Classically Inclined

July 6, 2015

June is busting out all over…

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:28 pm
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…and it’s taken me until July to blog about it. Such is the life of a new mum. I type this with infans in his sling, finally having the nap he has resisted all day, while I reflect upon the changes and developments that have happened in my life over the last twelve weeks.

Arguably the most significant of these is the arrival of the new small person, who is growing and thriving at a slightly alarming but very encouraging rate. We’ve all got the hang of the basics now, so it’s a matter of doing the day-to-day living, which is demanding but rather less intense than the first six weeks or so. That the final output of my maternity leave, when it finishes in September, should be a happy, cheerful and generally content baby looks like a goal that is on track.

However, I will happily own up to the fact that the itch to get back on with research work has already returned, reinforcing my personal conviction that a year’s worth of maternity leave would have had me climbing the walls. I’ve already been surprisingly productive – I finished off the science fiction piece, have done more work for the Family Archive project, and have sorted out the edits to an article about writing for the Companion to the World of Roman Women that started off as a series of blog posts on here.

Most importantly, however, last week I signed and posted back my contract with Cambridge University Press for a book provisionally entitled The Ethics of the Family in Seneca.

As you will probably have guessed, this is going to be the book version of my PhD thesis, and I’ve spent the time since submission in 2011 working on getting the manuscript into a good enough shape for publication. In fact, I’m still working on revising the manuscript, as those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, but now there’s an end date for the manuscript to be finished, and everything feels more… real.

When I graduated, I said that my life goals for the next few years were a baby, a book and abode. It looks like the most elusive of those three is finally getting closer. I may write more about the process of getting here at some stage, but right now, I’m going to go and help infans (who has woken up since I started writing this post) practice rolling onto his side.

May 6, 2015

New publication: In A Galaxy Far, Far Away: On Classical Reception and Science Fiction

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:57 am
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Following on my recent blog post about science fiction, classical reception and fannishness, I’m glad to announce that the final piece has now been published!

You can read In A Galaxy Far, Far Away: On Classical Reception and Science Fiction over at Strange Horizons.

Ultimately, I’m very pleased indeed with how the piece turned out. As I explained in my preliminary blog post, this is quite a big shift away from some of my usual stomping ground, and I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to get familiar with the territory. That’s because I have another project on tap that looks like it will make really good use of the sort of material that I got to use and get familiar with for this piece – but that’s another story for another time. Until then, enjoy this overview of the state of the field, and do let me know what you think!

April 8, 2015

Posted Elsewhere – A very modern family archive

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:15 am
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I should have flagged this up when the post went up, but better late than never… I have another post up on the Family Archive project blog, this time exploring the link between my own experience of family archives and the sentimental things that turn up in ancient deposits.

I don’t think this answers the question I posed in my previous post for the project about why sentimental (and thus ‘inexplicable’) material gets kept, but it’s certainly a place to start.

March 31, 2015

On pregnancy, academia and antiquity

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 10:55 am
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I type this from the second day of my official maternity leave, having made it to the end of term without infans making an early appearance. The presence of infans has, of course, been getting more and more obvious over the last few weeks; I’ve been particularly aware of it while staying at on-campus accommodation during the week to make my life easier, and eating in the attached student dining hall in the evenings, although the British Library offered some equally confused expressions. I’ve been thinking about pregnant bodies in academic spaces since Rachel Moss posted about this issue at the end of February, and while I’ve been very lucky not to have encountered any directly negative responses, I’ve been very aware of getting surprised looks from people around campus as I have been going around my daily business. While these reactions do not explicitly say I should not be in the space of an HE institution, they reveal my presence there is unexpected (surely she should be on leave?), particularly in a student dining hall where many of the students may be seeing me for the first time. (A massive thank you to the catering staff and the hospitality team is in order, as they have been lovely throughout the term and looked after an increasingly pregnant academic with remarkable aplomb.)

Another academic space that I shan’t be occupying, although this is entirely self-selecting, is the upcoming Classical Association conference in Bristol. This is largely a matter of practicality – Bristol and my home are very far apart, and my due date is shortly after the conference ends. While the thought of interrupting a staid paper session with a polite request for an ambulance is fairly entertaining in the abstract, I suspect the reality would be pretty subpar. However, this raises questions about whether I would have felt comfortable attending the conference if it had fallen earlier in the pregnancy. I did actually attend a couple of conferences very early on, before anybody knew about it, let alone before there were any physical giveaways beyond me not drinking alcohol. However, I’ve not attended anything particularly formal since the academic year started, and now that conference season proper is kicking off, practicalities intervene. Yet I wonder about the presence of the pregnant female body at these gatherings, and remember the classics and feminism sandpit in January, when I felt visibly pregnant but was not necessarily registering as such to others. The visibility of the pregnancy seems to relate directly to the social acceptability of being seen in public as pregnant – even in a world where economic factors mean women are working up to as close to their due dates as they can.

I want to turn to Soranus here, who has handed down to us an excellent manual on gynaecology which tells you more than you will ever need to know about pregnancy, giving birth and early infant care in the ancient world. (As Helen King says, it’s a relief to find out that midwives were expected to keep their fingernails short.) I’ve been reading his advice for the pregnant woman through the nine months with interest – in the eighth month, for instance, he recommends that women “must take exercise only in a litter or big sedan chair, unless one desires to walk short of the point of exhaustion”, and suggests that the abdomen should be anointed “all over with a cerate containing oil made up from unripe olives and myrtle, for if the skin is toned up it does not break, but is kept unwrinkled”. Soranus, dispensing stretch mark avoidance before Bio-Oil was ever dreamt up.

(more…)

March 16, 2015

Why calling Seneca a hypocrite isn’t very helpful

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:52 am
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“There’s a review of Emily Wilson in today’s paper,” said G, waving a copy of the Observer.

“There’s a what?” I said, groggily, looking up from my yoghurt and about to rush off to church choir practice.

He passed the paper over, and lo and behold, it was a review of Emily Wilson’s Seneca: A Life, which in its online incarnation appears to have gained a new title – in the print edition of the Observer, the title is “A great Stoic and a serious hypocrite”, which sums up the attitude of the review rather better.

Reading the review had the effect of waking me up, mainly by making me rather cross. For several reasons. But the one G picked up on when he asked “so, is Seneca a hypocrite?” is the one on which I’m going to base this post. Seneca has had a long history of being accused of hypocrisy, starting in antiquity – Dio Cassius regales us with some particularly scandalous tales, including that bit about Seneca nearly bankrupting Britain by calling his loans in, and the usual ‘pandering to freedmen’ stuff that the Claudian period generates because Claudius actually set up a system of governmental officials who (shock horror!) weren’t senators. But Cassius Dio is writing at least a hundred years after Seneca’s death, and appears to assume that working the imperial system then was like working it in his period, when the political and moral ground had undergone some really big shifts. So that’s problem number one – the juicy evidence for Seneca’s hypocrisy comes from someone writing much later, with a bit of an axe to grind.

But the fair question remains of whether Seneca compromised his philosophical beliefs by working with Nero, and by retaining his status as a member of the senatorial elite. There are two good reasons grounded in Stoic doctrine that show attacking him on these grounds rather misses the point.

One. The Stoics had a doctrine of indifferents. That is, they said the only important thing was virtue. Everything else – good and ill health, good looks, wealth and poverty, marriage and bachelorhood, and, well, everything else – was an indifferent. Having or not having a particular indifferent did not make the slightest bit of difference to your ability to achieve virtue (and thus happiness). They complicated this a bit by then saying that some indifferents were preferred; that is, if everything was equal and your pursuit of virtue was not harmed by either choice, then it made sense to select one of the pair rather than the other. So if you had the choice between health and being poorly, for instance, you’d take health. Similarly, if you had the choice between wealth and poverty, you’d take wealth, providing the way of getting the money didn’t involve you doing something morally dubious (betraying a friend, for instance, or killing an innocent person). Stoicism doesn’t support a push towards compulsory poverty, like the later Franciscans or the earlier Cynics. The only ethically problematic thing about having money is becoming too dependent on it, forgetting that it’s an indifferent like any other, and starting to pursue it for its own sake.

But what, for instance, if your money came from, oooh, supporting a tyrant? And being part of that tyrant’s inner circle? Let us for a moment put aside the fact that Nero’s first few years of rule are generally credited with being not too bad, which sort of undermines the view that Seneca knew he was supporting a corrupt regime from the get-go. OK, there’s an ethical problem here – Seneca’s wealth and influence derives from his support of an emperor of dubious habits. Yet on what grounds would we call him a hypocrite? Hypocrisy is claiming to hold certain character traits and standards but not living up to them; hypocrisy is criticising other people for behaving in the way one happily does oneself. So we need to find evidence of Seneca presenting himself as morally superior to other people in his presentation of Stoic philosophy, and boom, there’s our evidence for hypocrisy.

But this is emphatically not what Seneca says anywhere in his extant work. The yardstick for moral achievement within Stoicism is the wise man or sage, who has got perfect grasp of reason, thus only makes rational decisions, and so is perfectly happy. The sage is famously rarer than a phoenix. Seneca never claims to be a wise man – in the On the Blessed Life, he explicitly says “I am not a wise man” (non sum sapiens). He never claims to have reached moral perfection. When he writes to his addressee Lucilius in the Moral Letters, he’s very careful never to claim ethical superiority – he has been doing this Stoicism thing for longer, which gives him a bit of an edge on knowing the material, but he’s still fallible and capable of making mistakes and irrational choices. When somebody is so open about his own moral faults and failings, even if not specifically the ones which revolve around his relationship with Nero, it’s a bit difficult to find the leverage to justify the charge of hypocrisy.

Basically, going back to this old chestnut as people have a depressing tendency to do demonstrates the importance of reading Seneca’s philosophical convictions against the historical background to get a better understanding of what’s going on in his actions and the decisions he makes. It’s not a neat answer, and it’s not a comfortably judgemental answer (because we all feel better when we can castigate someone else’s failings – well-known sayings about eyes, planks and motes come to mind). But it is one that recognises the complexity of the man and does him justice.

March 10, 2015

Classics and sci fi – some initial thoughts

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:59 pm
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As some of you will have picked up on Twitter, one of my current research and writing jobs is for a short-ish piece on the current state of the field of classical reception studies and science fiction for Strange Horizons (the lovely people who, as you’ll remember, published my short article on crossing borders in classically influenced fiction). This isn’t entirely new ground for me, as that piece shows, and I’m thinking quite a lot about sci fi and fantasy in general as part of the monsters project. But being asked to do a review piece is a first for me, and also involves trying to get a sense of the state of a field that I have hitherto been on the edges of rather than deeply involved in.

I’m very lucky to know some of the people who are at the forefront of moving various conversations around sci fi and classics forward, and who are being very generous with their time, knowledge and expertise as I try and put this together. However, one of the problems with coming to this as I am is that – well, let me make a confession. I don’t think I’m really a fan.

I don’t mean I’m not a fan of science fiction, broadly defined – it’s a fun genre, and while I do lean more towards fantasy (allowing that the border between the two genres is extremely fluid), sci fi does some interesting and cool things. I’ve been trying to read some more of the sci fi landmarks since attending the Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space conference, at least in part because I felt I was missing out on a whole chunk of the discourse by not knowing the major texts to which papers and participants were referring. (So I’ve since read the Asimov Foundation trilogy, for example, and got a brief review of Slow River into the Times Higher Ed.) But the problem is that I’m coming to this as an adult who wants to be informed about the field, not as someone with the kind of all-encompassing hunger and passion I remember from my younger years who falls in love with a series or a writer and commits whole-heartedly to their work. I’m talking, and I say this with affection, of the sort of devotion you get in Trekkies. Or indeed in devotees of Buffy and Angel. (Some of these issues are similar to those we encounter when using the personal voice in academic work.) The closest I come, if I’m honest, is probably my irrational fondness for Hope Mirrlees, and while Lud-in-the-Mist is a starter for one, it’s not exactly an in-depth familiarity with the broad sci fi canon.

So the biggest challenge for me in writing this particular piece has been overcoming good old imposter syndrome. There are other problems too, of course. I’m drafting so I’m not too worried about the tone I’m taking yet, just getting words on the page will do, but there are issues about the right sort of way to write for a venue like Strange Horizons. It’s obviously not an academic journal, but neither is it this ‘ere blog, where I can be as informal and chatty or technical and jargony as I feel like being. I’m wondering about structure and organisation, and the sorts of things that readers will take for granted and that I need to spell out (the usual concern when writing for a non-academic audience, compounded by said imposter syndrome which assumes that every reader will already know everything I have to say, which is clearly nonsense). But most of all, it’s having the courage to have a go – after all, if I wasn’t up to it, I wouldn’t have been asked.

Now that the writing is underway, it’s actually turning out to be quite fun, and I’ve read a lot of really interesting stuff along the way. So keep an eye out for the final piece, which should appear in April or May some time, and you can judge how successful it’s been for yourself!

March 7, 2015

Posted Elsewhere – Family archives and the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:52 pm
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In case any of you are interested, I have a post up on the Family Archive project blog thinking about the idea of family archives and how it relates to the Romans. Do pop over and take a look!

I’m still puzzled about what family archive practices look like in Rome itself, rather than Greco-Roman Egypt – I’m particularly interested in the so-called ‘sentimental’ material, kept for no readily apparent reason, and how that gets transmitted down through the generations. But that’s another story for another blog post…

March 2, 2015

On disliking conclusions

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:07 pm
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As most of you know, I am currently wrestling with revising a book manuscript. This involves a good deal of looking at conclusions, and as such is making me remember just how much I dislike the blessed things.

There’s a lot to be said for the elegant conclusion – it distils the wisdom of a chapter or article into one or two crystal clear sentences that provide the icing, as it were, on the argumentative cake. But the bad conclusion is far easier to write – one which just recaps what has been said throughout the piece without really taking it through that rhetorical transmutation that creates a satisfying conclusion. The irony, of course, is that while I may chastise students in my marking feedback for offering conclusions which rehash the points they have already made, my first (and second and third and fourth) drafts of scholarly work often contain conclusions which do exactly the same – even when I think I’ve managed the requisite compositional alchemy.

This is something I’m particularly aware of at the moment because I’m trying to rewrite the conclusion to the whole book – not just offering a neat summary for a chapter, but a neat tie-up for over 100,000 words’ worth of point. Despite my best efforts, I’m still offering a rehash of previous points in quite a procedural manner (albeit less so than the original PhD conclusion, of which frankly the less said, the better). Finding the right words to be the last words of the book is also phenomenally difficult. My current strategy is to move into the personal voice, but I would be the first to admit that this is a strategy born out of desperation rather than of conviction. It’s also not quite coming out right just yet – there’s something too colloquial and apologetic about it, which is another risk of conclusions. While you think you have stated your case firmly and authoritatively, it often turns out that you’ve actually underplayed your own original contribution to a debate or the most significant consequence of your own argument.

I don’t think I have any tips for writing conclusions, other than being prepared to write, rewrite and rewrite again, and getting as many pairs of eyes on a conclusion as possible to tell you if you are doing yourself justice. But I am rather surprised at the difficulty of writing the conclusion for a book, if only because I had rather assumed it would be like writing a mini-chapter or article rather than concentrated last-blessed-paragraph syndrome. But maybe I’m unusual in finding conclusions such a particular bugbear. If anyone has any great ideas for avoiding the pitfalls and putting together that glittering wit and glitz that is the hallmark of a fine conclusion, I’m all ears.

February 13, 2015

Feminism and the academy: resisting tradition in academic research

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:12 am
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When I said I had a week of feminism, starting with the sandpit, I meant it –  on Wednesday evening last week, I took part in a very exciting event at Royal Holloway titled “Feminism and the academy: resisting tradition in academic research”. You can see the program of the event here; at the request of some of the sandpit participants, I livetweeted the event, and the Storify of that is now available if you’d like a more detailed look at what the speakers said.

This was a little bit of an anxious event for me, because I’d never done the job of a ‘respondent’ before. For those of you unfamiliar with academic habits, this is where somebody is asked to give five minutes’ worth of immediate reaction to a speaker’s paper, or to a panel of papers. Sometimes people circulate the text of their paper (or what they think is the text of their paper) before the panel, which makes it a bit easier to construct a response. Wednesday’s event was a bit more flexibly organised, so while speakers pre-circulated the general topic they planned to talk on, the actual bulk of the argument was not revealed until the talk itself. On the plus side – less preparation for me. On the minus side – having to stand up and give an improvised response immediately after the speaker. No pressure, then. Thankfully, Laura Doan gave me plenty of material to bounce off about the closing and expanding gap between the past and the present, so I think I got away with my extempore observations, not least because I was able to borrow a modern example that Helen King used at the sandpit and has now written a proper blog post about, which you should all go and read. But I digress.

The event once more generated a significant amount of energy in the room, very similar to that generated at the sandpit, but with a slightly different focus – many of the attendees were members of the college’s Feminist society. You may have heard of the RHUL Feminist Society because of their Ugly Girls Club campaign, which hit the mainstream media in December last year. They’re a very active, very lively group, and it was fantastic to have so many people in attendance who were clearly interested and engaged with the issues that the speakers were raising. One thing that came through very strongly in each speaker’s talk was the connection between the personal and the political – a well-trodden feminist aphorism, but one worth returning to – in the way each speaker’s individual career embodied the conflict they encountered between the traditions of their field and the need to push beyond those conventions to achieve different kinds of goals and reveal different truths. This came home for me in particular in Lizzie Coles-Kemp’s talk, where she explored her choice to totally abandon normal information security models of the weak user, powerful attacker and infallible technology in order to explore more fluid, ambiguous and community-based models of how people interact with electronic systems. She gave both a very personal talk about her research trajectory, and a fundamental challenge to the way that research in the field was being done, seamlessly woven together.

All of which got me thinking a bit about how my work resists tradition, if indeed it does. In some ways, it resists tradition in a rather surprising way – as we discovered at the Women as Classical Scholars event, women traditionally Don’t Do Latin Prose, and yet here I am, plugging away at a book manuscript on the subject. Part of resisting tradition is resisting the tradition that women only work on certain kinds of texts, or indeed do certain kinds of work – Jackie Labbe raised this in terms of female leadership within academia, and the tendency to assume women will take on roles dealing with teaching and pastoral issues, where men will go for grant applications and research-related posts. Keeping your eyes out for the ‘service traps’ is something I’ve been told about again and again as an ECR – yet the assumed division is still there and still happily in play. The other thing about my research is that it challenges what classics has assumed it is about for centuries – that is, pure philology. Sure, I do a good bit of philology, but my work is much broader than that, incorporating lots of other evidence, and indeed challenging the idea that the only important things to discuss when looking at a text are the grammatical constructions – and not, as in the example from Ovid that Ika Willis used, the deeply problematic content. Given that yesterday was the second iteration of the Problematic Ovid Lecture, at the moment I’m feeling very aware of the need to use the traditional lens of close reading responsibly to see the whole of a text, not just the parts of it that we are pushed to value by tradition. That’s an idea I think I need to pick over a bit more, as it seems fundamentally important for all sorts of aspects of my work and teaching.

The evening was part of RHUL’s broader research theme on Society, Representation and Cultural Memory Research Theme, whose champion is classics’ own Richard Alston. Richard is pulling together a general program of events dealing with feminist research at Royal Holloway, which I’m sure will expand and grow over the coming months. While the forthcoming infant might make it a bit difficult for me to participate fully, I’m thoroughly looking forward to More of This Sort Of Thing.

February 9, 2015

Classics and the new faces of feminism sandpit

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:01 am
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On Saturday 31st January, I spent the day at Senate House in London attending the Classics and the New Faces of Feminism sandpit, organised by my RHUL colleague Efi Spentzou and Genevieve Liveley from Bristol. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have been very aware of this because I was livetweeting the event, using the hashtag #classfem – thanks to the marvellous Lucy Jackson, the various livetweeters have been gathered together into this ‘ere Storify, so if you weren’t able to make it, you can catch up on what went on. I was there to chair the panel on Classics, feminism and pedagogy (which given my recent outing with Cloelia felt very appropriate), but there were all sorts of other reasons that this event felt timely – not least, of course, that of entering the third trimester of my first pregnancy, and wondering how that is going to affect my future.

The reason this post has taken this long to appear is because it’s taken me this long to catch up with myself! It was an incredibly stimulating day, and my heartfelt thanks go out to Efi and Genevieve for organising it. The downside, of course, is that I spent most of Sunday half-asleep, and it’s taken until now to get myself on top of ‘normal’ jobs to have five minutes to write about the experience – but again, that’s one of the effects of doing a full-on extra work day in the third trimester, and a price I don’t begrudge in the slightest.

Some observations. First of all, the atmosphere was amazing. I’ve personally experienced the kind of buzz and enthusiasm in the room before – but that was at Feminism and Classics conferences, not on UK soil (although women as classical scholars came close). The fact that such an atmosphere could exist at an academic event seemed to be something of a surprise to some attendees, particularly the very high number of graduate students in attendance. The mood was also largely shaped by a very constructive and nurturing approach. Not that you could get away with saying anything (for instance, there was some lively debate about waves of feminism and which, if any, participants identified with), but the general mood was one of building connections and offering support. For instance, in the sandpit discussion section of the pedagogy panel, some grad students who were facing teaching for the first time next academic year aired their nerves about teaching potentially difficult and sensitive subjects – and had an entire room of more experienced teachers respond with advice, strategies and general cheerleading.

That buzz was partly generated by the international flavour of the day. The last panel on the program was to publicise the Eugesta network, and to encourage participants to engage with its events and submit to its journal. This meant we had representatives in the room from at least the US, France, Italy and Greece. The US contingent was particularly strong, as it included people like Nancy Rabinowitz, Barbara Gold and Judith Hallett, who were all involved in the founding and early years of the WCC and as such have been critical in creating the kind of environment I found in the US as a graduate student (and for which I am eternally grateful). I suppose that this is one of the so-far unsung benefits of globalisation – while there are still local or regional conditions which will only affect academics in a particular geographic area, there are wider issues of feminist practice, research and pedagogy where we can learn from each other’s distinct cultures and build cooperation for the future. The Eugesta network is a fantastic example of this, and I hope that it continues to build connections between academics and institutions.

More than buzz, the day produced a surprising amount of energy. Energy to do things. Given that one concern raised in the early sessions was how there seemed to be a diffusion of activism around the feminist project, particularly if compared to the second wave, the thirst for suggestions of what action we might take was palpable. Suggestions for action came in both little and big forms – deliberately choosing translations by women for classes and hand-outs; seeking to act collaboratively rather than competitively with women colleagues; seeking out international collaboration; using classical material to address contemporary issues like rape culture and as a tool for social justice; seeing ourselves as intersectional and thus tackling the problem that classics still has with supporting non-white students and academics; continuing to engage with feminist theory as it develops; reshaping the reception canon so that women’s writing won’t need to be reclaimed in future; and reconsidering where feminism happens on our course syllabi and in our students’ degree paths. There was something there for people at every career stage, both in terms of practical action in the coming weeks and months, and in aspirational or strategic terms.

One of the massive things for me to come out of the sandpit is the final push to do something that I will either be very proud of or profoundly regret, and quite possibly both. At the last Feminism and Classics conference, I expressed a desire for a body similar to the WCC in the UK. In my head, as I realised on Saturday, I had conceptualised this as something that I would do, as a sole heroic individual (hello, ivory tower model of scholarship), and that it would thus have to wait until I had the stability of a permanent position. At the sandpit, I mentioned this idea again – and was gently shocked by the level of enthusiasm and support for it. So I’m now starting to make some moves towards getting this actually set up and going, which is both terrifying and exciting. On the plus side, I do at least know that I can’t afford to overcommit myself – the impending arrival of a small infant rather precludes that – so while I can do some of the initial work in getting the ball rolling, I have an in-built reminder that I can’t take on too much. This, too, is quite important – there’s such a tendency for labour to land on those in the least stable conditions (PhD students, ECRs on fixed term contracts, independent researchers to name but a few), and I’m very keen to try to structure things so that we don’t end up with one or two of the usual suspects being overburdened.

But this is all in the future. For the time being, I’m delighted to have discovered the amount of enthusiasm and positivity around feminism within UK classics that was on show from all career stages at the sandpit, and I sincerely hope that this is only the beginning of things to come.

 

12th January: Now crossposted to the Arts and Humanities in Higher Education blog.

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