Category Archives: Postgraduate student profiles

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.

My MA experience, by Sam Spencer

In December 2015 our first holder of the Baron Thyssen MA Scholarship in Classical Studies completed her studies, achieving a Merit in our MA in Classical Studies. To celebrate this achievement we asked Sam to share her experiences of being an MA student at the OU. Here’s what she wrote … 

I started with the OU in 2006, a level 1 Spanish module for pleasure, which quickly developed into a BA (Hons) Humanities with Classical Studies. I had always regretted not taking Latin and Roman history further than ‘O’ level at school, so this was the fulfilment of a personal ambition. Three months after finishing my degree, I realised that I missed the studying (the OU is addictive!), and looked into an MA in Classics. There was a taught MA at the University in my home city, but I felt that the OU continued to meet my personal needs better: I am a single mum, who works school hours, and I needed the flexibility that studying with the OU gave me. The fact that it was mainly assignment-based was an important part of my choice, as I don’t do as well in exams. And I knew that I would have the same tutor from my Classics degree modules for the first two years of the MA (who then became my dissertation supervisor), and that continuity was a bonus.

The first year was busy, four different blocks, giving a good grounding for what was to come, and although the TMAs were challenging, I could see my progress through the year as I became more analytical, critical, and more concise in my writing, and was beginning to get an idea for what I really enjoyed and would like to do for my dissertation. I even passed the exam at the end of the year, which gave me confidence for the second year, which I was not looking forward to: Greek Theatre. I didn’t think I would enjoy this, but threw myself into it in my normal way, and discovered that it really wasn’t too bad. I think that having done the Myth module as part of my degree helped with the background, and a few of us from across the country met in Cambridge just before the module started to watch the Greek plays that year, which brought them alive, and showed us that Aristophanes was still relevant (and very funny) today.

And finally, my favourite part: the dissertation. I am quite motivated and focussed in my studies, and really enjoyed all of the reading and researching. I knew that historiography was the area that interested me the most, and wanted to investigate Marcus Agrippa and his contribution to Augustus’ rise to power. Having discussed this with my tutor, this was expanded to ‘How important were Augustus’ networks and alliances in gaining and maintaining power?’. It was a really vibrant time in Rome’s history: there is still a lot of extant literature and even more modern scholarship. My research led me through some well-known names: Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, Cicero, but also the development of the army, and of patronage, the changing political situation, and relationships with client kings. But most of all, to find evidence of the many skilled men who worked in the background and supported Augustus.

How did I develop? Key to it all were my time management skills, and being flexible in my studies (as my children moved from primary to secondary school, it became increasingly difficult to put them to bed at 8 pm so that I could study, so l adapted to shorter sessions at night and early morning, and whenever the opportunity arose!). I developed the ability to speed read and quickly pick out what I needed from a text. Now I am definitely more critical when reading modern scholarship and finally better at argument and balance, thanks to my supervisor who constantly challenged me. I also benefitted from SCONUL access to Manchester University Library, and the OU’s own online resources and the JSTOR database. I have a small library of my own now too.

I hope that I have shown my children that it is never too late to achieve something you really want, and that you can do well if you work hard at it. Achieving the MA was good, but more than that, I met some wonderful people along the way who kept me going (we were lucky enough to have face-to-face tutorials then, but still used forums to keep in touch). I now enjoy Greek theatre, which seems to be enjoying a revival, and I discovered a love of Homer. I’m not sure of my next steps – after a few months off, I am definitely missing the studying, and want to brush up my Latin, while I keep my eyes open for opportunities where I can use my administrative skills combined with something in the Classical world. I would really recommend the OU MA: as University teaching becomes more digital and online, they have a wealth of experience in providing distance-learning modules, and excellent tutors to support you.

by Sam Spencer

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