Profile with Emily Baragwanath



Emily Baragwanath (New Zealand & Magdalen 2001) is an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Her main area of scholarly interest is the literary techniques employed by Greek historians in their construction of historical narratives.  Emily won both Oxford’s Conington Prize and the CAMWS Award for Outstanding Publication 2010 for her book Motivation and Narrative in Herodotus.  She holds a DPhil in Classics from the University of Oxford, and an MA and BA in Ancient History and English from the University of Auckland.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Emily Baragwanath: I’m a bit of a nomad.  I guess now my home is Chapel Hill in North Carolina, but saying that, it always feels like home when I go back to Oxford – I was there for six years – and New Zealand of course is my home in an important sense.  I have family still in Auckland, and I love to get back there every year if I can, just to enjoy New Zealand nature up in the North Island by the sea.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favourite author?

Emily Baragwanath: Herodotus!  I have spent years working on him, and though I am trying to move into working on other authors as well, I just keep on coming back to him.  He was just extraordinary – the complexity and the wonder of the story he tells, and his interest in looking through other people’s eyes, telling not only the stories of the Greeks, but of all the people the Greeks came into contact with.  He is absolutely my favourite author.  Every time I read him again I see something more.  It’s just a really fascinating work.

Rhodes Project: Did you find your Oxford experience intellectually fulfilling?  Was it what you were expecting?

Emily Baragwanath: I didn’t actually have too many expectations at all, but it was immensely intellectually fulfilling.  One of the highlights for me was having Christopher Pelling as my supervisor.  In more recent years he’s become the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford. I had supervision sessions with him every few weeks to talk about my work and what I was trying to write about, and it just doesn’t get more exciting than the one-on-one discussions we had.  In terms of Classics, Oxford is such a hub for visitors coming and talking about their research, holding seminars and all of that, but I found intellectual stimulation on every level, in the college at lunch or dinner time, meeting people and hearing about their own projects which I knew nothing about.  I never could have imagined it would have been as exciting or stimulating as it was.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite past project?

Emily Baragwanath: My PhD was definitely very involving – it’s what turned into my book in the end, to go back to Herodotus. Some of the courses I teach at UNC have become favourite projects for me. One in particular is a seminar called the Junior Seminar which is for all our majors in the Classics department in their third year, Hellenists and Latinists and archaeologists and so on, and they all come together into this seminar – I was terrified of teaching it beforehand!  When I was trying to come up with a topic that would keep all of these different students interested, I decided on Ancient Delphi, since through Herodotus I’d been encountering Delphi in terms of Apollo’s Oracles which people consulted about the future.  Delphi has a great archaeological interest as well of course, with the Temple of Apollo, and it also has a very interesting history over time.  It was imagined by the Greeks as the very centre of the world, but also the Romans continued to consult Delphi as a way to establish themselves as educated and cultured.

The first time round it didn’t work so well – I had just arrived at UNC and had terribly unrealistic expectations of how many books these students should be reading and so on, but the second time round I’d had the chance to go back to Delphi and spend some time there, which helped me reshape the course and make it friendlier for the students.  It was focused on discussion, with the students working on projects of their own and then presenting them to the class, and the excitement of the presentations coming from people with different specialities within the Classics, sharing their unique research and ideas was wonderful.

Rhodes Project: Do you have any mentors?

Emily Baragwanath: Most of my mentors now are in the world of Classics, they’re professional mentors.  In more recent years some of my colleagues in my department have been terrific mentors to me, especially in helping me overcome the challenges of moving into a new system in the US.  I have a senior female colleague as well who has been an outstanding mentor in various ways. My supervisor from Oxford continues to be a mentor to me, and has become a great friend.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your work?

Emily Baragwanath: Some of the material that I deal with in my research and teaching can be very challenging, but certainly the most challenging thing is trying to juggle everything – all the different demands of teaching can be very exhaustive.  There is a lot of administrative work involved as well, with things like the graduate student exams, reviewing other people’s work, and giving lectures.  All of this sits beside your own research.  This year I’ve had a bit of respite as I’ve had only my research on the one hand and my daughter Julia on the other, but the regular year is full of commitments!

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about what you’re working on now?

Emily Baragwanath: Right now I’m working on another Greek historian by the name of Xenophon, who was alive at the end of the 5th and into the 4th Century BC.  He wrote in a wide variety of genres, which is one of the things I find most interesting about him – he wrote a work that seems to be very much in the tradition of Greek historiography, the Hellenica.  He also wrote about his experience of leading “The 10,000” – the 10,000 Greek mercenaries who had joined Cyrus who was trying to usurp his brother’s position as King of Persia.  Cyrus was then killed very early on, and so Xenophon helped lead these Greek soldiers all the way back through the Persian Empire to Greece, and there is a wonderful scene when they arrive at the top of a mountain and have a glimpse of the sea and shout out the famous words “The Sea!  The Sea!”  It’s a very exciting work, and a prequel to the modern autobiography. Among other things he also wrote a defence speech for Socrates, but he is underappreciated and I think he needs more work to be done on him, and for more people to see what he’s trying to do.

At the moment I’m working on the one hand on a more general book trying to look at Xenophon in general, and give a sense of his work to give people a way into it, but my main project is on how he writes about and represents gender.  I think he offers an interesting glimpse into women in ancient Greece, and a much more enlightened picture of women than we find with most other ancient Greek authors.  He seems to be working against some prevalent Greek stereotypes about women.

Rhodes Project: What motivates and inspires you?

Emily Baragwanath: What I’m most interested in is these different perspectives on things when you look back at different writers.  I’m constantly struck by their sophistication, and am humbled by the thought that these people were writing two and a half thousand years ago and yet their ideas were so forward thinking.  What excites me most is how they express in their texts, a sense of wonder at the world and their desire to explain and convey how things happen and the history of the world.  I am often just awed at the interesting ways in which they try to convey their ideas to their audience, and thankfully through the preservation of these texts their audience includes us.  It keeps on astonishing me.

Rhodes Project: If you could change one thing about the way students learn Classics and History in school, what would it be?

Emily Baragwanath: I would have students read more primary sources.  I’ve often had students tell me at “It was so nice to read that Plato, and I had no idea I would be able to grasp what he was saying without an intermediary interpretation.” So I’d certainly have students read the works themselves, since it gives them a direct insight into the ideas of the ancient author, and shows them just how exciting that literary work can be.

Rhodes Project: If you could have lunch with one famous female figure, who would it be and why?

Emily Baragwanath: Michelle Obama is one.  I admire her approach to what she does, and how she emphasizes the importance of getting back to eating good food, planting your own garden, choosing organic food – those sorts of things.  I think she’s a wonderful role model.

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