Classically Inclined

November 25, 2014

Book review: The Ancient Curse – Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 4:21 pm
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I understand Manfredi has written a number of classically-inspired works; this is the first I have read. It roams a little outside the usual realm of these things, because it decides to play not with the Romans but with the Etruscans, the civilization which preceded the Romans to the north of their city. The Etruscans are notoriously tricky to get a handle on, not least because reading Etruscan is a nightmare (helped mainly by texts written in parallel with Latin versions), and very little of it has survived. Manfredi builds his story on an actual bit of Etruscan culture, a thing called a Phersu which appears most famously in a tomb painting from the so-called Tomb of the Augurs. (If you’re interested, there’s a recent article about the state of Phersu research freely available here, and some reasonable photos of the frescos here.) Manfredi does not restrict himself to the scholarly consensus (or whatever its condition was in 2001 when the book first appeared); instead, he takes the nuggets of scholarly work and builds up a story that suits himself – one which he can then use to build up a plot that mixes supernatural terror with a police procedural murder whodunit. The Ombra Della Sera statue also plays a significant role in unravelling the mystery of what happened centuries ago and how it is connected to a modern case of tomb robbery.

I will freely admit that the Etruscans are not my home turf and so I can’t really comment on Manfredi’s manipulation of the ancient sources. However, a couple of things stand out. The first is the way Manfredi makes the fragmentary knowledge of the Etruscans a feature rather than a bug – part of the problem faced by his investigators is that they know so little of Etruscan culture, heritage and language that they are often groping in the dark for hypotheses. Yet at the same time, Manfredi’s authorial voice allows him to claim knowledge of what Etruscan life was really like, particularly in a flash-back at the end of the novel to the events which ended in the tomb around which the plot revolves. There’s an interesting interplay between the supposed ‘lost’ world of the Etruscans, the contemporary characters’ lack of knowledge about it, and the author’s imaginative reconstruction of what fills in the gaps. It’s actually a really nice illustration of why fiction can help us think about academic subjects with a freedom that we don’t have in rigorously formal academic writing (although obviously the usefulness of that depends on how much attention is paid to the things that academics think can’t be ignored, but that’s by the by).


November 18, 2014

Good news from the Swedish Institutes

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 8:31 am

It’s always nice to be able to share good news when protests against unjustified cuts to the humanities are successful, so it was with no small delight that I saw this e-mail on the Classicists e-mail list yesterday:

To all of you who signed the petition against the closing down of the Swedish Institutes at Athens, Rome and Istanbul we want to express our sincerest gratitude. Today, to our great relief, the Swedish government officially announced that they will NOT cut our funding. The massive protests from the international scholarly community certainly contributed greatly to this result and on behalf of the Swedish Institutes at Athens, Rome and Istanbul we thank you all deeply.

Congratulations to all our Swedish colleagues who have been working so hard to explain the work of the Institutes to hitherto unaware politicians, and credit where credit is due to the politicians for listening, however belatedly. Fingers crossed this is the last we hear of this sort of thing for a while.

(The text of the formal announcement is here, in the original Swedish.)



October 27, 2014

Departments under threat: the Swedish Institutes at Athens, Rome and Istanbul

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 7:25 am
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Technically these are not departments under threat, but the impact on the classical scene will be significant nonetheless. On Friday, the following e-mail was circulated to the Classicists list by Dr. Jenni Hjohlman, the editor of Opuscula, the Annual of the Swedish Institutes at Athens and Rome:

Yesterday the Swedish Government announced that they will end all state funding for the Swedish Institutes at Athens, Rome and Istanbul from 2017. Our research Institutes have no private funding and will therefore have to close down and terminate their work within two years.

The decision has been made without any prior consultation or investigation of the consequences: the Institutes will not be able to fulfil their responsibilities of taking care of archaeological material or sites in the Mediterranean and providing education with the fields of Classical Archaeology, Classics, Art History, Architecture and Social sciences, nor to conduct and publish research, give conferences, host cultural activities, take part in heritage management or run our research libraries in the Mediterranean countries.

The decision would be a huge tragedy for Classical research and education in Sweden and we ask you to consider signing the petition against it:

Please enter through “Skriv på listan” (Sign the list). Add your “förnamn” (name), “efternamn” (surname), emailadress (for verification only), “postort” (city), and “ämne/titel” (title/subject). Press “spara” (save) and sign through the verification email.

The Swedish Institutes work in much the same way as, for instance, the British Schools at Athens and Rome do – they are research-focused institutions which provide fantastic resources for scholars working in each city to use while on site, as well as creating a community of scholarship within the national context and reaching out to the other international institutions in each city, facilitating a broad intellectual and cultural exchange of ideas. Basically, if these institutes close, then we lose a vital and significant group of talented scholars working in a wide number of classical fields.

I have two particular colleagues in mind as I post this petition. The first is Ida Östenberg, a wonderful Swedish academic who thinks very interesting things about the Roman empire – she’ll be debating the relevant minister on the radio today (good luck!) and has a long history of working with the Institute for her own research. The second is Mary Harlow, who has again worked with Swedish research teams on ancient fabric and clothing, with some fascinating results. Both of these scholars have generated work that’s directly fed into my own research – and I’m somebody who works mainly with text. I can only imagine the impact on colleagues working in archaeological fields (where the Swedish team have, for instance, done sterling work on the Prima Porta site).

Do sign this petition, and let the Swedish government know there is an international strength of feeling in support of the wonderful research and collaboration that the Institutes support.

October 20, 2014

New edition of Cloelia out now!

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:08 pm
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You may remember that I have been acting as co-editor for the 2014 edition of Cloelia, the annual newsletter of the Women’s Classical Caucus. I’m delighted to announce that the 2014 edition is now out – click here for the official blog post and to download a PDF of the final product!

I have to say that I’m absolutely delighted with how the edition has turned out. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes work to get the volume into shape, and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of documents between me and Alison, Cloelia‘s fearless editor, over the last few weeks to get it into this format, and it’s good to see the hard work pay off. More generally, I’m very proud of the collection of articles that the issue pulls together on a variety of topics concerning feminist pedagogy, particularly language pedagogy. There’s some great stuff in there, as well as some interesting insights from the survey we ran earlier in the year, and I hope that other teachers find the articles interesting and inspirational as well. It’s been great fun to pull together, and with any luck it will be of use and interest to many of its readers.

October 13, 2014

New publication: Show Me the Way to Go Home: A Reconsideration of Seneca’s De Consolatione ad Polybium

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:02 am
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Those long-time readers of this blog will be very familiar with the Ad Polybium article, which started out life as the Stoic exile article and went through various changes of shape in its journey towards completion. (If you’re interested in catching up, have a look at some of the stuff on the ad Polybium tag.) After many incarnations, starting as a carbuncle on the side of chapter two of the dissertation, I’m delighted to announce that “Show Me the Way to Go Home: A Reconsideration of Seneca’s De Consolatione ad Polybium” has appeared in the latest issue of The American Journal of Philology.

This is the classic example of what can happen when you have good research ideas that don’t fit into an argument you are trying to make yet still deserve airtime. Exactly the same thing happened when I wrote the new chapter four for the book manuscript – I now have the seed kernel of an article on Seneca’s use of paternal imagery in his political philosophy which will be interesting but isn’t in and of itself particularly helpful for the argument I’m making in the book. In “Show me the way” I’m entering a pretty well-worn debate about whether the ad Polybium is a text we can take seriously or not; I argue that it is, and that we do not need to tie ourselves in knots with questions of sincerity and intention to get there. I also argue that what has been read as some of the most outrageous flattery has a parallel function in the text if we start thinking about it from a Stoic perspective rather than getting caught up in those issues of flattery and sincerity which get prioritised when dealing with this text.

My hope is that this will move some of the conversation about this really quite fascinating wee text forward from where it’s got a bit stuck; whatever happens, it’s good to have this particular idea out there, and hopefully getting some people thinking about the consolation in a new way.

October 6, 2014

On trying new things: my very first MOOC

Filed under: Learning — lizgloyn @ 11:51 am
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As those who follow me on Twitter will know, I recently took the plunge and signed up for my first MOOC. MOOC, for those of you to whom this is newspeak, stands for Massive Open Online Course – it is, apparently, the new disruptive technology that means we won’t need universities any more and everyone will just access electronic higher education from the best professors more or less for free. Or, alternatively, it is the development that will lead to a dystopian nightmare of low-paid part-time staff doing all the actual dealing with students while star professors record a couple of videos, fees calculated on a per appearance basis, and students become utterly detached from any form of intellectual community. You can read the fears and dreams that cluster around MOOCs in articles appearing in the educational and popular press more or less weekly, and if you want some chunky analysis of the language that gets used, you should go and read Melonie Fullick’s Speculative Diction blog, which has some excellent pieces unpicking the rhetoric that both sides use on this subject.

Now, I am a selective Luddite – you won’t find me near an e-reader, but I do apparently get on with quite a lot of this new technology stuff reasonably well. So I decided that rather than sit and nay-say about MOOCs, the only sensible thing to do was to sign up for one and give it a go. I decided to sign up with FutureLearn, which is the first UK-based MOOC platform, because they were running a course on the English Literature of the Country House, which appealed since I like both literature and country houses. I was also curious about the FutureLearn platform, as it’s still in development but looks like it’s marketing itself very much as the UK option for universities interested in providing this sort of thing in the future.


September 22, 2014

Gamifying Intermediate Latin

I said in my post about this year’s syllabus-wrangling that the biggest change in my teaching was going to be my gamification of Intermediate Latin. I figured the subject deserved its own post, so here it is. Gamification is rapidly increasing in popularity as a way to plug into our basic motivations as humans, in that we enjoy playing games where we get rewards, can follow strict rules and so on. Academic courses respond well to being gamified, because it is a way of making the implicit rules we expect our students to follow explicit, and associating them with a value system which the students buy into. This model of teaching is, as far as I am aware, doing particularly well in American institutions, at least in part because of the freedom to change assessment requirements in individual courses that instructors often have. This means they can link accomplishments within the course-game explicitly to a student’s final grade without having to run it past, for instance, a university registry office and external examiners to get their approval. However, just because I don’t feel I can go that far doesn’t mean that gamification is a lost cause.

This term, following my colleague Tim Phin’s lead (and very generous sharing of materials), I am trying to gamify Intermediate Latin. As I have implied, this won’t affect students’ final grades – they’ll still have their in-class quizzes and end of year exam to do that. However, what struck me teaching this course last year was that there is an awful lot of work expected of students that they don’t actually get any credit for, and I suspect that may be part of the reason why it often gets neglected. For instance, I expect students to be finishing off hand-outs and translations from class, doing translation and grammar homework, learning vocabulary, reviewing their performance on tests… none of which ever gets any recognition, except for the pay-off they hopefully receive in their grades for the in-class quizzes. For students who perhaps work better with short-term than medium- or long-term motivation, that’s not really a winner.

So I am trying to give that previously unacknowledged work a value by borrowing Tim’s system of insignia or badges. Tim structured his course so that students won insignia for in-class activities, homework and other challenges; the number of insignia won corresponded to the final grade in the course. I’ve taken his model and instead created different kinds of insignia for different kinds of tasks – there are insignia verborum for vocabulary learning and insignia grammatica for grammar-based homework tasks, for instance. Students can keep track of which insignia they have won by a chart and – you guessed it – stickers. When I first found myself thinking about gamifying the course, my mind immediately went to auto-awarded badges and technology and all the clever things you can do with programming – but actually, that’s all a bit of a distraction from the underlying gamification principle. It’s a nice add if you can have it, but if you can’t, stickers will work just as well to signify that the work is being recognised, and as things to be won and collected. I’ve even bought a special stickers, because what’s the point if you can’t generate some excitement? Mind you, my mind goes back to my first Latin 101 class at Rutgers. Whenever they scored over 90 on a quiz, as the quizzes were designed to let them, I would give them a little star sticker. After the initial ‘wait, we’re back in high school now?’ moment, the competition for those stickers and who got them on each weekly quiz became one of the most intense contests that I’ve ever seen in a classroom. Technology may be shiny, but never underestimate the power of a sticker.

I’ll be keeping close tabs on how this strategy works over the coming year, and will report back on how well or otherwise it works. I’m optimistic, but it will only work if my students buy into it.

September 16, 2014

Syllabi-wrangling – the 2014-15 edition

Filed under: Uncategorized — lizgloyn @ 10:41 am

With the new term approaching fast, it’s time for the annual review of my teaching obligations for the year, and what I’m going to be doing differently! Last year, my load was marked by a new emphasis on language teaching. This year, I’ve still got quite a bit of language teaching, but there are some other things in the mix as well which make it quite interesting. I’m teaching the Intermediate Latin course that I had last year, and the half-unit for first years on Latin literature – these are courses that should be a bit easier because of work I did last year, but I still have some plans for them. My other courses are a half-unit this term on Virgil’s Aeneid for second years; an MA-level course titled Advanced Latin; and some teaching on the core course for our MRes in Classical Reception.

I am teaching the Aeneid course for a colleague who is on leave this term, and has kindly left me her materials to use. I’m not just giving her lectures, of course, but I’m using her structure and general approach. This is a little more daring than you might imagine, as it means I am going to be eschewing Powerpoint completely. I’d tried to move to a lighter use of Powerpoint for my Roman literature half-unit last year, with an approach that focused more on the text and less on the slides – that worked quite well, so now I am going to abandon Powerpoint and move towards bullet points in front of me and a copy of Fagles’ Aeneid in my hands. This is what my colleague does and it works well, so I am going to give it a go. Then her notes/reflections on the material covered in that session can go up on Moodle, and students can have her interpretation of the poem alongside mine. I swear that most of the second years have only signed up because they know I don’t like the Aeneid and want to see what they’re going to get, but there we are. I am rather looking forward to teaching something new and so text-based, so we’ll see how it goes. One thing I do want to incorporate is some student presentations on secondary literature, but as these can only be formative and optional, I’m not too worried about them.

The MA Advanced Latin course is the equivalent of the Latin Language and Reading course I taught last year, but for MA students; I’m going to be reading Suetonius’ Life of Vespasian with them in the first term, and letting them pick some poetry the second term. The big difference for this course will be that their assessment takes place mainly through independent projects that show off their Latin – this term’s project asks them to pick a passage, produce their own translation of it, compare at least one published translation, and discuss specific segments of the Latin that pose problems for translation. It’s the first time I’ve assigned a project like that, so I’m going to enjoy supervising it over the course of the term and seeing how students develop their language skills through it. Providing my books turn up in time, of course.

The Roman literature half-unit is going to stay more or less the same in terms of assessment and so on, but I think I am going to do a bit of tweaking as far as structure and organisation goes. Some things worked brilliantly, but others were less successful – for instance, I want to rearrange how I handled Lucan. Plenty of students decided they liked him during the revision period, but there was a lot of resistance to him at the time, and I think that rearranging the material might solve that problem. I also want to think a bit about some other elements of structure and one or two of the seminars, but this is about smoothing out the rough edges I spotted the first time around.

The MRes seminar sessions are going to be really good fun. I’ve got the first introductory session, am co-teaching the session on film, and then am running a session on reception and children’s literature and reception in the archive. Both of these will draw on research things I’ve been doing over the summer, so this will be research-led teaching at its finest (or at least that’s the plan). They’re also my first really substantive Masters-level teaching, which is exciting in and of itself.

So far, as you’ll see, I’m not planning on doing anything particularly innovative with my syllabi this year… except in intermediate Latin, which I am gamifying. This won’t make a huge amount of difference to what students actually do, but it should make a difference to the framework in which they do it – but I think I will put down my thoughts about that in a separate post. What I will say is that I’m looking forward to taking this step of the language sequence again and seeing students move towards a more confident grasp of the language where they’re able to read Latin texts with some confidence.

September 8, 2014

On emperors and exhibitions

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:23 am
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Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have been hard-pressed to miss the recent flurry of #Aug2K tweets as I live-tweeted my way through the Commemorating Augustus conference at Leeds, ably organised by Penny Goodman. The occasion for all the Augustus excitement is the bimillenium of his death – two thousand years ago in August, the first ever emperor carked it. (Penny has a blog post on how we know the precise date.) The conference was one of those wonderful assortments of people working on things that you’d not think fitted together but that actually each reflect on each other in really interesting ways. I particularly loved the panel my talk belonged to, which had three very different ways of reading Senecan and pseudo-Senecan texts plus a bit of a riff on Flavian coinage. But this is not the only Augustan honorific I’ve seen – I also managed to get over the Channel in time to see the Moi, Auguste exhibition at the Paris Expo before it closed. This show had travelled from Rome with some alterations – Mary Beard saw both versions and wrote about the comparison back in April. Having not seen the Rome version, I’m not in a position to comment, but I do have some thoughts about what I saw.

Obviously, the experience was hugely enhanced by being a classicist, and by going with a classicist – one sneaky reason for the quick trip across was to coincide with a good friend of mine who spends most of the year in the US but was in Europe for the summer. Statues and catching-up coffee – what’s not to like? This meant that when we saw the simply spectacular marble frieze of a naval battle (presumably Actium) featuring a centaur in Hercules’ lion-skin to represent Antony… oh, how we laughed. Honestly, it’s hysterical if you’re familiar with the political polemic of the period, in which Antony tries to associate himself with Heracles for his political benefit, and his enemies describe him as a centaur who can’t control his base physical desires. If ever a student asks whether we aren’t asking too much in expecting an audience to automatically associate a politician with his propaganda, the photo of this frieze is coming out. Subtle it ain’t – and it was expected to be understood long after it had been put up.


September 2, 2014

Classics on television: Plebs

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:07 am
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I wrote this post last year and then forgot to post it… as the second season has been announced, I thought now was as good a time as any to post it. Enjoy!

I’m sure most of you picked up on the ITV2 show Plebs that finished its first season recently. I’m not planning to say a great deal about individual episodes – Juliette Harrison has done that much more eloquently and systematically already – but I did want to make a few observations, not least because this is the first Roman-based television series to be done for a while in UK television. It’s playing with a couple of traditions of British comedy – when the series was first announced, parallels were drawn with Chelmsford 123, while in execution it definitely acknowledges its debt to a particular form of British awkward comedy serials like Gavin and Stacey and The IT Crowd. So, how successful was it?

plebs-itvTime to invoke the first rule of classical reception – this is not about accuracy and whether the slum hovel that the boys rent is an accurate representation of slum hovels in ancient Rome. Plebs made no secret of the fact that it saw itself as primarily being about what would happen if you took modern people and stuck them in Rome – it’s not interested in doing the sort of thing that even Spartacus: Blood and Sand does in exploring the life of a gladiator, sex, brutality and all (and also far fewer intentional laughs, but I digress). It’s not particularly interested in getting historical accuracy – but it does capture some very Roman attitudes, and once the series gets going it starts to engage with some elements of historical fact in interesting ways.

That ‘once the series gets going’ is quite important, to me at least – I found that I enjoyed the series a lot more once the pace had settled down and the writers had got the bodily function stuff out of the way. Humour is one of those very personal things, I know, and I don’t mean to seem prudish, but scatological jokes have always been a negative for me, and I did get perilously close to not finishing the series after That Scene With The Togas. However, it seems as if the writers were having a bit of an insecurity moment, and once they’d got past that phase, the jokes started to feel funnier.


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