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'Truly remarkable:' Faculty and students remember classics professor Dr. Sharon James

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Photo Courtesy of the Department of Classics.

Generous.” “Perceptive.” “Hilarious.” “Tough.” “Endlessly encouraging.” “Truly remarkable.

All these words were used to describe the late UNC classics professor Dr. Sharon James, who passed away in her home on Dec. 28 at the age of 63. She is survived by her husband, sister and dog.

“If you think of the phrase ‘shy retiring flower,’ that describes perfectly everything that she was not,” classics professor James Rives said with a laugh. “She was forceful, she was loud, she had strong opinions that she never hesitated to share. She was a dominating force, but always a force for good.” 

James began working at UNC in 1999, a few years after earning her doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She won several teaching awards, notably the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching at UNC in 2021. Donald Haggis, chair of the classics department, said he had never met a better teacher than James. 

“Those awards do very little to capture the real investment and time and energy and utter devotion to her students,” Haggis said

Rives’ office sat adjacent to James’ for many years and he said her office was rarely without students in it — a small testament to her vast investment into the lives of her students. James set a standard few other professors could reach, he said

Senior Emma Carpenter took a first-year seminar with James and said the professor was influential in her decision to major in classics. 

James knew the name of nearly every student — even in large classes — Carpenter said, and gave individualized and constructive feedback on projects. She remembered that James could make an entire lecture burst into uncontrollable laughter with her loud sense of humor and personality.

“As far as what she was known for in the classroom, she was so funny,” Caitlin Hines, who graduated in 2013 and was a student of James, said. “She cracked jokes all the time. She had this uproarious laugh with a snort at the end of it.”

Hines is now an assistant professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati and said James “transformed” the landscape of classics research by recognizing female figures as complex, rich characters, despite the sexist narratives Hines said are commonly found in classics studies. 

Her many areas of advanced knowledge and study included Latin poetry, New Comedy as well as women and gender in antiquity. James wrote and co-edited a number of articles and books, and before her passing was working on a manuscript about women in Roman comedy. 

“One of the things I learned most from her is a broad vision of what the field of classics could be,” Rives said.

Hines recalled a time when she considered quitting her pursuit of classics as a career after struggling with the rejection faced postgraduate school. James would simply not permit it, she said

“There was no expiration date on Sharon's mentorship for you,” Hines said. “I try really hard to channel that and to continue onward to keep building the community that Sharon embraced me into and bring my own students into that community too.”

Carpenter said James was "undeniably outspoken" in her advocacy for students, especially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic when she called on the University to prioritize students’ physical and mental health. She was also involved in university programs like Project Uplift and the Carolina Millennial Scholars Program. 

“She must have had some sort of control over time and space in order to make it all happen,” Hines said. “But I think really the truth of it is she sacrificed a lot for her students and she always put her students first before anything else in her life. So many of us owe so much of who we are to her generosity and her mentorship.”

 @dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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