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Classics Department Works To Integrate Women Better Into Classroom, Curriculum

Personnel Changes Include New Assistant Professor of Classics Carolyn Higbie

By Ivan Oransky, Crimson Staff Writer

Like its home, Boylston Hall, the Classics Department went through some reconstruction this past spring and summer.

While the building got a face lift, one of the departments that call it home had another kind of reconstruction after it lost three first-year women graduate students amid charges of sexism.

But the newest addition to both institutions came over the summer, when Carolyn Higbie, assistant professor of classics, stepped onto the brand new carpet outside her third-floor office for the first time.

Higbie, the Classics Department's newest junior faculty member, arrived this summer at a department whose atmosphere was called "intellectually and ethically intolerable" by two of the departing students last spring. Other graduate students said at the time that they had been the object of sexism in the department.

And while rumors that incidents of sexual harassment were the cause of the students' departure were denied by both the students and faculty, some said that the events raised important questions about how women are treated in a department whose discipline's nature tends to focus on studies dominated by male figures.

But faculty and students say that steps have been taken toward addressing the problem. Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature Gregory Nagy says that he is "optimistic" about progress in meetings and talks between faculty members.

The appointment of Higbie adds a third junior woman faculty member to the department. In addition, assistant professor of the Classics Cynthia E. Damon, who is now head tutor, will assume teaching duties in one Classical Philology course, the field of study from which the three students left.

"My sense is that we want to learn from the difficulties of last year and improve the areas where improvements can be made," says Professor of Greek and Latin Charles P. Segal. Segal says that members of the department are not fostering "continuous bitterness," and would rather put the events of last semester behind them.

Damon says that department chair R. J. Tarrant put together a committee at the end of last semester to examine graduate student representation on faculty and departmental committees in charge of such items as curriculum advising and inviting speakers.

"One problem for both faculty and graduate students was the lack of regular channels between faculty and students," Segal says, A similar committee is being revived for undergraduates.

Segal will be teaching Classical Philology 227, "The Representation of Gender in Greek Tragedy," a graduate seminar exploring "the ways in which distinctions of tensions between male and female enter into 5th century tragedy." Segal says that the subject material, which he has been working on for some time and on which he will soon publish a book, is "not really related" to last semester's situation.

The department was quick to discuss the problem, says Higbie. Department members introduced her to two of the students who eventually left, and also phoned to tell her when the students made their decision to leave.

But in her three months at Harvard, Higbie says, she has not sensed any problems.

"I've seen nothing that makes me nervous or uncomfortable," she says. "I appreciate the department letting me know about the situation and making no attempt to hide it."

Higbie will be teaching four courses this year: Greek 103, "Hesiod" and Greek 105, "Aristophanes" this semester, and Latin 104, "Ovid" and Greek 4, "Selections from Homer's Iliad" in the spring.

For Higbie, this fairly heavy teaching load is an improvement over her three course per semester duties at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. At SIU, she was rewarded for her efforts teaching courses that ranged from Greek and Latin language to the history of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations with the Queen Award for Excellence in Teaching.

"I'm looking forward to teaching here," she says. "I'm quite eager to meet the kind of students majoring in classics and interested in those classes."

Higbie met some of those students this summer, when she team-taught introductory Latin at the Summer School with her husband, Timothy W. Boyd. Boyd will teach introductory Latin at the Extension School and will also serve as a teaching fellow for Core courses.

The graduate students who assisted her in teaching duties "certainly know their stuff," Higbie says. "I was impressed."

"The advanced level of courses will be fun," she says. "I think you can offer the kind of courses here you couldn't offer elsewhere."

The classics scholar--whose mastery of languages encompasses Spanish, Modern, Greek, Latin, ancient Greek, French, German and even some Sanskrit--began her teaching career at Maine's Colby College shortly after completing her Ph.D. at Princeton.

Higbie combines world-class scholarship in poetic analysis with a lively interest in music--not a surprising combination since techniques such as rhythm and meter are common to both fields. Higbie began her academic career as a music major at Arizona State University, studying flute and piano.

And the classicist is no stranger to Harvard Square. Higbie spent her last two undergraduate years at Wellesley College, and recalls riding the shuttle to and from Cambridge on Saturdays to explore the Square and neighboring areas.

Higbie's own interests center on the history of oral literature, Homeric poetry in particular. She is the author of two books, "Measure and Music: Enjambement and Sentence Structure in the Iliad" (1990), and the forthcoming "Patterns of Naming in Homer."

"[Professor Higbie] brings a linguistic orientation to the picture that is not really duplicated in the department at present," says assistant professor Damon.

For instance, Higbie is interested in how exactly stories of the war with Troy were composed, a subject few others study with her particular focus. "As best we understand it at the moment," says Higbie, "these are poets who wrote without pencil and paper, in a world that wasn't so intensely literate as ours is."

"She is a first-rate generalist who is extremely well-versed in Greek and Latin literature," says Nagy, "and she has a wide variety of important specialties in the analysis of oral poetics."

Nagy points to the study of enjambement as an example of Higbie's ability. Enjambement occurs when the syntax from one line or verse of poetry spills over to the next.

"By observing this mechanism in traditional poetry," he says, "you have an empirical tool for figuring out the poet's method of composition."

Traditional theorists, Damon explain, argue that each line of poetry is composed from preexisting parts. But by proving that grammar flows between lines or verses, using enjambement analysis, scholars can show that poetry cannot be composed solely in this manner.

"[Enjambement] has a lot to say about the originality of the poet," says Damon.

Nagy says that Higbie has refined and improved upon the technique of enjambement analysis, which was pioneered by Harvard professor Milman Parry in the early 1930s.

Higbie is eager to begin work on her third book, which will examine the subject of orality in ancient Athens--a difficult area of study, since for obvious reasons there exist few written records of the oral tradition.

The department was "very happy" and "very enthusiastic" to find someone with a wide range of teaching experience in a wide range of subjects, and who had already made her mark as a scholar so early in her career, says Segal.

"She's really an all-around classicist," he says. "She's very able in many areas, and her approach is very different from other members of the department."

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