The chair of Brandeis University’s Department of Classical Studies, Professor Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, sat down for an interview with The Brandeis Hoot to shed a little light on the department, its future and herself. This interview is part of a series of interviews with the chairs of a plethora of different academic departments and programs at Brandeis.
Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded during the 2022 spring semester.
Why did you choose to come to Brandeis?
One of the things that attracted me to Brandeis is that there’s such a clear commitment to undergraduate education as centered within an R1 institution. That was just the perfect blend for me. I think undergraduate education is such a rewarding opportunity to put one’s scholarship into practice …. It just seemed like the perfect place in the perfect time for me and my career to move.
What do you think the classical studies department does right?
We are part of a movement to show why classical studies is not the classical studies of the past. We are, as a faculty, committed to new ways of approaching a field that has been a gatekeeper of knowledge. All of us work in ways, whether it’s in public-facing scholarship, whether it’s looking at marginalized history and individuals, we are all taking part in creating a new narrative about classical studies.
Is there anything that you think the classical studies department could do better?
One of the things that we want to do is help undergraduates discover some of the things that we’re doing. We are working on new initiatives to help foster classical studies [as] a major of discovery. [We are] showcasing that classical studies is not just an area that’s a traditional approach to the past or a past that just elevates a white narrative of the origins of the ancient world. So that’s what we’re trying to work on: getting that message out. We also need to work with the fact that students come with less familiarity about the ancient world and how to offer courses that are attractive [to them].
How does the classical studies department fit into Brandeis’ DNA?
The faculty have a commitment to supporting students’ interests. A lot of Brandeis students come with very strong convictions in terms of social justice and engagement with the world. I think one of the things that our department does well is that we are very active in terms of our scholarship, as it serves wider communities. Whether it’s archeological work that documents forgotten peoples, whether it’s using public-facing opportunities like Twitter or blog posts to make the past relevant to the present, I think that that is a part of what Brandeis does.
The classical studies department has three main tracks (Classics, Greek or Latin Literature and Classical Archeology and Ancient History). Do you find those tracks to be unnecessarily restricting or do they afford the right amount of freedom to students?
I think they create flexibility for students, and that’s one of the things that our department is very committed to both on the undergraduate and on the master’s level. We want students to discover their own path through the department, and some students may be drawn to the beauty of language, whether it’s Greek or Latin. Others may be interested in a different view that’s based in material culture. Others may find that they’re interested in something that’s sort of in between those [two]. So that flexibility, I think, allows for students to have agency over their own education.
Classical studies is affiliated with many other programs and departments. How do you feel that these partnerships affect the courses that students take?
Students from other programs take a classical studies course and all of a sudden the insight and the perspective that students have [from] that moment [on] is amplified. You may have a student from history or anthropology or from Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and their training and their experience in those courses enriches what happens in our classes …. I think that that enriches not only the humanities element of our courses, but also provides new opportunities for students who are in the social sciences as well.
Your Brandeis introduction page mentions that you work in both classical studies and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. How involved are you in each of those departments?
So my position is half in classical studies, where I’m the chair right now, and half in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Of my four courses, two are in classical studies (but they’re cross listed) and two are in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. For classical studies, I am currently teaching more of my courses situated historically within Egypt. In Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, my courses are more situated within Christianity. Because religious studies is a program and not a department [at Brandeis], I serve on the steering committee for the [religious studies] program. I also offer courses that count towards religious studies. For example, last fall, I taught a course called “Denial and Desires: Gender and Sexuality in Early Christianity.” That was a course that counted towards [religious studies], which looked at debates within the early church about who Jesus was and how Jesus should be understood.