Tag Archive: 2017 AGM

Against Classics


Dr. Jo Quinn, Associate Professor of Ancient History at Oxford, gave a keynote talk at our AGM in April which asked us to consider what precisely our curriculum is covering. We are delighted that she has written up her thoughts in this blog post. You can find her on Twitter at @josephinequinn.

Despite all the efforts made in recent years to increase the diversity of Classicists by organisations like Classics for All and now the WCC as well as by university departments, it is no secret that our student body is still dominated by those from privileged backgrounds, that our secure and senior faculty are disproportionately male, and that BME scholars are disproportionately absent at all levels. I want to suggest here that ‘Classics’ itself is part of the problem: that we stack the odds against diversity by the way we describe and conceptualise our subject.

Classics is not after all a neutral term. For one thing, this eighteenth century coinage privileges language and literature: the “classics” concerned are Greek and Roman texts. It comes from an era when most of the available evidence was indeed textual, but it does not represent the breadth of the subject as we teach it today. It also dictates a focus on elites, on men, and on people we now at least perceive as white – not only because the writers of these texts overwhelmingly fit this description, but because the people they wrote about do too.

And even if we are okay with a primary focus on texts over history, archaeology, linguistics, and so on, do we really believe that the Greek and Latin texts we teach are the only ‘classics’ of world, or even western, literature? The extended usage in ‘Classical Civilization’ raises similar questions: why are (only) Greece and Rome ‘classical’?

This raises another question: why do we limit ourselves to Greece and Rome anyway? As researchers, of course, we often don’t. The WCC’s definition of Classics as “the study of the ancient Mediterranean world and its reception” isn’t controversial among practitioners. But our teaching curriculum is still based around the Greeks and Romans, and this is the way we usually present Classics degrees to prospective students – at Oxford, for instance, “Classics is the study of the languages, culture, history and thought of the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome”, and similar sentiments can be found at (just to take a few more examples) Durham, Exeter, Reading, and Liverpool. Even where courses on other places and people are on offer, and where faculty research interests are much broader, these aren’t what our websites sell as ‘Classics’.

If Greek and Roman studies is really what we are teaching, why not just call it that? One reason is that our explicit focus solely on societies associated with the two languages that characterize a widespread stereotype of elite education in the UK already limits the diversity of our applicants – and the fact that even in elite schools those languages are taught for longer and more intensively to boys means that women are always going to have a harder time reaching the top of the profession. Another, more positive reason to rethink the narrow geographical and cultural confines of our courses is that curriculum diversity of all kinds is a powerful tool in attracting and engaging more diverse students, who will then become more diverse faculty.

The problem is that we are trying to diversify a subject whose borders we have intentionally constrained – and so however much we try to change the game, the rules by which we play ensure that the status quo prevails. If we really want diversity, we need to relinquish our nineteenth-century disciplinary framework.

One option would be to split Classics up into its component parts: there’s already a trend for separate degrees in ancient history and/or classical archaeology, and for ancient history to be grouped institutionally with history, classical archaeology with archaeology.

A risk with generalizing this approach, however, is that even fewer students from schools that don’t teach Greek and Latin have the opportunity to learn the languages that will give them a direct encounter with the words and ideas of the people they study, as well as a good chance of a research career. Another, from the perspective of language and literature specialists, is that the parlous position of modern languages in the UK and elsewhere does not offer an encouraging example of going it alone.

Better I think would be to do the opposite: join forces with neighouring departments with a focus on antiquity such as Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology, if not at departmental level then at least in terms of our degree courses. We could start by simply counting each other’s courses towards our own degrees. And we could require all our students to learn at least one ancient language from scratch at university, abolishing the ridiculous unfairness whereby Classics students who have had the unusual privilege of learning Greek and Latin at school get a pass on basic language training at university, luxuriating in the further fields of subjects they have studied for years while their less-expensively educated peers battle with one or both languages as well as with a whole new world.

What to do about staff sexual harassment within your university


Dr. Anna Bull of the 1752 Group gave a spirited and powerful address at our AGM in April. Here she outlines some practical steps that can be taken to tackle the problems the group addresses in your institution. You can find her on Twitter at @anna_bull_; The 1752 Group tweet at @1752group.

An urgent issue to address in relation to gender inequalities in higher education is sexual harassment and misconduct by university staff. I spoke at the recent Women’s Classical Committee AGM on this issue, on behalf of The 1752 Group, a research and lobby organisation which is working nationally in this area. There is a lot of scope for practical action within individual institutions, and attendees were particularly interested in hearing about these ideas, so in this blog post I discuss some of these.

If you want to read more about the wider issues of staff sexual misconduct, you can read our comment pieces in the Huffington Post and on HE blog Wonkhe as well as analysis by The 1752 Group co-founder Tiffany Page along with Leila Whitley in New Formations. We use the term ‘sexual misconduct’ to encompass a broader range of behaviours than just sexual harassment or assault including grooming, bullying, sexual invitations, comments, non-verbal communication, creation of atmospheres of discomfort, or promised resources in exchange for sexual access. In short, it involves forms of power enacted by academic and professional staff in their relations with undergraduate and postgraduate students, or between staff members.

Find allies.

First and most importantly, find allies and make the issue a collective one. Acting alone, for example by whistleblowing, making an individual complaint, or approaching a perpetrator of sexual misconduct to discuss their behaviour, puts you at risk of retaliation. The more people who are working together on this issue, the more likely that you will be able to challenge powerful individuals who are sexually harassing students or covering up for others who do so. Choose allies carefully by sounding people out first (bearing in mind that those perpetrating abuse or harassment may also have support within a union). It may be necessary to start by acting informally, for example asking around about stories of sexual harassment and misconduct, and offering to be in touch with students speaking about these experiences.

There may be someone in a position of power within your institution who is willing to be a ‘champion’ or spokesperson on the issue of staff-student sexual misconduct. There are often people in senior positions willing to be allies but who are unaware of the situation at hand, so you may wish to approach a member of the senior management team at your institution who is likely to be sympathetic. Leadership is key to bringing about institutional cultural change around this issue. Try to find someone in a senior leadership position who will be prepared to put their neck out if it comes to fighting entrenched power.

You may become aware of forms of sexual misconduct or ongoing sexual harassment which you are not experiencing yourself. While it may not be possible to start an inquiry without student complaints, it is still possible for a member of staff or union representative to alert the responsible people named on institutional policies that there is an ongoing issue. There should be someone from the senior management team named in such policies. They are likely to respond that there is nothing they can do without a formal complaint. However, if they have previously declared their commitment to ‘zero tolerance’ of sexual harassment (a commonly-used and often meaningless phrase) then there may be other actions that can be taken to change the culture within the institution.

Audit existing policies.

Pull together all the policies you can find on sexual harassment (usually subsumed into generic bullying and harassment policies), staff student relationship policies (sometimes called conflict of interest policies), and complaints procedures. Examine all relevant policies alongside each other. You tell if it’s potentially a good policy if there is a recognition that staff and students are not equal in relationships. Better policies include at least two named people that students can report incidents to. Ideally, there should also be a named ‘Champion’ for this issue on senior management, to approach if complaints stall or disappear.

Make sure the policy (if it is a fairly good one) is easily available, for example by putting it up on noticeboards and public spaces. If it is inadequate, for example, by including a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ position on staff student sexual relationships, containing phrases such as ‘we trust both parties to behave with integrity’, then you can still make it visible but annotate it with your critical commentary.

The 1752 Group recommends that universities have a bespoke policy for staff-student sexual misconduct, as the difficulties and power imbalances that this form of harassment involves cannot be covered by generic policies. A further action you can take is therefore to lobby your institution for a bespoke policy on staff-student sexual harassment and on staff-student sexual relationships. A crucial difference is that harassment and bullying policies usually have an initial stage of ‘informal mediation’ where it is suggested that the complainant approach the person harassing them and ask them to stop. Given the power imbalance that characterises staff-student teaching relationships as well as many staff-staff relationships, this is inappropriate for sexual harassment and misconduct.

Examine complaints procedures.

Imagine that you are one of the people in these accounts of sexual harassment at university. Go through the complaints procedure and think about how you would experience making a complaint. Where are the blocks?

Start discussions within your institution about staff-student sexual relationships and sexual misconduct. Playwright Phil Thomas has made her short play about this topic publicly available under a Creative Commons licence. The play is entitled ‘The Girls Get Younger Every Year’, and puts forward one postgraduate student’s experience of a relationship of ‘blurred lines’ and exploitation of power during her studies. A play reading of this piece sets the scene well for a discussion of the complexities of this issue. This is an event that we have successfully held. Other events could include discussions or talks. These need to focus on the power imbalance and the ways in which this makes students vulnerable, an awareness which tends to be absent from discussions of this issue.

Find any other ways you can to hold institutions accountable.

Universities should be able to give clear statements of their position on this issue. You can ask the Pro-VC for student services or another senior figure in your institution to give such a statement. Here’s what we think universities should be doing:

  • Recognise & publicly acknowledge there is a problem
  • Recognise they don’t have the expertise to deal with this
  • Provide leadership from senior management – dedicate a Champion
  • Develop specific policies and reporting procedures on sexual misconduct
  • Provide support for students who have made a complaint, both during and after the complaints process
  • Train a dedicated officer as part of their job description to be the point of contact within the university
  • Invest in research and gather data: know what is happening within the institution as well as nationally; communicate & share with other universities

Finally, recognise that this work can be very draining, and may involve a heavy investment of emotional labour. Practice self-care; do what you can. We can’t change everything at once, and this work takes time, but it’s important to start.

Starting out in the 1960s, working class and female


We are delighted that Professor Dame Averil Cameron has shared the text of the keynote speech that she gave at our 2017 AGM with us for publication on the blog. Her experience resonated with many in the room, and we feel privileged to be able to share her reflections with a wider audience. The WCC UK Administrator has taken the liberty of adding the hyperlinks.

I was encouraged to be autobiographical for the WCC AGM in April, and so I will start from what things were like when I got my first job as an assistant lecturer in classics in the mid 1960s and during my time as a student in Oxford before that. It is an age ago, and things were very different then.

First some background information about myself and about the context. I got my first degree at Oxford (more later), and my first job was in language and literature in the Classics department at King’s College London. Then in 1970 I was very fortunate to move into a specifically ancient history job, of which there were then very few outside Oxbridge, and much much later, in 1989, into a post designated as late antique and Byzantine (when I started, Peter Brown was in Oxford, but he was in the history faculty and late antiquity hadn’t been invented yet). I did not imagine I would ever return to Oxford, but I came back in 1994 as the head (Warden) of Keble College, originally a men’s college, and I retired from Keble in 2010. So my own career was in two places, London and Oxford, punctuated by several stays in the US, at Columbia in New York, Princeton and Berkeley, with visits to other US universities including Duke, all of which had a hugely important impact on my development.  That is relevant because I believe profoundly that at least for a historian, a person’s own history and experience have an enormously important role in how they approach their subject, and in what subjects they are drawn to.

So class first; what was it like to be a working class classicist at the end of the 1950s?  I was at school in the 1950s, and amazingly got in to Oxford to read classics (then known as Greats, or Lit. Hum., from the course’s official name, Literae Humaniores) at Somerville College in 1958.  I grew up in Leek, a small town in North Staffordshire, much the same size today as it was then, though very different in terms of its economy and to a lesser extent its demography. My father spent his entire working life in a paper factory (we called it a paper mill), incidentally owned by the family to which Vera Brittain belonged. My mother did not have a job after they got married, and probably regretted it, but for my father it was a point of principle that his wife did not have to go out to work, and so she stayed at home. Her sister, who had no children, worked in a textile mill for most of her life, and I know my mother envied her the freedom. We lived in a typical two-up two-down terraced house with no bathroom and no hot water. I was the only pupil in my primary school to pass the 11 plus, and it was quite common for parents to say that if their children ‘passed the scholarship’ they would not let them go because the grammar school was ‘stuck up’ – more probably in fact because they would have to spend money on the uniform or because they expected them to leave school early and contribute to the household. Certainly it was quite common for children still living at home to be asked to pay rent to their parents. I must say that my own parents always supported me and encouraged me, but I still remember that I never had uniform from the recommended shop – usually it was homemade, or not quite right. As far as I was aware I was the only girl in the school with brown hockey boots instead of black, probably because my mother had got them in a sale (they were also too big) and not surprisingly I wasn’t very good at hockey. One of my ambitions was also to have real Kiltie sandals like my best friend Marjorie.

I got into Oxford because of two people – my classics teacher, who saw something in me and did everything she could to encourage it, and the late lamented Dr John Pinsent, a larger-than-life classics lecturer at Liverpool, who taught me Greek on a summer school to which my classics teacher had taken me and told me I had to go to Oxford and to choose Somerville (no mixed colleges then). I knew nothing about it, so I did what he said and when Cambridge offered me a scholarship I turned it down for Somerville. My parents were out of their depth, but they did everything they could for me, even though they must have known that going to Oxford would take me away from Leek and away from them.  That was in fact the case, and it’s sad. I well remember going back even during my first vacation and already feeling strangely out of place.

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To the edges of normality: Argonauts and the diversity of Classics


Helen Lovatt, Professor of Classics at the University of Nottingham, spoke at our 2017 AGM on ‘To the Edges of Normality: Myth, Reception and Argonauts’; this blog post is based on that talk. You can also find Prof. Lovatt on Twitter.

In a recent Eidolon article, Johanna Hanink calls for a new discipline of ‘Critical Classical Reception Studies’, that challenges Eurocentric models of the Classical Tradition. Hanink emphasises that we should not overstate the case for the importance of Greek and Roman civilisations in world culture. But she does also acknowledge that:

‘Certain classicists, of course, are already working to disrupt, interrogate, and critique the Eurocentrism of the authorized narratives of Greco-Roman antiquity and its tradition. It’s what scholars who work on ancient connectivity and cosmopolitanism, and on non-canonical classical periods, authors, and texts, have been doing for years.’

This critical mode is exactly what the WCC day on diversity and Classics was trying to encourage. My contribution is really from the perspective of someone who has always brought the non-canonical into contact with the highly canonised. When I first decided to work on Statius, my director of studies looked incredulous and rather horrified. Now, of course, it is hardly a controversial choice, and the Oxford University Press book stall at the 2017 Classical Association conference had a special display of commentaries on Flavian epic.

My contribution to ‘Critical Classics’, if we want to call it that, in this post, is to remind ourselves that Classics is already a vast, varied and diverse discipline. For every ‘Great Man’ module there is another on slavery or sexuality. Classics is important because it includes many different things: it is an area study of the ancient Mediterranean, not just Greece and Rome, but also the Near East, North Africa, the Celts. It is not just literature, but linguistics, epigraphy, palaeography, material culture, visual culture, philosophy, history. Chronologically it ranges from pre-history to the present day (via reception studies), with a central focus on the millennia either side of the birth of Christ. The interactions between Classics and other cultures is also fascinating, but Classics is not in great demand at the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus, and this is not particularly surprising. Real collaboration and engagement between cultures, which does not impose, but allows dialogue, is an exciting area for the future: the Globalizing Ovid conference which is taking place at Shanghai at the end of May 2017 looks like a promising example of this.

The Argonaut myth is a particularly interesting one for approaching the diversity of Classics. It takes its start from the fragmentary beginnings of myth and the difficult questions of the relationship with myths of earlier cultures, mostly in the Near East. It enshrines narratives of colonisation, but questions and problematises them (the Argonauts are sent by a Greek tyrant to steal from a matching Eastern tyrant in an advanced civilisation elsewhere). It is used as an image of exploration by those who colonised the Americas. It puts centre stage the importance of sexuality in contrast to war, and leaves heroism to the barbarian woman. It is re-used in a myriad of ways for a myriad of purposes in all sorts of cultural contexts. It is particularly important in less valorised cultural contexts, such as genre fiction and children’s literature.

Another research question to add to my list: how European is the Argonaut myth? Can we tell a non-Eurocentric version of it? Where are the boundaries of Europe anyway? Technically the Argonauts precisely depart from Europe when they cross the Bosphorus. But if they are still in the Hellenic sphere of influence, what difference does that make?

Rather than policing how we speak about our subject and its importance, how about letting the richness and complexity of the material make its own case. Let us keep bringing out the less well-travelled parts of Classics and re-reading Classics from different perspectives, as intersectional feminists who also care about the ancient world.

Gendering the MOOC – Helen King


Helen King, Professor Emerita of Classical Studies at the Open University, spoke at our 2017 AGM on Gendering the MOOC; this blog post is based on her talk there. You can also find Prof. King on Twitter.

Gendering the MOOC

I’ve discussed elsewhere the origins and the experience of the MOOC on ‘Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World’ and both my collaborator Laurence Totelin and I have also reflected on the process of writing it; here’s me and here’s Laurence. But I’d like to add some thoughts specifically on gender.

The learners

Learners (FutureLearn terminology for those taking the course) are invited to complete a beginning-of-course survey: 75% identified as female. Only a small fraction – around 7% – completed this survey, a response rate consistent with other comparable FutureLearn MOOCs, so perhaps women are more likely to ‘conform’ by responding to the invitation. However, from the indicator to which I had most access – the identities of those responding to the ‘Comments’ thread in each step of the MOOC – I also found that the majority were female. Perhaps this is because the MOOC not only attracts people in Classical Studies, but is designed to appeal to those in health care, who are more likely to be women.

The syllabus

We made sure both men’s and women’s experiences were covered, and in addition Week 5 (of 6) was on ‘Conception, Generation and Sexuality’. Within this, we ranged from myths involving birth to theories of conception, positions for giving birth, and the process of puberty in girls. This week also included the presence of men at births, and infertility; we made it clear that men as well as women could be held responsible for this.

As someone who was at university when women’s lives and experiences played a very small part in the curriculum, I was pleased to have this entire week when – although men were definitely present in the materials – women were foregrounded. However, not all learners shared my enthusiasm. Most learners on FutureLearn are not native English speakers, and I had selected contributors to the audio and video to get away from the Oxbridge accent (!), including northern English voices and people with Belgian, American and Australasian backgrounds. But those who commented on each step were largely white, UK or US nationals, aged in the 50+ bracket (information on this can be gleaned from their profiles, which can be accessed by any learner by clicking on their name when they post a comment). The majority – both men and women – said they loved Week 5, although from the women there was repeated surprise at what they perceived as the sexism of ancient thought. Following from this, it was women who thought they’d had enough on the topic and wanted to move on; I got the impression that they thought it was only in this area of life that ‘sexism’ existed. A man did ask why there was nothing on men growing up and I pointed out there were a lot of soldiers in week 6, which was focused on mobility.

The approach to learning

We wanted to avoid the model of ‘the expert faces the camera and tells you the facts’, and to create an awareness that knowledge is open to debate, so our model was an interview in which the interviewer was trying to find out more. Each week began with a brief discussion of the ancient and modern aspects of the topic, with me and Mathijs Lucassen, whose PhD is in psychiatry but whose background includes both Classics and occupational therapy. Some learners were disturbed that I needed to ask questions – I was expected to have all the answers already! A key learning point was that neither material culture nor texts contain all the answers, and that sometimes they clash. Another was that we need to know who is telling us this; cherry-picking ‘quotes’ from ancient authors isn’t enough.

By avoiding the position of ‘expert’, however, I think we helped learners to share their own expertise in the Comments sections – and they had a huge range of knowledge of both classical studies and medicine. Learners commented that certain sections made them question their assumptions (e.g. on how votive offerings worked). There was far more ‘personal sharing’ of experiences than I’d anticipated. Some debates, particularly on herbal medicine and on homeopathy, were intense but polite, and it was a female learner who became the ‘voice of science’ and who was called this by other learners.

And finally, an interesting case of ‘everyday sexism’. Each week’s opening interview took place in an OU recording studio, a room full of ancient computers. Several learners (mostly male) were baffled as to ‘why Mathijs has so many old computers in his office’!