Classically Inclined

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.

January 26, 2015

The Family Archive Project: Advisory Board meeting

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 1:18 pm
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Last week was an exciting one for the Family Archive Project, as we had our first advisory board meeting. It’s the first time the project team have all been in the same physical space since the original AHRC sandpit, and for me it was the first time meeting our advisory board members, who are more senior academics with experience of doing This Sort Of Thing plus a representative from the National Archives, one of our project partners. The meeting served as an opportunity to update the advisory board on the progress that has been made so far, get some advice from them about things we felt could benefit from their input, and also ask them whether they had any thoughts or suggestions for how we should be approaching the project. It was really energising to be sitting in a room of people who were keen about the project – I’ve been getting more and more enthused since I spent a day in the British Library t’other week and realised that there’s something genuinely interesting here that doesn’t seem to have been picked up on (for perfectly good reasons) on the classical side, and the advisory board meeting reinforced that mood.

Two major things came out of it for me. The first was that the unique strength of this project is the chronological scope that the research team bring to the issue, and the possibilities that this opens up for interrogating contemporary practice and building new frameworks for understanding how people approach family archives, both consciously and unconsciously. I think we’d all appreciated that this was something special about the project as we put it together, but hearing other people articulate it certainly brought it home to me. The second was the potential that this work has for making a difference not only to other academics but to people in society more broadly, and how important it is to make sure that we’re keeping track of the needs of the communities and groups we’re working with. At the moment, we’re only operating on a comparatively small scale, but it’s something that simply hadn’t occurred to me before.

A side issue, but no less important, that we spent a bit of time discussing was how we are actually going to write the two articles we hope will come out of this work, beginning with one based on our historical case studies. We found working on the grant proposal through shared documents on Google Drive worked rather well, and I’d assumed we’d try that approach again; one thing the advisory board suggested was that one person took responsibility for calling time on the collaborative drafting process and then gave the article a coherent authorial voice before asking for feedback from everyone on the neatened result. Collaborative writing is not something that my field of the humanities tends to play with very often, although some people find it very productive; certainly it’s not something I’ve ever done. Given that there are four of us on the project team, I think we all appreciated some advice from people who have had more experience producing collaborative writing about what works and what doesn’t!

The next big milestone, other than getting a research assistant appointed for the project and setting up our focus groups, is getting together the meat of the case study article and working out what shape that would best take. Obviously because of oncoming maternity leave, I want to get on with that sooner rather than later – so I can see plenty more reading and note-taking ahead of me in the next few months. I’m looking forward to it.

January 23, 2015

Gamifying Intermediate Latin – a mid-year update

When I posted that I was intending to gamify intermediate Latin, I got quite a positive response back, and I promised to give you an update on how it was all going. As we start the second week of the spring term, now seems like a good moment to review how things have gone so far. I should also add that I’m thinking of putting together an application for our college teaching excellence prize based on this, not least because (as a colleague pointed out to me the other day) the potential applications of the technique go beyond the languages, which is where I’d thought it might be useful – every subject has got its bit of ‘stuff we need students to put the work into, that doesn’t feature as part of the summative assessment, but that will impact students’ performance in the summative assessment’. When I explained what I was doing, she immediately thought of how useful it could be for statistics, which wasn’t something I’d thought of at all. At any rate, now seems like a good moment to reflect on the experience so far.

To recap, the goals I had in gamifying Intermediate Latin were:

  • Give students a short-term motivation and reward for doing work they otherwise wouldn’t see paying off until the medium or long term.
  • Increase participation rates in optional homework activities.
  • Through this participation, increase student confidence with vocabulary, grammar and other skills they need for in-class tasks.
  • Generate a bit of friendly competition in the classroom and thus build community among students on the course.

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January 15, 2015

New publication: review of The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:31 am
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In the general spirit of ‘every little helps’, I’m delighted to share that my notice/short review of The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature has appeared in the latest edition of The Classical Review. This was quite a fun one to write, mainly because of trying to get as much information as humanly possible into five hundred words and still provide a fair and accurate impression of what the book was about!

The bonus of the piece being quite that short is that it fits on one page of the journal and thus the preview page is essentially the whole thing! If you’re interested, you can read it here.

January 9, 2015

Research: The Family Archive Project

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 3:22 pm
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I mentioned back in June that I was working on some grant applications coming out of an AHRC Early Career sandpit event around Easter, and then in my round-up post of 2014 I promised to blog about the project which was successful in that funding bid. So here is that post!

The project in question is formally titled “The Family Archive Project: Exploring Family Identities, Memories and Stories Through Curated Personal Possessions.” It came together after one of the round table discussions at the AHRC sandpit, where four of us discovered we all worked with ideas of family and memory in our research, and all shared some broadly similar research interests that might intersect in interesting ways in an interdisciplinary project. Some shared questions that came up during that very early phase of brainstorming were about how one defines a family archive; who gets to be in charge of a family archive; and how family archives cope with traumatic or difficult events. For instance, we all know stories of families who write a disreputable aunt or uncle out of the history, and novelists make plenty of hay out of the habit at the start of the twentieth centuries of babies being bought up thinking their grandmother was their mother and their mother was their sister. Roman families have different problems to cope with (like ordering your son or daughter killed, for instance), but there are still traumatic events that need to be handled and processed.

The project now has several goals for the next year. It wants to think about what a family archive looks like and how it changes over time – what an Edwardian would have made of the idea would have been very different to what we make of it, particularly in the age of digital photography and practically endless storage, not to mention the move away from paper documents. It wants to think about the function of these archives, and how families engage or disengage with their contents. That question of who owns the archive and curates it is still important, and we also want to explore how ownership is passed down the generations; does an archive have to stay together, or can it be spread across family members, or even embodied in oral repetition at family gatherings? We also want to think about how family archives balance the very personal stories they have to tell with the public events going on at the same time; for instance, an individual family archive (in whatever form) and official government archives will tell two very different stories about the First World War.

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December 30, 2014

Reflections and plans at the end of 2014

We’re half-way through the academic year, and coming to the close of 2014, so for a variety of reasons it seemed a good moment to pause and reflect on how things are going so far.

Teaching: as I mentioned in my most recent syllabi-wrangling post, my two biggest obligations were putting together a new half-unit on Virgil and a new Advanced Latin course (in two half units) for intercollegiate MA provision. I also decided to gamify intermediate Latin. I think gamification deserves its own post again, but I will say that I’ve been enjoying the process of incorporating game theory into my language teaching at this level, and it’s certainly appealing to some of the students. Some of the pitfalls I’m coming across are similar to those I’ve encountered with other techniques that have worked in US classrooms but seem to falter a bit in UK ones, but as I say, I’ll hold those thoughts over for another post.

The Advanced Latin course has been quietly rewarding in its own right, partly because of teaching Suetonius’ Life of Vespasian for the first time (which has turned out to be surprisingly good fun), and partly because of the student response to the independent project element. I set this up using the second year undergraduate projects we set students at Royal Holloway as an initial model, so while I knew that the format would work in principle, I had no idea whether the students in the course would bite. Well, it turns out that giving MA students an opportunity to work on texts that they actually like and want to work into their research means they have fun with the assessment you set. I’ve had some fascinating conversations with students about their individual research and where they see it fitting into their broader profile as researchers, and the students have shown me directions these projects can go in that I hadn’t envisaged when putting the syllabus together. For some reason, our impression when setting these courses up had been that they would be of interest mainly to those working on history and literature – my brain had completely left out the possibility that students with a primary research interest in classical reception might want to polish up their Latin too! The projects aren’t due in until the new year, but I’m really excited to see how they’ll turn out. And I think the students’ Latin has improved too.

The Virgil half-unit has basically been a new build, and I’ve found myself being more comfortable with a note-and-text based lecture style than I have been previously. I’ve also rather liked the seminar-lecture two hour format, although I think that in the future I’d like to experiment with the active learning/lecture format that I used during my Roman Life Course unit at Birmingham – leaving students to their own devices for more or less the first hour and then lecturing at them for the second hour isn’t a format that I think works for me particularly well, although I’m very glad I’ve tried it and seen how it plays out in practice. In the end, because of the number of students, I ended up not assigning in-class presentations on secondary literature, but I think there are other ways to work that skill-set in. However, the most rewarding part of the whole course has been re-reading the Aeneid with fresh eyes and trying to get some more enthusiasm into the students about the text. I think my decision to keep Virgil out of the first year Roman literature survey is definitely the right one, as it gives students a year off and the ability to come at the poem fresh. All in all, I’m quite pleased with the experiment.

Research: a year-long view here. As far as the book is concerned, I’ve revised two chapters, finished off writing a new one, and have done a complete text/translation review of the manuscript as well as respond to a set of readers’ reports. I need to redraft the conclusion (sometime before term? Who knows?), but there’s been slow and steady progress towards getting the manuscript together. However, I will admit to being quite frustrated that another year has passed and I still don’t have a contract in hand. Still, none of the work I’m doing is wasted, and let’s hope 2015 is The Year Of The Book.

I’ve also written a chapter on women classicists at Newnham, been awarded an AHRC grant for work on the Family Archive Project (about which I will blog on here before too long, I hope!), got some thoughts together about women, space and the stage in Plautus, had the Ad Polybium article published at long last, given several other conference papers, almost got a pedagogy article finished about preparing a text commentary for the Companion To The Worlds of Roman Women, and have some positive developments on the Monster Project front (of which also more before too long, hopefully). I have to be honest that while I feel like I’ve stalled a bit on the book front, other research has been bubbling alongside it. I think the trick is going to be making sure that these opportunities generate tangible results rather than Interesting Thoughts – I’m sure they will, but the trick is going to be in the planning. So the book stays at the top of the research to-do list, but I’d also like to spend next year working on the AHRC project and preparing an article on Seneca’s use of imagery in his political philosophy that’s come out of writing the new book chapter.

Personal life: as some of you may have seen me announce on Twitter recently, my husband and I are expecting our first child in April. We are both excited and petrified in equal measures, which I gather is the sensible position to be in at this stage. Because infans has had the grace to time themselves conveniently, I’m planning to complete my spring 2015 teaching before going on maternity leave at the start of April; I hope to be back in September or October at the start of the 2015-16 academic year, all being well. It goes without saying that this is going to be a massive life-changing event for us, and we have no sense of the impact that it is going to have on our quotidian existence, let alone something as rarefied and intellectual as research. We’re looking forward to finding out – for the foreseeable future, this little project is going to be taking top priority.

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).

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November 18, 2014

Good news from the Swedish Institutes

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

 

 

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