Image of a Greek architectural ruin.
By Greg Shook Photo by Vasilios Muselimis / Unsplash

Two classics professors plan a travel opportunity to Crete based on popular Winter Study courses in Greece and Rome.

Travel during Winter Study is a staple of classics courses. Next May, students will also have an opportunity to spend eight days in Crete as part of a new course developed by classics professors Sarah Olsen and Amanda Wilcox.

In January 2017, students traveled to Rome with Wilcox, who is chair of the department, and classics professor Edan Dekel for a course focused on ancient Rome as a cosmopolis. During Winter Study in 2020 and 2022, about a dozen students in Olsen and Wilcox’s course Presence in Place: The Greek Dramatic Imagination, read tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides before spending two weeks in Greece. Each student delivered a short presentation about a reading at the site where the text was set and originally performed. Locations included the Athenian Acropolis, the theater and sanctuary at Epidaurus and the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina. The group consisted mostly of classics majors and students interested in ancient Greek civilization who had not traveled abroad previously.

To help make the trips accessible to anyone who wants to participate, students’ travel costs are fully covered by the college’s Global Ventures Initiative Fund. 

“One of our major goals is to give students an experience they can’t have in Williamstown, to help them appreciate the challenges and the benefits of immersing yourself in a new and different place,” Olsen says.

Adds Wilcox: “When the students are out of their familiar setting, they are more willing to use the direct evidence of their senses to make inferences that may challenge or enrich their understanding of information and ideas they first encountered in books.”

Eva Dailey ’22, an art and classics major, took Presence in Place in 2020 and says the experience gave her a sense of wonder that can’t be replicated in the classroom. “It was completely different to read about these sites and then to see them in situ,” says Dailey, who is attending Williams’ Graduate Program in the History of Art. “My research is mainly focused on mythos-making in the landscape, so, for me, site specificity is integral to my academic experience.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of witnessing students’ first reactions to a famous or iconic site—the moment when we arrive in Athens and they say ‘Wow, that’s the Acropolis, it’s actually right there!’”

—Sarah Olsen, classics professor

Travel directly impacts student engagement in the classroom, Olsen and Wilcox say. “After encountering sites such as Argos, Delphi and Aegina repeatedly in historical and literary contexts, students are willing to make intellectual and imaginative leaps that they might never risk in seminar,” says Wilcox.

Students “very quickly build trust” with one another, something that normally would take weeks in a conventional classroom setting, she adds.

With support from a 2022-23 fellowship from the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation, Olsen and Wilcox planned to travel to Crete in May to explore logistics and delve into the archaeology, literature, history and culture of the southern Greek island. They expected to visit museums, educational centers, national parks and archaeological sites.

Among their planned stops is the Samariá Gorge. Located in Crete’s White Mountains, the island’s largest mountain range, the site is included in UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

“I want students to think carefully about how the topography of the island has shaped its history,” Wilcox says. “I want them to become better acquainted with the way environment drives cultural adaptations and the delicate balancing act of protecting unique and pristine natural habitats weighed against the economic dependence of the modern Cretan economy on tourism.”

Another site on the itinerary is the Diktaean Cave, also called Psychro Cave, located inland, toward the eastern side of Crete. Archaeological evidence shows the cave was a religious site in the Bronze and Iron ages.

“It’s also one of the places associated, in myth, with the birth and early childhood of the god Zeus,” Olsen says. “In that sense, it’s a really promising site for exploring the intersection of myth, ritual and topography on Crete, which is one of the key topics we hope to consider in the course.”