Tragedy in Transition: A new collection of essays from Blackwell (eds Sarah Annes Brown and Catherine Silverstone) 
Thursday, October 25, 2007, 10:13 AM
There seemed a time when Tragedy in Transition would remain permanently in transition. This was the first essay collection either of us had edited and I certainly hadn’t fully realised how many complicated stages would intervene between commissioning the essays and seeing the final result in print.

Although I do realise things could have been a lot worse. Only one contributor dropped out, all the essays were excellent, and, even though not everyone quite made the official deadline, everything was still collected in time to ensure the volume was out before the crucial RAE cut off point. And the whole project was really well managed by Blackwell.

One of the things I most enjoy about teaching Tragedy is the chance it offers both students and academics to transgress the period boundaries which confine so many papers/modules – to write about tragedians from 5th century Athens, Renaissance England and 21st century America within a single essay. Tragedy in Transition takes full advantage of this freedom, and I’ve certainly learnt a great deal from all the (very different) essays collected in the volume.

Introduction: Tragedy in Transition: Sarah Annes Brown
1. Trojan Suffering, Tragic Gods and Transhistorical Metaphysics: Edith Hall
2. Hardcore Tragedy: Ewan Fernie
3. Tragedy and Disgust: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
4. Tragedy and the Sign of the Eclipse: Anne C. Henry
5. Jonson's too Roman Plays: From Julius Caesar to Sejanus and Catiline: John Henderson
6. Neoclassicisms: Raphael Lyne
7. Tragedy and Exile: Jennifer Wallace
8. Narratives of Tragic Empathy: Prometheus Bound and Frankenstein: Vanda Zajko
9. Tragedy and Childhood: Peter Hollindale (formerly of the University of York)
10. Parricide versus Filicide: Oedipus and Medea on the Modern Stage: Fiona Macintosh
11. 'Suffering into Wisdom': The Tragedy of Wilde: Alison Hennegan
12. Tarzan of Athens: Wilson Knight and Wole Soyinka: Neil Rhodes
13. Postmodern Tragedy?: Returning to John Ford: Mark Houlahan
14. Tragedy and the Future: Rowland Wymer
Afterword: Ending Tragedy: Catherine Silverstone

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Terry Pratchett's Making Money: The Rise (and Fall) of Discworld 
Sunday, October 14, 2007, 12:33 PM

Some Spoilers!

The Discworld series took a little while to get into its stride but before too long TP was producing the novels, and the characters, which would ensure his continuing cult status - Mort, Wyrd Sisters and Guards, Guards are among the best of these early books.

There are many good reasons for Pratchett’s success. His witty, inventive novels can be appreciated on different levels, and thus appeal both to children and to more sophisticated readers – A.S. Byatt, for example, is a fan. Although some of the humour is very broad, he can write with surprising subtlety about complex topics such as the nature of government or gender roles.

One of the most impressive things about Pratchett is his refusal to stick with tried and tested formulae. Rather than offering his readers the mixture as before, he has genuinely developed Discworld over the years. Night Watch (2002), although the 29th in the series, was in my opinion perhaps the best so far, as well as one of the darkest.

The next in the series, Monstrous Regiment, kept up the high standards of its predecessor. Once again Pratchett takes risks. The story is set in the country of Borogravia rather than in the city of Ankh-Morpork and (a fact that clearly irked a section of Pratchett's fanbase)its characters are almost all female.

It is therefore a great pity that the last three Discworld books have been so very disappointing. Going Postal was acceptable, Thud was unmemorable, and the latest effort, Making Money is very routine, perhaps the very weakest of the series so far. Despite a few funny moments Pratchett seems to be writing the jokes on automatic pilot and, given that it is now clear that the next novel, Raising Taxes, is to be a direct sequel, I don’t have high hopes for the series’ recovery.

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Yes to Tesco on Mill Road 
Sunday, October 7, 2007, 09:24 AM
There has been much local agitation on Mill Road (Cambridge) about a proposed new Tesco store which, it is claimed, will jeopardise the many small individual shops in the area.

But although some of these businesses are indeed excellent – such as Al Amin, Black Cat Café and Andrew Northrop Butchers – others are not. And some of the worst shops are those which Tesco would be most likely to threaten, dreary Kwik-E-Mart chains of various sorts selling overpriced and poor quality food and wine.

One message on an ‘anti’ site was complaining about the ‘gentrification’ of the area. I found this objection baffling as the kind of small independent shops which campaigners are so keen on are themselves the a reflection of Mill Road’s rising house prices and increasingly middle class home owners.

In fact I’m sure that many older, more traditional, residents, who perhaps don’t care for health food shops, trendy cafes, Italian delis and hippy bookshops, would be very pleased to have a Tesco round the corner, particularly if they don’t have access to a car.

And I expect that many of those against a Mill Road Tesco regularly drive to an out of town supermarket. Why shouldn’t the same opportunity be extended to less mobile residents?

Finally, it’s by no means always the case that big chain stores drive out small, individual shops. Recently a new business on Mill Road used better stocks, aggressive marketing and competitive pricing to drive out a long established rival. The victor was independent Mr Stacey’s Most Excellent Video Emporium – and the loser was Blockbuster, the world’s largest chain of DVD rental stores.

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John Redwood and the 'minimum entry hurdle' 
Friday, October 5, 2007, 01:46 PM
Two apparently separate stories in the latest Times Higher (5.10.08) reflect the difficulties involved in ‘widening participation’ within higher education. One is a report of a speech made by John Redwood at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. He claimed that student numbers had expanded ‘for the sake of it’ and that ‘there is a higher dropout rate from those universities whose entry requirements are less onerous’.

It is often remarked - usually by people who assume that their own children will go to university - that we are trying to encourage too many young people into HE. Recently my neighbour at a (very smart) dinner remarked that it would be far more sensible to train as a plumber than get a mediocre degree leading to a mediocre desk job. (He also seemed surprised when I said that I’d expect more, in the way of background reading for example, from a candidate who’d been to a top private school than I would from a candidate from an ‘access’ type background.)

I don't suppose my neighbour would have thought it a waste of time to read, say, Classics at Cambridge. He – and John Redwood – would probably instead want to purge student places at new universities. These do indeed tend to have higher drop out rates and lower entry requirements. They also have a far greater proportion of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds than more traditional institutions.

That is of course part of the problem. If you went to a mediocre school, if your parents didn’t go to university, and if most of your friends are working, you are much more likely to find the transfer to university life a challenge. If your parents are professional graduates and you went to a high achieving school you will probably find completing your degree a lot more straightforward.

But new universities should be praised for the opportunities they offer such students rather than criticised because some still fail. I’ve taught students who’ve come from non traditional backgrounds with poor qualifications and whose work in the first year was barely passable but who improved so much that they managed to leave university with a good 2.1.

That point relates to the second THES story which caught my eye, the front page report on PhD failure rates. A table was included which showed what proportion of PhD students completed their degrees at a number of universities. Overwhelmingly the high performing institutions were ‘old’ universities while the new universities dominated the bottom section of the league.

But again it’s important to move beyond the headline statistics. Old universities attract full-time students with Research Council Funding. New universities tend to cater for less traditional students, often mature, working at a distance from the university, sometimes doing paid work or combining study with a family, only occasionally with funding. New universities may be working just as hard to support their students as old universities but they have a far more difficult job.

It could be argued that we are encouraging unsuitable people to undertake research. After all, if you didn’t get funding perhaps you aren’t up to a PhD. But that takes me back to my earlier point about undergraduates. The kind of student I identified earlier, the one who got 2 Es at A level and gradually made the massive jump up to a fair 2.1 degree, would be told not to bother to apply for funding if he wanted to do a PhD. A student who went to an excellent school, got 3 As, went to a Russell Group University and got a 1st might well get funding.

But, if we look at the trajectory rather than the final result, it might be that the first student had the greater potential to succeed in an academic career. If he was determined he might still do the PhD of course, perhaps self funded. But if he had to do paid work alongside his research then the odds against completing would be that much greater and he might well end up contributing to a new university’s drop out failure statistics.

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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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