What is a typical day for the Director of the Institute of Classical Studies?
That’s actually quite a tough question, as the things I have to do are so varied. On the days I’m working from the Institute it begins with a commute by train and cycle – which I mention because I love Senate House and I always smile as I’m cycling up to the entrance. There are usually a few meetings, because quite a bit of the job is about connecting people, talking and planning new initiatives, and of course responding to requests for help. But I also try to make at least some of our standing seminar programme and other special events. A lot of what I do is collaborative, and I enjoy this.
What was your first experience or memory of the ICS?
I wasn’t someone who was always hanging out in the Library as a graduate student, so I guess I first began to use the ICS as a postdoc, during Chris Carey’s (Acting) Directorship. At that point the ICS was offering quite a few workshops for people at my career stage on topics like teaching the ancient languages, developing your career as a researcher, and so on. These were very useful, both for the content and for meeting people from different institutions. Then when I joined Reading in 2007 it felt as if it was just down the road, and the Library especially was a very important place for grad students and academic staff alike.
How has the institute changed since?
One thing that’s extremely important now is the national mission that the ICS has, along with the other institutes that make up the School of Advanced Study. Quite a bit of our funding comes from the UK government in order for us to be a national centre for the advancement, promotion and facilitation of humanities research and engagement – and to do that we obviously need to overcome our London location and make sure we are connecting with research and researchers up and down the country as well as internationally. Covid has taught us lots about how we can work online, and there are definite advantages to that but we also lose out on certain more informal but still very valuable kinds of interaction. So one of the big tasks for me is to work out, with colleagues up and down the country, what the best balance and format of activities is that will support their research and professional development.
What have been the standout or most memorable moments in your first year at ICS?
Getting Deanna Petherbridge’s The Destruction of Palmyra installed in the Library was pretty special! And I’m looking forward to the event we are organizing around it (which was postponed from June on account of the rail strikes) together with the Warburg Institute, which has loaned us the picture. I also really enjoyed the one-day conference for Michael Ventris which we organized together with colleagues from the Architectural Association, the ICS Mycenaean Committee and the BSA. It was both very friendly and extremely intellectually stimulating to see archaeology, historical linguistics and architecture and design coming together around discussion of Ventris’s work. I discovered that these disciplines have more in common than you might think!
My first Advisory Council meeting, just a few weeks after I took up the Directorship, was also memorable. I felt quite nervous beforehand but one of the lessons of the past twelve months has been how ready so many people in our subject community are to support the ICS and to collaborate with us.
What do you see as the most important and pressing issues in the world of Classics today?
Access and opportunity, as well as the shape and borders of our discipline. I’m a funny kind of classicist in that I did my PhD in a totally different topic (twentieth-century philosophy) before coming back to ancient Greece and Rome via classical reception. And one of the things that attracted me back was the breadth and capaciousness of Classics as a subject, but also the fact of the diverse and fascinating and resistant stuff that it is about: texts, languages, material culture of the ancient Mediterranean, and so it felt as if studying it used more parts of me than Philosophy did. Classics is temporally and geographically vast, but the departments that exist (at least in the UK) to study it tend to be small to medium-sized. Specialist knowledge is therefore spread about and not evenly distributed, and funding opportunities even more so. Given all that, how do we make sure that people have paths to developing their study of Classics, regardless of background and financial opportunity?
Second point: given that Classics is so capacious, where do we draw the borders of our discipline, and how do we work collaboratively, productively and with appropriate humility with specialists in other fields, recognizing the value of their approaches and expertise as distinct from ours? Here it’s a problem for Classics that it has for several generations, at least in this country, been associated with social elites. Then there is also the very urgent conversation that has been happening, belatedly but very necessarily around race, and the need not just for Classics but for the humanities in general and, I dare say, this country, to reckon with histories of racial and imperialist exploitation. I believe that this is not just a case of understanding how ideas about the ancient world have contributed to racist and imperialist ideologies, but also about how assumptions about the differential value of peoples and cultures have formed classical scholarship in ways that we might now realize have been impoverishing to our disciplinary frameworks and understandings of the ancient world.
Realising that, with an appropriate degree of humility, is necessary to doing something about it – and I think Classics has everything to gain and nothing to lose from working through these issues. But working out how to move on from here, especially given the relative small size and even precarity of many UK classical departments, presents a further challenge. I don’t have all the answers to these questions and I don’t think any of us do yet, but one of the great attractions for me of becoming ICS Director was the opportunity it would present to think and work collaboratively, with colleagues in different institutional locations and at different career stages, to think about how we might move forward.
Which upcoming ICS events or projects are you most excited about?
Almost everything we do in the Institute we do in partnership, and I’m very excited by some of the energy and projects that our current research associates (https://ics.sas.ac.uk/people/early-career-research-associates) and fellows have brought. One upcoming event is the online seminar, ‘Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Conflict: Perspectives from the Cara Syrian Programme’ that Dr Annie Webster, one of our Early Career Fellows in Inclusion, Participation and Engagement (https://ics.sas.ac.uk/people/early-career-fellows-inclusion-participation-and-engagement), has organized for 28 October in order to showcase the research of scholars who have participated in the Council for At-Risk Academics’ Syria programme since 2016. In spring we’ll also be holding a major conference for Twisted Transfers, an international and interdisciplinary research project on notions of corruption in Ancient Greece and Rome directed by Dr Marta García Morcillo, who is a current ICS visiting fellow (https://ics.sas.ac.uk/people/dr-marta-garcia-morcillo). I am also working with some of our partner institutes in the School of Advanced Study on a new network for mid-career researchers in the humanities, which will launch in December. Look out for announcements on this!