I really wanted to enter academia—to pay that forward and to introduce students to a language I love without all of the usual associations of elitism. I wanted them to have something of the experience I had in high school. So that’s how I came into studying Classics, and those are my goals within academia. It seems like a very lofty goal, and maybe a little naive of me, but I want it to change; I want it to be less exclusionary. The best way to start in that is to do that in my own classroom. 

What do I enjoy outside of academia? I’m a huge sci-fi person. I love Star Trek; I love stuff like the old Stargate series; I love TTRPGs and fantasy novels and fantasy films and all of that. I guess I’ve always loved that sense of wonder and the impossible, and I feel like fantasy and sci-fi are areas where you can explore marginal identity in really interesting ways, and can fully embrace that. That’s something I want to carry over into classics more. 

Speaking of the ability to explore marginal identity, I was wondering if you would be able to tell us more about the role of balancing your own identity within academia? 

This is something that’s still difficult for me. When I first got into this, I used to joke, “Wow, I am such a stereotype, because look at me: I am who I am, and I want to work on race and gender in Ancient Greek drama.” I joked because I felt a weird shame at the predictability of it. Those are still my interests to this day. Eventually, I realized that it’s not a bad thing—my identity will always inflect my work, that’s a fact, and there should be so much more work done on race and gender in classical texts. But it becomes an issue when scholars who come from marginalized communities are tokenized for their work, and they’re reduced to this expectation that they work on those things. Moreover, academia should definitely become more diverse; that is not a question. But I feel like sometimes programs try to incorporate people from marginalized communities without providing them with adequate support, and without changing the infrastructure within their programs that made them so exclusionary in the first place. 

That is what is disappointing to me—is seeing people play diversity and inclusion as a numbers game, and not actually addressing anything else within their systems. I think that, as I’ve gone deeper and deeper into academia as a professional setting, it becomes harder to ignore. I was very lucky: I had a lot of mentors who were women, so I was fortunate in that aspect. But it’s harder to overlook how, in some of these classes, I am sometimes the only person of color, or one in a handful of people of color in the room. That gets a little bit isolating at times. 

Yeah, last year in one of my classes we were learning about corporate multiculturalism, and I was thinking about that in relation to academia. I think it can sort of apply if we think about universities in the U.S. kind of like corporations. 

Yeah, I think it is [applicable]. It’s like wanting to be more diverse, but it’s a surface-level diversity, without addressing any of the bigger issues that have propped up the lack of diversity for so long. Classics has a reputation for being a field that is primarily wealthier people, and primarily white people as well. There are so many amazing people in the field who are changing that now—so many historians and scholars who are improving the field by their presence within it, by their research, bringing to light aspects of Classics that have gone unaddressed. It is a wonderful privilege to be a part of that. But at the same time, that still hasn’t completely changed the reputation Classics has. And I think that reputation sometimes is correct; not correct in the sense that it’s a moral good, but in that it’s a reputation for a reason—it does reflect a certain bitter reality in the field. 

A follow-up question I had about identity, just because this is something I think about a lot, is how you feel about being a woman in academia. A lot of people in my experience seem to have different expectations of me because I am a woman, and will sometimes diminish the things that I do because of that. I guess I was just wondering if you have anything that you wanted to say on that? 

I’m sorry that happened to you. It’s an awful experience, and I don’t have any sort of useful advice, other than just to say you aren’t alone in that. It feels really easy for people to reduce you to one aspect of your identity, and then belittle you based on that. It’s frustrating that we haven’t been able to address this in any institutional capacity. It’s frustrating to feel alone, and to see that the people at the top are not representative of yourself and your colleagues, and to sense that they are not putting provisions in place for meaningful change. It can also be small things that lead to feeling belittled as well. In Classics, this is a very minor thing, but tragedy—the stuff that I’m interested in—has a reputation for being one of the most progressive sections of literary research within Classics. Whenever new theoretical approaches arise in, say, a comparative literature field, then the people who study tragedy are often among the first to apply it. That means that a lot of diverse scholars work on tragedy, but that also leads to tokenization, dismissal, and reductive expectation. And that’s a very small issue; I bring it up because it’s easier to single out than the persistent sense of isolation and helplessness that can arise from constant exclusion. Yeah, I don’t know. There’s no easy answer to that, really. 

Why is it that tragedy is one of the most progressive sections?

I think it’s because tragedy is itself about the transgression of normative social boundaries. Even within its ancient historical context, it is about what happens when people push at strictly imposed social norms, and how the consequences of that reverberate through their city. It makes tragedy, and drama more generally, a really fruitful ground for questions of identity, oppression, and resistance. I love tragedy for that very reason. I think it’s also made tragedy the element of Graeco-Roman classical texts that retain a lot of relevance in reception—if we think of recent productions like Antigone in Ferguson, where Sophocles’ Antigone was performed to speak to police brutality and institutionalized racism in a powerful way. I think that’s the power of tragedy: that it can be so resonant, that it has this capacity for reinterpretation.

And I know you mentioned that your research was on tragedy. I was wondering if you could speak more about your research?

I work on primarily Attic tragedy, so the tragedy of ancient Athens. I’m interested in how marginalized identities are created within these texts: what are the axes by which gender, or race, or ethnicity are defined? Attic tragedy is very invested in identity and contains a lot of portrayals of slaves, women, and non-Athenians, and I want to look at how all the tensions within those identities—and all of the spots where they come into contradiction—are staged. My research also includes the chorus, which is a body that appears in most Greek tragedies, and it is a body—it is prominently embodied, as a group of people who sing and dance on stage; it is a community. I’m looking at how the chorus and their interactions with the characters generate or challenge notions of communal identity and unity. 

One of the classes I remember being really interested in from Latin 1 was when you showed us how Mussolini used a misinterpreted Aenied quote as political propaganda. Can you speak more on ways that information in the Classics have been manipulated, and what that does to our view of the Classical world? 

Oh God, yeah. I remember one of my first encounters with this was in high school, when Ted Cruz, a well-established right-wing politician at that time, made the news for reciting a speech of Cicero in an address to Congress. We talked about this in my Latin class, and everyone agreed that he butchered the Cicero. But I don’t think that’s the point, really. The point is how easily he was able to appropriate Cicero for use in this right-wing context, and how he felt like he was in the right to do so.

We have a tendency to pedestalize Classics in the modern day. I feel like people like to talk about, you know, Greece and Rome as the roots of Western Civilization, whatever that means to them, or as the beginnings of democracy and other similar institutions. Classical texts are advertised as more important than other texts. This rhetoric can come even from professionals in the field; I think people within Classics feel the urge to justify the field so we can keep it going, so they can sometimes propagate this line of thinking. Not only does that dismiss other cultures, it also enables white supremacy. Every time we say that this field is the cornerstone of civilization, we are playing into that. 

It’s also like, we can talk about how far-right usage of classics is misappropriation or misuse all day long, but sometimes I have to ask myself, how much of it is misuse and how much of it is just use? Mussolini didn’t just quote the Aeneid on his monuments; he poured funding into archaeological digs. Classical texts and the history that can be extracted from them have been used for centuries to prop up some heinous ideologies. Slavery and fascism are part of the legacy of Classics. Moreover, Classics as an academic and professional field is rooted in prejudice; that stems from the people who have historically had access to the resources needed to study Greek and Latin. I think to call all that misuse is an injustice to the harm that was actively done. We have to confront that if we want the field to keep existing. 

And I also think it’s interesting, in studying Classics, how there can be ways in which people in later generations utilize that information as propaganda, but also a lot of what we’re studying is itself political propaganda. I’m in Latin 100, which is focusing on Caesar, and it’s really just military plans. But it’s interesting how Caesar uses rhetorical techniques—like instead of ever using first person singular, he’s constantly addressing a first person plural, and he also changes certain word orders to make his text more convincing and interesting. I know that you also taught Latin 100. Do you have anything to say about Caesar, or how Caesar is taught? 

The fact that Caesar is such a prominent intermediate author for Latin students takes me aback sometimes. I first read him in high school, when De Bello Gallico was part of the AP Latin curriculum. The fact that it’s a standard to teach fourteen-year-olds this, as a textbook for learning proper Latin prose, essentially, is wild to me. DBG is the account of a military campaign from the point of view of the man pushing for that campaign. It is biased and ideologically charged; Caesar’s prose is readable and smooth for a reason. He wants his campaign to seem organized and digestible, down to the level of language. And people have bought into it. 

I taught DBG in Latin 100 last semester, and I had my students read the introduction to the text we used, which was a school textbook first published in the late 1800s, as a piece of historical reception. The way the textbook adapted the text for introductory readers was still usable, but the introduction was painfully of its time. It made Caesar’s push into Britain seem like a jolly good adventure with ten friends, alongside somehow believing that Caesar’s invasion was when Britain was ‘discovered,’ never mind the peoples already living there. I was doing a little preliminary research for my slides, too, and I found myself on the tourism website for the Cliffs of Dover, which is speculated to be the site where Caesar first landed in Britain. The website listed his landing as the first important historical event in Britain. Even today, the notion that contact with Greece and Rome is what brings places into ‘history’ is still going strong. It really shows you how importance is artificially assigned to history, based on what we prioritize. It’s frightening, how prevalent this is. 

None of this is to say that I don't think Caesar should be read. Rather, I think it’s imperative to read him with full knowledge of these things, to understand the real impact he had, both on Roman politics and territory, and on the peoples who bore the violence of his conquest. The way non-Romans are portrayed also says a lot about the construction of Roman ideology. Caesar should be read, but with care.

We spoke in Office Hours, once, about the problematic tendency for our textbook to have a sense of condescension towards Latin that appeared in everyday life, such as graffiti. Can you speak more on the necessity for continuing to teach, and take seriously, forms of Latin (or any language) that aren’t as formalized?

I have my fair share of personal qualms with Keller and Russell, God knows. One of the things they do well, I think, is having those ‘Selected Readings’ sections which have excerpts of Latin texts from a lot of different sources, including graffiti and inscriptions. I love those sections, and I think it’s great that they give a wide variety of selections that show the true breadth and diversity of how Latin was used. It gets complicated outside of those sections. A lot of this isn’t specific to Keller and Russell; it’s more an issue of Latin instruction generally. Keller and Russell are very clear when it comes to grammar and morphology, it’s their strength as a textbook, but as is the case with the vast majority of Latin textbooks, they’re teaching you to read a very specific set of Latin texts. Latin pedagogy is geared towards a canonical set of texts, which includes Caesar and Vergil and Ovid and Cicero, all those big names. Keller and Russell train you to read prose in the style of Caesar. You learn a specific set of vocabulary and grammatical rules which equips you to engage with that and other canonical texts. Canonical authors, however, are only a small sliver of Latin literary production. With very few exceptions, they come from higher social classes; the position they embody is absolutely not universal, or representative of everyone living in the ancient Mediterranean under Roman rule. That is where you need comedy, you need inscriptions, you need graffiti in order to get a better picture of the lives of the people in that time, in addition to engaging with material culture to more fully understand the world in which these texts are embedded.

My problem with Keller and Russell also comes from their specific lack of contextualization. Not only are they geared towards very specific texts, they also don’t provide any context for what they’re teaching you. For example, you are given the word ‘servus,’ slave, as a vocabulary word for your first chapter. It’s a common word in Latin writing, and it’s a regular second declension noun. It is also extremely important to address, since slavery was a key part of the Roman economy, and understanding that is necessary to understanding the texts we read. But Keller and Russell don’t give you the context of that last part. What’s more, they reproduce the dynamics of Roman slavery in their workbook exercises, often exaggeratedly, without any provision of cultural context. Not only does it seem callous and trivializing, it also doesn’t prepare students to understand Latin. 

And one of my other questions was originally more related to my own studies in comparative literature, but I definitely think can be applied to Classics as well. Studying literature can sometimes feel hard for me, morally, because it’s such a privilege, and it can feel really tied to elitist institutions or ways of thinking. I’m so interested in the subject, and I really love studying literature, but it can feel hard for me to justify it to myself. I was wondering about how you feel about studying Classics: do you ever feel the need to ‘justify’ it to yourself?

I think about this a lot. Justification is difficult for me; I think by trying to justify Classics, we fall into the trap of its Eurocentric importance all over again. The first avenue is to take Greek and Roman history, culture, and literature off of their pedestal and look at them for what they are—as historical periods, as cultures, as literary texts, no more exalted or morally superior than any other objects from any other field of study. Instead of seeing them as the roots of our current day life, searching for continuities, I think it’s better to understand the ruptures and look at how fundamentally different these periods are from our own. It’s from this position that the most interesting observations arise, and it also becomes easier to look at the path of classical reception and see the lasting legacy of Classics as the complicated thing that it is, laden with both positives and negatives. The resonances within Classics with modern day concerns are more powerful when we make an effort to defamiliarize ourselves with it, to understand that it’s not a simple one-two jump between then and now. There are millennia of history and reception and impact in between. 

In second semester Latin we learned more about creative translations. I thought the idea was so interesting, but also slightly troubling. How do you personally go about translating and how do you balance creativity, as well as other factors you have to take into consideration, with objectivity? 

This is a great question. To me, it all depends on what you’re trying to do with a translation. Are you trying to make it instantly readable, accessible to a modern audience, so people can read the text like it was written in English—if we’re assuming an English translation—all along? Are you trying to emphasize the fact that it is a translation, bring out all the unique features of language that aren’t commonly found in English? If you swing too far in the former direction, you lose what makes the text unique. If you swing too far in the latter, you lose accessibility, and that should always be a consideration when writing something. There are so many other factors that go into a translation as well. No single translation can render everything about an original text in a target language. There are translation choices you can make that amplify elements of the text you want amplified. Word choice can heighten a theme; meter can convey performance. It all depends on what you want to do.

Translation is an incredibly personal project; I don’t think it’s possible to make an entirely objective one. Moreover, translation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We’re all steeped in traditions of translation. When Emily Wilson’s Odyssey came out, the translation of the first line was seen as unusual. Wilson translated the Greek polytropos—which is usually glossed as something like, “of many ways” or “much wandering” or “much turned”—as ‘complicated.’ ‘Complicated’ captures all the valences of the Greek, from cleverness to suffering to duplicity. It’s also the more accessible and immediate choice for English. But it was seen as a notable departure because of the expected traditional translations of this word. 

There are also a lot of ways to convey parts of a text in a target language; translation is just one choice. There are also reinterpretations and adaptations, which can bring out all sorts of wonderful things in a text that a straight translation can’t. They don’t fill the same function as translation, but they are still important to our interactions with the text all the same. This is where creativity can shine alongside rigorous textual engagement. Adaptations and reinterpretations can be incredibly powerful, especially when they are conscious of and utilizing the points of difference between them and the source text. 

I’m glad you mentioned Emily Wilson’s translation, because I remember being really interested in reading about that translation when it was first coming out. I know another thing people often talk about Wilson doing well was retranslating certain terms which previous translators—all of whom were men—had translated in a more misogynistic way. It’s really interesting to think of the ways that our interpretations of Classical texts can be coloured by earlier scholars, and the work they were doing, rather than the texts themselves. I guess I was wondering, with Latin specifically, if there’s a way to be more autonomous from earlier scholarship? Or is this even something that would be desirable? 

I don’t think separation from earlier scholarship is really possible, and I don’t really want it to be, either. I stand on the shoulders of giants who have laid the groundwork for my research, and I’m also one in a community of people, whose work I’m constantly in dialogue with. Much like translation, no research arises from a vacuum. I think it’s important to acknowledge where we get our influences, but also to note where we deviate from them, and be aware of how theories have evolved and how we can ethically apply new frameworks. That’s especially important for Classics, which has been entangled for so long with historical oppression. 

For our last question, I’m actually going to have it the same for all of my interviews. What book would you recommend to everyone reading this year?

I’m going to go for something Classics related here. I recommend Alice Oswald’s Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad. It is an adaptation of extended similes and death scenes from the Iliad, and it is beautifully written and very readable. When I first started studying Homer in college, my parents had no idea what I was reading, and they wanted to know more. The full translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey were intimidating for them, but my dad loved Memorial when I recommended it to him.