Classically Inclined

June 22, 2017

Is the academic research seminar series still fit for purpose?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:21 am
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When I joined Royal Holloway four years ago, I was asked to take over the job of coordinating the academic research seminar and reviving it after it had fallen into abeyance (mainly as the department had had its mind on other things). I was delighted to take it on – it would mean I could write to all sorts of interesting people, I would be sending regular e-mails to the Liverpool Classicists e-mail list so my name became familiar,  and it was a research-related sort of admin task. Great. I made a point of putting the seminar in a lunchtime slot, because while I wasn’t pregnant at the time, I was very aware of the issues of family-friendly working and several colleagues had (and still have!) young children. And I got on with it.

By the time I was made permanent, and so could start thinking about what I might want to do differently, I was already feeling that the research seminar wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Yes, I invited some great speakers and got to hear some really interesting papers, but the pressures of term (teaching, meetings with other staff and students, preparation, admin that had to be completed right this minute and so on) meant that my colleagues often couldn’t make it. Our graduate students are a geographically diverse bunch, sometimes living quite a distance from campus, and found it disruptive to come in for a single hour if there wasn’t something else happening on the same day. Despite plenty of publicity, we rarely got people from other departments in the college coming along, and in three years we never had a visitor from further afield. So I started wondering what the seminar was actually trying to do.

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April 27, 2016

On being a productive academic mother

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 12:40 pm
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I was having a conversation over e-mail with an academic of my acquaintance who has just had a child, and was wondering if I could offer her any suggestions about how I’ve managed to keep getting things done since infans was born. In all honesty, a big part of it has been the fact that I’ve not been required to do anything terribly creative – the book revisions and manuscript preparation, while chunky, haven’t really required me to put together much new material or think up fresh ideas, and there’s only so much imagination and intellectual capital you need to change the formatting of a bibliography. I am the first person to complain grumpily on Twitter about the slog of editing a passage for the dozenth time, but actually, that’s probably the level of mental demand I’ve been operating at. I’ve only started to think properly about the conference papers I’m giving this summer in the last month or so, and the effort required to put together something new has actually been quite daunting.

However, I did have a couple of other thoughts and suggestions about getting stuff done, if you choose to, and thought I’d put them here in case anyone else find them useful. The first is to accept that for the first few months, you probably won’t get anything done, especially if you’re breastfeeding on demand as I was – and that’s totally alright and as it should be. Giving oneself permission for this is really, really hard (or at least I found it so after the first few weeks), but actually, stop.

If you do have things that absolutely must get done, then naps are the way forward. If you’re lucky enough to have a baby giving you enough sleep during the night to function during the day without naps yourself, and have a baby who will go to sleep somewhere that is not on you, and for more than five minutes at a time. Sometimes babies do not seem to realise mummy needs time to reply to that research collaborator. And that is OK too. But thinking about how to use any nap time you do get strategically is key – what do you most need to do to give yourself piece of mind? It may be having a cup of tea and checking the proofs you’ve been asked to return before the end of the week; it may be washing up and tidying the kitchen so the thought of the post-lunch mess doesn’t keep you consistently on edge; it may be having a nap yourself, or a shower, or watching an episode of some mindless television. All of these things are also OK.

The only way I did get anything done during those naps was lists. Lots and lots of lists. I prioritised things that had immediate deadlines or I had already committed to (like final revisions and copyedits for articles which were more or less done), and things related to the book manuscript. I did agree to take on a short piece for a web-based outreach project, which I thought would be a good way of getting me back into the groove of generating ‘new’ words, but in retrospect I wish I’d said no to that as I did to a book review invitation – it didn’t drain away time, but it was a bit of a distraction. What worked particularly well for me was accepting that tasks which came under the heading of ‘collegiality’ – things I should do not to hold up collected volumes/editors, meeting deadlines and so on – needed to be done; the book was the massive priority, even if it was advancing a paragraph of edits at a time; and everything else could wait. Really.

So the big ‘formal’ advice I have is to push back firmly on anything related to teaching or administration, and to only let research in if there are imminent deadlines or if it is the most important project you have in hand. I was also a big fan of checking my e-mail even if only to delete or file it, as I did with about 95% of the e-mail I got during the course of my leave – the thought of coming back to an untouched inbox after even a few weeks gives me the shivers.

Some of this is, of course, down to who you are as an individual and where you are in your career, and I really don’t want to suggest that I did the ‘right’ thing. I felt particularly under pressure about the book because of being, at the time, on a three year contract and being very aware that I needed to have the book in press for job hunting. I also inevitably start feeling a bit jumpy after a few weeks if I don’t have something academic to get on with – one of the reasons that a year’s maternity leave completely off from academia would have been a really, really bad idea for me. Please don’t look at this post and assume these have to be your choices – they don’t. I recommend Rachel Moss’s thoughts about some of the choices she made in the early months, and I’ll also mention that I went back to work after just under six months of maternity leave (again, entirely my choice but under the implicit pressure of a short-term contract). I am pretty sure that if I ever do this again, I will make a different set of choices.

Since going back to work in September, I’ve also found that I think about far fewer projects than I did pre-infans. In those heady days (ahem), I could have two or three projects in various stages on the go at once, and could balance hopping between them – for instance, I often found I needed the other projects to give me something to do when the book was getting too much or had reached a pause point, and there would often be some outreach or cross-over work in there too. Now, with teaching and everything else, I think realistically I can only manage one project at a time. I was recently given the advice that with children, one should prioritise quality over quantity – and I now see why that was an excellent suggestion, if only because I cannot imagine trying to do more than one thing at once in the more strictly delineated working time I now have. This will change as infans gets older, of course, but right now that’s the reality.

Now I find myself in the slightly strange vacuum between finishing a big project and starting a big project, and not knowing quite what to do with myself… but that’s another subject for another post.

October 2, 2015

Gamifying Intermediate Latin – the first year

Following on from my noodlings here about whether I should submit my gamification of intermediate Latin for a College Excellence Teaching Prize, I managed to put the paperwork in before the small boy appeared – and I’m delighted to say that I won one of the awards! The prize was awarded for “an innovative and creative project, which engages students from diverse backgrounds in motivational extracurricular learning”, which is rather nice as that was what I was after. As those of you reading who teach intermediate language classes will know, it’s probably the most diverse set of student experiences you find in a college classroom, and thus presents some really interesting challenges.

For those of you coming to this fresh – gamification is a strategy that tries to use the human enjoyment of games to enhance the learning experience within the classes. Last year, I reworked how I teach intermediate Latin to make the formative work I’d assumed students would do out of the goodness of their hearts into a tangible system of game-based activities. This would make the previously unspoken assumptions about the workload in the class clear and visible, and hopefully also give students the motivation to keep on top of the work required. The introduction of short-term rewards in a game format functioned through an insignia or badge system, where each activity had its own specific sticker type to collect. Students competed to collect the most insignia over the course of the term, with a ‘top three’ scoreboard updated regularly on Moodle. I wrote about how I thought things were going after one term here.

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September 21, 2015

On being an ECR, academia and maternity leave

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 10:21 pm
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Today was my first day back from maternity leave. I have, hypothetically, been away from the demands of my job a little under six months; we now have a small boy who at just over five months is happy and thriving, and starting to get the hang of this sitting up business. Now is the time for me to dive back into all of the things that I have left undone since I shut my office door at the end of March.

Or, at least, it would be if I had actually been away.

The funny thing about academic maternity leave is that you don’t actually leave. You slow down a bit, but you don’t stop. Yes, I didn’t do any exam marking in the summer term, I handed over running the departmental research seminar, and I’ve not been on campus since I left the building. But according to my records (yes, I keep records), during my maternity leave I:

  • Made some final changes to the sci fi and classics review piece and got it published.
  • Did some final administrative work related to my chapter about women classicists at Newnham for a volume due out later in the year.
  • Made edits to my pedagogy article and saw that through to publication.
  • Approved proofs for a book review that I submitted a few years ago.
  • Wrote a short article on Seneca and relaxing for a web outreach project.
  • Wrote a case study report for the Family Archive project and kept in the loop with that as it progressed.
  • Finalised the book contract.
  • Revised two and a half book chapters plus an epilogue (which is still in revision but getting there).
  • Provided some guidance for the replacement Intermediate Latin marker on how to go about it.
  • Sorted out the syllabus for the new course I’m teaching this year, requested electronic copies of readings, and submitted a reading list.
  • Sorted out my course Moodles.
  • Completed the annual monitoring forms for the courses I taught last year.
  • Engaged in discussion about the establishment of a UK-based body to represent women in classics, which is growing out of the classics and feminism sandpit because I put my money where my mouth was.
  • Did I mention learning how to parent a tiny baby, live with less sleep than I thought humanly possible, establish breastfeeding, heal from undergoing significant physical trauma, have my emotions turned upside down every five minutes by hormones, and realise why people tell new parents to stock up on muslins?

Now, baby wrangling aside, none of those things were expected of me. With the possible exception of the annual monitoring forms, my department didn’t expect me to do any of that (and I suspect that if I’d put my foot down, they would have been worked round). Part of this is because I’m generally a productive person, and I have become good at doing things efficiently during nap times (and I’m lucky to have a baby who does nap). But there are a whole load of implicit pressures at work here, both internal and external.

Internally, I recognise that some of these choices were driven by wanting to be a good colleague. If you have promised an article, say, by a publication deadline, it’s good practice to follow through, regardless of whether you’ve just had a small person, right? It’s just common professional courtesy, isn’t it? If you’ve committed to a volume, shouldn’t you help the editors to have as painless an experience as possible by responding to their e-mails in a timely fashion? I mean, sure, people say that you shouldn’t worry because you’re on leave, but if the press has set a deadline, then that deadline’s there, baby or no, and you are inextricably bound into the process of getting the book on the shelf. The way that academic publishing works means that once you’re involved, you work to the publishers’ timetable.

Some of the choices were pragmatic, in their own way. The syllabus and Moodle wrangling happened because it was going to be far easier to do that in dribs and drabs instead of getting to this week and trying to do All The Things at once – a little bit of advanced preparation goes a long way in making re-entry smoother, even after a normal summer.

Yet there are also huge implicit external pressures at work here, not least in the shape of the job market. It wouldn’t hurt if I’d left most of the heavy lifting for the book until the start of 2016, but the pressure to be able to say in applications that the manuscript is in press… when we’re all told that it’s The Book that makes the difference between fixed term and permanent contracts… Oh, and all the other articles, that’s all important for the job market too, because the more an early career researcher in a temporary post can have on her CV, the more shiny it makes her, so long as that magic book is there. So everything will be alright?

These myths about the lengths an ECR has to go to in order to get a permanent contract are pernicious enough under normal circumstances, driving those in junior positions with no security to bend over backwards to achieve goals which come with nothing more than vague promises that it’s this quality that’ll make the difference in the next job round. Those goalposts keep moving, of course – it’s the Book, it’s a project with demonstrable Impact (thanks, REF), it’s more peer reviewed article in big-hitting journals with the right metrics, it’s a good social media presence (or none at all), it’s Fellowship of the HEA.

But to have those same pressures impact on your maternity leave, whether you are conscious of them or not, is a sign of just how paranoid the current system of academic hiring makes you without even noticing. I can’t put things on hold because I need to know what’s happening when my contract ends in August, and the job adverts are already starting to appear.  But equally, I can’t put the rest of my life on hold until that phoenix-like permanent contract deigns to make an appearance. (Not that a permanent job cures all ills by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the grail we’re told to reach for and that the system appears to reward.) I’m making decisions that limit my ability to be the perfect ECR who can up sticks and move to a contract at the opposite end of the country at a moment’s notice – because there’s more to life than that.

I’m going to go and snuggle up to my son and get some sleep. And tomorrow I’ll take him to campus and introduce him to some of the people who know him but have never met him. And eventually we’ll find a new way for our family to get through the week. And I’ll keep on making the most of nap times. But I will not let those ECR myths take charge of our shared life and take away the daily joys of being together.

March 2, 2015

On disliking conclusions

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:07 pm
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As most of you know, I am currently wrestling with revising a book manuscript. This involves a good deal of looking at conclusions, and as such is making me remember just how much I dislike the blessed things.

There’s a lot to be said for the elegant conclusion – it distils the wisdom of a chapter or article into one or two crystal clear sentences that provide the icing, as it were, on the argumentative cake. But the bad conclusion is far easier to write – one which just recaps what has been said throughout the piece without really taking it through that rhetorical transmutation that creates a satisfying conclusion. The irony, of course, is that while I may chastise students in my marking feedback for offering conclusions which rehash the points they have already made, my first (and second and third and fourth) drafts of scholarly work often contain conclusions which do exactly the same – even when I think I’ve managed the requisite compositional alchemy.

This is something I’m particularly aware of at the moment because I’m trying to rewrite the conclusion to the whole book – not just offering a neat summary for a chapter, but a neat tie-up for over 100,000 words’ worth of point. Despite my best efforts, I’m still offering a rehash of previous points in quite a procedural manner (albeit less so than the original PhD conclusion, of which frankly the less said, the better). Finding the right words to be the last words of the book is also phenomenally difficult. My current strategy is to move into the personal voice, but I would be the first to admit that this is a strategy born out of desperation rather than of conviction. It’s also not quite coming out right just yet – there’s something too colloquial and apologetic about it, which is another risk of conclusions. While you think you have stated your case firmly and authoritatively, it often turns out that you’ve actually underplayed your own original contribution to a debate or the most significant consequence of your own argument.

I don’t think I have any tips for writing conclusions, other than being prepared to write, rewrite and rewrite again, and getting as many pairs of eyes on a conclusion as possible to tell you if you are doing yourself justice. But I am rather surprised at the difficulty of writing the conclusion for a book, if only because I had rather assumed it would be like writing a mini-chapter or article rather than concentrated last-blessed-paragraph syndrome. But maybe I’m unusual in finding conclusions such a particular bugbear. If anyone has any great ideas for avoiding the pitfalls and putting together that glittering wit and glitz that is the hallmark of a fine conclusion, I’m all ears.

January 23, 2015

Gamifying Intermediate Latin – a mid-year update

When I posted that I was intending to gamify intermediate Latin, I got quite a positive response back, and I promised to give you an update on how it was all going. As we start the second week of the spring term, now seems like a good moment to review how things have gone so far. I should also add that I’m thinking of putting together an application for our college teaching excellence prize based on this, not least because (as a colleague pointed out to me the other day) the potential applications of the technique go beyond the languages, which is where I’d thought it might be useful – every subject has got its bit of ‘stuff we need students to put the work into, that doesn’t feature as part of the summative assessment, but that will impact students’ performance in the summative assessment’. When I explained what I was doing, she immediately thought of how useful it could be for statistics, which wasn’t something I’d thought of at all. At any rate, now seems like a good moment to reflect on the experience so far.

To recap, the goals I had in gamifying Intermediate Latin were:

  • Give students a short-term motivation and reward for doing work they otherwise wouldn’t see paying off until the medium or long term.
  • Increase participation rates in optional homework activities.
  • Through this participation, increase student confidence with vocabulary, grammar and other skills they need for in-class tasks.
  • Generate a bit of friendly competition in the classroom and thus build community among students on the course.

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October 13, 2014

New publication: Show Me the Way to Go Home: A Reconsideration of Seneca’s De Consolatione ad Polybium

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:02 am
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Those long-time readers of this blog will be very familiar with the Ad Polybium article, which started out life as the Stoic exile article and went through various changes of shape in its journey towards completion. (If you’re interested in catching up, have a look at some of the stuff on the ad Polybium tag.) After many incarnations, starting as a carbuncle on the side of chapter two of the dissertation, I’m delighted to announce that “Show Me the Way to Go Home: A Reconsideration of Seneca’s De Consolatione ad Polybium” has appeared in the latest issue of The American Journal of Philology.

This is the classic example of what can happen when you have good research ideas that don’t fit into an argument you are trying to make yet still deserve airtime. Exactly the same thing happened when I wrote the new chapter four for the book manuscript – I now have the seed kernel of an article on Seneca’s use of paternal imagery in his political philosophy which will be interesting but isn’t in and of itself particularly helpful for the argument I’m making in the book. In “Show me the way” I’m entering a pretty well-worn debate about whether the ad Polybium is a text we can take seriously or not; I argue that it is, and that we do not need to tie ourselves in knots with questions of sincerity and intention to get there. I also argue that what has been read as some of the most outrageous flattery has a parallel function in the text if we start thinking about it from a Stoic perspective rather than getting caught up in those issues of flattery and sincerity which get prioritised when dealing with this text.

My hope is that this will move some of the conversation about this really quite fascinating wee text forward from where it’s got a bit stuck; whatever happens, it’s good to have this particular idea out there, and hopefully getting some people thinking about the consolation in a new way.

September 22, 2014

Gamifying Intermediate Latin

I said in my post about this year’s syllabus-wrangling that the biggest change in my teaching was going to be my gamification of Intermediate Latin. I figured the subject deserved its own post, so here it is. Gamification is rapidly increasing in popularity as a way to plug into our basic motivations as humans, in that we enjoy playing games where we get rewards, can follow strict rules and so on. Academic courses respond well to being gamified, because it is a way of making the implicit rules we expect our students to follow explicit, and associating them with a value system which the students buy into. This model of teaching is, as far as I am aware, doing particularly well in American institutions, at least in part because of the freedom to change assessment requirements in individual courses that instructors often have. This means they can link accomplishments within the course-game explicitly to a student’s final grade without having to run it past, for instance, a university registry office and external examiners to get their approval. However, just because I don’t feel I can go that far doesn’t mean that gamification is a lost cause.

This term, following my colleague Tim Phin’s lead (and very generous sharing of materials), I am trying to gamify Intermediate Latin. As I have implied, this won’t affect students’ final grades – they’ll still have their in-class quizzes and end of year exam to do that. However, what struck me teaching this course last year was that there is an awful lot of work expected of students that they don’t actually get any credit for, and I suspect that may be part of the reason why it often gets neglected. For instance, I expect students to be finishing off hand-outs and translations from class, doing translation and grammar homework, learning vocabulary, reviewing their performance on tests… none of which ever gets any recognition, except for the pay-off they hopefully receive in their grades for the in-class quizzes. For students who perhaps work better with short-term than medium- or long-term motivation, that’s not really a winner.

So I am trying to give that previously unacknowledged work a value by borrowing Tim’s system of insignia or badges. Tim structured his course so that students won insignia for in-class activities, homework and other challenges; the number of insignia won corresponded to the final grade in the course. I’ve taken his model and instead created different kinds of insignia for different kinds of tasks – there are insignia verborum for vocabulary learning and insignia grammatica for grammar-based homework tasks, for instance. Students can keep track of which insignia they have won by a chart and – you guessed it – stickers. When I first found myself thinking about gamifying the course, my mind immediately went to auto-awarded badges and technology and all the clever things you can do with programming – but actually, that’s all a bit of a distraction from the underlying gamification principle. It’s a nice add if you can have it, but if you can’t, stickers will work just as well to signify that the work is being recognised, and as things to be won and collected. I’ve even bought a special stickers, because what’s the point if you can’t generate some excitement? Mind you, my mind goes back to my first Latin 101 class at Rutgers. Whenever they scored over 90 on a quiz, as the quizzes were designed to let them, I would give them a little star sticker. After the initial ‘wait, we’re back in high school now?’ moment, the competition for those stickers and who got them on each weekly quiz became one of the most intense contests that I’ve ever seen in a classroom. Technology may be shiny, but never underestimate the power of a sticker.

I’ll be keeping close tabs on how this strategy works over the coming year, and will report back on how well or otherwise it works. I’m optimistic, but it will only work if my students buy into it.

August 6, 2014

New publication: My family tree goes back to the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:57 pm
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As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, at the minute I am elbow-deep in assessing the revisions needed for chapter six of the book manuscript. I have just realised that I haven’t officially announced that a version of that chapter is already out in publication, as of a few months ago!

“My family tree goes back to the Romans: Seneca’s approach to the family in the Epistulae Morales” appears in Seneca Philosophus, a volume that came out of a conference in Paris about Seneca as a philosopher which I was unable to attend because – cheerful irony of ironies – it took place on the weekend of PhD graduation, so I kind of needed to be on another continent. However, I wrote to the conference organiser because I wanted sight of the paper she’d given, explaining what my interest was – and, lo and behold, she asked whether my book would be finished in time for consultation for the conference volume. As that was totally out of the range of possibility, I said so and sent her my Epistulae Morales chapter in PDF form instead. She then invited me to contribute it to the conference volume as it would make a good addition to the range of pieces talking about the letter collection.

Given that I had no idea how long it would take me to get the PhD into a book manuscript shape, I jumped at the chance to get some of my research out, and in a volume that contains some of the most significant scholars currently writing on Seneca, no less. So it’s out there, and in a book! Which is very exciting.

Of course, this now leaves me in a slightly perplexing place with what is now chapter six of the book manuscript. There are several discussions that didn’t make it into the Family Tree chapter, not least because of reasons of length, and because the argument that chapter makes had to stand alone rather than finish off the dissertation as a whole. I got some very good feedback on the Family Tree chapter as a stand-alone piece that I’m incorporating into the revised chapter six, but I’m also realising just how much I need to do in order to make sure that it does what I need it to do in terms of the overall book’s direction. It says a lot about the progress I’ve made over the last few years that I’m seeing so many different things I want to change and improve compared to the first time that I revised it – the only downside is that I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. Never mind – the chapter is out there, if anyone wants to read it and get a head-start on the book!

July 24, 2014

On the road – upcoming schedule

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:40 pm
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I have spent most of the last few months running around conferences like billy-o – and it’s not over yet! I’m around for some things in August and September, and if you’re interested, you may want to come along…

15th August 2014: ‘A common thread: Representations of the Minotaur in London’, Diversity in Speculative Fiction, LonCon3 Academic Track, London.

19th August 2014: ‘Fathers, be good to your daughters: Seneca, Augustus and familial ethics’, Commemorating Augustus: A Bimillennial Re-evaluation, Leeds.

16th September 2014: ‘Avoiding the master’s house: Representing women’s space on the Roman comic stage’, Is Gender Still Relevant? Examining The State of Play in the Historical Disciplines, Bradford.

These are all papers that have seen the light of day in one form or another, but I’m looking forward to getting the ideas out to some new audiences and to getting some new feedback. Hope to see some of you there!

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