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In Memory of Sharon James
by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad (Ph.D. ’12), Christopher B. Polt (Ph.D. ’10), and Serena S. Witzke (Ph.D. ’14)

Sharon L. James, Professor of Classics at UNC-Chapel Hill, passed away on Thursday, December 28, 2023. To call her teaching “influential” and her work “groundbreaking” feels incommensurate with the profound impact she had on students, colleagues, friends, and scholars worldwide. Her scholarship changed the fields of Roman comedy, Roman love elegy, and women in the ancient Mediterranean. She continues to influence academic discourse through the work of the many students she trained and the countless scholars she has inspired. In addition, she was a vibrant personality in and out of Murphey Hall, what more than one of her protégé/e/s has called “a force of nature.” She was loud, sharp, funny, intimidating, a whirl of colorful shawls and snorting laughter, “a crusty marshmallow,” and one of the world’s best conversation partners, on topics ranging from Latin poetry, to fountain pens, to double cousins, to gardening tomatoes, to vague pronoun references, to the burgeoning family of birds that nested on her bookshelf one April. We loved her.

Professor James received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley, with a dissertation on parents and children in Homer, Vergil, and Dante. She taught at Hamilton College, Bryn Mawr College, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, before coming in 1999 to UNC-Chapel Hill, where she taught for the next 24 years.

Her 2003 monograph, Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy, reoriented the study of Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid by conclusively demonstrating that the docta puella at the heart of the genre is a meretrix (sex laborer), not a citizen woman. The book is foundational reading for every student of the genre—and the methodology of gendered reading Professor James employed in the book has resonated far outside the field.

Professor James was a pioneer in the scholarship and teaching of women in antiquity, even though the charge of teaching women in antiquity was one thrust upon her when she arrived at UNC, on the grounds that she was, well, a woman. She developed rigorous, wildly popular undergraduate courses on Women in Greece and Women in Rome—many UNC alums will never forget how vividly she debunked the traditional narrative about the abduction of the Sabine women, assisted in class by undergrad and grad volunteers—as well as the world’s first graduate seminar on Women in Antiquity that combined material culture and philology, a course co-taught with Sheila Dillon of Duke University. Because of that course, Professors James and Dillon were tapped to edit Blackwell’s A Companion to Women in the Ancient World (2012), which was likewise the first interdisciplinary collection of essays on that topic,and has already become a landmark study in the field; the two of them subsequently co-edited the four-volume scholarly anthology Women in the Classical World (2017).

In recent years, Professor James worked tirelessly to edit the unpublished works of the late Barbara Flaschenriem, an important interpreter of Propertius, and bring them to print alongside new work by today’s leading Propertian scholars in Golden Cynthia (2022). Professor James’ own 2020 essay on “Plautus and the Marriage Plot” (in Blackwell’s A Companion to Plautus), which shows how the Roman comedian Plautus is disinterested in his genre’s typical obsession with citizen marriage, promises to change the trajectory of Roman comedy studies to the same degree as her Learned Girls and Male Persuasion changed elegy studies. This essay offers a preview of Professor James’ monumental monograph on women in Roman comedy, unfinished at her death.

Professor James wrote many influential articles that are staples of research for students of comedy, elegy, and gender. “From Boys to Men: Rape and Developing Masculinity in Terence’s Hecyra and Eunuchus” (in a 1998 special edition of Helios that Professor James also edited) broke with scholarly tradition by shifting away from the citizen masculine perspective and acknowledging sexual abuse and enslavement as an embodied experience for women. She continued this work with “Trafficking Pasicompsa: A Courtesan’s Travels and Travails in Plautus’ Mercator” (New England Classical Journal, 2010) and “Reconsidering Rape in Menander’s Comedy and Athenian Life” (in Menander in Contexts, 2013). Professor James also made significant contributions to pedagogy in Classics with her years of work and scholarship on teaching sexual violence in the classroom, including her articles “Teaching Rape in Roman Elegy” (in A Companion to Roman Love Elegy) and “Talking Rape in the Classics Classroom: Further Thoughts” (in From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classics Classroom).

The NEH Summer Institute for Higher Educational Faculty on Roman comedy in performance, which she co-directed with Timothy J. Moore (Ph.D. ’86) and hosted at UNC in summer 2012, was a signal accomplishment for Professor James. Over the course of four weeks, she and Professor Moore worked relentlessly to introduce a cohort of young scholars to cutting-edge scholarship, pedagogy, and practices related to the performance of Roman comedy. Professor Moore recollects, “The idea for the Institute was Sharon’s, and she took the leading role in shepherding our proposal through the NEH. When the time for the Institute came, Sharon, as the onsite director, handled almost all the local logistics. Watching how effectively she dealt with everything…was an inspiration. Equally inspiring was the care and attention she paid to the needs of each of the 30 NEH Summer Scholars.” The public impact of their Institute reached far beyond the Institute itself: the videos they produced have been viewed more than 35,000 times, in 130 countries, and have become indispensable teaching tools for high school and college teachers. Their initial Institute was so well-received that the NEH repeatedly asked Professors James and Moore to run it again and, in summer 2023, they got to see its second iteration take place at Boston College. Half a dozen of the participants in the 2012 Institute went on to become respected experts of Roman comedy in their own right and served as visiting scholars at that 2023 iteration to pass along that mentorship for another generation, a testament to the shaping role she has played in the discipline.

As a teacher, Professor James was simultaneously uncompromising in her rigorously high expectations and deeply compassionate in her pedagogy. In 2013, she earned UNC’s William C. Friday/Class of 1986 Award for Excellence in Inspirational Teaching, and in 2021, she was recognized by the UNC Board of Governors with their system-wide Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her course on Ovid and literary theory, which she brought from Bryn Mawr to UNC, introduced dozens of students to ideas that fundamentally challenged and enriched their thinking, and resulted in numerous publications by those students in peer-reviewed journals, as well as a two-decade retrospective she published in Classical World in 2015. She was scheduled to teach it again this spring.

Professor James’ graduate and undergraduate courses on Roman comedy and Roman elegy were the stuff of legend in the department. Her 2006 Roman comedy class, for instance, filled the Classics library with uproarious laughter, enough to convince comedy-skeptical colleagues to reconsider the genre’s merit. Her courses were not only legendary but also notorious—the workload for one course was impressive, but to take two at once was a feat. It was an honor to be known by other faculty as “one of Sharon’s students.” And Professor James’ teaching echoed far beyond the hallways of Murphey, as Roman comedy scholar and friend C. W. Marshall attests: “When I was invited to come speak to her grad students, I was floored by the depth and compassion that they all demonstrated for the female characters in Roman comedy. Though I had written a book on Plautus, I had not fully seen these characters as individuals until I was part of a thoughtful conversation as Sharon’s students argued about the different experiences being modeled by the women, each of them referring to the characters by name. It was both dizzying and delightful, and set a pattern that helped establish a major theme in my scholarship for the past 12 years.” Professor James’ departmental colleague and longtime friend James J. O’Hara expressed how having her as a colleague was a key reason he decided to come to UNC (a feeling he says is echoed by several other current faculty), and how her presence on the faculty attracted graduate students who were a joy for all the faculty to work with, whether or not they ended up dissertating with her.

For many scholars, Professor James was the first person to introduce them to issues of social justice in research: how even the choice of a topic can be political, how to work with what we have and to try to learn more about what we do not, and why it even matters in the first place. She always urged her students to find their own path, expertly guiding them as they were beginning to generate their own knowledge. Caitlin Hines (B.A. ’13) reflects, “Sharon refused to let you doubt yourself. Most of my achievements…have been the result of Sharon encouraging me to try things I didn’t think I was qualified to try. She was fierce and relentless in encouraging us to believe in our own talents and effusively joyful when we succeeded just as she suspected she would. I came to treasure the response that I knew she would send when I wrote to tell her of a new success: ‘I am delighted, but not surprised.’” Erika Weiberg (Ph.D. ’16) adds, “I do not think I could have finished a Ph.D. or a book without her constant support, pep talks, and stalwart belief in me and my ideas. At a moment’s notice, she’d meet me at a coffee shop…or get on the phone,and tell me precisely what she thought I needed to do to overcome whatever hurdle I was facing. When many others did not believe in me, she did, and it made a world of difference. I know I am not the only one who felt this way—how many young scholars in our field have persisted because of her support?”

Professor James was an outstanding, beloved mentor. “Sharon was always so proud of her students,” says Rachel Mazzara (B.A. ’13). She believed that mentoring was a lifelong relationship, one that ended not with graduation, but extended throughout her students’ careers (even when they were hiding from her as she came down the hallway). She was her students’ champion, ever and always. She taught us all the value of institutional decorum, never to mention our hypotheses about Ovid’s exile in mixed company, and how to be more confident (“self-deprecatory remark omitted!”). She established the Placement Service at UNC, committed to seeing all graduated students fully employed. Her work as Placement Officer set a new model for the field for professional development, and she created the gold-standard format for a Classics c.v.—one can always recognize a c.v. in the James lineage. Comedy and elegy scholar and Professor James’ dear friend Amy Richlin says that “she was the greatest grad director in my 44 years of experience in the field: with her students every step of the way, exhorting, pushing, cheering them on, spending hours and hours of her great force of mind and heart.”

Professor James supported students’ first steps into the world of academic publishing, helping them create networks with established scholars, editors, and junior colleagues—if she had a friend somewhere, she connected them. Emma Warhover (Ph.D. ’21) remarks, “she demanded excellence, but didn’t demand that excellence manifest itself in any one particular way.” She would check in year after year, offering collaboration, brainstorming, a second set of eyes on a piece of work, research material, and congratulations as her former students passed milestones. Erika Zimmermann Damer (Ph.D. ’10) recalled how supportive she felt Professor James was when starting her family during graduate school: “Sharon happily helped me plan taking a parental leave, and simultaneously helped me through the daunting process of entering the job market, when Helena [Erika’s first child] was 8–10 weeks old. I’ve heard stories of bad mentoring in graduate programs, but I never experienced a second of it at UNC, and from Sharon, I never got anything but intense support and generosity.”

Professor James’ mentoring has provided a template for how to nurture the academic aspirations of our own students and support them long after they are no longer students, but friends and colleagues. Jermaine Bryant (B.A. ’19) shared about how Professor James kept for years a cognitive map he’d made for his senior thesis and gave it to him the last time they saw one another in person; he adds, “There are many memories of Sharon that are dear to me: perhaps most dear is her telling me I could be a classicist if I wanted, something no one had ever told me before.” John Henkel (Ph.D. ’09) remarks, “she was just so damned influential on everyone that she touched…she formed me in ways that continue to pay out in the way I think about mentoring and friendship with my students.” Arum Park (Ph.D. ’09) adds, “More than twenty years after we first met, I still looked to her for guidance and solace. Just a few months ago I was venting to her various professional frustrations. She validated my feelings and told me, ‘You deserve to be seen for who you are.’ I think that pretty much encapsulates what made her such an extraordinary professor: she always tried to see her students for who they were.”

Professor James was a constant advocate for women in Classics and higher education as a whole, and her work was recognized twice by the Women’s Classical Caucus, with an award for her special contributions to feminist pedagogy in 2008 and another for her dauntless leadership in 2017. She was key in the recent creation of the International Ovidian Society. IOS founding president Alison Keith, another of Professor James’ close friends, writes, “The International

Ovidian Society was Professor James’ brainchild, and she roped colleagues around the world into helping her launch it as efficiently (and ruthlessly) as any ancient Roman empress or new comedic serua callida. Her vision for the Society has been fully realized with the establishment of a genuinely inclusive organization devoted to the study of Ovid, with attention to all media and time periods, and committed to supporting students and younger scholars.” Professor James held numerous national leadership positions in the profession, including chairing the Society for Classical Studies Membership Committee (2018–2021) after serving as one of its inaugural members (2014–2018); sitting on the editorial board of the journal Mouseion (2012–2015); and serving on the prize committee for the American Journal of Philology (2016–2018).

At UNC, Professor James participated in Project Uplift and the Carolina Millennial Scholars Program, which provide mentorship for students from underserved communities. In the Department of Classics, she was an integral member and leader of graduate admissions and coordinator of the department’s outreach efforts. She was also the faculty advisor for the Underwater Hockey Team, a personal point of pride and evidence of how far and wide her esteem among undergraduate students extended.

In her local community, Professor James contributed to both the Freedom House Scholars and the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers rehabilitation programs, teaching students to explore Greek tragedy while reflecting on how ancient literature can help us with our everyday challenges. Derek Keyser (Ph.D. ’11), one of her co-instructors in those programs, recalled, “She helped show me the value of classical literature outside the classroom. She brought a lot of energy, compassion, and humor to those sessions.” She was also deeply committed to public scholarship and engagement, serving as an audience talkback discussant for many productions at UNC’s Kenan and Playmakers’ Theaters.

Professor James is survived by her husband, Corry Arnold; sister, Heather James; and beloved dog, Palaestra.

Cinis hic docta puella fuit.

by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad (Ph.D. ’12), Christopher B. Polt (Ph.D. ’10), and Serena S. Witzke (Ph.D. ’14)

27 Responses to “In Memory of Sharon James”

  1. Carlos Noreña

    A lovely tribute to a remarkable person. We won’t see her likes again. It was a privilege to have known her.

    • Heather James

      Carlos, Sharon was so proud of you. Your father was my teacher at UCSC. It is a pure tribute to Sharon that you, after all these years, are posting your love and gratitude for what Sharon put into this world as a teacher.

  2. Robin Mitchell-Boyask

    I was fortunate to know Sharon for over 30 years. The news of her death hit me hard. This tribute by her students is as perfect as I can imagine. Thank you.

  3. Deborah Lyons

    Sharon was a great colleague — even at a distance — and supported my career in a number of ways. I wish I had been able to thank her,
    as I had planned to do at this year’s SCS meetings. She leaves us far too soon but with so many rich contributions by which to remember her.

  4. Allison Das

    Thank you, Sharon, for the loving mentorship you provided me with during and after my degree. You helped me find my voice in this field and as a Latin teacher. With utmost gratitude and love.

  5. Anise K. Strong

    Thank you, first, to T.H.M., Chris, and Serena, for such a gorgeous and thoughtful obituary. Sharon was such a kind and fierce lioness, always willing to believe in others’ potential even when they doubted their own capabilities. The only consolation in such grief is how much she will live on in both her work and especially her students.

  6. Ann Raia

    Sharon you are missed already — I was looking forward to catching up with you and your activities at SCS.
    Thank you for this tribute to Sharon which gives witness to her professional and personal excellence.

  7. Susan Mazzara

    How often does a powerhouse of Classical scholarship extend friendship and hospitality to the parent of an undergraduate student? And yet this is exactly what Sharon did in inviting me to tea, to lunch, and to an afternoon of canning pickled green beans at her house! Such was the wideness of her heart. I often referred to Sharon as my daughter’s second mother, her “Classics mom”! Rachel could not have had a better mentor. Our family was deeply blessed by Sharon’s presence in our lives.

    • Heather James

      This is beautiful. Yes, my sister Sharon extended everything to her students and their families. Thank you for remembering.

  8. Corey Brennan

    A really thoughtful and wonderfully comprehensive tribute to this remarkable person and scholar (and beloved close friend).

  9. Inger Brodey

    I am devastated to hear of Sharon’s passing. She was such an excellent colleague and mentor. She had an eye for talented eccentrics, and generously promoted student welfare in every way she could. Rest in peace, Sharon!

  10. Jeanne Neumann

    Thank you, Ted, Serena, Chris, for this beautiful tribute to Sharon. She truly was both a force of nature and an astonishing scholar; she was also the loveliest and gentlest of friends.

  11. Susanna Braund

    Thank you for this wonderfully sensitive and accurate obituary. I especially remember Sharon for her unwavering love of dogs. What a loss.

  12. Lauren Jarvis

    This impossibly sad news has prompted an informal inventory of Sharon’s presence in my life. In my home office alone, there are leftover mailing supplies from an afternoon with her, addressing postcards to voters in swing states; so many beautiful pens and notebooks to help with “the prose” — as she would say, “The way most people write now is so alienating”–and the kindest card after a recent death in my family. An inventory of the less tangible is, of course, harder, but my New Year’s resolution is to channel her generosity to so many and whether measured in time, thoughts, or things.

    • marcy moriconi

      I met Sharon when I was a freshman at UC Santa Cruz struggling in Latin. She quickly became a life long friend and was always there for me. Her generosity, humor, brilliance and friendship cannot be described. Sharon is one of kind. Period.

  13. Susan Prince

    Wow, what a shock and a loss. Sharon was just here at Cincinnati two months ago, and we heard all about her forthcoming book. I hope her band of wonderful former students will help bring it to completion in her honor. I did not know Sharon well, but every encounter was extremely memorable.

  14. Suzanne Faris

    I had the privilege of taking Professor James’ course on theoretical approaches to Ovid at Bryn Mawr, which opened my eyes to aspects of Roman poetry that had never occurred to me, specifically the status and experience of women featured in Ovid’s Amores and Ars Amatoria. I only wish I could have taken her course on Roman Comedy.

  15. Jacquelyn Clements

    I didn’t know Sharon, but I knew of her work. This beautiful tribute helps me feel like I knew her, however – what an incredible impact she clearly had. May her memory be for a blessing.

  16. Louise McReynolds

    Sharon was one of the first friends I made when I arrived at UNC in 2006. I will miss just hanging out with her and Cory terribly.

  17. Henry Ross

    Like so many others who have posted here and elsewhere, I feel tremendously lucky to have known Sharon, and I’ve loved reading everything that’s been written about her over these last few weeks. As a sophomore in her Fall 2010 Ovid class, I wrote an Ode to Hummus (in elegiac couplets, I think), Sharon got a kick out of it, and so began our long friendship. Hummus was a consistent theme, but our conversations ranged widely: her “vergogna” of an office, as she called it, which she recruited me and a friend to tidy during my junior year; the UNC Honor System, the law, and my plans for life after college; her list of banned words and phrases (“outcome-driven,” in my senior thesis, particularly revulsed her, as did “lifestyle” in one of my post-law school phone chats with her); her many adventures in Italy; and, of course, her irreverent and hilarious takes on the ancient texts I read with her semester after semester. She knew how to write a good sentence, and, thirteen years on, I still think of her almost every time I write a bad one. When I was with Sharon, I always had fun, because she always did; and I believed in myself, because she always did. I’ll miss her.

  18. A.A. Donohue

    Thank you for this very fitting memorial to Sharon, the finest colleague and finest friend ever.

  19. Maria Cristina Quintero

    We’ve only just now received the devastating news. Sharon and I arrived at the same time at Bryn Mawr College where we became close friends. She was one of the most generous, hilarious, and brilliant women I have ever known. I’ll never forget the truffle risotto she made for us one time or the New Years we spent with her, Corry, and her wonderful dog ,Barnabas Collins, in Santa Cruz. One of the first things my husband and I were going to do when I retire at the end of this year was to finally visit her in North Carolina. I am so sorry I didn’t keep up with her and Corry recently and had no idea she was ill. Rest in peace, dear friend!

  20. A.A. Donohue

    Sharon was the finest colleague and finest friend anyone could ask for, ever.

  21. Adam Booth

    Thank you, all of you, for such a beautiful tribute to Sharon. I was able to take classes with Sharon while I was a doctoral student at Duke. I’m now an Assistant Professor, and I only found out about her death because I was about to email her to let her know I’ll be teaching a text I had first studied with her (Plautus’ Asinaria). She was so generous with her time and mentorship (including sharp critique when needed! I recall her saying once, “You were kind of tired when you wrote this bit, weren’t you?”). She will be so missed, but I’ll be thinking of her (and she may be smiling along) next as we encounter the sage matrona putting the foolish senex pater in his place.

  22. Joe Jupille

    What an incredible remembrance. She sounds absolutely legendary, just exactly what I would want in a teacher, a department/hallway conversation partner, a friend. All my love to Corry and everyone grieving this gigantic loss.

  23. Joy Connolly

    Sharon made a difference in many people’s lives, and I am impressed and moved at what I learned here about how much she means to so many people. Thank you for this lovely, rich, and inspiring tribute to her. What an impressive scholar, teacher, organizer, and mentor! Sharon was generous with her time and energy whenever I visited the Research Triangle, and I always learned from my encounters with her there and at the SCS meetings. Even speaking as someone who knew Sharon only in fairly limited professional contexts, I feel her loss keenly and I will miss her.

  24. Hunter Gardner

    Sharon was my dissertation advisor, but so much more than that. She put together a CD of songs for the birth of my daughter (lots of Kinky Friedman), gave me a good luck scarf for my first SCS job interview, spent hours reviewing my scholarship long after I’d finished my PhD, and sat through at least two UNC NCAA championship basketball games with me–even though I knew she wasn’t a huge fan of college basketball. What an amazing, brilliant woman, who had a knack for instilling confidence in a person when that confidence was otherwise hard to come by. I miss her dearly.


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