Classically Inclined

December 22, 2011

Book review: The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller – Carlo Ginzburg

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:39 am
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You may be thinking, “worms? Cheese? Sixteenth-century millers? Isn’t this a bit outside of her normal sphere of inquiry?” In which questions you would be quite correct – I have little to no interest, professionally or personally speaking, in the theological and socio-economic landscape of the Friuli region of Italy in the 1500s. However, this book is One Of Those Books that gets mentioned a lot when you start hanging around with historians and thinking about the historical method and various methodological approaches, which I did rather a lot of at Rutgers. As a result of spending time with bad influences, one of my ongoing personal development projects is reading around theoretical texts and books that exemplify approaches towards historical and literary evidence, and getting a sense of whether the conceptual framework that other people use might be helpful for me and my work. This particular book has become emblematic of what’s called micro-history – that is, taking a very small, seemingly insignificant piece of evidence, and story telling history around it, to link it into wider narratives of historical development for the period and putting it into its proper context.

So Ginzburg has taken the transcripts of the Inquisition’s dealings with a miller, one Menocchio, who was examined twice for heresy and eventually put  to death. Ginsburg shows from the transcripts where Menocchio fits into intellectual thought and political environment of the period, using the microscopic evidence to lead the reader into the wider political and theological debates of the period. There’s quite a lot of due caution used, particularly when speculating what texts Menocchio may or may not have read, but there is also a willingness to take a speculation far enough to plug into wider social narratives if the jump seems justified. I can imagine specialists in the period disagreeing with me on this one, but overall it felt like a well-balanced mix of relying on the trial transcripts and justified speculation. I particularly liked Ginzburg’s analysis of Menocchio’s approach to reading and to the texts we know that he definitely read, what that tells us about small rural villages as communities of readers, and what we can then discover about Menocchio’s strategies of interpreting what he had read.

In terms of microhistory as a methodological technique, I don’t know quite where it would fit into the sort of work that I do, but that’s because of the contextual differences of the evidence that survives for the period versus the ancient world, and the sort of stuff I work on. I’d say that I would see this kind of approach working with the papyri from Egypt, for instance, or perhaps graffiti or other ‘casual’ writing, as opposed to the deliberately literary writing that I’m working with at the moment. But it’s good to have another conceptual approach in the toolbox should I wander in that direction in the future.

December 5, 2011

Reviewing a collected volume

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:47 am
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Writing a book review for a collected volume is a tricky and often perilous undertaking for the young book reviewer. A book by a single author allows you to concentrate on the overall argument, while a multi-authored book offers a different agenda with each chapter, and it is normally impossible to give each chapter the kind of in-depth analysis that it deserves within the review’s word count. (Plus, add the more cynical, if the book deserves a stinker of a review and you write such a review, you’ve just alienated multiple members of your profession rather than one.)

Despite knowing of the difficulties this sort of project presents, I recently finished writing a review of a collected volume of essays, a Blackwell Companion, for Scholia. I’ll let the review speak for itself when it’s eventually published, but I wanted to think a little bit about the process of writing for a Companion or Collected Volume, as it’s worth talking about effective strategies for approaching this task. There seem to be two approaches to reviewing a multi-author volume. The first is to list each chapter and make a brief comment on its content. This has the advantage of being comprehensive, but does tend to be rather dull and plodding as a form of writing (and I’ve written that kind of review before now myself). It’s also not particularly feasible for the Blackwell Companion style of book, which often has thirty plus chapters. The second approach takes a more holistic view of the volume and its stated purpose, which most volume editors will now explicitly address in the general introduction. This sort of review looks at what the volume aims to do and whether it’s managed to do it; it acknowledges that, inevitably, some contributions will be stronger than others; and it tries to sum up the nature of a book which by definition will mainly be used by people who dip in and out of it.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I tried to write the second type of review, not least because one-line summaries of 32 chapters would be incredibly dull to read and not very helpful in communicating whether the book is any good or not. For that  is the key purpose of an academic book review – to tell the reader of the review whether this volume might help them in their research. (more…)

September 23, 2011

Book review: Where Three Roads Meet – Salley Vickers

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 7:39 am
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I don’t know how many of you are aware of the Canongate Myths series of books, but if they’re not on your radar, they should be as they are pretty awesome. The editors of the series basically invite significant writers to come and ‘re-do’ a myth of their choice, which is completely in keeping with the dynamic nature of myth itself – the whole point of mythic stories was that they could be tweaked and varied and have new bits added to them and have bits taken away depending on what the story was needed for. (Hence why, for instance, so many different places claim to be the birthplace of assorted Greek heroes.) The most recent myth is A. S. Byatt’s retelling of the Ragnarok story, so myth isn’t being interpreted as being strictly ‘classical’; that said, one of the initial volumes was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which took on the Odyssey and turned it on its head to look at things through the eyes of Penelope and, in particular, the maids who Odysseus and Telemachus kill at the end of the poem.

The book I want to discuss in this post is Salley Vickers’ Where Three Roads Meet, which takes on the myth of Oedipus in a really interesting way. You can’t think of Oedipus these days without thinking of the Oedipus Complex, and thence to Doctor Freud – so Vickers grasps this inevitable nettle with both hands, and makes this a tale of Freud being told the Oedipus story by a ghostly figure, who ends up being the prophet Tiresias visiting him through a mysterious time/space travel thingummie. How the mechanics work aren’t important. What is important is the dialogue, the conversation between the two men. Vickers starts with a short precis of Freud’s life and the various crisis points that she wishes to emphasise, including various small and interesting details like Freud’s famous spearless Athena (paging Doctor Freud… oh, wait). Having set the stage, as it were, the main body of the novel takes the form of a series of dialogues, with the date of each dialogue noted at its beginning. The first takes place after the first operation Freud had for mouth cancer; the subsequent dialogues are dated when Freud has come to London and is gradually succumbing to ill health and the cancer that would eventually kill him. (more…)

August 1, 2011

Book review: The Senate of Imperial Rome – R. J. A. Talbert

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:26 am
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I have a habit of reading things that I believe will in some way benefit me in a professional capacity, whether in terms of getting me to teach better or in widening my general knowledge about classics. As part of this scheme, a while ago it seemed a good idea to run my eye down the list of books which had won the American Philological Association’s Goodwin Award of Merit, and see whether any of the books in recent years looked like the kind of thing that would reward further study.

Enter the winner for 1987, Talbert’s The Senate of Imperial Rome. The workings of imperial politics is one of those things that I sort of know something about, in that vague ‘well, obviously it involves the cursus honorum, right?’ kind of way, seeing as most of my research doesn’t rely heavily on knowing the intimate details of senatorial policy and debate. That said, this is precisely the sort of thing that my professional development reading aims to flesh out, or at least direct me towards somewhere I can refer to should this type of issue become a pressing concern in the future.

I sat down and read Talbert’s Senate from beginning to end, and I can say at once that this is probably not it was designed for. It was, at the time of writing, attempting to correct the view of the imperial senate as corrupt and degenerate, and not holding any great power against the emperor (one scents the disapproving glare of Tacitus in this picture). Talbert goes very carefully through evidence of various kinds to explain precisely how the senate functioned, who held what posts when, how the emperor changed the system from the way it had functioned in the Republic (and how he didn’t), and generally does a great survey of the nuts and bolts of how government actually functioned. I had never before actually thought about how an agenda for a meeting of the senate got put together, but thanks to Talbert, I now have a fairly shrewd idea. I also now have a new sense of the importance attached to the fact that only senators were allowed inside the curia when the senate was meeting, and the significance that should be attached to the presence of anyone else reported inside that boundary, particularly soldiers.

The fact that Talbert deals, in minute detail, with pretty much every practical aspect of the senate’s function means that he reuses pieces of evidence two or three times, which stands out when you read the book straight through; however, if used as a reference volume for someone to dip into if they are uncertain of the finer points of the various junior magistracies, this repetition ensures that the evidence they need will be right there and not only accessible after a hunt through the cross-references.

In general, I’m sure some of Talbert’s conclusions must by this point have been superceded by more recent scholarship. However, he is very good at summing up all possibilities and options for interpreting evidence, and for frankly admitting when we don’t have sufficient information to make a judgement one way or the other, which is rather refreshing. I am glad to have added this to my library of useful resources, and am sure it will be a good starting point if I need to clarify details about political practicalities.

June 17, 2011

Book review: Becoming a critically reflective teacher – Stephen D. Brookfield

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:23 am
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I’m the sort of teacher who would very much like to think that she’s reflective – I put a lot of thought into my teaching, I view it as a continually developing process rather than a fixed artefact, I like experimenting with assessments and in-class activities. You know the sort of thing (or at least, I hope you know the sort of thing). However, my attempts to keep a reflective teaching journal have, as a rule, flopped. The one I tried to keep in  my first course ever degenerated into a list of notes of things to follow up for the next class, which isn’t a bad thing per se but doesn’t exactly merit the description of ‘reflective’. The notes I kept when I knew I was going to be presenting on a particular class in the course and its content were a bit better, but I was very focused on how the course was leading up to that one key lesson, and didn’t really think about the course more broadly, or about anything unrelated to the issues I planned to discuss in the conference paper.

Brookfield’s book seemed to promise some answers to my desire to become a critically reflective teacher, and I’m glad to say that the promise was not an empty one. Brookfield’s main premise is that critically reflective teaching is better teaching. It helps us to uncover our assumptions about teaching and how the process should work; it alerts us to underlying systems of oppression in our classrooms and how they affect both our teaching and our students’ responses to us; and it helps us stay flexible, grounded and supported in what we do. Any assumption about teaching is worth challenging – that lecturing or active learning is the best thing to do in the classroom. Each assumption has its own underlying rationale, and when we understand that, we can both explain it to other people in a convincing fashion and deal with any of the problems that it poses. Brookfield gives four lenses for critical reflection – our autobiographies as learners and teachers; our students’ eyes; our colleagues’ experiences; and theoretical literature in the fields of critical pedagogy, reflective practice and adult learning and education. (more…)

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