A Conversation with Professor Kate Meng Brassel
By Elizabeth Vo-Phamhi
This fall, Professor Kate Meng Brassel joined Penn’s Department of Classics as a visiting assistant professor of classical studies. I was excited to get to know her, so we arranged to meet over Zoom for a Friday morning chat.
Professor Brassel received her B.A. from Columbia University, M.A. from Princeton University, M.Phil from the University of Cambridge, and her Ph.D. in Classics from Columbia University in 2018. Before teaching at Penn, Professor Brassel taught as a lecturer in the Core Curriculum and Classics Department at Columbia and also worked for some time in television production. Professor Brassel is currently working on a new monograph about Persius’ satires.
I would like to thank Professor Brassel for taking the time to speak with me and I am excited to share our conversation with you.
EV: I realize it’s hardly ideal circumstances to join a new institution and explore a new city, but to the extent that you’ve been able to, how have you enjoyed Penn and Philadelphia so far?
I genuinely miss being in the classroom with students. I love working in classics, mostly because I love teaching it.
KMB: I’m actually still in New York. It seemed like a personally difficult idea to move to a place where I wouldn’t know anybody and not be able to meet new people. So I decided to hunker down here. But I have been down to Philadelphia to visit! I hope that in the spring semester, I’ll be able to [host] some classes outside and field-trips with my students. I would really love to meet you all in person. The people that I’ve met so far have been wonderful. I wish it were more people, frankly, and I really miss having colleagues who are three-dimensional. I genuinely miss being in the classroom with students. I love working in classics, mostly because I love teaching it. I’m not really sure that students realize how much of a loss it is for professors, too, not to be able to interact with you in ways that aren’t so impersonal as the screen.
EV: You’re teaching an advanced Greek language class on “that Athenian bad-boy” Alcibiades (as described by Professor Bowes in an email to all us undergrads). How is that going?
KMB: My students have been really great sports. It’s certainly not easy to study a language that intensively online. It’s been interesting. I’m trying to think about Alcibiades as a foil for other things that are going on in Athens. He is sort of a mirror for democracy, for desire, for philosophical problems although we’re just getting to the philosophical bit at this point. I do like teaching thematic courses in general; I did one on Hercules when I taught at Columbia, which was a lot of fun.
EV: That’s actually a great segue into my next question. How do the classes that you taught at Columbia compare to the ones you’re teaching this semester at Penn, in size and level interaction with students?
KMB: That’s a good question. There are two components of that— I did teach some smaller classes in the Classics Department at Columbia but my last two years at Columbia were in the core faculty. Seminars there are about between 15 and 22 students and they are very much conversation-style classes. These classes couldn’t be more different in a way, in spite of the fact that you’re teaching some of the same texts. For instance, I am teaching Thucydides and Symposium in my Greek class here at Penn, and I also taught them both in my core class at Columbia. But the level of granular detail we get into in the Greek class is really different. And it’s special because the students are ready to get on board with that level of detail and accountability. But I have to say, teaching humanities education to non-specialists is something I’m really passionate about as well, so I am really excited to be teaching a 100-level class in translation next fall. It’s really important to balance specialist and non-specialist education, because students at all levels give you a good perspective on the literature. Students ask provocative questions that sometimes flabbergast you, and then you have to go and figure out a way to provide an answer.
EV: As a student, was there a moment in your life when you suddenly realized that you wanted to study classics seriously?
KMB: It must have been sometime during my first or second year in college. I first really wanted to do American archaeology, but certain circumstances didn’t allow me to do that in my undergraduate. So I ended up thinking about an english major and a classics major. And I’m going to admit something that will be very unimpressive to you, but I really couldn’t decide. I think it was the last day before I had to declare my major in sophomore year, and I was just sitting there in torture staring at the major declaration form — which was paper, because we used paper in those days — and this graduate student walked by and said “What’s wrong? You look horrible.” I said, “I don’t know what to major in” and he said, “Just major in classics.” And so I did. I’d like to say it was more glorious than that. But if I’m being more serious, the reason why classics was attractive to me was two-fold. I liked the sort of focus in extreme detail that a classics training at the undergraduate level affords you and the closeness with which faculty are willing to work with you, given the smaller student body. And second, I had some questions, even from my first Latin class in freshman year on satire, that I didn’t feel I had answered, and so I didn’t want to stop until I found the answers. The English Department was very vibrant at that time as well, so it was not the easiest choice, but I think it was the right choice for me, temperamentally.
EV: Your career has taken you through both the traditional classics academia path and other fields, particularly media and television production. Could you tell us about how you got into that and then came back to academia?
KMB: I actually did them at the same time, which is sort of a crazy thing to do. I started interning at a news network while I was writing my dissertation and teaching and then stayed on as a production assistant for another year. I really prefer having different projects to work on at the same time. I think that one of the concerns that some students have — or some students’ parents have — is how this major is going to be relevant to your world, and getting a job, et cetera. But what you are getting in the classics classroom is really rigorous training in research, thinking, and writing. And there’s no reason why you can’t do any job that requires those things. What I ended up doing was mostly production assistance, some writing, and in the end mostly research. Eventually I had to step away because teaching full time and working part time, in the long run, turns out to be too much. But for the time I was doing it, I absolutely loved it and I so very much admire the people there. And I would encourage anyone in classics to find a way to learn about communicating with a general audience. Sometimes we only end up talking to other classicists and speak in ways that sound like an echochamber, to use a phrase that has become a little bit ubiquitous. But, you know, it taught me a lot about communicating with people and writing for audiences who are intelligent but non-specialist . I’m not sure people necessarily appreciate how much complicated research goes into a news program and how much work it takes to translate gobs of research into something that people can understand without themselves having to have read a forty-page report on the movements of people across borders, or what have you.
EV: Your response to the previous question definitely discussed some important points that relate to my next question: what advice would you give to classics students who aren’t really sure what they want to do after graduation?
We’re going to have to change how we do things politically, socially, even academically, in terms of how we work, and there’s no reason why early graduates can’t be the deciders about that.
KMB: I hope that you’re not sure what you want to do after graduation [laughs]. What I would say is that there are many more careers and paths than the few options that we might think are on offer, like doctor, lawyer, engineer — professions that have set names. It can be hard because of course there is the question of supporting yourself, and people especially now are really concerned about how to do that. But I think especially when you’re young, doing a couple of things at the same time is not bad. I’ve had time periods where I held multiple jobs because one would help me make ends meet and the other was what I really wanted to do. And it’s exhausting, but really interesting. I don’t want to downplay the anxiety that juniors and seniors naturally have right now, especially graduating into this economy. And I think anybody who says there’s a straightforward path for graduates at this time frankly would be lying through their teeth. But this is also a moment for creativity. And we’re going to have to change how we do things politically, socially, even academically, in terms of how we work, and there’s no reason why early graduates can’t be the deciders about that. You guys are going to outlive the rest of us, so you should be shaping what that life looks like. And I would encourage people to try jobs that they don’t think they’re qualified for. I once worked for an art magazine. Totally unqualified to do it. Turned out fine. Turned out not to be my life’s great passion, but it worked. I once worked for an international news show. Totally fine, you can do it! And I hope you will have the well-placed confidence, with a certain level of application and humility, that you can do many things, and I hope that you will try different things. I really discourage students from going straight into graduate school for that reason. You should have a wide range of thinking about the way you want to live your daily life as well, before you embark on a ten-year career.
EV: Your comments are really reassuring. Any normal year, this would be so reassuring to hear as classics majors, but it especially resonates now during the current pandemic. Now, to shift a bit to some lighter questions… some of my colleagues at Discentes would like to ask you some classic, “fun” if you will, questions. First: who is your favorite author, if you had to choose one?
KMB: Oh no… just one? Do you mean “who would I bring to a desert island” or do you mean “who do I find comforting at night when I’m miserable?” or…
EV: Ah, I didn’t mean to get too specific with this but I suppose “who do you enjoy reading over a cup of coffee or tea?”
KMB: P.G. Wodehouse. That’s not going to be a reference that you guys necessarily know, but he just parodies the English upper classes in the early 20th century, and it’s all very silly and not very serious. Sorry not to say something more impressive– I sort of like entertaining myself with ridiculous, vapid people that I have absolutely no relationship to. Desert island– I would probably bring the Iliad.
EV: I’m sure you’d never be bored with that.
KMB: Yeah, that’s true.
EV: Which ancient figure would you most like to spend the day with if you could travel back in time?
KMB: If I could travel back in time? Gee whiz. Let me just look at the ancient figures over here for reference [swivels office chair to look at her bookshelves]. Hm. I’ll offer two. One, I feel obligated to say the author that I’m trying to finish my book on, and that’s Persius. Remember how I said that I had some questions from freshman year in college and am still working on the answers? I would like to just ask him at some point [laughs]. But I’m not sure that he’d be the most fun person to hang out with. He seems like, to be honest, a little bit of a jerk. I think that the funnest person to hang out with would probably be Euripides. Euripides is the one that I’d want to share a box of wine with. But in terms of getting some questions answered, it would have to be Persius.
EV: Which part of the ancient world would you most like to visit, either today or if you could travel back in time to a certain period?
KMB: You know, I have to say I’ve been there twice and I can’t get enough of it and it’s very much a part of my heart and it’s heartbreaking because they’re having so much trouble now: but in a heartbeat I’d say Lebanon. Whether ancient or contemporary, I would go back in a heartbeat. People tend to not know too much about Lebanon. There are various political reasons behind that. It’s a very small country, but it is so beautiful and it has either the largest or second largest extant Roman temple site in the ancient world called Baalbek. Lebanon has given me many gifts, but in terms of my understanding of the ancient world, I was given a real sense of awe in visiting Baalbek, from just the scale of these temples — there’s a temple of Jupiter and a temple of Dionysus — the detail and level of devotion and the temples’ relationship to the landscape. And on the other hand, I went on a hike through a crazy ravine — I was not wearing the right shoes for this — through a stream down the mountains into this tiny, narrow valley with the clearest blue water that is supposed to be the birthplace of Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite. And when I visited there, I could really see why the ancients believed in sacred springs. I had spent most of my life near the lower Hudson River, so the idea of a sacred spring is not one that comes naturally to me, but in Lebanon, I really understood why you would believe and feel that the lover of Aphrodite was born in this particular spot. You know, Lebanon is going through a devastating economic time right now, a devastating political crisis, the rising COVID rates, and not to mention the explosion in Beirut. But Lebanon is one of the most diverse countries on earth, in a very compact space that is also ecologically diverse, and diverse in terms of ruins and culture of the past and present. I can’t wait to go back.
EV: Wow. I really hope to have the opportunity to go there someday.
KMB: I hope so too. We should all be pulling for Lebanon.
EV: Two questions that I’d like to conclude with. Firstly, the discipline of classics has a really long and multifaceted history, but classicists today have the benefit of hindsight. What do you think us budding classicists should be especially cognizant of as we do research and even select research topics?
Bringing classics into dialogue can only expand the field and bring it new life. I don’t think it’s something to be feared.
KMB: I would say that, first of all, that’s something we’re all trying to figure out actively, so I don’t have the sacred answer on this. I think that students should realize that, regardless of whether there is an existing body of scholarship on something, if they have a question about the ancient world, it’s probably a good question and they should pursue it. The best research comes out of that curiosity. But I think you’re also asking about the changing direction of the field. One thing I would say is that reading and engaging widely in a variety of discourses and conversations, both inside and outside of the field, can only make your thinking about classics better and more rigorous–and it’s also part of being a whole human. And I think that the idea that your research is an isolated part of your life that doesn’t really have anything to do with anything else because, you know, what could ancient ceramics have to do with the contemporary world… I think that that is a division that more and more people are seeing is false and that it’s not even something to be desired. You should desire that your work be in dialogue with questions that people are asking around you and you should desire that your work be meaningful to others, including others outside the field. And you can be a classicist and an activist, a classicist and an artist, a classicist and someone who writes about ethics today and how you want to position your own moral compass. Being honest with each other about the extent to which classics is located within problematic histories of imperialism, racism, and misogyny is important. There’s a sense of fear that if we open the discipline up to these sorts of inquiries and critiques, there will be nothing left, a palpable fear that the field would die. But I actually think quite the opposite. I think these avenues of inquiry can only bring new life to the field, to whatever forms it will take in the future. Bringing classics into dialogue can only expand the field and bring it new life. I don’t think it’s something to be feared.
EV: That is really hopeful. On the line of hope, my last question: what is giving you hope as we are concluding a very crazy 2020 year?
KMB: Oh man! What a question. I think we have to take and celebrate small victories even when they are not necessarily the structural changes we want to see in the world. At this moment, I think we should take any win as a source of hope and a signal to keep working towards the world we want to live in. I have been really heartened by people’s persistence. The stamina that I see out there amazes me: my upstairs neighbor is a nurse who works in a Covid-heavy hospital by day and takes classes by night; I see musicians bringing joy to the streets; activists and journalists holding power to account; friends and acquaintances of mine who are getting their vital research out there in spite of the odds.
EV: Yes, looking at my friends who are still so motivated to continue their research, and looking at the faculty who always have such positive attitudes despite everything going on, that also gives me hope. Professor Brassel, I want to say… It’s a really difficult and busy time for us all this semester, especially for the faculty who’ve had to adapt to this new online format. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today and for being willing to share your words with all of our readers.
KMB: It’s my pleasure, absolutely! It is a real regret for me that I can’t meet more of you guys. My students are really important to me. I take them with me over the years. I actually have lots of their artwork behind and around me in this room, and I really look forward to developing more durable relationships with you all.
Elizabeth Vo-Phami (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies (Classical Civilizations) and Cognitive Science.