Classically Inclined

May 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

April 8, 2015

Posted Elsewhere – A very modern family archive

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

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

March 16, 2015

Why calling Seneca a hypocrite isn’t very helpful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 10, 2015

Classics and sci fi – some initial thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

March 7, 2015

Posted Elsewhere – Family archives and the Romans

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

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

March 2, 2015

On disliking conclusions

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

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

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

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

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 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.

(more…)

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.

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