From Togas to Troy: Oxford’s Covid ‘Classical Conversations’ | University of Oxford
Although such questions would not normally feature in a university Classics course, ‘it was really amazing’, says the expert in Greek literature. ‘They were really curious about daily life in Ancient Greece
Credit: Shutterstock. A young girl visiting the Greek temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. Oxford academics found school pupils really curious about daily life in Ancient Greece during recent Classical Conversations.

From Togas to Troy: Oxford’s Covid ‘Classical Conversations’

Lockdown learning, with school delivered online, may not be ideal, but it has enabled some highly-unusual lessons to take place. Oxford Classics professors have taken to the internet to engage in ‘Classical Conversations’ with school pupils across the country and the results have excited interest – in all concerned.

The Faculty of Classics Outreach Team has been offering 30 minute classes with an Oxford professor on a Classical subject of the school’s choice – or just a quick-fire question and answer session. And the response was almost immediate – once schools were convinced this offer was ‘for real’. In the last three months, some 600 children at 30 schools from Lancashire to Kent, Norfolk to Wiltshire have taken part. And many more conversations are scheduled over the coming months.

Oxford Classics professors have taken to the internet to engage in ‘Classical Conversations’ with school pupils across the country and the results have excited interest – in all concerned

According to Dr Neil McLynn, head of Classics, the idea was to use the virtual learning of lockdown to ‘zoom' into lessons, in the nicest possible way, giving students a chance to have a conversation with an Oxford expert about their favourite subjects. And, he says, the Faculty has been thrilled.

The project matches primary and secondary school and home-educated students with leading Oxford academics. Topics have ranged from ‘Female characters in the Odyssey’ to ‘Magic and Superstition in Rome’.

But some have been less prosaic, Dr Sophie Bocksberger took part in a Q&A session with a group of primary-aged children. She recalls there were some challenging questions, ‘One boy asked about the toilets in Ancient Greece [he thought everyone would want to know]...somebody else asked if the Greeks had pets and someone asked which was the best god.’

Although such questions would not normally feature in a university Classics course, ‘it was really amazing’, she says. ‘They were really curious about daily life in Ancient Greece and it worked well. I tried to show how we know things, through archaeology or texts, rather than just giving answers.’

One boy asked about the toilets in Ancient Greece...somebody else asked if the Greeks had pets and someone asked which was the best god

Dr Sophie Bocksberger

[In case of interest, toilets were receptacles, emptied into the street, although wealthier Greeks may have sat on marble benches.]

Students, meanwhile, have found the sessions ‘awesome’, ‘really engaging’, ‘very enjoyable’ and ‘fun’, according to their teachers. Many commented that, getting to share their ideas and talk with an Oxford Classicist has, not only, helped them in their current academic work, but has also helped to prepare for the future by giving them an idea of what further classical study might be like.

Dr McLynn also faced a ‘free fire’ round of questions on any subject, but with secondary school pupils. He says, ‘They were full of interest in the Roman world.’

Questions included: who wore togas, farming and food in the UK during Roman times.

‘It was so interesting,’ he says.

A key aim has been to encourage and enthuse school children about the Classics and, the teachers insist, it has been effective

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson 

Some Classical Conversations have centred on the GCSE or A Level syllabuses, with academics sharing their knowledge on topics such as Greek Tragedy, the Parthenon, and the Julio-Claudian Emperors. Others have delved into topics as varied as ‘Persuasive Language in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar’, life in Ancient Egypt, and ‘Feathered Creatures in Mythology’.

In another lesson, Dr McLynn met a group of sixth form Latinists who were studying Juvenal.

‘It involved some very hard questions,’ he remembers.

The project has been received with considerable enthusiasm and imagination in schools and in the university, where the Faculty is keen to encourage applications from a wide variety of applicants – even those without experience of Classics.

One Q&A, involving Professor Peter Stewart and a group of Classical Civilisation students, took place in a virtual ancient theatre. And Professor Armand D’Angour chatted with a class of secondary students about Ancient Greek music.

Dr Gail Trimble, meanwhile, says, ‘It has been really effective...the students have a chance to talk about the subject in a broader way and, for me, joining a lesson without being a ‘visitor’ in a school, having to be looked after, has meant schools got more out of it.’

They talked about heroism and the Roman political context – giving students a taste of what Classics at university might be like

Dr Gail Trimble

She spoke with a group of year 12s, who are studying Virgil’s Aeneid, and they had some ‘very bright questions’.  She says, rather than looking narrowly at the text as though it were an A level lesson, they talked about heroism and the Roman political context – giving students a taste of what Classics at university might be like.

Schools too are very positive. According to one school, it was ‘very much a conversation – we could ask questions and input our own ideas whilst being guided and taught’, which meant that ‘the conversation was open to lots of different avenues and interpretations.’

Meanwhile, a teacher says, our Oxford expert ‘answered all questions with humour and intelligence and the students really loved it. I think they also loved having an expert in the field.’

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson, Research Fellow in Classics Education, says. ‘These 30-minute sessions offer students different viewpoints and ideas to enrich their knowledge and enjoyment of the topic. They might add detail or draw links between different parts of the literature, art and history which they find interesting.’

A key aim of the project has been to encourage and enthuse school children about the Classics and, the teachers insist, it has been effective. The potential for sparking interest is what energises the Classics team.

During school years, there can be moments of direct personal contact with people outside of school which can be transformative

Dr Neil McLynn

Dr McLynn maintains, ‘During school years, there can be moments of direct personal contact with people outside of school which can be transformative.‘

You can find out more about the project here https://clasoutreach.web.ox.ac.uk/classical-conversations.

If teachers would like to request a Classical Conversation, please email outreach@classics.ox.ac.uk. Preference will be given to state-maintained schools but we welcome requests from all teachers.