What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

The truth is: YOU ARE WRITING EVERY SINGLE DAY. Even if you are sending emails to a coauthor about how to craft a specific section, THAT COUNTS AS WRITING. Why? Because you are sharing concept notes. You are shaping how your argument is going to be structured. You are discussing the data. Are you reading and taking notes off of each paper you read? You are WRITING.

Are you drawing tables by hand to decide how you’re going to present them in your paper? YOU ARE WRITING. You are, in fact, WRITING.

Source: What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

I highly recommend following Raul Pacheco-Vega on Twitter (@raulpacheco) and his blog. He offers great resources on planning, organizing, and writing. In fact, reading his Tweets has motivated me to make this blog more of priority in 2017. I’m setting modest goals (surely I can manage just one post a month?) in the hopes that maybe I’ll exceed them.

I found this particular post, which he shared recently on Twitter, very encouraging for thinking about my own writing practices. I don’t consider myself a writer, as I don’t write as much as I think I should.

I like the idea that all the various bits of writing I do every day– emails, social media posts, jotting notes–all count as writing. So maybe I do write more than I think and maybe I can produce a blog post (or two or three?) a month for a year.

Source: What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

launching our myth podcast!

This is a test run of a new podcast!

My colleague @darrinsunstrum and I are starting a myth podcast! We’re both academics with close to 20 years experience teaching myth between the two of us (yikes!). We like to talk, so our podcast is the two of us discussing Greek and Roman myths for 40-45 minutes. Each episode we’ll choose a different literary passage from the ancient sources and discuss its mythological and historical contexts as well as explore some of the key themes. Our first run at this is Euripides’ Medea, lines 476-492 (text provided below so you can follow along).

Episode 1: Medea (Part 1) https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BytS8FtLYgBGbzVDWnVma0RjZjA

(I’m still sorting out the tech side a bit; for now it looks like you’ll have to download the file from GoogleDrive before playing it.)

We’re still working on coming up with a name (suggestions welcome!) and some artwork and even a schedule of sorts. We’ll sort these things out eventually, but for now we hope that you enjoy our ramblings! Leave a comment for us to let us know what you think and to make any special requests!

I rescued you, as the Greeks know who were
your shipmates long ago aboard the Argo,
when you were sent to master the monstrous bulls
with yokes and sow the furrow with seeds of death.
The serpent who never slept, his twisted coils                             480
protecting the golden fleece, I was the one
who killed it and held out to you a beacon of safety.
I betrayed both my father and my house
and went with you to Pelias’ land, Iolkos,
showing in that more eagerness than sense.
I murdered Pelias by the most painful of deaths,                        485
at the hands of his own daughters, and I destroyed
his whole house. And in return for this, you foulest of men,
you betrayed us and took a new wife,
even though you have children. Were you childless,                  490
one might forgive your passion for this marriage bed.
But now the trust of oaths is gone.
(Eur. Med. 476-492)

Euripides. Medea. Trans. A. J. Podlecki. Ed. Stephen Esposito. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2004. Print.

You can also read Euripides’ Medea (Trans. Kovak) online for free at Perseus.tufts.edu.
Music “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Available online at Free Music Archive

Intro/exit music from “Holding out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler (1999 version). Go buy it on iTunes**Update (09/04)–Since it’s not 100% clear that using this song in our podcast isn’t in violation of any copyright, we’ll be changing up the theme to a work licensed under Creative Commons and reposting the episode. We want our listeners and supporters to know that we value and support artists’ creative work. As academics, we appreciate the importance of intellectual property rights and recognize that we need to set a good example for the responsible use of others’ works. (***It’s still an awesome song. Go listen to it in full if you haven’t already!)

Bibliography: Architecture

I have been combining several old, neglected blogs into this new one and came across this research bibliography I had drawn up for my architecture blog. Since I’m planning to home everything here for now, here it is for future reference.


Arthur, Eric. From Front Street to Queen’s Park: The Story of Ontario’s Parliament Buildings. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1979.

Arthur, Eric. Toronto: No Mean City. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974.

Blumenson, John. Ontario Architecture: A Guide to Styles and Building Terms 1784 to Present. Canada: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1990.

Carter, Margaret. Early Canadian Court Houses. National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada, 1983.

Clerk, Nathalie. Palladian Style in Canadian Architecture. National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada, 1984.

Clifton-Mogg, Caroline. The Neoclassical Source Book. New York: Rizzoli International, 1991.

Curl, James Stevens. Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Davidson Cragoe, Carol. How to Read Buildings: A Crash Course in Architectural Styles. New York: Rizzoli, 2008.

de Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2006.

Duncan, Alastair. Ed. The Encyclopedia of Art Deco. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988.

Eitner, Lorenz. Neoclassiscism and Romanticisim 1750- 1850: Sources and Documents. Volume 1. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Galinsky, Karl. Classical and Modern Interactions: Postmodern Architecture, Multiculturalism, Decline, and Other Issues. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Gowans, Alan. Building Canada: An Architectural History of Canadian Life. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Gowans, Alan. Looking at Architecture in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Honour, Hugh. Neo-classicism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

MacRae, Marion. Cornerstones of Order: Courthouses and Town Halls of Ontario, 1784-1914. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1983.

MacRae, Marion. Hallowed Walls: Church Architecture in Upper Canada. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1975.

Maitland, Leslie, Jacqueline Hucker and Shannon Ricketts. A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1992.

Maitland, Leslie. Neoclassical Architecture in Canada. National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada, 1984.

Maitland, Leslie. The Queen Anne Revival Style in Canadian Architecture.National Historic Parks and Sites, Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1990.

McHugh, Patricia. Toronto Architecture: A City Guide. Toronto: Mercury  Books, 1985.

Murray, Terry. Faces on Places: A Grotesque Tour of Toronto. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2006.

Otto, Stephen A. Robert Wetherell and Dundurn: An Architect in Early Hamilton. Hamilton: Heritage Hamilton Foundation, 2004.

Pedley, John Griffiths. Greek Art and Archaeology. 4th Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Pedley, John. Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Preyde, James and Susan Preyde.  Steeple Chase: Ontario’s Historical Churches. Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1990.

Ramage, Nancy H and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art. 4th Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2005.

Robertson, D. S. Greek and Roman Architecture. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Ricketts, Shannon, Leslie Maitland, Jacqueline Hucker. A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles. 2nd Ed. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2004.

Stamper, John W. The Architecture of Roman Temples: The Republic to the Middle Empire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005

Taylor, Rabun. Roman Builders: A Study in Architectural Process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Wright, Janet. Architecture of the Picturesque in Canada. National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada, 1984.

Yeigh, Frank. Ontario’s Parliament Buildings: A Century of Legislation, 1792-1892, A Historical Sketch. Toronto: Williamson Book Company, 1893.

reflections on seeing

I am currently trawling through my Facebook notes and want to share some of my favourites here with you. I wrote this in 2009 after travelling through Turkey and Greece on a study tour. Enjoy!

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As I have traveled this summer [May-June 2009] I have seen many things that until now were only images in a lecture slide show or maps in a text book. Sculptures, mosaics, sarcophagi, buildings and whole towns came alive as I finally saw them in person for the first time. I tried to experience these things how the ancients did. I asked myself questions constantly. What did the ancients see and feel and smell and hear as they walked down this street, gazed at this sculpture, crossed this mosaic floor or sat in this theater seat? What did they think about their surroundings—or did they consciously think about them? What view did they see from this sanctuary or what landscape surrounded that monument? Along with these questions, though, there was always one more: What does it mean to see a sculpture (or building or town) first hand rather than as a picture in a text book?

The simple answer is that it means you can experience it rather than just see it. Art and architecture are not static things; they interact with their environment (both built and natural) and they interact with you, the viewer. It is only in experiencing this first hand that one can really understand it. If a picture is worth a thousand words then an experience is worth a hundred thousand pictures. No photography, film or diagram, no matter how skillfully executed, can ever replace the experience of walking through the same physical space that the ancients did.

How can a photograph capture the sense of anticipation when walking the Sacred Way into an ancient sanctuary? Or the thrill of standing in the Asklepieion at Pergamum and seeing the acropolis rise sharply into the sky? Can a textbook properly convey the taste of water from a sacred fountain or can words capture the soothing breeze at Cnidos? No map in any book is able to convey the sense of wonder when you turn around to see the Athenian Acropolis perfectly framed by the Arch of Hadrian, nor can words capture the sense of serenity as you stand at the topmost terrace of the Asklepeion at Cos and looks across the narrow waters to Asia Minor. There is no way to understand the bulk of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma save to wander through its columns. The Alexander Sarcophagus might hold a viewer’s interest for a moment or two as an image in a slide show, but when seen in person in the Istanbul museum all time stands still and it exerts a powerful, irresistible pull. Is there any way to understand the importance of a sculpture’s size and orientation than to be dwarfed by a Roman emperor or a Greek god? It is not until you see Alexander the Great’s sculptures in person that you realize he will never look at you—his gaze is forever fixed on his next distant conquest. To physically move through the buildings of Cos’ ancient agora and harbour district, knowing that your feet tread where others tread thousands of years ago, creates a sense of closeness to the ancient people who really weren’t that different from ourselves.

And that is, perhaps, the most important bit of all: the realization that these were real people who moved through these spaces and wandered around these monuments and worshipped at these sanctuaries. They were like us: They sought to create beauty in their lives and surrounded themselves with beautiful spaces and filled those spaces with beautiful objects. These objects and these spaces have lives and stories of their own and are a direct link with the people of the past. They are not static images in a book or on a slide and to know them only as such is to know but a shadow of the real thing.

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religion & myth

I have heard a mythology professor bemoan students’ unfamiliarity with the Judeo-Christian religion, but never paid it much heed. It seems that in almost every first year Classics course, at some point a student will submit a paper that is a mash up of half-forgotten, half-misremembered Sunday School stories and a few facts from lecture. While in some way these are easy papers to mark, I don’t think any of us enjoy them because they are so far off the mark. Is this really something we want to encourage?

In the most recent mythology course I worked for, we endeavoured to teach students something about structuralism, which to be really successful requires knowledge of some sort of mythology aside from Graeco-Roman. Our teaching guidelines assumed that most students would have some familiarity with the Judeo-Christian mythology because of its enormous influence on western art and culture. But of the 40 students I had, not one was familiar with any of the Judeo-Christian myths referenced; I know from conversation that other classes were similar.

But the more I have thought about this professor’s comments, the more I am inclined to agree that students need exposure to religions– not for the purpose of moralizing or proselytizing (I would never support that) but so they can understand the cultural artefacts produced within these systems. Many, perhaps most, of the great works of art and literature in the western world stem from two strains of mythology: Graeco-Roman and Christian. An inability to understand a society’s mythology hampers one’s ability to understand its cultural products.

Now, I know referring to the Christian religion, or any religion, as mythology, will no doubt stir up some ire among adherents. But I use the term in its academic sense, rather than as a value judgment (I won’t touch that subject!)  Although we call these belief sets religions today, they fit the criteria of a mythology: that is, these belief systems seek to provide a comprehensive, total explanation of the cosmos. They attempt to answer questions such as where we come from, where we go when we die, why we can’t see the gods, how we should live, how we communicate with the gods, etc. Graeco-Roman mythology also addressed these questions and was once the religion of its day; While there was no set canon, it was equally diverse (if not more so) as any religion today in terms of individual beliefs.

So that leads me to think: What is the difference between religion and mythology? Is it simply a matter of time and distance– that is, if the culture is sufficiently distant from one’s one, does that make it myth? I think this is problematic as it creates a value hierarchy and considers some belief sets as more legitimate than others. Rather, I would suggest that mythology is the underlying system of understanding and that religion is the expression of this system through ritual and enforced norms; that is, the religious expression both stems from and reinforces the mythology. With time, elements of the religious expression outside of the original mythology are also incorporated into the mythology as the system is altered to maintain its currency and authority in a shifting society.

To follow this idea further, I would suggest that knowledge of mythologies is necessary to understand and appreciate art and literature produced within (or with reference to) these systems not simply for the basic story that is depicted by a painting or poem, but to understand things such as the artist’s intention, how the work relates to the artist’s contemporary society, and how the artist’s work is interpreted by different audiences. Exposure to these mythologies (religions) is necessary not only to understand what a particular work of art is about, but to understand its importance and significance in a society. 

some beginning thoughts on myth & fantasy; or, a classicist’s foray into tolkien

I am a latecomer to the genre of high fantasy. I come to it not as a fan of fictional worlds (although that is a consequence), but primarily as a classicist trained in studying mythological texts. It is only in the past few years that I have become increasingly interested in classical reception; that is, how successive audiences have received, reinterpreted and reused Graeco-Roman mythology. This has led to my growing interest in how classical mythology is adopted and adapted into popular modern art and literature.

My academic training has certainly equipped me with a theoretical framework for approaching mythological texts. As an MA candidate in Classics writing a thesis, I had to not only understand and use theory, but also defend my use of it. I became comfortable using Foucauldian discourse analysis, feminist theory, gender theories, and, of course, Lévi-Strausse’s structuralism to understand classical texts. This, I believe, is one of the enduring legacies of my MA degree: As I read any work of fiction, watch a movie (which, alas, I do all too infrequently) or even a TV show, a part of my brain is always churning away at some point asking questions. What genders are being constructed and how? What kinds of power dynamics are happening, and how does this relate to gender roles? How are women’s roles constructed? What type of thinking is happening here? What is the underlying invariant that this work explores? And, most importantly, WHY is this happening the way it is?

I began my venture into high fantasy accidentally, reading the first four books of Martin’s GoT series during the last spring of my MA. I binged on them between writing drafts of thesis chapters. They were an escape, but they also enthralled me as I began to apply my thinking skills–at first unwittingly, but then more consciously. As my ideas of how I could apply my theoretical toolkit to these texts increased, so did the questions I wanted to investigate, and thus my interest in epic fantasy grew. As a late comer to the epic fantasy party, I have a lot of catching up to do. Thus far I have only read the first five books of GoT (that’s all that’s out) and The Hobbit; I am currently a third of the way through Silmarillion with the rest of the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy lined up next. Forays into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Pratchett’s Discworld and Riordon’s Percy Jackson series are also planned, as is a re-reading of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I might even be convinced to finally dip a toe into Rowling’s Harry Potter. Plus, of course, reading some academic writing about these works. My goal in all this venture is not to become a know-it-all of fantasy literature; I am not interested in memorizing endless trivia as I have already burned up too many precious brain cells memorizing Greek conjugations, which I no longer use. Rather, I am interested in seeing how these works connect with Graeco-Roman mythology, whether it be openly, as in the Percy Jackson series, or through structuralist analysis.

The problem is, of course, the more I read the more ideas I get and the more questions I come up with to answer. That’s where my blog comes in. I want to use this space to sift out ideas, see what works, piece things together bit by bit. My goal isn’t to determine which work is best, or list characters or facts or argue about movie interpretations (although I plan to address that), but to look at how these works engage mythological ideas. The focus isn’t on facts, but ideas. (I’ve always been a big-picture thinker.) A warning that this will not be a series of neatly-written essays, but a rambling monologue!

Is it right to approach these texts as mythology and to relate them to classical mythology in particular? We are, after all, talking about multi-volume epics written by a single author and, in the case of Tolkien especially, influenced primarily by Norse mythology, not Graeco-Roman.  Graeco-Roman mythology, on the other hand, was a result of oral tradition. There is (and was) no one defined canon of Greek mythology; rather, there were as many variations to a story as there were tellers. The versions of myth with which you as an ancient Greek might be familiar depended on where you lived; when you lived; and whose version you heard, liked, and remembered. Myths were in constant creative reuse, and only a fraction of the art and literature which records them has survived to our day. I find students, when first approaching Greek mythology, want to pin down the “correct” version of a myth and to fit multiple myths into a single timeline (I was guilty of that desire myself, way back in the day), but myth simply doesn’t work this way. Multiple versions co-exist simultaneously and cannot be logically reconciled with one another. It’s a challenge to our linear, western way of thinking, but once we move past that we find a remarkable field of study.

To come back to the question, then, can works written by a single author be compared to works composed anonymously by many poets in many versions be compared? Yes. When we study Greek mythology we use a text that, at some point in time, has been set down by someone. The difference, I think, will be that a work by one author, such as Tolkien, will have a greater degree of internal consistency than a work created over many centuries by multiple authors, such as the Homeric epics. Homer, whoever and how ever many he was, set down the Iliad and Odyssey after centuries of oral composition and thus it contains an odd mixture of both Bronze Age and Dark Age society which leads to what could be considered inconsistencies in description (I am thinking here particularly of the difference between the Phaeacians’ Bronze-Age palace and Odysseus’ hovel with a manure pile out front– both these men are kings (basilei), but one’s palace is from the Bronze Age and the other’s is from the Dark Age.) Tolkien, on the other hand, went back to The Hobbit after writing LOTR to make slight adjustments to the story to ensure consistency. But my point is really this: at some point, we have written texts for Greek mythology and we also have written texts for epic fantasy. We have texts with which we can do a textual comparison.

And we can compare mythologies across culture and time. Structuralism allows for this; indeed, I would say structuralism demands this. A key aspect of structuralism is the search for the invariant; that is, the underlying ‘thing’ that a myth is about once you strip off the decoration. Lévi-Strauss describes it several ways in his English work Myth and Meaning; The image that works best for me is that of a landscape. Structuralism strips away the plants and trees and soils and looks at the underlying features of the landscape/myth and finds similarities here across mythologies. These are the invariants, and include explanations of good and evil, death and life, how to live, how to relate to the gods, and why we can’t see the gods. While mythological invariants are found across genres and forms of art, they are perhaps the most easily seen in myths proper and the fantasy genre.

Structuralism also includes the idea of pre-literate thought. It feels odd to discuss pre-literate thought when we are dealing with a work written by a very literate man in the 1950s, but that is the term we have so let’s use it. Pre-literate thought seeks to provide a total, global explanation for the world. Rather than addressing particular phenomenon and being content in not knowing the rest (which is what Lévi-Struass calls scientific thought), pre-literate thought seeks to provide a comprehensive explanation. I think this might be most easily seen in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which I am reading now, although it is certainly evident in The HobbitThe Silmarillion attempts to provide a global understanding of the world of Middle Earth (and includes all the invariants I listed above– but more on that in another post). Comparable mythological texts for easy comparison would be Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Finally, Greek mythology gives us epic and we are talking about epic fantasy. Now the epic is not unique to Greek mythology (think of the Old English epic Beowulf, which is also on my reading list), but we have the Iliad and Odyssey where we see the idea of the hero developed and the hero on a quest. Heroes on a quest…. sounds a bit like Bilbo, doesn’t it?

To summarize, then: A work does not have to make direct reference to Graeco-Roman mythology to be compared to it. We can use structuralism to compare myths across time and culture by looking at the invariants. Graeco-Roman mythology provides us with texts for comparisons, as well as the heroic epic cycle. Building on this, my ideas for further inquiry include:

  • more consideration of fantasy as myth;
  • construction of gender in The Hobbit;
  • relation between Tolkien’s books and the movies;
  • searching for the invariant in Tolkien;
  • evidence of the heroic epic cycle in The Hobbit and LOTR;
  • depictions of women;
  • depictions of monsters;
  • discussion of the nature of epic; and
  • comparison of origin myths.

But I know this list will grow much longer the more I read. Clearly, you can take the girl out of academics, but you can’t take the academics out of the girl!

I’m your professor, not your therapist!

This is very timely for me! This semester I have had several students in tears repeatedly. For very good reasons, but tears nonetheless. I’m their TA, not their friend, but I do care about my students as people. I want to be supportive and compassionate, but I do not want to take on the emotional burden of strangers’ tears. I want to keep my emotional energy for those I care about– my close friends and family. Lots of good thoughts here, and the comments are definitely worth reading!

Tenure, She Wrote

One of the things that I’ve found I’m completely unprepared for as a new teacher and academic advisor is the level of emotion the students bring with them to talk with me.  I’m just not a public crier, so it always startles me when someone lets the waterworks go during what seems to me to be a relatively benign conversation.  Not that I never empty a box of Kleenex while watching a tearjerker with a group of friends, or think that crying in front of others makes you weak – it’s just not me. This has left me at a loss for what to do when someone breaks down in my office.  Politely ignore?  Offer Kleenex?  Ask details?  I should have paid better attention when friends talked about their experiences being the crier or the cryee! 

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