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Dimitri Nakassis becomes first University of Toronto professor to receive MacArthur Fellowship

Dimitri Nakassis, a University of Toronto professor in the department of classics, is the first U of T professor to win the MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as a “genius grant”.

The award comes from the John D. and Catherine T.  MacArthur Foundation, an independent foundation dedicated to supporting creative people and institutions. The grant recognizes the potential of people that “show extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits,” according to the Foundation. MacArthur Fellows receive $650,000 through the grant, and they can use the award to advance their expertise, take on new work, or event follow an entirely new career path. However, Nakassis isn’t sure how he’ll use the money just yet. “The grant is both an affirmation that people see value in my work and an invitation to do something new and innovative, so I don't want to rush into anything,” he said. “I will only have one crack at this, so I need to think carefully about the best use of the money, one that will have maximum impact on the study of the ancient Greek world.”

According to the Foundation’s website, Nakassis was recognized for changing long-held views on prehistoric Greek societies. Most notably, Nakassis challenged the long-held view that Late Bronze Age Mycenaean palatial society (1400–1200 BC) was a highly centralized oligarchy, distinct from the democratic city-states of classical Greece. Instead, he proposes that power and resources were more broadly shared, and is currently testing his hypothesis in an archaeological survey. His ideas came from a reinterpretation of Pylos’s administrative and accounting records found on clay tablets written in the early Greek script, Linear B.
Nakassis says that his passion for both classics and archaeology is what made it possible for him to study Linear B in the way he did.  “Classics is a discipline that encourages you to find solutions to the study of the ancient past that aren't necessarily specific to any one discipline. If you wanted to work on the economy of ancient Greece, for example, you couldn't limit yourself only to archaeology, nor could you ignore archaeology altogether,” he said. “So it's a discipline that really encourages interdisciplinarity, even if that's not how every Classicist ends up operating.”
And while the Fellowship celebrates individuals who display creativity in their work, Nakassis just credits his “super-critical eye”. In his work, he always tries to ask others how they know something is 100 percent true to try to probe weak arguments, while also taking into account the criticism of his colleagues. “Anytime someone says that something is ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’ true, alarm bells go off in my head: these are, to me, props for a weak argument,” he said. “The other thing that helps is talking to other critical people about what you're thinking. Sometimes I can allow myself to settle into an argument that's conventional, and friends and colleagues will usually point out to me that I can push it forward. You need people who are willing to challenge you, too.”
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