I’ve been a bit quiet over the last few days because I was at the Cambridge 2011 Triennial conference. The Triennial happens every three years, alternates between Oxford and Cambridge, and is envisioned as the gathering of great classical minds from across the UK and, more recently, across the globe. It was a bit of a nostalgia-fest for me, as the last time I was at the Triennial was in 2005, just as the practicalities for me going to Rutgers were starting to come together; there was something pleasantly reminiscent of ring cycle composition in coming back to a Triennial after the PhD after leaving the UK for a PhD after a Triennial, if that makes sense. Mary Beard has already written on her blog about the inside mechanics of putting a do like this together, particularly the public debates, and I wanted to add a couple of thoughts as a participant.
The first of these thoughts relates to a promise I made back in my post on Stephen Brookfield’s Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, which was to use the Triennial as an opportunity to reflect on my own experiences as a learner and to use those reflections to identify my own underlying expectations about learning, which would then feed into reflection about my own teaching more broadly. However, I’m sad to say that my attempts to engage in reflection largely fell flat, at least in part because Brookfield’s book is still in a box under the care of Her Majesty’s Customs officials, so I wasn’t able to refresh my memory about useful questions to ask myself about the process. I did end up noticing how much things like the disposition of rooms, creeping worries about other things that needed to be accomplished and other such apparently irrelevant things kept on drawing my mind away from what were very interesting talks, so perhaps the reflective lesson is to make sure students have an opportunity to get properly settled in their lectures before starting to feed them information. (I’ve wanted to try out the ideas in this ProfHacker post on breathing and pedagogy for a while now, so this is a good reminder to give that a go at some point.)
However, I think one of the reasons the Triennial wasn’t a very good place for me to examine my own experience as a learner is that I was never in the position of a starting-from-scratch, frying-pan-into-the-fire novice at any point during the conference. All the talks I went to touched directly on areas where I have some expertise (which is why I went to them). I was able to engage with them, and the formal responses and discussion that followed them, with some degree of confidence in my own grasp of the subject matter. It really was an experience of discussing material with peers at a fairly high and rigorous intellectual level – absolutely great as an experience for an academic, but rather less good for analysing my experiences as a reflective learner.
What did I come away from the Triennial with? Well, with a handful of really good, solid ideas about new ways of approaching subjects that I work on, rather than a handful of glittering interesting new thoughts that (in all likelihood) wouldn’t make it out of the academic otters document. Kristina Milnor spoke very convincingly about the need to read graffiti in Pompeii as participating in literary generic conventions beyond that of ‘graffiti’, in this specific case as imitating letter salutations and forms, and what that tells us about ancient education. Joy Connolly made an intriguing case for reclaiming the category of aesthetic response when we think about Republican Roman politics and political decision making. Anthony Corbeill got me thinking about how grammatical gender influences conceptions of the gods in Latin (particularly interesting if you think how this affects Priapus, but that’s another story for another day). Yopie Prins outlined a new conceptual model of engaging with antiquity that originated in the Victorian period which she called Ladies’ Greek; this social construct provides some interesting background for Hope Mirrlees’ education and social context. And finally, Emily Gowers offered a new way of reading Maecenas as a key to the messy centre of Augustan culture, relying partly on some passages of Seneca’s letters that for various reasons I’ve relied upon quite heavily in my thesis.
So I’ve come away with concrete ideas which I will hopefully be able to incorporate into my own work. I’ve also come away after a pleasant week of socialising with mainly British-based classicists, and meeting various people who belong to my peer group in this country. I know that this year’s Triennial took some risks and experimented with the format of the conference to create an atmosphere for high-level intellectual discussion and engagement with other scholars – and as far as I’m concerned, the risk paid off.