Classically Inclined

March 31, 2015

On pregnancy, academia and antiquity

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 10:55 am
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I type this from the second day of my official maternity leave, having made it to the end of term without infans making an early appearance. The presence of infans has, of course, been getting more and more obvious over the last few weeks; I’ve been particularly aware of it while staying at on-campus accommodation during the week to make my life easier, and eating in the attached student dining hall in the evenings, although the British Library offered some equally confused expressions. I’ve been thinking about pregnant bodies in academic spaces since Rachel Moss posted about this issue at the end of February, and while I’ve been very lucky not to have encountered any directly negative responses, I’ve been very aware of getting surprised looks from people around campus as I have been going around my daily business. While these reactions do not explicitly say I should not be in the space of an HE institution, they reveal my presence there is unexpected (surely she should be on leave?), particularly in a student dining hall where many of the students may be seeing me for the first time. (A massive thank you to the catering staff and the hospitality team is in order, as they have been lovely throughout the term and looked after an increasingly pregnant academic with remarkable aplomb.)

Another academic space that I shan’t be occupying, although this is entirely self-selecting, is the upcoming Classical Association conference in Bristol. This is largely a matter of practicality – Bristol and my home are very far apart, and my due date is shortly after the conference ends. While the thought of interrupting a staid paper session with a polite request for an ambulance is fairly entertaining in the abstract, I suspect the reality would be pretty subpar. However, this raises questions about whether I would have felt comfortable attending the conference if it had fallen earlier in the pregnancy. I did actually attend a couple of conferences very early on, before anybody knew about it, let alone before there were any physical giveaways beyond me not drinking alcohol. However, I’ve not attended anything particularly formal since the academic year started, and now that conference season proper is kicking off, practicalities intervene. Yet I wonder about the presence of the pregnant female body at these gatherings, and remember the classics and feminism sandpit in January, when I felt visibly pregnant but was not necessarily registering as such to others. The visibility of the pregnancy seems to relate directly to the social acceptability of being seen in public as pregnant – even in a world where economic factors mean women are working up to as close to their due dates as they can.

I want to turn to Soranus here, who has handed down to us an excellent manual on gynaecology which tells you more than you will ever need to know about pregnancy, giving birth and early infant care in the ancient world. (As Helen King says, it’s a relief to find out that midwives were expected to keep their fingernails short.) I’ve been reading his advice for the pregnant woman through the nine months with interest – in the eighth month, for instance, he recommends that women “must take exercise only in a litter or big sedan chair, unless one desires to walk short of the point of exhaustion”, and suggests that the abdomen should be anointed “all over with a cerate containing oil made up from unripe olives and myrtle, for if the skin is toned up it does not break, but is kept unwrinkled”. Soranus, dispensing stretch mark avoidance before Bio-Oil was ever dreamt up.

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February 13, 2015

Feminism and the academy: resisting tradition in academic research

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:12 am
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When I said I had a week of feminism, starting with the sandpit, I meant it –  on Wednesday evening last week, I took part in a very exciting event at Royal Holloway titled “Feminism and the academy: resisting tradition in academic research”. You can see the program of the event here; at the request of some of the sandpit participants, I livetweeted the event, and the Storify of that is now available if you’d like a more detailed look at what the speakers said.

This was a little bit of an anxious event for me, because I’d never done the job of a ‘respondent’ before. For those of you unfamiliar with academic habits, this is where somebody is asked to give five minutes’ worth of immediate reaction to a speaker’s paper, or to a panel of papers. Sometimes people circulate the text of their paper (or what they think is the text of their paper) before the panel, which makes it a bit easier to construct a response. Wednesday’s event was a bit more flexibly organised, so while speakers pre-circulated the general topic they planned to talk on, the actual bulk of the argument was not revealed until the talk itself. On the plus side – less preparation for me. On the minus side – having to stand up and give an improvised response immediately after the speaker. No pressure, then. Thankfully, Laura Doan gave me plenty of material to bounce off about the closing and expanding gap between the past and the present, so I think I got away with my extempore observations, not least because I was able to borrow a modern example that Helen King used at the sandpit and has now written a proper blog post about, which you should all go and read. But I digress.

The event once more generated a significant amount of energy in the room, very similar to that generated at the sandpit, but with a slightly different focus – many of the attendees were members of the college’s Feminist society. You may have heard of the RHUL Feminist Society because of their Ugly Girls Club campaign, which hit the mainstream media in December last year. They’re a very active, very lively group, and it was fantastic to have so many people in attendance who were clearly interested and engaged with the issues that the speakers were raising. One thing that came through very strongly in each speaker’s talk was the connection between the personal and the political – a well-trodden feminist aphorism, but one worth returning to – in the way each speaker’s individual career embodied the conflict they encountered between the traditions of their field and the need to push beyond those conventions to achieve different kinds of goals and reveal different truths. This came home for me in particular in Lizzie Coles-Kemp’s talk, where she explored her choice to totally abandon normal information security models of the weak user, powerful attacker and infallible technology in order to explore more fluid, ambiguous and community-based models of how people interact with electronic systems. She gave both a very personal talk about her research trajectory, and a fundamental challenge to the way that research in the field was being done, seamlessly woven together.

All of which got me thinking a bit about how my work resists tradition, if indeed it does. In some ways, it resists tradition in a rather surprising way – as we discovered at the Women as Classical Scholars event, women traditionally Don’t Do Latin Prose, and yet here I am, plugging away at a book manuscript on the subject. Part of resisting tradition is resisting the tradition that women only work on certain kinds of texts, or indeed do certain kinds of work – Jackie Labbe raised this in terms of female leadership within academia, and the tendency to assume women will take on roles dealing with teaching and pastoral issues, where men will go for grant applications and research-related posts. Keeping your eyes out for the ‘service traps’ is something I’ve been told about again and again as an ECR – yet the assumed division is still there and still happily in play. The other thing about my research is that it challenges what classics has assumed it is about for centuries – that is, pure philology. Sure, I do a good bit of philology, but my work is much broader than that, incorporating lots of other evidence, and indeed challenging the idea that the only important things to discuss when looking at a text are the grammatical constructions – and not, as in the example from Ovid that Ika Willis used, the deeply problematic content. Given that yesterday was the second iteration of the Problematic Ovid Lecture, at the moment I’m feeling very aware of the need to use the traditional lens of close reading responsibly to see the whole of a text, not just the parts of it that we are pushed to value by tradition. That’s an idea I think I need to pick over a bit more, as it seems fundamentally important for all sorts of aspects of my work and teaching.

The evening was part of RHUL’s broader research theme on Society, Representation and Cultural Memory Research Theme, whose champion is classics’ own Richard Alston. Richard is pulling together a general program of events dealing with feminist research at Royal Holloway, which I’m sure will expand and grow over the coming months. While the forthcoming infant might make it a bit difficult for me to participate fully, I’m thoroughly looking forward to More of This Sort Of Thing.

June 28, 2013

Petition against privatising UK student loans

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 1:36 pm
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As Twitter and the New Statesman noticed yesterday, Danny Alexander has confirmed the government’s intention to privatise the student loan book.

There are so many things wrong with this that I can’t quite begin to articulate them, but let’s settle for the fact that there are some suggestions in a leaked memo that the interest on existing loans could be increased retrospectively.

Given all the problems and issues we’re facing with getting the most talented students from any background into higher education, the privatisation of the loan book would be one further discouragement from pursuing further study from those without independent financial resources. It would be one further step towards the privatisation and marketisation that is already creeping into the university sector, where (to my mind) it has no place. And it won’t ultimately do anything towards improving the country’s financial situation right now.

Tim Whitmarsh has set up a petition calling on the government not to privatise student loans. Please take a minute to sign. If this goes through, there will be serious consequences for all UK universities, academics and students.

April 19, 2013

Bibliometrics for Classicists

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 2:50 pm
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So, on Wednesday I went along to a training session put on by our excellent library team as part of their series on ways for academic staff to raise their research profiles. This was the only one of the four I attended, partly because of time and partly because I’m probably a bit beyond the 101 seminar on how to use social media at this stage (she types optimistically). But bibliometrics are one of those things that turn up frequently in the pages of the Times Higher Education, have hands wrung over them in despair about what role they’ll play in the approaching REF assessment, are derided as being statistically useless and praised as representing the future of research strategy. It was about time that I actually found out what they were and how they work. I should give massive credit for what follows to our stellar library team, in particular Linda Norbury for all the work she put into pulling this workshop together.

Bibliometrics and Classicists

The major question for me, and for some of you reading this, was whether bibliometrics are one of those things that we as classicists have to care about. Some REF panels have decided to use bibliometric data (albeit sparingly) in their assessments this time around, which obviously raises the spectre of this becoming standard practice. Our REF panel is not one of them, and unless the tools available pick up significantly, it’s not going to be – at the moment, we are peculiarly poorly served by the major services which offer this sort of thing. They’ve got good coverage for the sciences; they’ve got good coverage for the social sciences; but the humanities are nowhere.

In some ways, this might be enough for you to throw up your hands, declare that there’s no point bending over backwards to learn about another science-generated form of measurement imposed on the discipline, and request that bibliometrics hie themselves to a nunnery. It’s tempting. Unfortunately, the funding landscape is starting to get a bit keen on this sort of data – and knowing why we don’t have it available is perhaps as useful in applications as being able to provide it, particularly for cross-disciplinary schemes. It’s a little frustrating to try out this stuff and realise that ‘your field’ isn’t being looked after properly, but being familiar with the principles now will mean that when the providers do eventually catch up, we’ll be ahead of the game.

If the throwing up your hands option still appeals, you can stop reading now.

What can bibliometrics tell you?

Bibliometrics can tell you two things – the impact rating of a journal, and the h-index of an individual researcher. Well, they can tell you more than that, but those are the two things that they’re most commonly used for.

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August 17, 2012

Employment for next year

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 9:00 am
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September is creeping ever closer, and so I’m delighted to share that my contract as a Teaching Fellow in Latin Literature at Birmingham has been extended for another year.

In personal terms, this is a very promising step, as it means I’ll be in a familiar environment and won’t have to learn the administrative processes all over again – which, in turn, translates into more time, which (if I’m careful) I’ll be able to use to work on revising the book manuscript. There’s also a chance I’ll get to teach something directly related to the book, but as that’s still a bit up in the air I’ll say no more just yet. (Plus I don’t have to move. This is worth its weight in gold.)

However, this feels like a very simple solution to an extremely long-running and frustrating problem. Those who follow me on Twitter know that I have been submitting job and fellowship applications here, there and everywhere – twenty-eight at the last count, which is a lot for a field as small as Classics. Very few of those have progressed to interviews, and the ones that have have been teaching-focused rather than research-based. I have the very strong suspicion that’s because I don’t currently have a book contract under my belt. There’s been a bit of a build-up of researchers at my level over the last few years, so I’m competing against people with not just one but sometimes two or three books – and in the current REF-driven environment, that effectively means I don’t stand a chance. The hiring system doesn’t have a way to take into account that I am the earliest of early career researchers, and thus only need to submit one output to the assessment panels (although I’ve been working on ways to flag this fact up more clearly, as it’s not the sort of information that’s immediately obvious to people looking over applications). The requirements of the REF really do seem to be pushing hiring panels towards the bird in the hand, as it were, instead of thinking about how to nurture potential excellence – and, in fairness to the panels, they can do that because they have such a large pool of good people three or four years ahead of me in their careers to pick from.

I am looking forward to staying at Birmingham – I’ve really enjoyed working with my colleagues this year, I’m delighted that I get to see current students again and that I get to meet the new intake, and the coming year is going to have some interesting opportunities in it. But this year’s job hunt has made it inexorably clear that if I want to get any further next year, it’s all about getting that book contract nailed down.

March 3, 2012

Crossposted!

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 11:14 am
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After I wrote my post on #femlead on Thursday, the good people over at the University of Venus asked whether I’d mind having it reposted over on the blog platform that they host in partnership with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Given that I’ve been wanting to write something for them for a while, it didn’t take me very long to say yes… so the post is now also available on the University of Venus blogsite. Hurrah for minor internet notoriety!

March 1, 2012

Holy motivational force, Batwoman! Reflections on the first #femlead chat

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 5:22 pm
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So, last night was the first Twitter chat of #femlead, which is a new project of the University of Venus. You can read more about the logic behind it through the link, but the main goal is to provide a space “for those who lead, those with vision, those who seek to support one another in the challenges and opportunities facing us in all areas of academic life”. I’d count myself in the second and third categories, and I’d like to be in the first category one day, so I thought this was a good thing to take part in – particularly given the lack of women in leadership roles in higher ed. My immediate concerns going into the chat were centred around what opportunities there are to develop leadership in the world of the short term contract, and what I could do to develop my skills and my career path.

I have to say that I got a great deal more than that out of the chat, focused around the topic of service vs. leadership, and which is now available over at Storify. A couple of broad themes emerged. Firstly, leadership has to fit into the wider narrative of who you are and what you do – there’s no point in taking on a leadership role if it doesn’t somehow fit your picture of yourself and where you’re going. There was also a lot of emphasis on noticing the rhetoric of how you present these things.  You need to talk about achievements as demonstrating leadership rather than be modest about them.

The chat wasn’t short of ideas about how to cope with the short term contract problem either. As I was often told, there are plenty of opportunities out there – you need to look for them and make sure it’s clear you are interested in them, and then present them in such a way in the next short term contract that more opportunities arise. There are opportunities for leadership that arise outside the institution you are based in, such as in professional organisations, that aren’t affected by moving about. Whatever the location, you should still be aware of the power structures and create mentoring opportunities, because that’s how you let people know that you want these kinds of responsibilities.

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February 2, 2012

REF – Release the Guidelines!

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:53 am
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This week’s big news in REF-land is that HEFCE have released the final criteria and working methods for the assessment panels. For those of you not living in acronym-land, this means that we finally know what the ground rules are for the big assessment exercise which will look at the work produced by UK universities since the last one, judge its relative worth, and use those judgements as a way to allocate research funding from the government. The process has been long and drawn-out, since the REF is the successor to the RAE (Research Excellence Framework rather than the Research Assessment Exercise, don’t ask me why they decided to change it, I think I was still an undergrad when that decision got made) and they’ve had to work out how precisely it’s going to differ.

The working criteria that interest me are those for Panel D, which covers the subpanels of Modern Languages and Linguistics; English Language and Literature; History; Classics; Philosophy; Theology and Religious Studies; Art and Design: History, Practice and Theory; Music, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts; and Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management. So it’s sort of a broad church humanities panel. Each subject has its own specialist subpanel (so a ballerina won’t have to deal with the work of an Egyptologist, for instance); the central panel is, as far as I can tell, responsible for doing overview work and coordinating everything, which is reasonable enough.

One very important change from the original proposals not included in the Panel D guidelines, which I feel particularly strongly about, is that the REF have now decided that researchers may submit one fewer output per period of maternity leave taken – so basically, as opposed to having to submit four outputs (articles, books, chapters in books, etc.), if you’ve had a baby you only need to submit three. This is a vast improvement on the original proposal, which suggested that in order for an output to be waived, a researcher would need to have taken fourteen months off. As numerous researchers pointed out, that’s enough for two pregnancies, and very few academics take that amount of leave or are able to do so. I have to say, as one of the people who wrote in to point out the problems with the latter approach, I’m really pleased that common sense has won out here, given the opportunity it had to go horribly wrong. It’s nice to have something to be optimistic about. (more…)

January 26, 2012

Seneca and the impossibility of purchasing knowledge

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 11:16 am
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I feel I should be saying something interesting about the news that the government is apparently planning to shelve its proposed HE bill for the time being, and the changes that will be held off and the changes that have already been made, and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, I am currently under a particularly tall pile of marking and lecture prep, and any spare brain power I have is going into job applications and trying to get the Harryhausen article into shape for the end of the month.

However, I have just finished translating Seneca’s Epistulae Morales 27 in preparation for teaching it to the Latin IV class (who, I am glad to report, appear to be finding Seneca quite good fun, thus reinforcing my firm belief that he’s a brilliant author and more people should read him earlier). Letter 27 is about the the process of improving oneself and attempting to acknowledge and cure the faults in one’s character; Seneca tells his addressee, Lucilius, to think of him as a patient in the same ward rather than as a doctor with the infallible cure. However, the second half of the letter is about the impossibility of getting someone else to do this sort of work for you.

With typical Senecan verve, the letter recounts the story of the freedman Calvisius Sabinus, who had a lot of money but not much sense; he got Achilles, Odysseus and Priam mixed up, he couldn’t remember his literary references, and generally had a really rotten memory. (In a nice touch of class snobbishness, Seneca comments that he is “not like us, who knew these names along with those of our school-slaves” – ignoring the fact that Sabinus might well have been a school-slave himself, never mind that he would not have had the educational opportunities afforded to the sons of Roman knights and senators). Seneca’s disdain, however, truly comes to the fore when he reports Sabinus’ solution. Rather than put in the time and effort to actually read Homer and get to grips with the basics, Sabinus used some of his extraordinary wealth to order some very specialised slaves – one who knew Homer, one who knew Hesiod, and one for each of the nine lyric poets. Having the slaves in the house, Sabinus claimed, was as good as knowing the material himself, since anything a member of his household knew, he knew too. (more…)

December 12, 2011

The Blue Form Of Death: end of term evaluation forms

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 12:02 pm
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Over the last fortnight, I’ve been distributing Module Evaluation Questionnaires to my students, this year printed on fetching blue paper (hence this post’s title riff on MS’s Blue Screen Of Death). Most of them went out on Friday the week before last, and I gave any stragglers the opportunity to fill out one in the last lecture of term, most of which I gave last Friday.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that on the Friday when I first distributed the forms, I was not a happy bunny – I had, like an idealistic novice, looked straight through the evaluations to try and see any patterns or information that would be of use. Which meant I was looking at the tick-box scales – you know the ones, the ones which ask students to score on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree with statements like “the module was intellectually stimulating” and “the module was well structured”. I’m afraid I flicked through the tables and the written feedback, and all of the really negative material jumped out at me, in the way it always does, and my confidence in my teaching abilities plummeted to the floor.

However, last week I started dealing with the forms in a rather more systematic way; someone else will collate the numerical data, but I like having a record of written feedback, both to remind me what students have said as positive, but also as pointers for what I might work on improving next time. With some feedback, of course, you just can’t win – for my religion lectures, I had responses praising my use of Powerpoint juxtaposed to requests for the slides to contain more detail and more information. For that lecture, too, I had students expressing appreciation for the detail and depth of the lectures next to responses requesting that we do more analysis and suggesting the course should be more challenging (particularly difficult when I know I have students with greatly varying prior knowledge in the room, which makes it a challenge to teach at a level where everyone is going to get something out of the lecture).

What really struck me, however, was the disjunct between the written feedback and those blessed ticky-boxes, which are considered so important as a numerical metric of our teaching ability and effectiveness. They just didn’t see to add up with the written feedback. I’d have an enthusiastic comment about the course content, with only a 4, or even a 3, ticked for ‘the module was intellectually stimulating’. There seemed to be a lack of understanding of what these forms were for, or how they were going to be used once students had filled them out. (more…)

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