Living on a Grad Student Budget

PhD comics_Reimbursement

“Three to five weeks” – originally published 4/13/2011

It is all too easy for graduate students to reach a financial breaking point. No matter our field, we are all overworked and underpaid, even those of us who are lucky enough to be funded with assistantships and covered by university health insurance (thanks, union!). Focusing on our academic work, which we all want (and our professors expect) to be our number one priority, becomes incredibly difficult when we are wondering how we’re going to make rent, pay the credit card, and eat three meals a day this month. Sometimes, you don’t actually manage to do all of those things because the funds just aren’t there.

Of course the ideal solution to this problem is for all universities to pay graduate students what they’re really worth, and graduate students across the country have been unionizing and striking for a living wage…but that’s a whole other can of worms.

You don’t need me to tell you that making a budget is important, or that you should do your research and find cheap housing, because you are a grad student and thus a Very Smart Person. Instead, let me share a few (maybe less obvious) tips and tricks that have helped me stay afloat through four years of living on a half-time stipend.

  1. Grocery shop smarter: I literally cut my grocery budget in half when I stopped shopping at the close-by, convenient Hy-Vee (the midwestern Kroger) and started driving a bit further to Aldi. The name brands may not be snazzy and it might take an extra hour per month of your time to bounce between stores, but not paying for convenience saves you a heck of a lot of money.

    I will say that in my case, this was made possible by greater mobility: our city bus stops at Aldi, and after my first couple of years I bought a car, which allows me to shop where and when I want; I usually go to three different grocery stores. Not everyone has this option. But wherever you shop, sign up to get their weekly ads in your email; cut coupons, sign up for the store rewards program. Plan your meals around the sales and the seasonal (cheap!) produce.

  2. The drinks are free at home: This one might be the hardest. Turning down social events for financial reasons is embarrassing. There are multiple blog posts out there about how to do it without feeling like crap. I am definitely guilty of saying no to a night out without explanation, because usually the explanation is I’m broke and tired and I’d rather fall asleep on the couch with my glass of $3 wine from Aldi.

    night cheese
    But cohort bonding is important, and venting about that one guy or that awful class over drinks is a key component to said bonding. Real friends will understand if you tell them you’re trying to save money, and they’ll be willing to accommodate you. Try hosting happy hour at your home once a month — you provide a couple snacks, everyone brings a bottle or six pack of their choice, and you can have just as much fun as you do at the bar for a fraction of the cost.

  3. Treat yo’self!: I’m not trying to tell you that you have to be a buzzkill in order to avoid crippling credit card debt. If you feel like you’re living the Spartan lifestyle constantly, you’ll end up depressed, or spending $150 on an impromptu shopping spree, or both. When you make a budget for yourself, set aside $50 or $60 per month for fun stuff — a fancy coffee, drinks with the cohort, concert tickets, whatever. I have a coffee maker at my desk in the department offices, but last weekend I bought myself a $5 fancy latte because it was raining and working on a Saturday is no fun. And that latte really did help!

    mimosas tys

  4. Meal plans are your friend: Now when I say meal planning, I do NOT mean prepping an entire week’s worth of meals in a weekend, nor do I mean locking yourself into a set meal schedule for the week. I just mean taking time to look in your pantry and at the weekly grocery ads, and then planning 4-5 days worth of meals around a similar set of ingredients, so that you can use stuff up instead of letting that half jar of marinara rot in the fridge.

    I keep a list of meals for the week on my fridge, which I can rearrange to cook different days according to my mood or how much time I have on my hands. About 2/3 of the recipes in my regular rotation are from Budget Bytes, a food blog devoted to affordable meals (she breaks down total recipe cost by ingredient) that are also actually good. I usually cook enough that the hubs and I can take the leftovers for lunch the next day, which means 1) we can pack lunches instead of buy them and 2) the lunch-packing is easy because the meal is already prepared!

    I know it sounds like just one more chore on your laundry list of s%*t to do, but even a half-hour of planning on a Sunday afternoon can save you a lot of food waste during the week — which also saves you money.

  5. Seriously, don’t be afraid to ask for help: Sometimes you do everything right and your bank account still comes up short. When we moved into our current apartment last year, my parents gave me a fairly hefty loan for the security deposit. I was super embarrassed to ask for it, but my mom was so understanding, having been in the broke-grad-student situation herself, and paying her back over the next 6 months was much less depressing than seeing interest pile up on my credit cards. Not everyone has friends or family who can render financial aid, but if you do, ask.

    And if you’re in Classics or a Classics-adjacent field, make use of The Sportula! Named for the dole that Roman patrons gave to their clients each morning, The Sportula is a student- and junior-faculty-run organization that distributes microgrants of up to $300 so that “students from working-class and historically looted communities (like the ones we ourselves come from) don’t fall through the cracks left by traditional scholarship programs; all too many of which have a poor understanding of what our lives are *actually* like and what we *actually* need” (description from their website). This organization is seriously incredible; if you don’t know how you’re going to pay your utility bill this month or buy the new critical edition your professor insists you use, send them a microgrant request. And if you find yourself in a financially stable position down the road, give back by donating to their cash fund and helping some other broke student make it, too.

I know the strategies I’ve suggested here take mental energy and time, but you’re probably already spending that mental energy worrying about how you’re going to make it through the month, and living off the free food from campus events will only cover you so far. Channel that stress energy into taking steps toward saving and making your budget work for you: when you get freaked out, go look at the grocery ads, or set up a small monthly transfer to your savings account, or find a dinner recipe that uses only what you have on hand. And say yes to brunch with your cohort every once in a while — you’ll be glad you did.

These Words Are Why English Can’t Have Nice Things

It is a truth generally acknowledged that English, as a second language, is both easy and impossible. The simplistic structure and minimal inflection of English make it easy to string together basic sentences without much training or practice. But English is also a mish-mash of different language families, which makes for frequent confusion for learners — and, let’s face it, sometimes native speakers — in terms of vocabulary (should I use the Germanic or Latinate word? American or British English?), pronunciation (why, heteronyms?) and spelling (again, just…why?). And let’s not even start with the strange idioms that make it difficult even for English speakers from different countries to understand each other.

In many ways, despite being a “global” language, English is dreadful. And recently I’ve been reminded of another thing that makes English dreadful: contronyms. Also called autoantonyms, these are words with two contradictory definitions: they are their own opposites.

Take, for example, to cleave. In the biblical sense (har har), it means to join or adhere, as in: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” — thanks, King James. BUT it can also mean to split, or divide by cutting, as in “He cleaved a path through the forest.” Same word, same spelling, same pronunciation, completely opposite meaning.

obama wtf

Some of these contronyms, like cleave, aren’t super common and so don’t cause much trouble out in the world. But some of them are among the most frequently used words in the English language. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to people trying to learn English as a second or third language? Just…English, why??

but whyyy

I say we stop the madness, choose just one definition for these words, and stick with it. We can learn to use a different word for the second, opposite meaning. It would be a small price to pay if it would make the English language a little less stupid.

Below are just a few of English’s many awful contronyms, some of which can also be nouns in addition to being verbs with two opposite meanings (grrr). Which definitions should stay and which should go?

Trim: to add decorations around the edges — e.g. “trim the tree” — OR to remove extra around the edges — e.g. “trim the hedges.”
Apparently the meaning depends entirely on the plant you’re trimming.

Sanction: to approve — as in “government-sanctioned activities” — OR to disapprove, prohibit — as in “government sanctions.”
…Yeah. Misunderstanding this one could lead to some serious consequences.

Overlook: to see everything from a key vantage point — as in “my window overlooks the lake” — OR to ignore or fail to see something at all — as in my favorite line from 10 Things I Hate About You: “Now I know Shakespeare is a dead white guy, but he knows his shit, so we can overlook that.”


Oversight has the same problem: is it careful supervision or is it a mistake that no one noticed? Maybe starting a word with over is the problem.

Dust: to remove dust — as in “we need to dust the living room before folks come over” — OR to add a thin layer of dust or other material — as in “I dusted the cake with powdered sugar.”
So, like trim, the meaning depends on the thing you’re dusting.

Out: visible or in place — as in “sun’s out, guns out!” — OR invisible or not in place — as in “lights out” or “out of the office.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on out. Pretty much all prepositions in pretty much all languages are idiomatic and their usage make no logical sense. But that’s a grammar rant for another day…

Finished: to be completed and made whole — as in “I finished the exam” or “the scrapbook is finished” — OR to be destroyed — as in “his career is finished.”
This one is fun because its meaning depends entirely on inflection: if you say “I’m finished,” the only way I know whether to congratulate or console you is to see whether you seem happy or sad about it.

we're screwed.gif

Bound: to move in a certain direction — as in “eastbound traffic” or “homeward bound” — OR to be constrained and kept from moving — as in “bound in chains.”

Custom: a common practice — as in “the customary greeting” — OR a specially made, unique thing — as in “custom-made shirts.”

custom baby seal leather boots.gif

Left: to depart or move away — as in “he left this morning” — OR to remain or stay behind, as in “I only have a few books left to read.”
You can’t even depend on an active vs. passive voice distinction for this one, because in the active voice you can not only depart, but also cause something to stay behind, as in “I left my keys at home.”

Strike: to hit — as in “the miners struck gold” or a strike in bowling — OR to miss hitting — as in a strike in baseball.
Not only does this one mean opposite things in different sports/games, but it has two other meanings as well: to go on strike is to refuse to work until conditions are met, and to strike out is to leave with purpose, as in on a journey.


Now I am not anti-nuance, or anti-multiple-definitions-or-layers-of-meaning. I study ancient languages; I live for that crap! But even if context usually tells you which definition is in play, wouldn’t life just be simpler if we used words that didn’t have the possibility of meaning the exact opposite of what you think they mean? We can make English less terrible, people! So let’s cleave together and sanction these words! The days of ambiguity are finished!

you keep using that word

The Palatine Medea

Sir Edward Poynter, 1907. Lesbia and her Sparrow. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s probably about time we talked about who Medea palatina is and why I named this blog for her.

Medea palatina is an insulting nickname hurled by Cicero at one of the most fascinating, enigmatic, and notorious women of Roman history, Clodia Metelli, in a speech defending his young friend Caelius in 56 BCE. Clodia is the most likely candidate, according to general scholarly consensus, for the real woman behind Lesbia, the pseudonym Catullus calls his on-again-off-again lover. Clodia is also alleged to have poisoned her husband, Metellus Celer, and to have committed incest with her youngest brother Clodius Pulcher. So there’s that.

The only sources we have for Clodia’s character and actions are men who 1) didn’t always get what they wanted from her and 2) regarded her as a sort of proxy for her male relatives, with whom they had complicated political relations. It should come as no surprise that they might exaggerate or fabricate foibles of her character and behavior in order to slander her personally and her male relatives by association. Sadly, it should also come as no surprise that generations of (mostly male) scholars have taken such vicious slanders of her character at face value. I do not intend to make Clodia into some kind of feminist saint, but as a woman who was clearly not afraid to do as she pleased in a man’s world, I do think she deserves some reevaluation and celebration — even if it must of necessity happen on our male authors’ terms.

As a woman who was clearly not afraid to do as she pleased in a man’s world, Clodia deserves some reevaluation and celebration.

It’s important to note that we know nothing about Clodia’s life outside an approximately 20-year period, from her marriage in the late 60s BCE to the end of Cicero’s life in 43. This is the period in which she became interesting to men who liked to write a lot (i.e. Cicero and Catullus). Roman women, even those with social clout and relative autonomy like Clodia, were not generally valued in and of themselves, but as tools for advancing the interests of their families. This 20-year period was one in which Clodia likely felt caught in the middle of a conflict brewing between her birth family (mostly her little brother Clodius Pulcher’s fault) and her husband’s family, when she likely exercised her behind-the-scenes influence, and perhaps stepped out of her traditional male-approved role, in order to do all she could to protect her family.

* * *

Most of us first encounter Clodia as Lesbia in the poems of Catullus. Though some express euphoric love, the corpus overall doesn’t exactly paint Clodia in the most favorable light: “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love” in Poem 5 devolves into this in Poem 60:

Num te leaena montibus Libystinis
aut Scylla latrans infima inguinum parte
tam mente dura procreavit ac taetra,
ut supplicis vocem in novissimo casu
contemptam haberes, ah nimis fero corde?

Surely a lioness from the African mountains
or barking Scylla did not beget you from the depths of her loins,
you of such pitiless, vile spirit that you hold
in contempt the voice of a supplicant in his
recent despair, ah, you of too-cruel heart?

Lesbia comes off as a heartbreaker and a slut, flighty and fickle and a regular cheater despite Catullus’ devotion to her. But isn’t that just the portrait of an ex-girlfriend that so many men still try to paint post-breakup?

Given the tempestuous nature of their relationship and his violent outbursts at her expense, it’s unlikely that she was wholly to blame for his problems. We cannot actually know what Clodia said or did, even when Catullus supposedly quotes her, much less how she felt. A volatile on-again-off-again lover is not the most reliable character source for Clodia. I would certainly feel misrepresented if the only people allowed to commemorate my character on the permanent record were my ex-boyfriends!

Clodia, by vangch (Tumblr)

The Clodia of Cicero’s private letters is a much different woman than the Clodia he constructs in the Pro Caelio. Cicero apparently had a close (if occasionally rocky) political relationship with Clodia’s husband Metellus Celer. When Celer became angry with Cicero over some slight, Cicero admits in the late 60s BCE that he asked Clodia to intervene with her husband on his behalf, since he knew Clodia was well-disposed toward him. In the 40s he writes to Atticus about trying to purchase some property from Clodia, with no hint of animosity or distaste. So why is he so vicious toward her in the Pro Caelio, in between when these letters were written? In sum, Clodia was useful to Cicero as far as he could use her status and relationships with powerful men to make statements about those men — she could be the jewel in their crown or a stain on their reputation. For Cicero, she was most useful as a stain.

It is safe to say that Clodia’s family was dysfunctional. Her marriage to Metellus Celer was quite strained for the last few years until Metellus died in 59. In letters from 60 BCE, Cicero places 100% of the blame for their marital disharmony on Clodia’s shoulders. However, it is likely that Cicero is getting only Metellus’ side of the story, or at least is buying into Metellus’ side in order to maintain their political relationship.

Clodia could be the jewel in their crown or a stain on their reputation. For Cicero, she was most useful as a stain.

Also, it was well known that Metellus and Clodia’s brother, Publius Clodius Pulcher, did not get along at all; Clodia sided with her brother and her blood family over her marital family, which was not conducive to marital bliss — though Marilyn Skinner points out that in doing so she probably thought of herself as being a good sister rather than a bad wife. At the time of Metellus’ death, we have no records of anyone suspecting foul play; it is not until years later, close to the time of the Pro Caelio, that rumors begin to circulate accusing Clodia of poisoning her late husband. We have no way to know whether such rumors had any basis in reality.

In addition to her marital problems, Clodia also bore the stress of her siblings’ relationships: Lucullus divorced Clodia’s younger sister on grounds of incest with her brother, the aforementioned P. Clodius Pulcher. Skinner argues convincingly that this accusation was completely made up and intended to harm the reputation of Clodius — his sister was collateral damage in this political move. But through exaggeration and political mudslinging, the charge ended up sticking to all three of the Clodian sisters, including our Clodia Metelli. Cicero was among the most vocal propagators of this slander, because Clodius was one of Cicero’s worst political enemies.

* * *

Attacking an influential widow with a reputation for incest, promiscuity, & poisoning is a surefire way to distract from the issue at hand.

It is easy to forget that Clodia is not the one on trial in the Pro Caelio. She is not officially part of the case at all, but in his defense speech, Cicero accuses her of financing the prosecution against his friend and erstwhile protégé Caelius. Cicero had only returned from exile about seven months before the trial, so he was still taking every opportunity to rain down abuse on the man responsible for that exile: Publius Clodius Pulcher, Clodia’s younger brother. Thus in addition to whatever distaste he might have developed for Clodia personally, Cicero had the additional incentive of her unfortunate sibling relation to sling mud at Clodia. Cicero calls Clodia Medea palatina because of his grudge against her brother, but also because attacking an influential widow with a (spurious) reputation for incest, promiscuity, and poisoning is a surefire way to distract from the issue at hand, shift blame from Caelius onto his alleged former lover Clodia, and put the very basis of the trial on unstable ground. Clodia is an easy target.

In the trial against Caelius, which took place in early April 56 BCE, the prosecution and the defense each delivered three speeches. Cicero was, as usual, the closer for the defense. In an earlier speech, one of the prosecutors had called Caelius pulchellus Iason, a “pretty-boy Jason” who was accustomed to loose living, violence, and breaking the rules. Thus the foundations were laid for conceiving the trial in terms of the myth of Jason and Medea, probably best known to the Romans through Ennius’ early Latin tragedy Medea Exsul, which referenced and reworked some of Euripides’ Medea and which Cicero quotes in this speech.

From the Casa dei Dioscuri, Pompeii. Medea contemplates killing her children. Wikimedia Commons.

Medea, of course, is one of the most notorious women in Greco-Roman mythology, and well-deserving of her own separate post — a sorceress and a fratricide, she is probably most famous for murdering both Jason’s fiancé and her own sons by Jason when Jason decides to divorce her for a younger, richer, Greeker princess (the main event of Euripides’ Medea). So being called the Medea of the Palatine (the hill where Clodia lived) isn’t exactly a compliment. It signals that she is dangerous and untrustworthy; that she uses excessive cunning and violence to get what she wants, and that she ruthlessly pursues her own ambition to the detriment of the men around her.

And what could Clodia do to defend herself against such a slander? In a word, nothing. Caelius was acquitted, and as litigious as the Romans were, another suit would have accomplished nothing. Any retaliation she took outside the law would have been seen as confirmation of Cicero’s terrible caricature of her as a conniving, amoral woman with too much intelligence and too much power.

At this point she fades from the historical record, appearing again only in Cicero’s letters a decade later, when he seeks Atticus’ help in purchasing her famously lovely gardens. We do not know how she lived the rest of her life, how she dealt with the murder of her younger brother Pulcher in 52, how she may or may not have been involved in her daughter’s very public affair with Dolabella, who just happened to be married to Cicero’s daughter Tullia during the affair. Perhaps she recovered well from Cicero’s vicious rhetorical attack and ended her days as a respected widow. Unfortunately, in terms of our surviving record of her, Cicero gets the last word — she remains Medea palatina.

This blog memorializes two women who were not willing to hide their intelligence or strength for the sake of men’s comfort.

We could, of course, take a more generous approach to Medea and Clodia and rehabilitate their images from the damage of centuries’ worth of male-focalized scholarship — as women driven to use any means at their disposal to protect themselves and their family in the games men played around and with them, as women slandered and accused (possibly falsely, in Clodia’s case) of crimes and murders that destroyed their reputation in a way they would not destroy a man’s. This blog memorializes two women, one mythic and one historical, who were not willing to hide their intelligence or strength for the sake of men’s comfort. Future scholarship owes it to Clodia and women like her to follow scholars like Skinner and Hejduk by taking a more nuanced approach when dealing with the writing of men who (perhaps wrongly) felt spited by her.

Red-figure krater attributed to the Policoro Painter, ca. 400 BCE. After killing her children (bottom right), Medea escapes in her dragon/giant snake-drawn chariot as Jason looks on (lower left). Wikimedia Commons.

Sources and Guide for Further Reading:

D.H. Berry, Cicero: Defense Speeches. Revised ed. OUP, 2008.
Suzanne Dixon, Reading Roman Women: Sources, Genres, and Real Life. Duckworth, 2001.
Julia Dyson Hejduk, Clodia: A Sourcebook. University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
Anne Leen, “Clodia Oppugnatrix: The Domus Motif in Cicero’s Pro Caelio.” The Classical Journal 96.2 (2001): 141-162.
Marilyn B. Skinner, “Clodia Metelli.” TAPA 113 (1983): 273-87.
Marilyn B. Skinner, Clodia Metelli: The Tribune’s Sister. OUP, 2011.
T.P. Wiseman, Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal. Cambridge UP, 1987.

How to Get Work Done in the Summer Without Hating Yourself (Maybe)

phd comics summer

This summer, I’m trying something new: work-life balance. It’s not easy at all, especially given my tendency to be far too ambitious about how much I’ll accomplish in the summer. I usually write myself a to-do list a mile long in May, and then beat myself up in August only over accomplishing half of it. I know I’m not the only one with this problem, and I know I’m far from the only graduate student who feels guilty whenever they take time off from working, but then also guilty while working for not taking more time off — the grad school catch-22. This summer, my first as an ABD-status student, felt like a great time to hit the reset button on the cycle of overworking and guilt-tripping myself.

Given the to-do list I’ve set myself for the summer, it may not sound like I’ve cut back all that much. I am a co-organizer for a graduate student conference my department is hosting in October, so I’ve been working on putting that together with my fellow co-organizers. I’ve been finishing up a special author project and researching possible dissertation projects (my prospectus is due in September), which has involved a truly absurd amount of primary and secondary reading — much of which still lies ahead of me. I’m also writing a bit for the CAMWS GSIC blog and traveling with my husband for his summer research project. I have a half-time appointment as a research assistant for one of my professors that will run for six weeks through midsummer; I will also start my 2019-20 assistantship at the UI Press in July. Yikes.

oprah yikes

If you are a graduate student reading this, you likely have a similar line-up of jobs and projects keeping you busy (and guilty) these summer days. For us, summer “vacation” is usually anything but. It’s so hard to break out of the mentality that we need to be working all the time, especially when that expectation is handed down (tacitly or explicitly) from an advisor or other authority figure in your program. I certainly haven’t stopped feeling guilty about my measly progress on my to-do list yet, but I have gotten a liiiiittle bit better at finding balance since the semester ended. Mostly I’ve done this in three ways:

1. Lower expectations. Looking at a half-done to-do list in August, when the semester is about to ramp up again, is possibly the most depressing experience of my graduate career to date. Back in May when I started to make my usual, absurdly long to-do list, I forced myself to cut back and focus only on the essentials: finishing my special author project and choosing my dissertation topic. For the former, I set incremental deadlines during the summer to force myself to work semi-consistently. For the latter, I compiled a stack of books from the library and have started to work through them one by one.

I haven’t given myself any other school-related to-dos for the summer. Even though there are conferences I want to submit abstracts for in the fall and papers I want to revise into articles that I can submit to journals, I forced myself to formally recognize that those are secondary, even tertiary, priorities for this summer. I have reminders about those things written down in a separate place from my official summer to-dos. If I don’t get to those things by mid-August, it’s okay — I won’t have to be disappointed by those unchecked boxes on my list.

2. Set boundaries and protect them. So far this has been the hardest part of my attempt to find balance, but I think it’s the most important. I usually don’t set myself any kind of schedule over the summer, so I end up working very inconsistent hours. This month, I am spending 9:00 am to 4:00 pm in the library on weekdays, working on academic work and blog writing. I am not working after 5:00 pm this summer, period (no matter how much I may “want” to, or guilt myself into feeling I need to!). Instead I’m spending the evenings with my family and friends, trying out new breweries, re-learning to knit socks (my last attempt four years ago ended in disaster), and catching up on my movies and Netflix watch lists.

I’m also trying to keep work out of the weekends as much as possible. I know this one won’t last for much longer; once my assistantships start up, there simply will not be enough hours during the week to get all my work done. However, when that happens, I am still going to do my best to contain work to only one weekend day, leaving the other free for relaxation. Sure, I could get more done if I spent Sunday afternoons in the library, but isn’t the whole point of summer that you don’t have to spend Sunday afternoons in the library?

3. Schedule the fun! My official to-do list isn’t just about work: it includes reading one book for fun, getting back into a regular yoga habit, and several knitting and crochet projects. The purpose of summer is to give our minds and bodies a break from the brutality of the school year, to relax and refresh ourselves — why not treat those as goals and activities equal in importance to whatever academic work happens in the summer? Checking a box on the official to-do list when I’ve finished knitting a baby blanket or reading a fun book makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something important, because I have: I’ve spent time on something that renews and refreshes me.


I am not good at loosening up and letting go of things. My work to-do list and the guilt trips I put myself on for not being productive enough follow me everywhere. So this is not an “I did it and you can too” list of easy steps — this is me, as one workaholic to another, saying that I think it’s possible to be less of a workaholic and still feel good about your summer productivity. I may not get as much done this summer as I would by working evenings and weekends, but I am much less likely to hate myself and feel like I’ve wasted my break come August. And though I have snuck in some weekend reading once or twice, I already feel more relaxed than I usually do at this point in the summer. Here’s hoping I can keep it up — and here’s hoping you can, too.

Daphnis’ Funeral Blues

I took a poetry course my freshman year in college that had a profound impact on the way I interact with the written word and with the world around me. Every Fall since that course, as I walk through piles of freshly fallen leaves, I recite Gerard Manley Hopkins in my head; I think of Gjertrud Schnackenberg on lonely winter nights; I call on W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas in difficult times. I can still recite the sonnet that I memorized for one of our assignments  we even had it read at our wedding last summer. I hold all these poems in my mind, and they help me express deep emotions and sensations that I would otherwise struggle to put into words. The director of the Iowa Latin program, Dr. Marcia Lindgren, summed this up beautifully last weekend in a conference presentation about a poetry recitation her advanced Latin courses do: “If you put a poem into your mind, it’s there whenever you need it.”

Of all the gorgeous poems we studied in that freshman poetry course, the one that has stuck with me most poignantly — the one that has been there whenever I needed it most — is W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” I was never required to memorize it for class, but I’ve reread it so many times over the years that I’ve unintentionally memorized it. The first time I read it, I was nearly brought to tears, and since then in times of loss it has helped me work through my grief. I’ve returned to it many times since my grandfather passed away last summer.

Last month I read a selection of Theocritus’ Idylls (mid-length poems on a wide variety of themes) in preparation for my PhD comps. Theocritus, an Alexandrian poet from the early 3rd century BCE and generally considered the founder of bucolic poetry, was part of the circle of intellectuals attracted to Alexandria when Ptolemy II Philadelphus built the Mouseion (which included the famous Library of Alexandria) and began recruiting scholars to make Alexandria the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean. In Idyll 1, a nameless goatherd asks the shepherd-singer Thyrsis to sing his award-winning song about the cowherd Daphnis, who wasted away and died rather than break his oath of virginity. Thyrsis obliges him, and more than half the poem is comprised of his song. In the song, animals and gods gather to see Daphnis dying and ask him what’s wrong; finally Daphnis himself gives a little soliloquy before he dies. I was so struck at Daphnis’ last words in lines 132-36:

“Now you brambles may bear violets, and you thorns may do the same, and the fair narcissus may bloom on the juniper, and everything may be changed, and pears can grow on the pine tree, since Daphnis is dying. Let the deer tear apart the hounds, and let the screech owls from the mountains rival nightingales.” (Trans. from the Loeb)

νῦν ἴα μὲν φορέοιτε βάτοι, φορέοιτε δ’ ἄκανθαι,
ἁ δὲ καλὰ νάρκισσος ἐπ’ ἀρκεύθοισι κομάσαι,
πάντα δ’ ἄναλλα γένοιτο, καὶ ἁ πίτυς ὄχνας ἐνείκαι,
Δάφνις ἐπεὶ θνάσκει, καὶ τὰς κύνας ὥλαφος ἕλκοι,
κἠξ ὀρέων τοὶ σκῶπες ἀηδόσι γαρύσαιντο.

If you followed the link to “Funeral Blues” up above, then you know where my mind immediately went:

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Of course it rings a bit narcissistic in the Idyll when Daphnis says this about himself, but the sentiment is the same: Nature will go completely out of whack because of this loss — but who cares what happens? He’ll still be dead. Nothing matters anymore.

I’ve tried not to admit this in my graduate school career because it makes me feel like a failure as a classicist, but I often struggle to connect to ancient poetry in the original language. I have never had a solid grasp on the various meters, and normally there’s so much reading to get through that I only have time to do just that — get through it — and can’t spend time trying to see what makes the Greek beautiful. But reading this Idyll was different. I always love seeing modern phrases and sentiments in ancient literature (my latest favorite is Cicero telling his BFF Atticus in a letter that he’ll facepalm at his news), but recognizing one of my favorite English poems here where I was least expecting it was simultaneously delightful and moving. Up to that point, the poem was mildly entertaining to me, but mostly just something I needed to know well enough to be able to write about it on my exam. Suddenly it became personal. It set the tone for the rest of my exam-prep Hellenistic poetry overview, in which I gave Theocritus and Callimachus a second chance and found I appreciated them much more than I had in my graduate Greek survey course three years ago.

These kinds of connections and resonances with modern literature are part of what makes studying Classics so magical, but we tend not to focus on them in our academic coursework. I wonder if Classics would find a new and enthusiastic audience if the process of discovering and drawing out these resonances were welcomed and celebrated and taken seriously in all of our literature courses, instead of only in specifically reception-focused courses. If we can connect our readings to our daily lives more intimately, we will retain them better and appreciate them more deeply. And if we can’t find connections to modern life, what are we doing? Let the deer tear apart the hounds, indeed.

PhD Comps, According to Parks & Rec

Life news for those of you who haven’t been listening to me complain for the last several months: I just took my PhD comprehensive exam last Saturday. In my program, that means a six-hour essay exam on passages chosen at random from a massive reading list of the Greek and Latin canon. It was an exhausting process, but what better way to work through the emotions and fatigue than with Parks and Rec? Behold, my comps process:

Beginning of the Fall semester, knowing I have MONTHS to prepare:

want to not do things

Beginning of the Spring semester, realizing just how long the reading list actually is, and that three months is not enough time to read everything:

too much responsibility

Wondering why I decided a PhD was a good idea in the first place:

didn't think this through


yes but I don't want to

What encouragement from my family and friends is like:

brilliant talented musk ox

When professors expect me to do classwork in addition to preparing for the comps:



made an iphone.gif

When prospective graduate students visit and ask if I like what I’m doing:

I like saying no

Acknowledging the possibility of failure and being kicked out of graduate school:

this is a fun conversation

Trying to work on a Plan B if kicked out of graduate school:

0 percent sure what to do

Deciding that having to leave graduate school might not be so bad after all:


Trying to learn all the things while still being a decent human, having friends, getting enough sleep, keep up with classwork…:

super chill

Whenever someone tries to get me to care about anything other than comps:

not interested in caring

This exam justifies eating and drinking whatever I want, right?

treat yo self

Inevitable emotional breakdown:


Pep talk with my cohort:

because we're smart.gif

Spending Spring Break cramming for the exam:

everything hurts and I'm dying

One last moment of total despair:

I'm dead

Psyching myself up on the morning of the exam:


When your cohort members show up with Girl Scout Cookies and candy to get you through:


Finding a question on a topic I reviewed just two days ago:

andy oooooo

In the homestretch of the exam, no longer in possession of enough brain power to write the last essay:

not cranky

Finally turning in the exam:

need to lie down.gif

Time to celebrate! Nunc est bibendum!

party time

Second guessing everything I wrote the day after the exam:

completely flustered

Waiting for pass/fail results:

i want it now

It suddenly dawns on me that if I pass, I will have to write a dissertation:

too lazy and stupid to write

Teaching with Circe

Wright Barker, 1889. Circe (Wikimedia Commons)

*This post originally appeared on*

Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe, was released just under a year ago to well-deserved admiration and praise. Miller’s feminist twist on the myths surrounding Circe “never distorts their original shape; it only illuminates details we hadn’t noticed before,” as one reviewer puts it. The long, immortal arc of Circe’s life covers several of the most popular and well-known stories of myth, which Miller pulls from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, and even Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica.

This creative faithfulness to Greek myth combined with the first-person female perspective we so rarely find in ancient literature gives Circe great potential as a teaching tool in mythology courses. Miller’s lively and brisk storytelling style gives the stories an immediacy and clarity that many undergraduates struggle to find in textbook tellings of myth, or even in myth source texts themselves like Euripidean tragedies. This post aims to give a few pointers for using popular fiction in class without feeling like you’ve somehow sold out on our rigorous (and sometimes stodgy) discipline.

In our Classical Mythology course here at the University of Iowa, we assign a creative essay to students at the end of the semester to help students reflect on the process of mythmaking, as well as how Greek myths reflect the cultural norms and assumptions of the ancient world. Students must write an original 4-5 page myth, either modifying and expanding an ancient myth plotline or inventing their own entirely; they must also write an analysis of their own story explaining how their myth reflects social and cultural norms of the society in which it is set. In the best way possible, Circe feels like Madeline Miller took our assignment and ran with it. As a class, you might use the novel to reflect on the myriad possibilities of myth and the coexistence of conflicting versions of certain stories in the ancient texts, since Miller does not follow her source texts slavishly. You could discuss what other endings to Circe’s story students could imagine, what avenues of narrative Miller pursues and which she closes off for herself through the choices she makes about Circe’s life and character. You might even use this as a jumping-off point for spinning out the stories of other minor characters in myth, such as Calypso.

Reading and discussing the novel in class would be an excellent way to help students identify cultural biases and assumptions that are embedded in the ancient versions of Circe’s story. For example, in both Ovid and Homer, Circe transforms men into pigs out of a fearsome feminine malice. Since Circe is a creation of the male imagination in these texts, there is no consideration for what other motives she might have for treating men so viciously. When we read these source texts with students, it is easy to take such a characterization of Circe at face value; her wicked wiles are just one more obstacle on Odysseus’ journey home, one more opportunity for the “real hero” of the story to show off his own wily nature.

Miller turns this characterization on its head. She gives Circe a painfully real motivation for distrusting and transforming all men who come to her island: self-defense and the PTSD of sexual trauma. In the novel, Circe narrates her own brutal rape by sailors who take advantage of her solitude and hospitality; thus the first set of pig-men is revenge, but the rest she changes in order to neutralize the threat of harm before it becomes real. Like many survivors today, Circe keeps her story to herself; for generations, she does not tell a soul (not even Odysseus or her own son), until the end of the novel when she and Telemachus (Odysseus and Penelope’s son) have become lovers. As teachers, we must weigh the advantages of the representation of a survivor-centered perspective with the triggering potential for survivors of sexual violence among our students. It is a topic which will require careful thought and advance preparation on your part individually as an instructor as well as collectively with your class, but it is a topic which has been historically overlooked, assumed, or otherwise poorly handled in discussions of Classical texts. (Shameless plug: I’ve written with Prof. Arum Park about teaching other classical rape narratives here; we list some resources to help you get started).

The rape and its psychological aftermath for Circe is also an excellent example of how the novel treats women’s issues in general as a natural and necessary facet of Classical texts, not just a popular topic. Circe’s first-person perspective throughout the novel offers us a fictional but probable example of how it must have felt to be a woman in antiquity — to be constantly overlooked, assumed to be vulnerable and/or stupid, locked into a prescribed role in life, never able to share one’s most important thoughts and feelings. In the novel, after Circe transforms Glaucos from fisherman to sea god and Scylla from beautiful nymph to ravaging monster, she tries to confess what she has done. She explains how she used the flowers sprung from Kronos’ blood to change both Glaucos and Scylla to their true natures. None of her male relatives — her father Helios, her grandfather Oceanos, her other Titan uncles — believe her. They tell her that she and the herbs have no power, that they wouldn’t have told her where those flowers grow if they could have caused such harm (because of course these river gods assume that they know better than their niece who speaks with a mortal voice). No one will believe in her power, or the power of magical herbs, until they hear it from a male: Circe’s brother Aeetes comes home from his kingdom in Colchis and shows Helios his own magical powers.

J.W. Waterhouse, 1892. Circe Invidiosa (Wikimedia Commons)

This provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the power of the storyteller with students. Who gets to write the stories, both fictional/mythical and historical? Whose voice is heard and whose is silenced? Which version of a narrative becomes dominant and why? Are the voices of women in classical texts really women’s voices, or are their speeches simply the male writer’s perspective, ventriloquized in a female character? Circe has always been a pawn in the games of other heroes. Here she is the center of her own story, richly characterized and multifaceted.

It is important to note that our understanding of male characters stands to gain here, too. Of course Odysseus has always been “the man of twists and turns,” or, as Emily Wilson has it, simply “complicated”; Wilson’s new translation in particular has turned the focus of Odysseus’ twists away from his mere cleverness and opened up conversations on less savory aspects of his character. Miller’s novel does a similar thing: while the gods are portrayed as universally self-absorbed, not a single hero in the novel is one-sided. Odysseus, Daedalus, Minos, Telemachus, even divine Circe herself, are all multifaceted individuals, with both good and shameful things in their history and in their future potentialities. Through their conversations with Circe, Miller shows our heroes for what they are: flawed humans. Even Circe herself is open to student readers’ critique: though Miller’s Circe presents herself as vastly different from the other nymphs and gods, in some ways she is just like them, lacking in self-knowledge and quick to vindictive anger.

Teaching with popular fiction does not have to equal pandering, not even in a discipline as uppity as Classics. In many ways, Madeline Miller has done exactly what Euripides, Ovid, Apollonius, and countless other classical authors did in their works: she has taken a basic myth and put her own twist on it. Her novel thus makes an excellent comparative companion to the texts of those authors, each highlighting certain features of the other. Circe challenges readers to think through many of the same issues our original myth writing assignment does: how myths both reflect and reinforce cultural norms; how the perspective and authority of the storyteller influence the narrative; how multiple versions of myths interact to enrich the portraits of their characters. Miller has given us, bard-like, the Epic of Circe, Witch of Aeaea. We would be remiss, I think, to deny our students the opportunity to engage and challenge this modern version of her story alongside the ancient ones.