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.