From Computer Science to Classics, an Epic Journey

News subtitle

Assistant Professor Alexandra Schultz uses language to unlock secrets.

Alexandra Schultz
Classics professor Alexandra Schultz brings a mathematical mind to an ancient field. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

By all accounts, classics is a perfect field for Alexandra Schultz

For starters, the assistant professor in the Department of Classics was named for Alexander the Great.

Her “mathematical mind” sees foreign languages as puzzles calling out to be decoded, and as a teenager, she dove into Latin and ancient Greek. Heading to college, Schultz knew she would study classics, along with “something in math or science.” And she had always dreamed of being a professor.

“I absolutely love my job,” says Schultz, who studies Greek literature and cultural and intellectual history. “The students at Dartmouth are wonderful, and I feel like my research will flourish here.”

In the past few years, Schultz’s writing has been published in journals such as TAPA, the research publication of the Society for Classical Studies, and in 2020 she received the John J. Winkler Memorial Prize for her article, later published in Helios, Language and Agency in Sappho’s Brothers Poem. The award recognizes new scholarship exploring risky topics and employing innovative methods in classical studies. Currently, Schultz is working on her first book, a groundbreaking look at libraries in Greco-Roman antiquity.

Yet her path to becoming a classicist was anything but straightforward. 

As a high school student in Cambridge, Mass., she struggled with English and history.

“I think I failed my first-ever history quiz, which was on The Iliad, if you can believe it,” she says.

And then there was Microsoft.

At Brown University, Schultz majored in classics and computer science, which she describes as using “dead languages that are highly logical.”

“That was the connection for me, the use of language to unlock secrets,” says Schultz, who loved designing computer programs to solve complex problems. “I could type something into the computer and create little applications and even video games that would appear on the screen. It was so exciting.”

With a career in mind, she interned at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., in 2010, the summer before her senior year. The experience led to a job offer, but her mother, long fascinated by classics, advised her to keep the doors open. Schultz negotiated with the company to postpone her start date by a year and applied for a Fulbright scholarship and a graduate program at Oxford.

At Oxford, enthralled with her first chance to do “real research,” she earned a master’s degree in Greek and Latin languages and literature, supported by the Fulbright. Afterward, she reported to work in Redmond, as planned.

A skilled software engineer, she found professional success at Microsoft. But she wasn’t happy with the job, which bore little resemblance to her college experience as a computer scientist and didn’t really stretch her intellectually, she says. “I realized I had to go back to classics.”

After leaving that position in 2014, Schultz spent the next decade immersed in the ancient world, completing a PhD in classical philology at Harvard University before returning to England as a research fellow in classics at the University of Cambridge.

Last fall, she joined Dartmouth, where so far she has taught Latin, ancient Greek, and a course on Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient Greek World

Samuel Levey, associate dean for arts and humanities, says Schultz’s research is at the forefront of inquiry into the ancient world. 

“Her work brings out how to use modern-day analytical tools to get to the truth about the past, and how the lessons learned can shine a light on contemporary concerns, both about separating myth and reality and about understanding what it means for there to be a technology of communication and the role of libraries in the ecosystem of knowledge,” Levey says. “It’s exciting scholarship and Dartmouth’s good fortune to have Professor Schultz in our faculty ranks.”

At Dartmouth, Schultz says she’s found her students to be caring, inquisitive, hardworking, and “up for a challenge.”

“I’m always learning from them,” she says, recalling a class in which students compared English translations of The Odyssey. “The subtlety of their observations, the way that they unpacked the language and then critically analyzed it, just blew me away.”

With Schultz’s encouragement, her students engage with course materials in creative ways.

In addition to some impressive research papers, members of her gender and sexuality class last spring demonstrated deep understanding of the material through embroidery, original musical compositions, and a series of fictional letters, she says. 

Sophia Gregorace giving a micro-presentation
Sophia Gregorace ’24 gives a micro-presentation in Alexandra Schultz’s Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient Greek World class this spring. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

“Beyond the issues of accessibility and equity for neurodiverse students and students with different educational backgrounds, interests, and talents, it’s an epistemological stance to say that there are many ways to demonstrate and create knowledge.”

That stance reflects her ongoing inquiry into the Library of Alexandria, work that has taken on a sense of urgency for her.

Mythologized as a universal library that was destroyed in a catastrophic fire, the library “has become an icon of so-called ‘Western civilization’,” which is often a dog whistle for white civilization, Schultz says. Many people lament the library’s destruction as a setback “that triggered what used to be called the Dark Ages and marked the advent of supposed barbarism in the world.”

Recently, it’s been deployed in service of projects designed to preserve Western civilization, a term that “involves a lot of assumptions about what even counts as knowledge, whose knowledge counts as something that should be preserved, and which peoples are credited with having a civilization, all really loaded concepts,” she says.

As she’s worked to uncover the history of libraries, inconsistencies she has identified in ancient texts have convinced her that the story about the Library of Alexandria “is a myth that we’ve all come to believe,” says Schultz, whose work recasts the library as one of many that existed in what’s called the Hellenistic period, the roughly three centuries following the conquests of Alexander the Great. “I was able to rewrite the history of libraries, which showed that there were many important libraries in cities from modern-day Italy to Afghanistan, but these have been overlooked because of the legendary Library of Alexandria.”

All of which marked an important turning point, Schultz says.

“It was a real moment of maturation for me as a scholar to realize that some of these ideas and symbols that we’ve pinned our hopes on and that have structured so much of how we think about the history of knowledge and the history of literature and science are really myths.” 

Yet that hasn’t diminished her love for the field.

“The ancient Greek and Roman worlds belong to everybody,” she says. “Everybody can fruitfully study them, not because they’re better than any other civilization, but because they are two really interesting cultures with a surprising amount of extant literary, archeological, and historical material.”

Aimee Minbiole