Introducing UC Classics guests

We’ve been delighted to host Oxford Fellows, Dr. Bill Allan and Dr. Laura Swift, over the course of summer. They have been such great company to have around the department and have offered our students a chance to learn from international academics. We are sad to see them leave! We thought we’d have a chat with them so you can get to know a bit more about what the Oxford Fellowship offers.

 Bill currently teaches at the University of Oxford, Laura teaches at the Open University UK and they have very much enjoyed their sabbatical in Christchurch with their daughter Iona.

  • How did you end up being in New Zealand for the summer?

Bill: The Oxford Fellowship between the University of Oxford and UC works really well because you can go for up to three months – and it could be any time of the year – so obviously we’d prefer to be here in the summer, especially because the last time we were here, was in the North Island in winter. And of course, we also wanted to see the South Island.

Laura: We were thinking about if there was somewhere in Australia or New Zealand that we could go to and then when we saw the Oxford Fellowship scheme, which is administered through the Erskine Programme Office at UC, I thought it would be much nicer to feel like we had a connection to the institution and it would be easier to get to know people and get to know the country a bit.

Bill: Yes, because a part of the Oxford Fellowship is that you’re expected to be contributing which is good, because if you go to a department as a visitor you’re simply just there; you might meet people, you might not.

  • What was your field of study while studying yourselves?

Bill: As an undergraduate in Edinburgh I did Latin, Greek and Celtic studies. The Scottish education system is four years, and then you specialise in 3rd and 4th year, so I narrowed it down to Latin and Greek. I did my doctorate in Oxford on Greek tragedy – not as good as Laura’s – but it passed. And now I do Greek tragedy & Homeric epic.

Laura: I did a Classics degree at Oxford, which is basically the languages, literature, ancient history and philosophy. I then did my doctorate on Greek tragedy and the tragic chorus so now my work is on Greek tragedy and early Greek poetry.

  • Currently what are you researching and teaching in the UK?

Laura: I’ve just finished a commentary on a Greek poet called Archilochus who was composing in the 7th century BC, and he was famous in antiquity for writing abuse poetry. Poetry that attacked named people – possibly not real people, fictional characters. But he was famous for writing attacks and also quite erotic, vulgar poetry; kind of sex scenes and erotic narratives. He actually had a very broad range but later he was famous for being a foul-mouthed abuse poet. I’ve just sent that off to Oxford University Press so it should be coming out at the end of 2018.

Bill: The last thing I was involved in was a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey, for Oxford World’s Classics by Oxford University Press, where I did the introduction and notes. I’m now working on an edition for the Green and Yellow Series (Cambridge University Press), and I’m doing an anthology of early Greek elegy and iambus. That’ll come out in a couple of years’ time.

  • What are your other interests?

Laura: We both like walking, so that’s been great here as there’s so much scenery nearby. We really enjoy going out to the Port Hills; there’s lovely scenery around Oxford in the UK, but it takes a bit longer to get out there. I’m into sewing and knitting so I enjoy making clothes for our three-year-old, knitting stuff for me and everybody else I know.

Bill: I love cycling, it’s a shame I don’t have a bike here, I’ve got withdrawal symptoms. Keeping fit, jogging quite a bit, I’ve been around the Ilam fields and university. We both do yoga in Britain: one of the occupational hazards of being an academic is you sit around a lot and get terrible back pain. We’ve joined a yoga club here, so we go there twice a week. I play the trumpet so I try and toot away for half an hour each day. Of course, there’s always the joy of hanging out with Iona.

Laura: Beaches and playgrounds are good for that. We’ve taken her to the Margaret Mahy playground and it was great. The splash pools in New Brighton and the Botanic Gardens are good too.

  • What differences and similarities have you noticed between teaching here and in the UK or other institutions?

Bill: The main difference for me is that in Oxford I do one formal lecture a week and the rest of my teaching is tutorials, either one on one or groups of two or three students. Summer school is a kind of in between, more seminar style teaching, and you can get more debate going. When studying at Oxford you are a member of an academic individual college, there are about 39 or 40 in Oxford. It’s where you live, where you work, your entire life is based there, so it’s more than just a hall of residence.

Laura: My university just does distance learning, so there is very limited direct contact with students. The job is more about creating the study materials, which might be a mixture of books but also audio recordings or video or interactive exercises that they’ll then work from. It takes about three years to create a module once it goes through various university committees and the assessment processes have all been agreed. It’s quite a long process, but then the module is supposed to stay the same with some moderating and updating of assessments.

  • What have you enjoyed most about Christchurch so far?

Bill: Flat whites. The coffee is really good!

Laura: It’ll be a shock going back to Britain where the coffee is not as good. You know it’s good in a London café when all the NZ and Australian students go there. I think also the setting of the city is great – it’s so easy to get to the beach, there’s great natural scenery and everything you need in town.

Bill: Everything, no matter how far away, seems to be only a 20-minute drive, it’s great. It’s a lovely city for quality of life, and it obviously helps that we’re here in the summer.

  • What are you looking forward to about going home?

Bill: Not having to take a second mortgage to buy cheese and dairy. It’s so ironic because NZ is huge for dairy export.

Laura: The timing will be nice because we’ve had the summer here and will be returning just as it’s starting to get nice, and spring can be really lovely. It will be nice to get back to our house. Normally my mum comes up to do a day with our daughter, so it will be nice to be back close to family.

  • Any other thoughts on your visit here?

Bill: Culturally what’s been really interesting about Christchurch is seeing how it’s been recovering with all the building works and projects that are going on in town.

Laura: It makes you realise how big the destruction was and how it’s now seven years on and there’s still loads to do, and it makes you think how it would have been a couple of weeks after. I think it’s culturally interesting as well because NZ is such a long way, like the furthest you can go, but there are some many things about it that are so similar. I feel at home more here than in the US for example, where you definitely feel like a foreigner. It seems even just linguistically there are fewer words that are different.

Bill and Laura shared the teaching of ‘Theatre and Performance in the Ancient World’ during their visit here. They also each presented a seminar that was open to the public – and well attended. Laura’s was on ‘What’s new about the newest Sappho poem?’, and Bill presented ‘Solon on Civil War’. Both were also involved in a very lively panel discussion with other academic staff from Humanities on Tyranny and Crises of Democracy: Lessons from Antiquity. Their valuable contributions to the College of Arts and the Department of Classics have been appreciated by staff and students alike.

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