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What to Buy to Look Like: A Classics Professor

Photo: Eileen Darby/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Status can be a funny thing. Of course, it is most obviously expressed through shiny hardware and easily recognizable logos, but it gets far more interesting when you start to observe the more subtle signals — the way you tuck your shirt, or what you eat for breakfast, or your particular brand of notebook can mark you as in or out. And, of course, what counts as a status item varies wildly across human tribes. In our series “Insider Goods,” we’re talking to members of different tribes (some with their real names, some anonymously) to learn about the niche status items among Broadway actors, ballerinas, or brain surgeons

Today, we hear from Johanna Hanink — an associate professor of classics at Brown University and the author of How to Think About War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy — on the sun hats, tote bags, and posters that are popular among classics professors.

Classics as a discipline is kind of in a rocky period right now because there has been a lot of activity among the extreme right in terms of its use and references to antiquity, and the discipline of classics itself is coming to terms with its own very long history of implications in racist and sexist power structures. Eidolon is an online magazine [Hanink is on the editorial board] that was founded by Dr. Donna Zuckerberg in 2015 and has really done a lot of work toward supporting and generating disciplinary conversations about the historic problems in the field. Even though it’s been controversial, I think it has become this symbol of a new direction in the study of antiquity. The bag says, “Classics Without Fragility,” meaning classicists who are open to having a conversation about these problems. These have been popular the past few years in professional meetings.

This is a bit more of a traditional thing you’ll see in classicists’ homes or offices. It’s always some 18th-century engraving of a view of the city of Rome or the ruins of Greece. These tinted, kind of colored-in ones are really popular presents that people give to classicists. I was just cleaning out my drawers and I found I had accumulated three 18th- and 19th-century maps of Athens that people had given me over the years. I think it’s something everyone who works on Greek or Roman antiquity has some version of.

This [the first full translation of The Odyssey published in English by a female translator] is so popular, and it gave classics such a boost in the public eye. Classicists don’t typically tend to sit around reading these texts in translation, because we’re supposed to be reading them in the original languages, but I think pretty much everybody in the field has a copy of this translation in part because they wanted to know what the big deal was — was it really as different or as good as all the reviews and publicity were making it out to be? Personally, I adore it and think it lives up to all that great publicity. Even people who are a little bit more skeptical of a new Odyssey translation, I think probably most of them have it because they just wanted to check it out. [The hype around it] was huge. It’s replacing a lot of the older translations out in university-level classes, and there were just so many write-ups about it. There was a profile of Emily Wilson in the New Yorker, which I think made her the first classicist since Mary Beard to be profiled in that magazine.

Cycladic figurines are a little bit less corny than having some replica bronze sculpture or cheap replica vase — like the kind you can get in the tourist markets in Athens — in your office. These were really inspirational to Picasso, and they have that very minimalist look so they dress up an office in a little bit of a subtle way. I actually have one next to my computer. They’re also useful as paperweights. They don’t scream “Greek geeky Latin club” classics, but they have that subtle “Yeah, I’ve been to Greece, and I got this in a museum shop” sort of edge to them. “I’m into the ancient world but in an elegant and classic way” is the message being sent.

A friend of mine and I were just talking about how many classics faculty pictures have people standing in front of ruins in one of these sun hats. To be completely fair to archaeologists, the Mediterranean countries do get very hot and it’s very prudent to wear them, but I will never own one, because I think they’re too dorky. There’s also this little signaling that they do [for professors] that says, “I’m not just a library person; I get out in the field and look at the ruins.”

A geeky necktie that has an ancient non-Latin alphabet on it is very popular. You’ll also see neckties that have images from Greek vases. Especially for people who are language teachers, it’s something that really solidifies that image and that the undergraduate students will find quirky and funny. Maybe you bought it for yourself, or more likely it was a gift from somebody, but I think everyone who wears ties has some version of that — possibly in bow-tie form. [Bow ties] are kind of fading out, but you’ll still sometimes see the aspiring stodgy classicist with a bow tie.

A poster (preferably in Italian; Greek or French are also acceptable) advertising a modern performance of an ancient Greek play signals that I’m someone who has spent time in Europe and gone to plays. It’s this complex combination of showing your classical knowledge but also your cosmopolitanism to have been at, say, the theater festival in Syracuse [Sicily]. Some sort of poster advertising something classical but from another country would usually be in somebody’s office.

The main thing about reading Greek and Latin is you read it extremely slowly and in excruciating detail. These book stands are made for holding a cookbook open while you’re cooking, but they’re also really useful for propping up an ancient text so you can work on the computer or be looking at other books like dictionaries, commentaries, and grammars at the same time as you have that text open in front of you. They have them in rare-books rooms in libraries, along with book weights, which are these big, heavy silicon-rubber weights that, if a book is lying flat on a table, you can put on it to keep it open to that page.

Everybody always has some kind of dorky classics mug. Maybe it will say something silly in Latin or Greek, but my friend showed me this one and I thought it was a great example of that smug classicist look that people will have with varying degrees of irony.

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What to Buy to Look Like: A Classics Professor