Classics Professor Melissa Mueller Named Spotlight Scholar
Classics Professor Melissa Mueller has been named a 2023 UMass Amherst Spotlight Scholar. Spotlight Scholars initiative shines a light on faculty working for positive social change through research, scholarship, and creative activity.
At her core, Mueller is a reader: someone who loves immersing herself in another world through a great novel, poem, or dramatic work. As a literary scholar and critic in the Department of Classics of UMass Amherst’s College of Humanities & Fine Arts, she studies early Greek poetry, from Homer through Greek tragedy, and has spent her career not only reading such works, but re-reading them over and over for her teaching and research.
“When I re-read a text, it becomes completely different because I myself am changing,” said Mueller.
It was around 20 years ago that Mueller first began reading and thinking about the Greek poet Sappho, the subject of her forthcoming book, and she has found that certain poems have resonated with her differently as she has aged.
Mueller was introduced to Classics at a young age through her New York City school’s Latin requirement for students in sixth grade and up. The summer she turned 18, she enrolled in an intensive Greek course at the City University of New York (CUNY), through which she learned Greek grammar and read Euripides and Plato. “I fell in love with the language and thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Mueller recalled.
Mueller went on to earn a BA from Barnard College, an MA from Kings College, University of Cambridge in England, and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in Classics. While pursuing her PhD, she spent a year in Greece at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) touring different cities and archaeological sites, deepening her understanding of the broad and interdisciplinary nature of the field. She taught at The University of Texas at Austin, Wesleyan University, and Wellesley College before joining the UMass Amherst faculty in 2007.
In her work, Mueller applies a range of theories and ideas from across the humanities and social sciences. Her first book, Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance in Greek Tragedy, draws on new materialisms, a branch of critical theory that highlights the importance of objects and other material entities, to examine the stage lives of props in Greek tragedy. “These objects carried a lot of the weight of the dramatic action. I frame them as actors in their own right,” she explained. “In some cases, paying close attention to what the props are doing on stage will change our understanding of a tragedy entirely.”
I’m interested in reading Greek literature in ways that can speak to audiences—especially readers new to the study of Classics—today.
Mueller has received two prestigious awards—the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and the American Council of Learned Societies’ Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina—to support research for her forthcoming book, Sappho and Homer: A Reparative Reading, due out in late 2023 from Cambridge University Press. In it, she applies reparative reading—a theoretical perspective developed by the late literary scholar and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, based on a term from psychoanalytic theory—to Sappho, an archaic Greek female poet known for her lyric poetry and for centering same-sex female desire in her lyrics.
“Sedgwick developed reparative reading as an alternative to the much more common style of literary interpretation, the so-called ‘paranoid’ reading, which has critics searching for meanings of the literary work that have not yet been found by their peers, more concerned about this competition than with the experience of reading itself,” Mueller explained. “The idea is not to try to pry meaning out of a resistant text but to embrace the feelings of uncertainty and disorientation that come with not having a pre-set agenda. Reparative reading, especially as it has been developed by queer theorists after Sedgwick, also encourages us to explore messier, less positive emotions—things like shame and feelings of vulnerability and failure.”
She added, “This approach is much closer to how most people read for pleasure—following the plot, sympathizing with the characters, feeling certain emotions. We’re not censoring ourselves as we read, but are allowing ourselves to be immersed in the story, in the language.”
By applying a reparative approach to reading Sappho, Mueller said, “I started to see Sappho herself also as a kind of reparative reader—of the epic tradition— and her reception of Homer started to make a different kind of sense. One of the things she’s doing in reading and responding to Homer is providing a platform—her own lyric poetry—for those minor characters and stickier emotions that don’t find validation in epic.”
Above all, Mueller said, “I’m interested in reading Greek literature in ways that can speak to audiences—especially readers new to the study of Classics—today.”
Mueller has given a lot of thought to the contemporary relevance of Classics. Recent efforts to decolonize the field require reconsidering long-held assumptions of Classics’ role in education as connecting readers to a longer history of European civilization, she said.
“We have to think—almost from scratch—about what we’re doing and why it matters. Classics today is much more than the study of the ancient Mediterranean world; it’s the study of that time and place through a more continuous tradition of the later writers and artists who have responded to those works. There’s a sense of potentiality now. And there’s real enthusiasm for the ancient world, not only among young people who have grown up with Percy Jackson and classically-themed video games, but also in places where for various reasons historically there hasn’t been a strong tradition of studying Classics.”
Mueller also asks her students why they choose to study Classics. Sometimes, the answer is simply that they're fulfilling a major requirement. “But often they actually discover that they’re fascinated by the material and want to learn more. It transports them into this other mysterious world where they’re decoding things that were written thousands of years ago. There’s a sense of discovery and adventure that comes with having access to those thoughts and ideas from the past. Students find connections to other people, places, and times, and a way of understanding themselves in relation to a much broader human history.”
Mueller noted that the Classics department at UMass—which is comprised of faculty with diverse, interdisciplinary interests and methods—emphasizes teaching and mentoring undergraduates and hosts a highly regarded educator preparation program for future Latin teachers. “We are committed to traditional forms of scholarship, but as a department we also dedicate time and energy to a community-building agenda; many of our graduates are doing wonderful work in the K-12 schools.”
Mueller also mentors up-and-coming scholars as co-editor of the book series, Ancient Cultures, New Materialisms. In addition, she is a mentor with the Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus (AAACC), a group working to support young scholars of Asian descent and to diversify the field of Classics.
Mueller’s advice to young scholars is to follow their own interests, regardless of how they think they might be perceived by the field at large. Some of her own best writing, including the Sappho project, has emerged when she has allowed herself to wander off track from her primary work.
“For me, the most exciting part of reading and writing is not knowing what’s going to come of it,” she said. “When I start writing, I don’t have any kind of outline in mind; I just see where it takes me. I write to discover what I think and feel about a text.”