"How sometimes, we lose: profoundly and without recourse."
January 12, 2020 4:47 AM   Subscribe

In August Stefani Echeverría-Fenn started a homeless encampment called 37MLK [Facebook link] in her neighborhood in Oakland, California. As an article by Vivian Ho in The Guardian recounts, it has been such a success that Oakland city council members have looked to it as a model for temporary housing. Echeverría-Fenn is a classicist who gained prominence after co-founding The Sportula: Micro-grants for Classics Students, which has brought her both positive and negative attention. This fall she was kicked out of her UC Berkeley PhD program. She tells the story of that shock in a powerful personal essay called On Classics, Madness, and Losing Everything. Excerpt:
When my apartment burned down freshman year of college, it was a couple weeks before a Latin recitatio assignment in my Virgil class. We got to choose a passage to memorize and recite, and I chose the scene of Aeneas meeting Dido in the underworld. Only a few days earlier, I had received news that our landlord had successfully argued in court that our leases hadn’t been valid and thus we had no right to return after the fire damage abatement. I knew it was bullshit, but didn’t have the money and education yet to prove it, to speak back to him in court. At the recitatio we were given a few minutes to introduce our passage, and tears welled up as I spoke something like the following.

I chose this passage because I always wondered why Dido didn’t just curse him out. But looking at the language I see how for some people, people without power, the harshest indictment is the power to stay silent—to not argue with people who will never care for you, but to remove yourself from them—to disappear. To say you can have your empire, you can have your justifications, but I will not dignify them with a reply. I will not dignify them with my presence. I will not argue back against a fate and a success that was always predicated on my disposability. I will condemn you with the only power I still hold: my silence.
posted by Kattullus (30 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
I will condemn you with the only power I still hold: my silence.

Yes.
posted by Mrs Potato at 4:59 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]


This is so gut-wrenching. I can't imagine being a person of color in Classics right now, much less a disabled person of color. SCSAIA was so terrible last year, and this is just another blow. I was asked in my last role to promote classics to kids of color coming to visit the museum, and I could barely bring myself to do it. Classics needs their voices so terribly, but why would I recommend a field that is so hostile and antagonistic to anyone who is outside of the white privileged bubble?
posted by Mouse Army at 5:27 AM on January 12 [13 favorites]


Classics, along with fields like philosophy and econ, needs a lot of change before it can become welcoming to diverse scholars.

However, from the essay, she sounds like she would have had a hard time succeeding in any program, given her personal mental health challenges and the amount of friction with fellow students, professors, and administrators that occurred. In the end it was a minor paperwork issue that gave them the rationale for expelling her, but that was after a lot of history and previous second chances.

She sounds like a brilliant and committed person; I hope her next place (within academia or not) is more supportive and accepting.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:48 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


the amount of friction with fellow students, professors, and administrators that occurred. In the end it was a minor paperwork issue that gave them the rationale for expelling her, but that was after a lot of history and previous second chances.

funny how when it's old white male profs doing the same thing it's okay though
posted by avocet at 6:22 AM on January 12 [43 favorites]


I have nothing in common with Stefani Echeverría-Fenn. Then I read this in her blog post:

"That’s just what disability is, I would argue: a sticky and uneven web of immense strengths, immense weaknesses, and weird random competencies/ incompetencies based on all the strategies we’re forced to patch together to survive as disabled people in this world."

And suddenly, just like that-- I know exactly what she is talking about. I have everything in common with her.
posted by seasparrow at 6:35 AM on January 12 [39 favorites]


Mouse Army, the beginning of the article shows it's possible to love the classics and benefit from them without becoming a professional academic.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:57 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


To clarify, I was being asked to recommend Classics as an academic career path so that those people of color who would eventually join the academy would “fix the problem” as if it was that simple.
posted by Mouse Army at 7:06 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]


positive and negative attention
The Chronicle article is paywalled - can anyone briefly summarize it?
posted by thelonius at 7:08 AM on January 12


It’s an article about racist incidents at a big US classics conference. The bit about Echeverría-Fenn is this:
On Friday, two scholars of color, who were being honored at the conference for improving equality and diversity in the field, said they had been stopped by security guards at the Marriott hotel where the conference was being held. (The hotel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The scholars, Djesika Bel Watson and Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, founded The Sportula, an organization that helps undergraduate classicists pay for tuition, textbooks, and other expenses. Bel Watson and Echeverría-Fenn had received a professional-equity award for their work, presented by the Women’s Classical Caucus.

The security staff members asked to see the two scholars’ badges, The Sportula tweeted, while many white and “non-working-class-dressed” scholars without badges were standing around them. “Still confused as to why your security felt fit to question us alone out of all of the guests that were on the balcony today without name badges,” Bel Watson tweeted at the Marriott account. “I’ll wait for an answer.”
posted by Kattullus at 7:30 AM on January 12 [15 favorites]


Her description of being unable to deal with paperwork sounds like exactly the kind of thing an accommodation is needed for. And could be provided for in a just world.

And I had no idea about Lorde or Rivera. Jesus.
posted by emjaybee at 8:09 AM on January 12 [10 favorites]


This is reminding me of Dottie by R. A. Lafferty (it's a rare and obscure novel) which describes how prejudice against Catholics in med school used to* work-- the rules made it impossible to graduate, the only way to graduate was to be cut slack, so all that was needed to keep people from graduating was to follow the rules.

*I haven't heard of that level of prejudice against Catholics lately, so I assume it's no longer in play.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:47 AM on January 12 [12 favorites]


What an absolute gem of a human being - Sportula and 37MLK are both fantastic projects, things that give me hope and wonder what I can do to make my community better. I read Echeverría-Fenn's essay and am predictably sad at what was done to her, at the barriers to working class disabled people of color in classics and academia and everywhere, but I'm also completely in awe of what she's done for her community. I hear so few hopeful stories about homelessness and 37MLK is exactly what we in the Bay Area need more of.
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:59 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]


emjaybee: Her description of being unable to deal with paperwork sounds like exactly the kind of thing an accommodation is needed for.

What is so infuriating about how she was thrown out—laying aside that she was dismissed from the classics grad program essentially because she didn't fit in with no academic cause for doing so—is that to get rid of her they used her disability against her.
posted by Kattullus at 9:02 AM on January 12 [10 favorites]


"the amount of friction with fellow students, professors, and administrators that occurred. In the end it was a minor paperwork issue that gave them the rationale for expelling her, but that was after a lot of history and previous second chances."

funny how when it's old white male profs doing the same thing it's okay though


Came here to say this. I've watched old white male professors literally destroy dozens if not hundreds of students and their academic careers, sexually harass students, publish openly sexist and racist and even eugenicist bullshit under the guise of scholarly inquiry, have very open and toxic feuds with their colleagues, scoff at and completely ignore admin work (that, I guess, is eventually done by someone else), and when they stop contributing scholarly or administratively they are just put out to pasture as 'emeritus.' Yet, a young scholar of color (and a woman) acts similarly (not even on the same level, really) and they are labeled troublesome and are expelled.

Whatever.
posted by Young Kullervo at 9:05 AM on January 12 [41 favorites]


We adopted our oldest child as a young adult. They came to us five years ago yesterday, on the brink of being homeless after being kicked out of the local college following a mental health crisis. We hadn't previously met them; a friend who knew we sometimes had room in our home for people who needed it hooked us up.

I do understand why colleges do what they do, dismissing students and barring them from campus after a mental health crisis. As a friend who is a dean explained to me, by the time it gets that bad, there are other students who have been frightened or traumatized by the mentally ill student's behavior, so you can't just, say, pop my kiddo back into their dorm room with roommates and floormates who had to deal with erratic or scary behavior, or who may have witnessed a suicide attempt or its aftermath.

What I find pretty unforgivable is that the college took no responsibility for making sure our kid had a safe place to go. It seemed to me that there ought to have been some kind of exit process that was a bit more engaged than, "Get off campus, don't come back, no you can't go to your room to get your things." (it was several months before our kid was able to make a supervised visit to their dorm to retrieve their belongings.) Our kid had been cut off by their birth family for being trans and queer, and had no local support. But we do have, for instance, a place in town that provides housing for 18-24-year-olds who are in precarious situations, as well as other community mental health options. It seems to me that the college ought to have some kind of person who can make sure, in a situation like our kid's, that a mentally ill young person in crisis is being handed off to someone, that they have at least a hope of a safe landing.
posted by Orlop at 9:30 AM on January 12 [27 favorites]


When I was teaching Intro to Greek Literature, it was sometimes easy to tell the students who had lived a life of privilege, of safety. They were the ones who kept suggesting ways Oedipus could have averted his fate, bootstrap his way out of catastrophe if only he read the signs carefully enough [...] sometimes, we lose: profoundly and without recourse.

This is very true.
posted by dmh at 11:31 AM on January 12 [12 favorites]


Christ, this piece is strong.

I chose this passage because I always wondered why Dido didn’t just curse him out. But looking at the language I see how for some people, people without power, the harshest indictment is the power to stay silent—to not argue with people who will never care for you, but to remove yourself from them—to disappear. To say you can have your empire, you can have your justifications, but I will not dignify them with a reply. I will not dignify them with my presence. I will not argue back against a fate and a success that was always predicated on my disposability. I will condemn you with the only power I still hold: my silence.
posted by dmh at 11:39 AM on January 12 [11 favorites]


> the rules made it impossible to graduate, the only way to graduate was to be cut slack, so all that was needed to keep people from graduating was to follow the rules

And then later when someone wondered why there weren't more Catholic doctors, there was a ready-made answer - they couldn't hack the difficulties of med school.

The question-answerer might even go so far as to speculate that perhaps there was something wrong with Catholics, or perhaps the non-Catholic students were simply superior, since, after all, they made it through med school!

This bit from the essay is especially damning:

In a state that is more Latinx than White, Berkeley Classics hasn’t graduated a single Latinx PhD student in at least 10 years. It’s had at least 5 of us, none who finished. Ironically, it was precisely the attrition rate of diverse students in our program that the grad students were having all those meetings about last semester. Berkeley’s only tenure-track professor of color, her presence the reason why I chose Berkeley, was also the only professor in 10 years denied tenure and pushed out of the field.

I hope she finds a safe place to thrive.
posted by Basil Stag Hare at 12:14 PM on January 12 [14 favorites]


However, from the essay, she sounds like she would have had a hard time succeeding in any program,

I take it you mean any Classics program. and it's true the field has problems (racists; bizarre cruel psycho-political whatyoucallems) wherever you go, but if you don't think Berkeley's a special place in this regard I would love to know who or what gave you that idea. (I did not go to Berkeley. I did not try to go to Berkeley. I probably would not have gotten accepted by Berkeley. I do not have direct personal experience corroborating all the many stories I've heard from people I believe. I do have direct and horrible experience of faculty who were granted Classics doctorates from there just before coming to where I was, and you can see the results of whatever the fuck goes on there even if you aren't privileged to see the things themselves in action.) They have a reputation.

As you will have seen from the piece, an aspect of that reputation was communicated to the writer before she even went there, and she disregarded the warning because it seemed unlikely that A. things could really be that bad and B. even if they were, surely the badness was the kind of thing that could be risen above and defeated by any grad student who could just be good enough. Even though -- again, as she wrote in the piece -- "Berkeley Classics hasn’t graduated a single Latinx PhD student in at least 10 years. It’s had at least 5 of us, none who finished."

but perhaps each of those five could be explained, by a sufficiently motivated explainer, as someone who "would have had a hard time succeeding in any program."

Any student will have a hard time succeeding in any department that doesn't want her there anymore.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:16 PM on January 12 [32 favorites]


it is also true but naive to say that you can still be a happy amateur classicist even if professionalized spaces are closed or hostile to you. It is true that nobody can expel you from your own mind or recall your own knowledge of the languages or love of the poetry, once you have them. but it is also true that Classics stands out even among the whiter humanities for the cultish and political and overwhelmingly male subculture of amateur practitioners who claim to love it, and certainly do love something. So yes, you can read in your room until the world ends and nobody can take that away. this is my own plan. but there's still a moment of apprehension I feel when discovering a nonprofessional Classics Person in the world, before I find out which kind of classics person they are. and I'm not even someone subjected to racist assumptions, attacks, or insults.

tl;dr: the problems of classics academia are problems of classics as well as problems of academia.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:34 PM on January 12 [14 favorites]


Nothing like trying to study the past, make the present better for folks and have these fuck nuts arbitrarily chipping at the future.

Time for new myth's and legends.
posted by clavdivs at 1:51 PM on January 12 [5 favorites]


What a mind she has. Academia is worse off without her.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:21 PM on January 12 [10 favorites]


I increasingly resented the fact that my Classics friends had claimed they had “no other choice” but to sic the police on a non-violent disabled woman, yet continued to loudly expound on Foucault, trans theory, disability theory in academia—reaping the social capital of radical theory when it was safe, but wholly unwilling to risk materially instantiating these ideas in the world.

This was my favorite bit. A lot of radical words without radical deeds in the realm of Theory.
posted by great_radio at 3:51 PM on January 12 [16 favorites]


where is there a place for just normal, mediocre ass POC in academia—the type of normal mediocrity that is enough to allow abled white folks career success at a dime a dozen?

I'm currently reading Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short by William D. Cohan, and that book is Cohan's deep dive into the lives of four of his fellow privileged Andover classmates who died young. It's a fast read, a WASP enconium-meets-David Carr's-The Night of the Gun in terms of reportorial approaches. What has been striking about two of the four subjects profiled -- Will Daniel (son of the NYT managing editor Clifton Daniel and Bess Truman, grandson of Harry Truman) and John F. Kennedy Jr. -- was how both men were afforded endless opportunities to glittering career paths and powerful connections, and yet ... drifted in near-perpetual dissatisfaction and confusion over a sense of purpose. They were the very definition of "normal mediocrity." Deeply beloved by friends and family, but not particularly special or accomplished. (And the book suggests that they were haunted by knowing they could never be sure what they achieved on their own.)

To read that book and then to read Echeverría-Fenn's question is just a perfect distillation of privilege in the U.S. To be unremarkable and get endless second chances while other, remarkable people get none.
posted by sobell at 7:39 PM on January 12 [15 favorites]




(Scroll to bottom)

Fucking oof.

I skimmed the summaries and didn't see anything to indicate otherwise, but does this analysis include students who attempted degrees but did not finish? That would be way more interesting to know in this context.
posted by Young Kullervo at 7:21 AM on January 13


I’m no Lorde or Rivera, but that’s precisely the point—if the most excellent of those of us within disability culture will never be able to be excellent enough for an able-minded and able-bodied world, what does that say? If a tenured Princeton professor couldn’t escape a similar fate at the SCSAIA last year, or my very best Latin student ever couldn’t escape a horrific instance of police profiling on the Berkeley campus just one month before I was kicked out of grad school, where is there a place for just normal, mediocre ass POC in academia—the type of normal mediocrity that is enough to allow abled white folks career success at a dime a dozen?
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:19 AM on January 13 [5 favorites]


The very worst part of disability for me is not the way the abled world betrays me. It’s the ways that living in that abled world has continuously led me to betray myself.

I did not have the words to explain something I experience but she did. Thanks, OP!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:39 AM on January 13 [7 favorites]


Can't favorite QOB's comment hard enough.

I saw the original article earlier but was a little reluctant to expose it to Metafilter scrutiny. Powerful stuff. I understand why some people feel a bit of the story is being obscured, but I don't think it really matters. I can't fathom being kicked out of grad school for not registering. I didn't finish my own degree, and I don't know that I was wildly popular, but I do know that would never have happened to me. I would've gotten a talking-to, at most.
posted by praemunire at 1:19 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


I imagine sane people might scoff at this: tell me Classics is a profession and not for some crazy girl who looked at it as therapy and couldn’t hold it together after one little conference brouhaha, that someone who has experienced chronic mental health problems has no place teaching and researching.

When I started a graduate degree in classics-- I hate to capitalize that word and further reinforce the authoritarian connotations it has-- I was afraid my struggles with depression and eating disorders would stigmatize me. A family member, an old white guy with ties to academia, said something like, "When I think of the untreated mental illness and alcoholism in that field, it would be so unfair for you to be rejected for something you're getting treatment for."

Bless his privileged optimistic heart, but oh my god. I was coming from an undergraduate college where one of my professors was about to be fired for drunkenly hitting on students, but I still wasn't prepared for the pathology in that graduate program and at conventions. I mean, it was just so toxic. I'm still ashamed of the ways I was part of it and angry at the ways it was turned on me.

It's hard to even know how to think about this kind of shit in classics. It's such a weird profession anyway, so arcane and such a small world. So someone could say, well, your bad experience doesn't really exemplify anything. But now I know from taking other kinds of jobs, and from watching my partner work as a union representative, that it's not so very different. Echeverría-Fenn is not just some sort of outlier. I hope she can continue to represent and not wind up reading Vergil in bed at night as a consolation prize.
posted by BibiRose at 6:25 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


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