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Breaking the Mold

USC College Department of Classics doctoral student reinvigorates humanities’ oldest discipline.

By Pamela J. Johnson
November 1, 2008


Breaking the Mold
Video by Mira Zimet

Reading ancient Greek at the Getty Center library, Jody Valentine found an unexpected connection in the work of fifth century B.C. philosopher Parmenides.

In his poem, Parmenides travels by chariot “beyond the beaten paths of mortal men,” where a goddess reveals the secrets of nature.

The USC College fifth-year doctoral candidate was struck by the distinct pottery imagery throughout the poem.

The chariot’s “whirling wheels spinning on their axles,” evoked the image of a clay pot twirling on a wheel. Even Parmenides’ paradoxical argument that time both changes and doesn’t change harkened pottery — each pot made with earth’s wet mud becomes durable once fired.

A student in the College’s Department of Classics, Valentine decided to focus her dissertation on ancient Greek pottery. She is comparing the developments in ceramic technology to the ideas of pre-Socratic philosophers about time, history and change.

Advisers embrace her unconventional approach. The golden rule among classics scholars in the College is to traverse conventional boundaries and study material culture along with ancient text.

“We treat classics as a lens for viewing broader intellectual, cultural and political issues in a new light,” said Thomas Habinek, professor and chair of classics. “We believe we have not only kept abreast of current developments, but moved far ahead of the field.”

At the Getty Villa research library in Malibu, Calif., Valentine carefully studied photo plates in a rare book detailing some of the world’s first painted vases.

“Take a look at these bizarre, mythical beings on the side of this pot,” Valentine said pointing to a vase in a photo plate. “They commingle with images of humans, animals and purely decorative elements. Like Parmenides’ poem, it tells a story in multiple layers.”

Valentine had just returned from Greece, where she spent five weeks researching ancient pottery collections. She compared that data with information gleaned from some of the Getty Villa’s library archive and collection of 44,000 Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.

“USC classics is not a department comfortable ascribing to conventional ideas about what it means to study the classics,” Valentine said. “This is a department that embraces the idea that what we need to do to keep classics relevant and alive is to take it in a new direction.”

She chose USC over other major universities after visiting the campus and spending time with classics professors and graduate students.

“I saw that I would be encouraged to do my own work,” Valentine said. “The faculty here have a great knack of making themselves available and offering plenty of material and advice. They’re helping to mold the scholarship, but they’re not trying to mold me into a mini version of themselves. For some people that could be fine. But for me, I’m not moldable.”

Habinek agreed his department bucks tradition. He wouldn’t have it any other way. Such departments in the United States traditionally focus on the literature and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. But in the College, the field is not so narrowly defined.

His faculty and students situate their research and teaching in relation to the broader topics of the humanities and social sciences. They relate the remains of classical antiquity to a wide range of questions concerning gender, social status, aesthetics, politics and ethics.

“We remain the leader in this endeavor,” Habinek said. “Our faculty and graduates are distinguished by the theoretical breadth and rigor of their work.”

The College’s classics also broadens the geographical definition of ancient culture to include the Mediterranean basin and most of the Near East.

And students are constantly challenged to articulate the stakes of their research, whether the material studied is linguistic, literary, topographical or archaeological. The interdisciplinary research ranges from law and society, science and culture, and relations between Europe and the Near East.

In Valentine’s case, she believes ancient pottery may unlock clues about how early Greeks perceived history.

In addition to the Getty Villa, she is conducting research at the Getty Research Institute in Brentwood, Calif., home to rare antiquity materials and digital archives. At times, she furthers her studies at the Getty Villa and research library, dedicated entirely to ancient art.

Back at the Getty Villa, Barbara Furbush, senior reference librarian, helped Valentine locate the materials she needed to advance her dissertation.

Until recently, the Getty Villa was open only to Getty scholars. USC College faculty and select graduate students have been among the first outside scholars permitted to use its distinguished research library by appointment.

“It’s exciting to watch professors and students researching ancient material discover something new,” Furbush said.

Valentine is constantly uncovering new layers in her research.

 “Many people might say pottery and philosophy have nothing to do with each other,” Valentine said. “But I’m hoping to create a circle around the two that will show how they can illuminate each other and the period in an inspiring way.

“Every day, I’m closer to finding answers.”