by Amanda Potter
I found out about the Brilliant Club soon after I had completed my PhD with the Open University, and it seemed like a great idea. The charity places PhD students and early career academics in schools, to deliver university style lectures to small groups of the brightest pupils. This provides them with an insight into what it is like to study at university, and to encourage them to pursue a university education after school. The Brilliant Club works with a range of non-selective state schools across the UK, in areas where pupils are unlikely to go on to study at a highly-selective university.
After applying I was invited to attend an assessment centre in London; this was tough, with a group exercise, and interview and, most important, delivering an eight minute lesson. That’s not very long, but I managed to fit in a group discussion, short passages from Ovid and Apollodorus, and a clip of the Doctor Who episode ‘The God Complex’ featuring a Minotaur. After being successful (around 50% of applicants are) I designed a course on Greek myth on film and television, which was related to, but not entirely based on, my doctoral research on viewer reception of Greek myth on television.
I decided to cover a mixture of myth and theories that would appeal to both boys and girls. My first lesson focused on defining myth, with a case study on Herakles, using passages from Ovid and Apollodorus and a clip from the beginning of the 2014 film Hercules, featuring Dwayne Johnson. My second lesson was on Theseus and the Minotaur, with a discussion of the difference between an ancient hero and a modern hero and clips from Doctor Who and Atlantis alongside Ovid and Apollodorus.
Then I moved on to feminist theory and the classics, and the pupils compared versions of the story of Pandora from Hesiod, websites, books on Greek myths aimed at younger readers and the Charmed episode ‘Little Box of Horrors’. The pupils were asked to decide whether representations of Pandora were misogynist, feminist or neutral.
My fourth lesson, on the Amazons, featured the passage from Herodotus on the Sauromatai, stories and images of Amazon warriors, some information on excavations of Scythian graves, and a clip from the Xena: Warrior Princess episode ‘Hooves and Harlots’. The pupils were asked to discuss how the stories of the Amazons could have been based on fact (the nomadic women of the Eurasian Steppes buried with weapons and horses). In my fifth and final ‘teaching’ lesson I covered the Sirens in a passage from the Odyssey and a clip from the Xena: Warrior Princess episode ‘Ulysses’. Pupils had use of tablets in this lesson, and were encouraged to search for what a Siren could have looked like, and to look up reviews of films and television episodes to find out what other people thought about some of the films and episodes we had been discussing.
After lesson five the students completed their final assignments over the Easter holidays: a 2,000 word essay with references and bibliography on a film or television episode based on a myth of their choice, with reference to one or more ancient source texts. The sixth lesson was designed to give and receive feedback on the assignment and the course as a whole.
I was offered places at Varndean school in Brighton in Spring 2015, and then at Plashet School in East Ham in Spring 2016, to deliver a course to year ten pupils (fourteen and fifteen year olds). The two schools were very different. Varndean is a school in a suburb of Brighton attended by predominantly white British boys and girls. Plashet School is an all-girls school situated within the Asian community in East London. I wondered how my course would be received by pupils from very different backgrounds. The first lessons were delivered as part of a university launch trip, at Sussex University in Brighton and SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London respectively, and I need not have worried. Each of my groups of six students (two groups from each school) were enthusiastic about the topic. Many of the students were already familiar with some of the Greek myths, from reading storybooks such as Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek myths or the Percy Jackson books and films.
At Varndean I taught seven boys and five girls, and I had wondered how much the feminist theory element of the course would resonate with the boys, but was pleasantly surprised. In the homework and final assignment the boys emphasised examples of misogyny in the films, for example how Atalanta’s skill with a bow and arrow in Hercules (2014) disproves the initial view of a male character that fighting is not a job for a woman. I also found that many of the girls at Plashet already thought of themselves as feminists. They were able to engage in discussions about ambiguous portrayals of female characters like the Amazons in Xena: Warrior Princess. These active characters could be seen as positive role models for women, but their revealing outfits tend to undermine the feminist message of the series.
I tried to make my sessions as interactive as possible, and used a lot of post-it notes. These allowed students to rate the films or television episodes they had been watching, by writing down and sharing a personal score with the group, without this score first being influenced by fellow pupils. Post-it notes were also used to help students to share characteristics of heroes and Amazons; for example, creating a continuum from ‘fierce’ to ‘selfless’ worked very well to show the difference between the ancient concept of a hero versus the modern concept. I also tended to agree that both heroes and Amazons needed to be a bit ‘nutty’, although this is not a word I would have initially thought of myself! I found I had some television series fans in the Varndean group (a description of Amazons as ‘Klingonian’ was inspired) and even the quiet boy who said that he did not watch much television enjoyed watching the films and episodes that formed part of the homework.
I was particularly impressed with the final assignments. At Varndean most of the students chose to work on one of the films or television episodes covered in the course, but the three pupils I awarded a 1 grading (aligning with the university-style marking scheme) conducted independent research into new films and episodes. One of the boys chose to cover Jason and The Argonauts (1963), a film he liked very much, and I suggested he read the Argonautica of Apollonius as his ancient source. He came away surprised how much the film missed out. A classical reception student in the making, perhaps? And one of the girls has now become a Charmed fan and another one a Xena fan, getting her mum to buy her a box set of Xena for her birthday.
The students at Plashet were more adventurous with their assignments, and most chose a film and myth not covered on the course for their final assignments. The two girls who did choose a myth we had covered, Pandora from Hesiod and the Charmed episode, both supplemented my material with some new ideas. One girl chose to compare Charmed with Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003) and the other drew parallels with the Biblical story of Eve. Other myths the girls chose were the stories of Medusa, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hephaestus and Echo and Narcissus. Again I awarded three pupils a 1 grading.
At the final feedback sessions many of the students told me that they would have liked to have studied a longer course. I agreed that there was a lot more I could have taught them. At Plashet one of the girls said they had never met anyone who loved Greek myth as much as I did, and because I was so enthusiastic this made them enthusiastic too. I hope that some of the girls and boys from Vardean and Plashet decide to apply for university places (and perhaps one or two might even think about a course in classics). And if I have inspired the students, they have certainly inspired me. I am looking forward to working with a new group of students, perhaps from a different school, in 2017.
If any colleagues are interested in finding out more about the Brilliant Club, or would like to apply to take part in the scholars’ programme, information is available online here.