I'm happy to say that my pilot project is getting some wings! I'll be presenting some of it next month at the Athena: Sharing Current Research conference at Roehampton on June 3rd. You can book here to attend the whole day, and see a list of speakers here.
The abstract for my paper is below, if you have any thoughts, comments, or interesting connections please do leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter.
Weaving Athena: An object-focused study of girls and women approaching Athena as a poliadic deity
This paper will present an ethnographic study of the lives of the girls and women who were involved in the annual adornment of Athena Polias at the Panathenaia. This will include both those who wove the peplos and members of the wider Athenian community who participated in the festival. Therefore, this study will include the young arrhephoroi, the Ergastinai (‘weavers’) who were maidens of marriageable age, the Priestess of Athena Polias, and the Athenian and metic girls who participated in the procession – in other words, a representation of every female belonging to the Athenian population. Through this study, I will discuss what the physical act of worship (the production of a specific object and the act of processing) can tell us about how individuals approached Athena as the goddess of their city, and how this was expressed specifically for women and girls. This study will articulate the specific influence that Athena had, both as a ‘female god’ and a poliadic divinity, in the lives of the individual females who were involved in her worship. Thus, it will comment on Athena as a living goddess to her worshipers.
It was a huge privilege to be in the room last Monday, as scores of hands were raised and the Women’s Classical Committee was voted into existence. I’m really pleased that I got to be a part of such a wonderful day, and I wanted to put down a few thoughts about the day before I forget too much of what happened – much of the day was live tweeted (#wcclaunch), so I am relying a bit on my tweets from the day as well.
To begin with there was such a wonderful atmosphere right from the start of the day. Women from every level of higher education were represented – from undergraduate to professor – as well as school teachers, and ‘alt-ac’ classicists. It was really great to meet so many people, including many amazing women I’ve been chatting with on Twitter for the last year and now can put more-than-a-profile-picture to names!
We began with an introduction, from Liz Gloyn, about what we were doing there (in short, she said, ‘it’s all my fault’). They set out the aims for the WCC to be as inclusive as possible. Then Victoria Leonard and Irene Salvo went through the results of the survey that the WCC had done (we are told that these will be released at some point, so I will update this post when that happens), and the overall picture was kind of depressing. Common themes included issues with the casualization of higher education, inability to plan for the future, lack of support for parenting and other caring, women not being taken as seriously and being paid less (and the ever-present ‘Miss’ instead of ‘Dr’ thing…), and a huge number of respondents reported mental health issues.
We then broke into four groups: mental health and disability (which I joined), parenting and caring, PhDs and ECRs, and Implicit Bias. I do rather a lot of talking about being an early career academic (even in public, see my post on the label ECR on jobs.ac.uk, for instance!) and about being a parent and my role in academia, so while I would have probably been able to contribute to those discussions I thought I would rather be involved in a dialogue I don’t normally have. Our group was able to go into a more private area, and so we did have a very personal conversation as a result, and because of the nature of the topic I obviously won’t go into any detail about it, but we did come up with some things to report back to the group about the need for increased support for both mental health and physical disability, and decided that we wanted to completely reform the landscape of higher education (starting with the PhD) so that it is more mental health friendly. I think these are really good starting points, and I’m sure I don’t need to comment on the prevalence of mental health concerns in HE).
The other groups came up with equally urgent issues to address, including the over-casualisation of higher education and the precarious position of newly-finished PhDs and ECRs on temporary (often teaching only) contracts. They suggested that the WCC could mediate some kind of institutional affiliation for those who are in the post-PhD limbo, which I think is a wonderful suggestion (after all, I have gained much from my post-PhD institutional affiliation as a research associate at the Institute of Classical Studies). The Implicit Bias group waded through the depressing ideas of promoting self-awareness and the way that we (all!) think about women (and other minorities in the academy), and suggested that being reflective actually benefits everyone (this was a huge theme of the day, actually!). The parenting/caring group suggested the establishment of a database of good practice guidelines for institutions, which is a phenomenally good idea, and touched on the vast possible differences between institutions, and between career positions (having caring duties as an ECR is significantly different to having those same duties as a professor!)
We moved on to the spotlight talks (which, for reasons of space, I am not going to go through here). It was really great to hear talks about current research being done with feminist perspectives, though, and it made me think about how great a format the short-and-snappy talk is.
The next part of the day was a roundtable, where we heard from Rebecca Langlands, Stella Sanford (of the Society for Women in Philosophy), Susan Deacy, Fiona Macintosh, and Alison Sharrock. It was inspiring and humbling to hear these women talk about their own perspectives, progressions, and careers, and I wish I could do their views justice. The big take away from this whole section was that we need to figure out what it is we want the WCC to be and do, and how we (as the membership, and the WCC as the executive) envision the WCC working and advocating.
The biggest thing that I personally took away from the day is that Classics (broadly defined) is a diverse and wonderful subject, and we need to stand up and say ‘I’m a Classicist, and this is what we are like!’ otherwise the ‘traditional’ old-white-man-elite is going to prevail. And as a discipline we’re so much more than that.
I got home and felt so uplifted, like something truly wonderful had occurred. And, I felt like it was a special thing to be there and to be involved, and a privilege to watch the WCC be born.
Last Friday I gave a paper at the Institute of Classical Studies’ ‘Early Career Seminar’, titled ‘‘Well-played, Fluttershy…’: Defeating Discord and Dragons in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’. I started this little project because I thought it would be fun, and challenging, to do something that has nothing to do with my ‘real research’. With Greek religion I am on pretty stable ground – never more than a few shaky steps from shore, but here I was in the middle of a lake on a rapidly melting layer of ice. Without wanting to give too much away, I ended the paper by talking about my personal feelings about taking on a topic like this – broadly classical influences in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – and that I felt it was probably not the right thing to look at. Now that I’ve done it, I don’t think deconstructing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as a reception of classical mythology is a valid thing to do.
Let me explain: there is no doubt that there are classical influences in the show. Not only is that obvious from watching the show, but also from listening to interviews with creator Lauren Faust, who talks explicitly about classical mythology as an influence. But, if you were to actually look properly at the way the show was made there’s a lot more to say about other influences. A show like My Little Pony gives children the beginning of their cultural vocabulary, and that it includes classical mythology is important, but I’m not sure it’s the point. What makes a show like this important for building cultural vocab is the sheer myriad of influences incorporated into the show (just have a look at the ‘List of Allusions’ on the MLP wiki!).
Part of what I took away from the experience of doing this work was that I couldn’t divorce myself from my ideas about what was happening on the show. I notice the classical influence because I am an ancient historian – that is what I am trained to do. If I were a geologist, I might be thinking about the Pie’s rock farm. What at the beginning of the project had felt like the important parts of the show were, in fact, very unimportant to the wider cultural scaffolding that is built around the show.
It has made me think more closely about the scholarly desire to divorce yourself from the research – summed up really well in Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood’s 1978 article ‘Persephone and Aphrodite at Locri: A Model for Personality Definitions in Greek Religion' in JHS:
Too often in the study of Greek divine personalities assumptions about deities’ nature and development have been reflected in the methodology adopted and have thus introduced distortions, forcing the evidence into inflexible interpretative frameworks which may be logical without being correct. I believe we must aim at a ‘neutral’, bias-free approach which does not allow the operator’s convictions to distort the evidence by casting it into a preconceived mould.
Is it possible to adopt a ‘’neutral’, bias-free approach’? I am starting to believe that it’s not, and perhaps it’s not desirable to remove oneself from the equation. If we acknowledge our own cultural biases, rather than attempting to hide them behind neutrality, then at least we start from a position of openness.
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