Category Archives: Outreach and Engagement

A Classical Studies Talk at HMP Stafford

In this blog post, one of our Classical Studies PhD students, Kim Pratt, shares her recent experience of visiting a prison to give a talk to OU and other students.

On 13 November 2019 I took part in the latest round of the OU Research Events in Prisons. The scheme has been running since April 2018 in two prisons in The West Midlands – HMP Oakwood (near Wolverhampton) and HMP Stafford – and is open to both staff and PhD students at The Open University.

There was one other speaker with me on the day: Jess, a third and final year full-time PhD student in inclusive research and citizen science with the Institute of Educational Technology at the OU. As the talks were scheduled to start at 1.30 we arranged to meet Dr Shaun McMann, the manager of the Students in Secure Environments Team (SiSE), at 1pm to give time to get through security which, of course, is very tight. We weren’t allowed to take in any electrical appliances, memory sticks or mobile phones, all of which had to be left either in small lockers or in the office at the entrance. Even our PowerPoint presentations had to be emailed to Shaun in advance for him to send directly to the prison in time for our arrival. Our chaperone for the day was the sessional education contact, Liz Holland, who escorted us through many locked doors and gates across various outdoor quads to the education block and the room where we were to give our presentations. Here we met the attendees, including one named DJ, who was studying for a Classical Studies degree. He is at Stage 2 in a six-year part-time degree and had just started learning Ancient Greek, having already taken a module in Latin.

I was the first speaker and even though I had practised quite a few times, I admit, I did feel rather nervous when I began. The presentations are about 30-45 minutes long followed by a Q&A session but up until that time I had only given one three-minute lightning talk in January 2019, and although that was at an international conference with a large audience, the length of this presentation seemed rather daunting. However, everyone was very attentive and seemed to be enjoying the talk and I gradually became more relaxed. I felt particularly at ease when it came to the Q&A session at the end when I got to really engage with my audience. This really surprised me as it is a part I usually dread in case I can’t answer or indeed even understand what is being asked.

The title of my talk was ‘Why Classics?’ but because I have realised in the past that, surprisingly, quite a lot of people don’t really know what the subject is, I began with a brief explanation of ‘What is Classics?’. I then gave a few ‘fun facts’ about how we encounter the classical world in some way every day. When I started writing my, talk I got in touch with Emma Bridges for advice as she is now the Public Engagement Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies. She very kindly sent me a copy of a talk she had done recently to help with any ideas. She also suggested I include a bit about my own experience of how I came to be studying Classical Studies. This very helpful piece of advice was reiterated by my supervisors, Jo Paul and Peg Katritzky, at my next supervisor meeting. I explained how my first experience of studying Classics was in my (brilliant) primary school at the age of seven but that I didn’t get to pursue it further until I started my degree with the OU – many, many, years later. I ended this section with a brief description of my thesis which examines the ‘otherness’ of monsters. In this research I will be questioning what it is, other than appearance, that makes them monsters; I compare their actions with the heroes and gods, concentrating on an in-depth study of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, and Frankenstein’s ‘creature’.

It was clear, both on the day and from feedback that Shaun has received since, that both talks went down very well and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the day – I know I certainly did! The audience’s questions were intelligent and numerous and clearly showed they had been listening intently. I even had quite a few people come up and talk to me about it during the coffee break including one person who told me that he had always loved the story of Polyphemus and often used to tell it a long time ago when he was teaching but that I had now made him question his idea of Odysseus as the conquering hero! I thought this was a great response as not only is that the essence of my thesis but also because a main theme of my talk was how Classical Studies makes you think.

Jess’s research uses creative research methods to engage adults with learning difficulties in citizen science with the aim of identifying their capacity to engage, and the levels of support needed to engage this community, in a field they were previously excluded from. It turned out that a few of the attendees described themselves as having learning difficulties so her presentation had particular resonance with them.

There is a thriving OU community at both prisons, but the events are also open to non-OU students and are popular with both, usually attracting about fifteen to twenty attendees. At the session I went to, there were fifteen, six of whom were not yet studying although some were planning on starting in February 2020 and one who had already got a degree in Classics ‘a long time ago’. Anyone who is studying is registered for a six-year part-time degree and, in the group who attended at Stafford, there were three at Stage 1 (first/second year), four at Stage 2 (third/fourth year) and one at Stage 3 (fifth/sixth year). The students were studying a range of subjects: Business Studies, Social Science, International Studies, Creative Writing, Arts and Humanities, Science, and of course Classical Studies. So, in both academic terms and personality they were a very diverse and committed group.

All too soon, we were saying goodbye, and Liz was taking us back through all the locked doors and gates to the front office and locker room where we collected our belongings. The whole thing was an amazing and rewarding experience which I plan to repeat, hopefully more than once, during the next five years of my PhD – and I thoroughly recommend others to do the same!

Doctor Toga on Radio 1 – by Ursula Rothe

What to do when you get an email out of the blue from a BBC radio producer asking if you’re willing to be interviewed about the toga on a Radio 1 programme focusing on toga parties? You say yes, of course! I mean, you know it’s going to be silly, and you know you’re not going to be able to get much useful detail across. But on the other hand, everyone thinks they know what a toga looked like, when they rarely do: this was a golden opportunity for me as a Roman dress historian to challenge the misunderstanding surrounding Roman dress, and especially togas, and that to a large audience. After all, challenging misinformation and misconceptions about Roman dress is also the aim of my new website, Doctor Toga (www.drtoga.org ), a one-stop clinic for people from theatrical societies, re-enactment groups and the media to get expert advice on Roman dress for costumes.

The interview took place over the phone on Tuesday afternoon, and it involved Scott Mills and Chris Stark firing questions at me whilst also engaging in banter with each other. The line wasn’t brilliant, and it was not always easy, given the lack of visual cues, to know when to stop or start talking, but I think the result is pretty good nonetheless. It was clear they were trying to shock me with laddish innuendo at various stages, but Classical Studies scholars are not easy to offend – least of all Australian ones! I’m particularly pleased they left in my plug for my new website, although they did cut me talking about my upcoming book on the toga. Also, I was disappointed not to be able to tell them when they asked me when knickers were invented. (I must look that up.) But you can’t have it all!

It was interesting how much fun they made, at the beginning, of the idea that there might be someone who is an expert on the toga. Although perhaps somewhat confronting, it is always a healthy experience to be reminded of just how obscure the niche you inhabit is for some people. Let’s hope this kind of interview goes some way to convincing people that the classical world is still very much with us, and that it is a useful thing that there are people out there who spend their lives trying to understand it better. At the very least, let’s hope it will lead to a few more toga-like togas on the party circuit this freshers’ season!

You can find a link to the interview here (minutes 7.27-14.23): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p07p676x

Opening Up Classical Studies – ACE Event For Schools

We are pleased to announce a rescheduled date for our livestreamed Classical Studies event for schools, hosted by the Open University and the Advocating Classics Education project. This event will be held on 1st April from 1pm-4pm.

We invite you to join us for a live and interactive online broadcast in which you can learn more about Greek drama, listen to an interview with Professor Edith Hall about her recent book Aristotle’s Way and the relevance of Aristotelian philosophy in the modern world, and join in a discussion of ancient religion and votive objects. There will also be a Q&A session for teachers interested in developing the provision of classical civilisation in their schools.

If you would like to get involved, please find our more here, or email us for full information (Jan.Haywood@open.ac.uk or Christine.Plastow@open.ac.uk).

Programme for our ACE event, 12 March

As we announced in our last blog post, our event with the Advocating Classical Education project is just around the corner. We’re now very excited to reveal the programme for the afternoon! If you’re interested in attending the event through our live-streaming platform, see our previous post for contact details for an initial registration of interest. More details about what to expect from each session, and how to join in on the day, will be available soon – watch this space!

2pm            Introduction and welcome

2.15pm      The World of Greek Drama (Jan Haywood, Christine Plastow)

2.40pm       In Conversation with Mary Beard

3.15pm       Classical Studies Question Time (Mary Beard, Edith Hall, Elton Barker)

3.45pm       The Votives Project (E-J Graham, Jessica Hughes)

4.10pm       Keeping in Touch with Classical Studies at the OU

4.30pm       Teachers’ Q&A (Arlene Holmes-Henderson, Stephen Dobson, Virginia Campbell,          Stephen Dobson)

Save the date for our live-streamed ACE event!

The Classical Studies department at the Open University is pleased to announce our upcoming ACE event on the 12th of March 2018, 2-5 pm. This event is unique in the ACE programme for being live-streamed and open to any school groups or teachers, across the UK, to attend remotely.

As part of the AHRC-funded project, Advocating Classical Education, this public partnership event will feature a range of talks and activities promoting the study of Classical Civilisation. We are lucky to have Professor Mary Beard, undoubtedly the best-known Classicist in the country, joining us: Professor Beard will speak on the importance of Classical Studies in her life and career, and will also participate in a Classics-themed ‘Question Time’. The event will include talks and interactive sessions from Open University academics on their own research, guidance for teachers on introducing Classical Civilisation to the curriculum, and an introduction to the wide range of open access resources provided by the OU. Full programme details will be published very shortly.

The entire event will be live-streamed, and will include interactive features enabling our online audience to participate remotely – asking questions, joining in quizzes, and adding your comments to proceedings. Schools or teachers interested in participating in the event online should contact one of the event organisers, Virginia Campbell (virginia.campbell@open.ac.uk) for more information.

Advocating Classics Education

Emma Bridges introduces a new project which aims to increase the provision of Classical Studies and Ancient History qualifications in UK schools.

I’m thrilled to be a patron of Advocating Classics Education (ACE), a new AHRC-funded project which aims to extend the provision of qualifications in Classical Civilisation and Ancient History for 14-18 year-olds across the UK. Led by Prof. Edith Hall and Dr. Arlene Holmes-Henderson of King’s College London, the project is also supported by colleagues in sixteen partner universities, one of which is the Open University.

I first encountered the classical world by way of an ‘A’ level in Classical Civilisation at the state sixth-form college I attended in County Durham. An enthusiastic and dedicated teacher sowed the seeds of my lifelong interest in the ancient Greeks and Romans, and I’ve been hooked on Classics ever since. Qualifications in Ancient History and Classical Civilisation, like the course I studied for ‘A’ level, make the classical world accessible through translated texts, which allow teenagers the opportunity to engage with the diverse range of sub-disciplines of which Classics is comprised – whether that’s literature, archaeology, history, politics or philosophy.

Saturday 1st July 2017 saw the official launch event of ACE. Hosted by the project team at King’s College London, it was attended by schoolteachers and representatives from partner universities (I and my colleague Henry Stead were there on behalf of OU Classical Studies) and national bodies like Classics for All (a charity which helps teachers to introduce or expand Classics provision in their schools) and the Institute of Classical Studies. We talked about ACE’s plans for seeding Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in more schools across the UK, and about the challenges and opportunities with which we’re presented, as well as about the events which partner universities will host in order to showcase all that’s great about studying classical subjects (the OU will host such an event in March 2018).

Teachers talk about life at the Classics ‘chalk-face’.

But for me the most inspiring part of the day was hearing from schoolteachers themselves about the work which they’re doing to introduce the next generation to the classical world. I recognise in these teachers the enthusiasm and dedication which my own ‘A’ level teacher brought to the subject. Many of these teachers refer modestly to themselves as ‘non-specialists’ – that is, they initially qualified in another subject, like English, History or Philosophy, and then went on to develop (often independently) their own understanding of ancient Greece and Rome so that they could offer Classical Civilisation or Ancient History at their school. You can read the story of one such teacher, Paul Found – a former OU Classical Studies MA student – in this blog post. These individuals are remarkable both for their commitment to developing their own subject knowledge and the extra time which they devote to increasing access to Classics – from running after-school clubs and arranging events celebrating the ancient world to staging classical drama. The enthusiasm which they generate in their own pupils as a result is truly extraordinary to see; I’m delighted to be part of a project which enables universities to do more to support their work.

Watch this space for more news on the OU’s involvement in the project. For further information about how you can get involved (as a teacher, supporter or volunteer), visit the ACE website. There’s also a survey about Classics education which you’re encouraged to complete – this will help to inform the project’s work over the coming months.

by Emma Bridges

More Classical Civilisation in more schools!

This month I have been lucky enough to visit two sixth-form colleges where Classics is thriving, and thriving for the first time. Both colleges have recently begun offering “Classical Civilisation”, which — if you didn’t already know – is a fantastic subject at school level that enables students to learn about the Greeks and Romans through examining their archaeological remains, art and architecture, history and literature (in English translation).

Henry and Paul Found posing in Paul's classroomBoth sets of students had the opportunity to study Classics because their outstanding teachers have — in their own time — trained themselves to deliver the course material. It is a sad truth that if it wasn’t for the extraordinary energy and passion of teachers such as Paul Found (pictured left) and Eddie Barnett, the cultural remains of the Greek and Roman worlds would scarcely feature in the formal education of children in the UK outside of fee-paying schools. I am happy to report that more teachers are already following Eddie and Paul’s pioneering example!

A few of us in the Classics department were involved in a recent event at King’s College London, organised by Edith Hall, designed to celebrate and raise the profile of the subject. At the event, attended by over 40 sixth formers, writer and comic Natalie Haynes, poet and playwright Caroline Bird, and poet and film-maker Caleb Femi all performed, demonstrating how they continue to make the classical new and relevant in their own work. The campaign to get more classics into more British schools is now very much gaining momentum.

But back to the story… Eddie Barnett is primarily a Philosophy teacher. His interest in the Greeks grew from his reading of ancient philosophy at university. At Christ the King Sixth-form College in Lewisham, Eddie has fought for the chance to teach the subject (off timetable) to around a dozen pupils. Those of his after-school Classics club who weren’t away on a university visit when I crashed their class one wet Tuesday afternoon were kind and courageous enough to tell me how they were getting on with Homer’s Odyssey.

Paul Found — Head of Classics at Norton Knatchbull School in Kent — first got into Classics when he was doing an OU degree. But you can read more about that in this earlier post… For now I’d like simply to introduce his wonderful students, who had recently done exams — I quickly gathered — on the Odyssey and Suetonius’ Life of Nero. Paul’s enthusiasm for the subject is clearly infectious!

ICONS: giving life to the Amazons via the modern female gaze

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We are delighted to invite you to a free public event taking place at The Open University in London (1-11 Hawley Crescent, Camden, London NW1 8NP) at 5.45pm on 7th July 2016.

Laura Martin-Simpson and Rachel Bagshaw of Blazon Theatre will be presenting readings from ICONS, a new play about the Amazons by Paula B. Stanic. All are welcome and attendance is free. To reserve a space please contact Emma Bridges: e.e.bridges@open.ac.uk.

Travels with a toga: Roman dress in the classroom

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 09.59.33OU Classical Studies Lecturer Ursula Rothe has been visiting school pupils to talk about her research on Roman dress.

On 2nd March I went to Redborne Upper School in Ampthill, Bedfordshire to give a talk to senior school pupils on the topic of Roman dress. It was the first time I had done something like this with props – I had spent a weekend sewing together Roman garments like male and female tunicae, an exomis, a palla and a toga complete with detachable purple stripe! In all, 65 students turned up to learn about how dress not only reflected but was actively used to enact specific roles in Roman society, such as

  • Gender: how men and women were meant to look and behave in public
  • Class: what social rank your occupation belonged to (clue: the lessUR toga 2 clothing you wore, the lower down the social scale you were!)
  • Age: the way elite Roman children wore the toga praetexta (toga with purple stripe) as symbolic protection from harm and inappropriate language and actions, and how clothing symbolised their coming-of-age: boys adopting a toga virilis (plain white toga) at a special ceremony and girls adopting matron’s dress on the day after their wedding
  • Religious observance: how both men and women covered their heads when performing religious ceremonies

The enthusiasm of the students was overwhelming and I was only sorry that not everyone got to dress up!

by Ursula Rothe

Of scholarship and superheroes

OU Classical Studies MA student Suzanne Slapper shares her experiences of bringing the joys of the ancient world to schoolchildren.

As is so often the case, my obsession with Classics started when I was a child. I remember a man coming to our junior school to talk about Greek myths; I was captivated. So, when ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ later came on TV, I watched it in awe and spent a whole summer fighting imaginary skeletons grown from teeth.

Graduating with my BA in Classical Studies

Graduating with my BA

Unfortunately, I could not pursue this interest at school, but the seed had been sown and so, as soon as I was able, I opted to take a little course in Latin. Well, we all know that Latin is a gateway drug and it wasn’t long before I was onto the hard stuff – yes, ‘Continuing Classical Greek’. The years sped by and before I knew it I had my BA. I am now in the second year of the fantastic MA in Classical Studies, all thanks to the Open University and its mission to educate anybody and everybody who comes knocking. I really love the interdisciplinary approach of the MA course, and have found all the varied aspects of it stimulating. The structure of the material interweaves the development of the students’ research skills with the imparting of scholastic knowledge in a way that is seamless. So I am now looking forward to writing my dissertation in the summer, rather than dreading it, as I have been able to practise all of the necessary steps in a carefully gradated way.

Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself! Let’s rewind a bit. I was a couple of years into the BA when I was thinking about how fantastic it is that the OU brings Classics to all and wishing that I’d had the same opportunity at school. I guess that’s what led me to contact The Iris Project. This educational charity was founded by Lorna Robinson with the idea of bringing Classics to children who would not normally have access to it. I was welcomed on board and soon found myself editing the online version of the Iris Magazine. This was great fun and afforded me opportunities to see behind the scenes at the Fitzwilliam and Ashmolean museums and even handle some of their artefacts.

Selling 'Roman herbs' at the East Oxford Classics Centre

Selling ‘Roman herbs’ at the East Oxford Classics Centre

As my MA has progressed, I have less time to spend on the magazine, but I am still involved with the project’s Classics days at the East Oxford Classics Centre. Yes, people flock from miles around to see my Roman herb stall – oh, and to listen to the speakers, I guess! On one occasion, a certain Helen King came to speak. If I remember correctly, it was an ‘eye-opening’ account of being a Roman soldier with conjunctivitis – if that’s not an oxymoron.

So this year I decided to set myself a further goal and take some direct action in the area where I live. I plucked up the courage to email the local junior school to ask whether they would be interested in my giving some enrichment classes for their pupils. An email popped back with a ‘yes please’ within five minutes! I ran a class on ‘superheroes’ ancient and modern just before Christmas and it really was the best experience. Just like me, the children all seemed to have a natural interest in the subject and soon we were discussing the underlying structures of superhero plots. I was very impressed by the level of understanding; in fact, at one point it got pretty philosophical about the difference between a superhero and a god. In the end the children decided that Dr Who was indeed godlike, but that Harry Potter was ‘just’ a superhero. I then read a version of the myth of Perseus as a way of thinking about the same issues, and the children went on to write some wonderfully imaginative stories of their own using a similar structure. I had super… -men, -women, -boys, -girls, -plants, -dogs, -cats, -robots, and even -hair. I’m not sure what the class teacher thought about it all, but they have asked me back to run some classes about the Olympics in the summer, and the class seemed delighted!

Even if I have managed to plant a seed of interest in just one of them, that would be a matter of huge excitement for me. Who knows where it might lead to – maybe one of them might be a future OU MA student?

So now for my next challenge…big school!

by Suzanne Slapper