Rocket Man

A key issue in much work on ‘classical reception’ is the tendency to over-value and over-interpret classical allusions and references. We pounce on every faint echo, because it’s what we’re trained to do and because it’s what we value – without necessarily considering whether it actually matters, or matters very much, or is any more than background cultural noise. And even if the allusion is definitely present, which isn’t always the case, how much can we assume about its meaning for the audience, or its significance in the wider culture? If you regularly search for references to Thucydides on Twitter and other social media, you do get a clear sense that he is a more significant figure than, say, Polybius. But does that make him an all-pervasive influence on modern thinking about war and politics? Not so much. Continue Reading »

One of the basic principles of our society is that success and failure are individualised: you are naturally talented and worked hard, YOU are just not good enough, or should have tried harder. This is fair, isn’t it? Places at the Best Universities should go to the Best Students, Important Jobs should go to the Right People, it should all be sorted out on merit rather than attempts at social engineering or quotas or positive discrimination. Just think how awful it would be for someone to know they didn’t get on that course through their own merit, or if they got a job that was better suited to someone else. Clearly unfair. Not everyone can have prizes.

But fairness is not evenly distributed. Continue Reading »


Yesterday I marked some essays, did more work on preparing next term’s teaching, produced supporting materials for an ongoing political literacy schools project and had a productive online meeting with a postgrad about his dissertation. I followed a new recipe for green coconut rice, and made some red pepper and tomato sauce from garden produce; I had a cup of espresso by the pond, watching water boatmen, dragonfly nymphs and water snails; I detected six different species of bat. And this is all good, and helps keep me grounded, and helps fend off the VAST BLACK ABYSS FULL OF TOXIC FUMES AND ENDLESS SCREAMING THAT IS EVERYTHING ELSE. Continue Reading »

In Your Room

Here comes the fear… I continue to be excited and energised by thinking about how to embrace the positive possibilities of teaching next year, and not too alarmed (which is not to say, not also infuriated) by the mismatch between universities’ bold promises about face-to-face-in-person (f2fip?) teaching and what a lot of emerging research is saying – hey, if we suddenly have to switch to 100% online, that’s just more of a challenge, right? – but now I’m also scared. Not about my courses, but about what happens to students in the times in between.

If our answer to the question “where are students supposed to be all week, and who are they supposed to spend it with” is “in their room, alone” we have a monumental mental health crisis coming.

Continue Reading »

About this time last year, I think, I was asked to contribute to a PGR training course, for a session covering social media and blogging. It never happened due to the strike action at the end of the autumn term – and that is starting to feel like a really serious gap in those students’ training. It should now be obvious that this topic deserves more emphasis than being scheduled in December (by which time, one suspects, student attention may be dropping off), going hand in hand with a different focus: this is not (just) about public engagement and self-publicity, an optional extra that tends to reinforce the idea that PGRs and ECRs are expected to do more and more to have any chance of an academic career. Rather, in this new world, it looks more and more like THE essential toolkit for networking, in the absence of conferences and the like, since the informal networking element is precisely the aspect of conferences it’s hardest to replicate online. Continue Reading »

Not just at the moment, while my brain persistently refuses to sustain joined-up thought, but as a career-long habit, I come up regularly with ideas that I’m entirely incapable of realising; not only because of lack of time or energy but also because of lack of skill and talent. That’s my entire musical career, obviously – perhaps I should have tried to become a Malcolm McLaren-style impresario instead, finding other people (and other people’s money) to realise my plans – but also plenty of passing whims that swim into view around 4 am, hang around for a few days and then drift off again… Continue Reading »

My online jazz composition course has come to an end, leaving me feeling rather bereft – I really didn’t expect that I would respond so enthusiastically to being given homework, and if I’ve learnt anything from the experience it’s the importance of structure and direction, as well as the right balance between openness and clear limits. Plus, a reminder of how much students hate any sort of peer review or assessment – I was the only person to comment on other students’ compositions as we’d been told, and that was with massive trepidation and because I like the online discussion. Looking ahead to next term, it’s really important to get students interacting with one another rather than just doing the ping-pong thing with me (someone makes a point to me, I respond, someone else responds to the original point by addressing me, and so on), and this is a reminder that I need to do a lot more than simply ask people to do this. Continue Reading »

Take Two…

This is something of a negative and/or holding post, but it seems worthwhile putting it down as a marker to myself if no one else… As I’ve mentioned before, one of my resolutions for lockdown was that I would finally make some progress on my Thucydides musical project. This hasn’t got anywhere, partly because of the ongoing brain fog issue (in the light of recent scary newspaper reports, I’m trying to take the optimistic view that once again I’ve got off lightly compared to others and so this will pass if I just take it easy, rather than contemplating the thought that this might be permanent), but partly as a result of the jazz composition course I’ve been doing online. As I’ve noted, this has been enormously valuable as an exercise in seeing things from the student perspective (and I really feel for the tutor, as he’s falling into exactly the traps that I would fall into, trying to engage with students in a normal manner although this takes much more time than usual, and trying unsuccessfully to get people to make use of the chat facility between classes). But I have also learnt a lot about jazz composition, especially when it comes to modal approaches. Continue Reading »

Doubling Down

As the old proverb (sometimes attributed to Solon) has it, gods, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man on the Internet. Am I being hasty and unfair, leaping to judgement on the basis of fleeting interactions with ‘The Mystic’ (brooding headshot with goatee, quote about chaos and perfection, cover image of some heavily tattooed wrestlers) or AwesomeDude (avatar of a dog, cover image of a Dilbert cartoon)?* Yes, quite possibly. But if they not only ascribe that wretched ‘The society that separates its scholars from its warriors…” quote to Thucydides, but firmly reject gentle correction from the Thucydides Bot, they’re gonna get judged… Continue Reading »

Not Fade Away

Thinking that we’re getting older and wiser, when we’re just getting old…

We’ve recently started watching The Kominsky Method – yes, two years late, but by my standards that’s finger right on the cultural pulse stuff. If you don’t know it, highly recommended: proper Hollywood stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, showing off their acting chops in a subtle chamber-piece comedy as an actor (mostly making a living as a coach) worrying about his prostate, and his recently widowed agent. It feels more like a credible (and big budget) indie film than a US television series, including the fact that it’s only eight episodes per season. Lots of dry, dark humour and lots of reflections on age and what it does to you. “You know, I wake up every morning,” says Norman, Arkin’s character, “And my first thought is, what part of me is not working today?” Ouch. Continue Reading »