Faculty Spotlight: Denise McCoskey

photo of Denise McCoskey

  • professor of Classics; affiliate of Black World Studies program
  • does research on race and Greek tragedy
  • recently published an introduction to Latin love poetry with Zara Torlone
  • focused on the process of "Romanization" as a 2013-2014 Faculty Fellow in the Humanities Center's Altman Program


"I completed degrees in both archaeology and classics as an undergraduate at Cornell University. At the beginning, I was admittedly more drawn toward archaeology and was fortunate to be able to participate in a field school at Halai (in Greece) as part of the Cornell Halai and East Lokris Project.

"After studying for a year in the United Kingdom and completing a senior honors project on sexual difference and subjectivity in Latin literature, however, I found myself turning more toward the literary side of the ancient world as I entered the graduate program in Classical Studies at Duke University. I eventually completed a dissertation at Duke on the Roman love poet Propertius, a poet who remains one of my very favorite authors of all time.

"In fact, my colleague Zara Torlone and I recently published a general introduction to Latin love poetry, a project that allowed me the pleasure of revisiting Propertius' poetry with fresh eyes, including his influence on the modern poet Ezra Pound. I have also developed a strong research interest in Greek tragedy, especially the complex intersections of gender and power expressed in those works.

"Next up, though, is a paper on the portrayal of the real-life naval commander, Artemisia, in the film 300: Rise of an Empire—a film that depicts the Greek defeat of the powerful Persian navy at the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE."


"At Miami, I teach Latin at all levels, as well as a wide range of courses about life and thought in the ancient Mediterranean. For example, in the latter area I teach a course on women in the ancient world, as well as a number of other courses that pertain specifically to my research, such as a seminar on Egypt under Greek and Roman colonial rule.

"On the literary side, I love teaching Greek tragedy, a genre that speaks in remarkable ways to our modern predicaments, including the dilemmas, desires, and confusions that often characterize our bonds to one another and our political circumstances.

"As this may suggest, one of the defining features of classicists is that we teach just about everything. I've taught well over 20 different courses at Miami and have been able to meet and work with many different types of students, a facet of my job I deeply appreciate. Students who are drawn to a course about women in antiquity are not necessarily the same ones sitting in my Virgil class! Like my colleagues, I am constantly challenged to find ways of making the world of the ancient Mediterranean relevant to modern students. Seeing students become excited when they encounter ideas that speak to them is always inspirational for a teacher. When you give students the tools to get under the skin of what they are reading—helping them develop and ask questions that matter to them—it's even more satisfying. And some of the insights they produce in those moments are amazing.

"On the other hand, it is critical to balance the pleasure students often feel in studying the ancient world with a willingness to make them productively uncomfortable with it. Students are often drawn to classics because of films like Gladiator or Troy, and so they have a sense of identification with the ancient world that can be uncritical and one-dimensional. Getting students to study the Greeks and Romans not because they're so 'easy' to appreciate, but because they're so 'hard' to truly apprehend is key to my teaching philosophy.

"I want students to find the same degree of pleasure in encountering the more challenging features of the ancient world; thus, while students should enjoy thrilling representations of warriors like Achilles, they need to learn to foster the satisfaction that comes from more critically exploring the ways warriors like Achilles create problems for themselves and the world around them—as, needless to say, does war itself."


"Without question, the most meaningful event in my development as a scholar occurred when I was named the second winner of the John J. Winkler Memorial essay prize in 1992. Jack Winkler, a groundbreaking scholar in the study of gender and sexuality in classics, died of AIDS in 1990; the award established after his death was designed to encourage students of classics to pursue unconventional and innovative approaches to the ancient world, and it had a transformative impact on my understanding of myself as a classicist, including the types of questions I wanted to ask in my work.

"In particular, Winkler's legacy encouraged me to pursue what had become a growing interest of mine, namely, the role of race in the Greek and Roman worlds. This is a topic that provoked discomfort and even hostility from many classicists at the time—especially following the publication of the controversial multi-volume work Black Athena beginning in 1987. In Black Athena, Martin Bernal argued that the roots of classical studies as a discipline were themselves racist; he also advocated a radical rethinking of the origins of Greek culture itself.

"While my own research differs in many ways from that of Bernal (not least because I have focused more on later periods), my book, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, would have been impossible without his powerful challenge to the way classicists traditionally think. In the same way, my affiliation with Miami's Black World Studies Program has been absolutely essential to my professional and intellectual development. My brilliant colleagues in BWS constantly remind me that I need to articulate better and better questions about the world of the ancient Mediterranean and the diverse experiences of those who lived in it.

"In 2013-2014, I participated in the Humanities Center's Altman Scholar Program, which was an amazing opportunity for re-tooling and learning from Miami colleagues in other disciplines. The topic was 'Globalization and Belonging.' I contributed to the program by considering the ways ancient Roman expansion, a process often called 'Romanization,' compared and contrasted with economic and cultural processes now taking place in the modern world."

Outside the Classroom

"I have been extremely lucky that my choice of study allowed me to experience different parts of Europe as an undergraduate and graduate student; even now, travel is one of my very favorite things. The trick for me is always balancing precious time in the haunts I love and feel at home in (such as Newcastle, England) with new destinations. In summer 2014, I was able to go to China for the first time as part of a group studying modern Chinese economics, and it was both demanding and life-changing.

"Closer to home, there is usually a non-fiction book calling for my time and attention (or a mystery novel if I'm having a long week); I'm currently making my way through an account of the Scopes 'monkey trial' and also a biography of Marie Curie. Not all my pursuits are so lofty, however—during Reds' season, there's usually a baseball game playing on my radio. No comment on the season just ending, except perhaps (as a true historian): there's always next year!"

[October 2015]