New Faculty
Johanna Hanink Assistant Professor of Classics Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

Johanna Hanink
Assistant Professor of Classics

By Mark Nickel  |  September 1, 2010  |  Email to a friend

It’s a story that could have happened last week on Madison Avenue or somewhere on K Street in Washington: Everybody stays on message. Experts carefully position the group and its agenda. Political operatives mold and tweak public opinion. The brand succeeds and dominates its category.

Something like that happened in Athens more than two millennia ago. Today, Athenian tragedy remains one of Western civilization’s dominant elements. Exactly how did the Athenians do it?

“There were many poetic traditions in many different places in ancient Greece, but it’s Athenian tragedy that survives,” said Johanna Hanink, assistant professor of classics. “The Athenians were so good at their own PR that they convinced people Athens was the world’s center for theater. I’m interested in that cultural history, in how Athenian tragedy became the standard when we think of Greek classics.”

Plato helped pitch the idea. Alexander the Great, trying to assert his Greekness and overcome Macedon’s barbaric image, staged theater festivals for his armies. But the real staying power of Athenian tragedy lay in some fundamental strengths.

“In Western literature, this is the first instance of people working out problems we’re still working on today. Seeing how the debates were first formulated can be useful,” Hanink said. “What does it mean to be a citizen? a member of a community? a family? Should we go with justice or expediency? Talk about politics, and etymologically you’re still talking about Greeks.”

Hanink came to classics early. Her high school was on the campus of the University of Connecticut–Storrs, where she began learning Greek in her senior year. The road led to the University of Michigan (B.A. in classics with highest honors); the University of California–Berkeley (M.A., Latin); and Queens’ College, Cambridge (M.Phil. and Ph.D., both in classics). She considered other interests — economics, linguistics — but key faculty in classics, at Michigan and again at Cambridge, brought her to her Ph.D., which she received this summer. She is beginning her academic career at Brown.

“Brown’s classics department is well known for the people who are here and have been here, but I was also drawn by the flexibility in the undergraduate teaching,” Hanink said. “I wanted to come to a place where I could, for example, teach people who aren’t classics majors. That will be a new experience.”

She will offer two courses that attract many non-concentrators: “The Greeks” this fall and a course on Greek myths in the spring. Also this fall: an upper-level class that will read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in Greek.

She also liked the way academic departments at Brown are in conversation with each other. “Classics is inherently interdisciplinary, with art, math, history, science, philosophy,” she said. “It needs these conversations with other disciplines.” The field also has technological ties, using multispectral imaging and other advanced technologies to read texts that were erased many centuries ago or to read scrolls that have been charred by fire.

“Classics has an association with being elitist — something you do at very wealthy institutions with extraordinary libraries,” Hanink said. “But technology has had a democratizing effect. Now no matter where you are, you can have the entire corpus of classical Greek texts on a CD or thumbdrive. You don’t need uninterrupted access to a huge library. I can take it with me to rural Connecticut.”