Introducing Janet Downie
We would like for you to meet the newest edition to our faculty, Janet Downie. Specializing in Greek prose, she has taken a strong leadership role in the department in her first year, heading up the elementary Greek program while tackling numerous other bureaucratic duties. Below, the native of British Columbia shares what brought her to Chapel Hill.
I grew up in British Columbia, Canada, in the city of Victoria (Lekwungen traditional territory), and received my first degree from the University of Victoria, in English and Classics. I started both Latin and Greek at university, at the time because I was interested in – to borrow the title of my most formative course as an undergraduate – the “Backgrounds to the English Literary Tradition.” Like many of the Renaissance writers I was studying, I became fascinated with Greek, and this turned out to be the red thread of my graduate studies. I spent an illuminating and expansive year on an MA course at King’s College London in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies (the “Greek middle ages” as I was thinking of it then), exploring the amazing libraries, manuscript collections and long cultural history of London – and discovering the international and multilingual scholarly community of Classics. Shortly after, I went to the University of Chicago to study for a PhD in Greek and Latin Language and Literature.
Perhaps because I worked my way backwards to Classics, I have always been interested in literature and cultures that are “late” or “belated.” My research has focused on Greek literature of the late-classical period – the early centuries CE when, under the Roman Empire, the Greco-Roman world was a diverse and interconnected network of many cultures, languages and religious practices. For my dissertation research I worked as late as I thought I could get away with under the general umbrella of “Classics,” studying an unusual text by the second century CE writer Aelius Aristides. Best known to his near-contemporaries and Byzantine scholars as a writer of rhetorical prose in a classicizing vein, Aristides caught the attention of late twentieth-century readers for his Hieroi Logoi, or Sacred Tales – a first-person narrative of illness, dreams, divine healing, and professional escapades. In the book I published based on this work, I made a case for reading Aristides’ Tales as an experiment in rhetorical self-promotion, rather than as the personal confessional for which it has sometimes been taken.
All my research as a graduate student was library based. But it was also in graduate school that I traveled to the Mediterranean for the first time, first as a teaching assistant to University of Chicago undergrads during their spring quarter in Athens, and later on an excursion to archaeological sites in Turkey with fellow grad students and faculty. Being in the landscapes of the imperial Greek writers I studied – most of whom were from Asia Minor (Turkey) – made me wonder: What did they make of the spaces they inhabited? How did they conceive of the geography of their world? We tend to imagine imperial Greek writers as preoccupied exclusively with the inheritance of classical literature and rhetoric – were they also interested in the physical world around them? If so, how did this manifest in their writing?
These questions launched a new trajectory of enquiry, now the basis for a book on the Heroic Landscapes of Asia Minor. I turned over much of the soil for this project during the six years I spent as an assistant professor at Princeton University, where I had the opportunity to teach both imperial and classical literature to graduate and undergraduate students. The project took real shape thanks to the year I spent at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the delightfully interdisciplinary environment of the Institute for Research in the Humanities, where I benefitted from intellectual exchange with colleagues from Classics to Studio Art, and from Medieval English to African Studies. Interdisciplinary exchange has been an exciting part of the move to UNC this year, since our department includes (a first for me since undergraduate days) archaeology and philology. This produces stimulating conversations on a daily basis, and welcome opportunities to expand my horizons. When I head to Jerusalem this summer for a conference on travel in the ancient Mediterranean, I especially look forward to taking some time to visit my colleague Jen Gates-Foster’s excavation of a Roman-era settlement at Omrit.
I was always the most bookish in an active and outdoorsy family, which I think is why I feel I have an archaeologist alter ego. I love studying languages as living things (even when they’re “dead”), playing music, and traveling – partly to see both these things at work in the world. Day to day, the field is the classroom, and I have been delighted with the curious, hard-working, diverse and collaborative students I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my first two semesters at UNC.