Category Archives: Teaching

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

Introducing our Classical Studies students

Although at the OU we don’t always get to meet our students face-to-face (but see here for an insight into how our teaching is carried out), here in the Classical Studies department we enjoy finding alternative opportunities for engaging with the people who are studying our modules. One way in which we do this is through the use of online2015-03-09 001 2015-03-09 002 forums. This summer several members of the department ran an online discussion forum aimed at students who are making the transition from Level 1 study to our Level 2 modules (the equivalent of the step up from first- to second-year undergraduate study elsewhere); the forum was a place where we could offer help and advice, and share our enthusiasm for the subject, and it also allowed our students to make contact with each other before the online forums for their individual modules opened. As a result we ‘met’ a whole range of students who form this year’s cohort. As always they’re a diverse bunch, spread over a wide geographical area, and with a variety of reasons for undertaking Open University study – there is no such thing as the ‘typical OU student’. We asked them to introduce themselves and to tell us a little bit about why they’ve chosen to study with us, so here are a few of their stories:

– Sasha, who lives near Leicester, told us that, with four young children and another on the way, the OU enables her to combine studying with raising a family in a way that would not be possible via a ‘brick’ university; having enjoyed the classical elements of the OU’s interdisciplinary Level 1 Arts module (in which students encounter, among other things, Sophocles’ Antigone, Plato, Cleopatra and Roman archaeology) she has decided to pursue a single honours Classical Studies degree.

– Several students cited a lifelong interest in ancient Greece and Rome as their inspiration for beginning formal study. Brian recalled a school trip to Chester and studying Latin at ‘O’ Level in the 1970s as fuelling his enthusiasm, and, having studied several history modules with the OU, is 150hornblower[1]now embarking on Exploring the Classical World, our wide-reaching Level 2 module which introduces our students to the literature, history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Trevor, who is studying the same module from his home in the Scottish Highlands, told us that he’s been studying with the OU since 2013; he’s enjoying reading all manner of ancient texts and plans to go on to study our Level 3 module Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds next year. Another of our students, Alisha, lives in Switzerland, and dropped in to tell us that she’ll be studying the myth module along with our brand new Level 3 module The Roman Empire. Philip in west Wales, meanwhile, is a local guide who spends a lot of time talking to tour groups about the Roman heritage of his town, so he’s joined us in order to find out more about the Greeks and Romans.v2a21923[1]

– Our new Level 2 Latin module, which we are offering for the first time this year, has been eagerly anticipated, and we met several students who are looking forward to learning the ancient language. Among them are those for whom the study of the language offers them the opportunity to enhance their understanding of the ancient world, and others who plan to study Latin as a way of complementing their knowledge of a variety of modern languages.

– Meanwhile we also give our students the opportunity to learn ancient Greek, with a module which teaches the language from beginners’ level as well as allowing students to gain a deeper understanding of some key literary texts by reading them in translation. Gale told us that, having retired after a long career in the NHS, she now has the time to take up formal study; she confessed to feeling a little daunted by the challenge of studying ancient Greek but is fascinated by the ways in which the ancient world continues to influence our own society.

If you’d like to know more about what we offer please visit our departmental website, where you’ll find information on our modules and courses (at both undergraduate and postgraduate level) as well as free taster materials and contact information.

Wishing all our students the very best of luck with their studies for the coming year!

Behind the scenes: In the studio with the A276 module team

Even if you’ve never studied with the Open University before, you’ll probably be aware of the central role that audio-visual materials play in our teaching resources. In fact, from the earliest days of the university (which was established in 1969), the image of the OU broadcast, delivered by a kipper-tie-wearing lecturer and screened on the BBC at some ungodly hour, has become a fondly remembered (if sometimes gently ridiculed) feature of our teaching. But we’ve moved a long way past these stereotypes now. Today, our modules offer an exciting variety of audio-visual resources, from short documentaries filmed in exotic locations to intimate discussions between academic experts. Everything is carefully planned and integrated with the rest of our study material so as to support students in their studies as effectively as possible. It’s hard work, but it’s also one of the most interesting and rewarding tasks for those of us working on modules in production – and with an unprecedented number of new modules about to be launched by the Classical Studies department, we wanted to take this opportunity to give you some more insight into just how this process is carried out.

I’m the chair of the new Latin literature and language module, Classical Latin: the language of Ancient Rome (A276), which will have its first presentation in October 2015. Earlier this year, the module team finished work on a whole suite of audio features which will be interspersed throughout the three Blocks of the module. A few of them are specifically designed to support the language sections – so, for example, students will be able to hear the Latin texts of some of the literature that they will be studying spoken out loud – but the majority are related to the module’s literary and cultural units. A276 focuses on literature written in the Augustan period, from Livy’s histories of early Rome, to Virgil’s Aeneid, to the love poetry of Ovid, and addresses the central theme of how such texts were vehicles for exploring Roman identity. The units that we’ve been writing, as part of the core teaching materials, offer lots of different angles on this – but sometimes, the best way of bringing these texts and the debates around them to life is to talk about them.

So, from an early stage in the module’s production, we’ve been working with JustRadio, a production company who have a great deal of experience with the OU, as well as in making programmes for the BBC and other broadcasters. They’ve helped us to identify what sort of features would be most useful and interesting for our students, and have enabled us to really get the best out of our material. At the heart of many of these features are conversations with leading academics and professionals, from a discussion about epigraphy with the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, to an on-site interview with a botanist at Kew Gardens who regularly uses Latin in her day-to-day work. One of the most memorable was a 20-minute piece that we put together for Block 3 of the module, in which students spend some time thinking about the process of translation. I went to King’s College London to interview two academics about their views of translation: William Fitzgerald talked about the scholarly side of things, and the history of different kinds of translation, while Henry Stead gave us an insight into his own practice as a translator of Latin literature. Conducting the interviews in their offices was just the first step, though. Next, my own introduction and links had to be recorded in studios on Wardour Street, Soho (a historic centre of film and radio production in the UK), where I was closeted in a tiny booth behind glass, feeling like I might have been about to read the news on the Today programme. And finally, JustRadio edited these links and the conversations into a seamless piece of audio, interwoven with clips of Henry’s recital of his own poetry, along with archive material of the poet Ted Hughes reading from his ‘Tales From Ovid’. The result is, we think, a really engaging way of getting students to think about what’s at stake when we translate, as well as providing an opportunity to listen to different ways of performing poetry.

The courtyard at the British School at Rome, one of our recording locations

The courtyard at the British School at Rome, one of our recording locations

JustRadio helped us to find other ways of bringing Latin literature to life, too. Not wanting to be outdone by the exotic trips undertaken by our colleagues working on A340, our new Roman Empire module, we also found space in our schedules for a quick trip to Rome. Not merely an excuse to sample pizza and gelato, this turned out to be a real boost to some of the audio features that we wanted to include in the module’s earlier blocks. It gave us the opportunity to speak to people like Chris Smith, Director of the British School at Rome, about his expert knowledge of early Rome, along with Diana Spencer, a leading scholar of Augustan literature – but it also provided crucial atmosphere and a sense of location for our own discussions of Augustan Rome. We didn’t really believe it until we heard the first cuts of the features ourselves, but it was so much easier to conjure up the importance of what was happening in the city of Rome itself when all this great literature was being produced, when we could connect our discussion to a real geographical location – and hopefully our students will feel a sense of our excitement too.

Now that the long process of writing and interviewing, editing and mastering is over, all that remains is for us to unleash our efforts on our first cohort of A276 students. If you’re interested in being among them, and would like to know more about what this module has in store, then our short introductory audio is online now, and you can read more about it on the OU website, too.




Introducing… Julie Ackroyd, Honorary Associate in Classical Studies

Photo of Julie Ackroyd by the ColosseumI’m delighted to be able to introduce myself as the new Honorary Associate for the OU Classics Department. You can find me at:

My day to day work is for the OU as an Associate Lecturer. Having completed my PhD recently I am what is classed as an ‘early career researcher’, so it’s out into the big wide world to make new academic friends and find out what is going on at conferences. I’m also working on getting material published in journals and hopefully a book soon. My first job on graduation was to work towards my Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. I passed this last month so I now have letters after my name as well as Dr in front of it.

My PhD. work focused on ‘The Recruitment and Training of the Child Actor on the London Stage c.1600’. This may not on first glance seem a subject which has a particularly Classical focus, however…

The theatre company which my research covered was based at Blackfriars in the City of London on the north side of the Thames. This organisation was in direct competition with the theatres on the south side of the Thames, such as the Globe where Shakespeare was working. Hang on a minute, I can hear you saying, there were no theatres in London, actors weren’t allowed within its boundaries. Well, the company at Blackfriars were a little different to those acting across the river. The company was staffed solely with actors who were boys.  They presented their plays at a more select indoor venue which led to a more upmarket clientele than those attending performances at the open air venues south of the river. On average the cost of the cheapest ticket to a performance at Blackfriars was the same as the most expensive ticket available at the Globe. In fact, the patrons were so well off that London had to introduce its first one way system and no parking area for horse drawn coaches dropping off and picking up the theatre patrons as they were creating rampant traffic jams in the area.

Portrait of Nathan Field from Dulwich Picture Gallery. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Nathan Field c. 1610, now in the collections of Dulwich Picture Gallery. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A more select audience demanded a more educated and refined actor. As a result, many of the boys recruited to perform at the venue had a grammar school education. This is where the Classical component comes in. They knew Latin and sometimes Greek, they were familiar with the Classical texts which were taught day in day out at the schools.  Ovid’s Heroides was especially significant for those boys who would later join the theatre as it taught them to consider dramatic and emotional events from a women’s perspective. Remember, this was the time when there were no English women on the commercial stage. Boys covered all the roles. Their education would also have involved learning by rote and, as a result, they would have an excellent memory for remembering lines. In addition they would also have experience of performing in a public setting as, at significant royal occasions the boys were often asked to present orations in Latin to welcome the ruler into the City or to commemorate events such as royal weddings. Many of the schools also had regular in house performance of plays for parents and local guild members.

When a family sent a child to a grammar school to soak up all this Classical learning they weren’t planning on turning out an actor, they were hoping to have a son who could take over the family business, join a Guild, go to University, join the Inns of Court, the world was their Oyster. So why let them join a disreputable fraternity? Well that is how I found out about this appropriation of grammar school boys into the acting profession. In the Public Record Office at Kew there is a legal case where boys are named who had been kidnapped whilst they were on their way to grammar school. They were forcibly held against their will at the theatre and made to memorise lines and act. As you can imagine, well to do families were horrified at this. The resultant legal case petitions the courts for restitution after the kidnap of a boy named Thomas Clifford. We even have a painting of one of the boys who was taken at around the same time: Nathan Field. He made a success of his incarceration and as an adult transferred across the river to work with Shakespeare’s company, where he played the romantic leads. If you want to find out more, wait for the book publication…

By Julie Ackroyd

Classical Studies at The Student Hub Live 2015

Earlier this week I participated in The Student Hub Live 2015 (no login required!). This was a three day event streamed live online from Walton Hall in which different people from across the OU, including both staff and students, were invited to talk about what they do, conduct live experiments, engage in lively debate on everything from serial killers to language and literacy, and even have a go at this year’s quiz show: Wheel of Ologies.

This sort of online event is a great opportunity for students (and potential students!) to get a better sense of what we all do and to understand what makes the OU tick. Students who perhaps wouldn’t normally come to the campus in Milton Keynes can hear from a whole host of people who have a variety of roles in the university and can even interact with them via a chat stream or Twitter. This time around participants ranged from the new Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks and the senior leadership team of the university, to those who run Library Services and the Careers Advisory Service, as well as central academic staff and other students.

The theme of this event was interdisciplinary study and it was tied closely to the BA/BSc(Hons) Open Degree. If you sign up to study for this degree you can tailor your studies to suit your own needs and interests. Not many other universities will let their students range quite so broadly across subjects as diverse as English literature, biology, Spanish, statistics, retail management, child psychology and of course Classical Studies! Effectively, then, the Open Degree lets you put together an entire degree programme that matches exactly what you want to study, even if these are subjects that might not normally be studied in parallel. For me, the Open Degree represents what the OU is all about: letting people who want to study do so in a way that works for them.


On the sofa for some chat with colleagues from Social Sciences and Health and Social Care

As part of the event, I was asked to contribute to a short ‘chat show’ on Tuesday evening, sharing a sofa with colleagues from the Faculties of Social Sciences and Health and Social Care who were talking about their research on subjects as wide-ranging as Scottish Independence, the recent General Election and the upcoming EU referendum, EU citizenship and identity, as well as the practical needs of an ageing population in Britain. It was a bit daunting being amongst people who work on issues that are so very ‘now’ but as I talked a bit about identity in the Roman empire and about how my work on anatomical votive offerings helps us to understanding how ancient people thought about their identities in relation to their ever changing (i.e. ageing) bodies, I realised that we had more in common than I first thought. Our methodologies are very different, the evidence and data that we work with is also very different, but we are all interested in people, how they think and how they understand and experience the cultural contexts in which they live.


Team ‘Ologies for Dummies’ getting quizzical.

On Wednesday I took part in the Wheel of Ologies quiz which involved two teams with buzzers trying to outdo each other on general knowledge questions linked to different ‘ologies’ (e.g. zoology, epistemology, pantology, and the wildcard bonus category of ‘ninjology’ or the study of ninjas!). My team didn’t exactly romp to victory. In fact, we lost fairly dismally, although I was relieved to get a question about Caligula’s horse correct! It was great fun to mix in with current students, heads of other faculties and people based ‘behind the scenes’ at the Library, whilst the audience played along online (possibly with some help from Google!). For me, and I think for many students, this was one of the highlights of the whole event, reminding everyone that regardless of our roles in the university we are all just ordinary people who like to have a bit of a laugh, even if general knowledge quizzes are not everyone’s strong point!

Some catch up versions of the different Hub Live sessions should be available to watch on the website before too long and you might want to keep an eye out for the next Student Hub Live and even take part!

Emma-Jayne Graham

Behind the Scenes: On location with A340 The Roman empire

Something that makes OU module materials unique is their combination of different media: printed books, audio, video, interactive activities and online materials. In the second of our ‘behind the scenes of module production’ series I thought I’d share some of our experiences of making the films for one of our new modules, due for presentation in October 2015: A340 The Roman empire.

The Roman empire covered a huge amount of territory and a range of different environments, landscapes and cultures. Some of the earliest discussions that we had as a module team were about how we could bring this diversity to life without actually being able to take students on the ultimate archaeological fieldtrip. How could we help people to understand the essential differences between the landscape of a city in North Africa and the experiences of soldiers stationed on the northern frontier of the empire? Film was the obvious solution, allowing us not only to convey what these places are (or were) like, but also to actually move around them, providing a dynamic context for the artefacts, monuments, activities and even people who lived in the Roman empire.

Volubilis still

Professor Phil Perkins gets up close and personal with some inscriptions in the forum at Volubilis (Morocco).

But we faced some decisions: we couldn’t film the whole empire so where would we go? After much discussion we chose three locations: Hadrian’s Wall, Rome and Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, and the city of Volubilis in Morocco. We picked these because they are places which allow us to share the types of evidence that are important to us, but also to tell the stories that we want to tell about how the empire can be understood from the remains it has left behind. Each also has its own interesting history to explore.

We had to do a lot of preparation in advance – filming educational materials is not just about turning up at an archaeological site and pointing a camera at whatever looks nice! We had to decide exactly what it was that we wanted to use the films for and how they would be divided up, what we wanted A340 students to learn about, how we could use the fact that we were on location to communicate a sense of scale and of landscape, as well as finding and then talking about evidence that was still in situ. So it was essential that we did our research, making sure that we knew what we needed film and why.


Dr Emma-Jayne Graham filming by the river at Chesters Fort (Hadrian’s Wall) with Lindsay Allason-Jones.

The filming teams themselves were very small, made up of an academic or two to do the talking to camera and to make sure that the right things were being shot and explained appropriately, a director (who was also often operating the camera) and, in Italy and Morocco, a local fixer to smooth the way, arrange transportation and secure filming permits. It certainly isn’t glamorous! But filming is an opportunity for a module team to think creatively about how we can best share our enthusiasm for the Roman empire and make it possible to understand these places as if you were there for yourself. We all love talking to people about how fascinating we find the Roman world and to do it surrounded by columns, mosaics and Roman artefacts only heightened our excitement, something which will hopefully be clear to those who watch! Film is also our chance to draw attention to things that you might not actually notice even if you were there: an unprepossessing line of dusty rocks is the only remaining evidence for the earliest city wall at Volubilis; that pile of stones in the corner of a milecastle on Hadrian’s Wall is actually a staircase which allows us to estimate the height of the Wall; a crumbling concrete dome at Hadrian’s Villa was at one time the latest innovation in Roman architecture.


Roman leather shoe from the excavations at Vindolanda.

Filming also gives us an opportunity to invite experts to talk about the very spot on which they are standing. Lindsay Allason-Jones shared with us her enthusiasm and unparalleled knowledge about Chester’s fort on Hadrian’s Wall, whilst Andrew Birley, Director of the Vindolanda Trust, allowed us to get hands on with some of the precious finds from the site. Going to Vindolanda meant we could film archaeology in action, but it also let us talk to ordinary people and get a range of different perspectives on how we know about the Roman empire.

Each location of course had its own complications. Rome is a busy city, with traffic noise and large numbers of tourists, not to mention being prone to summer downpours and, at Tivoli, the dreaded zanzara (mosquito)! Sites on Hadrian’s Wall are spread out, meaning clambering over styles, tramping over rough ground and, in the case of our director Nick, having to walk backwards whilst filming, hoping not to fall into the 3 metre deep v-ditch! Volubilis threw up different issues, besides the heat there were cultural considerations associated with filming in an Islamic country, language difficulties and an unforeseen airline strike which led to an extra day at Casablanca airport for the team.

Tivoli still

Dr Eleanor Betts braves the mosquitoes by the canopus at Hadrian’s villa, Tivoli (Italy).

So, whilst we didn’t perhaps travel as widely as the emperor Hadrian once did, and certainly didn’t return home to fill our offices with quite as many spectacular souvenirs as he placed in his grand villa at Tivoli, we had a lot of fun exploring the empire and hope that students of A340 will enjoy these virtual fieldtrips to far flung (and not so far flung) parts of the Roman empire.

Watch this space for a taster film of A340 The Roman empire coming soon!

By Emma-Jayne Graham (A340 Module Team Chair)

Saturdays well spent: teaching and learning at the OU

by Emma Bridges

As well as working with the Classical Studies team based in Milton Keynes, I’m also one of the Open University’s Associate Lecturers. For the uninitiated, this is the name given by the OU to a veritable army of tutors who are subject experts and who deliver face-to-face teaching to students across the regions and nations served by the university. OU students tend to have a whole range of other commitments outside their studies which means that tutorials at ‘regular’ hours during weekdays aren’t ideal for most; evenings and weekends are usually more convenient for the majority. Hence, as I live in Yorkshire, I often spend my Saturdays giving tutorials in Leeds, at one of our many study centres.

2015-03-09 001 2015-03-09 002It may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the OU teaching/learning model that students at a ‘distance learning’ institution actually have regular opportunities to engage in person with a tutor, and with other students. The job of an Associate Lecturer involves monitoring student progress, marking assignments and offering guidance on how best to approach the module materials (some of this is also done online and over the ‘phone), as well as an element of pastoral care; but for me one of the most enjoyable aspects is getting to meet some of my students in person and to talk to them about the things in which we all share an interest. Last Saturday’s teaching involved working with two separate groups of students; the morning featured a discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and its reception as part of our module Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds and in the afternoon there was a good helping of Greek grammar along with analysis of some different translations of Aristophanes’ Clouds with students of Reading Classical Greek: Language and Literature.

For me, one of the best things about teaching adult learners is the sheer diversity of experience and knowledge which students bring with them to their OU work. Many of my students have their own challenges to face – competing responsibilities at home or at work, health problems, or difficult personal circumstances. Over the years I’ve taught a whole range of people from all walks of life: those for whom caring responsibilities or health issues make part-time study the ideal way for them to pursue their own education; students who have chosen to combine their degree with work immediately post-‘A‘ levels or have done a degree elsewhere in a subject unrelated to Classical Studies (I’ve taught a fair few mathematicians and scientists whose introduction to ancient Greek has been through mathematical symbols!); some who are returning to study after a gap of sometimes decades since they were last in formal education; and still others who are studying from prison.

This rich mix of life experiences means that every student brings something different and of value to the table, and makes every tutorial a learning process for me as well as for them. At one time, for example, I had a student who was a relationship counsellor offering fresh insights into the emotional state of Euripides’ Medea; last weekend, one of my group who is also studying art history with the OU had some fascinating thoughts to share on the ways in which themes from Ovid’s poetry are depicted in the paintings we’ve been looking at; meanwhile a member of my Greek class has also studied several modern languages so is able to offer her peers some valuable advice on different elements of language learning.

I’m frequently blown away by the enthusiasm and dedication of this diverse bunch of people whom I have the privilege to teach. I’m sure that I learn at least as much as my students do from the discussions which we share; that’s just one of the many reasons why I feel lucky to be able to do this job.