Page title

Erynn Kim '17

Main page content

Student Year



“It’s not a good story.” It really wasn’t. Not the right story anyway, certainly not the kind that my advisor was looking for when she suggested that I write about my journey to Classics for a fellowship application. My journey began as more of a wandering than anything else. In middle school I decided to study Latin because my older brother did. Thanks to my brilliant Magistra, Latin ended up being my favorite class. Back then, however, I wasn’t quite sure what a Classics major even was and came to Princeton with astrophysics in mind. I remember vividly a PHY 105 lecture during which the professor disappeared in a cloud of chalk dust as he threw a particularly involved proof on the board. The first thought that flew into my head: how hideous. Then, from somewhere to my left, an awed whisper: “How beautiful.” In that moment, I wanted to step into the whisperer’s shoes and see what he saw—or rather, how he saw. But more than that I wanted to step out of the classroom in my own shoes with my own eyes and find that moment for myself—that “how beautiful”—somewhere, elsewhere. 

My elsewhere was Classics. What drew me to Classics and what draws me still is the methodology of the field as much as it is the content of study. However pretentious the word “philology” may sound to some ears, it is based on the very simple practice of slow reading. Simple in theory, less so in application, as I quickly discovered.

One of my first Greek courses as an undergraduate was with Professor Timothy Barnes on Homer’s Iliad. On the final exam for that class, we were given a passage and directed to restore the digammas, a letter that decayed out of the alphabet, and to comment on the metrical significance of each instance. In the span of a few hours I was given the visceral experience of how what is not there can have a real effect on what is.

Later on in my undergraduate career, I took a course on Hesiod’s Theogony with Professor Joshua Katz, who gave our class a somewhat startling essay prompt: justify the paragraph breaks made by the editor of the OCT. After poring over the pages, I eventually caught sight of the family tree growing from the punctuation and the way that a change of formatting would be enough to uproot it, showing me how form can speak as powerfully as content.

In my final year at Princeton, I read Sophocles’ Antigone in a seminar taught by Professor Brooke Holmes. During one class, she gave us a quick lesson on how to read commentaries: if the commentary says that X definitely cannot be right, that means X definitely could be right, and, moreover, X is important enough for the commentary to give it space at all—a specific lesson with a broad application: how to read between the lines. In an exam for her class, Professor Holmes asked us to identify the speakers of a series of unmarked lines. It was with a kind of out-of-body fascination that I experimented with putting words in the wrong mouth and watched an unfamiliar story emerge from a familiar passage.

All of these experiences were variations on the art of slow reading. At a time when we are constantly overwhelmed by a deluge of information, some true, much false, I am particularly grateful to my Classics professors for helping me develop the close reading and critical thinking skills to navigate through the flood to the truth. I am now in my third year of the PhD at Yale, having taken the year after leaving Princeton to read an MPhil at Trinity College, Cambridge University—none of which could have happened without the support of Princeton and the Classics department, both my professors and the department’s incomparable administrator, Jill Arbeiter. Although I haven’t set foot on campus since I walked out of FitzRandolph Gate, I am back in Princeton’s Classics department this Fall 2020 as an exchange scholar. I am so grateful for how the department welcomed me back even amidst this pandemic with open, albeit virtual, arms. Recently I have become engaged in opening up the conversation in Classics in various ways: at Yale, I have been doing work on classical reception in Asian-American literature, and, at Princeton this past semester, I have studied the connections between Ancient Greece and the Near East under the guidance of Professor Johannes Haubold, whose expertise in the field is only surpassed by his generosity of spirit. The wonderful professors in Princeton’s Classics department have taught and continue to teach me how to step out of the echo chamber and into the two-way street of dialogue. To study Classics is, by its very nature, to engage with voices that come from a different perspective from our own—this is dialogue. To engage in dialogue means to speak and to listen in equal measure. 

At Princeton I learned to listen, but I also learned to speak. I remember my thesis advisor, Professor Andrew Ford, giving me a prompt for a short response—he returned my paragraph with every single polysyllabic Latinate word and instance of jargon slashed out in red pen. The new prompt: rewrite the paragraph replacing every crossed-out word with a monosyllabic word from an English root. I am so grateful to have had professors that paid this kind of attention to detail to my work—not just on what I said but how I said it—and who gave me ample opportunities to experiment with my own voice and to practice articulating myself as clearly as possible.

My training at Princeton has influenced not only my research but also my teaching. This past semester I have so enjoyed watching my students go from hovering in hesitation to throwing themselves headfirst into interacting with ancient works of art, which are, in many ways, so foreign to our modern American eyes. It has been such a gift to share with my students the rewarding experience of slowing down long enough to listen to these works of art, to let the art speak for itself and realize that conversation is always possible. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions. In Professor Haubold’s words, “some questions matter more than others” (Greece and Mesopotamia 2013: 71); the trick is to find the questions that will enable rather than obstruct conversation. In a world that grows increasingly noisy, this is easier said than done, but I still believe in the power of the human voice, and I am grateful to my education at Princeton for helping me find mine and for giving me the foundation to pay it forward.

Read the 2021 Department of Classics Newsletter featuring Erynn Kim's Article