Classically Inclined

September 4, 2018

On Monsters and Heroes

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:20 am
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This post originally appeared as a guest post on The Future Fire blog as part of the publicity for the Making Monsters anthology, which I have an essay in titled “Caught in Medusa’s Gaze: Why does the ancient monster survive in the modern world?” and clearly you should all go and get a copy.

As I have been thinking about the manifestations of classical monsters in the modern world, one critical thing I have learned is that they have an unhealthily co-dependent relationship with their heroes. Monsters are often ported into narratives purely for the hero to slay them; retellings of classical stories frequently take the moment at which a hero slays a monster as the story’s anchor. Perseus and Medusa, Theseus and the Minotaur, Hercules and a wide variety of supernatural fauna – although the slaughter of one by the other is predicated by the mythic tradition, they have clung to each other to survive through the centuries.

But now, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, are we starting to see monsters break out of this toxic relationship? Certainly, more classical monsters are making lives for themselves in which they distance themselves from their heroes, or where the story they have to tell decentres conflict and death. I wonder how much of this is due to a relatively recent move in representations of monsters which has started to see them as sympathetic, enticing characters. Vampires are perhaps the best example; from Anne Rice’s brooding and sensual Vampire Chronicles, the erotic horrors of The Hunger (1983), and the sparkly romance of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga, the act of being transformed into a monster has become something to be courted rather than avoided. As the balance between fear and desire has begun to shift, monsters have become more complicated, less obviously evil.

The parallel development has been that we have started to see that the heroes are less nice. For the ancients, this would not have come as a surprise – they knew Hercules was horrible to his family, that Odysseus was duplicitous and self-centred, and they talked openly about these men’s failings as much as their virtues. However, nineteenth century versions of classical myths sanitised and valorised heroes, mainly so they could work as moral exemplars for impressionable youths; as such, heroes’ violence, white supremacy and patriarchal abuses were celebrated as worthy of emulation. Looking at these heroes and their sense of self-entitlement, their belief in their own right to trample over the earth and take whatever they felt like, the injustice of their actions and the way some post-classical cultures have uncritically honoured them now makes their heroism look much less appealing.

The general question of who gets to be a hero, and what makes someone heroic, turns our gaze back to the monster – because maybe, just maybe, monsters get to be heroes as well. Again, this is part of broader patterns of reclaiming what society might consider monstrous. There is a long tradition of coding monsters, particular in Hollywood cinema, as queer, giving LGBT+ audiences the uncomfortable experience of identifying with a villain only to see them vanquished as part of a heteronormative plotline. In recent decades, the LGBT+ community has reclaimed monstrosity – just think of how much Lady Gaga means to her Little Monsters who feel alienated and marginalised because of their sexuality – and with that reclamation comes power. Power to see the monster as important and valuable in and of itself, rather than simply as a victimised adjunct to somebody else’s story.

Where does this leave classical monsters? Certainly they will always be connected to their heroes; they have been fellow travellers for centuries. But perhaps we will see, in retellings of their stories in future years, a loosening of that binding, a relaxing of the tie, a shrugging off of the conventions which claim the classical monster’s only value lies in its defeat. Perhaps, after watching the catastrophic effects of letting heroes tell us what to do, it is time to see what lessons the classical monsters can teach us.

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August 21, 2018

Next year’s teaching: Contemporary Approaches to Latin Literature

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 4:31 pm
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I have to say, I am getting really quite excited about my teaching for the coming academic year. I have the first year Roman Literature survey again (in the autumn this year, to avoid overload on a colleague), and I am doing Latin Language and Reading with a text I know (Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae) and one I don’t (Plautus’ Amphitryo). But what I’m really very excited about, and getting more so the more I plan, is our new third year course, Contemporary Approaches to Latin Literature.

A little background. We have introduced this course with a lot of flexibility built into it. The idea is that any member of the Latin literature staff in the department can teach it, and can tailor it to their research expertise and interests. This is meant to be a cutting-edge, research-led, completely up to date module, that showcases the work of staff in the department but also advances our research by letting us work on this stuff with our students. The course is taught in translation, so it’s open to anyone in the department. It’s designed to be taught solo (as I’m doing this year) or as a team, depending on who’s about and how we’re feeling, and it’s the first step towards a redesign of our Latin literature provision in the department following the welcome addition of Dr. Chomse to me and Dr. Spentzou last year. Between us we make up 1.9FTE staff; we also offer some really quite butt-kicking feminist takes on Roman literature, and we wanted to find a way to make that integral to our teaching and to support our research.

Our Cunning Plan was to split Contemporary Approaches into four lenses or perspectives: feminism and intersectionality; subjectivity and space; the sublime and the monstrous; and the politics and aesthetics of the reception of classics. We each have areas of our research which can speak to each perspective, or we can share out the mini-units as we feel like it. The last perspective is also designed to be a taster of what students might do in our MRes in Classical Reception, as with such limited resources we can’t stretch to offering to a dedicated reception module (plus we all do reception as part of our research, so it makes sense to have it there). As I say, this year the module is mine, all mine; the library’s request for a reading list by the end of August means I’ve had to focus on what I want them to have on hand in terms of resources, which in turn has meant thinking about what ground I want to cover and putting together a skeleton syllabus. (Fleshing out said syllabus is on the to-do list for September.)

The really brilliant bit is that this module should let third year students engage with (shock horror) actual theory and work out how it might be a way of opening up and understanding Roman literature. I’ve already worked out that there seems to be a bit of a hole in theoretical explanations of classics and feminism from the last ten years or so – loads of people doing feminist literary interpretation, of course, but less in the way of talking about how in a way that might be accessible to an undergraduate audience. Which is interesting. Plus the fact that I’m taking us to the monster studies zone means that I’m already pushing the boundaries in a field where… not a lot of people are pushing this stuff. So I’m going to have to tell students ‘there isn’t this stuff in the library, because it hasn’t been written yet, because I am in the middle of writing it’.

It has been so much fun to look at my current projects in the pipeline and work out which ones coincide best with what I’m working on and what I want students to read and how I’m going to get them talking about the underlying issues and approaches. The module is being assessed by coursework (two long essays plus a formative reflections journal assessment that, erm, I have to write guidelines for), which means there’s no teaching to the exam; I’m really hoping that will encourage students to dig into what they can do with these texts.

There are some ideas I’ve had to put to one side. Despite the fact that it would be fabulous to put Plautus’ Mostellaria and Seneca’s Thyestes next to each other to get a pair of haunted houses, I teach the Thyestes in the first year literature survey, so have had to reluctantly abandon that idea as I have enough on my hands this year without reworking that again. There are, however, enough really interesting pairings of ancient texts and modern theoretical takes that I think it’s going to be a really rewarding course, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of it. Oh, and I get to teach Hail, Caesar! (2016), so that’s a definite win.

August 8, 2018

Classics (and me) at Nine Worlds!

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:30 am
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This is slightly short notice, but better late than never – I’m going to be at Nine Worlds in London this weekend!

More specifically, I’m going to be at Nine Worlds on Saturday, and you can listen to me geek out about Hercules and Xena:

Classical Reception in Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
11.45am-12.45pm

In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings, a land in turmoil cried out for a hero – two heroes, to be precise. Classicists Liz Gloyn, Juliette Harrisson and Nick Lowe unpick the wild, weird, and wonderful workings of classical antiquity in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. Come with us to a time of myth and legend, when the ancient gods were petty and cruel – and monsters, muscles, and martial arts were brought to bear on the deconstruction of patriarchal canons and the decolonisation of foundational narratives of the west.

You may have already guessed that this is an offshoot of the Monster Book, because it is, but it’s also a chance to talk about how classical reception works in the Xenaverse, which has had such long cultural reach since its creation in loads of really unexpected ways.

It is also part of my on-going sneaky attempt to create an unofficial classics track at Nine Worlds; we’ve not quite managed last year’s critical mass, but you might also be interested in:

I have left this post a leeetle bit late as today is the last day to buy tickets, but I’m looking forward to seeing some of you there!

Edit: as pointed out in the comments, tickets will be available on the door as well – so don’t let a last-minute opportunity pass you by if it fits your schedule!

July 31, 2018

On writing 2000 words a week

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:13 pm
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This post, part of my general attempting to unwind from the experience of writing the Monster book at speed, is inspired by a long-ago request from Laura Varnam on Twitter (which she may now have well forgotten!) about a period when I was setting myself of writing the goal of two thousand words a week. She wanted to know why I ended up taking that approach and how it worked – and I admit, it’s not exactly the sort of thing that I’d recommend to most people for most projects.

I came to the ‘two thousand words a week’ approach at the end of summer 2017, when I had a May 2018 deadline for delivering my book manuscript. (You’ll note I didn’t quite make that, but never mind, that was the plan.) I had five chapters in draft and was starting to write chapter six, and was wondering how on earth I was going to make it up to a manuscript of 85k words in time… so I sat down and did some maths and thought about process. I knew I wanted to have a completed draft by Christmas, if at all possible, so I could send it to friendly readers and work on first round revisions myself, and have a chance to work in changes by the May deadline or as close as possible to it. I reckoned I wanted to get to about 80% of my word count to be ‘happy’ with the manuscript length, allowing for edits inevitably making the thing longer and for things like the bibliography, the introduction and conclusion and so on. To get there, I needed to be writing 2000 words a week.

So I did. Which sounds… well, simpler than it was, but I should note that by this point I was writing up thoughts on Xena: Warrior Princess and Doctor Who, before moving on to two case study chapters where the main point was working through receptions and plotting how they all worked together. The writing fell into manageable chunks quite easily, either in terms of episode-by-episode or case study by case study, which meant having it all together in my head was less of a problem than trying to write ten thousand connected words for an article would have been at that speed. It took a while to get up into gear for the writing; roughly half of the weeks, two thousand words didn’t happen, although I usually managed to bank somewhere over a thousand which was still great progress, particularly during term. Equally, when I had planned to be winding down at Christmas with 80% of my word count in the bag, I found myself actually there but with a whole chapter still to write! So I kept up the 2k a week word goal until the middle of February, when there was a full manuscript (bar introduction and conclusion). There was a lot of writing at home; there was a lot of writing on the train during the commute. I got surprisingly good at that, although again I wonder how much the material made it easier than it might have otherwise been.

What did I learn about this? That I could do it, mainly. I also pushed myself far too hard to get it done and finished, and I paid a bit of a price for that, particularly around the turn of the year when pushing out those words made doing other things very hard. I should note that, in order to make those words happen, I blocked out my research day and didn’t let anything else in; I don’t think that was the problem, and indeed it’s a habit I want to make sure I don’t break. The problem was that it put me under enormous pressure to produce and move that word count along to meet my target. I’m not sure the book would be finished now without that level of discipline, and I’m pretty sure that I’d be even more frustrated with the whole process if I were still finishing off a first draft. But the drive to meet the contract deadline, given the general flexibility of academic publishing around this sort of thing, was pretty self-inflicted. Nonetheless, it’s taught me a very valuable lesson – I shan’t be signing a book contract again until I’ve got at least a half-completed manuscript under my belt!

July 27, 2018

The ending of eras

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:43 pm
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Today is a pretty huge day. I have just sent off the complete draft manuscript for the Monster Book, now under the working title of Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture.

The last fortnight or so, as I’ve worked towards this point and it’s looked increasingly likely that it would happen when I thought it would, has been surprisingly emotional. As I put everything into a single file yesterday, I found myself feeling nauseous with a fear which didn’t seem to have a particular cause; this morning, walking into the British Library reading room to check some final references, I found myself tearing up. This feels very emotionally different to sending off the manuscript of the Seneca book, perhaps because that was tied up with the completion of the PhD and rode on the waves of emotional exhaustion caused by that, perhaps because it is a hot, hot summer and I am anxious about far more in the world at large than I was when I was working on the Seneca book. (It is not a surprise that I have free-floating anxiety when the most common conversation I am having with friends at the moment is about our respective plans to stockpile medicines.)

But it is the end of an era in other ways too. Today was one of the summer meet-ups for Shut Up and British Library, a loose group of academically inclined people who get together at the BL every two or three weeks to carve out some research time in good company. I came up with the idea at the start of my sabbatical in autumn 2016, a way to make sure I still saw humans despite being on research leave. Rather than stop  at the end of my sabbatical, the group’s now become a bit of an institution; it’s contributed to the completion of a handful of articles and chapters, and a PhD dissertation – and now this book. Shut Up has always been about the Monster Book for me. I’m going to have to find something else to do.

Because another era that ends (or starts to end) here is obligations that I put myself under pre-infans. I signed the contract for this book before he was born. He has never known life without this project (although he’s been very understanding about it). One of the biggest shifts in becoming an academic parent, for me, has been a streamlining of effort – I can no longer work on more than one project at once, and having the contract has meant that finishing the Monster Book has been (from necessity as much as  from choice) the priority. Now this is off the table, I can look at my research agenda with more of a critical eye, not driven by what I’ve agreed to do for other people, thinking about what I can realistically achieve and produce, and indeed what I want to get done. It marks the change in how I order my research work-flow – a change I’ve been working up to mentally for the last few months, but now that it is here, quite an unnerving one to be facing.

Part of the reason for that change is my attempt to move towards a more sustainable work pattern. The risk of moving into mid-career is that you take along habits which are going to mean you burn out. It is not sustainable to work at the intensity of the ECR years without that taking a massive toll on you; you have to find other ways of doing things (including, for instance, establishing personal workload limits to stop yourself getting overloaded without you noticing). While doing the Monster Book has been fun, it has also been really quite intense. I went through a period of at least five months where I was writing around two thousand words per week to try and get the manuscript finished by the contracted deadline. I have written 88,000 words more or less from scratch in (very nearly precisely) two years. It’s been made easier by the fact that the material is fun to work with, and that I haven’t had to become familiar with what the nineteenth century Germans thought on this issue, but that doesn’t make this any less big. It’s been a big job. And now it’s… not there.

One of my reasons for wanting to get the manuscript sent off, besides the fact that the original 1st May delivery date is now well behind us, is that now I have the month of August empty. No conferences, no deadlines, a few research things to think about, some light teaching prep and admin to do. I’ve been pushing myself pretty hard to get to this stage – and while I’m not taking a month off, I’m looking forward very much to taking my foot off the pedal and cruising.

Phew.

June 25, 2018

Elevated to seniority

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 10:47 am
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I know I’ve been quiet here on the blog for a while – that has a lot to do with trying to finish off the monster book and the seasonal onslaught of undergraduate marking which I’ve been dealing with. I’m hoping to get back into the rhythm of a weekly post once the manuscript revisions are finished and everything’s been sent off to the publisher, but for the time being most of my spare bandwidth is going into trying to get that all finished.

However, I’m popping back to let you know some very good news which those of you who follow me on Twitter may already have picked up. I’m delighted to share that I have just been promoted to Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway!

The process of promotion at RHUL is quite straightforward but a bit opaque – you submit your application form at the end of January, and then it’s radio silence as it goes past various committees at various levels, and you patiently wait until you get told the outcome ‘by the end of June’. So on the one hand you have no idea what’s going on, but on the other at least you’ve been told not to expect to hear anything so you don’t start reading anything untoward into it. Obviously, since the preferred result has come out of the process I don’t mind the wait at all.

Some people have asked me what this means in terms of my every-day job. The answer is ‘not much’ – in order to get promoted, you have to show you are already meet the criteria for holding the position, which is what the application form is for. Basically I will keep on doing what I am doing, and by and by have another stab at moving up the titles. But right now, senior lecturer feels really rather good.

January 2, 2018

Myths & Monsters – now on Netflix

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 8:29 am
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Happy new year! I know I’ve been a bit absent from this blog, mainly because I’ve been channeling most of my energy into researching and writing the Monster Book. I’m not expecting much to change as far as that’s concerned for the next few months, but hopefully by the summer I’ll be writing a bit more regularly.

In the meantime, I’m delighted that the television series I did some interviews for as a talking head, Myths & Monsters, is now available on Netflix! Here’s the trailer:

I’ve only watched the first three episodes so far, but I’ve enjoyed them as good, accessible, interesting television with some great visuals. It’s also been quite enlightening in terms of my first go at doing television work; the series consists of six 45 minute episodes, and over the course of three interviews they must have that much footage of me on my own! So I’ve been very interested to see what’s happened in terms of taking that much material and condensing it into a programme alongside other academics and the series presenter.

Anyway, regardless of whether this looks like your cup of tea or not, I hope you are all refreshed after the break and wish you all a joyful 2018.

November 21, 2017

Why do we need monsters?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:03 am
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I almost feel I should be apologising for the radio silence over here, but I shan’t – I’m just coming out of a very busy period for my admin job at work, plus I’m teaching and trying to write two thousand words a week on the monster project, and I recently realised that while I am doing very well at not committing to more things than I have promised myself I will this year,  I seem to have agreed to do the vast majority of them this term. This means I can look forward to a summer of lying on the lawn and reading critical theory, but it does mean that my bandwidth for blogging at present is rather limited.

However! One of the things I have done is talk as part of an evening put on by the Institute of Classical Studies about ‘Why Do We Need Monsters?‘ This was great fun for a number of reasons, not least the chance to hear from other people working on monsters in one way or another, and some audience-led experimentation with making our own digital monsters (nothing like seeing where hybrids take people’s fancy). I know that a lot of people were interested in this event but weren’t able to make it, so I’m delighted to say that it was all recorded and is available on Youtube! I link to it here for your delection – enjoy. I start talking at about 40 minutes in, but you should definitely listen to the other talks if you have the time.

September 24, 2017

Teaching goals for 2017-18

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:31 pm
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I wouldn’t normally blog on a Sunday night, but I am feeling quite strongly about getting a post about this year’s teaching goals up before teaching actually starts (which is tomorrow). I didn’t do a post about this sort of thing last year because I was on sabbatical in the autumn, and in the spring was thinking more about taking on a big new administrative role. This year, I’m still focusing on that administrative role and also on finishing the Monster book (quelle surprise), but there are a couple of things I want to work on.

Inclusivity and pronouns

I have finally come around to the fact that I really should, out of simple courtesy, be giving my students an opportunity to tell me what their preferred pronouns are, and be making an effort to use them. I’m teaching two classes of about a dozen students each for the whole year, plus a half-unit which looks like it’ll have most of the first year in it in the spring; with numbers that small, on language-based courses, I can’t really excuse being rude. I am also calling myself out a bit here – I have a number of genderqueer friends who prefer to use they and their rather than he/she and his/hers, but have always waffled my hands and gone ‘oh, well, my memory is like a sieve, so if I get it wrong I’m really sorry, I don’t mean to be offensive’. While I’ll give myself a pass for forgetting this sort of thing when I was a sleep-deprived mother of an under-eighteen-month-old, at this stage it’s really turned into a rather lazy ‘this is not high on my priorities’, and that’s just not on, is it? So, as part of my general attempt to pull my own socks up, I am trying to become a bit more aware and inclusive, including mentioning my own pronoun preference when I introduce myself. It’s a small thing, but it’s an important one.

Research-led teaching

I really want to get my research and my teaching matching up a bit more this year. This should partly be achieved by teaching Latin on the Edge, our Advanced Latin Author course, which is going to look at Latin texts talking about exile; I’ll write more about that course and what I want it to do in a later blog post, but what I am doing for it is putting together an entirely new commentary on Seneca’s Ad Helviam, which I want to teach and for which there is no such commentary. I’m thinking that once it’s been through testing, I’ll see whether one of the presses that publishes this sort of thing is interested, very much as a teaching support piece rather than as a deeply scholarly commentary – the ad Helviam is a splendid text, and deserves to get out more. I’m also reworking my Roman literature first year module by dumping Livy and bringing in Valerius Maximus, which means two new lectures and a new seminar to write; I want to get into Valerius but haven’t got the time, so this is a nice way to have a think about what’s been said about him and what’s not out there in the scholarship.

Student-led seminars redux

I mentioned last year that I following Ellie Mackin Roberts’ lead and putting student-led seminars into my Latin Letters course. I’ll be using them again in Latin on the Edge, for many of the same reasons and for some different ones which I shall again relate in due course. The second years on Latin Letters will be third years in Latin on the Edge, so it will be interesting to see how they react to going through the process for the second time!

Engaging students

Or, the perennial problem of getting students into my office hours. This year, I’m not doing anything particularly innovative with my teaching methods (unless you count continuing with the student-led seminars), partly because I’ve not seen anything I fancy trying, partly because of the book, and partly because I reckon I’ve got enough on my plate with the new content. So instead I want to try and deal with another aspect of my teaching responsibilities, providing one-on-one support to students who bring me their troubles in my office hour. As most teachers will tell you, despite us explaining this is what office hours are for, turn-out is remarkably low. Always. And the students who turn up are very rarely the students who we think would benefit from some one-on-one time – it’s usually those who are already high achievers but are anxious about their performance. So we can help students get over the first boundary, but we don’t get to those lower down the achievement pyramid (or whatever it’s called). My first tactic is going to be talking more explicitly about office hours more in class – there’s an assumption there that students know what this stuff is for, which is probably wrong. But then, who knows? If anyone knows any literature on this subject, or you have things that have worked, please do shout out in the comments.

 

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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