I mentioned on Twitter that I had decided, after some reflection, to return to asking my students to write me ‘dear Liz’ letters. 140 characters isn’t really enough to explain what they are, so here’s a blog post to do the job.
I picked up ‘dear Liz’ letters in the US, as a strategy that complemented the one minute papers I’ve written about before. When I came to Birmingham, however, I had a rude awakening – students in my ancient religion course responded pretty well to one minute papers, but absolutely hated the ‘dear Liz’ letter, and were happy to tell me so! So I dropped them, and moved on. Fast forward to this year, when I’m teaching far more language than I usually do. I wrote in that post that I wanted to use one minute papers to get a clear grasp of grammar that was causing problems. However, despite good intentions and introducing them at the start of the year, I haven’t actually used one minute papers. At all. They don’t seem helpful – my classes are such small groups that I’m engaging with each student heavily in each class session, and it’s easy to flag up areas of confusion through obvious problems of translation and comprehension. I don’t need one minute papers to tell me what I already know. Equally, the Euripides course doesn’t encourage me to use one minute papers either – my students are in single numbers, meaning that debate and questions flow comfortably. If anything the CIQ would have been a better fit here. However, while I feel I have quite a good handle on how individual classes are going, I don’t have any way to take the temperature of the course more broadly. As I’ve got to know the students quite well, I now think they’ll respond well to this reflective assignment.
Stoic Week 2013 finished on Sunday. I said I was going to take part - and I have to admit that my participation was a complete and utter failure.
Before I think about why, I want to direct you towards Edith Hall’s critique of the project, because she raises some interesting points about why we might want to reconsider introducing Stoicism to a society that’s very slowly starting to get better about dealing with the nastier parts of the human hindbrain rather than repressing them. I’m not sure I agree that Stoicism calls for a Victorian-style suppression of the viler beast within. After all, this is also the philosophy that tells us the best guide to how we should live virtuously is to live according to nature (kata phusin or secundum naturam), and that points us to the affectionate relationship between mammals and their offspring as not only evidence of the providential arrangement of the world, but also a model for our own relationships with our children (check out De Natura Deorum 2.128 and environs, although apparently since fish abandon their eggs they’re a special case). Her comments about the problems of reintroducing a philosophy that relies upon the ability of its adherents to use their resources and leisure to devote time to doing philosophy are, however, right on the money.
Which brings me to why I think I failed Stoic Week. As I mentioned in my last post about this, we moved house during Stoic Week. We also had to deal with a bathroom renovation which was supposed to be finished on the day we moved in but is, as I type, still in progress upstairs (don’t ask). I started off doing my morning exercises diligently, but plenty of things demanded my attention at lunchtime, and before I knew it even the morning exercise got squeezed out. (The evening reflection didn’t stand a chance.)
Why did I fail at Stoic Week? Simple. I was in the middle of a massive emotional, physical and practical upheaval, handling lots of unexpected events, running myself ragged trying to keep up. These are not the optimal conditions in which to begin a new spiritual or mental discipline. I can almost see Seneca shaking his head – of course it was pointless to try and pick up Stoicism in the middle of a crisis. Stoicism is supposed to be there to get you through a crisis; it’s no good trying to reinforce the roof when the water is already pouring through. The aim is to establish good habits during a period of comparative calm, so that one deals with the day-to-day emotional disturbances and disruptions first, and thus has the resources to not be floored when the tidal wave of unexpected chaos hits. That’s why running through things that might go bad during the day and rehearsing one’s potential responses to them is such an important mental exercise within the Stoic tradition, and why some richer Stoics went so far as to regularly schedule a few days of living in conditions that mimicked poverty (or at least what they thought poverty looked like).
Here is where I think I tie in with Edith’s critique. In order to have the time and resources to find this period of relative calm to get your philosophical bedrock established, you need to have the luxury of creating that space. No job which sets demands for you; no colleagues or students with expectations of work to be completed by fixed deadlines; certainly no children or people for whom you are the primary care-giver; and ideally all the minutiae of life, like laundry and cooking, handled by somebody else. On reflection, it’s not surprising that one of the articles going around Twitter in the early days of Stoic Week was about how Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International, found Stoicism so helpful.
As those of you who frequent Twitter will have noticed, tomorrow marks the beginning of the second Live Like A Stoic Week, coordinated by a team at Exeter working on Stoicism Today to research whether Stoicism still works in the modern world. I meant to get involved last year, but life intervened. Life is again intervening this year, but as I type, my little printer is preparing the Stoic Week Booklet and I have just diligently filled out all the pre-Stoic Week measurement scales.
I am, of course, not the target audience for this exercise in any way, shape or form. I spend most of my intellectual research time hanging out with Seneca, one of the best plain-speaking Stoics out there. One of his major goals is to communicate what Stoicism can do for you clearly, effectively and persuasively to a highly educated Roman audience who may not automatically be on side. It’s quite hard to spend most of your time reading this stuff without it getting to you. I’m also quite well disposed to Stoic thought generally; the first time I read the discourses of Epictetus, a slightly later Roman Stoic, I was struck by how contemporary a lot of what he was saying felt and how it resonated with my situation (I was a MPhil student at the time, but we can draw a veil over that). What will be different about this week is seeing whether I can actually put some of this stuff into practice in a conscious instead of an unconscious way. As I keep telling people, ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism are ways of life that not only explain how the universe operates but also affect how their adherents live. The challenge of putting that into practice is not a bad reminder for me that these words mean something – I’ve said them so often that there’s a risk I’m forgetting how much they actually matter.
Besides my professional studier-of-Stoics identity, I also worry a little that my week is not going to be typical. I am, as some of you will have noticed, in the middle of a house move. My study is in boxes around me as I type. Much of the last month has been spent trying to get a bathroom refitted (without much success so far). I’ve spent the weekend packing and cleaning, and next Saturday we will move and spend the rest of the weekend unpacking. So this is not a week in which I can apply Stoicism to my usual tranquil(ish) routine and see if it makes a difference. It is a week in which, actually, a bit of Stoic detachment and awareness of what is and isn’t within my control might not be a bad thing – but it’s also a week in which Stoicism is going to get a proper test, in circumstances which are rather trying. After all, moving house is meant to be one of the most stressful life events that one ever goes through. Let’s see how Stoicism and I stand up to the challenge together.
Another petition via the Classicists List from Lucia Athanassaki, Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Crete:
I am writing to ask you to sign the petition for the Support of the University of Crete:
We have started this petition because, as you will read in the Petition Background, the Ministry of Education has decided to suspend 49 of our already small administrative staff. This is yet another of the austerity measures that have already affected us (budget cuts, freeze on appointments, etc.). We hope that a strong international appeal on behalf of the University might influence the Ministry to reconsider its decision. I will be glad to answer any questions you have on this matter. Thanking you in advance.
Some of you will already have seen on Rogue Classicism that the current edition of GQ features a portfolio of shots taken by Damien Hurst of Rihanna… as Medusa. I saw these photos and thought ‘well, that’s interesting’, but what with my whole Medusa and monsters and space thing, those thoughts just sort of kept going, and here I am, writing a blog post on Rihanna in GQ. Which, somewhat embarrassingly, I keep on mis-typing as CQ, and I can only hope that the editors of that august journal would be amused rather than offended. I’m putting a copy of the front cover picture below the cut to make this vaguely SFW, but if you’ve found this post with the predictable search terms – prepare yourself for a bit of cultural analysis to go along with your mildly salacious picture.
I’ve been pondering the Cambridge Greek Play since seeing it last Saturday at the matinee performance. I’m not entirely sure how we ended up with tickets in the very front row – I think it had something to do with booking as soon as tickets were available – but there we were, ensconced for a double bill of Aeschylus’ Prometheus and Aristophanes’ The Frogs. I’ve been trying to work out what I thought of it ever since. I mean that in a good way.
The history of the Cambridge Greek play goes back to 1882, when the first play in Greek was performed, fuelled by an interest in ‘authentic performance’, costumes and sets – the photographs are wondrous to behold. The play is performed every three years, and although special trains are no longer laid on to get the keen audiences up from town, the theatre is still packed out (translations are now provided by surtitles). There is a healthy tradition of performing Greek plays in the UK – Kings will be staging Aristophanes’ Wasps in February, and in historical parallels I recently saw an fantastic archive photo of the women of Bedford College in the late nineteenth century togged up in togas and false beards for one of their productions. It’s a pleasure to see that the Cambridge contribution is not only maintained, but well attended. Well attended, I should add, not only by those of us who might be considered under professional obligations as academic staff, teachers, graduates, undergraduates and school pupils, but by members of the general public. These audience members may have done a bit of Latin and Greek themselves at school, or may have simply come along because the play was listed in the Cambridge Arts offerings for the month and they fancied seeing what it was all about. So the producers and cast of this play have a tricky brief to fulfil – they have to make sure that the results of their labours appeals to these often divergent audiences.
This year was a first for the Greek Play because it offered two plays instead of the normal one. There’s a good reason behind this, namely that it recreates a little of the original Athenian theatre-going experience. At the Great Dionysia festival, the audience would normally have watched three tragedies and a satyr play by the same playwright; three tragedians would submit a day of drama and one would be pronounced the winner. Five comedians would offer a play each, and their contest would take up a day. We only have one surviving tragic trio (Aeschylus’ Oresteia), and one complete surviving satyr play (Euripides’ Cyclops); the decision to couple the Prometheus with an Aristophanic comedy was therefore one of necessity as much as anything else. However, I do wonder whether we will be seeing this format again. As G pointed out, the interface between the two worked so well because Frogs is all about tragedy, and whether Aeschylus or Euripides is Best Playwright, and so the production was able to offer not just comedy, but comedy targeted at the very thing the audience had spent the previous hour or so watching. Part of the pleasure of Frogs definitely came from seeing characters from Prometheus acting in silly non-tragic ways – I’m not sure that repeating the experiment with any other Aristophanic or Menandrian play would be so effective. (This presumably was in the minds of the producers when they made their choice…)
A pleasing e-mail came over the classics list over the weekend :
I have just received news that proposals to close the Department of Classics in Cork and transfer its staff to the Department of History have been withdrawn. Classics maintains an independent identity at University College Cork – for now, at least. Sincere thanks for all of you who signed the petition, and for all of you who wrote to the President of UCC to make your feelings on this matter known.
That sounds like the end of the matter for now – let’s hope it stays that way.
‘Tis the season, apparently, for university administrations to be making ill-advised decisions about the future of the discipline. The latest e-mail on this subject comes via Koen Verboven of Ghent University, and concerns the Free University of Brussels:
In 2012, the Faculty of Arts decided to gradually cut down Latin as a major subject. However, the detailed budget plan now anticipates the abandonment of all Latin courses, as well as the introductory courses of Ancient Greek and most subjects relating to classical culture. By this radical cutting off of the classical roots, the faculty loses an essential component to the understanding of western philosophy, art, history, language and literature.
By this petition, we ask the preservation in the long term of one Latin professorship at the Free University of Brussels. We are convinced that such position can serve the purpose of not only the faculty of arts, but also the entire university community.
To sign the petition click: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/557/100/788/quo-vadis-vub-zonder-latijn-free-university-of-brussels-without-latin/
At the end of June, I set myself some summer goals - so it’s now time to see how they turned out…
- Have a holiday – achieved! We spent a week in Germany and I had a week in Suffolk, so that’s not bad going.
- Move – achieved! Although now it looks like I’ll be moving again in the next couple of months as we have (quite excitingly) bought a house, but never mind.
- Finish sorting out the new chapter four – not-quite-achieved… well, when I wrote my summer goals post, I had a very rough full draft with incomplete footnotes. I now have a chapter that has been past my reading group and thus needs some fairly heavy-weight restructuring, but I know what I’m doing with it. So getting this done involved the first draft being more or less fine, which it wasn’t. This is actually OK, and getting this into shape will be my big autumn project.
- Complete revisions on introduction and chapters one to three – achieved! The appendix still needs going over and I will need to rewrite the paragraph in the introduction which describes what chapter four does, but that’s fine.
- Complete a book review – achieved!
- Do an archive trip to Cambridge if possible – achieved! And very positive it was too.
- Put together a proper research bibliography on Plautus and Roman comedy – possibly achieved? I had an undergraduate student working with me who was putting this together as a bit of an independent research project over the summer, and am waiting to see the final files before I count this as done. But at least that’s a start made!
I said in my original goals post that the focus this summer needed to be on the book. I think it was, not least for getting the earlier chapters sorted out (they needed rather more work than I had hoped, but that’s always the way). This was a more ambitious set of goals than I set last year, but I’ve still actually done quite well in comparison. I do notice some patterns, namely the tendency to bite off more than I can chew on the research front – but I’m assuming that’s a good thing. I’d rather be overambitious than less, not least because the process of working through this stuff makes it better than it would be if I just fudged along. So autumn is going to be all about trying to sort out chapter four, and I should really start thinking about my classical women chapter as well. I draw a veil over my current interior dialogue over whether to submit something for LonCon3′s academic track and/or for From I, Claudius, to Private Eyes: the Ancient World and Popular Fiction, although that may turn up here in due course…
You may have picked up that another Classics department is under threat, this time the department at University College Cork. The suggestion seems to be that the Department should move into the School of History, but the current plans seem to suggest this would lead to a considerable loss of autonomy, and thus language provision would be put seriously at risk. What’s more, as Jeroen Wijnendaele informs us on the Classics list, UCC is the only classics department in the south of Ireland, meaning that any loss of provision would have serious access consequences.
The Classical Association of Ireland have posted a suggestion for a template letter on their Facebook account, along with details of how to get in touch with UCC’s president, Dr. Michael Murphey. I ask that you consider doing so.
Update, 1st October: there is now also a petition to sign.
In other sad news, Twitter reports that Robinson College, Cambridge, are planning to stop offering places to students who wish to study classics. Given that I believe all the other colleges still offer classics places, this isn’t quite the same as a threat, but it’s still an upsetting move from one of the newer colleges. It sounds as if there’s still room for negotiation and manoeuvre, and nobody is yet coordinating anything so far as I can tell, but watch this space.
Update, 30th September: I can offer more cheering news about Robinson College, having e-mailed over the weekend. It is true that classics is not being offered this year, but apparently this is due to an early retirement that was finalised late enough for the College not to be sure it would have adequate provision for in-coming first years. I am informed that this is a temporary situation and that the College is in discussion with the Faculty about how to best resolve the situation. So cautiously good news, but worth keeping an eye on over the coming year.