Classically Inclined

August 24, 2016

What would Cato have made of the Great British Bake Off?

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:11 pm
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It’s a Wednesday towards the end of August, and that can only mean one thing – the British viewing public are gearing up for the return of the Great British Bake Off to their screens this evening. If you have missed this landmark in British cultural history, it is essentially a baking competition where twelve bakers compete in a marquee over who can bake the best version of whatever fiendish concoction Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have come up with to vex them, while Mel and Sue (now so well known they no longer require surnames) try to get as much smut into their commentary on proceedings as possible. One evening this week, after I reminded my husband that the annual baking fest was about to revisit our screens, he came up with a great test of true cultural value – what would Cato the Elder have made of it all?

For those unfamiliar with Cato the Elder, who lived during the middle of the Roman Republic, there were two things he was particularly famous for: his unabated hatred of Carthage and his commitment to traditional Roman virtues, exemplified by his personal behaviour and his actions when he held the office of censor. During this period, a pair of censors were appointed every five years to review the membership rolls of senators and knights, and remove those who were deemed unsuitable; the review of Cato and his co-censor Valerius Flaccus was particularly severe. One good source we have for Cato’s life is the Parallel Life that Plutarch wrote about him; while it was written many years after Cato’s death, and in all likelihood a lot of popular stories about Cato less than completely grounded in fact have found their way into the narrative, it’s a good way to think about how the Romans defined quintessentially Roman behaviour. Even though a lot of his behaviour seemed unpopular, taken together they created a figure who was respected for his “wise leadership, sober discipline and sound principles” (Life 19). So what would Cato have made of Bake Off?

Why are these people cooking? Our first instinct might be that he would disapprove of freeborn citizens baking at all – ancient Rome was, after all, a slave-owning culture, and surely that’s what slaves were for. Cato was, however, a bit different in that respect. Despite his own position of authority, he worked alongside the labourers at his farm (Life 3), and bought the fish and meat for his own dinner at the market (Life 4). So perhaps the idea of people wanting to demonstrate their grasp of skills his fellow Romans might have deemed below them would not have shocked Cato.

The ‘new men’: in an odd sort of way, Cato may have found himself having a love-hate relationship with the particular genre of reality television that Bake Off belongs to, where one wins based on actual hard-won talent and skill rather than popularity. As a new man, or novus homo, Cato himself had no prior familial advantage to give him a leg-up into public life, so he may have found the ability of someone to enter the public eye through demonstrating mastery of a particular skill (and so gain glory within the state) weirdly appealing. At the outside edge of possibility, I can almost imagine a scenario where he might argue that given the debased state of our political system, finding alternative ways to demonstrate one’s excellence was the only possible route for a sensible person to take, but I’ll admit that’s pushing it. (more…)

August 15, 2016

Classics and the #manel – some preliminary thoughts

Filed under: Uncategorized — lizgloyn @ 4:00 pm

I’ve been thinking about the manel lately, and talking to people on Twitter about it. If this term is new to you, it’s the phenomenon of the all-male panel at conferences, or indeed an all-male line-up at a smaller conference. For a flavour of what I mean, there’s a Tumblr dedicated to chronicling the all-male panel; there are also various pledges doing the rounds on the interweb for people – well, men – to promise they won’t appear on an all-male panel. The issue is pretty well aired on the fan convention circuit, and also in the STEM subjects and technology fields. It is less a thing in classics.

There are people in the field doing things about this. Sarah Bond, after attending this year’s meeting of the SCS-AIA, felt troubled by the presence of all-male panels on the program at the same time as she was being told that sexism wasn’t a thing in academia any more; her response was to put together a fantastic list of Women in Ancient History so that panel convenors could find a woman working on the relevant field and invite her to participate rather than throwing their hands in the air and saying there aren’t any women working on this topic (which is rarely if ever true). She’ll be talking more about this issue on a panel at this year’s CAAS meeting (link to .doc file). Melissa Terras recently tweeted about raising the issue of the manel at a digital humanities conference, and the kick-back she got on this. Her experience shows that it’s hard to do these things as an individual. You’re dealing with big organisations as well as individual researchers organising symposia; sometimes you need an institutional level policy, like the advice that the Society of Historians of the Early American Period is giving to panel proposers to display diversity in their speakers if they want their panels accepted. So, in an ideal world, what would the Women’s Classical Committee do about it? I should add that these are my musings about the shape that a campaigning organisation’s response might take and don’t in any way reflect WCC UK policy.

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August 10, 2016

Changing times, changing working practices

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:12 pm
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Of all the possible blog posts I could write at the moment, I’m starting with the low-hanging fruit of some reflections on what I’ve learned over the past few months about the reality of being on sabbatical and being a parent. This is partly because Academic Twitter has been talking about working practices a bit more than usual, focusing around Raul Pacheco-Vega’s posts about low-hanging fruit and how to pick it, and another burst of interest in my post about academic otters. But as I mentioned in my last research-focused post, I am moving into a new book-sized project at the same time as having a sabbatical, and I need new strategies for how to organise my time and workflow now I’ve moved to an ideas-generating phase rather than a refining phase. (Jo Van Every has a post that articulates this better in thinking about summer writing plans in general.)

My initial plan was brilliant, simply brilliant, I tell you. I mapped out precisely which chapter and side project I was going to work on for every single week until the end of the calendar year, so that I’d have a full draft of the book by the end of my leave, and would have done All The Things. Marvellous.

Except that by the end of the first fortnight of the new Grand Plan, it wasn’t marvellous at all and I was already very, very behind what I’d hoped to get done. There were a couple of reasons for this, the most obvious of which was that I had assumed I would be able to work on the Monster book and Mazes Intricate, a related but separate chapter manuscript, at the same time. The chapter is due in November, so squeaked priority – and while some of the reading I’d done for it also fed into my thinking about the Monster book, when I got into the writing I wanted to get Mazes Intricate finished rather than spinning off onto other things. So, big lesson one of Being A Researcher With A Small Child – don’t try and do multiple projects at once. Focus on finishing one thing at a time. This is very different to when I was doing my PhD, when I’d have (at least) one other article on the go alongside my current chapter, as something to go to as an intellectual break and refresher. Now my intellectual break is helping infans explore how pouring lentils from one container into another via the medium of a yoghurt pot works. Same intellectual function, different learning outcome, to repurpose some jargon.

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June 24, 2016

On Pandora and the opening of Zeus’ gift

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 7:30 pm
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But when he had finished the sheer, hopeless snare, the Father sent glorious Argus-Slayer, the swift messenger of the gods, to take it to Epimetheus as a gift. And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men. But he took the gift, and afterwards, when the evil thing was already his, he understood. For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. – Hesiod, Works and Days.

I’m writing this on my way back from a conference in Dublin, where I have found it very difficult to give a paper on classical monsters in Hollywood films since 2000, and equally difficult to concentrate on the panel I have been attending about the nature of the ancient epic in the modern world. British classicists have checked the BBC and social media obsessively, sworn a fair bit, looked at each other hopelessly. Our European and international colleagues have commiserated, hugged, looked at an equal loss. And those who are British but work in the EU, or are EU nationals who work in Britain, have been doing a bit of everything.

Pandora’s jar has been opened and we are seeing the evils come out into the world.

We have had the Prime Minister resign, key pledges from the Leave campaign dismissed as ‘mistakes’, the financial markets drop sharply and struggle to right themselves, people who voted Leave astonished and upset to discover their vote actually counted, Scotland and Ireland reconsidering their positions as part of the Union, the EU Commission trying to get this process over and done with as quickly as possible, and on, and on, and on.

I am worried for myself, for my son, for my little family that had just got a little bit of stability, for my wider family, for the higher education sector, for those who had so much to lose – although, if I’m honest, in a rather blank sort of way, because I suspect I’m still in shock.

And yet. And yet.

When Pandora had opened the jar, and all the evils had flown out and into the world, one last thing remained. Hope.

Hope in the majority of people under 49 who voted to Remain, and whose political day is coming. Hope in three months’ grace before a change of Prime Minister. Hope in the pause before Article 50 is invoked. Hope in the time it will take the dust to settle and to see what landscape actually remains. Hope in the potential this has to re-engage people who believed their votes didn’t matter. Hope in the unlikeliest of places, also in the jar. Whether or not it too was an evil remains to be seen.

Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds.

June 3, 2016

The Women’s Classical Committee UK

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 4:18 pm
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I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to make a proper blog post about the Women’s Classical Committee UK, but it has, and here it is.

Partially, the reason I haven’t posted anything is because when the WCC UK was getting off the ground, I was coming closer to the start of my maternity leave, and then (quite naturally) my focus was elsewhere. The impetus for the WCC UK came from the feminism and classics sandpit that I wrote about a while ago, where there seemed to be a lot of energy bouncing around for something like a UK-based equivalent of the Women’s Classical Caucus, and it seemed criminal not to capitalise on it. The organisation and set-up and prep have all been happening behind the scenes, but in April we held our launch event, and are now recruiting members. We are planning our AGM event for next year, as well as a pedagogy event for later this summer targeted at ECRs and graduate students, and we’re thinking about what else we could do based on the suggestions and ideas we had at the launch. I Storified the livetweeting of the launch, so if you missed it there’s plenty for you to catch up on.

The point of the WCC UK is to support women in classics in the UK, and to bring together people taking a feminist approach in their scholarship (there’s a fuller statement of aims here). I thought the UK needed something like this because of my very positive experience of the WCC US as a graduate student, and I felt the void when I returned to the UK. Obviously the organisation is still embryonic, but already I feel as if I’ve got to know some more women in the field and as if people are ready for an organisation doing this kind of work. I’m currently helping get the pedagogy event organised, but I’m very keen to start thinking about the research front and what needs to happen there in the next couple of weeks.

I get to think about these things because I am the Administrator of the Committee, which feels like an appropriate place to be given in a sense it’s my fault the thing exists. Quite what the Administrator does is still a work in progress (as one would expect), but I’m enjoying finding out as we go along! We’re also going to be running our first set of elections to the Steering Committee pretty soon, so do keep an eye out for that.

You can follow the WCC UK on Twitter and on Facebook, and we have a temporary blog where we’re posting news about events and other things of interest. The launch event was a very exciting place to start, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the journey goes now. Any suggestions or ideas that you have, please shout – the plan is to support the community, so we need to know what the community wants!

May 23, 2016

New worlds, new projects, new monsters

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:26 pm
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I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while but finding the opportunity and the words has been difficult. I’m coming through a bit of a perfect storm of conclusions – the end of being on a temporary contract, the end of working on the Seneca book manuscript, the end of teaching, the end (nearly) of exam term, the end of when I was supposed to be working at Royal Holloway. The thing about endings is that they bring beginnings with them – but these aren’t the sort of beginnings I’ve been used to. I’ve been thinking about this quite hard, because at first I assumed that my inability to think beyond the next short-term task was down to the small person – as I’ve said before, during maternity leave and the first few months back at work, I wasn’t up to anything more strenous than editing work. But there’s more to it than that.

In intellectual terms, the submission of the Seneca book (even if we still have to get through the foothills of indexing and copyediting) is a remarkably huge deal. At this point I have been working on it for eight years, in one form or another, from the original idea I suggested for my PhD and which got laughed out of court, to the germ of an idea about Seneca which I still vividly remember coming up with when walking down a summer road in Brooklyn, through the process of writing and defending the PhD, then the elongated and lengthy reiterations of editing, editing and editing some more to make the thing into a book… it’s been a long intellectual journey which has revolved around that material. To wave it off has been more of a jolt than I was expecting.

Moving onto a permanent contract marks a new phase too. I’ve spent every single year of my life up to this point thinking in terms of stages. Work to the GCSEs, to the A-levels, to the BA, to the PhD, to this short term contract, that one, and that one… there’s always been a fixed end-point around which I have structured my time and goals, particularly over the last five years. Suddenly, that’s gone. I am finding it quite difficult to adjust. (I know this is ‘my golden slippers pinch terribly’ territory, but bear with me.)

One of the immediate effects of my contract change is that I am eligible for a research sabbatical term next academic year – for those of you unfamiliar with this, the idea is that you take some time off teaching and administrative duties and focus solely on your research. In practice, all sorts of things tend to encroach on that time – but, thankfully, because nobody was planning for me to be at Royal Holloway next year, there is very little that has the potential to encroach, this year at least. So I can take the excellent advice that has been given to me by various people and think about consolidation.

What that means in practice is that I’ll be spending the summer and autumn working properly on to the next book project, which feels unbelievably daunting because the manuscript is due next year. I have to keep reminding myself that there are lots of different reasons that this book is different to the first, in terms of content and audience, and indeed the fact that I have got a lot better at writing than I was back at the start of the PhD. I’ve also been thinking about the ideas I want to explore in the new book for a while – ever since I wrote the Harryhausen piece – so I’m not starting entirely from scratch.

Yes, folks, this is finally the debut of the Monster Book. I had been planning to do this after the second Seneca book, but at the last Classical Association meeting I attended the opportunity came up to explore doing it at this stage, and I figured it would be a nice change of pace to do something reception-y that has been bouncing around in my head for a while. The book all stems from my vague dissatisfaction that there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory way of explaining the appearance of classical monsters in popular culture. The book is meant to look at the ways that the ancient monster is reimagined in popular culture, and locates it in contemporary space. I may have to come up with a System, which is a bit unnerving, but I’m sure I’ll think of something. I’ve already made a start with the conference paper I’ve just given in Poland at the excellent Chasing Mythical Beasts conference – the paper for that is going to turn into a free-standing article but it’s all grist to the mill. I’m also giving a paper at the Celtic Classics Conference which I’m hoping will be one of the earlier chapters doing some of the theoretical heavy lifting.

There are so many issues to think through here. There’s the whole glorious world of monster theory to get stuck into, not to mention the fact that monsters have got all trendy in scholarship about ancient texts and I should probably get the hang of that. There’s a wealth of popular culture to get to grips with (which means a lot of bad things to read and watch, and hopefully some gems to discover in the middle of it all). But most of all, I have to get into the mindset of doing new, fresh research again, and start generating new words and ideas. At the moment, that feels like the hardest thing of all.

April 27, 2016

On being a productive academic mother

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 12:40 pm
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I was having a conversation over e-mail with an academic of my acquaintance who has just had a child, and was wondering if I could offer her any suggestions about how I’ve managed to keep getting things done since infans was born. In all honesty, a big part of it has been the fact that I’ve not been required to do anything terribly creative – the book revisions and manuscript preparation, while chunky, haven’t really required me to put together much new material or think up fresh ideas, and there’s only so much imagination and intellectual capital you need to change the formatting of a bibliography. I am the first person to complain grumpily on Twitter about the slog of editing a passage for the dozenth time, but actually, that’s probably the level of mental demand I’ve been operating at. I’ve only started to think properly about the conference papers I’m giving this summer in the last month or so, and the effort required to put together something new has actually been quite daunting.

However, I did have a couple of other thoughts and suggestions about getting stuff done, if you choose to, and thought I’d put them here in case anyone else find them useful. The first is to accept that for the first few months, you probably won’t get anything done, especially if you’re breastfeeding on demand as I was – and that’s totally alright and as it should be. Giving oneself permission for this is really, really hard (or at least I found it so after the first few weeks), but actually, stop.

If you do have things that absolutely must get done, then naps are the way forward. If you’re lucky enough to have a baby giving you enough sleep during the night to function during the day without naps yourself, and have a baby who will go to sleep somewhere that is not on you, and for more than five minutes at a time. Sometimes babies do not seem to realise mummy needs time to reply to that research collaborator. And that is OK too. But thinking about how to use any nap time you do get strategically is key – what do you most need to do to give yourself piece of mind? It may be having a cup of tea and checking the proofs you’ve been asked to return before the end of the week; it may be washing up and tidying the kitchen so the thought of the post-lunch mess doesn’t keep you consistently on edge; it may be having a nap yourself, or a shower, or watching an episode of some mindless television. All of these things are also OK.

The only way I did get anything done during those naps was lists. Lots and lots of lists. I prioritised things that had immediate deadlines or I had already committed to (like final revisions and copyedits for articles which were more or less done), and things related to the book manuscript. I did agree to take on a short piece for a web-based outreach project, which I thought would be a good way of getting me back into the groove of generating ‘new’ words, but in retrospect I wish I’d said no to that as I did to a book review invitation – it didn’t drain away time, but it was a bit of a distraction. What worked particularly well for me was accepting that tasks which came under the heading of ‘collegiality’ – things I should do not to hold up collected volumes/editors, meeting deadlines and so on – needed to be done; the book was the massive priority, even if it was advancing a paragraph of edits at a time; and everything else could wait. Really.

So the big ‘formal’ advice I have is to push back firmly on anything related to teaching or administration, and to only let research in if there are imminent deadlines or if it is the most important project you have in hand. I was also a big fan of checking my e-mail even if only to delete or file it, as I did with about 95% of the e-mail I got during the course of my leave – the thought of coming back to an untouched inbox after even a few weeks gives me the shivers.

Some of this is, of course, down to who you are as an individual and where you are in your career, and I really don’t want to suggest that I did the ‘right’ thing. I felt particularly under pressure about the book because of being, at the time, on a three year contract and being very aware that I needed to have the book in press for job hunting. I also inevitably start feeling a bit jumpy after a few weeks if I don’t have something academic to get on with – one of the reasons that a year’s maternity leave completely off from academia would have been a really, really bad idea for me. Please don’t look at this post and assume these have to be your choices – they don’t. I recommend Rachel Moss’s thoughts about some of the choices she made in the early months, and I’ll also mention that I went back to work after just under six months of maternity leave (again, entirely my choice but under the implicit pressure of a short-term contract). I am pretty sure that if I ever do this again, I will make a different set of choices.

Since going back to work in September, I’ve also found that I think about far fewer projects than I did pre-infans. In those heady days (ahem), I could have two or three projects in various stages on the go at once, and could balance hopping between them – for instance, I often found I needed the other projects to give me something to do when the book was getting too much or had reached a pause point, and there would often be some outreach or cross-over work in there too. Now, with teaching and everything else, I think realistically I can only manage one project at a time. I was recently given the advice that with children, one should prioritise quality over quantity – and I now see why that was an excellent suggestion, if only because I cannot imagine trying to do more than one thing at once in the more strictly delineated working time I now have. This will change as infans gets older, of course, but right now that’s the reality.

Now I find myself in the slightly strange vacuum between finishing a big project and starting a big project, and not knowing quite what to do with myself… but that’s another subject for another post.

April 4, 2016

How to write a thesis conclusion

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:27 am
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One of the most popular posts on this blog is about how to write a thesis introduction. Several years later, this post serves as its companion, and explores how to write a thesis conclusion. The thoughts here cover the genre of PhD thesis and book conclusions, but the general points apply to undergraduate and MA dissertations too (as indeed do the points in my original post). Conclusions have a habit of looking suspiciously easy, particularly if you follow the structural rubric that says you tell your reader what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Up to a point, Lord Copper. The problem with this approach in any kind of writing is that it very easily generates a laundry list summarising your chapters but not really offering anything new. I think the warning sign for a conclusion is that it feels like you’re reading the final paragraph of each of your chapters in a single document. There’s a place for that sort of writing, in a thesis synopsis or an abstract, but it’s not really a conclusion.

So what does a conclusion do? Once more taking the philological turn, it should conclude. It should tie up the loose ends, bring everything together neatly – and, yes, articulate the argument one final time, just to make sure that your reader has got the point. It should leave the reader in no doubt about why what they have read is of deep intellectual significance, the contribution it has made, how it has changed how they think about your subject.

I’ve found that the most sensible way to consider what you might want to say in a conclusion is to look at your argument thematically. What ideas have emerged again and again, perhaps in different shapes? What are the big points of contact between your various chapters that then build to mean something really significant? What concepts run through your work that you didn’t highlight in your introduction because the reader wasn’t ready for them until they had read the whole thing? Thinking thematically can help you provide a synthesis rather than a summary of the thesis. I know that sounds jargony, but it’s actually a helpful distinction – you’re pulling together the threads of your argument and revealing the jumper that you have been knitting from them, rather than just pointing to various balls of wool and expecting the reader to produce the jumper themselves.

The shape and the form that the conclusion will take will differ radically from work to work. When I was writing my PhD and using a rolling synopsis, I didn’t actually include a section for the conclusion – I assumed it would sort of write itself. It did, in the end, and came to just over five pages of general observation and tying up. I made sure that I restated the big take-away point I wanted the PhD to make; pulled together some elements of the individual chapters that otherwise did not get put side-by-side but needed to be; attempted some synthesis; and mentioned some directions for future work. That worked for the PhD.

However, it didn’t work when I came to revise the PhD for the Book. In the end, I actually retitled the Conclusion – it’s now an Epilogue, just over four pages long, but working in tandem to the main text rather than doing a wrap-up. You can get away with this sort of thing in a book, and this book needed to – there’s a big question about how the case I’ve made about Stoicism and the family fits into the bigger picture of Stoic doctrine as a whole, and which I don’t think can be answered until after the final chapter. Which is why the Epilogue answers it – so sometimes conclusions are places to deal with the big methodological or argumentative concerns which for whatever reason have had to be delayed until all the relevant material has been presented to the reader. Most of the Epilogue as it stands currently handles that big question, but it’s an answer that wouldn’t make any sort of sense without the book which will come before it.

But ultimately, the biggest thing that the conclusion should do is make it absolutely clear why the idea you’ve been exploring in your research needed and warranted as many words as it did, and why your reader will never think about the subject in the same way again. They’ve read your chapters, and have the evidence. It’s the conclusion’s job to make sure that there’s no mistake about the impact that evidence has on their understanding of the world, and to leave your point ringing in their ears as they finish the final page. The form that will work best does, I think, depend a lot more on the personality of the writer in conclusions than it does in introductions – so think of it also like ending a really long, really enjoyable phone call. Finish the conversation off, but in such a way that your (silent) interlocutor has plenty to think about. After all, scholarship is a conversation – hopefully somebody will pick up where you have left off and continue the dialogue.

March 11, 2016

Future Plans

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 8:24 am
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As some of you may recall, my contract at Royal Holloway was for a three year post, scheduled to end this August. I’m delighted to be able to let you know that I have now been offered and have accepted a permenant post in the department of Classics here.

The process of getting to this stage has been a bit Byzantine and complicated, so I shan’t bore you with it, but I’m delighted. As regular readers and Twitter followers may have gathered, I enjoy teaching the students who come to us very much; I have the opportunity to teach across a range of subjects in my research area, including the languages; and I feel like I fit well with my colleagues in both research interests and general temperament. Given some conversations going on elsewhere about the pressures on female academics with children, I should also say that I feel I’m in a department which is very sympathetic to those pressures and the needs of academic parents – on the announcement of my pregnancy, I had two professors and a lecturer (all male) crowded in my office with congratulations and tales of their own children as tinies, which I treasure as a rare and precious thing (though it shouldn’t be).

As this news came in the middle of term, and we’re still not out of the teaching woods, I will be honest that the long-term effects of this still haven’t quite sunk in. The most obvious of those is that according to RHUL’s sabbatical policy, I am entitled to a sabbatical, which I’ll be taking in the autumn term – the sabbatical was confirmed a few days before the paperwork dealing with the contract change was sorted, which was mildly amusing! Of course, in the longer term this means there are all sorts of options open for collaborations with colleagues, getting the Monster Project up and running, and developing some more courses that really draw on and advance my research interests. But for now, I’ll settle for getting through term without the worry of watching the job adverts.

February 28, 2016

On impact

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:26 pm
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This post has been brewing for a while – since I took part in the Family Archive Project’s two outreach events last year, in fact. Given the emphasis that’s currently placed on impact, and how important it is in terms of the REF (or so we assume), these two events highlighted the variety of possible kinds of impact and what we actually think we’re doing when we’re doing it.

Before I say anything else, I should sing the praises of Fiona Blair, our research and administration assistant, without whom neither of these events, nor any of the focus groups we also ran as part of the Project, would have happened. She spent fantastic amounts of time putting together all the materials and props needed for the sessions, and was the brains behind quite a bit of what actually happened at the events. She also prodded me into thinking about the issues behind this post. So thank you, Fiona.

The first outreach event had always been built into the Family Archive Project – it was a workshop at the National Archives, with various academics and professional curators, sharing the findings of the project up to that point and getting conversation going around the issue of family archiving. The event showcased some fantastic projects, like the Seacroft Story and My Route, and there was some really interesting discussion around the general questions we raised. The attendees were, as I say, PLU – People Like Us, that is, with qualifications at a certain level, with an academic or professional interest in these issues, or with a personal archive that they were dealing with in a semi-professional capacity. That’s the sort of event that I usually think of when I think ‘impact’ – how to get professionals in a room to tell them things that might make a difference to how they do their jobs, so that they can then tell us how our research has changed how they’re doing things, so we can tick the impact box. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s the model of impact I feel that I default to, for better or worse.

The second outreach event was a bit more of a ‘right place, right time’ affair – we were lucky enough to be asked to put on an event as part of the University of Leeds’ participation in the Being Human festival. For this event, we set up a participation station in the Merrion Centre, a lower end shopping centre in Leeds city centre – we were located right outside the Brighthouse store. We set up three tables – one with lots of leaflets and further information, including a lecture and a small workshop we were also putting on as part of the Being Human programme; a ‘touch table’ with photo frames, books, and other objects reflecting the family archive and what might go into it; and an activity table for children where they could make a memory book, as well as sheets with colouring and an activity booklet themed around the family including a word search and other activities. We had a trunk in the middle of the tables where members of the public could submit items they had in their family archive, tangible or intangible, and it got filled up with postcards as the day progressed. (It was a freezing cold and rainy day in Leeds, and we were very grateful for the wind-shield effect we got from the prematurely erected Santa’s grotto in front of us.)

The participation station reached a very different kind of audience. Although we had a couple of banners up explaining about the project and how we were connected to the university, not many people seemed to realise that we were academics or that this was about research; we had a number of people asking if we were social workers, for instance, or whether we were offering family counselling. We had some good chats with various passers-by, and were able to highlight the resources that Leeds City Library have for researching family history. We had lots of interested children making memory books, and plenty of parents took away our colouring sheets and word searches for a rainy day.

So, where was the impact of that? What were we going to measure to report back to the assessors of how ‘effective’ the event had been? How could we count how much change we had made?

Well, I suspect that the thing I have learned as a result of helping to run these two very different events is that those are sort of the wrong questions. They’re questions focused on a particular model of outreach – the one that expects change to happen measurably at the level of professionals and policy organisations, or talks given in urban centres to a particular audience of people, where attendees will be happy to fill out questionnaires afterwards. The participation station had perhaps a couple of hundred people stroll by us or cast an eye over the banners, which may have made them think about something they weren’t otherwise thinking about – but they weren’t going to fill out a survey form and tell us that. The impact is much more difficult to track, although not necessarily smaller.

Yet the sorts of event like the participation station are crucially important, because they get the work being done at universities out into communities who may not see the relevance of it, or even realise it’s meant to be relevant for them. They get the very fact of university and research out there, although you have to find ways of telling that story that fit the context you’re telling it in. It takes the research out beyond the ‘usual suspects’ for talks and workshops and things where you book tickets in advance. The very nature of an exhibition designed to catch the interest of people having a normal Saturday is fundamentally different to the more traditional formats of ‘outreach’ event, and correspondingly more difficult to measure in terms of impact.

It may be that the greatest traceable impact that event has is giving a parent ten peaceful minutes on a rainy afternoon after they have dug out the colouring sheets that they took home from our stall. But in and of itself, that’s a worthy difference to make. So next time I start thinking about impact, I’m going to try and be a bit more aware of this distinction – surely if part of the point of sharing your research is to get it out to the people who have funded it, that includes all sections of our society.

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