Category Archives: People

Avid for Ovid: A Q&A with Malcolm Atkins

This week we chatted to Malcolm Atkins, an Open University Associate Lecturer in Music, who also has a degree in Classics. Malcolm is one of the founders of Avid for Ovid, a group of performers who reinterpret ancient myth through dance and music.

Thank you for talking to us, Malcolm. Where did the idea for Avid for Ovid came from?

Malcolm and Ségolène performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

Malcolm and Ségolène performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

Avid for Ovid (A4O) was formed by three Oxford-based artists (dancers Susie Crow and Ségolène Tarte, and musician Malcolm Atkins) after an involvement in the Oxford University research project Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers, where we had brought our practical knowledge as performers to explore the long forgotten form of tragoedia saltata, or ancient Roman pantomime, solo storytelling through dance and music. We formed A4O as a group of performing artists to explore from our perspective as artists the potential of using principles and ideas from ancient dance and music in contemporary performance. We later invited Birmingham-­based dancer Marie-­Louise Crawley to join the group. We found the potential of this solo dance form to be enormous – it can really communicate with an audience of any background and can be performed almost anywhere (and in this we seem to be continuing the Roman tradition).

Susie and Malcolm performing 'Tisiphone' at a Classics Colloquium in Oxford in 2013.

Susie and Malcolm performing ‘Tisiphone’ at a Classics Colloquium in Oxford in 2013.

Can you tell us a little more about the performers? Did any of them, other than you, have any prior knowledge of ancient poetry?

Susie Crow is a ballet dancer and choreographer interested in the expressive and narrative potential of ballet, and how skills and approaches from Roman pantomime may have informed its inception; Ségolène Tarte is an academic as well as a ballet dancer and researches as a Digital Humanist in close collaboration with classicists at the University of Oxford; Marie-Louise Crawley is a choreographer and contemporary dance theatre artist who also studied Classics at Oxford.

What might someone who comes to one of your performances expect to see?

We attempt to create narrative through movement and sound. The choice of movement and sound is eclectic and represents the diverse practices and genres we have all worked in. I use a range of instruments (in the spirit of this dance practice which seems to have used all available resources) and create soundscapes as well as direct motivic and thematic interactions, word setting and word painting. The dancers often choreograph a setting of a myth and as with the Roman practice shift from one character to another in unfolding a narrative. They are informed by a range of practices including ballet, mime, kathak [1] and butoh [2] – all of which have a unique relation to narrative. In fact this is also similar to the way musically I use traditions of leitmotif, thematic transformation, rhythmic pattern and power and dissonance as appropriate. Much of this is inevitably informed by our cinematic and visual culture.

What you will see is something exciting and engaging in a way that is far more accessible than much contemporary dance because the focus on narrative allows communication with all – just as the Roman practice did.

What is it about Ovid’s poetry in particular which lends itself to this kind of performative storytelling?

Within the Metamorphoses there is an incredible range of narrative and characterisation and perhaps this is why this was such a favourite of Shakespeare. We have the opportunity to select from so many different styles of story and presentation of character through the music and dance we create. The poetry as a compendium of myths also seems to have an incredibly challenging and subversive meta-narrative. Unlike the overt challenge of the radical exploration of myth in Euripides, Ovid is far more subtle in the way he relentlessly punctures male patriarchal pomposity although more often through flawed divinities than mortals.  This ambivalence towards authority and emphasis on its malign side lends to the possibilities of exploration in dance and musical interpretation as does the breezy tone of Ovid as he skips from one scene of abject and unjustified misery to another often juxtaposing farce and tragedy.

Do you personally have any favourite episodes from Ovid? Could you tell us why you are drawn to certain parts of his poetry over others?

One of those awkward lycanthrope moments. Ségolène  performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

One of those awkward lycanthrope moments. Ségolène performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

I have become particularly attached to passages that we have performed because my engagement with the text has deepened (often as I recite or sing it in Latin). The visceral power of the description of Lycaon’s transformation to a wolf was captured through a recording suggested by Ségolène where the text was recited like ‘maggots in the brain’. When Ségolène performed her interpretation a child had to be led out crying from a performance that had no graphic violence. The pathos of Aurora’s grief at the death of her son – particularly relevant in a time of so much desolation that we see daily on the news – was so well expressed by Susie’s exploration of archetypes of grieving. Marie-Louise’s exploration of Myrrha and the desperation that leads to her transformation to a tree (and the very powerful subtext of the girl as a victim of patriarchal desire that resonates with our time) was particularly unsettling (as was the subject) and to me lent to an expressionist theme and the solipsistic musical misery of fin de siècle Vienna. On top of this the subversive story of Arachne who studiously reports the misdemeanours of our betters against the strident defence of Athene was brought home to me by Ségolène’s inspired interpretation. Ovid’s lack of a decisive judgement is all the more powerful in highlighting the abuse of power – something else that strikes a chord with contemporary politics and conflicting media narratives sponsored by corporate power.

Marie-Louise performing ‘Myrrha’ at the MAC Birmingham, October 2015. Photo credit Christian Hunt

Marie-Louise performing ‘Myrrha’ at the MAC Birmingham, October 2015. Photo credit Christian Hunt

For readers of our blog who are interested in seeing Avid for Ovid perform, could you tell us when and where your next performance is taking place?

We are next performing at the opening of a recreation of Ovid’s Garden in Winterbourne Gardens at the University of Birmingham (58 Edgbaston Park Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham) on the 18th June at 3pm. This is a free performance to celebrate the opening of the garden. More details are available here.

Where can our readers find out more about the project?

They can visit our blog and Facebook page, find us on Twitter (@Avid4Ovid) or contact me via email:


[1] Butoh is an expressive dance theatre form which arose in Japan in the late 1950s; often incorporating playful and grotesque imagery, extreme or absurd situations and slowly evolving movement, performed in white body make-up.

[2] Kathak is one of eight Indian classical dance forms; originating in North India, it combines the telling of stories through codified gestural movement with a more formal vocabulary incorporating virtuosic and percussive footwork, rhythmic complexity and spins. (With thanks to Susie Crow for providing definitions.)

Introducing…Adam Parker, PhD student

We asked our newest PhD student, Adam Parker, to tell us about his research project and the path that brought him to postgraduate study at the Open University.

AP blog picThe life changing time for me, when I first started to get really excited about the ancient world, was at Durham 6th Form Centre, while doing an A-level in Classical Civilisation. It was over a decade ago now, but reading the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Sophocles’ Theban plays alongside Tacitus, Suetonius and doing a bit of Greek and Roman architecture still looms large in my head as the time when my eyes were opened to the complexity, importance and sheer murderous humanity of the ancient world. Fast-forward to May 2016 and I am five months into my part-time PhD research in Classical Studies at the Open University. My project aims to investigate the artifactual nature of ‘magic’ in Roman Britain and to try to establish chronological, spatial, material and contextual relationships within this huge, amorphous dataset in order to try and understand what magic is and what function it served.

The wonderful thing I’ve found about postgraduate studies with the OU is that the students here have usually gone off and done a bit of living before getting into the PhD research; I’m no different. Undergraduate studies in Ancient History and Archaeology at Leicester cemented my love of archaeology and the Roman world. This was the first time I ever encountered ‘magic’ as something that can be studied. A second year essay for a module on ‘the Roman Principate’ required students to sign up to a seminar group: 25 people, 5 seminar topics, and 5 places per slot. Getting a place on the ‘Magic and Imperial Politics’ seminar required sprinting from the lecture theatre where this announcement was made to the sign up board on the other side of the campus to ensure I got the place I wanted. Staying on at Leicester for a fourth year MA in Rome & its Neighbours allowed me to pick up Magic as a research topic for my dissertation.

Since that point I have never really left the topic alone. Having a consuming and unfaltering passion for history, heritage and archaeology is certainly a benefit in getting from undergraduate to PhD studies. Entering the world of museums in 2010 did mean that I got to play with loads of really cool material culture, but it also meant that I spent a lot of time driving vans and fork-lift trucks (for more of an insight into my day job take a look at this article). Since discovering the phrase ‘Independent researcher’ in 2011 I’ve gone out of my way to try and push my research agenda outside of my professional life. Commuting daily from Crook, Co. Durham to York – where I am currently Assistant Curator of Archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum – meant that I had 4-5 hours per day of bus and train time to kill reading and writing. OU courses in ‘Reading Classical Latin’ and ‘Heritage? Whose Heritage?’ filled in bits of that. (A quick piece of advice here: conjugating verbs and declining nouns on the bus to Darlington at 6:45am daily is not the best way to learn Latin.)

After 5 or 6 years of part-time study I want to end up with a database of a few thousand objects. Jet pendants, phallic carvings, and inscribed gold tablets might seem to be a disparate group of objects but they are all joined by a modern appreciation of them having served some sort of protective, beneficial, or lucky function in the Roman world. It is this supposed supernatural function that links these, and numerous other objects, together. My intention is to actually test this hypothesis through a broad artifactual study where I will start by deconstructing the semantics and implications of the word ‘magic’ and establish how this can be applied to material culture. Contextual, material and spatial studies will (hopefully!) establish themes, links and patterns within this dataset that can be used to build on our current understanding on how these things work. There are already some excellent material culture studies into Roman magic (most recently several papers in two entirely different 2015 publications with the same name, The Materiality of Magic) but these each focus on a specific object type, literary or iconographic element. My aim is to be the first to actually draw all of this together into one place and look it as a single group. It requires first negotiating some hugely problematic conceptual issues about what magic is, what religion is, and how we can differentiate enough to allow a useful programme of data collection.

It needs to go on record that I am sincerely grateful for being able to undertake PhD research with the Open University and with a scholarship to boot. My initial approach to the OU for PhD purposes is entirely due to a chat I had with Stuart McKie (fellow OU post-grad) after meeting at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference in 2014. I gave a paper talking about magical things, he came and chatted to me afterwards about his own research on magic, and a series of Facebook conversations afterwards pointed me towards his supervisory team – Ursula Rothe and E-J Graham. And now they are my supervisors too, joined by Helen King. Under the tutelage of my OU triumvirate the past five months have focused on this attempt to try and establish what magic actually is… I’m not sure I’ve managed it yet it, but it’s been great fun so far trying to find out!

I am very happy to be a research student in the Classical Studies department – thanks for having me, OU.

by Adam Parker

Editor’s note: Adam has his own blog, where you can read more of his thoughts on Roman magic: You can also find him on Twitter @adamarchaeology.

Seventh Conference of Italian Archaeology

Phil Perkins and Eleanor Betts represented the OU Classical Studies department at the Seventh Conference of Italian Archaeology, which was held at the National University of Ireland, Galway on 16th-19th April 2016. Scholars from 15 countries presented papers and posters on the archaeology and cultural history of Italy from prehistory to the modern period. Whilst the primary theme of the Conference was the archaeology of death, our papers considered some recent developments in Italian archaeology.

Phil Perkins presenting on the exciting recent finds from Poggio Colla

Phil Perkins presenting on exciting recent finds from Poggio Colla

Phil spoke about the final excavation seasons at Poggio Colla and their context in Northern Etruria, focusing in particular on the remarkable stele which was discovered in Summer 2015. The stele was built into the wall of the earliest temple and bears one of the longest inscriptions known in Etruria. Phil will be presenting on this, and more, in the Accordia Lecture Series on 3rd May.

You can also find out more about the stele and the initial reading of the inscription, here (at 08:54 to 15:16 minutes in the Italian news programme).

Susanna Harris presenting her Etruscan cloak experiment in Galway

Susanna Harris presenting her Etruscan cloak experiment

Eleanor organised and presented in the panel ‘Moving Bodies: Multisensory Approaches to the Ancient Mediterranean’, which was in many ways part of the homage to the work of Ruth Whitehouse which marked the conference. The papers were wide-ranging in their chronological spread, and what they had in common was their application of phenomenology to ancient sites and fieldwork methods in Italy and Malta. The five papers presented were by Sue Hamilton and Ruth Whitehouse, Reuben Grima, Claudia Lambrugo, Susanna Harris and Eleanor Betts. Robin Skeates wrapped up the session, drawing out the main themes of the presentations, and giving much food for thought for the future of sensory archaeologies. You can read more on these papers and the discussion at Sensory Studies in Antiquity.

Teaching ancient myth through cinema, by Tony Keen

TK1Tony Keen is a long-time Associate Lecturer for the OU, and an Honorary Associate. This post is based on a talk he gave at the Classical Studies Associate Lecturer Training and Development Day in November 2015.

In the sixteen years I’ve taught for the Open University, I’ve often used movies and television as part of my teaching strategies, and this is just as true for the current module I teach, A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Some of these approaches are obvious – if one wants to talk, for instance, about the Gorgon Medusa, it makes sense to show how the cinema has represented her, in movies such as the 1981 and 2010 versions of Clash of the Titans. Such clips can show students that they actually know something about changing depictions ofTK2 mythological characters. But it’s also possible to be a bit more imaginative.

In the collection of Fables attributed to the Greek slave Aesop, there is found an early version of the tale of the town mouse and the country mouse, probably most famous to classicists in the version found in Horace’s Satires 2.6, lines 79-117. The story is simple. A country mouse is invited to dine with his cousin in the town. The town mouse lays out a splendid table, full of gourmet delights that the country mouse simply can never experience at home. But then the party is disrupted by dogs, and the country mouse decides that, for all its simplicity, his home offers security not to be found in the town.

In 1945, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced the nineteenth cartoon in their cat-and-mouse series Tom and Jerry, ‘Mouse in Manhattan’, directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. It’s an unusual entry in the run. Instead of the usual mayhem caused by Tom’s unsuccessful attempts to catch Jerry, the premise is that Jerry, bored with life in the TK3country, sets off for the bright lights of Manhattan, leaving a note for Tom (who is otherwise barely present). The rest is taken up with Jerry’s adventures in New York, and the dangers he faces. There is no town mouse to equate with Jerry’s country mouse, and the existential threat that drives Jerry back to the country is feral cats, rather than dogs. But the fundamentals of the fable are here, and whilst I am not suggesting that Hanna or Barbera had necessarily read Horace or Aesop (they may have, or they may not), they almost certainly had encountered the story in some form. It has, after all, been much repeated through history; Beatrix Potter retold it in The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, and in 1936 Walt Disney had overseen a Silly Symphonies short called ‘The Country Cousin’, which adapted the fable more faithfully than ‘Mouse in Manhattan’. One effect of showing this to students is to put them in a good frame of mind – who doesn’t enjoy a good Tom and Jerry cartoon? But it also demonstrates how stories are transformed as they are repurposed, and also makes the original fable seem less remote to students.

Fable is not often dealt with in myth courses. What can TK4using cinema bring to wider understanding of what is more traditionally understood as ‘mythology’? One issue that can confuse students is that various different versions of myths proliferate through antiquity and beyond. Does Hippolytus die at Troezen, or is he reborn as Virbius in Italy? Who kills Medea’s children, the Corinthians or their mother? I explain this through the modern phenomenon of rebooting screen franchises. There are several screen versions of the superhero Superman, with different versions of when and how Kal-El arrived on Earth from Krypton, and his early life. Similarly, the James Bond movies were rebooted in 2006 with Casino Royale, showing Bond’s first mission as a 00 agent. All previous movies were disregarded, and elements from those, such as the terrorist organization SPECTRE, could later be reintroduced. Cinema audiences cope with this perfectly well, so what is the problem with Euripides’ three incompatible versions of Helen of Troy?

TK6My most unusual use of cinema to teach myth is when I show students two versions of the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in 1946’s My Darling Clementine, and 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. I ask the students to note significant differences between the two (for instance, Doc Holliday dies in the gunfight in the former, and survives it in the latter). I then show how the  two versions relate to what actually happened, and explain that while the later movie is a little more true toTK5 the events of 1881, nevertheless both fictionalize extensively. My point is to show how fictionalized and mythologized versions of historical events can depart from what actually happened, in different ways in different versions. So it’s almost impossible to use a fictionalized account to reconstruct a putative historical event when historical records don’t exist, and students should be suspicious when that is attempted, as it often is with Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.

Hopefully this will spark further ideas of how to use cinema in teaching. Let us know in the comments what you do.

by Tony Keen

Editor’s note: Tony has also produced various Open University learning resources which you can access for free via OpenLearn here.

Introducing… Cathy Mercer, Associate Lecturer (AL) in Classical Studies

This week we asked one of our Associate Lecturers, Cathy Mercer, to tell us about life as an OU Classical Studies tutor

Cathy posing as a centurion

“Like most ALs, I’ve had a varied career, as entertainments manager, city accountant, teacher, examiner, editor, online shop manager and European tour guide but, without doubt, my most fulfilling and interesting work has been (and still is!) working as an OU AL. I have wonderful tutor groups full of keen, committed students from varied backgrounds and we study fantastic OU materials. Both these materials and the students’ responses to them are stimulating and enlightening.

As a tutor in the London Region, I get to meet a good proportion of my students face-to-face, which is always exciting. However, as for all ALs, my main work is guiding the students through their studies and keeping them on-track by marking their assignments (TMAs = tutor-marked assignments) and here I have a slightly embarrassing confession to make: I have always enjoyed marking my students’ work and actually look forward to each batch of TMAs. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the more obviously attractive aspects of teaching such as face-to-face tutorials, but I have always liked seeing students’ own work and believe that prompt, positive responses to this is what helps them most. Even as a school teacher I used to mark students’ work as they were actually producing it in the classroom, keeping them on appropriate paths. Each student responds individually to their studies and respecting and acknowledging this through feed-back on their work is what benefits them.

In many ways my editing work in publishing was a type of marking and inevitably this affects my marking of students’ TMAs, making me perhaps a tad over-keen to add apostrophes and colons etc. It’s the Lynne Truss in me trying to steer students clear of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, though I warmly remember one pupil’s account of ‘red hot saliva’ rolling down Mount Vesuvius and I always smile at mentions of ‘Media dominating the agenda’ in Euripides’ tragedy.

The OU offers tutors many opportunities and treats and I make good use of these, offering language taster sessions in R01 in Greek and Latin and working as forum moderator, TMA setter, exam/ETMA marker and TMA monitor. This means I get to look at other tutors’ marking of TMA assignments and learn from their approaches. It is always striking how important the tutor’s personal touch is, and how the PT3 form can be used to acknowledge a student’s individual strengths and issues.

One of the great advantages of living in London is that there are loads of great theatres on the doorstep. Last summer we were treated to a cavalcade of Greek tragedy and this Christmas it was the turn of the Romans, with Ben Hur at the Tricycle.

This pantomime for grown-ups has now finished at the Tricycle but it will surely move on to the West End, as their previous small scale epic, 39 Steps, did so successfully. If so, do try to see it. It may owe more to Michael Frayn’s Noises Off farce than to Plautus or Terence but it is a wonderful pastiche of General Wallace’s epic novel, with its slightly lumpen conversation style, and the epic film, complete with chariot race powered by lawn mowers.

Ben Hur reviews were excellent but the proof of the pudding is always in the tasting and my friends and I loved it, even more than marking.”

by Cathy Mercer

My experience as an MA student, by Flora Stagg

I never intended to go on to do an MA, let alone an MA in Classical Studies, after my undergrad degree – BA (Hons) in Humanities with Music – but for the last module of that degree I chose a completely different subject ‘Myth in the Greek and Roman World’ and I became hooked on the classics. I was at a considerable disadvantage as I did not have a classical background, only a little Latin, but no Greek. My tutor gave me a list of books which helped increase my knowledge of the classical world before the first module began. Although the first year of the MA was a steep learning curve, it was very enjoyable, if tough. During the year I learned to improve my argument in my essays, and became more critical of academic writing. I developed a passion for the Etruscans after writing a TMA on the stork vase discovered at the Mola di Monte Gelato site in South Etruria. An essay followed on ‘Who were the Etruscans’ – a difficult subject to choose, as I soon found out! The Etruscans believed that there was a limit to the length a civilization would survive and it would indeed appear that after 800 years much of their own civilization was swallowed up by Rome. It was suggested I should consider archaeology for my dissertation topic, but I felt that was a learning curve too far.

fox and stork et alIn the second year I had reached the module that had sparked my interest in the MA in the first place – The Greek Theatre. The role of powerful women in the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides proved a fascinating area of research. After the tragedians, Aristophanes took over my life. For the EMA I spent an absorbing period comparing the text of Wasps prepared in 1897 by the classics scholar and barrister Benjamin Bickley Rogers, which Vaughan Williams set to music for the 1907 Greek Play at Cambridge, with its English adaptation by David Pountney to fit the original music of Vaughan Williams.  Bickley Rogers’ expurgated version was appropriate to the sensibilities of the time, but Pountney reinstated most of the obscenities, taking a fair amount of liberty in his interpretation of the text and structure of the play. He was faced with the difficult task of finding lyrics to fit the metre of the original Greek text which Vaughan Williams had set to music. It was intended as a concert version in which one actor would play the roles of Philocleon and Bdelycleon, renamed Procleon and Anticleon in the Pountney version, which the Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Trust had commissioned to make the whole work (rather than just the Wasps’ overture) more widely known. I would argue that Vaughan Williams came out of it better than poor Aristophanes.

My dissertation was on the last two extant plays of Aristophanes – The Assembly-Women and Wealth – which involved a considerable amount of research on the politics and social changes of the time. The evolution of Aristophanes’ style from Old towards New Comedy played an important part in my argument: I compared these plays with the New Comedy style of The Old Cantankerous of Menander, a playwright of whom I had not heard before the MA. A month into the dissertation I had a crisis of confidence and requested to change the topic to a music-related one, but still remaining faithful to Aristophanes. I nearly gave my supervisor a heart attack, but after thinking about it for a nano-second, and much to my supervisor’s relief, I realised what a foolish idea it was, since all my research up to that point had been on the last two plays. I was assured that it would not be the only crisis of confidence I would go through during that year.

I have always enjoyed the research aspect of studying and I am now suffering severe withdrawal symptoms, as I have no present plans to go on to do a Ph.D, but Aristophanes is my constant companion and who knows where he will lead me next. Learning ancient Greek would be a good start….

by Flora Stagg

Introducing…Paul Found, Classical Studies teacher and former OU student

Paul Found is a former Open University student who now teaches at Norton Knatchbull School in Kent. Here he tells us how his Open University MA in Classical Studies has enabled him to introduce the subject to his school’s curriculum.

We experience very few truly life-defining moments, but clicking on the ‘apply now’ button for my first Open University course is undoubtedly the one that put me on the path to the most rewarding career move I have undertaken.

It was 2005, and after working on the Channel Tunnel construction and for several years in the diving industry, I decided I was fed up with getting cold, wet and dirty for a living and it was time for a change. I decided on a career in teaching and I needed a degree, despite the fact I hadn’t written an essay since I left school in 1978. I also had a family and a mortgage, so there was no way I could give up working and this was where the Open University presented itself as the only viable option.

My decision to study for a masters in Classical Studies was itself driven by the presentation of the classical units in the old A103 module ‘An Introduction to the Humanities’ – and while I enjoyed every aspect of study, the units on the Colosseum and classical architecture, gladiators, and Euripides’ Medea had me hooked. Switching to a Classics undergraduate degree would have been simple, but I needed a job, and felt that the combination of English and History would give me more schools to choose from. Along with a mixture of luck and pure stubbornness on my part, however, the OU Classical Studies MA has allowed me to introduce Classical Studies to my school curriculum and to forge for myself the position of leading the subject alongside my role as a Teacher of English.

Studying for an MA in Classical Studies without a prior qualification in the subject was both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. The academic level of the course materials, coupled with the elevated academic requirement for the marked assignments, very quickly made me realise I was going to have to ‘up my game’. My tutor’s level of knowledge and expertise meant there would be no taking short-cuts and for me ‘near enough’ was never going to be ‘good enough’. The feedback for the first submission of my final dissertation began with ‘Oh dear Paul…’, and for the revised submission with ‘We need an urgent meeting!’ I started again, spending my entire summer holidays locked away working on the dissertation. The final result narrowly missed out on a distinction, but the experience of that year equipped me for the rigours of a teaching career more than anything the classroom or teacher training could throw at me.


Some of the GCSE and A level classicists at Norton Knatchbull School

The final year of the MA coincided with my first year at the Norton Knatchbull Grammar School in Ashford, Kent, which followed three years working in a somewhat challenging secondary school. Employed as a Teacher of English, I was delighted to be allocated an A level English Literature class and even more delighted that one of the set texts was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a novel that draws many parallels with Homer’s Odyssey. This, along with the classical references in the Shakespearean texts, presented the only real opportunities to present my classical knowledge in any meaningful way, until the school decided to drop its International Baccalaureate provision and offer a wider range of A levels. Seizing the opportunity, I offered a proposal for Classical Civilisation A level, waved my MA at the right people, and an agreement was reached to include the subject on the curriculum.

Meeting Peter Stothard, Edith Hall and Tom Holland with some of my sixth-formers.

Meeting Peter Stothard, Edith Hall and Tom Holland with some of my sixth-formers.

I had arguably the most eclectic bunch of students you could imagine in that first intake, ranging from a student who has subsequently gone on to study English Literature at Cambridge to another whose main interest was in computers and who hardly knew which way up to hold a pen! The one thing they all had in common was that none really knew what Classics was all about when they signed up. Those who stayed on to continue at A2 had really caught ‘the Classics bug’, and their enthusiasm did much to raise the profile of the subject. I’m delighted to report that Classical Civilisation is now the fastest-growing academic subject in the school, with five of this year’s Y13 having applied to study Classics degrees at various universities.


With Mary Beard at the British Museum in 2014

The subject has now expanded to a lunchtime Latin club and a well-attended extra-curricular GCSE Classical Civilisation class. Much of this is driven by the 6th form students; some even assist with the GCSE teaching and help to deliver a new initiative to take after-school Latin into a local primary school. The now annual Classics drama production has become one of the most anticipated events on the school calendar and we have a schedule of trips, events and lectures which mean we are always looking forward to something outside of the classroom, including an annual trip to Rome.

While studying with the OU taught me a great deal about the importance of time-management, it also ignited an insatiable (if time-consuming!) hunger for knowledge which went far beyond the scope of my OU assignments. It was always satisfying gaining that knowledge through totally independent study and being able to meet the assessment deadlines despite the pressures of work and life in general. How does this help me in my work? I don’t need to ‘teach’ my students what they can read in a book – they can do that themselves. In addition to ‘how to pass the exam’, I teach them what the OU taught me – how to take ownership of the subject, personalise their studies and use them as a foundation to go off and explore independently some of the many wonderful aspects of ancient life and culture.

How far we can expand Classical Studies at my school, I don’t yet know. I am currently the only teacher of the subject there, and there is only so much one person can do, but it is the enthusiasm and dedication of my students which will determine how far we can develop each year. On current form, we are going a long, long way!

Paul Found MA (Class. Stud.), Norton Knatchbull School (

Editor’s note: If you’ve been inspired by Paul’s story and would like to find out more about postgraduate qualifications in Classical Studies at the Open University you can do so by visiting our departmental web pages here. The undergraduate humanities foundation module which Paul mentions in his post has been replaced by a newer version, The Arts Past and Present, which still includes lots of classical material: see here for more information and taster materials from that module.

Introducing…Sophie Raudnitz, PhD student

sophieJust over 23 years ago, I received the advance reading list for my undergraduate degree in English. At the top of the list was the Odyssey. I remember reading it during the lazy summer holiday between ‘A’ Levels and university, dutifully at first but soon sucked in to the twists and turns of the story. As my degree progressed, I began to realise the extent to which it underlies our literary tradition and my interest in cultural, or ‘literary’, memory began to take root.

Now, I am coming to the end of the first year of my PhD with the OU and my project has memory at its centre. The title is ‘Tracing the Establishment of Political Society: Remembering and Forgetting in Ancient Greek Literature’ and it starts with the premise that memory is a political process, taking place in a political environment, one which memory itself helps to engender. I was fortunate enough to get funding for this project from the OU and have two fantastic supervisors from the Classical Studies Department (Elton Barker and Helen King) and a third supervisor – a specialist in Memory Studies – from the English Department at Goldsmiths (Rick Crownshaw).

My topic evolved out of an essay on Justice in the Odyssey which I wrote at the end of the first year of my MA in Classical Studies, also with the Open University. (At that time, my three children were very small and I little thought that I would do more than that one module of the MA, let alone go on to do a PhD.) I began to notice that an analysis of the different memory groups inside and outside the poem – suitors, suitors’ families, Odysseus, the audience – might offer a more interesting and nuanced interpretation of Homeric justice than I had yet come across. After this, I knew that I wanted to be the one to do that work.

I have spent this year adventuring on the high seas of memory theory, trying to navigate a path through research in Social Studies, Psychology, History and Literary Studies around terms such as social memory, cultural memory, myth and tradition. Some ideas have called me with the song of the Sirens, luring me onto the academic rocks, while others have sped me on with power of the West Wind to make new connections and to give me the feeling that progress is being made. I have developed an interpretive process based on my reading which involves: i) looking at literary representations of remembering and forgetting and considering the ways in which they contribute to the formation of political identities within texts; ii) examining the ways in which the audience’s or reader’s memories of other texts or of historical events might affect their interpretations of texts and, by extension, how this might make them reflect on and, even, seek to change their own political environments; and iii) analysing the ways in which texts themselves were remembered, for example in quotations or allusions in other texts and what this might tell us about the changing political climate in which they were created and received.

I have also been testing out this interpretive process on a range of primary texts, developing my analysis into papers for presentation at postgraduate conferences. At the OU Classical Studies Postgraduate Conference in April I spoke about Plato’s Theaetetus and the image of the wax tablet as a metaphor for memory – one which recalls memories of tragedy in its language and is itself remembered in Aristotle and Freud. Here I also reflected on the potential offered by memory for thinking through the seeming paradox presented by Plato’s written philosophy and the Socratic dialectic his writings espouse. I also delivered a paper at a postgraduate conference based around the topic of ‘Looking Back and Looking Forward’ at King’s College, London. This paper focused on Euripides’ Trojan Women and, in particular on his depiction of a present in which time is suspended, from which characters remember their pasts and reflect on their futures, prompting the audience to do likewise. In both cases, remembering is more than simply recalling. It is a process of recreation in a specific political situation which demands reflection and debate: a political process which re-members society. Both experiences were hugely beneficial (if incredibly daunting in the anticipation) not only for drawing my ideas together but for getting a sense of the work in which others in the field are engaged.

At present, I am still forecasting with blithe confidence that this will be a cross-generic study, encompassing Homeric epic, drama, historiography and philosophy, though perhaps I’ll be forced to abandon some aspects of the study by the wayside. Cross your fingers for me that, even if trouble may lie ahead, I may find my way ‘home’!

by Sophie Raudnitz

Farewell to Paula James

James Robson writes on behalf of Classical Studies colleagues as the Department bids a fond farewell to Paula James, who is retiring after 22 years at the OU.

paula-jamesPaula originally joined the OU in November 1993 and has made an enormous contribution not only to the life of the department, but also Region 13, where she worked as a Staff Tutor. Anyone who has studied or taught on an OU module dealing with the Roman world or Latin language over the last 20 years will be familiar with Paula’s work. She has written at all levels in her time at the OU, often – in true Paula style – choosing to work in close collaboration with central academic and Associate Lecturer colleagues. On the cultural side, she co-wrote A428 (The Roman Family) and the hugely popular material on the Colosseum for A103 (An Introduction to the Humanities), in addition to making distinctive contributions on topics as diverse as Roman reputations (A219 Exploring the Classical World), Roman North Africa (AA309 Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds) and Seneca (MA in Classical Studies). Her work on our language modules has included chairing Reading Classical Latin (A297) in production – a module that hit the headlines by attracting 1,000 students in its first year.

Paula has always been a hands-on colleague who cares deeply about the social mission and traditional values of the OU. Often outspoken about the need to maintain as many face-to-face opportunities for students as possible, Paula put in ten years of Summer School teaching and is proud to have begun the tradition of visiting Associate Lecturers’ tutorials to provide them with feedback and support. Her ‘outspokenness’ is hardly restricted to the realm of teaching, however, and many of her Arts colleagues know Paula best for her lively and polemical contributions to Faculty debates. She is always articulate, always passionate and always determined to hold the university management to account. Most notably, Paula recently led the fight to save Region 13 when the university announced its closure in 2014. The campaign may have been ultimately unsuccessful, but Paula nevertheless won some important battles.

They may at times have been at loggerheads, but Paula and the OU have also been such a great fit. As someone who came to Classics as a mature student, she provides a great example of the transformative power of education as well as the OU’s preparedness to take a punt on someone who doesn’t neatly fit the cookie-cutter mould. The eclectic nature of her research is not just refreshing (Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and Roman poetry on the one hand; film, TV, literary parrots and trade union banners on the other), it has also consistently grown out of her teaching, demonstrating an exemplary mesh between the two. Importantly, too, Paula’s presence has always added energy, informality and friendliness to the department, qualities that contribute towards making OU Classical Studies such a wonderful place to work. I don’t suspect for one moment that we have seen the last of Paula at Walton Hall, but she will be much missed by her colleagues all the same.

It was all Greek to me….

 OU Classical Studies student Ian Ramskill shares his experience of studying with us.

…Well it was ‘all Greek to me’ until I completed A275 Reading Classical Greek: Language and Literature, a wonderful module, on which more later; but first a quick introduction to myself and some of my experiences of studying Classics with the Open University over the last six years. In briefIR student pic, I’m now approaching the big half century and I’m a freelancer in the aviation industry, having previously served in the RAF. Before joining the OU I had no experience of university level education, having left school at sixteen with a clutch of ‘O’ levels. A trip to Rome reignited my childhood interest in the classical world and I began to read more about it. This was the point at which, with some trepidation, I decided to give the OU a go, over twenty five years since I’d written more than a couple of sentences together, never mind an essay!

The OU humanities gateway module AA100 (The Arts Past and Present) was just great; it still surprises me how much my essay writing developed and improved in just 8 months. After this I worked through the then available Classical Studies modules A219 (Exploring the Classical World), A330 (Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds) and the two Latin courses (now the new A276); all were intriguing, informative and utterly engaging. In A219 we studied Homer and classical Athens – with, among other things, an in depth analysis of the Parthenon – before moving on to the fall of the Roman Republic and Augustan poetry. The Latin courses, while hard work, were very satisfying. Translating book II of the Aeneid – the fall of Troy – was a particular highlight once I had acquired the language skills to do so. In A330 we investigated literary, artistic and political uses of ancient myths; Ovid’s Metamorphoses in particular was well received. It would be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic support I received from all of my tutors; without fail they have been enthusiastic and encouraging, providing timely and constructive feedback on assignments and being readily available to provide help when needed.

So now to my most recent module, A275, and the study of Greek langureadinggreekage and literature. I found this a challenging module, but the excellent materials provided by the OU – coupled with some tenacity on the part of the student – made it more than manageable. One of the first challenges was to master the Greek alphabet, but there is a great free learning aid available to non-students on the OU Classical Studies department website, which also acts as a taster of what the module offers. Those who take up the module are almost spoiled with the amount of textual, audio and visual learning aids provided; CDs provide recordings of many of the Greek exercises, and there is lots of help with the translations of adapted texts. There are also some great websites to aid vocabulary and grammar retention. I used these almost daily in my breaks at work; with language work ten minutes here and there, but often, is a useful learning strategy.

Even students who do not wish to go on and read original Greek texts benefit from the focus on analysing different translations and assessing their merits. The module Socratescan also be tailored to your individual needs; as you progress you can slow down the language learning and invest more time in studying literature in translation if you prefer. The three key texts studied in translation are Euripides’ Medea, Aristophanes’ Clouds and Plato’s Defence of Socrates.These are three pearls of Greek literature; the betrayal and horrific revenge depicted in Medea pushes what it is to be human to the limit. Clouds,with its irreverent and bawdy humour, may not be to every modern reader’s taste, but offers important insights into contemporary views on philosophy and indeed daily life in late fifth-century BC Athens. Plato’s work though, for me, is brilliant artistry; the CD recording which is provided enhances understanding of the text, as with the audio-visual materials for the rest of the module (these include a DVD showing a performance of Medea, and a CD recording of Clouds).

To say that I have enjoyed the last six years would be a gross understatement; investigating and writing about the classical world has given me a much more informed understanding of this fascinating era. It has been difficult at times balancing work and family commitments but somehow I have managed to make the time and meet the deadlines; it is with gratitude that I give my thanks to my patient and encouraging wife. Now onwards to my final year and the new Roman Empire module, A340, which I’m sure will be just as enjoyable as all of the previous ones.

Editor’s note: if you’ve enjoyed reading Ian’s post and would like to know more about Classical Studies courses at the Open University have a look at our departmental pages, where you can find information on our modules as well as a whole range of free taster materials.