Professor Neils will be the first female director of the American School
Q&A with Incoming Director Jenifer NeilsJoanie Blackwell
Jenifer Neils, the Elsie B. Smith Professor in the Liberal Arts in the Department of Classics at Case Western Reserve University, will succeed James Wright as the next Director of the American School, beginning a 5-year appointment in July 2017. An internationally renowned scholar in classics and art history, Prof. Neils has taught for four decades, published prolifically, excavated in Greece and Italy, and recently won the first Baker-Nord Center Award for Distinguished Scholarship in the Humanities. Her work on the Parthenon has earned her the reputation of being one of the world’s most established authorities on the monument. The ASCSA is delighted to welcome Prof. Neils and appreciates the time she took to share her perspectives on the School, Hellenic studies, and Greece in the interview below as she prepares for the post.
Q: What are some of your first memories of the School when you arrived in 1970? How has it changed?
I first went to the School when I was 19, as a sophomore in college, for the Summer Session. The junta was in power, which was an interesting time to be in Greece. You couldn’t wear short skirts and there were military everywhere. It was very different, obviously. I think the biggest changes are in the physical plan: the library has expanded since then, and we’ve built the Gennadeion Wing, Cotsen Hall, and the Wiener Lab. Though of course Loring Hall hasn’t changed at all! The new Acropolis Museum is also a wonderful addition to the city. It’s my favorite place to teach.
Q: How is living and working in Greece different than it used to be?
I think one of the biggest improvements is the ease of transportation now. It was much harder to get around back in the day. There were no superhighways as there are today, and of course the metro is amazing. It used to take so long to get around to see the sites in and outside of Athens. I’m amazed that you can hop in a car and be down to Sparta in two hours; it used to take us an entire day.
And now that Greece is part of the EU, there are many more sophisticated goods and services. I remember when you couldn’t even get peanut butter. Athens, especially, is so much more international, cosmopolitan, and outward-looking; it’s part of the modern world, for better or for worse.
Q: What are the major challenges and opportunities the School will face over the next five years?
Well, I think there are a lot of challenges. The agenda includes renovating Loring Hall and reclassifying the Gennadius, Blegen, and Wiener Lab libraries, which all have different systems. For me, there will be changes in terms of a new Mellon Professor and a new director at Corinth coming in.
Probably the biggest challenge long term is that the School has to live within its income. Given that the market isn’t putting off significant growth and therefore the draw on our endowment will go down, that income is going to shrink. We have to be fiscally responsible and very careful about the budget so that we can preserve the endowment for future generations. I’m very committed to helping raise money for the School, an area in which we can all help. The alums have been extremely helpful on that score. I’d like everyone to join the Capps Society, our legacy society; even if people can’t afford to give now, if they can leave something to the School, that would be nice. I think it’s very important.
We now have a robust development office, and have been very fortunate in having amazingly generous donors throughout the history of the School. Most importantly, we have an excellent product, which is now showcased very well with the short videos that have been released. For those of us who know the School, these films are especially moving to watch, and also an excellent way to introduce the School to people who don’t know much about it.
I think another challenge might be enrollment. Classics and humanities enrollments are declining, and we’ve got a lot of competition from other programs in Greece, particularly study abroad programs. We offer such an unbelievable program, but we have to make it better known and make students realize they’re going to get a lot more out of it than wherever they’re thinking of going.
Jenifer describes a frieze from the Parthenon to students
Q: What are your ambitions for the School during your tenure?
I think every department at the School is already a model for what it should be, and I want to support the excellent professional programming that goes on in every single one of them. Whether it’s the work performed on the excavations, in the libraries, in the archives, or in the lab, I want to enable them all to reach their potential and to put on the kind of programming they strive for. So my ambition is really to maintain the very high level at which each program operates.
One area we’ve expanded is outreach. We have an intern for museum outreach at Corinth, a growing archive, and the new West Wing of the Gennadeion which will offer a chance to do more and better exhibitions, to display our treasures as they should be. Outreach is an opportunity to give back to Greece for all the hospitality and ξενία we’ve been shown over 100 some years.
We clearly need to try to attract more students to the Summer Session and the Regular Program. And I want to figure out ways to integrate the students more into the Greek scene and into archaeological circles by, for instance, facilitating interactions with other scholars. We do that to a certain extent, but we’re also an enclave that doesn’t reach out enough. There’s so much to be learned from our colleagues at the foreign schools and in the Greek archaeological service. We should get our students more exposed to them and their important work.
Q: What are your ambitions for the School in the longer term future?
What I see long term is that we may be excavating less and hopefully publishing more, and also conserving and presenting our sites for the public. We’ve already scaled back on the School’s ambitious excavations of the past. We were originally set up to do excavations and have done hundreds of them, either affiliated or through the auspices of the School. In the process, we’ve accumulated huge amounts of stored material that really need to be studied and published. We have a very good publication record, but I think it’s a moral obligation, once we’ve excavated this material, to put it in the public and scholarly domains. Long term, we also have to really hone in on this dissemination of information, which can be done digitally now. We’re already set up with great web portals. That is the future and we’re going to do more and more digitally.
Q: How are you preparing for the transition, and how will the experience of having served as Chair of the Managing Committee since 2012 influence you?
Being Managing Committee Chair was really a perfect prep for this job because I now have a deep familiarity with most aspects of School budget and how the committees work. I’ve also gotten to know the board members, which I think is very useful. I’ve traveled with them and have had meaningful interactions for several years now. They’re a fantastic resource for us, obviously. Not only do they bring in monetary resources, but they’re people who are committed to what we do and support it in all sorts of ways. This is a wonderful, wonderful support group for the School, and I’m going to try to maintain strong relationships with them.
I have an apartment in Athens, so I do go there a lot. I travel to Greece every chance I can and I’m also working diligently on my modern Greek, which is a high priority.
Q: What trends are you seeing in classics, archaeology, and Hellenic studies right now?
Well, I’ve already mentioned lower enrollments in the humanities broadly, and more competition with summer study abroad programs. We’re doing some new things in response to this: for instance, inaugurating Summer Seminars. We’re going to have one regular “boot camp” i.e. traditional Summer Session and two shorter, topic-driven Summer Seminars. I hope these take off; I think they’re really wonderful opportunities for a wide range of students and teachers.
The trends in classics are that graduate students have less time to finish their degrees; there’s more pressure on them. I’d like to see the School be a little more flexible and allow graduate students to come for one semester instead of the full academic year. Right now, our program isn’t set up to accommodate this, with seminars starting before Christmas. Some students might want to just come for the Athens trips or attend in the winter.
In other words, we have a set program that we believe in; there’s nothing wrong with it, and we’ll always have Regular members. But I think we should think longer term, given the trends in humanities and classics and in graduate education. Offering some more flexible options is a way of doing this. I didn’t do the Regular Program because I didn’t have time, which was my loss, but I might have been able to come for a semester. In fact, professors often split Whitehead appointments, one serving in the fall and other in the spring, back when the seminars started in January. Sharing professorships created—and can again—a wider and richer pool of scholars who could commit their expertise to the School.
Q: You hold the distinction of being the first female Director of the American School of Classical Studies. As a graduate of Bryn Mawr College (an elite women’s liberal arts institution), you are part of a strong tradition of female Classicists, art historians, and archaeologists who broke barriers in their fields. Can you comment on what it means to carry on this legacy?
Well, I had two Bryn Mawr predecessors in my job as Managing Committee Chair, so that ground was ploughed for me. Mabel Lang, my Greek professor when I was an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr, was Chair of the Managing Committee (1975-1980). And then Mary Sturgeon, who was a Bryn Mawr PhD, was Chair more recently (2007-2012). So I have brilliant predecessors in that role. Coming in as Director, I’m sort of embarrassed that we haven’t had a woman in this position before, because there have been so many really brilliant female archaeologists and classicists over the last century or so. I think it’s a little bit of an anomaly that we haven’t had one before, so I’d like to believe that my qualifications are the reason I have this job and not because I’m a woman. One of my great role models, of course, at Bryn Mawr, was Bruni Ridgway, who was a mother, a scholar, a brilliant teacher, and an intrepid Summer Session director. She’s been a great role model for many of us.
Q: How do you see the current state of women in those academic fields?
I think women are at the top in classics, archaeology, and art history. What’s a little surprising is that we don’t have more women as field directors of excavations. It’s improving (some of the School’s affiliated excavations have female directors), and the School had many pioneering women in archaeology like Hetty Goldman, but it tends to be an area where you don’t see many women. It’s a very demanding job, of course, but it’s a field dominated by men. In other areas, like classics and art history, it’s 50/50 these days, so we’re on par. There are just as many women in these professions these days as men, so discrimination is not an issue.
Q: Will you have time for scholarly projects of your own once you begin as Director? If so, what do you plan to work on?
Probably not, but I am a co-director with Margie (Prof. Margaret Miles, UC Irvine; ASCSA Andrew W. Mellon Professor 2008-2014) on a new potential excavation in Segesta, Sicily. So it may be that in the summer I’ll go to Segesta for excavation. And I’d like to take the students to Sicily—this was where the wealthy Greeks were, after all. It’s the best of both worlds.
Q: What advice would you give first-time students and scholars arriving at the School?
I would tell them to get out and walk around the city, to go shopping at the laïki, to attend lectures at the foreign schools and conferences, and to take advantage of the rich opportunities there are for scholarly fodder in Athens. On the Regular Program, sites are visited so fast and furiously on the fall trips that I would recommend going back to the ones they’re most interested in. It pays to return to a site to be more contemplative.
The School’s doing a lot of good, so there are a lot of ways in which people can help the School or other causes like the refugees through volunteer work. Many departments at the School—the Archives, for instance—actually use volunteer help. So if you have free time (which you usually don’t!), get out and help, promote the School, or volunteer in the city.
Go to tea and ouzo, where some of the best ideas are formulated. It still impresses me so much that when I go to Athens and I’m working on a new topic I can pose questions to all the experts who are spending time at the School. In addition, I have the best resources in the world in the library, beyond anything I could even find in America, all at my fingertips. And then I can go and see the monuments and objects themselves. It’s ALL there. So you just need to take advantage of it. It’s a phenomenal opportunity.
Q: You have already spent considerable time in Athens over the years. What are some of your favorite things to do and places to frequent in your spare time there?
I like to walk around the city. I like to seek out new and unknown museums, and go to a lot of small ones. There are a lot of really interesting museums in Athens—the Lalaounis one has a great display of period jewelry, for instance, and the contemporary art galleries are great. Even the War Museum, which was shunned during the junta years, has phenomenal dioramas of battles and military equipment. You can learn a lot in that museum. In spite of the economics, there’s a lot to see and do in Athens.
One of my favorite outings to do is drive to Sounion in the evening and swim, and then have calamari at the taverna. There’s no one there in the evening, and the sunset is just exquisite.
On a daily basis, I walk the perimeter road around Lykavittos. If you go counterclockwise, you get rewarded at the end with a spectacular view of the Parthenon. I still pinch myself when I see the Parthenon. I still can’t believe it’s there, from the first time I saw it even to this day. I am always amazed.