Classically Inclined

September 5, 2017

On my current writing praxis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:45 pm
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I’ve been talking on Twitter recently about my writing practice, and as it seems to be of interest I thought I’d do a blog explaining what I do, why I do it, and a bit about how my practice has changed over time.

The first thing I should say is that by nature, I’m a sprint writer. I have reading phases and writing phases – when my head is down to write, I write, and when I’m gathering material, I read. I put this down to doing my B.A. at Cambridge, where you would have to churn out four sides of single-sided A4 essay in 12pt font each week, and there wasn’t scope to do much in the way of extensive redrafting. During my PhD work, I adapted this into a pretty simple word goal for writing days, which I still use – a 250 word limit (which I can reach even if every word feels like blood from a stone), and a 1,000 word goal, which is the point where I can stop and pat myself on my back if I feel like it, or keep going if I still have things to say.

I observe this limit daily on what I think of my writing days. It’s really important not to confuse generating new words with the process of academic writing, and I don’t; when I’m in this mode, the process of deleting words and rewriting material is classified as an editing day rather than a writing day. Word count is purely for writing days, for the days when I generate the bulk of what I’m going to say.

I’m in the middle of a bit of a change to this at the moment, because of the requirements of the Monster book. I have worked out that in order to get a full-ish draft by Christmas, I need to be writing 2,000 words a week. That’s not impossible – far from it – but it does mean taking a rather different approach to this whole writing thing, and thinking in terms of a few hundred words here and there over a much more sustained period of time rather than a fortnight’s sprint to generate the original rough material. I’m not sure that this suits me particularly, certainly in terms of shorter form work, but it’s what I need to be doing at the moment and so I shall crack on with it. We’ll also see whether this new routine survives the realities of term that are soon going to be bearing down upon it!

Once I have the draft put together, then I get rather old-fashioned. I print out everything, read through it, and mark up edits with a red pen. This might involve crossing out paragraphs, moving them around, inserting arrows with ‘WRITE MORE ABOUT THIS’ in appropriate places… but the draft then becomes my road map for the editing phase as I work through the mark-ups, making the changes as I go. In this phase, rather than judging by words, I judge by pages of edits completed – so three pages, eight pages per day needed to make sure things get tidied up and sorted. Once I’ve done that, I may go through it again, or I may start to work at edits suggested by other people, or I may send the revised version off to someone else for their comments. After that, it’s back to a new copy of the document, a new set of red pen marks, and off we go again around the merrygoround.

I think it’s quite important to note that this really is a process of finding what works for you, and evolving your practice as you go. For instance, I never thought that I’d become a weekly word target writer, or that I’d do research alongside my writing in the way I am doing now, but it’s the only feasible way for me to get this project completed by the deadline. I expect I won’t stick with this way of doing things once that deadline is met, but I’m grateful for the flexibility of mind that made me consider what I might do to make this happen when the thought of doing it my usual way made me despair.

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August 23, 2017

New publication: At Home with the Stoics

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:12 pm
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Front cover of History Today, August 2017 issue.

The front cover!

I’m really excited to share that I have an article out in the September issue of History Today magazine! The article is called ‘At Home With The Stoics’, and draws on the research that went into my book on Seneca and the ethics of the family.

I was particularly excited about this piece because of the publication venue. The Ethics of the Family in Seneca is, putting it bluntly, a very academic book, written with a lot of jargon and in a particular writing style; while I do try to write clearly, I will be the first to admit that it’s not the most accessible form of writing. It’s also not the most accessible form of publishing; although you can purchase a copy for your Kindle, the £70+ price tag may well be a considerable obstacle, as may be the investment of time needed to work through the book. For someone with a casual rather than a professional interest, that’s a pretty high bar.

So having the opportunity to share some of the highlights of my research in a much shorter form for a much wider audience was really exciting, and a great opportunity for me to come back to the research with a fresh pair of eyes. I found myself working out all sorts of things that I hadn’t paid much attention to during the process of writing the book, mainly about Seneca’s own family situation, and came up with a completely different structure to get those important ideas across. It was a really fun piece to write, and I hope that the readers of History Today enjoy reading it.

August 17, 2017

On conference papers and workload limits

Disclaimer: I am aware that there are far more important things going on in the world at the moment. I haven’t got the words to write about them, so these are the words I have.

At the start of the week, I posted on Twitter about academic work limits, in particular about how many conference papers people limit themselves to a year. I thought I’d write up the collected thoughts here, as it’s a useful thing to have in mind. As background, I was asking because for the last year, I’ve been following my own version of the guidance given in December by Helen Lovatt on managing academic workloads (which came out of our first WCC UK mid-career event). This is part of that transition from being on a temporary to a permanent contract, but also from being early career to being mid-career – one thing I’ve come to appreciate over the last year is that I simply can’t keep going at the pace I did when was a fresh-faced PhD, as it’s just not sustainable when I now know I’m looking at the long haul.

My personal version of the limits for the 2017-18 academic year looks like this:

– one book review or one book manuscript
– two articles to referee
– one external examiner role (for PhD or MPhil/MRes thesis)
– no more than three current PhD students
– two active national bodies
– one school talk per term
– one invited seminar

There’s flexibility here, of course – I currently have no PhD students, which makes being Administrator of the WCC UK doable, plus if I don’t feel an article I’m asked to referee is any good, I can just say no. Helen’s point was that in saying no to things, and knowing you’ve said yes to your ‘quota’, you ensure you have the space and time to do the stuff you actually want to do rather than these kind of activities which can become rather all-encompassing. Given that we’ve not started the 2017 academic year yet and my school talks and invited seminar are already booked up, you can see why I’m trying to plan ahead.

Helen’s original post says that she tends not to volunteer to do conferences. I can see the logic in this – I was a bit surprised, when looking at my promotion criteria, to discover that just giving a conference paper doesn’t count! (Invitations to give keynotes and seminars count. Presumably even if you turn them down.) But looking at my CV, I’ve still done quite a lot of conferences over the last year, and I thought it might be a good idea to have at least a notional limit in play for me to work with. Hence my call to Twitter.

In terms of numbers, people had a wide range of responses. Some people had no limit or policy at all. Others had one or two; Kate Cook aims for no more than two totally new papers a year, plus one or two papers based on pre-existing material, which I would have been able to sustain earlier in my career but would be out of the question now.

However, the biggest theme that came through was the issue of context and, as Syma Khalid said, judging each invitation (or opportunity) on its merits. Which raises quite an important question – how do you decide what those merits are?

In discussion with Carol Atack and Jo VanEvery, a couple of points for working out how to priorities a conference came up:

  • How long is the talk?
  • Does it relate to existing work? Does it fit with your current project or with a potential next project?
  • Will this introduce you to interesting new people or subject areas?
  • What could I feasibly write up or develop?
  • Have I got some work I want an opinion on?
  • Do I want to gain some exposure for my research?
  • Do I want to get new ideas?
  • What are my pre-existing commitments and what would this do to my workload?

Other important practical issues that were raised were whether or not you would be funded (Minx Marple, Caroline Magennis), how much travelling would be involved (Clare Maas), and whether the obligation would be compatible with childcare obligations (Helen Finch). Another factor I’m also now factoring in is whether the conference will require an overnight stay. When infans was very tiny, I did one conference in Dublin and one in Poland; there were both multi-day affairs, but I only stayed one night. I’m now of the view that while I am in principle willing to do an overnight stay, I won’t travel outside the UK to do it; I also turned down a chance to get involved with the next Celtic Classics conference because the logistics of getting to St. Andrews are such that for me to go and just have one overnight would mean I’d be doing nothing but travelling for two days, which doesn’t sound like great fun to me.

Of course, within this, you want to keep flexibility – if a really exciting CFP or invitation comes along, for instance, you don’t want to have booked yourself to total capacity and not be able to take it up. It’s a fine line between setting things in stone and being so responsive to opportunity that you never have the bandwidth to follow any one opportunity through.

So, in the end, I’ve plumped for a limit of two conferences this year. That feels about right in terms of pre-existing activity, but also in terms of what I’m willing to do – I’d much rather save an overnight trip for giving a departmental seminar somewhere, for instance, than go to a tangentially relevant conference abroad and spending most of my time in airports. Of course, these limits aren’t forever; I’ll come back to them in the future and revise them as my family and institutional obligations shift over time, as of course they will. However, I’m very grateful to Twitter for the conversation and the ideas it sparked, not least having a properly articulated sense of how to gauge an opportunity rather than going by instinct.

August 10, 2017

On the Monster book and the perils of television

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:57 pm
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We are now in the depths of August, which Andrew Adonis has decided in the spirit of university-bashing is our academic three month holiday. Needless to say, I have spent my last few weeks indulging in the hedonistic pleasures of grant application writing, preparing the next version of the postgraduate student handbook, reading draft work from my masters’ students, wrangling all the postgraduate taught admin, and other well-known indulgences of the academic labouring classes. Somehow, alongside all of that, I’ve also found time to get on with the Monster book, last written about at the end of my sabbatical.

At the end of the sabbatical, I had written two and a half chapters of the book – the first two were the theoretical heavy lifting, and the third was going to be the film chapter. I’d also written a conference paper on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, which I thought would be the starter for the fourth chapter on television. I naively assumed that I would be able to finish off the film chapter pretty quickly and move on. It turned out that this was not to be, because as I cracked on with the film chapter, it slowly became clear that this was not one chapter. It was two chapters. So into two chapters it was divided, which for lack of better reasoning I have dubbed the pre-Gladiator and post-Gladiator phase. Oh well, I thought. Surely dealing with television will be easy.

Alas, once more, this is turning out not to be the case. There are a number of problems with writing about television. The first is that you have to watch the dratted stuff. I can’t just sit down and watch selected random episodes of Hercules, as much as I would like to. My partner finds this position profoundly odd, but if I want to be able to write coherently and sensibly about the whole series, then I have to have seen the lot of it. This is doubly true for monsters – an episode recap might tell me if a monster is at the core of an episode, or perhaps even mention subsidiary rent-a-monsters who don’t get much screen-time beyond their obligatory defeat, but they won’t mention the throw-away lines of dialogue which are in and of themselves very revealing about the place that monsters are given in this rich fantasy world. So I have had to find time to watch 111 episodes of Hercules, which is over eighty hours. That’s a lot of time.

The second problem is that, contrary to my blithe and (in retrospect) daft expectations, not a lot has been done by classical reception scholars on television. Amanda Potter has done some fantastic stuff on the relationship between television and audience, but other than that, the pickings are pretty slim. (I haven’t yet looked at the new Wiley Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen, which should help a bit.) What scholarship there is tends to look at the television of the historical – HBO’s Rome, for instance, or the much-loved BBC adaptation of I, Claudius. This is all fine and good until you’re trying to put some production context in place for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and find yourself staring at the wall blankly. Thankfully, Amanda Potter put me onto the trail of Catherine Johnson’s Telefantasy, but it was a close run thing. There’s also a shockingly small amount written about Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, not just by classicists, but in general – there tends to be much more concentration on the companion spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess, mainly because that show created a particularly strong fan-base which caught the attention of nascent fan studies scholars, and has thus cemented it as a community that gets studied. Hercules? Not so much. (Please tell me in the comments if you think there is something I really must read!)

The third problem is that when you start writing about something that’s not been written about before, from a perspective that people don’t tend to think about, you have a lot to say. Which is why I’ve realised that the planned chapter on television is going to be – you guessed it – two chapters. And quite a lot of Hercules. I’ve also realised I’m going to have to be selective about what I watch of Xena, which I’m a bit cross about, but to find the hundred hours required to watch 134 episodes is just not going to happen. Plus I haven’t got the word count, to be honest. (There are also reasons that monsters matter less for Xena than they do for Hercules; I haven’t written that part yet, but trust me, it completely justifies a more selective approach.) Oh, and I want to talk about Doctor Who as well. Definitely two chapters.

In a way, this is good news, in that it’s all words towards the final manuscript total – I’m aiming to write 80% of them in the first draft, which has rubbish reference formatting and will need some tidying up on that front, and then for the remaining 20% to be introduction, prefatory material, bibliography and explanatory edits. On the other hand, it means my cheerful assumption that I knew the shape of the book when I started writing it has been neatly upended, and that the final product won’t look as I expected. Oh, and that I need to be writing about two thousand words a week to have this draft finished by Christmas, to give time for people to give me feedback and for everything to be tidied up before the contracted deadline.

I guess that’s my card marked, then…

June 22, 2017

Is the academic research seminar series still fit for purpose?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:21 am
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When I joined Royal Holloway four years ago, I was asked to take over the job of coordinating the academic research seminar and reviving it after it had fallen into abeyance (mainly as the department had had its mind on other things). I was delighted to take it on – it would mean I could write to all sorts of interesting people, I would be sending regular e-mails to the Liverpool Classicists e-mail list so my name became familiar,  and it was a research-related sort of admin task. Great. I made a point of putting the seminar in a lunchtime slot, because while I wasn’t pregnant at the time, I was very aware of the issues of family-friendly working and several colleagues had (and still have!) young children. And I got on with it.

By the time I was made permanent, and so could start thinking about what I might want to do differently, I was already feeling that the research seminar wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Yes, I invited some great speakers and got to hear some really interesting papers, but the pressures of term (teaching, meetings with other staff and students, preparation, admin that had to be completed right this minute and so on) meant that my colleagues often couldn’t make it. Our graduate students are a geographically diverse bunch, sometimes living quite a distance from campus, and found it disruptive to come in for a single hour if there wasn’t something else happening on the same day. Despite plenty of publicity, we rarely got people from other departments in the college coming along, and in three years we never had a visitor from further afield. So I started wondering what the seminar was actually trying to do.

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June 8, 2017

Book review!

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:15 am
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I am exceptionally excited that Seneca and the Ethics of the Family has had an extremely positive review from Brad Inwood on the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, which is the classics review platform of note. It is the sort of review that starts to get to grips with your actual ideas and offers some genuine thoughts about the big picture stuff, which is really the best sort of BMCR to get in my view. It’s also particularly because Brad Inwood is a really important voice in the field of Seneca studies who I hadn’t had any previous contact with – it’s great to find not only that he thinks the work has merit, but also that he’s happy to say that to the BMCR readership.

April 19, 2017

A tiny victory: Mythical Reimaginings

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:46 pm
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Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have noticed that over recent months there’s been a fair bit of content essentially saying *plotplotplot* and not much else. That’s because the project I’ve been working on has many moving parts (and keeps on developing more), is very complicated, and hasn’t had anything really concrete to share beyond ‘this is totally cool’. Until today, or, as I am thinking of it, phase one of taking over the world in a small scale sort of way.

One thing that’s been on my mind with writing the Monster Book has been impact. You might remember that I had some thoughts about what impact actually looks like as a result of the work I did on the AHRC-funding family archive project, and those have been bubbling around in my brain ever since. One of the things I did during my sabbatical this autumn was complete the free five week training course offered by Fast Track Impact in order to think through how I might build impact into the foundations of my research rather than having it something that was a bolt-on. (I thoroughly recommend the course, by the way, although it did take me more than five weeks to work through!)  As part of the reflection process, I started to realise that where I thought my research could make the most difference, outside academics who think about this sort of thing, was with creative types of people – people who create classical receptions, like video game designers and film makers and artists. I was particularly inspired by Stephen Hodkinson’s role as historical consultant in the production of the comic book series Three, which is something that seems really fruitful but I’m not aware of anyone else doing.

I thought about this. I talked about this, tentatively and nervously. And then Tony Keen said ‘have you met Howard Hardiman?’ Because Howard, as it turned out, had just had an exhibition at Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight about reimagining classical myth, and wanted to carry on working in that direction. So we touched base and had a chat, and discovered that we actually come at some of the approaches to this in very similar ways, particularly some of the political possibilities.

There’s a lot of this that’s still in the works and that may either be revealed in due course or have a veil of modesty drawn over them when they fall over, of course – but today, I am delighted to be able to share we have got some funding from the Royal Holloway Research Strategy Fund to create two new video pieces of performance poetry in British Sign Language along with text based on the stories from classical myth. There are many, many reasons that this is fantastically exciting, the biggest for me being the opportunity to feed into the artistic creation process and try out helping to shape a very new sort of medium. But there’s also the joy of being able to fund artistic creativity ethically (as in, with actual money that represents the amount of work put in), and the possibilities that this piece creates for future work, and the fact this will support Deaf artists using their first language.

Basically, I’m very, very excited. And hopefully this is only phase one – although I’ve quite a lot of work to do before the next stages…

April 3, 2017

Experimenting with student-led seminars

Term’s been over for a week or so now, and I’m just about catching up with myself and all the things I’d meant to do over term but didn’t get around to. And by ‘catching up’, I mean ‘making a list rather than just remembering them and occasionally flailing’. There are a number of things I could write about, but let’s start with the pedagogy, which has been one reason this term has been so busy – I’ve been running two new courses, which has been a lot of fun but a lot of work as well. I’ve also been trying out something new, since pedagogy only works if you keep it fresh and keep tweaking it to make it better, and I wanted to give up an update on the experiment.

Full credit should go at this point to the marvellous Ellie Mackin, who planted the seed for this project in my head back in the autumn term. At the start of November, she vlogged about her use of the student-led seminar format as part of her teaching, and in chatting about it, I started to get the germ of an idea. I’d come across the student-led seminar when reading around pedagogy, but to be honest it had never appealed – it always got sold as something to make learning student-centered, and I firmly believe in subject-centered learning, plus I couldn’t see how it would operate beneficially with the kinds of subjects I generally teach. However, one of my courses this spring has been our Advanced Latin Author unit, which this academic year has focused on Latin Letters, and I realised that this might be my chance.

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February 24, 2017

Some thoughts on Judith Butler and kin

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 7:46 pm
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I was in a packed house a few weeks ago to hear Judith Butler speak about kinship trouble in the Bacchae. I livetweeted it under the hashtag #housman and will pull have pulled together the tweets into a Storify, I suspect, but (as will probably come as little surprise) there was more about kinship as broadly defined than there was about the Bacchae – the play became the case study for, oooh, the last quarter or so of the paper, after the general ideas had been outlined and Butler had looked at some other Greek tragedies.

For those of you who haven’t come across Butler, she is a very influential thinker in the gender studies world and beyond – in particular, her Gender Trouble and Undoing Gender kind of rocked my world when I was a graduate student, not least through the notion of gender performativity (which in some ways I now take completely for granted). She has since published important things on war and grief and many other things which I haven’t read, but I do need to catch up, and indeed to return to the familiar scholarship for a refresher. It never hurts to have a reminder of the ideas you found so exciting.

I wanted to muse a little on the concept of kinship that Butler sketched, because to my surprise I found myself thinking about its applicability to the Roman world as well as the world of the Bacchae (and indeed Butler herself framed the project within the scope of a wider interest in kin in the modern world, not a purely ancient one). Starting from the anthropologists and good old Levi-Strauss, she noted that kinship is often seen and employed as a way to control and define relations, with an underlying assumption that kinship is a stable thing – you are my brother, she is my mother, he is my father, and that leads us into a series of laws and regulations that govern how we behave towards these kin, and that lay out the punishments if we disobey these laws (and thus, as usual, we come to the incest taboo, but never mind).

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January 16, 2017

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus – Tony Harrison

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:26 pm
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Last weekend I was very lucky to get to a very rare performance of Tony Harrison’s Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Finborough Theatre. I’d never heard of the Finborough before, and before I get any further in this post, the performance is running until the 28th and there are still tickets left at the time of writing.  If you can get there, do. The cast are superb.

Trackers has been performed precisely three times – once at Delphi in 1988, once at the National Theatre in 1990, and now at the Finborough. It is, as we are reminded, almost thirty years since it was last staged. You’d expect it to have aged. It hasn’t. Given the specificity of its targets, this is rather worrying.

Trackers begins with the dig of Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus, the city of the sharp-nosed fish, from whose rubbish dumps we have recovered amazing amounts of papyri and otherwise unknown texts. Grenfell is nervous and unwell, searching desperately for fragments of a lost Sophocles play which he says the god Apollo is urging him to find. He retires to his tent, overwrought – only for Apollo to possess him, and for us to segue, unexpectedly, into a satyr play of our own, with satyrs led by Silenus tracking down the play , discovering the god’s lost cattle, the baby Hermes and the discovery of the lyre. Apollo is delighted at this find, and pays off the satyrs in gold while promising that they will never have access to the sort of high art that he can now create. Having come to the end of the satyr play structure, the shift into a fearful messenger speech from Silenus about the flaying of Marsyas for daring to approach ‘high art’ is, frankly, harrowing. So is the remainder of the play, as the satyrs wander, outcast, wondering what to do, how to live, how to survive, until they end up as the homeless on the South Bank. Silenus makes a final appeal to the audience, asking if there is anyone who can help interpret the scraps of papyrus… before finding a voice and standing up on the ‘tragic’ stage, where no satyr has stood before, to shout. And curtain.

Is there a doctor…some don from Queen’s
who can tell the rest of us what all this means?

As is probably clear, Trackers is about high art and low art, about who gets to make art and who has access to it. It is also about the British class system. Apollo speaks with obvious received pronunciation, the satyrs have broad Yorkshire accents and clogs. It is also about the politics of classics, although that strand is obviously woven into the concern with class – white scholars from Oxford have access to the papyri and say what it means, the Egyptian fellaheen are the ones who actually get their hands dirty; Apollo’s high tragedy gets preserved safely while the mass culture satyr play gets dispersed into scraps; the satyrs aren’t allowed to go ‘outside’ their genre, which gets pushed down, down, down, while high art not only gets pushed up, but also becomes sanitising.

Wherever the losers and the tortured scream
the lyres will be playing the Marsyas theme.
You’ll hear the lyres playing behind locked doors
where men flay their fellows for some abstract cause.

Who gets to do classics? Who gets access to culture? Who gets the privilege? The context that generated this play, the Britain of the late 1980s with the closure of the coal mines, the rise in unemployment, the rise of the City and the fall of the working class, seems to be one reason that this play first of all didn’t get performed more, and secondly why it didn’t get performed again. But watching it last week, it still felt frighteningly contemporary and relevant – not least because of the current battleground in classical studies over whether the subject is an enabler or a limiter in terms of race and class. We know we have problems with both these fields in terms of what academic professors look like; the wider implications of the abuse of the subject are more frightening. Questions about who gets to own classics and who gets to play the lyre are, it seems, still very much up for heated debate. As they should be, given that the stakes are as high as they are.

There is, of course, the slight disconnect at a play which was only ever performed at Delphi and the National (and now the Finborough) castigating people for limiting access to things. Harrison knows his Greek drama, which is why I have come away from the performance with a much richer sense of how an ancient chorus might have worked – this production features some inspired clog-dancing sequences in hobnailed boots on board during the satyr play section which are glorious to watch. Yet for this message, this message, to be stuck inside the pages of the scripts and not to be seen, even now, unless you are one of the lucky fifty who can get a Finborough ticket on a given night or even know the Finborough exists? It feels as if there is something vaguely fitting for Trackers to be experiencing a similar fate to the fragments of the Oxyrhynchus piles, although I hope that this revival leads to it being staged much more frequently than it has been. The language alone deserves that.

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