Interview with Incoming Postdoctoral Fellow: Dr. Tori Lee
Dr. Tori Lee, who will be joining Boston University’s Department of Classical Studies on September 1st, 2022, as a Postdoctoral Fellow and and an inaugural member of the Boston University Society of Fellows, sat down with Senior Program Coordinator Nat Gonzalez to discuss the role she will be stepping into, finishing her PhD, the ancient pastoral, and more. The full interview is transcribed below the audio recording.
NG: You are an incoming postdoctoral fellow, and an inaugural member of the Boston University Society of Fellows. What exactly does that mean? What does your role here entail?
TL: That’s a great question. Partially it’s also being figured out, since the Society of Fellows is a new body at BU. But basically, I and four other postdoctoral fellows across the humanities are going to be working on our research in a home department but also sort of in collaboration with one another, hopefully? And with various mentors in teaching and in professional development, both from a home department as well as from the College of Arts and Sciences at large. So, the mentoring structure I think is going to be a really important part of the program. James Uden is my official mentor in Classical Studies, and then I’m also going to get (potentially) a teaching mentor, and an extra disciplinary mentor from a different department to sort of facilitate doing interdisciplinary work and getting to know the different areas of expertise of professors in different departments that might be relevant to my research more broadly. So, I’ll be doing research, and teaching, and also the broader collaboration.
NG: And what are your research interests, what are you researching?
TL: My main project for my time at BU is working on developing my dissertation into a book manuscript. My dissertation is on ancient pastoral poetry, so literature about the countryside and farming, and I’m basically challenging this dominant scholarly narrative of the countryside and the pastoral as this idyllic, peaceful place that is far from/removed from the danger and violence of the city. Instead, I’m arguing that danger is an innate force in the pastoral landscape. I’m doing this through a lens of critical classical receptions (looking at how previous classics scholars have read the pastoral genre and how they have sort of glossed over or elided any moments that don’t fit in with their picture of the countryside as this peaceful Eden), and I’m looking at noncanonical texts that reveal sort of the darker underbelly of what goes on in the countryside and fully reconceptualize the pastoral as a place that is dangerous in itself.
NG: What brought you to that? Because obviously a lot of the literature that we read romanticizes pastoral life, especially when you get to that capital R Romantic that’s really anti-industrial, so what specifically made you look past that smoke and mirrors façade?
TL: So, one of the, perhaps the most definitive/recognizable pastoral texts is Virgil’s Eclogues, which has its kind of dominant role in part because Virgil became so well-known after his life, and the Aeneid continued to be read through the Renaissance and studied by lots of scholars to this day, so the Eclogues have sort of casted a shadow over the rest of the genre as THE pastoral text. I did one of my special topics with Gregson Davis, who ended up becoming one of my dissertation advisors, on other pastoral texts outside of this sort of dominant one. And we found just really surprising instances of things like violence, r*pe, sexual humor, really dark humor, intimate partner violence, all these things that didn’t fit in with what I thought was supposed to be in the pastoral. Then I realized, reading further, that it’s actually in almost all of the pastoral literature except for Virgil. It’s just that Virgil was such a dominant text that scholars have kind of clung to to define the entire genre when in fact it’s a much more diverse group of texts.
NG: As far as your colleagues that you’re working with, what are their research interests, and how do you add to each other’s academic lives?
TL: I know one in art history, one in anthropology, and all of the questions that we’ve been looking at– I mean we have only met once over Zoom so far, I’m really looking forward to meeting everyone in person—I think a lot of the broader questions are trying to zoom out on scholarly questions in our disciplines, like we’ve looked at pastoral through Virgil for a really long time, but what happens if we zoom out and look at these other texts outside of the canon? And I think the other postdoctoral fellows are doing that in their own disciples, like “what if we zoom out and look again at how our field has historically represented a certain research question?” And so we’re all kind of bringing that lens to different disciplines, and I think it’ll be really interesting to see how the questioning/that interrogation process goes in different fields.
NG: How did you build your foundation for the kind of research that you do (languages you’ve learned, classes you’ve taken, really influential books or people)?
TL: I set out to do a purely Latin language dissertation, that’s always been my predominant research area, but I found that in order to study pastoral you have to go back to its roots in Greek, so I ended up in Latin and Greek literature, both of them for the dissertation. So, looking at the roots of pastoral in Theocritus, who’s a Greek Hellenistic poet, and how these sort of themes come up in the corpus of Theocritus that are also, again, ignored by scholars, or certain poems are kind of dismissed because we’re not actually sure it was Theocritus who wrote them, it was maybe some other author, and they’ve been sort of grouped together in a manuscript, and that’s sort of been used as an excuse to say “well since this isn’t really Theocritus we don’t need to study it” or “we don’t need to include it in this edition, or this textbook” and “we don’t need to include it in our definition of what the pastoral is” because it’s not neat, and it doesn’t fit in the lines of what we’ve ascribed to the pastoral mode.
I think in terms of books, it’s actually been interesting to look at ones that are sort of asking similar questions of different areas, because this particular question hasn’t been asked yet of the pastoral, but people, certainly in classics, have been looking more critically at source on, for example, women’s work, for a long time. There’s work by Rebecca Futo Kennedy on taking a second look at women in literature who we’ve cast as prostitutes or sex workers, and why we’ve decided that they’re sex workers when often they’re just women playing instruments, or women who are weaving, or women who are just sitting doing work in a room. And if you sort of trace back like the scholarly history sometimes it comes down to one or two scholars from a couple centuries ago in England who have used the analogy of the English court, the English royal court, to say “oh well women who played music here were really just courtesans, so they probably also were in antiquity” and then ever since then people have just kind of accepted that as law. If we look back and kind of interrogate that from the beginning: what have we just blindly accepted because it’s what scholars typically say?
NG: Is there a dream class that you would love to teach? I’m enjoying listening to you talk so much that I imagine you must make a really wonderful instructor!
TL: That’s very kind! I will be teaching one of my dream classes in the Spring, and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to come under the broad umbrella of a Women in Antiquity course, but I’m going to kind of structure it through the lens of sexual and intimate partner violence. Just looking broadly at how—at the status of women across antiquity in the Mediterranean, in Greece and Rome. We’ll look heavily at the literature, but also at material culture, and some of the archeological finds that depict women doing different things, and how all of this can kind of shed a light on how womens’ everyday lives might have looked, and situations in which they may have had more or less agency based on laws, based on social practices, and I guess based on a sort of zeitgeist or the sort of dominant ethos of how women were supposed to behave and act at different times and in different locations in the ancient world. So, I’m really excited to teach that.
NG: It really sounds like a wonderful class. What do you think makes it valuable to learn? I mean, I don’t think it’s a class you should have to sell, really, but how would you describe its impact?
TL: I think often people’s first encounters with the ancient world or with classical material is through mythological stories. People have kind of hear of the Greek gods and goddesses, heard of different myths, the story of Persephone for example, going into the underworld, things like that, and those stories can be told, even as early as children’s literature, there are adapted collections of myths for children in English, and when we look at those stories more closely, there is a constant undercurrent of darkness, and violence towards women. And when we read them, looking at these woman characters and what the stories are actually saying if we center the women characters, instead of the men who are typically cast as the “mythical hero.” We have a different understanding of ancient world, because if people’s first experience is saying “look at all these heroes, look at all the beasts that they’ve slayed, and look at how they came out victorious” it’s really easy to cast the ancient world as this glorious model that we need to follow today. The good guys end up on top, they’re so valiant, they’re overcoming these forces of evil, when, yeah maybe perhaps for that hero, but maybe one of the forces of evil was a woman who he r*ped.
NG: Like Theseus kidnapping seven-year-old Helen, or something.
TL: Exactly, exactly. And I think it makes it even more interesting to read those stories when we can dive into that nuance and say “what were some of the ancient attitudes towards these women that resulted in a story like this? What can that show us about our own attitudes towards women today in the stories that we write and read?” And when we draw analogies between modern society and ancient society, what are those analogies actually saying, are they saying that we need to conquer all evils as well? Or can both societies be flawed, and are they connected in that?
NG: And what would say about, maybe certain anomalies or inconsistencies in that philosophy (if they even are): the treatment of classical writers towards Penelope, or the Amazons, like Penthesilea, or even the female goddesses?
TL: It’s a good question, and I think there’s been a recent interest in redeeming women in mythological stories, which on the one hand is a good instinct, but on the other hand sometimes I think there can be a tendency to kind of overcorrect and say “actually the woman is the triumphant hero in this story!” when that might be erasing some of the trauma that she experiences in the story. Perhaps she isn’t triumphing, perhaps she’s been hurt and oppressed in this tale. And so, I think there’s been, for example Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad is a pretty recent retelling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope. There’s been an interest in focalizing the stories from the perspectives of women which I think has been a really valuable exercise, and when we do that, when we reread these tales that we’re familiar with from the eyes of a different character, instead the character who is typically the main hero: the male character, people come up with different readings, and that’s important. There isn’t necessarily one correct reading of a myth, especially since they’ve been historically told orally by many different people. There’s not like one authoritative version and everything else is wrong, there’s so many versions of every myth, and so many voices telling them. It invited even more interesting conversations, deeper conversations, and ones that can reveal more about ancient attitudes towards all different people.
NG: Do you have any favorite retellings, or retellings that you really dislike?
TL: I guess I can’t technically say it’s a favorite yet, since it’s not out yet, but a scholar I really respect, Stephanie McCarter, is coming out with her translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses into English this year. I think it’s coming out this Fall, and it’s really great, I’ve seen bits, she has a really great perspective on women and myth and it’s going to be the–I believe, don’t quote me on this one because I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I can check and email you, I think it’s the first translation of the entirety of Ovid’s Metamorphoses into English by a woman [note:it will be the first translation of the Metamorphoses into English by a woman in over 60 years]. So, based on her work that I’ve read before on other myths, I think it’s going to be a really really, Ah, intense and challenging and useful text, Um, and a great thing to assign for classes, right, where we’re assigning texts and translation. So much of what students experience is colored by what the translator chooses to do. And when the only options for translations have historically been white men, the students all get that perspective whether they wanted or not. So, having these options of women who are thinking critically about the women in the texts is going to just open up so many opportunities for what we can talk about in class and how we can read the text more closely.
NG: And you’re also writing your own book right now, or beginning to, so how are you tackling problems personally with writer’s block, or with burnt out?
TL: Great question, so my book… we’re in the early stages. It’s based on my dissertation, Um, I wrote my whole dissertation during Covid, so it was a very weird experience being kind of at various points, locked down in my apartment, Um, isolated from the professors in the department, my scholarly community, different colleagues, and also sort of questioning, like what am I doing writing about these ancient poems from thousands of years ago when like the Black Lives Matter protests are going on outside and I haven’t seen my family in a year, because nobody can travel right now, you know, it sort of puts everything in stark perspective. But, I think that one way, when I’m sort stuck in that bubble of like, “how can I write? How can I read?” or just sort of hitting that mental block it’s been really useful to engage in the Classics community, Um, outside of my own research, so there’s been like a really lovely burgeoning community on classic Twitter of scholars who are engaging sort of across traditional hierarchies, so like, full professors and assistant professors, and grad students and undergrads are all having conversations about Classics, regardless of how old or how senior they are, online and on Twitter. And we’ve brought a lot more events over the past few years onto Zoom, and a lot of advocacy groups have really stepped up during this time. I’m part of the Asian and Asian- American Classical caucus, that has been sort of connecting people of Asian descent who study Classics. There’s not a ton of us and it can feel isolating at times, but it’s actually been like a blessing that we’ve had to move a lot of things onto Zoom, because we’ve been able to kind of connect people who might be like in a in a university that’s not in a big city or in a college that’s kind of on its own and create a community, virtually, and sort of things like that I think are really grounding and can help remind, at least me, of… it can feel really solitary and solipsistic and small to be working on one’s own research and reconnecting with other people in the field. Um can remind you that it’s a bigger community and you can have an impact more broadly.
NG: Is there a particular experience or memory from your time as a PhD student that stood out to you? (also keeping in mind that a lot of your Ph. D was spent inside)
TL: Luckily it wasn’t– I’m lucky that my coursework was in person, I think that’s a really important part of it. I guess, this was my third and fourth years, no second and third years, when we were finishing passing exams and coursework before we move into the dissertation writing stage, it’s a bit of a tricky time, because we have nine exams to pass. I had a lot of trouble passing my Greek exam, Uh, my Greek language exam, and it was a time that could have been, and like, in some ways, was one of the lowest points of my graduate career because I felt like a failure. But, at the same time, the department at Duke really came together to help me succeed. So, I had one professor give up his office hours every week. Twice a week, I would come in and just read Greek with him. He’d help me with grammar and vocabulary, and this was like, not an official course or anything. He just like gave his time to help me. Another professor I met with every week to specifically work on Homer, so we would read Homer together and again, this was just her coming and offering her help to me because she was dedicated to my success. I had my fellow grad students like drilling me on vocabulary. They’d see me every day in the office with the vocab cards and they’re grabbing them and helping me with them. My partner would read Greek tragedy with me, because it has a very specific vocabulary, and a sort of very specific style. So, I had all these different people in the program, none of whom — I never felt like ashamed (or, I mean, you know, we all have like personal senses of shame or embarrassment), but nobody ever made me feel inferior because they had passed a certain exam. I had not yet done it instead, everybody was just on board to be like “okay, what do we need to do? What can I do to help you succeed here?” And so, on my third exam we passed! I truly feel like it was a team effort with, like my fellow grad students, the other professors, and me, am sort of all supporting me towards path and towards clearing that hurdle, And I think that’s something that was a really special part a of my grad school experience, that there wasn’t any really competition between us. That we all kind of said we, we can all succeed in this field like we, all of different research interests, and we all can all like, uplift each other up.
NG: What would your advice to undergraduate students be, and to graduate students (if they are different, or as one)?
TL: It can sort of apply to both, I guess, for undergrad students, and then also for graduate students too: I would encourage you to take a course that piques your interest when you’re going through the course catalog that might not directly contribute to your major, or be something that like checks a box off your distribution requirements, but something that sounds really interesting, and you’re not sure if you’ll necessarily do well in it, but it sounds really cool to you. My senior or of undergrad, I took an abnormal psychology class which was not anywhere in my wheelhouse at all, but it was super interesting and it ended up giving me a much different perspective on reading ancient texts through the lens of “what are the different psychological processes that the characters are going through and how can I read them this way, after gaining knowledge that’s totally outside of my fields, and is more like social sciences?” I think that applies for grad students too, even though we’re, you know, we’re trying to specialize and find our research interest for a dissertation. It can be interesting sometimes to take a course in, say, comparative literature, or in English, or in religion, or in history of a different culture, to kind of see: what are the unifying questions that are being asked across disciplines? And how can I bring these questions to my own research, to my own interest in classics? It can feel like it’s like a digression, I mean, I would never think it was a waste of time, but it might feel like “oh, I, no, I need to get my requirements done. I need to get my major done. I don’t have time to like, take this other course on the side” but it can really help inform how you process all of the other courses you take, and so I think it’s a really useful, it’s a great use of time.