Classically Inclined

February 9, 2015

Classics and the new faces of feminism sandpit

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:01 am
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On Saturday 31st January, I spent the day at Senate House in London attending the Classics and the New Faces of Feminism sandpit, organised by my RHUL colleague Efi Spentzou and Genevieve Liveley from Bristol. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have been very aware of this because I was livetweeting the event, using the hashtag #classfem – thanks to the marvellous Lucy Jackson, the various livetweeters have been gathered together into this ‘ere Storify, so if you weren’t able to make it, you can catch up on what went on. I was there to chair the panel on Classics, feminism and pedagogy (which given my recent outing with Cloelia felt very appropriate), but there were all sorts of other reasons that this event felt timely – not least, of course, that of entering the third trimester of my first pregnancy, and wondering how that is going to affect my future.

The reason this post has taken this long to appear is because it’s taken me this long to catch up with myself! It was an incredibly stimulating day, and my heartfelt thanks go out to Efi and Genevieve for organising it. The downside, of course, is that I spent most of Sunday half-asleep, and it’s taken until now to get myself on top of ‘normal’ jobs to have five minutes to write about the experience – but again, that’s one of the effects of doing a full-on extra work day in the third trimester, and a price I don’t begrudge in the slightest.

Some observations. First of all, the atmosphere was amazing. I’ve personally experienced the kind of buzz and enthusiasm in the room before – but that was at Feminism and Classics conferences, not on UK soil (although women as classical scholars came close). The fact that such an atmosphere could exist at an academic event seemed to be something of a surprise to some attendees, particularly the very high number of graduate students in attendance. The mood was also largely shaped by a very constructive and nurturing approach. Not that you could get away with saying anything (for instance, there was some lively debate about waves of feminism and which, if any, participants identified with), but the general mood was one of building connections and offering support. For instance, in the sandpit discussion section of the pedagogy panel, some grad students who were facing teaching for the first time next academic year aired their nerves about teaching potentially difficult and sensitive subjects – and had an entire room of more experienced teachers respond with advice, strategies and general cheerleading.

That buzz was partly generated by the international flavour of the day. The last panel on the program was to publicise the Eugesta network, and to encourage participants to engage with its events and submit to its journal. This meant we had representatives in the room from at least the US, France, Italy and Greece. The US contingent was particularly strong, as it included people like Nancy Rabinowitz, Barbara Gold and Judith Hallett, who were all involved in the founding and early years of the WCC and as such have been critical in creating the kind of environment I found in the US as a graduate student (and for which I am eternally grateful). I suppose that this is one of the so-far unsung benefits of globalisation – while there are still local or regional conditions which will only affect academics in a particular geographic area, there are wider issues of feminist practice, research and pedagogy where we can learn from each other’s distinct cultures and build cooperation for the future. The Eugesta network is a fantastic example of this, and I hope that it continues to build connections between academics and institutions.

More than buzz, the day produced a surprising amount of energy. Energy to do things. Given that one concern raised in the early sessions was how there seemed to be a diffusion of activism around the feminist project, particularly if compared to the second wave, the thirst for suggestions of what action we might take was palpable. Suggestions for action came in both little and big forms – deliberately choosing translations by women for classes and hand-outs; seeking to act collaboratively rather than competitively with women colleagues; seeking out international collaboration; using classical material to address contemporary issues like rape culture and as a tool for social justice; seeing ourselves as intersectional and thus tackling the problem that classics still has with supporting non-white students and academics; continuing to engage with feminist theory as it develops; reshaping the reception canon so that women’s writing won’t need to be reclaimed in future; and reconsidering where feminism happens on our course syllabi and in our students’ degree paths. There was something there for people at every career stage, both in terms of practical action in the coming weeks and months, and in aspirational or strategic terms.

One of the massive things for me to come out of the sandpit is the final push to do something that I will either be very proud of or profoundly regret, and quite possibly both. At the last Feminism and Classics conference, I expressed a desire for a body similar to the WCC in the UK. In my head, as I realised on Saturday, I had conceptualised this as something that I would do, as a sole heroic individual (hello, ivory tower model of scholarship), and that it would thus have to wait until I had the stability of a permanent position. At the sandpit, I mentioned this idea again – and was gently shocked by the level of enthusiasm and support for it. So I’m now starting to make some moves towards getting this actually set up and going, which is both terrifying and exciting. On the plus side, I do at least know that I can’t afford to overcommit myself – the impending arrival of a small infant rather precludes that – so while I can do some of the initial work in getting the ball rolling, I have an in-built reminder that I can’t take on too much. This, too, is quite important – there’s such a tendency for labour to land on those in the least stable conditions (PhD students, ECRs on fixed term contracts, independent researchers to name but a few), and I’m very keen to try to structure things so that we don’t end up with one or two of the usual suspects being overburdened.

But this is all in the future. For the time being, I’m delighted to have discovered the amount of enthusiasm and positivity around feminism within UK classics that was on show from all career stages at the sandpit, and I sincerely hope that this is only the beginning of things to come.


12th January: Now crossposted to the Arts and Humanities in Higher Education blog.

November 25, 2014

Book review: The Ancient Curse – Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 4:21 pm
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I understand Manfredi has written a number of classically-inspired works; this is the first I have read. It roams a little outside the usual realm of these things, because it decides to play not with the Romans but with the Etruscans, the civilization which preceded the Romans to the north of their city. The Etruscans are notoriously tricky to get a handle on, not least because reading Etruscan is a nightmare (helped mainly by texts written in parallel with Latin versions), and very little of it has survived. Manfredi builds his story on an actual bit of Etruscan culture, a thing called a Phersu which appears most famously in a tomb painting from the so-called Tomb of the Augurs. (If you’re interested, there’s a recent article about the state of Phersu research freely available here, and some reasonable photos of the frescos here.) Manfredi does not restrict himself to the scholarly consensus (or whatever its condition was in 2001 when the book first appeared); instead, he takes the nuggets of scholarly work and builds up a story that suits himself – one which he can then use to build up a plot that mixes supernatural terror with a police procedural murder whodunit. The Ombra Della Sera statue also plays a significant role in unravelling the mystery of what happened centuries ago and how it is connected to a modern case of tomb robbery.

I will freely admit that the Etruscans are not my home turf and so I can’t really comment on Manfredi’s manipulation of the ancient sources. However, a couple of things stand out. The first is the way Manfredi makes the fragmentary knowledge of the Etruscans a feature rather than a bug – part of the problem faced by his investigators is that they know so little of Etruscan culture, heritage and language that they are often groping in the dark for hypotheses. Yet at the same time, Manfredi’s authorial voice allows him to claim knowledge of what Etruscan life was really like, particularly in a flash-back at the end of the novel to the events which ended in the tomb around which the plot revolves. There’s an interesting interplay between the supposed ‘lost’ world of the Etruscans, the contemporary characters’ lack of knowledge about it, and the author’s imaginative reconstruction of what fills in the gaps. It’s actually a really nice illustration of why fiction can help us think about academic subjects with a freedom that we don’t have in rigorously formal academic writing (although obviously the usefulness of that depends on how much attention is paid to the things that academics think can’t be ignored, but that’s by the by).


October 20, 2014

New edition of Cloelia out now!

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:08 pm
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You may remember that I have been acting as co-editor for the 2014 edition of Cloelia, the annual newsletter of the Women’s Classical Caucus. I’m delighted to announce that the 2014 edition is now out – click here for the official blog post and to download a PDF of the final product!

I have to say that I’m absolutely delighted with how the edition has turned out. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes work to get the volume into shape, and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of documents between me and Alison, Cloelia‘s fearless editor, over the last few weeks to get it into this format, and it’s good to see the hard work pay off. More generally, I’m very proud of the collection of articles that the issue pulls together on a variety of topics concerning feminist pedagogy, particularly language pedagogy. There’s some great stuff in there, as well as some interesting insights from the survey we ran earlier in the year, and I hope that other teachers find the articles interesting and inspirational as well. It’s been great fun to pull together, and with any luck it will be of use and interest to many of its readers.

August 11, 2014

Film review: Hercules (2014)

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:32 am
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We’re quite fond of Dwayne Johnson in our house. He’s got good form on historical-ish fantasy films (see The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King), plus he played a tooth fairy opposite Julie Andrews – what’s not to like? So we were looking forward to the new Hercules – Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell as Autolycus and John Hurt as Lord Cotys basically have far too much fun chewing the scenery, which is in and of itself utterly glorious. It’s a film that’s having fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which immediately makes it more enjoyable to watch. But I’ve watched plenty of atrocious cinema in the name of classical reception in my time – so why did this not only feel like a more fun viewing experience than Immortals, but also a more successful one from the classical reception perspective?

One thing strongly in its favour is its choice of theme. Some recent films have got, frankly, a bit overawed with the idea of Family as a unifying concept for classical reception films, normally in terms of sorting out questions of Male Identity and Man’s Place In This World, and it gets a bit superficial after a while. (I wrote about this a bit in terms of the Clash of the Titans remake if you’re interested – link to PDF.) Hercules couldn’t care less – we’re not dealing with an identity crisis here, or at least, not one that springs out of a contested identity. What the movie is far more interested in are questions of deception and appearance – how do we know what is true? How do we know what really happened?

This attitude first reveals itself in a wonderful meta-awareness of how ancient myth actually worked, and allows the movie to wear that heritage lightly. Hercules, it turns out, isn’t a one-man show – he comes with a team. One of that team is his nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), whose job is to sing the tales of Hercules and thus put fear into his enemies. Except the tales he sings are, shall we say, massaged. They are explicitly not the truth. In them, Hercules becomes the son of Zeus rather than an orphan; he alone slays fantastic enemies, without the help of his team; his skin becomes invulnerable and his lion skin becomes impenetrable. We see the creation of a myth happen in front of us, but as a deliberate choice on the part of the characters who are mainly interested in getting the next paid commission – which is easier if you have good PR. Sure, Hercules is strong and performs feats of strength, but isn’t it more sellable if he’s also a son of Zeus? That lightness of touch means the ‘myth is all created, innit’ feels freer than, for instance, Immortals‘ rather clunky True Origins of the Minotaur story.


July 21, 2014

The vexed question of the departmental photocopier, circa 1903

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:45 pm
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One of the things I discovered when I was traipsing through the Newnham College archives, more specifically through the minutes of the Education Committee, was a set of exchanges that demonstrated how very little changes in academia. These days, it’s quite common for departments to debate what to do about the departmental photocopier – can we afford a new one? If we can, are we going to get one of those whizzy ones that can scan, and if so, how whizzy do we want to go? Most importantly, who is going to understand how to work the blessed thing once we’ve got it?

The women on the staff of Newnham College in 1903 did not need to worry about creating PDFs and having paperless offices, but they did have produce printed material for various teaching purposes – the classicists, for instance, needed stocks of passages for translation from English into Latin and Greek, as well as ‘fair copies’ of what the passage could look like for students to consult after they had made their own attempts. Given the problems we moderns encounter in setting Greek font, I can only imagine the trouble that my foremothers had. It’s quite telling that in one of Winnie Seebohm’s letters home in October 1885, she mentions that Edith Sharpley was “teaching a printer-boy Greek, so that he can set up Greek types and so gain a higher salary” – I suspect that Edith’s motives may have been driven by a touch of self-interest so she had somebody she could rely on to produce the materials she needed.


May 29, 2014

Lily Allen’s Imperial Ambitions

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:52 am
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Lily AllenFor the last couple of weeks, when I’ve jumped out of the tube on my commute into work, I’ve been greeted by the poster which I’ve photographed here. I should point out that I know very little about Lily Allen’s music, and have no particular interest in commenting on it, but here was a really interesting use of Latin that I wanted to mull over.

The Latin in question is, as you will see, the motto Divide Et Impera, or ‘Divide And Rule’. Grammatically, three points occur. First, it’s a convenient fact that divide and the English divide look the same, so that anyone without a Latin background will probably get the general ‘divide and conquer’ gist.  Second, divide and impera are in the singular imperative – that is, they are only ordering one person to do something (and, it has to be said, ordering them very directly rather than politely using the hortatory subjunctive, but that’s less by the by). Third, both divide and impera are transitive verbs – that is, they take direct objects, things to be divided and conquered. Those things are not specified here. So the grammar of the motto leaves us asking who is being ordered, and what is to be divided and conquered?


May 20, 2014

Julian Anderson’s Thebans at the ENO

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:27 pm
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Anyone thinking that classical reception has had its day in anything except cheesy cinema should take a look at Julian Anderson’s new opera Thebans, having its premier run at the English National Opera at the moment. Regular readers will know that there is quite a lot of classical reception knocking around in opera, so Anderson is following a well-established inspirational route (as indeed was Harrison Birtwhistle). It was very exciting to be in the audience for one of the earliest performances a couple of weeks ago – but, as you might have gathered, I have some thoughts on how this material was used and put together. I don’t have a great deal to say about the musical side, but here are a couple of reviews which do just that.

Anderson had set himself quite an ambitious task in getting the three Theban plays into one opera, and has fiddled around with the order – he starts with Oedipus Rex, going to Antigone for the second act, and Oedipus Colonus for the finale. Anderson argues in his program notes that his reason for doing this was to create more dramatic unity. Each act begins with a chronological subtitle (‘past’, ‘future’ and ‘present’) so we know where we are in the arc; this adds to a sense of inevitability about the plot’s movement, but does take a bit of the bite out of the bleak dead end which closes Antigone. In order to get everything in, Anderson has also done some rigorous pruning – Oedipus Rex takes up the hour or so of the first act, but Antigone is given twenty minutes, and Oedipus at Colonus has half an hour. Again, this is probably favourable to slavishly following the structure of the originals, especially since they were not originally written as a trilogy. However, those choices to cut have consequences.

At first, I was quite keen on the Antigone being trimmed that much – I think it’s a difficult play to produce well, because the plot’s reliance on an audience understanding the tension between honouring your state and honouring your gods tends to flummox modern directors (see my thoughts on the National’s recent Antigone). However, the problem that Anderson’s trimming of the play creates is that Antigone herself is more or less side-lined – her great agon with Creon is all but gone, and instead the emphasis lies on the relationship between Creon and his son Haemon. Antigone’s probing challenge to the state is replaced by Creon’s suffering at his calamitous parenting; Antigone’s death becomes tragic because of the action it causes for Haemon rather than her sacrifice and commitment to principles. She also becomes almost silent. As you may imagine, I have Issues with adaptations that silence women’s voices, particularly those from the ancient world (even if they are voices enacted by men).


May 12, 2014

Classical reception at Eurovision 2014

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:55 am
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As anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, I spent Saturday night curled up in front of Eurovision. Because, frankly, we finally have a proper television, and I am fully in favour of anything that lets me watch great big showcase cheesiness. Of course, the problem with watching anything this pop-culture-y is that there is a fair chance that something related to classical reception will turn up on the screen, and my wee analytical brain will jump into action.

This year, the most sustained offering came from Italy:

This is La Mia Città performed by Emma Marrone. If you look at a translation of the lyrics, you will see it is a paean to modern city living, presumably in Rome – commuting, finding a parking space, urban narcissism, getting high heels stuck in manhole covers, the lot. Fine. However, the costume stylists clearly decided that urban commuter was not a look they were going for this season, so they tapped into the ancestral heritage of the country instead. Emma is given a marvellous white tunic with gold spangling that looks, certainly from the waist up, very reminiscent of a Roman military breastplate; a big white cape with a rather nice jewelled neck clasp, just in case we weren’t getting the military allusion, particularly at the start of the sequence; and a golden laurel wreath in her hair, the symbol of the military victor and holder of imperium. In fact, the whole band get to have golden laurels, even the keytar player. (I couldn’t get a good enough look at Emma’s shoes in the footage to establish their design beyond the fact they have very high heels, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some element of sandal straps in there.)

However, as far as classical reception goes, that’s it. From what I could see in the footage of the big stage screens, no ancient imagery turns up, although there were one or two glyphs that you might have argued were vaguely ancient if you felt like pushing it, and a bit of circling Greek keys pattern. The lyrics had no particular classical interest; they don’t even specify that the city under discussion is Rome, clearly aiming to have general appeal for metropolitan voters. The staging was not particularly interesting and didn’t make any use of the classical possibilities – the band stood still whilst Emma strode around (a time-honoured Eurovision pattern). Which raises the question – why bother going classical in the first place?

It’s not as if you can’t use classical reception in a really interesting way in musical performances – Madonna’s Superbowl half-time show in 2012 showed us that it’s possible to take the theme and do conceptually clever and witty things with it. Unfortunately, Italy this year haven’t gone in that direction. Instead, they’ve chosen to essentially run with a stripped-down basic visual semantics that says ‘ancient Roman imperialism’ that we’re all just supposed to get. Apart from a few suggestions that Emma was channelling She-Ra, in the main all the responses on Twitter seem to have happily gone along with it. Nobody’s saying ‘what the hell? Why? What does this mean? What are we meant to make of this visual combination of white and gold? What’s with the head-pieces?’ – because everybody knows how to read this stuff.

Sadly, the Italian team didn’t decide to do anything beyond telling us they know their own heritage, and know we know it. The only possible interpretation I can come up with is that it was a subliminal attempt to influence the voters at home by suggesting that the group had authority over Eurovision and were the only possible victors – not an angle supported either by the song or the staging. A wasted opportunity, methinks.


April 25, 2014

The Classical Association Conference 2014 – Nottingham

Filed under: Uncategorized — lizgloyn @ 9:49 am
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Last week classicists from around the country were hosted by the University of Nottingham for the annual Classical Association conference; long-time readers may remember my conference report from the 2012 event. I had been referring in jest to my break in sunny Nottingham, but the weather took me at my word – we had glorious sunshine, and were able to enjoy the beauties of University Park campus, including a wonderful lake for strolling around. For the academic side of things, those of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen that the hashtag #CA14 was getting good traffic, and not just from me – we’ve been praised from many different quarters for the quality of our livetweeting. (This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that on Wednesday evening I decided we probably needed a livetweeting protocol, and lo, by Friday we had a livetweeting protocol.)

From a social point of view, the difference between my 2012 experience and last week’s was huge. It seemed I could hardly turn a corner without seeing somebody I wanted to say hello to, somebody whose work I knew and I wanted to introduce myself to, somebody I’d heard speak, somebody I’d sat with during dinner, somebody I knew from the States… it felt good to feel as if I have now got enough of a UK network to be able to feel as if three and a half days isn’t enough to talk to all the interesting people I know. There was also a good chance to meet new people, created by the CA’s policy of sitting everyone on communal tables for dinner; you can sit with friends on one side and new friends on the other, which is a great way of breaking down all sorts of unhelpful hierarchies. Nobody can think about hierarchies while there is dessert on offer.

And what of the academic side? (more…)

March 13, 2014

Cloelia and Feminist Language Pedagogy – A Survey

As some of you will have picked up on Twitter, I am acting as the guest editor for the forthcoming edition of Cloelia, the magazine of the Women’s Classical Caucus. Even though I’m not based in the US any more, I still have extremely warm feelings for the WCC as a place where intellectually like-minded scholars can come together and discuss both research and professional issues experienced by women in the academy. In fact, I’m starting to think that a project to start in the next couple of the years is setting up a UK equivalent of the WCC, not least because it would be great to have a UK equivalent of Feminism & Classics as a semi-regular feature in the conference schedule. That, however, is another story and quite a long way down the road, but expect me to keep on making murmurings about it until I have time to apply for the grant.

As I was saying, I’m acting as the guest editor for Cloelia, and the theme of this year’s magazine is pedagogy. Specifically, I’ve suggested that we focus on ancient language pedagogy – one of those areas that I’ve discovered from my teaching experience this year is perhaps rather less well covered than it might be. I thought Cloelia would be a great venue to pull together best practice, find out what’s going on in a range of departments, and hopefully get a sense of the ways in which the WCC and its members might support each other in this valuable enterprise.

This post is basically a rather long-winded invitation for those of you who are teaching the ancient languages in your day job, either at the university or the secondary level, to fill out the 2014 Cloelia survey on pedagogy. I’ve put it together with the permanent editor, Alison Jeppesen-Wigelsworth, as a way to collect information and experiences from those of us at the linguistic coalface; the results will be published in the 2014 edition of Cloelia, which will also be freely available on the web. We’ve already had some really interesting responses, but we’d like more! So if you are an ancient language teacher or you know ancient language teachers, please take a minute to fill in the survey or ask them to do so. We’d really appreciate your input, and it will help us get a better sense of what we as a profession are actually doing when it comes to this area of our teaching.

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