The Student Becomes The Teacher: Sarah Derbew ’09

The Yale Ph.d. student and Haverford Latin major returned to campus to give a lecture as part of the library’s long-running Young Academic Alumni Lecture Series.

After stopping by to visit her former workplace in the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC) Café, Sarah Derbew ’09 headed to the Philips Wing of Magill Library to give a lecture to members of the campus community where she used to live. As part of the library’s Young Academic Alumni Lecture Series (YAALS), Derbew was invited back to Haverford to present some of her current work as she nears completion of her dissertation at Yale University. After receiving her degree in Latin from the College, she made multiple returns to campus as a Haverford House fellow, but this recent talk marked her first time coming back with a formal invitation.

Her talk, “Back to Back: Reading Iconographic Representations of Black People in Antiquity,” offered interdisciplinary analysis of fifth century BCE Greek artisanal artifacts, using critical race theory and performance theory to rethink their depictions of black people. Derbew is one of four alumni that the 16-year-old YAALS is bringing to campus this academic year. The series’ benefits are twofold: students are able to enrich their academic interests while learning more about what a career in academia might look like, and alumni are able to hone their presentation skills with a receptive audience.

“Overall, the lecture series contributes to a broad intellectual dialogue on campus, and it underscores and amplifies Haverford’s position as a place of academic excellence and intellectual and personal growth,” said Librarian of the College Terry Snyder.

Derbew talked to Michael Weber ’19 prior to her presentation about her return to campus and the implications of the YAALS for her work.


Michael Weber: What is the premise of your talk, and how does it relate to your current scholarship?

Sarah Derbew: This talk will be directly based on one of the chapters of my dissertation. And it’s also really helpful to be able to talk about my research before I need to go on the formal job market, and have to do it to earn my bread.

The general project looks at blackness as a skin color marker in Greek literature, and so this chapter will look at blackness as a skin color marker not just in literature, but also in Greek art. So I’ll be showing a few objects and discussing how they’re viewed, introducing my own ideas, and then zooming out and envisioning them in museum spaces and thinking about how they fit there.

MW: Are you considering careers in curation?

SD: I hadn’t before writing this chapter, but I’m interested more in meta-museum studies. I like thinking about the way museums are used, so not necessarily where the objects are, but how they’re described. Perhaps where they are, too. For example, if you have an object that’s from Egypt but is in a Roman exhibit, and then you have an object from, let’s say, Libya, that’s in an African exhibit, it can affect the way you view those two objects even though, geographically, they are closer to each other. So I’m just interested in thinking about how the placement of these objects affects their reception. And there’s no one right way to view them, but it’s important to think about the different viewership that you’ll have, and try to find a way to make the display inclusive.

MW: What is it like to be back on campus for this occasion?

SD: It’s a heartwarming experience. I enjoyed my time here for the most part, so it’s nice to be able to revisit old haunts, but it’s never the same. … It feels like the Haverford I knew no longer exists anymore because all of my friends are not here anymore, all of the professors I worked with aren’t here anymore, and I’m also not the same person I was when I was 21, but it’s still an enjoyable experience.

MW: How did the organizers reach out to you?

SD: When I was at the national conference for the Society for Classical Studies in San Francisco in January of last year, I ran into my old Haverford Professor of Classics Bret Mulligan… and he told me about the opportunity to present my work here. We just kept in touch, and he let me know when there was an availability.

MW: What else are you deriving from this visit and this presentation?

SD: I like talking to diverse audiences. It’s nice to know that everyone in the audience won’t necessarily be experts in the sub-fields of my presentation, although I’m sure there will be some, but everyone won’t be an expert in what I’m discussing. But they will bring their own perspectives, which in turn will help me make better scholarship, because I’ll be able to tap into the resources of the room.

MW: How do you think Haverford made you the learner and person you are today?

SD: Even outside of academics, in terms of just balancing a lot of different activities, Haverford allowed me to pursue an array of activities, but also feel like I could be a mini-expert in each of them. Even if I didn’t know that much about it, I could be engaged. And I appreciate that, because now I can be in the Classics Department and go to talks in the African American Studies Department, and organize a colloquium with the English Department, and so it feels like that ability to jump between disciplines is something that I started doing at Haverford, and the ability to do event planning on a wide scale was something I started doing here, too.

In terms of the atmosphere in the classroom, humility is an important tenet at Haverford, so I appreciated that I came from a Quaker school that preached compassion, respect, and trust, and that I could take that with me into, not the big bad world, but into the big world where not everyone is always thinking about “How do my actions and words affect other people?”

MW: After you’ve given your talk, what’s next for you?

SD: This semester, I don’t have to be on campus because I’m in the fifth year of my program, which is when you’re fully funded to travel. So I’ll be in and out of museums in America, and I’ll be going back to New Haven in the fall to teach for another year, and then apply for jobs in earnest. And that’ll be looking at professorship jobs, fellowship jobs, postdoc jobs—pretty much whatever will allow me to work on research and work with students.

MW: So you do envision working with students in the future?

SD: That’s very important to me, and that’s another tenet from Haverford that I took with me. I remember when I taught my first Latin class, I borrowed the model of a Bryn Mawr professor who taught an education course where she met with each student for 20 minutes each week, just to get to know them. When I did it at Yale, it was not considered the norm. Rather than trying to befriend my students, I wanted to have strong communication lines with them, so that if something came up and I needed to communicate with them, the first interaction we wouldn’t be  “Why didn’t you do this?” and “I’m sorry I didn’t do it,” but more of a “I noticed this is happening, and can you help me understand where you’re coming from?”

MW: That’s very Haverford. Any final thoughts?

SD: I’m grateful for the people that I met here. I think that the individual attention you get here is unparalleled. Being at a school like Yale that has so much money and so many activities going on, I still notice that a lot of the students… they’re definitely brilliant students, but sometimes I wonder whether they’re doing what they want to do or what they feel they have to do. At Haverford it seemed to me that students did both what they cared about and what they had time for, rather than feeling like they need to cram in as many activities as possible into four years.

Photo by Caleb Eckert ’17.