Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Women's Classical Committee UK: looking forward after our first year

by Carol Atack

Since its launch in April last year, the Women’s Classical Committee UK has held several events and fostered many continuing discussions in pursuit of its aims of supporting women in Classics, promoting feminist and gender-informed perspectives in classics, raising the profile of the study of women in antiquity and classical reception, and advancing equality and diversity in Classics.

That was apparent from the moment that I arrived at April’s AGM clutching the last set of handouts, to find the Ioannou Centre buzzing with lively conversation as delegates arrived, conversations that continued all day and are still informing our plans for the coming year. Opening the AGM, our co-chair, Dr Elena Theodorakopoulos (Birmingham), summarised our activities since our launch. Highlights included:

·     Early-career day: Feminist pedagogy. This workshop examined ways to incorporate feminist thought on educational practice into the classical seminar room; we've seen delegates follow up with workshops in their own institutions, and forged links with other disciplines where similar discussions are taking place, leading to our IMC round-table sessions.
·       Mid-career day: A day focused on issues related to career progression (publishing, promotion, work-life balance) for established academics.
·     Women classicists on Wikipedia: following a training session in January, members have held regular editing sessions creating detailed, reliable biographical entries for women classicists. Pages created have been featured by Wikipedia, and anyone can join in – check the Twitter hashtag #WCCwiki for details.
·      Our presence at the Classical Association conference included a social event, a drop-in Wiki editing session, and two panels, ‘Women and Classics: The Female in Classical Scholarship’ and ‘Women and Classics: Foremothers on the Frontline’.

Focusing our AGM on the topic of diversity raised our awareness of the work still to be done, although our presenters showed important work that is already taking place in different contexts. All our AGM speakers rose to the occasion with thoughtful contributions that meshed together well. Dr Rachel Mairs (Reading) introduced the international collaborative project on papyrology to which she contributes, and discussed how it opens and approaches questions of diversity and the legacy of colonialism within that sub-discipline. Prof Helen Lovatt (Nottingham) showed how myth retold in classical text and reception can introduce diversity, through a case study of Jason and the Argonauts and its reception in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Dr Ellie Mackin (Leicester) posed the significant problem of lack of diversity of authorship in reading lists alienating students. Shorter spotlight talks from Polly Stoker (Birmingham) and Dr Holly Ranger (ICS), on classical reception as a gateway to classical study, and from Prof Helen King (Open University), Ms Hannah Walsh (Bristol), and Ms Emma Searle (Oxford) on outreach and continuing education, presented case studies of activities and experiences that introduced some interesting questions and problems, such as the response to the gender balance of the presentation team in online courses.

Dr Anna Bull (Portsmouth) introduced the work of the 1752 Group, which campaigns on the issue of staff/student sexual harassment. Harassment was a concern raised by respondents to our 2016 survey, and it was helpful to learn from Anna of initiatives in other subject areas, and to hear her report on the cases that led to the establishment of the group, and its work in publicising the issue.

Our two keynote speakers, Professor Dame Averil Cameron (Oxford) and Dr Jo Quinn (Oxford), offered distinctive perspectives on their experiences in Classics and the state of the discipline. We are fortunate that the overt discrimination that Dame Averil experienced is less in evidence now, but can all profit from the policy she adopted to raise the profile of women, to speak up in every seminar: her paper is now available on the WCCblog. Jo Quinn explored the intellectual history of the narrowing of the idea of what cultures and texts constitute ‘Classics’ with some stirring examples of early women classical scholars and their contributions.

We are aware that there is a great deal of work still to do, and issues where we and our members need to work with other organisations to pursue our aims. Two topics emerged from our AGM, both within the room and through the online conversation, as particular areas of concern for our members and for others. The first is concern about the employment precarity of early-career researchers, felt particularly sharply in the field of classical reception, where students working on reception topics and on texts in translation are reporting particular difficulties on the job market in Classics (on a positive side, it is good to see classicists well represented in the new Liberal Arts programmes being established in some universities). The second is the question of ethnic diversity within the discipline; as Jo Quinn’s keynote lecture affirmed, the history of exclusion of cultures from the narrowing of the scope of Classics has left a legacy to address, and as Ellie Mackin showed, the disjuncture between our students and the people we ask them to read can be a problem.

We are grateful to those who have supported us, both individuals through their memberships subscriptions, the steering committee and volunteers who have organised events, and organisations who have generously provided financial support and support in kind for our events: especially the Classical Association, the Council of University Classics Departments, the Wikimedia Foundation, the Institute for Classical Studies, and the faculties of Classics at Oxford, RHUL and Birmingham.

Our forthcoming events programme for the rest of 2017:

·       Next (July 3-6) is a pair of panels at the Leeds International Mediaeval Congress. This came out of discussions with mediaevalists at last year’s ECR day, and are organised with the University of Huddersfield; sessions are Crossing Chronological Boundaries: A Round Table Discussion and Feminist Pedagogy from Antiquity to the Middle Ages: A Round Table Discussion.
·       In September we will have our ECR day (Birmingham, 8th September) and Wikipedia editing workshop (Manchester, 15th); both of these are set to be annual, recurring events (as is the mid-career day); it’s also possible to attend Wiki events via Skype.

Further events for 2018 should be announced soon as we confirm dates and venues; these will include a day of research and activism on LGBTQIA+ topics. As always, we welcome anyone in sympathy with our aims and purpose to attend our events. We are able, thanks to generous support, to offer travel bursaries to early-career attendees. (And I should note that we continue to work on ensuring accessibility to our events, as well as supporting the attendance of ECR/low-paid members).

For more details about the WCC UK, our aims, and how to get involved, as well as blog posts with more detailed reports from many of our events, please visit our website.

Dr Carol Atack is a Post-doctoral Research Associate in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford, and is a Junior Research Fellow at St Hugh’s College.  She is the Treasurer of the Women’s Classical Committee UK.

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