Thursday, 1 October 2015

How to Succeed as an Undergraduate: 9 things not to do

In UK academia, teaching staff are now sent almost daily directives telling us how to make our students feel at home and Enhance The Student Customer Experience. Many more management emails list things we may not do or say to them. While I have always been very pro-student, because so many of them are impoverished, anxious about their futures,  lonely,  and easily exploited, the beginning of teaching term seems an appropriate time to remind everyone that pedagogical relationships, like any others, are two-way.

There are several sure-fire ways of alienating your lecturer.  I am not bothered about texting on silent mobile phones, packed lunches, or anything else which does not disturb me or fellow students. But in the name of cordial entente I do recommend that students do NOT do the following (all examples, in ascending order of obnoxiousness, drawn directly from my personal lecturing experience).

 1  Write emails to her opening ‘Hey, Prof.’, ‘Hey Ms.’ or simply ‘Can you pop along all the materials for last week’s lecture and tell me the gist?  I can’t remember whether I attended it or not.’

   2  Snog your girlfriend/boyfriend noisily while she is lecturing. The Greeks may be exciting stuff, but there are limits.

   3  When she has spent several hours reading your thesis draft and annotating it with constructive criticism and suggestions, belligerently defend every point and demand to know what her academic qualifications are.

   4  Fail to wash and don clean clothes before tutorials in small offices with poor ventilation.

   5  Ask her the following: ‘I am paying the same fees for this course as Emily Klopstock von Metterhausen. Why has she got a First for that essay and I have only got a 2:2?’

  6     Say to her after a lecture on Greek tragedy, ‘It’s really strange: there’s a famous woman who’s written this great book on Greek tragedy with the same name as you, Miss.’

  7      Tell her you are the warlock of the coven of witches in Newbury and send her a mysterious wand inscribed with a spell naming her as Hera and yourself as Ixion.  (The latter sexually harassed the former).

   8   When she tells your class that she is shaken up because she feels bad about accidentally killing a badger driving to the station that morning, go onto Wikipedia immediately after the lecture and insert ‘Notorious Badger Murderer’ into the first paragraph of the entry under her name.

  9  Ask her when you have been introduced to her at the end of term departmental party if she would do a personal pole dance display for you and your mates in the rugby club.

Note to any former students who read this and recognise themselves: I am currently out of the country and not readily available to correspond.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Gorillas from Carthage to Illinois

Welcome to Planet Earth, Zach
Diversionary topic this week, the first of full-on university term, has been gorillas. Kamba’s new baby Zachary was born at Brookfield Zoo, Illinois (video here), just in time to help us celebrate our firstborn’s birthday. 17 years ago really did see one of the two best moments of my life, even if wildly enhanced by an opium-based painkiller.

"Gorilla" by Henrik Gronvold in Natural History Museum
I am a fan of gorilla dads.  They are fiercely protective, spend a great deal of time with their young, settle disputes between rival siblings, and always make sure their females get enough to eat.

There is a greater dimorphism (disparity between the size and weight) of male and female gorillas than in any other ape: males are 1.5 times the size. This contrasts with only 1.1 on average in homo sapiens. This means that human females have always preferred to select mates for reasons other than being enormous, which is interesting in itself, although I’m not sure what to make of the father of my own children being about 1.5 times my size.

Hanno and his Phoenician crew
Gorillas are first named in an ancient Greek text, which purports to be a translation of a treatise from 500 BC in Phoenician, A Report of the Voyage of Hanno. This Navigator King of the Carthaginians says that he sailed to Africa (Pliny the Elder later claims Hanno went all the way round to Arabia). Hanno reports that he encountered extremely hairy savages, mostly female, whom his interpreters named gorillai.  Hanno’s men abducted three of them, killed them, flayed them, and later dedicated the skins in a temple at Carthage.

'Gorille (femelle) enlevant une négresse’
The 19th-century rediscovery of the gorilla involved a vogue for artworks depicting gorillas abducting human women. In 1859, the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species,  French artist Emmanuel Frémiet outraged the  jury of the Paris Salon. Inspired by the publicity surrounding the first ever whole gorilla bodies (preserved in alcohol) to be seen in Paris, he reconstructed a gorilla in 3-D action in ‘Gorille enlevant une négresse’.

'Gorilla abducting woman' mark 2
Frémiet was sufficiently racist to think that nobody would mind because the victim was ‘just’ an African woman; he thought he had avoided any suggestion of sex by labelling the gorilla femelle. But the work was, in fact, banned as an offence to public morality. Baudelaire said it certainly was sexual and simply ‘sordid’.

The work was destroyed, but the world moved on. In 1887, Frémiet won the Medal of Honour for a new, life-size (male) Gorilla carrying off a (Caucasian) woman. The critics couldn’t decide whether it supported or subverted Darwin’s theory, and worried about the tool-like rock held by the gorilla: was he developing higher intelligence? But the public loved it. Bronze casts and prints proliferated. It became a defining image in French culture of the day. And I bet it lies somewhere behind the invention of King Kong in the 1930s. I could always waste some time next week investigating the links. 

Friday, 18 September 2015

Women, Classics, & the Labour Party

Emma Reynolds MP, Sneerer of the Year
The low point of the week for me was watching the sneer on Emma Reynolds’ face when Jeremy Corbyn’s election result was announced. Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and until recently Shadow Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government.  I used to have a lot of time for her. Now she refuses to sit on the front bench with Corbyn.

I can’t find the clip online. But Reynolds’ bile was palpable. How can people elected to represent us display their contempt in this sickening way for the decisions made by ordinary voters in political parties?

My indignation was fuelled by researching women who were active in the Labour Party—then the Independent Labour Party—in its earliest days. They would all have been cheering rather than sneering at this week's focus on poverty, mental illness, and union freedom. Some had developed their radicalism while studying the Greek and Latin Classics. In my latest book, co-edited with Henry Stead, Greek and Roman Classics in the British Struggle for Social Reform, I have a whole essay about them available online here.

The most influential was Katharine Glasier, a rebellious Newnhamite classics teacher. She worked at Redlands, a private girls’ school in Bristol, until an encounter with demonstrating women cotton workers.  She resigned, became a full-time activist,  and married ‘down’ several social classes in choosing John Bruce Glasier, who succeeded Keir Hardie as Chairman of the ILP.  She was one of the 15 founding members of the ILP in 1893 and the only woman elected to its first national administrative council. A highly successful editor of the Labour Leader, she ran campaigns for the provision of baths at the pit-heads for miners, free school meals for the poor, nursery education, and the Save the Children fund.
Katharine Bruce Glasier

Her most brilliant pupil was Enid Stacy, who when not studying classics campaigned for striking Bristol workers. She often arrived home at midnight ‘with draggled skirt and swollen feet after hours of patient standing about in the effort to win laundrywomen to a trade union’. Enid annoyed the Bristol police and was sacked from her job as schoolteacher. So she devoted herself to the ILP’s campaign for the rights and suffrage of women.

Glasier was ecstatic when Mary Agnes Hamilton, another Newnham classicist and author of several books on classical topics, was swept to victory for Labour in Blackburn in 1929, having won the trust of the Trade Unions. She gained more votes as MP than any other woman Labour candidate. Against stiff odds, the ILP woman, so many of whom were classically educated, had finally taken up their rightful place in parliamentary politics. I bet they would have served in Corbyn’s team.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Adventures with Aristotle in Germany and Greece

Stressout of the week was delivering the annual Erasmus Lecture, the venue being the Technological University of Darmstadt. The stress was exacerbated by the red-faced pilot who arrived late from his hotel to the Heathrow gate. This meant I arrived at the lecture hall only half an hour before kickoff.  

Then the event’s host, the local Professor of Computer Science, refused for a while to accept my powerpoint demo because he did not believe that I was actually the person giving the lecture. (This happens a lot: I don’t look very intelligent and people—or rather men—who have only read my work are invariably disappointed when they meet me in middle-aged maternal person).

Aristotle, Scientist-Philosopher
Prof.  was punished by the she-gods, however. His computer broke down at the precise moment when he told the European Academy that his institution was At The Apex of World Computational Science. Someone had put a vase of flowers on the platform in a place which made it inevitable that the technician would kick it over. The water zapped the electricity. Prof. was at a loss how to mop up the puddle. I reached into my mumsy handbag and offered him a packet of tissues, explaining that Lo-Tech Is Sometimes Best. He never spoke to me again.

Aristotle inventing Zoology on Lesbos
But I ploughed on. Having been asked to ensure that my lecture could be enjoyed by the 90% of the audience who are scientists, I hit them hard with Aristotle.  He is a tough read at the best of times, despite a few laboured Stageirite puns. But he did after all invent systematic Zoology, statistical analysis of volcanoes, self-conscious use of logical syllogisms, the concepts of Collective Intelligence, theory, and above all of potentiality and its actualisation—teleology.

Greek Science made statues seem to move
I explained what I like best about Aristotle—his application of everyday experience to elevated theorisation. When illustrating the moment that biological reproduction instils potentiality (what we would call the fixing of the genetic code or DNA transfer) the man from Stageira draws an analogy from temple cult. He has seen gadgets in the form of ‘wonderful puppets’ (automata) which trick people into thinking that gods’ statues are alive. They use hidden wheels that transmit movement to gears, edge-to-edge, through friction.  The potential for the statues to move is created when the first wheel of the series is set in slow, grinding motion, some time before the potentiality is actualised. 

You can go to see reconstructions of such wonder-inducing mechanisms, reconstructed by Kostas Kotsanas at his Museum of Ancient Greek Technology and Inventions in Katakolo, western Peloponnese. The museum, charmingly, is free of charge. So remember, when not marvelling at the ingenuity of the ancient Greeks in this ordinary seaside town, to eat out a lot and inject some money into the modern ones’ economy.

Friday, 4 September 2015

What Position did Oedipus have Sex with his Mother In?

Bijan Sheibani--Director of Almeida Oedipus Event
I’m delighted to be discussing mother-son incest at a staged public workshop and reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus at the Almeida Theatre on Sunday. The other speaker is David Bell, an eminent psychoanalyst and great company. He’s asked me about Jocasta’s famous line in Sophocles' Oedipus, which captivated Sigmund Freud--the one where she famously tells her husband/son not to worry, since lots of men have had sex with their mothers in their dreams (981-2).

It is less well known that our surviving ancient dream book, by Artemidorus, shows that many real ancient men reported such dreams when they paid for a session with the local interpreter. Artemidorus says (1.79) that the case of the son dreaming about sex with his mother is such a big category of common dream that it has different meanings. It depends on several factors including your occupation, sexual position, and whether she is dead or not in reality.

Mounet-Sully--the actor whom Freud saw playing Oedipus
For working-class men this dream is always good, as for politicians, especially if you dream that you are very much manually in control of your mother. If you are estranged from your mother it means you will be reunited.  It’s never good to dream about having sex with your mother if she is dead as this means you will die yourself soon, returning to ‘Mother Earth’. That is, unless you are currently involved in a lawsuit, in which case it signifies that your opponent’s case will wither away and you will win.

Jocasta thinks her baby died of exposure
Face-to-face sex with mum means you will fall out with your dad or your dad will die.  It is not good to penetrate your mother if she is looking away from you, standing up, kneeling or immobilised as this portends oppression and possibly slavery. If your mother is on top it usually means you will live an easy life, full of health and leisure, as she is the one out of breath from doing all the work. Oral sex with your mother is simply disgusting and portends terrible suffering—death of children and confiscation of property.

So there you go. I have never personally dreamt about having sex with either of my parents. My dreams are, I flatter myself, more Kleinian than Freudian--wicked stepmothers and enormous buckets of milk. I did once dream I had sex with Leonidas of Sparta (NB this was before 300 and NOT Gerard Butler), and on another occasion with John Cleese, or, to be precise, with Basil Fawlty. Unfortunately these gentlemen do not appear in any of the dreams described by Artemidorus, so I’ll have to interpret them for myself.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Drowning in Droves

Zuwara docks last night
 The death toll of migrants at the borders of Europe just keeps on rising. More than three hundred thousand have tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year, already 40 per cent up on 2014. The International Office of Migration has confirmed 2,432 deaths ‘associated with the sea crossings’ in 2015. Many more people have disappeared. ‘Associated’ deaths and disappearances mean DROWNINGS, of which more anon.

When we do get serious information about conditions in Syria or Eritrea it becomes obvious why so many are leaving. Faced with barrel bombing, starvation and homelessness, let alone arrest or compulsory conscription,  I would be the first to risk death in exchange for some hope of a decent life for myself and my children.

Papyrus of Timotheus' 'drowning barbarian' poem
As I write, the TV screen witnesses to the despair of people rescued from the boats which capsized yesterday off the Libyan coast. Scores of orange body bags fluoresce on the Zuwara docks. The estimated fatalities from Thursday already amount to two hundred. I just can’t understand how the drownings can keep on coming while the world looks on.  We may try to wash our hands clean of the toxic fallout from 500 years of colonialism plus 25 of ill-considered ‘western intervention’ in sovereign states. But posterity will despise us to a man and woman for our pathetic inaction now.

Nor are we hearing enough about the horror of death by drowning. Each one of those body bags contains a story of a terrifying and excruciating individual death. Drowning survivors report extreme pain in the upper chest, spreading down the lungs and arms, compounded by cramps in the legs, choking, and searing pressure on ear drums and eye balls. This agony can last for up to eight minutes before consciousness is lost.

Drowning is so vile that it has been used as a form of punitive capital punishment and in Guantanamo as a method of torture. The earliest extended description of a drowning comes in a triumphalist ancient Greek poem by Timotheus celebrating the death of a member of Xerxes’ forces who couldn’t swim and suffered terribly before expiring at the battle of Salamis. I.e. drowning is a death you do wish on your worst enemy.

Unimaginable suffering
In an obscenely first-world way, in Greece on Tuesday I experienced the terror that comes before being overwhelmed by the Mediterranean. As a privileged touristic swimmer, I stupidly assumed that I could front-crawl my way through some huge waves in a high wind against prudent expert advice. I did win my battle with the sea, just, but have a badly strained shoulder muscle as a reward for my hubristic recklessness. Feeling chastened in every sense.

Saturday, 22 August 2015


Feeling glum about the prospects for democracy in either Greece/the EU or the UK Labour Party, I sought solace in visiting the location of an exciting scene from the defence of democracy in ancient Kerkyra (Corfu).

The plan was to find some tiles on the island in order to help me reimagine, if not reconstruct by nifty photo-montaging, my favourite sentence in the ancient historian Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

During the civil war in 427 BCE, there was a street battle in Corfu’s main town between the groups supporting the oligarchs and the democrats respectively. Thucydides, whose usual policy is to ignore women, describes how not only slaves but women on the democratic side joined in the actual fighting: ‘the woman also entered the fray with great daring, hurling down tiles from the roof-tops and standing up to the din with a courage that went beyond what was natural to their sex’ (3.74).

Having identified as venue an antique central street with plenty of promising tiled roofs, we went to the island’s famous Archaeological Museum hoping to photo a tile or two from the fifth-century BCE. Guess what? The Museum is now closed indefinitely. A huge padlock and chain locks its gates. The sign lies in the dust, already rusting. 

The staff, as public servants, cannot be paid thanks to the Eurocrats who worship Kapital and despise Greek democratic processes. So the very cultural resources underpinning the tourist industry, crucial to any prospect of Greek economic recovery, are being made unavailable through Austerity. 

I tried to console myself with online images of the indomitable animal-taming Artemis, from the magnificent western pediment of the archaic local temple, which tourists like me can no longer see at the museum. I like to think it was she-god images like this which inspired the democratic women of 5th-century Corfu to put two fingers up—and throw tiles down—at the rich elite forces opposing them.  Eurocrats beware: offending Artemis is always risky. Just ask the Atridae.