Classically Inclined

November 13, 2012

Seneca and writing for multiple audiences

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:15 am
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In the process of tidying up the Ad Polybium article and working on turning the first three chapters of the dissertation into the first three chapters of a book, one methodological theme has been making its presence known again and again. It’s something I find I’ve hinted at in the dissertation itself, but one of the referees for the Ad Polybium article gave me the language to talk about it in a rather more sophisticated way. It’s the issue of what can be called “two-level discourse” and how that relates to philosophy.

Let’s start with the idea that a text can be multilayered. We’re all pretty comfortable with the idea that a text can have multiple meanings – George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for instance, can be read as a fictional story about rural agricultural life or as a metaphor for life in the Soviet state, depending on the amount of background information a reader has available to inform their reading. The same principle applies to films (which are also texts, in the theoretical ‘everything is a text’ sense) – when I saw the recent remake of Alice in Wonderland (2010), I saw a parable of the adolescent girl’s struggle to come to terms with menarche, which may not have been a univerally shared interpretation…

This idea, which works well (as Animal Farm demonstrates) for political writing, transfers to philosophy, particularly Stoicism. Most of our evidence for hardcore Stoic theory in the Roman period comes from Cicero, who was not a Stoic himself, but wrote a number of dialogues outlining Stoic, Epicurean and Sceptic theories and their flaws. Seneca also has some moments of heavy doctrinal theorising – On Benefits is full of it, which makes it heavy going in places, and some of the Moral Epistles are fairly dense. But, in the main, Seneca doesn’t write doctrinal tracts designed to lay out the practical workings of Stoicism. What he does instead is write work which on one level wants to be accessible and relevant to the average reader, and also seeks to speak on another level to those who are aware of the Stoic importance of seemingly everyday terms.

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October 31, 2012

The Harryhausen article: next steps

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:51 am
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Some of you may remember that I sent off an article on Ray Harryhausen, the two Clash of the Titans films, monsters, gender and landscape at the start of February. (For those who don’t remember, here’s a Wordle of that draft, and here’s an outline of the conference paper on which the article is based.) This morning I’ve heard back from the editors of the collected volume of which the article is part, with the reader’s report – and I’m delighted to say that the reader thinks both my paper and the volume are Good Things!

This is excellent news, not least because of being able to update the CV. It’s good to see the project moving forward, and especially good to get positive feedback about my approach to monsters and space, given some of the vague thoughts I’ve been having about doing more general research in this direction. It’s also good because the revisions the reader requests are fairly minor – they would like me to think about how Wrath of the Titans (2012) affects my argument, which was impossible in the original draft as the film had not yet been released. I have with some pleasure put ‘buy DVD of Wrath’ into my work objectives, and look forward to blocking out a research afternoon in December for Serious Academic Viewing…

I’ll also admit I’m relieved that this won’t affect my plans for #acwrimo. The reader’s suggestions are, as I say, pretty minor, and while I’ve had some other helpful feedback from other readers, I don’t want to spoil a good thing by reworking the paper too much. The timescale is also sufficiently generous that I can keep November as a dissertation-revision month – the volume editors would like the paper back by 1st February, so if I set aside enough time in December, I should easily meet that deadline; #acwrimo will give me the comfort blanket of knowing that I’ve done enough on revising the manuscript not to feel guilty about spending some time on another project. It’s wonderful when a plan comes together!

September 21, 2012

On the personal voice

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:58 am
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A couple of weeks ago, I was part of an interesting chat on Twitter about the use of the personal voice in academic scholarship. This is a bit of a fraught issue for classicists – those who do it well do it very well, while those who don’t get a bit nervous. (This BMCR review should give you a bit of an insight into the sorts of issues raised in the field, although it’s a little dated now.) The discussion raised the usual questions – is it safe for an early career researcher to use the personal voice, what sort of material does it work best for, when is it an appropriate strategy, what disciplinary areas are happiest with its use. My feeling is that reception studies is where most personal voice writing is done at the moment, not because it’s a ghettoised area, but because it’s part of the discipline that’s more comfortable with experimental writing (both stylistically and theoretically), and successful experiments eventually permeate back into the more traditional areas of the subject.

At about the same time, Times Higher Education published an article by Helen Sword (to publicise her latest book, Stylish Academic Writing), addressing the seven most pervasive myths about academic writing. Myth two states that “academic writing has to be impersonal and objective”, and Sword debunks this by explaining that the use of “I” and “we” in the article form is not actually breaking some immoveable taboo.

I found myself wondering whether this avoidance of the first person is something researchers have drummed into us from our very earliest undergraduate days – after all, I often find myself marking up student work with the dreaded words “don’t use the first person”! But now I come to think of it, this is more of a shortcut for pointing out an analytical error than a criticism of the grammatical structure itself. It’s shorthand for “don’t tell me your opinion, show me your evidence” or “don’t make unsubstantiated statements based on your own authority”. (My favourite example of this came from an undergraduate paper a friend of mine marked in the States, which offered the jewel “I like to think that Circe kept Cerberus as a pet”.)

The first person, in undergraduate work, often signals other faults with academic writing that we address by targeting the symptom rather than the cause. I’m starting to wonder whether there is a  circular process of getting weaning off the first person at the undergraduate level, and then weaning oneself back onto it as one progresses as a researcher – not because of perceptions about who can and can’t get away with so-called risky writing, but because you need the intervening period to master other elements of academic writing. Misusing the first person aids and abets messy thinking; getting rid of it highlights the fundamental issues of communication, but should not be the be-all and end-all of stylistic improvement.

August 31, 2012

#ECRchat – Finding a good mentor

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 11:04 pm
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There were several reasons I was glad that the poll for the #ecrchat I hosted on Twitter came up with the topic “finding a good mentor”. I am going to enter my first formalised mentoring relationship in the autumn, which has been organised by the department as a recognition that I’m staying on for an extra year and want to be moving on from the sort of teaching fellowship I currently hold. However, I also have a wide network of people I would call informal mentors, and my relationships with them have developed much more organically and serendipitously. My one previous attempt at a formalised mentoring relationship, brokered by a professional organisation, sadly didn’t get much further than exchanging a couple of e-mails – looking back on the experience, I can see there was a mismatch in what I wanted out of the relationship and what my assigned mentor thought they were able to offer.

These issues were at the top of my mind as I prepared the guiding questions for the chat, and at my elbow was Lily Segerman-Peck’s Networking & Mentoring: A Woman’s Guide, which I cannot recommend enough and from which I shamlessly cribbed! (I got my copy second-hand off Amazon almost ten years ago, and while it has dated, the central meat is still relevant.) One thing that came out of the chat was that in order to identify potential mentors, you needed to make the most of your networks to know who was out there who might have the knowledge and skills that you want to obtain for the next step in your career. Most people were aware of internal mentoring programs within their institutions (or their absence), but plenty of other places to look were suggested – other institutions and other departments, professional organisations, and outside academia altogether. Someone also gave the example of an informal peer mentoring group they have started (around the very civilized basis of monthly cupcake consumption) that might turn into some more formal in time.

Interwoven with thoughts about where one might find a mentor were what makes a mentor good for you. Crucially, there needs to be the right chemistry between the mentor and mentee (or if I’m being properly classical about it, the Mentor and Telemachus), which seemed to boil down to a sense of mutual commitment and interest, the mentor’s ability and willingness to communicate, and the ability to let you make your own mistakes after they’ve given their advice. One thing that became clear was that before looking for a mentoring relationship, it’s crucial to work out what you want from one – without a clear sense of your own needs, you won’t necessarily find the person with the skills and experience to help you. That doesn’t preclude advice coming from unexpected quarters, but it does affect both your attitude to your own career development and how you visualise developing relationships with potential mentors. It was also clear that there was no limit on how many mentors you can have – a team of supporters with different perspectives and an interest in you is a great resource to develop.

The final question I posed for the chat asked how you should approach someone you have identified as a potential mentor. The general consensus seemed to be go for it! Write an e-mail, ask for a coffee, and have a chat about what you think you and they can get out of this sort of relationship. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

If you’d like to read more from the chat, you can browse through the Storified tweets.

Crossposted at the #ECRchat blog.

August 28, 2012

Hosting #ECRchat

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 10:32 am
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I’m very much looking forward to hosting the next #ECRchat (ECR stands for Early Career Researcher) on Twitter – it will take place on this Thursday at 11am and will last an hour. All you need to do to take part is follow the hash tag! There’s more information about the chat generally over on the website; you can also vote for the topic for Thursday’s chat. There are some really interesting topics up for grabs, so I hope you can join us for what will be a great discussion!

June 7, 2012

Feminism & Classics VI – Brock University, Canada

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:25 am
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As you will have picked up from my last post, I spent the week before the Jubilee weekend in Canada, at Feminism and Classics VI, held at Brock University in Ontario. I think I have already mentioned elsewhere that I attended Feminism and Classics V, where I presented the paper which recently came out as the Fortunata article, so I knew what I was letting myself in for – four days of really good intellectual discussion, some forthright but supportive and helpful criticism of my paper, and an opportunity to see a lot of the people who I hadn’t seen since I left the US.

I’m delighted to say that my expectations were wonderfully met, and I had a fabulous time. You may have caught some of the live tweeting I managed to do before I lost my conference folder in which I had carefully stored my username and password for accessing the university wifi. I felt less happy livetweeting Feminism and Classics than I did tweeting the Classical Association – not because of participant hostility to the technology (there were far more people taking notes on laptops, iPads and so on in each panel audience), but because the content didn’t seem to get such a strong positive reaction from the Twitter audience. I don’t know if this was due to all those nebulous things-outside-the-internet which mean predicting response to livetweeting is very difficult to do, or whether the conference’s subject matter was perceived as somehow ‘less interesting’. But as I was finding it less rewarding than the CA tweeting, I didn’t chase up a fresh log-in when I mislaid my original one.

If the reason for lower Twitter response was a sense that this material was ‘less interesting’, then I can only say that I fervently disagree. When I saw the first draft of the conference program, my immediate reaction was ‘brain candy’. The vast majority of papers were pushing some interesting theoretical and content boundaries, reading things in new ways, proposing new theories, opening up new frontiers of knowledge to me. The environment of the conference was also exactly as I remembered it, although this time I had the benefit of knowing a lot more people, having the PhD under my belt and feeling a lot more confident that I knew what I was doing. The atmosphere was much more like that of the Classical Association than the APA, but even then there’s an extra level of collegiality and general friendliness that I certainly really relished the first time I attended. This is the sixth Feminism and Classics VI, which is held every four years; there’s a little history on the Women’s Classical Caucus webpage, but I think there’s something about the origin of the meeting as an independent movement that has contributed to its unique feel.

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April 17, 2012

L’Annee Philologique under threat?

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:24 am
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Alright, this isn’t technically a department under threat as per the tag, but it’s close enough. For those of you who don’t know L’Annee Philologique, it’s the major publication and electronic database for classics bibliography. It gathers together all the new publications in the field, and their on-line database is a major piece of research kit – frankly, I wouldn’t be able to do my work without it. However, news is now circulating of a threat to the German office. The regional offices are key to the work that L’Annee does – the APA has recently put considerable effort into making sure that funding exists for the North American office, for example. The text below is from the petition website and explains the problem in more detail; if you feel so moved, you can sign the petition here.

The Année Philologique, a critical and analytical bibliography of Greco-Latin Antiquity, has existed since the 1920s : over the years, its generalist orientation has made it a working tool that is useful for all, whatever one’s specialty may be. Since its creation and its dissemination on paper, it has been a bibliographical tool that is universally recognized, utilized, and appreciated by students of Antiquity throughout the world. Since 2002, its dissemination online has facilitated the access of an ever-broader public to the bibliographical data it offers.

However, this irreplaceable tool is threatened, in the very near future, with disappearing in its current form, and perhaps with simply ceasing publication.

The cause of this threat is simple : the German office of the Année Philologique, the Zweigstelle Heidelberg, must close its doors at the end of the fiscal year 2012, unless a durable source of funding is found. The Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, which has funded it until now, has let it be known that it will cut off all subsidies at that date. In so doing, it is applying the government’s decision to no longer fund continuing projects and positions, but to henceforth grant funds only to short-term scientific operations, answering to invitations to tender. If it were to take effect at the planned date, this programmed closure would have disastrous consequences for the entire project : with it, the totality of German-language research, whose importance for the classical humanities is known to all, would cease to be covered by our publication. Quantitatively, this would mean a decrease of approximately 30% of the bibliographical items made available to the public.

Unless a solution is found, the consequences will boil down to a sinister alternative : the transformation of a project of high scientific value into a bargain-basement search engine, or the outright disappearance of the publication.

We the undersigned express our indignation in the face of this blow against classical bibliography and, more generally, against the whole of humanist studies. We solemnly request the appropriate German academic and political authorities to find the means necessary for the preservation of this working instrument of undisputed scientific value.

April 16, 2012

The Classical Association meeting 2012 – Exeter

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:10 am
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I have just got back from the Classical Association annual conference, this year hosted by the department at the University of Exeter. For those who were not able to attend, you can read all the abstracts of the papers presented at the meeting online, and there was also a fair amount of live-tweeting going on (including my own modest efforts); I’ve been informed that the CA Secretary intends to archive the tweets alongside the abstracts as part of the records of the conference, and I’ll share the link to that archive when it becomes available. It’s the first time I’ve live-tweeted an event, incidentally, and overall it was a very positive experience; I was asked to stop once, in a session which was very popular and thus didn’t let me find an isolated spot where I could tap away at the netbook without disturbing anybody, and that’s pretty good going. I should add that I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the superb wifi provision throughout the venue, which meant I could tweet without relying on a smartphone vel sim (a form of modern technology I continue to vehemently resist).

I should also note that the Classical Association has worked out that if  you want to sell merchanise to academics, you come up with groovy cloth bags and bears. I purchased my own Percy bear, pictured on the right settling into his new Birmingham home; apparently the plan is to fill a gallery with images of bears enjoying themselves around the world. Which, I think, says an awful lot (mainly positive) about British academia, including the gentle echoes of Brideshead Revisited‘s Aloysius that it invokes.

The format of the CA conference also makes a very positive statement about British academia, in that the format is so very different to the megaconferences of the American academic world which are the only national opportunity for academics to gather together. The CA maintains the practice of communal meals and, even better, the celebratory disco at the end of the Gala Dinner on the Friday night. Never before have I seen so many classicists in one place doing the Macarena.  (It helps that the air is not saturated with the nervous terror of people interviewing for jobs, which puts a heavy damper on the atmosphere of the APA conference.)

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February 2, 2012

REF – Release the Guidelines!

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:53 am
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This week’s big news in REF-land is that HEFCE have released the final criteria and working methods for the assessment panels. For those of you not living in acronym-land, this means that we finally know what the ground rules are for the big assessment exercise which will look at the work produced by UK universities since the last one, judge its relative worth, and use those judgements as a way to allocate research funding from the government. The process has been long and drawn-out, since the REF is the successor to the RAE (Research Excellence Framework rather than the Research Assessment Exercise, don’t ask me why they decided to change it, I think I was still an undergrad when that decision got made) and they’ve had to work out how precisely it’s going to differ.

The working criteria that interest me are those for Panel D, which covers the subpanels of Modern Languages and Linguistics; English Language and Literature; History; Classics; Philosophy; Theology and Religious Studies; Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory; Music, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts; and Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management. So it’s sort of a broad church humanities panel. Each subject has its own specialist subpanel (so a ballerina won’t have to deal with the work of an Egyptologist, for instance); the central panel is, as far as I can tell, responsible for doing overview work and coordinating everything, which is reasonable enough.

One very important change from the original proposals not included in the Panel D guidelines, which I feel particularly strongly about, is that the REF have now decided that researchers may submit one fewer output per period of maternity leave taken – so basically, as opposed to having to submit four outputs (articles, books, chapters in books, etc.), if you’ve had a baby you only need to submit three. This is a vast improvement on the original proposal, which suggested that in order for an output to be waived, a researcher would need to have taken fourteen months off. As numerous researchers pointed out, that’s enough for two pregnancies, and very few academics take that amount of leave or are able to do so. I have to say, as one of the people who wrote in to point out the problems with the latter approach, I’m really pleased that common sense has won out here, given the opportunity it had to go horribly wrong. It’s nice to have something to be optimistic about. (more…)

January 16, 2012

Politics, pedagogy and research: “Reading Rape in Ovid”

Filed under: Research,Teaching — lizgloyn @ 2:18 pm
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January is turning out to be quite an exciting month, research wise, as (on top of everything else) I’ve had back some suggested edits for a paper that I hope will eventually  appear in the Paedagogus section of Classical World. I first gave this paper as part of a panel at the 2009 American Philological Association conference [link to PDF], so there’s some pleasing poetic balance in getting the revisions at around the same time as this year’s conference.

The panel and paper came out of a conversation at Feminism and Classics V about how we deal with the topic of rape in our classrooms, both as a social phenomenon and something that’s normalised in the texts we teach. If you have ever read any Greek New Comedy or the works of the Roman comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, you’ll know that rape is an almost ubiquitous plot device, and that the problems it causes are often resolved by the rapist marrying his victim (a state of affairs which is normally accepted as a perfectly sensible solution). Dealing with this sort of thing by anachronistically reading modern interpretations of rape onto ancient texts is not the way to go, but it seems to me that there’s a place for thinking about how we approach and present this material in way that is both historically appropriate and socially responsible.

The article that I’m tweaking at the moment is about a class I taught during my time at Rutgers-Newark that aimed to do just that. I tried to use a single class meeting as a properly researched and well-planned experiment in whether it was possible to deal with this material responsibly in such a short period of time. I think I found a way of creating discussion and awareness that actually worked, although it was far from perfect. But what seems to me to be the central point is that when this sort of material turns up in our classrooms, we can’t turn a blind eye to it and its impact on our classroom community. The usual statistic invoked in these circumstances is that at least one in four American college women have experienced rape or attempted rape. Those statistics may not transfer to a UK classroom, but I’m willing to bet that the numbers aren’t so very different. The responsibility remains ours to work out how to talk about this  material in a way that’s productive and open about the unacceptable behaviour it represents.

If you’re interested in reading a bit more on this topic, the first issue of EuGeStA includes an article by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz titled “Greek Tragedy: A Rape Culture?”, which is freely available and well worth a read.

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