Category Archives: PhD

Researching Born-Digital Archives Workshop

OU PhD student Sarah Middle reports on the Researching Born-Digital Archives workshop.

On Thursday 16 March 2017 I attended Researching Born-Digital Archives at the British Library, a collaborative workshop with three AHRC consortia – CHASE (who provide my PhD funding), South West and Wales, and WRoCAH. The focus of the day was on managing, curating and using collections of objects that had originated in a digital format (as opposed to digitisation of physical materials), and how the nature of these resources might lead to the study of new research topics.

British Library Initiatives

Several speakers from the British Library presented on the theme of managing the lifecycle of born-digital materials, from initial processing (Jonathan Pledge and Eleanor Dickens) through to long-term preservation (Maureen Pennock) and creative methods of reuse (Stella Wisdom). As a former collections professional, and current data enthusiast, particular points of interest for me included the processes involved in turning the files and directory structure of e.g. a floppy disk into an archive collection of digital objects, as well as the innovative ways in which people have reused the British Library’s publicly available datasets.

One project that stood out for me was the Big Data History of Music, which used library catalogue data to visualise trends relating to music production over time, by geographical location, and in relation to historical events. Stella’s talk was very inspiring, and prompted me to consider whether I might be able to make use of the library’s data as part of my PhD research.

Annual output of printed music for six major cities, 1500–1699. Data from RISM A/I and B/I (Stephen Rose, Sandra Tuppen, Loukia Drosopoulou, ‘Writing a Big Data history of music’, Early Music 43 (2015), 649-60 doi: 10.1093/em/cav071; distributed under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution licence)

Born-Digital Archives and Creative Writing

Another theme from some of the talks was the impact of born-digital archives on the research and practice of creative writing, presented here from the point of view of an archivist (Justine Mann, University of East Anglia) and a writer (Craig Taylor). Justine spoke about collecting the ongoing work of emerging contemporary authors and preserving it in a born-digital archive, which will allow future researchers to gain an unprecedented insight into their creative processes. Craig is working with the British Library on his current project, Genesis, which involves writing his latest novel on a dedicated laptop with spyware installed. Every keystroke is recorded, documenting his creative process in minute detail.

One particularly interesting question from the audience was whether authors are more self-conscious in the production of their digital materials, in the knowledge that they will be archived, and whether this has an effect on their content (e.g. wanting to present themselves in a certain way). It is not yet possible to answer this question fully; however Craig said that, while he usually forgets that the spyware is there, he becomes very aware of it at points where he is struggling. Perhaps this question might form the basis of a future research topic years from now.

Student Panel

A particularly exciting aspect of the event for me was the opportunity to present my work as part of a student panel, with three other AHRC-funded PhD students. Helen Piel (British Library / University of Leeds) started by talking about her work with the different materials held in the British Library’s John Maynard Smith archive, containing the various works relating to his research interests in the areas of Engineering and Zoology. Kate Walker (University of Sheffield) then spoke about her research, which focuses on social media communities of wadaiko (Japanese drum) players, and involves collecting data from Facebook groups of which Kate herself is an active member. Acatia Finbow (Tate and University of Exeter) is studying documentation of performance art at Tate Modern, which similarly includes a large amount of social media content, but with more focus on image and video, rather than text.

Student panel discussion, including Helen Piel (left) and Acatia Finbow (right) (unfortunately Kate Walker and I are hidden by the audience) (image via @UEAArchives on Twitter)

I gave a brief overview of my work converting the AHRC project data held in the Research Councils UK’s Gateway to Research (GTR) to Linked Data (of which more in a future post). My focus was on the differences in data structures between the existing GTR and the Linked Data, and how the Linked Data structure allows more complex queries, which will help me identify projects to use as case studies as part of my future research. I was quite nervous, as it was the first time I had presented on my PhD research, but my talk seemed to go well, and I received many positive comments afterwards. Several people said they had not heard of Linked Data previously, but understood my explanation, which indicates I had managed to pitch it at the right level – always an issue when explaining technical concepts to a non-specialist audience.

A simplified example of how Linked Data can be applied to Humanities collections, based on the idea of Pelagios

Final Thoughts

As well as providing the experience of presenting my research in a friendly and supportive environment, I found this event an interesting and stimulating half-day. It provided me with a strong foundation of knowledge in the various stages involved in managing born-digital collections, as well as their potential for opening up new areas of academic research. In particular, I really enjoyed meeting academics, professionals, and other PhD students from all over the country, who are working in areas relating to digital collections. I would like to thank the British Library and the three AHRC consortia for organising the event and for making my attendance possible.

by Sarah Middle

Editor’s note: To find out more about Sarah and her PhD research, take a look at the OU Classical Studies blogpost ‘ Introducing …some of our new PhD students!‘ 


OU Classical Studies Postgraduate Work in Progress Day 2017

Classical Studies at the OU is delighted to announce the programme for our annual postgraduate work in progress event, to be held at the OU’s Walton Hall campus in Milton Keynes on Wednesday 10th May 2017.

10:00-10:25: Coffee available

10:25: Welcome and Introductions

10:30-11:30: Greek Writers (Chair: Sian Beavers)

  • Elizabeth Webb. ‘Audience Sensory Perception in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War
  • Sophie Raudnitz. ‘Intertextuality and Remembering the Future in Plato’s Apology and Theaetetus

11:30-12:30: Digital Tools for Classicists: Discussion led by Valeria Vitale (Institute of Classical Studies) and Jessica Hughes (OU)

12:30 to 13: 30: Lunch

13:30-14:30: Linked Data (Chair: Simon McLaughlin)

  • Sarah Middle. ‘Investigating data use in the Humanities by linking AHRC projects’
  • Paula Granados-Garcia. ‘Cultural Contacts in Early Roman Spain through Linked Open Data’

14:30-15:00: Break

15:00–16:20: Receptions of the Ancient World (Chair: Sophie Raudnitz)

  • Simon McLaughlin. ‘Acropolis Now (or why we should stop looking at American wars when making comparisons with ancient conflict).’
  • Sian Beavers. ‘Digital Games as New Epic Form’
  • Madeline Chawner. ‘Captain America – Homeric Hero for the Twenty-first Century’

16:20: Closing Remarks

Registration for the event is now open. For further information or to reserve a place please contact Sian Beavers ( by Monday 1st May.

Introducing…some of our new PhD students!

Several of our PhD students have appeared on this blog since we launched it back in February 2015. This year, we’ve already been introduced to Adam Parker and his PhD research on ancient magical objects, while Rebecca Fallas gave us the lowdown on her PhD thesis submission (a piece that subsequently got picked up by the Times Educational Supplement). Sian Beavers wrote about her project on ‘Classics, Films and Video games’, and – moving back into 2015 – we had posts from John Harrison about his work on Georgian Stourhead, and Sophie Raudnitz, who is writing a thesis on memory and forgetting in ancient Greek literature. And then there was that lovely piece about Mair Lloyd’s Living Latin project, published last week!

This Autumn we welcomed a host of new PhD students to the department, including some who are co-supervised with other departments such as Philosophy and Religious Studies. Here, three of our newest PhD students introduce themselves and their projects (hint: avid blog readers may recognise one of these students from her earlier post about the Classical Studies MA degree!)

Sarah Middle

Sarah MiddleI’m Sarah Middle, and I’m looking at how Linked Data can be integrated with existing research methodologies in the Humanities in general, and for study of the Ancient World in particular. My supervisors are Elton Barker and Phil Perkins from Classical Studies, and Mathieu D’Aquin from the Knowledge Media Institute. Linked Data resources bring together materials held in various digital collections, allowing researchers to find connections between items that might not have been apparent previously. For example, in Classics, Linked Data techniques could be used to create a virtual collection of artefacts that were found at the same site but are now held in different museums, or to link historical texts to the places mentioned within them (such as the Pelagios project). The technology has been around for quite some time, but has only started to be applied to Humanities projects relatively recently. I am really keen to see how this develops, and where Linked Data could best be used to inform the answers to existing research questions.

Before returning to study, I worked as Repository Manager at Cambridge University Library, where I was responsible for managing and curating collections of digital objects, such as articles, theses, datasets, images and videos, as well as advising researchers on how best to describe these materials in order to facilitate their discovery by other users. I had previously worked in other academic libraries, as well as Cambridge’s Admissions Office, where I managed digital media projects to encourage students to apply to the university. My previous qualifications include an MA in Electronic Communication and Publishing from UCL, and an MA in Archaeological Research and BA Ancient History and Archaeology, both from the University of Nottingham.

Paula Granados

Paula Granados Open UniversityComing from an art historical background, Paula Granados soon recognised the importance and interdependence of both history and digital technologies. After completing her Bachelor degree in History of Art at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, she was awarded a Graduate Certificate in Teaching Spanish to Adults (First Class) by the Instituto Cervantes de Londres and Roehampton University which helped her to enhance her research skills. Paula then studied for an MA in Classical Art and Archaeology as an intercollegiate student at Kings College London and University College London, undertaking modules related to classical art and digital humanities. During this degree, Paula gained expertise in academic research related to the classical world and she also developed her knowledge about digital humanities. Her MA dissertation was entitled “HYBRID SCULPTURE, Sculptures from the Seville region, III BC – I BC: Iberian identity and Roman influence”, and looked at Ibero-Roman art and the manifestation of cultural contact in artistic artefacts.

Following along the path of her MA dissertation, Paula’s PhD research will focus on the study of cultural contacts and identity development in Early Roman Spain through Linked Open Data. Her proposal is the first step of a comprehensive study of cultural, social and political contacts and identities in Early Roman Spain by means of connection to and creation of Linked Data resources. The main problem that this research will address is understanding the dynamics of a colonial encounter where the data is fragmentary, heterogeneous and interdisciplinary. Using Linked Open Data resources and other digital technologies, this study will open up the possibility of making effective relations through large amounts of data. These relations will allow us to provide the data with some relevant context and therefore to interpret, reuse and contextualise the information in a much broader way, aiming to break through the current impasse in scholarship.

Liz Webb

Liz WebbAfter completing my MA in Classical Studies with the OU in 2014, I was eager to continue my research in more depth. I had thoroughly enjoyed working on my final year dissertation, which focused on vision and hearing in books 1 and 6 of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. I was particularly intrigued by scholarship about his use of audiences, both internal and external to the text. I also became interested in the application of sensory theory to the classical world and am therefore trying to bring these research interests together in my work.

Recent reception of Thucydides has focused on his role as a political theorist, a military strategist, a scientist and a rhetorician, which brings him firmly into the sphere of a political and intellectual elite. However, I plan to address the limitations of this approach by developing a new framework for experiencing Thucydides.  I am looking to understand how Thucydides immerses his audience in episodes of his history, giving them a sense of presence which forms a point of tension with his detached authorial persona. This will open fresh perspectives on ancient war narrative which will chime with current approaches to in-depth war reporting.

I began my part-time PhD in October 2016, supported by a CHASE scholarship, and my first months have been a thoroughly enjoyable and busy time. The Open University’s induction was a wonderful starting point, giving lots of support and advice. My three supervisors, Elton Barker, Eleanor Betts and Emma Bridges, have provided fantastic support and direction in their fields of expertise. I feel very excited about taking my research forward: it really is the opportunity of a lifetime.

A celebration of Mair Lloyd’s ‘Living Latin’

Many of you know Mair and the enthusiasm she has for reminding us that Latin was, and can be, a real language, more than grammar grind and reading a bunch of fusty old texts…! I hope you’ll join with me and Mair’s other supervisors – Regine Hampel, Uschi Stickler, Linda Murphy – in congratulating Mair on her amazing achievement of winning the prestigious AOUG Vice-Chancellor Sir John Daniel Award for Education and Language Studies (2016).

AOUGMairMair, with her enthusiasm and dedication, has bridged boundaries and brought a lot of people and ideas together. By sharing supervision between the Classical Studies and Modern Languages departments we have learned much from each other (and the ways we work with language and think about language). By asking pertinent questions in her research, Mair has made Latinists across the country aware of the value of technology for teaching and learning, and by travelling to the US and participating in a Latin immersion course as a student, Mair has herself experienced the power of Living Latin for real communication.


The award Mair has received is in the name of Sir John Daniel, an educator who has always encouraged the use of technology, and promoted learning in unconventional ways and places, so it is quite fitting! Mair’s research is about making learning better and more enjoyable. She has discovered that ‘good Latin learners’ read with engagement and with fluency, and has demonstrated that Latin is a language that can be brought to life and can be used.

‘Tweeted’ reactions to her organisation of the ‘Living Latin’ panel at the 2016 Classical Association conference in Edinburgh (for which she secured the attendance of leading exponent of Living Latin, Prof. Tunberg from the University of Kentucky) illustrate this point:

@MairLloyd‘s enthusiasm makes Vygotsky accessible even at 9am in the morning. Great introduction to the theory behind Living Latin #LL#CA16

#CA16@MairLloyd is absolutely brilliant. There are many layers to language learning. Learners can help each other in the process.

This panel on spoken Latin as a learning method (with taster lesson from Terence Tunberg) was absolutely brilliant

The Living Latin panel. It has been mind-blowing. And we all spoke some Latin!

The panel on Living Latin is so mesmerising and inspiring it is difficult to tweet… sorry! Blog to follow. #CA16

Mair’s exploration of learning to read in Latin has highlighted aspects of reading that have not been extensively explored in modern languages either  – i.e. exploring reading with comprehension in the target language without resorting to translation or checking unknown vocabulary, and reading with engagement. She has used an innovative approach to evaluation of this type of reading that includes reading and drawing.

Her research has been far more extensive than that which is presented in her final thesis, and she will be submitting a range of further papers and conference presentations outlining findings related to learning of Ancient Greek and the development of interaction and collaborative Latin learning through Information and Communication Technology.

Mair’s thesis, Living Latin: Exploring the communicative approach to Latin teaching through a sociocultural perspective on Latin learning, is an investigation of the current approach to the ab initio teaching of Latin in Classics departments in UK universities and how this aligns with the aims and aspirations of students. Drawing on Second Language Acquisition theory and practice in Modern Language teaching she has examined how the implementation of methods and activities based on a communicative approach to Latin teaching can help students to attain their ab initio Latin-learning goals. She then explored the explanatory value of a Vygotskian sociocultural theoretical perspective (as applied to modern language learning) in the analysis of learning events during communicative Latin teaching and interpersonal interaction in Latin. The research forges new links between the Department of Classical Studies and the Department of Languages.

Mair came to the research having noticed her own difficulties as a beginner getting to grips with reading Latin, compared with the faster progress she felt that she had made as a beginner learner of French. She intuitively felt that the more interactive use of French might actually be helping her to read more easily in French, and that Modern Language theory and practice might have some benefits in the teaching of Latin. Like many learners of Latin and their teachers, her aim was to be able to read and enjoy original texts in order to be able to gain insight into and appreciate the life and perspectives of the writer and the ancient world.

Although a number of classicists have previously looked to Modern Language theory and pedagogy to inspire their approach to Latin teaching, Mair has established that little or no attention has been paid to demonstrating the benefits of these approaches for Latin teaching or determining how well their effects are explained by language learning theories. The results of her survey of UK University Classics departments showed no evidence of awareness of curricula underpinned by theoretical positions. Despite having no previous knowledge of language learning theories herself before beginning her research, Mair has analysed current approaches and classified them according to the theoretical and pedagogical concepts drawn from Modern Language research. To achieve this, she has drawn on research conducted by fellow postgraduate students and brought together a range of different perspectives on theory, history of language teaching and methodology, supplemented by her own insights into the field. She has demonstrated that much current Latin teaching practice can be classified as behaviourist and structuralist with a heavy emphasis on cognitive skills, but shows very little evidence of developments in modern language teaching which focus on interaction, context, collaboration and emotional response and have been strongly influenced by a Vygotskian sociocultural theoretical perspective.

Mair therefore sought out examples of Latin teaching and learning that resembled more closely the situation in modern language teaching where interaction through oral communication involving both speaking, listening comprehension and negotiation of meaning in the target language is a regular component. She found them in the form of a week-long ‘immersion’ programme at Lexington in the USA. This ‘Conventiculum’ proclaimed the benefits of learning Latin through interaction in Latin and collaboration with other learners as well as interaction with original texts, though once again this seemed to be based on an intuition of the benefit rather than having a firm theoretical perspective. As a participant observer at this event, Mair was able to gather data on the experience of beginner and more experienced learners, including her own reactions, to their ‘immersion’ in Latin and the types of activity and interaction and they engaged in.

Data collection at the Conventiculum included asking participants to read a short passage in Latin and to make a drawing of what this passage evoked for them. They were asked to do this both before and after the event. They were encouraged to envision the scenes described in the passages without making a translation into English. This represented an innovative way to examine readers’ responses to the passages. It enabled readers to avoid the mediation of another language (as would have been the case if comprehension questions in English were given) or adding complexity by questioning in Latin. It also allowed a more personal response to the text. Readers noted the mood of the scene evoked, for example. This method has not been employed to any extent in modern language learning, where despite attention to so-called ‘intensive’ and ‘extensive’ reading (for specific information or for gist), there has been little attention to reading and understanding entirely within the target language and in understanding what is meant by ‘engagement’ in reading.

In her analysis of the data gathered from the communicative Latin teaching and interpersonal interaction in Latin at the Conventiculum, Mair explored the explanatory value of a Vygotskian sociocultural theoretical perspective (as applied to modern language learning). Her findings indicate that this may be a positive way forward in understanding how reading in Latin and engagement with original texts can be facilitated and become more enjoyable for learners of Latin and other ancient languages.


MairUschiVivaSince receiving her award, Mair has passed her viva and can look forward to soon being Dr Lloyd, author of Living Latin: Exploring a Communicative Approach to Latin Teaching through a Sociocultural Perspective on Language Learning. Look out for more from Mair, as she has no intention of stopping here, with publications in the pipeline and Ancient Greek to deal with next…

On behalf of the OU Classical Studies department and CREET, and especially from the four of us who supervised you, congratulations Mair, and bona fortuna! As Uschi put it at the AOUG Award Ceremony, Mair fabulosa est!

Borders and Boundaries: a report on the Leeds postgraduate interdisciplinary conference

OU PhD student Sophie Raudnitz reports on the 7th annual postgraduate interdisciplinary conference hosted by the University of Leeds.

Leeds posterOn Monday 20th June, in a week when the issue of national borders and where we draw them was the focus of such intense political attention, I was delighted to attend the 7th Annual Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Conference at the University of Leeds, entitled Borders and Boundaries. The aim of this conference was to bring together postgraduate students from different disciplines and different universities to think about borders—cultural, social, psychological and geographical—how we define them and how they are or might be transgressed.

The conference took place at the beautiful Devonshire Hall in Leeds and was hosted by the Classics Department. There were two short keynotes speeches, one from Dr Ingrid Sharp from the Department of German and the other from Dr Emma Stafford from the Department of Classics, both of the University of Leeds. Dr Sharp spoke about ‘Crossing Gender Boundaries: Expressions of Feminist Rage in German Crime Fiction’ – a thought provoking and entertaining look at the way in which German feminist crime writers use humour as a way of affirming rather than denigrating women’s existence. Dr Stafford spoke later on ‘Thinking About Impact’ and research which crosses the boundary between the academic setting and the wider world.

The programme was packed, with five sessions timetabled and two panels running simultaneously in each. Panel topics included ‘Human and Divine’, ‘Aquatic Boundaries’, ‘Home and Away’, ‘Intertextuality’ and ‘Memory’. Though most speakers were classicists, we also heard papers about wearing the veil as a Muslim feminist issue (by Sadia Seddiki, University of Leeds) and ‘transnational’, as opposed to ‘global’ memories of the Holocaust (by Jade Douglas, University of Leeds). I especially enjoyed Jade Douglas’s paper as her study of transnational Holocaust memory intersected with my own research in very interesting ways but as usual with conferences of this kind, just hearing the range of topics which people are researching, and the energy and enthusiasm with which they speak about them, is inspiring in itself. Given this, it seems churlish to mention individual papers but highlights for me included Natalie Enright (University of Leeds) speaking about ‘Crossing Psychic Boundaries: Humoral Infection of the Soul in Plato’s Timaeus’, Devon Allen (University of Leeds) discussing ‘To What Extent is There a Mythological influence over the Folkloric Type of a Mermaid’ and Maria Haley (University of Leeds) on ‘Beyond Justice: Atreus’ Transgressive Revenge in Greek Tragedy’. You can read Henry Clarke’s Storify of tweets from the event here.

My own paper, the last of the day, was on ‘The Politics of Empathy: a Memory-Centred Approach to Euripides’ Trojan Women’ and it suggested that the notion of empathy might unite political and aesthetic approaches to tragedy but also might be a way into reading across genres and considering, for example, discussions around the legitimacy or morality of Holocaust fictions. The paper centred on the ways in which rhetoric generates empathy to sway political responses, and giving it at this conference on Borders and Boundaries, attended by delegates from across the EU, in that week when political rhetoric regarding borders and immigration was at its height, I could suddenly feel its ‘impact’.

In all these respects, it was a very worthwhile trip. It was also great to compare experiences with postgraduate students from other universities and to meet people face to face I had hitherto only met on Twitter. My thanks to the committee from the University of Leeds Classics Department, and to Natalie Enright in particular, for organising such a great day.

by Sophie Raudnitz

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.

OU Classical Studies Postgraduate Work in Progress Day 2016

Classical Studies PhD student Sophie Raudnitz reports on this year’s annual postgraduate work-in-progress event, which took place in Milton Keynes on 5th May 2016.

Some of the student speakers at the event

Some of the student speakers at the event

I am writing this as I bask in the aftermath of a fantastic Open University Postgraduate Work in Progress Day at Walton Hall last week. I took part in my first one of these last year, six months into my PhD. It was the first time that I had presented a conference paper and I was very grateful for the opportunity to do so in such a supportive and friendly environment. I also relished the fact that the day made me feel part of a wider community of OU classicists. The day was a real eye-opener in terms of the variety of work going on under the umbrella of Classical Studies at the university.

Because of this positive experience last year, when Emma Bridges said that the department was looking for a PhD student to help with the organisation this year and asked me if I might be interested, I was happy to get involved. You’ll be relieved to hear that I won’t say much about this process but a couple of things stood out. I was amazed by the number of responses to my initial ‘save the date’ email from MA students all over the world. Most of them, understandably, could not come to Milton Keynes for a one day conference but the level of interest and the strength of positive feeling towards the OU were particularly heart-warming. As it was, we had an MA speaker, Silvana Delatte, who came over from Switzerland and a PhD student, Dominic Solly, who joined us on Skype from New York. Many of those from the UK also travelled great distances to be there. My other ‘moment’ came as I was compiling speakers’ biographies for the panel I was chairing: I am in awe of the way in which the OU brings together people from such disparate backgrounds, leading such different lives.

PhD student Mair Lloyd presenting her work on Latin language pedagogy

PhD student Mair Lloyd presenting her work on Latin language pedagogy

Luckily, a good number of people offered papers without my having to coax at all. We decided to take a relatively formal approach to this year’s conference in asking speakers to submit abstracts, really for the practice that this affords rather than because of any competitive or exclusive element. Emma and I both felt strongly that everyone who wanted to speak should have the opportunity to do so but that the rigour of writing and submitting abstracts and of sticking to word and time limits was worth encouraging too. Again, this process was made very easy by the cooperation of all involved. The final programme consisted of one MA student and eight PhD students, at various points into their studies – from 4 months in to near completion. Taking various factors into account, like travel plans and East Coast Time, I tried to organise the programme in such a way that there was some kind of thematic connection within each of the three panels and I think the day showed the success of this. I certainly found that ideas from previous papers fed very naturally into the way I thought about subsequent ones.

PhD student Catherine Hoggarth speaking about 'A multisensory exploration of movement across Rome's urban bridges'

PhD student Catherine Hoggarth speaking about ‘A multisensory exploration of movement across Rome’s urban bridges’

Like last year’s Work in Progress Day, this year’s was almost unadulteratedly great, aside from the inevitable IT stress at the start. Everyone listened, commented and questioned generously and positively and I think that we all appreciated the opportunity to take part. We heard papers on a wide variety of subjects and it was great to see the range of approaches used and to hear the genuine enthusiasm with which people discussed their work. Suffice it to say that Stuart McKie kicked off thinking about gestures of binding and unbinding and shared with us his experiments in sitting at his desk and holding his thumbs, while the day ended with Claire Greenhalgh inviting us to think about ideas of slavery and liberty in Starz’s Spartacus, with adventures in chicken catching and, frankly, many more votive penises than I was expecting, on the way. As a result of Stuart’s paper on body language and magic, I for one, found myself acutely conscious of the way I was crossing my legs or clasping my hands for the rest of the day. After listening to Catherine Hoggarth speaking about on the sensory experience associated with crossing Roman bridges, I became very contemplative about the bridge over the river into my town as I drove home that evening.

Several of us live tweeted furiously, fingers flying, under the hashtag #OUCSWiP – for a flavour of the topics discussed you can read a Storify of the event here. This was my first foray into live tweeting; I have previously held back as I’m not good at multi-tasking at the best of times. Actually it really added to the experience, allowing me to focus better, and seeing the bank of tweets mounting up from other tweeters was genuinely exciting!

I hope that everyone found the day as rewarding and enjoyable as I did and would really like to thank all those who came along. As you can tell, I’m still on a bit of a high. I’d also like to thank the department for laying on this day for us (and to so many staff members for giving up their time to come along). I hope that the PG WiP Day remains an institution and I’m already very much looking forward to next year’s!

Editor’s note: You can also find Sophie on Twitter @seraudnitz

‘How to submit a PhD thesis’, by Rebecca Fallas

Rebecca Fallas is a full-time PhD student who has just submitted her thesis on ‘Individual Responsibility and The Culture of Blame Surrounding Infertility in Ancient Medical Texts’. We asked her if she had any advice for other PhD students approaching submission – here’s what she wrote!


‘You know the transitional phase of childbirth, where a woman says she can’t go on and the midwife will say that means you’re nearly there? Well I’m hoping that is the same with this thesis.’

About a month before submitting my thesis I found myself uttering this sentence (working on ancient infertility inevitably means that any analogies I make are related to childbirth in some way). This was at the stage where the tiredness had really set in but it was also the point where the end was in sight and I finally began to believe that my thesis could be completed before the deadline for submission.

As anyone will tell you, the final few months before submitting a PhD thesis are a whirlwind. There are drafts and redrafts being pinged back and forth between you and your supervisors. That section of a chapter that you’ve been (often with good reason) putting off for the last three years can wait no longer. There are corrections to be made, references to chase, a bibliography to check and arguments to refine and all you really want to do at this point is lie down in a dark room and pretend the world doesn’t exist (this may have been just me but I suspect it’s fairly common).

Although slightly manic, as the thesis came together I actually found I enjoyed the final stages of thesis writing. Admittedly this may have been an academic version of Stockholm syndrome (where kidnap victims start to identify with their captors) but I learned a lot in those last few months before submission. Having had some time to reflect I thought I would share some of the tactics I employed to get my thesis written, things which helped me to keep my sanity – and one thing which meant that I nearly missed my deadline.

1)    Get organised.

In the final few months before submission your world shrinks somewhat and your thesis is likely to become, if not the only thing in your life, one of the few things that can grab your attention. Although this is true to some extent throughout your PhD it does step up a gear at this point. Knowing that this would be the case a couple of months before submitting I decided to get organised.

In terms of thesis this meant going through all the criteria for submission from how to set out the title page to downloading the form that I needed to complete when I submitted. I also made sure I had all the paper and ink cartridges I would need for printing. I also sorted out all the non-thesis things that needed to be done before submission. I wrote birthday cards, booked appointments and did anything I could that would mean I needed to keep as little as possible in my head and fewer things to distract me.

2)    ‘Thesis brain’

Unfortunately being so focused on one thing means that inevitably other things fall out of your brain. This might be a case of not being able to remember simple facts or completely forgetting people’s names. In my case it was forgetting that the university library doesn’t open on a bank holiday (let’s be honest, forgetting that it actually was a bank holiday). If your brain deems it non-essential it may well refuse to recall it.

I termed this phenomena ‘thesis brain’ and if it does happen to you rest assured you probably aren’t losing your memory and it is (mostly) reversible once you’ve submitted. The other positive of ‘thesis brain’ is that it gives you some interesting stories to tell post-submission (one of mine includes two suspected cases of Ebola – don’t ask).

3)    Plan some time out.

With a deadline looming it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking ‘I don’t have time to stop’ but you do and it’s essential that you do. This doesn’t have to be a big night out and to be honest you will probably be too tired at this point anyhow. Take an hour out to have coffee with a friend or dinner with family or anything that involves communicating with another human being. Admittedly, had I read this advice six months ago I would have thought two things: a) what an obvious thing to say and b) it’s ok for you to say that but I really don’t have time. However, in the middle of submitting a thesis it’s easy to forget and although it’s taken me a long time to learn this, taking that time out will make you more productive in the long run, I promise.

4)    Beware of the inevitable guilt trip.

On the subject of taking time out, this seems the perfect time to mention guilt. For me, and probably a lot of people, writing and guilt go together. From asking myself why hadn’t I read/written this before now, to ‘what on earth was I thinking taking a week off last Christmas?’: I could beat myself up about anything. About two months before submitting I realised that I was spending too much time and energy (of which I had little to spare) on asking myself why I hadn’t done something already rather than getting tasks completed now.

In the end I told myself there was time to beat myself up after submitting (although to be fair after the thesis was finished it didn’t matter anymore) and right now it was about getting on with it – this telling-off was the best thing I ever did and freed me to get on with finishing the thesis.

5)    There is no right way to complete a thesis.

Of course, there are guidelines to follow and standards to be met but how you go about getting there is unique to you. Just because Bob wrote his introduction in his first year and looks at you in horror when you say you haven’t written yours 5 months before submission does not mean you are doing the PhD wrong, just that you’re approaching it in a different way, and that’s fine (really it is). Also if, like Bob, you did write a perfect introduction by the end of your first year that’s also fine but do try and keep the looks of horror to a bare minimum – they are not helpful.

6)    Do not – I repeat do not – finish proofing, print, bind and post off your thesis on the submission date.

This is what I did and it was nearly my undoing (and yes I should know better). I was very lucky that this did not go terribly wrong. It will take you longer than you think to print out your thesis. In my case, this was a three-and-a-half hour printing marathon which involved much shouting at my printer (which I still cannot look at without an involuntary shudder) and cleaning the entire house because I could not stare any longer at the printer willing it to print quicker.

This resulted in me turning up at the binders 15 minutes before it shut. They (very kindly) ended up staying open 30 minutes later than normal during which time they had to deal with a slightly hyper and very tired PhD student (I still owe them a box of chocolates). Then there was the sprint to the post office before it shut at 6pm.

Do not do this. However, if this does happen to you remember you are not alone.

7)    Recognising that the end is in sight.

One of the scariest things about a PhD is that it is your project and only you can write it. This is not merely scary: it can be overwhelming at times. However, in those final few months I realised that while the impending deadline was still scary, my thesis no longer was. Despite all its faults, all the things I might have done differently and all the things I still don’t know (I have a long list of all three) I had written a thesis. Four months before I submitted, I genuinely didn’t believe this was something I would achieve. However, very slowly in those last few months I began to feel that, although I still had no idea how it was going to happen, finishing my thesis was something I could do.

Those final few months are tough, there is no way around that, but for me they were also the most rewarding part of the entire PhD. In the final stages of thesis writing everything happens fast; all of a sudden, chapters go from being drafts to being finished, you find a place for the pesky bit of evidence that needed to be included but didn’t seem to fit anywhere and that perfect quote to open Chapter 5 suddenly appears from nowhere. There is nothing like seeing a project you’ve been working on for so long come together in this way. However, in the midst of submitting a thesis it’s easy not to recognise this and to ignore all the little accomplishments because all you can think about is what is left to do.

And perhaps this is the most important message I would pass on to anyone heading towards completing their thesis. No matter how stressful it is or how tired you are, take enjoyment out of seeing your thesis come together and from the knowledge that the end is in sight.

by Rebecca Fallas

Classics, Film and Video Games

Sian Beavers is a first year PhD student researching depictions of antiquity in film, TV and videogames and the potential there is for informally learning about classics through these media forms.  The following blog post explains some of her reasoning for this research in relation to her pilot study that is currently underway.

“Often representations of Classical content seen in popular culture (such as film, TV or video games) are considered not to be “proper” Classics – inaccurate, ahistorical, and in some cases – downright silly.  But it is probably fair to say that the reason many of us study Classics, in one way or another, is due at least in part to a pop culture product that influenced us previously.

Whether it was the highly regarded 1976 TV series, I Claudius, based on Robert Grave’s book of the same name; a children’s adaptation of The Odyssey; the video games Age of Empires or Age of Mythology; or the film widely credited with reinvigorating the ‘sword and sandal’ epic, Gladiator: by now hopefully few can doubt the impact that historical representations in popular culture have on our interest, perceptions and understandings of the ancient world.

Ryse ArenaIn the modern world, these re-workings of ancient content and material must also be considered re-mediations, in that they not only reference ancient sources but also borrow tropes (in story/content decisions as well as aesthetic representations) from other media. For example, the arena scenes that were so iconic in the film Gladiator are now familiar to us precisely because they have been reproduced in an array of other media with similar content: the TV Series Spartacus; HBO’s Rome; as well as the videogames Ryse: Son of Rome and Spartan: Total Warrior, amongst many other film, TV and videogame adaptations. This trope has become something that we expect to see when we engage with media that represents ancient Rome.

Some may question my inclusion of videogames as a legitimate media form for representing the past, but when one considers that Ryse: Son of Rome, a launch title for the Xbox One sold in 2014 alone more than 5 million copies and the Assassin’s Creed franchise more than 73 million, we cannot deny the popularity and wide-spread effects of the historical videogame genre, or more so that videogames are a new historical form that have the ability to portray history, even if the history can be said to exist.

My PhD research with the Open University is concerned with how people engage with these historical representations in popular culture, and how audiences’ and players’ understanding of the past are shaped by them. What opportunities for learning do the different forms (TV, film, videogame) offer? How is this related to how the form structures the content?  What specific media forms or products are considered to be the ‘best’ for learning about antiquity, the most entertaining, or more authentic? This is not to say that that this is merely research into the historical accuracy of a form or product, but the audience-player perceptions of it. For example, videogames have received much criticism over the last couple of years because of how women are represented. In a historical videogame, do the players believe that the representations of women align with the history? (“That’s how women were treated at the time….”) Or are they aware, as Hardwick and Stray note, that representations of Classical content in modern culture shed more light on the receiving society than on the ancient context?

The research as a whole will start answering some of these questions, through beginning with a Pilot Study that investigates audience and player perceptions of their learning through different forms and products; the viewer/player practices while engaging with these media forms (“Do you watch/play alone, or with people?”, “Do you post to blogs or social media in response to the content?”); and the longer lasting effects of engaging with such media (“Has a TV show/film/game ever inspired you to research the history of it more?”). This will allow the narrowing and focussing of a research area that has the potential to be gigantic.

Although at this point I have ensured that the questions in the survey (mostly in a mercenary attempt to increase response rate) relate to ‘general history’ as opposed to antiquity specifically, I am very keen to receive responses from Classicists in order to begin answering some of these questions, both because your perceptions of these media forms and products will be extremely interesting, as well as the fact the research as a whole will ultimately be looking at representations of antiquity in popular culture.

I hope that you could spare 10 minutes or less to aid me in this research and do this brief questionnaire, and if it might be something that a friend or colleague would be interested in, pass it on to them too. I’m also more than happy to talk to any one of you about the research and any suggestions you might have about its nature or direction so please contact me on twitter or at

I look forward to hearing from you!

Sian Beavers


Perspectives: the Classical Studies Postgraduate Work in Progress Day 2015

by Liz Webb

Liz WebbMy name is Liz Webb and I have recently completed the Open University’s MA in Classical Studies. It has been a wonderful, enriching experience, the highlight of which was the module requiring a dissertation on a subject of our choosing. For me, this led to a rewarding year exploring vision and hearing in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

During the year, I responded to an email inviting postgraduate students to present at the 2015 Postgraduate Work in Progress Day but I had little idea how many different perspectives on the Classical world would be revealed. I had started my research in February and, having had my proposal signed off and submitted my introduction and first chapter, I condensed my ideas into a 15 minute presentation. After a trial run with a willing, if small, audience at home, I was ready to go. One huge benefit of the process was thought clarification. Having explained my topic to non-Classicists, I had distilled it down to the essentials.

On the day of the seminar our welcome by the Classical Studies team couldn’t have been warmer. Over coffee we made our introductions and got to know each other before the main business of the day started. We enjoyed a wide range of presentations including topics such as movements in cursing rituals, cultural memory in Plato’s Theaetetus, choral utterances in Sophocles, the impact of immersion on learning ancient languages, and obesity in the Hippocratic corpus. It was a thought provoking reminder of the diversity of the department. The breadth of topics also revealed the interdisciplinary nature of research being carried out. Issues of material and textual evidence were discussed alongside questions of ancient and modern reception. The theme of the individual in classical society, both in a physical and intellectual sense, seemed to be a common thread running through many of the presentations.

When it was my turn to present, the presentation flew by and in no time at all we had reached audience’s questions. This really was the most helpful part of the day for me. The questions, which were challenging, raised subjects for me to research more widely. Other attendees recommended books they had used which they thought might be helpful and, indeed, some of these recommendations are proving invaluable. The seminar was also interesting for those who wanted to find out more about pursuing Classical Studies further. It was fascinating to hear the perspective of a presenter who has started the new Masters course. Also, for anyone thinking of studying for a PhD, it was a terrific opportunity to find out more about research methods and how other students have chosen to develop their themes over time.

Further benefits of attending the seminar emerged afterwards for me on a more personal level. It gave food for thought as to how more varied approaches might support my dissertation or future presentations. Some presenters shared handouts with quotations and translations, others used site plans, while some had a more data driven approach. It provided an interesting challenge to think how some of these methods might be relevant to researching Thucydides. Additionally, reflecting on which areas of my presentation had provoked wider discussion provided further focus for my work subsequently.

The Postgraduate Work in Progress Day provided a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the world of Classical Studies. I’d recommend the experience to anyone involved in postgraduate research at the OU. It’s such a friendly environment for testing out ideas while they are genuinely “in progress” and stimulates consideration of further directions, emphases and perspectives for taking research to its next level.

Editor’s note: If you’d like to find out more about pursuing a postgraduate qualification in Classical Studies at the Open University have a look at the information on postgraduate research here.