Flying fox

Coimbra

Aesop’s Fox, suffering from an acute attack of ‘flying shame’, asks the thorny question: “What is the future of conference travel in academia? Can we really afford it, financially, environmentally and personally?” Then she turns to Aristotle for help… 

1. It’s (a) flying shame

In a world that is now defined by high levels of internet connectivity, and a university sector that is often characterised by little or no travel funding, I can’t help wondering about the long-term viability of conference travel in academia. Does it make sense for an academic to travel to the other side of the world to deliver a forty minute paper to an audience of fifty, or a twenty minute paper to an audience of fifteen, in a conference that might last only three, four or five days?

Let’s consider the financial cost involved in a fourteen day trip to attend two conferences on two separate continents. If you are flying out from Australia, as I must, the airfare alone is very likely to exceed allocated travel funds (if your University bestows them), which leaves a gaping great hole as far as accommodation costs and conference registration fees are concerned. I am fortunate to have a supportive university and the opportunity to apply for extra funding if needed but, if that were not the case, I would be looking at some pretty hefty outlays before the trip and a relatively small refund come tax time. Despite reduced travel distances, it is much worse for my European colleagues who advise me that they get no conference travel funding from their institutions at all and have to scrounge together the costs of attending just one conference a year from meagre (often sessional) salaries.

The environmental costs are real too. I was recently told about a site called ‘ShamePlane’ which helpfully informs me that every time I fly from Canberra to the United States, I am responsible for the loss of 7.8 square metres of Arctic Ice, and every time I fly from Canberra to London, 0.6 square metres of Arctic Ice (clearly, I should be prioritising Europe!). Not to mention all the plastic waste I accumulated as a passenger on those flights, all the aeroplane food I wasted (because it was mostly inedible), all the water bottles I emptied, all the transport services I used at my final destination, all the water I wasted having longer than usual showers at the hotel: the list goes on…

Then there is the personal cost. Like so many other early career academics around the globe, I finished a hectic semester of teaching, immediately started exam marking and then succumbed to illness (in this case a very bad bout of Influenza A). I had a week to nurse my family back to reasonable health, finish writing two conference papers and get myself travel ready. It wasn’t ideal. I seriously considered cancelling my travel plans. My husband looked at with me concern and trepidation as I wheeled my bags to the door. When I flew out, I was not contagious but still heavily congested. If I took a bad turn or contracted another illness, I would be on the other side of the world, alone and very ill indeed. It was a risk. As for the home front, the costs there should not be overlooked either: two young children left missing mummy, a husband left with all the household responsibilities whilst trying to manage his own tight work deadlines, and then there is just the simple and awful reality of being apart.

Some academics have said to me that it is simply absurd to travel so far to attend a short conference. Others have told me to go on as many trips as possible!

So what are the alternatives? Option 1. I have seen conference papers delivered by Skype but there is something terribly off-putting about them. Rather than listening to a flesh and blood speaker, we end up ‘watching’ a grainy image of a speaker (usually the speaker’s forehead, or a very tired looking speaker because of the time difference), reading a paper to a screen for forty minutes. Nothing could be less ‘real’ or captivating.

Option 2. I could have emailed my conference paper to a trusted colleague and asked them to read it aloud to the conference delegates on my behalf. I have heard this done once and, to be honest, it too was awful. Even a trusted colleague cannot be expected to have practised the paper, or to know the topic intimately, or to do full justice to the paper in delivering it. At best, it will be a fairly bland recital of someone else’s words (and let’s be honest, it is a pretty big ask of a trusted colleague).

Option 3. Another option is simply to preference local conferences. This is difficult to do if you happen to work in a specialised field (as most of us do) and most of your colleagues work on other continents. The chances of developing international networks are reduced and opportunities to ‘tap into’ current developments in global scholarship are lost.

Option 4. No travel at all. Not really an option – conference attendance is still a major part of the peer feedback process as well as evaluation of academic performance.

Given the expectations of my line of work, I’m left suffering from an acute sense of ‘flying shame’. Consciousness of my enormous carbon footprint is gnawing away at me and there are too many competing professional obligations to warrant giving up conference travel altogether. What to do? Aristotle to the rescue…

2. Aristotle on shame

Anyone needing an antidote to ‘flying shame’ simply needs to read a good dose of Book 4 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In that book, Aristotle expresses the (rather surprising) view that shame is NOT a virtue:

The feeling of shame is not suitable to every age, but only to the young. We think it proper for the young to feel shame, because as they live by feeling they often err, and shame may keep them in check; and we praise young people when they are ashamed, though no one would praise an older man for being shamefaced, since we think he ought not to do anything of which he need be ashamed.

For indeed the virtuous man does not feel shame, if shame is the feeling caused by base actions; since one ought not to do base actions (the distinction between acts really shameful and those reputed to be so is immaterial, since one ought not to do either), and so one never ought to feel shame.

Shame is a mark of a base man, and springs from a character capable of doing a shameful act. And it is absurd that, because a man is of such a nature that he is ashamed if he does a shameful act, he should therefore think himself virtuous, since actions to cause shame must be voluntary, but a virtuous man will never voluntarily do a base action.

It’s a rather messy and puzzling passage in some respects and probably not Aristotle at his most lucid. He seems to be saying that 1) shame is a good and proper feeling in a young person, 2) shame is not a virtue because it is more of a fleeting feeling than a state of being, 3) that the virtuous need not feel ashamed about anything because they never do anything wrong anyway and 4) that it is rather absurd for the base man to feel ashamed because that would suggest that he imagines himself to be virtuous, which is clearly not the case.

If Aristotle is right and shame is just a fleeting feeling, rather than a virtue as such, I’m sure I’ll get over it pretty quickly. Given my age (by ancient world standards) it is remarkable that I can still feel shame and, to put it bluntly, Aristotle seems to be saying that shame doesn’t really do anyone much good if they are not good to begin with. So am I off the hook? Not quite. Reading Aristotle’s words in context, it may be more accurate to say (as Raymond suggests) that shame, even as a feeling, still holds an important place for Aristotle but (like everything else for Aristotle in the realm of ethics) it must be felt in the right way, at the right times, about the right things, and to the right extent.

3. Restoring the balance

To restore balance to my intense feelings of ‘flight shame’, it remains to consider the positives and benefits of academic travel.

On the up side, I can honestly say that the conference travel I have done has been a) as economical and efficient as possible and b) enormously beneficial for me professionally. The feedback from peers has often been incredibly insightful and helpful to the development of my ideas and approaches. Many of the most interesting and important discussions have taken place outside of the seminar rooms: in the corridors, at morning teas and lunches, and at conference events. Connections with other scholars have led to joint projects and joint publications. The personal and professional connections I have made with colleagues overseas will, I hope, last a lifetime and continue to be highly productive, collaborative and positive. In my experience, there really is no replacement for face-to-face contact and this is something the digital age has, I think, proven rather than disproven.

There is a lot of talk these days about ‘connection’. But what does it really mean? To me, it’s about getting a feel for other people’s warmth and openness, their willingness to discuss different ideas and approaches, their playfulness and creativity, their professional courtesy and consideration of others. If I find people with these qualities and attributes, I know immediately that I can work with them, through the rigorous process of collaborating, publishing, even co-authoring, across countries and continents. Happily, I have found such people – but I would never have been sure of these connections if we hadn’t met eye to eye (or as the Europeans say, ‘shared food together’).

That being said, I am very conscious about the costs of my travel. If I can do it more efficiently I will. I fly economy. If I can recycle or minimise waste, I try to do so. When overseas, I try to use public transport as much as possible and prefer to walk or ride a bicycle rather than use taxis or buses. I will never use all fifteen towels (!) provided by the hotel, I eat local food (often vegetarian) and try to buy locally made products as gifts.

I know in my heart that these small measures are not going to restore that block of Arctic ice but every little bit helps, right? My family life has benefited from me returning with renewed health, vigour, inspiration and stimulation. And I haven’t stopped trying to be environmentally aware just because I have returned home. As part of my efforts to offset the costs, I am obliged to do a lot more walking, riding, recycling, double-sided printing, eating local and eating vegetarian if I am going to ‘pay’ for my academic travel. As for the flying shame, I may not shake it off entirely, and in a way, it is reassuring to know that I am still capable of feeling shame (maybe I’m not that old after all!). I can only hope that I fulfil Aristotle’s expectations of feeling shame in the right way, at the right time, about the right things, and to the right extent.

Image:

The University of Coimbra

Links:

https://shameplane.com/

Text extracted and adapted from Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (transl. H. Rackham) available online at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

Article by C. Raymond, ‘Shame and Virtue in Aristotle’: http://www.pgrim.org/philosophersannual/37articles/raymond-shame.pdf

 

The loser’s speech

What do you say to a crowd if you have just lost a general election? Even worse, if it was an election that punters predicted you would definitely win. Does it have to be sombre, awkward and pathetic? Let’s take a look at the options.

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As the tide of the federal election recedes, and we find ourselves wandering along a bleak coastline littered with tattered election flyers, how-to-vote cards and mounds of post-election analysis and critique, I have been a little surprised by the positive commentary on Bill Shorten’s concession speech. He has been praised for admitting his disappointment, for eschewing anger and congratulating his opponent, and for signalling hope in the future. Fair enough but let’s be honest too: he looked utterly devastated, he couldn’t deliver his speech off the cuff, he came across as insincere, he was boring and he rattled off a long list of slogans from the Labor campaign in an ‘oh so weary’ voice that made me think: ‘did this guy ever deserve to win?’

Granted, it was a tough night for Labor. Really tough. But a leader is meant to lead, not just in mind and action but in spirit. It is in moments of crisis and defeat that people turn to a leader for guidance, hope, purpose and resilience. I’m not saying Shorten should have transformed himself into Polyanna, but he could have made more of his final moments in the limelight. Let’s consider some of his options.

  1. Slam it

Anger is an easy option but it is rarely advisable. You can’t show anger with the electorate (even if you feel it) because as Aristotle helpfully says, ‘the angry man must always be angry with a particular person, not with mankind in general’. Of course, you can slam your opponent, and deliver your good wishes to your opponent and their family through gritted teeth, reminding them that it’s devastatingly hard work in public office, but it won’t change the fact that you lost. It is not classy and it will not be respected. It will confirm the views of those who voted against you and make them hate you even more.

Shorten did a pretty good job of concealing his anger. Score: 4/5.

  1. Reframe it

You can reframe your defeat as temporary, insignificant or not a loss at all. You have to be careful with this approach because it can come across as denial (and everyone can see through that). The intention is rather to reframe the loss as a) an event that has not destroyed all the good work you have done in the past and b) an event that has not destroyed your hope for the future: see, for example, Abbott’s 2019 line: “I’m not going to let one bad day spoil 25 great years”, or Rudd’s 2013 reframing of Labor’s loss as an opportunity to reform the party and its leadership. Hope is important, and it’s inspirational, and it’s just about all you have left once you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel (as the myth of Pandora illustrates so well) so emphasise HOPE.

Shorten said he was hopeful – he just wasn’t convincing. Score 2.5/5.

  1. Polyanna it

There are positives to be found in every situation, even defeat. You can focus on the extraordinary loyalty and support of the people you work with. You can focus on your achievements and your pride in those achievements. You can focus on the values and principles you stand for and the importance of those principles. You can point out that you have not shied away from the difficulties of the contest (Keating’s 1996 line, “I’ll tell you what, folks, not once did I tackle and take on a second-best option” and Tony Abbott’s 2019 line “I would rather be a loser than a quitter”). Find the positives and work with them.

Shorten tried to be positive but he looked and sounded miserable. Score: 1/5.

  1. Laugh it off

Humour in a concession speech is extremely important and it can be a potent weapon. For a loser to use humour in their concession speech proves that that person is able to rise above defeat, to see the bigger picture and to engage with the audience. If the humour is sensitive, truly witty and delivered with positivity, it is irresistible and makes everyone regret that that person is about to depart from public life. Here’s a reasonable example from Anna Bligh, 2012, after commenting in her concession speech that it was her son’s 19th birthday: “At this time, nineteen years ago, I was in labour. And this campaign has been a bit like that, but it’s been five weeks longer!” And here’s a bad example from Kevin Rudd, 2013, after thanking Penny Wong for all her great work: “Rarely, Penny, do South Australians get that welcome up here. Mind you, I’m married to one” (cue awkward hug with wife).

Humour can be a very effective tool if you can truly rise above defeat. Remember to wave down at your opponent from your happy little cloud of laughter as you drift up and away into the sky.

As for Bill, no jokes this time. Score: 0/5.

5. Work the crowd

Emotions run high during concession speeches. The audience has been waiting for hours for the speaker to arrive. They desperately want to boo the opponent and they desperately want to clap their leader. This sort of audience should never be ignored. It is crucial to engage. Look them in the eye and talk to them as people, as friends, as loved ones, as supporters. Whatever you do, don’t ignore them, don’t wave at them to be quiet, and don’t fail to interact with their heckling. One of the best heckles came in Keating’s 1996 concession speech and he lapped it up: “You can take the boy out of Bankstown, but you can’t take Bankstown out of the boy!”

Shorten’s score: 1/5.

  1. Keep it brief

There is nothing worse than adding poor time management skills to one’s list of attributes as a loser. Stay long enough to thank everyone you really need to thank. Say something meaningful. Remind them surreptitiously how great you are and that they have made a big mistake and then DEPART. Graciously, charmingly, with a smile, and with one’s head held high.

Shorten’s score: 1/5.

Yes, folks, it is possible to deliver a good concession speech. Maybe next time, ScoMo, what do you say?

 

Dr Sonia Pertsinidis teaches ‘Rhetoric: the art of persuasion in the ancient and modern worlds‘ at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

Image: Yahoo News Australia

 

Pythagoras

What does Pythagoras have to do with the moon?

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This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. To commemorate this remarkable technological achievement, the Australian National University is currently hosting a series of lectures exploring the moon through the ages (Works that Shaped the World: ANU Discovery Series 2019).

I was recently invited to present a lecture in the series. I chose to speak about the mysterious Greek philosopher Pythagoras and his theory of the music of the spheres, that is, the theory that each planet and heavenly body emits a sound as it travels through space and that these sounds combine to produce harmonious music.

What would Pythagoras have made of the moon landing? What would he think about his name being ascribed to an impact crater on the north-western rim of the Moon? What would he make of our efforts to hear the ‘sounds’ of planets or to transmit music into space?

Join me for a voyage of discovery, starting in the sixth century BC and ending in the present day, exploring the life and ideas of Pythagoras: a truly remarkable, multidisciplinary and unconventional thinker:

With thanks to the ANU for permission to reproduce the recording (which starts at 22:28).

Recommended reading:

Christoph Riedweg, Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching and Influence, Cornell University Press, 2005.

Sarah B. Pomeroy, Pythagorean Women: Their History and Writings, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Image: bust of Pythagoras, Capitoline Museum, Rome. Source: Internet Commons.

The art of listening

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The art of listening is in perilous decline. Bombarded by information from all directions, with a swirling mass of issues competing for our attention, and a constant stream of messages, notifications, news items and tweets filling our eyes and ears, the modern person scarcely has time to stop and listen, let alone listen carefully.

What might be a cure for this modern malaise? Public readings. I suggest this because of a recent experience. On Friday night last week, I watched an audience ‘tune in’ to a public reading of Homer’s Iliad. Fifty or more visitors were comfortably settled into the ANU Classics Museum, surrounded by cabinets brimming with beautiful antiquities, and they were listening. They were both captivated and moved. Why? Firstly, because this was a recitation from a great epic poem telling the climactic story of Achilles killing the Trojan prince Hektor. Secondly, because this recitation was being artfully delivered in ancient Greek and English by a group of dedicated students.

In antiquity, an audience would have sat for three days and nights, listening to a professional bard recite the entire 15,000 line epic from memory from beginning to end. No doubt, there would have been moments when audience attention lapsed or when breaks were required but I have no doubt that the audience was listening: they would have been paying close attention not only to the story but how it was being told. How do we know this? Because Homer’s epics were a foundation stone and reference point for ancient Greek culture and society (to not know Homer, or only know one line of Homer, was to be ‘uneducated’) and even to alter one line of an epic poem was a cause of great controversy.

Watching a modern audience being ‘read to’ is powerful. People were concentrating, following the storyline, soaking up the imagery and the poetry, relishing the drama and the beauty of the language. For a moment, a group of strangers were unified by a common experience, and for the readers too, the experience was a powerful one. The magic of oral storytelling, a tradition that is thousands of years old, filled the room and the audience responded warmly and positively to the experience.

Public readings are wonderful for community building and social bonding. It draws us out of our individual thought bubbles and puts us back into contact with each other. To attend a public reading involves tacit consent to put aside other distractions, to stop for a while, and focus on a shared and marvellous experience. So many texts benefit from being read aloud and performed. Recitation forces us to slow down and focus, whereas private reading so often involves skimming, fast-tracking or phasing out.

We need to re-learn how to listen, to ourselves and each other, and to listen with care and attention. Ancient societies have given us a precedent and a means to do this: all we need is a place, a time and a willing presenter.

[This blog is dedicated to the ten wonderful students who participated in the global festival of ancient literature known as the Festival Européen Latin Grec, which was celebrated on Friday 22 March in the ANU Classics Museum. Bravo and long live Homeric poetry!]

Image: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Reading from Homer, 1885 (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

 

The work/life balancing act

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There are mixed opinions about being an academic and a parent and, as far as I can tell, there are more negative stories out there than positive ones. In this light-hearted blog, I outline five reasons why it is great to be an academic and a mother.

  1. The world of a child

A child’s perspective on the world is always fascinating but a child’s perspective on the world of academia is even more wonderful. Just last year, we brought our four-year old daughter along to my book launch. She expressed her deep disappointment that contrary to expectation, there was no official countdown as part of the launch. It seems that she expected the Play-School Rocket Clock and for the book itself to be launched into space. She was not at all impressed with the speeches and the champagne but the tasty canapés might have made up for it.

Four months later and I was heading off to Germany to present a conference paper. For the next ten days, every aeroplane that was spotted in the sky was confidently identified as ‘Mummy’s aeroplane’, even if it was only a Qantas flight to Townsville. Strangely, now that I have returned, every aeroplane that is sighted is still referred to as ‘Mummy’s aeroplane’ even if I am not on it.

  1. Children think only about the short-term

Children are excellent motivators because they focus entirely on the present and the immediate future. Rather than planning the year ahead, or the next five years as we must do for our performance reviews, my children expect my academic article to be completed tomorrow, my second book to be published this week and the outcome of my grant application to be announced within the next month! In this sense, children make impossible-to-please supervisors. Nevertheless, their perspective reminds me that time is short and that focus and diligence is key.

  1. Children ask the hard questions

Children are renowned for asking hard questions and awkward ones too. The least desirable ones have to be about giving birth, but there are some beauties about work too. A classic example is: ‘Mummy, if you don’t get that teaching award, can we still go to the coast?’ or ‘Mummy, that’s not the most important thing to us right now’, or ‘Mummy, if you don’t go back to work tonight, will you lose your job?’ All of this is great preparation for teaching. If I can confidently answer a question from my five-year-old, I’m pretty sure I can tackle any question a twenty-year-old throws at me.

  1. Children keep adults grounded

My children get far more excited about the large, brown cardboard packages that arrive on our doorstep than the long-awaited publications within them. They immediately turn their minds to thinking about how to transform that box into something marvellous: a new toy, a new prop, a new backdrop for play. It reminds me that there is no end to a child’s creativity and that that same creative spirit is part of my own work.

Children are always listening – even when you think they aren’t (this is a warning, folks). My husband and I were in the midst of a discussion about a difficult person we know. The children were up to their usual antics and we were quite sure they weren’t following our mutterings until my daughter turned to me and very confidently said (with all the wisdom of Socrates): ‘Mummy, you can’t change people’. Of course she is right.

    5. Children make wonderful bookmarks (double entendre fully intended)

In the early years of school, I can guarantee that there will be a continuous supply of remarkable drawings to laminate and transform into bookmarks. Sharks, mermaids, dancing girls, stars, rabbits, personal messages and spirograph drawings all grace the pages of the scholarly books in my office. It is a never-ending source of delight to discover these little gems in the course of a day.

I suppose, to put it simply, children really do help you to keep your place, know your place and stay in place – just like the colourful little bookmarks they make.

[This blog is dedicated to my children, to all of the parents/academics out there and to the year ahead. A warm welcome back to all of my readers. Aesop’s Fox wishes you a happy, healthy, balanced and productive 2019.]

Image:

The new look rocket clock designed by artist Shaun Tan (ABC TV: Play School)

https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/drive/rocket-clock/8411648

The crisis of rhetoric in Australia

No one would be surprised if I said that there has been a serious decline in the quality of public speech and debate in this country.

The vast majority of our political representatives are poor orators, clinging to repetitive catchphrases instead of logical arguments, punching out slogans and crude invective instead of engaging in reasoned debate, and tossing out cheap puns and wordplays instead of cultivating wit and wisdom. Who could blame the Australian public for tuning out?

The thinking public is right to disregard much of current public discourse as ‘mere rhetoric’, that is, language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content (Oxford English Dictionary).

Yet the very existence of the expression ‘mere rhetoric’ suggests that another type of rhetoric is possible: genuine, meaningful, persuasive and effective rhetoric. This is ‘real’ rhetoric in its original form as developed in classical Greece.

Up until the early twentieth century, the ancient art of ‘real’ rhetoric was widely taught in schools and universities as part of an education in classics. Since that time, the study of ancient rhetoric has declined and, arguably, this has resulted in a corresponding decline in the quality of our public discourse.

In the past, the study of ancient rhetoric involved learning how to construct different types of arguments, devising different forms of appeal based on logic, ethics or emotion and learning how to arrange material logically and persuasively. Students then went on to study the great speechwriters of the classical past such as Demosthenes and Cicero, as well as great speeches of the modern era. This practical training cultivated great speakers as well as attentive and discerning listeners.

A broad reintroduction of the ancient art of rhetoric into the school and university curriculum would have deep, long-lasting and positive effects. In the present political climate especially, we need to be finely attuned to faulty arguments, false premises and deceptions of all kinds.

A classicist in Berlin

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For me, the soundtrack for my first visit to Berlin will always be Seven Nation Army. This track was blaring from the speakers on the late night taxi ride from Alexanderplatz to Friedrichshain and in so many ways it proved to be an appropriate choice. Just like the song, Berlin is edgy, energetic, youthful and defiant, well worn but still irresistible. It is not exactly the city that you would expect to appeal to a quiet classical scholar but for me, Berlin turned out to be full of riches. I embraced the vibe, hired a bike and pedalled from one end of the city to the other (well, from Friedrichshain to Charlottenburg at least). I discovered a city that simultaneously tracks man’s potential for great tragedy and great beauty. For the classicist in particular, Berlin is a treasure trove.

At the Pergamonmuseum, I couldn’t help but feel Greek and Roman civilization put in its proper place by the monumental and stunning Ishtar gate. The strutting lions against a turquoise backdrop leave a deep impression of Babylonian civilization, refusing to be intimidated or forgotten.

At the Neues Museum, Nefertiti gazes out from her designated chamber room surveying everyone that passes with the cool gaze of timeless and unmatcheable Egyptian beauty. The architecture of the Neues is itself a marvelous take on Greco-Roman influences, with carefully illuminated niches, palace-sized doorways and catacomb-like passages.

For anyone else who has visited Miletus in Turkey, Berlin holds the rest of the story. The Market Gate is splendid, a fusion of Greek and Roman features and it testifies to the long-ago importance of this trading town. The model is also exceedingly helpful, clearly showing the ancient harbour and the layout of the original town.

Amidst all of this sits Orpheus, calmly plucking at his lyre as animals of all types frolic around him. I have seen pictures of this floor mosaic many times, but there is nothing like seeing it in person and imagining it as the talking piece at a wealthy Roman’s dinner party.

Outside the museums, the busy city abounds with neo-Classical features. There are the obvious references: the Brandenburg gate (with a helmeted Athena tucked inside, grasping her shield and spear), the temple facades of the Reichstag and the magnificent Konzerthaus, and the gleaming golden Nike atop the Victory Column.

There are also unexpected (but no less delightful) references, such as Atlas holding up the world on the roof of the Museum für Kommunikation; a gilded Fortune dancing in the wind on the dome of Schloss Charlottenburg; and statues of naked male youths peeping out from wooded groves in the grounds of the baroque palace gardens.

Berlin is a delight and a must see for the classicist. As I settle in with a coffee and a slice of Kirschenmichel, I know I’ll be back for a longer stay. Only next time, I will remember to pack tattoo stickers, leather pants and a vape!

 

Image: Athena inside the Brandenburger Tor (S. Pertsinidis, 2018)

 

A lost dialogue with Socrates

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Socrates: Greetings Metaphrastos! What good timing.

Metaphrastos: Greetings Socrates! Where are you going?

Socrates: I’m on my way to the agora. Let us walk together and converse along the way for I have something to ask you. I was strolling by the river this morning, as is my daily practice, when I stopped for a moment under the birch trees and heard the most marvellous birdsong. Try as I might, I could not imitate it and it made me think, my dear Metaphrastos, about the practice of translation.

Metaphrastos: How so, Socrates?

Socrates: I hesitate to ask the question, lest you think me a fool.

Metaphrastos: That I could never do, Socrates.

Socrates: Well, let me ask you, Metaphrastos, in simple terms: do you think that the practice of translation is a skill or an art?

Metaphrastos: I would say that it is a skill, Socrates. For as long as one knows the source language reasonably well, one can find equivalent words in another language.

Socrates: So it is a skill then, just like boat-building, or pottery, or baking bread?

Metaphrastos: Yes, I would say it is much the same Socrates.

Socrates: So just as a boat-builder, or a potter, or a baker needs the right instructions, materials, tools or ingredients, a translator simply needs a good knowledge of the source language and a good dictionary, and one can achieve a reasonable translation?

Metaphrastos: I would say so, Socrates.

Socrates: But surely a boat-builder can be given clear instructions and clear plans and sufficient money and the right tools, and there will still be times when he must make a decision for himself, perhaps about certain modifications that need to be made because of difficulty with the materials, or decisions about certain aesthetic features, or he must interpret the intention of the instructions as best he can without bothering the man who has tasked him with the job?

Metaphrastos: It is as you say, Socrates.

Socrates: And in the same way, wouldn’t you say that the potter, though he may be paid in advance and given clear instructions to prepare a beautiful pot with a scene of Herakles wrestling a lion, will still have to make a decision about how precisely to draw the figure of Herakles, in what stance, and with what expression and so on?

Metaphrastos: You are surely right, Socrates.

Socrates: And even a baker, no matter how well he has been taught, and how long he might have been a baker for, and how well he knows the recipe, knows that a great deal depends on the care and attention and love that he devotes to his task in that moment and this is a much more difficult thing to teach. Yet the baker knows from experience that it is this care and attention and love that makes the best tasting bread so he will strive nevertheless?

Metaphrastos: I could not argue otherwise, Socrates.

Socrates: Then wouldn’t you say that just as boat-building, and pottery, and baking involve a great deal of skill but also a measure of art, that translation is just the same?

Metaphrastos: That seems to be the logical conclusion Socrates.

Socrates: So then, it does not seem right for people to speak of translation solely as a ‘skill’ for this misses an important component, wouldn’t you say?

Metaphrastos: I think so Socrates.

Socrates: And this important component is about understanding things at a deeper level, and getting to the very soul of a thing, and understanding human nature, and emotion, and all of man’s complexities, and striving to do the very best with all of one’s love, care and attention?

Metaphrastos: Just as you have said, Socrates.

Socrates: Then it is thanks to you, my dear friend, for curing my ignorance and putting my mind at ease. Now let us venture into the market and talk to Aristoboulos, for I want to ask him whether a man must be ‘good’ in order to make a ‘good’ translation…

[This imaginary dialogue is dedicated to the staff and students of ‘LANG3001: Translation across Languages’, which is currently being taught at the Australian National University. It is a pleasure to be teaching into the course and reflecting on the ‘philosophy of translation’.]

 

Some (less conventional) tips for organising a book launch

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“It’s a bit awkward”, someone pointed out to me, “it’s like organising your own birthday party!” Sure it is but let’s face it, organising your own book launch has a number of advantages. Here are some tips I learned along the way:

1. Never assume

Don’t assume that your colleagues have the time or inclination to organise a book launch for you. No doubt they are happy for your publishing success but that doesn’t mean they have time to get quotes from caterers! Take control of your own book launch, organise it yourself, and invite your colleagues so they feel really guilty.

2. Check the post

There is nothing worse than being left high and dry at you own book launch without a copy of your book to wave around. So contact your publisher, pester your publisher, ask for your book to be sent by courier not ordinary mail, tell them that you have scheduled your book launch for a specific date, and get them to swear on their first-born child that your book will arrive in time.

3. Flyering, what’s flyering?

Your publisher will usually send you a flyer for your book or can do so on request. This is a great way to advertise the imminent arrival of your book and to advertise the promotional discount! Post the flyer on your door and on noticeboards, send it around by email and paste it on people’s heads (no, not the last one).

4. Location, location, location

As far as venues are concerned, classrooms and staffrooms are a turn-off (there is something about that stale sandwich smell) and it’s just weird to use your own office as a venue (even if it is unusually large). Try to pick a venue for a smallish-sized crowd. One hundred empty seats really isn’t a great look. Library spaces, gallery spaces, museums and of course bookshops are usually the best choices.

5. The food=love equation

Ask your Department about funding support for catering. There is often a small budget set aside for such things. This can help cover the cost of the hot canapés, leaving the cheaper items (the vege sticks, bread and dip) to you. Food = love. Simple.

6. Drinks

Champagne for everyone! And no plastic glasses please. Bad for the environment, and bad for style!

7. Invite your family (yes, the whole family)

Gone are the days when academics went to great lengths to pretend that they had no spouse, partner or children and that they are a robotic race of self-generated individuals without any family connections. And frankly, if you have managed to publish a book at the same time as having a spouse, partner and children, it’s damn well time you got some credit for it. So bring them along, bring all of them along, aged zero to one hundred, and show the world that you wrote a book with one foot rocking a bassinet, one hand on a cup of coffee made by your dearly beloved, and one ear on the phone to grandma.

8. Manage your excitement

There is something really liberating about a book launch – the culmination of years of effort, sweat and tears. There is something about the word ‘launch’ that might make you want to wear pink sequins and a feather headdress, or maybe belt out a karaoke version of ‘Eye of the Tiger’, or actually to launch something (or someone) in the air, but please, contain yourself. Save all of this for going out afterwards!

9. Short and sweet

Find someone really nice to give you a smashing introduction. Keep your own blurb nice and short. Tell the audience about yourself. Convey your passion. Thank people meaningfully. Tell them enough but don’t tell them everything – you want them to read your book, don’t you?

10. Don’t stop

Keep promoting your book even after the event – on social media, on radio, through lectures and events. Just because the launch is over doesn’t mean you should stop talking about yourself (and your book).

 

The olive branch

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Have you been following the Swift/Perry beef? Were you as bemused as I was to read about the gift of the olive branch? Were you as horrified as I was at the quality of Perry’s handwriting? Were you stunned by the fact that Swift appears to have needed help from fans in order to be sure about the precise meaning and symbolism of the olive branch? Then read on…

It’s an interesting world when an olive branch and a hand-written note sent from one pop music star to another makes world headlines but that’s exactly what happened this month when Katy Perry sent an olive branch as a gift to Taylor Swift, with a hand-written note that appears to say:

“Hey old friend, I’ve been doing some reflecting on past miscommunications and the hurt feelings between us, I really want to clear the air – I’m deeply sorry for…”

Swift shared a short video of the gift and the note on Instagram. She also ‘liked’ a post from a fan that explained the meaning of the ‘olive branch’.

Sigh. Oh dear. If only Swift and Perry were students of Classics at the ANU.

Here are 8 good reasons why:

  1. Perry would have taken greater care with her handwriting. Any student of Classics knows that in order to be properly understood, and assessed, handwriting must be legible!
  2. Perry would have written her message in carefully handwritten ancient Greek or Latin. That way she could have found more appropriately idiomatic expressions for ‘old friend’ and ‘clearing the air’ and educated her fan base as they desperately scrambled to translate the handwritten note.
  3. Perry would not have chosen such an ambiguous gift. In ancient times, the olive branch was a symbol of victory, not peace. [When Athena and Poseidon were making competing claims over the region of Attica, they each gave a gift to the region: Poseidon struck a rock on the Acropolis with his trident and sea water came pouring out but Athena planted an olive tree. The twelve gods judged that Athena’s gift was superior and more useful so Athens was named after Athena, and the olive tree became synonymous with Athena and her victory.]
  4. Instead of using Google and Tumblr to decipher the meaning of the olive branch, Swift would have turned to her handy reference guide to classical mythology.
  5. Swift would never be so reckless as to cite an incomplete source. For all we know, the rest of the note says: “I’m deeply sorry for finally winning this long-running feud between us – I realise it must make things very awkward for you. See ya laterrrrr.”
  6. Swift would never be so reckless as to fail to double-check that the text actually did come from the attributed source and not from someone else.
  7. Swift would have correctly interpreted the sticker of the ‘puppy’ as a symbol of purification in early Greek religion (Parker, p.230). Perhaps Perry symbolically ‘washing her hands clean’ of any responsibility for the package?
  8. Swift would have taken a video of herself wearing the olive wreath and preferably a toga as well. Clearly that is what the olive branch was intended for.

Oh well, so many lost opportunities. If only both were enrolled as students in Classics at ANU. Then we could really shake this thing off, once and for all.

Header image:

http://time.com/5270322/taylor-swift-katy-perry-olive-branch/

References:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/may/09/katy-perry-taylor-swift-olive-branch

http://www.nme.com/news/music/katy-perry-sent-taylor-swift-olive-branch-2310832

Hansen, W. Classical Mythology (Oxford 2004).

Parker, R. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford 1983).