A Conversation with Kate Gilhuly (PhD 1999) and Sarah Olsen (PhD 2016).
Emily Mullin, a graduate student in our department, had a wide-ranging conversation with Kate Gilhuly (PhD 1999) and Sarah Olsen (PhD 2016). Below are excerpts from that conversation.
EM: This is really just a conversation about what it was like for both of you to be in the department, things that you maybe saw change or didn't change during your times here; we have a long program as you both know so there's a lot of time for people to, um…
KG: Experience it?
EM: Exactly! I was reading Mario’s interview with Gertrude Allen and her interview starts by her saying that she didn't have any female professors when she was in the department, so Kate, I’ll ask you, what kind of mentorship did you find in the department?
KG: Well when I got to Berkeley there were, I think, 18 tenure track positions in the department, 18 lines and two half women: Leslie Kurke, Florence Verducci, and Kathleen McCarthy, who came later. There wasn’t really a very strong female presence in the department, but on the other hand, Leslie was a really amazing mentor. Even the gender dynamic in her classes felt different from other classes, so you felt like there was a place where you could be, and where you could be heard.
SO: It's really interesting to hear Kate talk about what it was like in terms of female roe models and female faculty in particular, because as you were saying Kate, it was shifting… I certainly remember sitting in that seminar room and seeing that Florence Verducci is the only woman up on that emeritus wall, which was striking. But that was really different from the reality on the ground in the department when I was there. Of course Leslie is a wonderful role model and a wonderful mentor, but Kathleen [McCarthy] was there, Nelly [Oliensis] was there, Kim Shelton… Leslie commented on this at the time, but my orals committee was all women: it was Leslie, Kathleen, Kim Shelton, and SanSan Kwan from Dance Studies. I didn’t have to work for that, it just came together naturally.
KG: To follow up on that, on my orals committee I had somebody from the anthropology department and Kathleen and Leslie and Mark Griffith. Leslie commented during my orals that that was the first time that there were more women than men in an orals, which I think actually makes a huge difference because in my experience, being examined by, like, a crew of men has its own kind of power dynamics added on to just the intellectual challenge that you're trying to meet… Carolyn Dewald [PhD 1969] had a lot of stories about the challenges she would encounter: they would be reading Greek in somebody's house, and there would be wandering hands, and she would just constantly put them back and go back to reading Greek. I never felt like I had that kind of a situation, but those things are always possible.
SO: That’s interesting too to think about this one form of progress over time: increasing numbers of female faculty and awareness so that we didn't have those experiences, but that these conversations keep coming up. Within my first few years we had a pretty serious conversation about attrition rates, particularly among women, right, more women leaving the program than men, and I think we could’ve talked about this aspect even more, but women of color especially. So you’re right, the representation and the mentoring in the department matters, as does the environment you create, but there are these really persistent problems that are related to gender, but also to race and class and a lot of other factors. That’s why we need to keep talking about who’s leaving and why.
SO: I wonder if you feel this way, Kate, but I’ve really come to feel in the last years of teaching at Amherst and now at Williams that Berkeley was such great preparation for teaching at a liberal arts college. Yes, it was a PhD program, a research-driven program, but it was also a place where you had so much freedom to take advantage of those other departments. [KG and EM nod] There were all these exciting things going on, and you could decide you wanted to take a Comp Lit seminar, and it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t as if, you know, everyone in the second-year cohort needs to be taking these specific classes. There was just so much freedom and encouragement to be interdisciplinary in that way, and I feel like it was really great preparation for being at a place like this [Williams] where a lot of my conversations are with colleagues in theater, or history, or something not in Classics.
KG: I took a lot of classes in archaeology, I was doing geography then but didn’t really know it. But I was doing gender and archaeology and that really formed the foundation for the work I would do later. This other great thing I did as a graduate student as a sort of independent study is that Erik Gunderson and I did a directed reading with Mark Griffith, and we read everything “low” in Greek literature, all of the “low” material, and there is a lot of material we went through that semester. We didn’t do any papers or anything, it was just reading, but I’ll often be thinking about a topic and I’ll go back to that, and I’ll think about just how valuable it was to have this opportunity to read dense, hard Greek with Mark Griffith.
SO: I don’t know if they had this when you were at Berkeley, Kate, but we had a kind of job market support thing, I think my year Dylan [Sailor] mostly led it. But it was the kind of place where you get—I mean you could ask anyone, really, to look at a cover letter or other things—but I think Dylan and Leslie sort of led it together, and they talked about things like writing a cover letter, what do you do with your materials, doing mock interviews and stuff like that, which I felt really fortunate to have. And it felt like, of course a program should do that, and I was kind of surprised when I talked to a lot of friends or acquaintances from PhD programs elsewhere who were like, “Oh, we have nothing like that.” I think that might have changed within the last few years, but it felt at the time like something Berkeley was doing that other places didn’t.
KG: Yeah, we had something like that when I went there, it was always the graduate adviser and then whoever was going to the APA or SCS meeting, and they would all meet with us, we would practice our job talks, we shared our letters, and that kind of thing. That’s something I can see from having hired a lot of people, that when you come from Berkeley, you just look extremely strong, and it’s for all these reasons. The letters of support are strong, the teaching background is more extensive than people have from other places, and the guidance… you know, I still call Leslie when I run into a snag, you know, if I don’t know how to handle an administrative issue or something, you know, or I’m working on an idea. It’s interesting to think, like, you get this mentor, and they’re your mentor for life. It’s incredible. If you thought about how much time that person was committing to you in that moment where you first enter their class, it's probably overwhelming. [KG laughs] But on some level they raise you, on an intellectual and professional level, they’re really giving you a lot of time and putting a lot of energy into you, and I always felt like everybody at Berkeley was really generous with that, and that they wanted you to succeed at every turn. So that was always reassuring. I see people and they’ll be applying for a job and, say, their dissertation adviser doesn’t write a letter for them. I’ve never heard of that happening at Berkeley.
SO: That extends across the faculty, it’s not just your own adviser, but both formally and informally, that kind of support happens in a lot of ways.
EM: We've talked a lot about kind of, “top down,” professor-student mentorship, but one of the reasons I came to Berkeley was because I noticed how collegial the grad students were to each other, and that there was this real sort of atmosphere of collaboration. So I wanted to ask whether you found that kind of support and atmosphere among your peers while you were here?
SO: There’s sort of a chain, Berkeley’s a long program, so it changed over time and it’s interesting to think about that too, you know, what I saw over the course of my time, but I do think that Berkeley is a really collegial place and the graduate student community was a big part of what drew me to Berkeley: that people had good, close-knit relationships, but also that people had a world outside the department. That was something I remember really liking about Berkeley grad students when I visited, that sense that people are whole people, and that’s what made the graduate students interesting. But it goes hand-in-hand, I think with this kind of flexibility and freedom to design your own program in your own way. It’s not that everybody’s in lockstep, you know, “this month we all take our Greek exam,” it’s like, “somebody’s taking the Greek exam, someone’s taking their German exam, someone’s taking their Latin exam for the sixth time,” but that’s fine, because everybody is doing their own thing. I think that fosters a more supportive environment, because you’re not always making comparisons in quite the same way. So I think that’s true, and since we’re supposed to be talking about women at Berkeley specifically, I think that some of the friends—both male and female friends, whom I have, who are all very dear to me—but Naomi Weiss, who finished just a couple of years before me, who is at Harvard now, whom I think you know as well, Kate, we were just in it together, in terms of having similar research, but we also had our kids around the same time, and we were doing that as graduate students, and that kind of relationship—I don’t know that it’s unique to Berkeley, but for me, it’s impossible to untangle it from Berkeley, because that’s where our friendship developed, and I could not be here without Naomi. That friendship is professional and personal, it’s completely intertwined at this point. And I’m grateful that Berkeley created the space for it.
KG: I was out for five years working before coming to graduate school, so that was something that made me feel like I was a little bit out of step. But Victoria Wohl was at Berkeley, and she was a little bit ahead of me, and she and I were very good friends, and we are still connected to this day, and I consider her a really important person in my development. I love to talk about ideas with her, and about what she’s working on. She’s going to be the Sather professor, right?
EM: Is she? Oh no, I should know this!
KG: That blew me away, what an amazing accomplishment.
KG: One thing I really liked about Berkeley, and I don’t know if you would say this is true still, but I didn’t think that all the professors were best friends or anything, but I thought that they really respected each other, and there was kind of a collective sense that everybody is engaged in a serious business here, and that they thought highly of each other, and worked together in that way, and are committed to the things each one of them believes in. And when those things differed, they would say so, and they would articulate those points, but it didn’t get weird interpersonally, it was always very professional. I found that to be a wonderful thing, that people were so committed to their ideas and their research, and that they respected each other for it, and that that respect allowed them to differ in a way that was ultimately productive.
EM: Yes, I’ve seen exactly what you’re describing.
KG: I think that’s rare, when you’re a colleague for life. Keeping it professional and collegial is not always inevitable, and it’s nice that at Berkeley they’re able to do that.