Fresh Faculty: Julia Scarborough

By Sam Grondin '21, Staff Writer | Oct. 3, 2018 | 148-5

Julia Scarborough is a visiting assistant professor of classics. She received a B.A. in classics from Oxford University, an M.A. in art history from Courtauld Institute of Art and a Ph.D. in classical philology from Harvard University.

Q: What attracted you to classics?
A: My father started teaching me Latin when I was quite young, and it was appealing in the same way that a lot of other things were appealing at that age. I liked playing with puzzles and Latin really presents you with puzzles. What really made me want to study it further was reading “The Odyssey” in Fitzgerald’s translation, which really had a great effect on me, and I found it so powerful and so beautiful but at the same time it’s really far away and so alien. I was lucky enough to be at a high school that taught Ancient Greek, and I had very small classes. There were two of us the first year and one of me the next year because my classmate had gone on to college. I was lucky enough to be at a high school that offered ancient Greek, and I got to do Greek in a very intimate way with my teacher. I also took two Latin APs in high school, so I was in a strong position to think about just focusing on classics in college. I wanted the opportunity to dig deeply into classics, and I thought about some American colleges without distribution requirements, but in the end, the appeal of the unknown was irresistible, so I went to Oxford for classics.

Q: You have a master’s degree in art history — what made you want to pursue that after studying classics?
A: I would go home during long vacations while at Oxford, and I spent a lot of time at in the Washington D.C. area wandering in the National Gallery of Art. One thing I realized was that there were certain types of art, certain periods, that I was really drawn to instinctually and some that I found much more challenging. As a classicist, I realized that the way you develop the ability to enjoy and appreciate works of art is by learning more about them, learning about the context and learning about what they’re doing that’s part of a tradition or that’s innovative, so I decided really on a whim during my Christmas vacation in my last year of college that what I really wanted to do was a master’s in art history. I did this one-year master’s at the Courtauld Institute. I chose somewhat strategically, as well as based on personal preference, to apply for the 15th century Florentine course. I found it challenging to switch from primarily verbal to the primarily visual. Although it was a wonderful change of pace to think about the visual, what I really enjoyed about the Courtauld, what was really a revelation, was writing a dissertation, a thesis, which I found immensely exciting and energizing.

Q: Do you feel like that experience has influenced the way that you teach here at Amherst?
A: I think that art history is tremendously useful for a classicist in terms of understanding reception and how classics has survived in traditions and the imagination. I also think that the process of seeing how a motif can evolve, like the dragon for instance, and how artists can take… something that’s traditional and use it to exercise their imaginations, really transfers quite well into understanding literature in the classical world, particularly poetry. The way that someone like Ovid plays with love poetry ,for instance, is not that different from the way that a Florentine artist might be quite eccentric, so I think that in that sense, it’s influenced the way that I think about and therefore teach literature.

Q: Do you feel like you incorporate discovery and the synthesis of new ideas into your courses here because of the fascination with research you had during your dissertation?
A: Oh certainly, seeing how things connect is essential, and I think constantly teaching literature one is seeing and making connections and, of course, students often make suggestions that make you see things in a new way, and that’s one of the things that’s fun about teaching, especially students who are engaged and excited about the material. At Amherst, I’ve been struck by the sense that students are really intrinsically interested in the material they’re studying. I think that’s clearly true in the classics department, and it’s been a big change teaching at Amherst compared to some of the previous environments in which I’ve taught which have had a language requirement. With a language requirement you have maybe twenty-four students in a class of whom maybe six or eight really want to be there reading Catullus and many want to be there to get the language requirement out of the way. I’ve definitely not encountered any of that at Amherst.

Q: Your research in pastoral imagery in classical poetry seems fascinating. Can you talk about how that relates to what you’ve studied with art and poetry?
A: What I’m interested in about pastoral imagery is actually when it’s used in non-pastoral contexts. In “The Iliad,” there’s a scene where Agamemnon realizes the Trojan army is well positioned to destroy the Greeks completely in the next days fighting and he looks out at the Trojans camped on the plain. He sees their fires and is amazed by all these fires and he’s compared to a shepherd who sees all the stars in the sky on a clear night. It’s such a stunning contrast between the peace and awe of natural beauty and Agamemnon who is looking out at fires that doom his army after nine years of fighting. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that, in fact, that’s what pastoral imagery always seems to be doing in Greek tragedy, and this was really exciting to me because nobody had written about this. So, I thought it was really interesting that these idyllic images had come from Greek tragedy and were originally created as a way to set up tragic irony, and I argued that when you see a shepherd appear on stage in Greek tragedy, something is about to go badly wrong.

Q: Which courses are you teaching this semester and why?
A: I am currently teaching Introductory Latin and Catullus and the Lyric Spirit. I’m very much enjoying both courses, and [the Catullus course] actually just had a poetry workshop on Monday. Next semester I’m teaching a much bigger course, I imagine, Roman Civilization, which I was told once peaked at 140 students. I’m also teaching Horace’s Odes next semester which I’ve really enjoyed teaching to graduate students, but I’ve never taught to undergraduates.

Q: What do you do when you’re not studying ancient languages?
A: I think Book and Plow Farm is a really wonderful resource to have that escape available on campus, and I’ve actually joined the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). I’m enjoying picking the cherry tomatoes. I also love going to art museums, reading fiction, going for long walks and writing creatively. I’m really excited about the fall in the mountains, and I love the pastoral of Pioneer Valley.