Thursday, October 27, 2016

New post on my OU Blog

All Associate Lecturers (and indeed students) at the Open University are provided with a blog for their use. Most don't use it, so do a lot. I occasionally use it for something particularly pedagogical, and so I just have, looking at what postgrads might think about when they approach theories and methods for their work.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Women's Classical Committee: Classics and Feminist Pedagogy - Practical Tips for Teaching

At the end of July I was privileged to go to the Women's Classical Committee's event 'Classics and Feminist Pedagogy - Practical Tips for Teaching'. This was aimed primarily at postgrads and early career researchers, but fortunately there was a space for me. Why did I go? Lots of reasons. For a start, I've long believed that one is never too old to learn new stuff, and how to do things better. If anything, as I've got older I've become more receptive to learning about pedagogy - the arrogant twenty-something me, deeply suspicious about anything that looked like theory, was far more resistant. (Though I have still had bad experiences with pedagogical texts and events that I have felt ended up teaching me nothing about how to be a good teacher.) And I have always supported feminist causes (like so many things in my life, I blame Doctor Who).* So when Liz Gloyn first mentioned the idea of the UK Women's Classical Committee to me, I was enthusiastic, and I am delighted that it has become an actual thing that does things (as Liz would say). All of this means that feminist pedagogy ticks many of my academic boxes. Feminist pedagogy must inherently be inclusive pedagogy, which means it can't just be for women (and a number of the issues that face young female scholars, such as insecurity of position, are also issues that I've faced throughout my career). Moreover, I have, through my association with Nine Worlds, become much more concerned of late about inclusivity.

What follows is not a coherent report on the event. Other people will no doubt write those soon, and in the meantime there are a couple of Storifys. What I want to do here is explore a few issues that particularly connected with me.

Liz opened proceedings with a session on 'What is Feminist Pedagogy and What does it mean for Classics and Ancient History?', drawing upon a lot of work that's previously been done in the US in the area of feminist pedagogy and its use in Classical Studies. I took a lot away from this, most of all the clear advantages of the 'Solidarity Model' of syllabus design, which fully engages with a number of different perspectives, rather than the 'Tourist Model' or the 'Explorer Model', both of which other in various ways the marginalized and powerless.

Like a lot of what I read or here about best practice, Liz's talk made me consider my own practice and consider the many ways in which my teaching falls down, including spending too much time delivering lectures, rather than trying to involve the students in a more collaborative approach. Partly this is due to my unwillingness to venture outside my own comfort zone, but partly it is due to lack of time. Rethinking how one does a module requires a bit of space to sit back and mull on how to go about doing this. Moreover, the demands of my current work patterns, where I have three separate employers, for all of whom I teach in quite different modes, mean that time for sitting back and thinking about approaches is a luxury I often don't have. But that, Liz argues, is alright - she suggests that doing things little bits at a time is fine. Nevertheless, I must do better.

Along the way, Liz talked about the difference between teacher-centred learning and student-centred learning, and her preference for subject-centred learning, a strategy that makes the learning experience a collaborative effort between students and teacher. It's a model I've been exposed to before through stuff that Liz has written, and one that very much appeals to me. But in one of the discussion conversations afterwards, Liz said to me, 'Oh, you don't tell the students that you're taking a subject-centred approach." The thing is, I have told students this, explicitly. Admittedly, I've only done it with Open University Students, but nevertheless, I'm not sure why it's a bad thing to do so - shouldn't one be upfront about taking such an approach if the aim is to empower students? I'm sure Liz will respond on this point, and I look forward to seeing that response.

The second paper I want to talk about was my Roehampton colleague Fiona McHardy talking about teaching sensitive subjects, on the back of some research she and another Roehampton colleague, Susan Deacy (present in the audience), have been conducting (perhaps best read about in this article from Cloelia). There was a lot of useful information in her presentation - fortunately Ellie Mackin took photographs of the most bibliographic slides and put them on Twitter (e.g. this one and this one).

The most interesting part of this was the discussion of trigger warnings. My own view on trigger warnings is that while they are often presented as censorious attempts to shut down debate, I've never seen them as barring study of anything, merely ensuring that students are properly prepared for material that is problematic and potentially upsetting. If anything, this helps them engage with the material more effectively. I've read too much commentary on trigger warnings that starts from a position that students who are concerned about these issues don't really have a valid viewpoint, and they should, essentially, 'man up' and get over anything potentially traumatic. To me, that lacks respects for students, dismissing those who are actually prepared to talk about the texts, only outside the parameters that the academic has set. There's no attempt here to empathise with students whose experiences and backgrounds may differ greatly from that of the teacher. In their worst manifestations, such attacks on warnings adopt the rhetoric of the bully - life is harsh, so you have to put up with my being harsh. Sorry, but that isn't an excuse. Nor does 'never mind the creepiness of Ovid, feel the beauty of the poetry' pass muster. That doesn't mean you can't feel the beauty of the poetry; but you have to acknowledge the other stuff.

However, what I have now been persuaded of is that the rhetoric around trigger warnings has become so overheated that using the term is counter-productive. To turn to Liz Gloyn again, she has argued for the use of 'content notes' (in the blog post she talks about 'content warnings' but I think she would now prefer 'content notes'). Essentially, this seems to have exactly the same effect as I would want a trigger warning to have, without the other stuff. I shall be trying to adopt that strategy.

The final thing that particularly made me think about my practice was my Open University colleague Helen King's talk. But the issues that raised with me are of such a kind that whilst I felt comfortable discussing them in the event, and afterwards with individuals, I don't feel comfortable discussing them in a public forum such as this. Ask me in a conference bar some time... I will say that I was sufficiently stimulated, and there were so many thoughts rushing around my head, that I found it harder to concentrate on the rest of the day, for which I apologise to the speakers concerned.

Overall though, this was a great and productive event, and I hope for more such.

* I once wrote a fanzine article about the influence of Doctor Who in forming my feminism. I'll not bore you with it now, but I might dig it out at some point in the future.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Roehampton Classical Student Research: A Celebration. Event Report.

Mike Edwards, not me, introducing the event.
CUCD Bulletin has just published a report I wrote up of a student research event at Roehampton, which we've published as a possible example of best practice. Of course, I have immediately thought of the thing I should have added but didn't, which is that if anyone has examples of similar practice, they should let us know!

Anyway, the report is here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Urgent call for paper on Star Wars and Classics

Classicists (and possibly SF people around Canterbury): I am putting together a proposal for a Star Wars and Classical Antiquity panel for the Classical Association in April (, and have just had a speaker drop out. Would anyone like to be part of this? If so, please send me ( a 200-word abstract by close of play tomorrow (30 August), as the deadline for submitting panels is 31 August. Please note speakers must register for the conference, and I have no funding to support attendance.

ETA: Solved now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My Mancunicon Schedule

It's the British National Science Fiction Convention coming up this weekend, and I'll be doing some stuff at it. (Note that Mancunicon memberships are now closed, so if you're not a member you won't be able to attend any of this.)

This lecture focuses on how Victorian cultural critic John Ruskin uses the making and wearing of textiles to discuss political economy and to inspire change. It pays particular attention to craft and making, and the way we make and define ourselves through the clothing we wear.

A lecture sponsored by the BSFA.

[I shall be introducing and chairing this - the last time I'll do this for a BSFA Lecture]

1980s Trailblazing Comics

Sunday 11:30 - 12:30, Room 6 (Hilton Deansgate)
The panel discuss lesser known comics and creators from the 1980s that paved the way for the big names that came later.
Glyn Morgan (M), Tony Keen, Eric Steele, Karen Brenchley

[I will be trying to talk about comics other than Watchmen and Dark Knight.]

Science Fiction Criticism - Mini-Masterclass 1

Sunday 19:00 - 20:00, Room 10 (Hilton Deansgate)
Every Summer the Science Fiction Foundation holds a Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism with world-renowned critics, academics and authors. This session provides a taster. Participants are required to sign up in advance (at Ops)  and should read the short story assigned for the session. There is a limit of ten participants.
Kari Sperring will lead a discussion of Liz Williams, "The Banquet of the Lords of Light"

Science Fiction Criticism - Mini-Masterclass 2

Monday 11:30 - 12:30, Room 10 (Hilton Deansgate)
Every Summer the Science Fiction Foundation holds a Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism with world-renowned critics, academics and authors. This session provides a taster. Participants are required to sign up in advance (at Ops) and should read the short story assigned for the session. There is a limit of ten participants.
Andrew M Butler will lead a discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "If I were a man".

[I'm facilitating both of these. Participants are limited to ten each, and will need to sign up in Ops.]

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Dragon Blade (China & Hong Kong, dir. & scr.: Daniel Lee, 2015)

Dragon Blade, an epic tale of Chinese and Romans on the Silk Road, has been an enormous hit in China. In the UK, it's come out with little in the way of publicity, in a very limited cinema release, and been largely ignored by any critic who isn't Mark Kermode. Sure enough, when I went to see it, I was the only person in the cinema. Which is a shame, because whilst being utter, utter nonsense, it's actually rather fabulously enjoyable, if you like Jackie Chan movies and/or wuxia, Chinese historical martial arts epics. Which I do.

Jackie Chan is Huo An, head of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a sort of Han Dynasty UN peacekeeping force. After an encounter with a Hunnish force in which he accidentally ends up married to Lin Peng's Cold Moon (that's her character's name), which is awkward as he is already married, he and his team are framed for smuggling and condemned with other prisoners to rebuild the destroyed city of Wild Geese Gate, on the western edges of China. Then, out of the mist, comes a Roman legion led by John Cusack's Lucius, fleeing Tiberius Crassus (Adrien Brody), with Tiberius' young nephew Publius in tow.

Let's get this clear - though the movie is heavily indebted to Gladiator in the way it represents Romans, for some of its shots, and for elements of its plot structure (and has one obvious steal from the third Lord of the Rings movie), this is not a Hollywood East-meets-West film such as Shanghai Noon or Rush Hour. It is very much a wuxia epic, and is steeped in the grammar of Chinese, rather than Western, cinema. This particularly shows through in the the way it is very unsentimental about its cast, a feature of the genre I had forgotten. Very few named individuals are still standing at the end, and there are at least two things that happen to major characters here that I just can't imagine taking place in a Hollywood movie.

Historically, of course, the movie is complete rubbish. It begins with a series of captions that places the action in the context of Marcus Licinius Crassus' disastrous Parthian expedition of 55-53 BC (a prologue that featured modern archaeologists finding a Roman city on the Silk Road has been cut for the UK release), and claims to be inspired by true events - but the inspiration is clearly very loose. The mise-en-scène is that of the Roman Empire rather than the Republic - one of the interesting things about this movie is seeing how Chinese cinema represents Romans, their cities and their armour, which is not quite how Hollywood does it. And there's even a moral, which is that all ethnic communities of China are capable of working together, and can achieve great things when they do, a message bound to go down well in Beijing. (It is to be noted that everyone speaks in their own native dialect, except the Romans, who speak English, though they do sing Latin.)

There are some ... interesting performances by the western actors involved. Adrien Brody chews the scenery like it's coated in addictive substances. And then there's John Cusack. Cusack is one of my favourite Hollywood actors, and he's made a number of great movies - Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity leap to mind. This, however, is not his finest hour, and he seems thoroughly miscast. I can only assume that he is a massive fan of Jackie Chan and really wanted to be in one of his movies.

And absolutely this is a Chan vehicle, and full of all the sort of things that one has come to expect from Chan's Chinese movies - much martial arts, quite a lot of humour, some tragedy and a story that does make you care about the fates of the main characters. It's not as good a Chan movie as, say, Who Am I? Nor is it anything like as good a historical epic as Zhang Yimou's Hero, and bears no comparison to the newly-released elegaic, atmospheric, and partly plot-free The Assassin. But I was smiling all the way through Dragon Blade. I mean, how can you not like a movie in which an Indian cavalry force attacks to the sound of massed dutars? Catch it on DVD (where perhaps the prologue will be restored) or Video On Demand, if you can.

Friday, January 01, 2016

The democratization of Classics: an incomplete process

Happy New Year, readers!

There's an article by Daisy Dunn in today's New Statesman, 'Revenge of the Greats'. Overall it's a reasonable summary of the state of play in the study of Classics. The summary for the article includes a question, "would we understand the world better if we read and studied classics?", which is thankfully not really raised by the article (I suspect the hand of a sub-editor). It's a question that implies that we should be go back to the years of compulsory Latin, which in my view would simply recreate the problems that have dogged the subject since the 1960s. Classics should be available for those who want it, not imposed upon those who don't.

The article does include the following section:

Anyone who wants to go on to teach in a university classics faculty is likely to come unstuck if he or she lacks proficiency in both Latin and Greek. Departments depend on their junior staff and doctoral students for language teaching. As things stand, the next generation of classics scholars is likely to be drawn predominantly from those who have had the opportunity to excel in the languages.
Sadly, this is true. I say sadly, because it means that departments are still tending, when appointing their new staff, to make the needs of a small minority of their students a priority. It means that ancient history is often taught by people who are trained as linguists rather than historians (and are, as a result, not always very good historians). It means that brillaint scholars will continue to be dismissed because 'they haven't got the languages'. It means that the next generation of scholars will continue to be primarily drawn from students of élite schools, which will reinforce the élitist image of the subject, an image which has done Classics no favours at all.

If there's hope for progress here, I suspect it lies not in the traditional Classics departments - I've been waiting for them to change their attitudes for twenty-five years, and though there are hopeful signs in places (such as what Ray Laurence is doing at the University of Kent), they are few and far between - but in Classical Civilization programmes that have grown out of History department where Latin and Greek have never really been taught, such as at Winchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, and one of my own employers, Roehampton. These programmes are massively important, making teaching about the ancient Mediterranean available to students who traditionally have had little or no access to it (this, of course, has also always been provided by another of my employers, the Open University). This is the way forward for further democratization, of the subject, which is necessary if we want Classics to regain a place at the heart of the nation's cultural life.