Thursday, October 19, 2006

What year is it?

Last night the BBC carried this news item,* about a Roman cemetery under the Vatican. This particular bit of cemetery was discovered three years ago (though that there was a cemetery under the Vatican has been known for a very long time, and other tombs have been known for years, including one which may be that of Saint Peter). Clearly it's been tarted up for public display (something to do next time I'm in Rome).

However, I'm blogging this because of the text that was given to newsreader Huw Edwards to lead into the item, and which is repeated in the text accompanying the online video version. It's not the implication that this is a new discovery - that's typical hyperbole. It's the age given, 3,000 years old. The report itself says that the tombs date from the time of Christ. Which, unless I'm mistaken about the current date, is rather nearer 2,000. A bit of a failure in basic maths, there, rather like that in Battlefield Britain, where the Battle of Hastings (1066) was described as 'nearly a thousand years' after the Boudiccan revolt (AD 61), or Rageh Omar's slip in his otherwise interesting series on the miracles of Jesus, where he gave the dates of birth (63 BC) and death (AD 14) of the emperor Augustus, and then said that Augustus was dead at the age of forty-nine (he was, of course, seventy-six).

(Note that what is on the website may change, as I am going to drop a line to the BBC.)

* Actually, if you search under 'Rome' on the BBC website, you'll find a link to a rather better quality version.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Lucian, Satirical Sketches

Lucian, Satirical Sketches, translated by Paul Turner

One of the things I do is collect Penguin Classics. I particularly keep an eye out for ones that are currently out of print. Sometimes, I forget what I already have (especially as my library is rather disorganized at present). So when I decided that it was about time I read Lucian's proto-sf story The True History, I forgot that I had actually picked up this 1961 Penguin of Lucian at a recent Classical Association conference. But then I turned it up, and read the whole volume, because, as Adam Roberts says in his recent History of Science Fiction, The True History needs to be read in the context of Lucian's other writings. It's an interesting miscellany. Turner only has room for about a quarter of Lucian's surviving output, and has deliberately selected those of Lucian's works that have a satirical nature, so no place here for the more didactic works such as How to Write History and On Salaried Posts In Great Houses (in this online translation called The Dependent Scholar). Lucian reveals himself in these works as having little time for charlatans, philosophers, and other pseudo-intellectual wasters of other people's time. Those writing about the history of sf often forget that, as Brian Stableford points out in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, The True History is a parody of the genre of the fantastic voyage, not an endorsement of it.

I'm currently working through Roberts' History, with a view to writing a blog entry about his chapter on sf in the ancient novel. I've also promised an article on The True History to the sf fanzine Banana Wings, but that won't appear until some time next year. Right now, I have Ben-Hur on DVD out from Blockbuster, which I've actually never watched all the way through, so that will fill out the rest of the evening.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Grooming young Classicists

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I gave a talk to a group of primary school children.

My eldest niece has just started learning about the Romans as part of Key Stage 2. So my brother asked me if I'd be interested in talking to her year, and then talked to the teachers about it.

I had very little idea how to go about this, and how to pitch it. The only seven-year old I've ever tried to talk to about the Romans is my niece, and I'm not sure I did a great job of that. I did look at some material on the BBC website (which I found whilst looking for something else) - but the trouble is, Key Stage 2 covers 7 up to 11, and I got the impression that the BBC material was aimed at the top end of that range.

Still, I had some ideas. Pictures seemed like a good idea. I knew the kids had a visit planned to Verulamium, so I could try to tie what I said into that. (This meant I had an excuse for going to St Albans, which I'd never done, and always wanted to - a possible trip a couple of years ago fell through due to bureaucratic inertia, but I will be leading a trip next year, and experience has shown that I need to go and look at places before I can tell other people what they ought to be looking for. Plus I got to meet up with an old school friend who teaches Classics at St Albans School, whom I hadn't seen for several years, and his family, who I hadn't seen for even longer.)

Kate advised me to talk about people, rather than buildings, and to include as many stories and gory bits as I could. And I also employed a couple of techniques that I use on adult students: I tried to make links between life in Roman times and life today, and I had some replica artefacts - the wax writing tablets seemed especially appropriate, as these were what Roman children would have used for their school exercises.

So, I did some mugging up, I prepared my Powerpoint presentation, and I visited St Albans. At 9:30, I was in front of about forty to fifty children, ready to give a talk on life in Roman Britain, and the changes towns brought, with reference, where possible, to Verulamium.

I'm never wholly at ease when I'm not working from a prepared script. I feel I tend to trail off when making my points, and go 'er' a lot. There seemed to be a lot of fidgeting in the ranks, and I felt I was losing them. This wasn't helped by the fact that I kept looking at the back of the classroom rather than at the kids. But some I noticed seemed to be paying close attention. So I kept going for forty-five minutes, until I was at the end of my slides. Then I answered questions. For another half an hour, and they would have kept going had it not been break time. So that rather shows that they were paying attention.

The questions were a mixed bunch. Some were very broad - 'Are you going to say anything about the gods?' or 'Are you going to tell us about Boudicca?' As one of the teachers said afterwards, 'You'd think we hadn't given them lessons about those subjects, but we have.' But, of course, what the kids were doing was testing their teachers against a real expert, and, more importantly, showing that they had heard about these subjects. I tried to answer appropriately - with Boudicca, rather than rehash what they would already have been told by their teachers, I made points that the teachers might not, such as that we know Nero seriously thought about giving up the province, probably after the Revolt. On the gods, I started talking about the Pantheon, before realizing that I would not remember all twelve - so, in a moment I'm proud of, I threw the question back at the kids, and said 'what gods do you know of?' We didn't get all the Pantheon (poor old Minerva got overlooked), but they felt involved. When the questions were out of left field, I tried to bring them back to telling them something about the Romans - answering a question 'who rules Rome now?', I managed to bring out the continuity of the role of the Pontifex Maximus, appropriate given that this was a Roman Catholic school. I was less successful with the questions about how old Romulus and Remus were, and what Romulus used to kill Remus, saying that I didn't think we know (Livy doesn't seem to say), though I'd guess a spear was Romulus' weapon of choice.

There was one awkward moment at the first question. I'd shown a picture of St. Germain's Block, a surviving portion of the city wall of Verulamium, and pointed out that much of the material from the wall had ended up in buildings like St Albans Cathedral. A girl asked why there was a round hole in the wall, and a teacher told her off for not listening, because she'd just been told. However, I believed that this particular hole was actually the result of mediaeval use of the wall, perhaps as part of a chapel. I agonized about whether to undercut the teacher's authority, but in the end, truth won out. Unfortunately, it turns out that I've misunderstood a guidebook, and the teacher was right after all. Oops.

Overall, though, the adults who were there, two teachers and my brother, who video'd proceedings, were impressed and enjoyed it. My brother said I pitched it exactly right, and also that he ended up learning stuff. Afterwards, he drove me around Amersham looking for a couple of Roman Villa sites.

I very much enjoyed doing this, and I'd certainly do it again.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The end of coursework?

On the BBC this morning there was a report about the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's desire to end GCSE coursework in a number of subjects, including history and Classical subjects. I've thought about this, and I'm agin.

My reason for this is that in my view assessed coursework helps develop and tests skills that otherwise get overlooked. Basically, this means library work, gathering information, the ability for students to produce their work surrounded by notes and books, and the opportunity to give their work a considered revision (yes, I know most don't, but that's not the point). I don't think a controlled assessment (which essentially looks like just another exam) can develop those skills. So one result of this is that school leavers will be even less prepared for university, where such activity is a vital part of their education, than they already are.

Why is the QCA doing this? From the television report you'd get the idea that it's all to do with preventing students downloading their essays off the Internet. But only a minority of teachers are worried about this, and I think the majority are right. I've always felt that students clever enough to plagiarize in such a way that it can't be spotted are clever enough to have no need of such underhand approaches, whilst those who are too lazy to write their own work are generally too stupid to hide their plagiarism.

The QCA report, on the other hand, seems to have decided that coursework is an inappropriate method of testing learning outcomes. I'm not impressed with this as a reason. I have always felt that coursework and exams test different skills, and an exam-only assessment, which is the way the QCA are heading, discriminates against students who are good in coursework but less good at exams. Since I can't imagine that students will no longer be required to write essays, it's only fair that those essays contribute towards their final mark - otherwise students may feel that essays are a waste of time, and not work too hard on them, with the result that they won't be as well-prepared for the exams as they should be. If, as the QCA suggests, assessed coursework is unfit for purpose in a culture of league tables, perhaps it's the culture that is wrong.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Arthur Marwick

To my shame, I've never actually read The Study of History by Arthur Marwick, though I do own a copy. However, the way I do history has almost certainly been influenced, at one remove or more, by the way Marwick did history. And he was an important figure in the early years of the Open University, an insititution for which I have the highest regard, and which has given me opportunites I might not otherwise have had. And now he's dead.