iris magazine: classics in the class room 
Sunday, September 16, 2007, 01:19 PM
iris, the outreach magazine which promotes the study of classics in the state sector, is now one year old. Issue 4 is devoted to the cities of the ancient world with articles on the Roman water supply and how Virtual Reality modelling can help reconstruct life in an ancient villa and (for light relief) a quiz to determine which ancient city you’d most like to live in (Alexandria in my case apparently).

As always, iris offers plenty of quirky items, such as a profile of Evan Millner, creator of the Latinum podcast and the opportunity to test your knowledge of Latin by translating album titles (such as certe fortasse and canis vir stella) back into English. I fear that these, even when translated, may seem like ancient history to iris’s target readership!

The state/private school divide (with classics offered almost exclusively by private schools) can be roughly mapped onto the old/new university divide. At this level Classics Departments are of course only found in old universities.

Yet in fact classical texts (at least in translation) are more accessible to today’s students than are many classics of English literature. Where I teach, at Anglia Ruskin University, English students take a course on tragedy in which they spend the whole of the first semester reading Greek and Roman plays in translation. Students who are bored by Jane Austen or baffled by Dryden respond quite readily to Sophocles and Euripides.

This is perhaps partly because a potted summary of the tragedy module reads like the cover of Heat magazine, and partly because the classical world is so omnipresent in popular culture – the BBC Rome serial and 300 are just two very recent examples of this permeation.

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Boris Johnson’s The Dream of Rome:Classical Diaspora 
Tuesday, September 11, 2007, 04:02 PM
This is an excellent, accessible introduction to Rome’s history, written with wit and flair, and filled with whimsical speculations about the many different people (both real individuals and composite, imagined figures) who lived in the Empire.

Johnson reimagining of Rome is presented in a modern idiom – the rebels in Gaul are ‘Romanosceptics’ – and he writes entertainingly about the different ways in which countries have tried to position themselves as Rome’s heirs, although his main focus is on affinities and disjunctures between the Roman Empire and the EU.

Whereas Britain (or the British Empire) could once claim kinship with Rome, today the United States is more likely to invite such comparisons while Great Britain, with more cultural capital than military muscle, now perhaps plays the role of Greece. (Maybe there is a link between the American taste for English nannies and the Roman tendency to employ Greek (slave) tutors.)

National identity has played a complex and fascinating part in classical reception. In conjunction with Duckworth Publishers I am editing a series of books, ‘Classical Diaspora’, to reflect and extend the growing importance of reception studies within Classics. The first two monographs in the series will be on China and Russia.


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Holiday Reading: Marks out of Ten 
Thursday, August 30, 2007, 08:21 PM
Sam Bourne: The Last Testament (6.5/10)

Exciting, well paced thriller set in the Middle East. What is the link between an ancient clay tablet and the current peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis? The characterisation and writing are both a bit clunky but Bourne (aka the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland) offers a nuanced and informed take on the political and historical issues at stake.

Daphne Du Maurier: The House on the Strand (7/10)

I very much enjoyed rereading My Cousin Rachel last summer – The House on the Strand (which I read years ago but had completely forgotten) is less successful overall, but still intriguing. The central character, Dick, becomes addicted to a mysterious chemical (manufactured by his old friend Magnus, a research scientist) which takes him back to the fourteenth century where he witnesses a series of (mostly unfortunate) events. The historical section is less compelling than the protagonist’s fraught relationships with his wife Vita and with Magnus.

Edward Bulwer Lytton: The Coming Race (7/10)

Fascinating as a very early (1871) work of SF – the narrator discovers a strange race of advanced humanoids living under the earth – but a bit static as a work of fiction. Rather like Swift’s Houyhnhnms, the powerful and peaceful Vril have sacrificed artistic genius and passion in their quest for order and stability.

Stephen Baxter: Navigator (7.5/10)

The third in Baxter’s strangely compelling ‘Time’s Tapestry’ series, an exploration of how meddlers from the future are trying to change the course of history by sending mysterious ‘prophecies’ and warnings into the past. The second, Conqueror, is still the best so far in my opinion. However Navigator’s depiction of the Reconquista is effective - the distinction drawn between the urbane, tolerant Muslims and the fanatical Christians - or should that be Christianists - is pleasing, if predictable.

Eliza Lynn Linton: The Rebel of the Family (8.5/10)

I’m a great fan of slightly second rate Victorian novelists – writers such as Dinah Craik and Charlotte Yonge offer insights into everyday life which sometimes seem lacking in Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot. One of my favourite of these ‘also rans’ is Rhoda Broughton who continued writing well into the twentieth century – indeed her A Fool in her Folly (published in 1920 but set around 1860) can be seen as a harbinger of the current fashion for Neo-Victorianism – here she explicitly states that she is writing about matters which are either too sexy or too humdrum to have been addressed in the Victorian novel proper.

The Rebel of the Family is not a brilliant novel but its flaws and oddnesses are what make it so fascinating. Written by the supposedly conservative social commentator, Eliza Lynn Linton, it doesn’t seem to know whether to sympathise with Perdita, its gawky, rebellious heroine, or condemn her. It is perhaps best known today for its (negative) portrait of a lesbian character, Bell Blount, Man-hating Bell may not be a very attractive character, but the exploits of Perdita’s mercenary and conventional mother and sisters seem calculated to flatter rather than depress the heroine’s wish for an independent career. The novel is still a real page turner and the Broadview Press edition is excellent.
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Double Trouble: Christopher Priest 
Thursday, August 9, 2007, 06:29 PM
My research into doubles (as part of a new project on uncanny allusion) has involved rereading lots of familiar nineteenth-century texts (such as R.L. Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae and Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’).

But I’ve also been pursuing the Double into the twentieth and twenty first centuries and discovering some excellent contemporary novels in the process, including many by my latest favourite writer, Christopher Priest – sorry, I mean Christopher Priest. For Christopher Priest is plagued by a real life double as well as being the creator of many fascinating fictional examples.

Priest is an underrated writer, partly because his novels are generally, to some degree, science fictional. Thus his latest novel, The Separation (2002), won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award but was otherwise comparatively overlooked. His cool, detached style is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro while his ingenious, speculative subject matter is closer to David Mitchell.

It is to be hoped that the film version of perhaps the best Priest novel, The Prestige will introduce more readers to his works. The film is good – but the book is even better.

Intriguingly, the spooky doubles which crop in so many of his novels become even more spooky if you read them as a set rather than in isolation. Try reading The Affirmation, The Prestige and then The Separation in quick succession and you’ll see what I mean ….

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AHRC block grants for postgraduates: a missed opportunity? 
Tuesday, July 31, 2007, 08:14 AM
I attended a useful workshop on the AHRC’s proposed new method of postgraduate funding yesterday. Rather than all applications being handled by the AHRC, as at present, 80% of awards will be allocated to institutions as ‘block grants’. Students will apply to these institutions directly rather than go via the AHRC. 20% of awards will still be ‘open’ and will only go to students applying for places at institutions who don’t have these block grants.

An institution can only apply for a block grant (and I think the smallest block will comprise 10 awards) if they have a good track record of attracting successful AHRC applicants. So institutions like my own, Anglia Ruskin, would not be eligible to apply as we get very few research council funded graduate students.

In so far as I understand the new system the changes are unlikely to have much effect on us. We can still hope to attract the odd AHRC funded student through open competition so we won’t be disadvantaged by not having the ‘block grants’.

But I think this could have been an opportunity not simply to (effectively) maintain the status quo but to recognise the efforts of departments which, when it comes to attracting excellent research students, punch below their weight.

Thus my own department got a 5 in the last RAE but doesn’t attract many postgraduates who are likely to get research council funding because it is a new university and thus lacks kudos. For, despite our rather – ur – forceful poster campaign we aren’t poaching all that many students from Cambridge University, as yet.

If the AHRC could give departments/institutions like ours very small block grants (of say 3 awards) that would help redistribute students better amongst qualified supervisors - at present young and inexperienced supervisors at Russell Group Universities are probably likely to have more, good graduate students than more senior figures at new universities.

I realise that other factors, such as library provision, training and general research environment are important, not just the qualifications of individual supervisors, but still think the AHRC might, perhaps in the future, consider the case for a mild redistribution in favour of the many excellent departments to be found in the new university sector.

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