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Classics professor Volk talks feminism in Ovid, core curriculum

Classics professor Katharina Volk loves Ovid—but the Core Curriculum doesn’t do justice to its discussions of gender and sexuality, she said in a lecture Monday afternoon.

As part of “Feminist to the Core,” a speaker series run by Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender that allows professors to analyze feminist themes within the Core, Volk spoke to a crowded room in the Schermerhorn Extension about the themes of gender and sexuality in the epic “Metamorphoses.”

“One possibility is to view Ovid as a protofeminist,” she said. “He’s trying to give women a voice.”

“The other way to think about it is that he’s an extreme sexist,” she added.

Volk, who received the Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award two years ago, highlighted areas of the Core Curriculum that neglect feminist themes. She expressed her desire for Columbia College students to read more than just books XII-XV of “Metamorphoses,” saying that many of the epic’s other books explore gender-related issues and that the sections students are currently assigned are “skewed toward male-genred themes” like the Trojan War.

According to Volk, the battle scenes in “Metamorphoses,” which are heavy with traditionally masculine activity, are among those focused on by Literature Humanities sections. Volk questioned the poet’s intentions in those scenes.

“Is he actually denouncing male aggression?” Volk asked the audience. “Or is this a kind of violent pornography?”

Laura Ciolkowski, associate director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, coordinated the series in an attempt to encourage Columbia College students to consider deeper questions about gender and sexuality and their presence in classic literature, explaining that the series serves as a “miniature illustration” of the mission of IRWGS.

“It is no longer appropriate to define gender studies as the study of women,” she said, explaining that the series hopes to promote “messy, noisy, provocative conversation about women and sexuality.”

Volk found comedy in many of the poem’s gender-related themes because of the unusual and daring way that Ovid explores them.

“A mother killing her child … cannibalism … Obviously, it’s problematic,” she joked as she reviewed the tale of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne.

“‘Metamorphoses’ is really a text that is good to think with,” she said. “It’s great fun.”

Hope Silberstein, CC ’14, said she was surprised by the number of people who were interested in hearing Volk’s speech.

“People here are really progressive, but at the same time, you don’t really think that these feminist outlooks on the Core are really going to interest Columbia College students,” she said.

Silberstein said she attended the event for the opportunity to engage in a richer discussion of feminist topics. Students in the Core “are kind of robbed of not only female authors, but female stories,” she said.

Inez Bell, BC ’15, said she enjoys translating Latin and is also passionate about feminism. She said Volk’s discussion highlighted a key intersection between the two fields.

“It was interesting to combine two things that I wouldn’t necessarily combine,” she said.

Ciolkowski, who said she loves the Core Curriculum, explained that in designing the lecture series, she aimed to choose texts that don’t necessarily lend themselves to discussions on gender or sexuality in the classroom.

“I love the idea of students coming to a program like this and then going back into the classroom and asking questions about gender and sexuality, and bringing that into the conversation in the classroom,” she said.

Upcoming discussions in the “Feminist to the Core” series will cover texts such as Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” with each talk featuring a different distinguished member of the Columbia faculty.

“We really see this series as being about a conversation with the Core, to make the Core experience even more rich, even more provocative than it already is,” Ciolkowski said. “It’s really about promoting conversation.”

news@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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Tracheal posted on

“It’s really about promoting conversation...ONLY if that conversation sidesteps any mention of the bigotry, the reverse-sexism, the Stalinism, and the falseness which mainstream 'gender'-as-female-sex feminism is infamous for, of course.

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