Dr Cora Beth Knowles is a Classics Associate Lecturer at The Open University and founder of the Classical Studies Support website. In this article, she discusses her popular new series 'Comfort Classics', which is helping to provide solace for those during lockdown. You can follow Cora Beth on Twitter using @drcorabeth.
This week I’m celebrating the third birthday of my website, Classical Studies Support (CSS), and reflecting on where it came from and how it grew into what it is today.
I’m also baking a cake for it. My little boy insists. I have a feeling there’ll probably be candles and singing too.
Three years ago I came up with the idea for a Classics student support website as a result of studying the OU’s MA in Online and Distance Education (MAODE). The MAODE taught me that, using the simplest of tools, it was possible for me to create a resource which would be of value to my students. Nevertheless, being something of a technophobe, I took quite some time to find my feet online. I chose the name ‘Classical Studies Support’ because it had an air of boring respectability which I hoped would fool people into thinking that I knew what I was doing!
When lockdown started in late March, I wondered whether there was a way I could use CSS to help my students. I was hearing from a lot of very anxious and frightened people - carers and key workers and people with long-term illnesses that made them vulnerable. One student told me that she was worried about how she’d cope when her module came to an end, because her studies gave her something to focus on. That gave me an idea. Maybe I could start putting out a daily post – just for a couple of weeks – about comforting things from the ancient world. Maybe I could ask around and see if any other classicists might be willing to help.
That was the start of my ‘Comfort Classics’ series of interviews. Every day I interviewed (by email) a different classicist about an object, a place or a text that brought them comfort. I started small, asking some regular readers to be interviewed, and asking other Associate Lecturers and lecturers in the OU’s Classical Studies department if they wouldn’t mind contributing. Very quickly, however, the word spread. As lockdown continued, people from outside the OU began to volunteer to take part, including writers and artists, professors from Oxford and Cambridge, and contributors from the US and Australia. Some of my personal Classics heroes, including Dame Mary Beard, Professor Armand D’Angour (who wrote the Greek Ode for the London 2012 Olympic Games) and Professor Michael Scott (who makes some of my favourite documentaries), have been kind enough to join in.
Comfort Classics has been running for ten weeks now and has become a regular source of entertainment and comfort to thousands of Classics enthusiasts around the world. I certainly didn’t anticipate that when I set up my website three years ago!
So perhaps my little boy is right. Perhaps, on its third birthday, Classical Studies Support does deserve cake and candles. But I’m drawing the line at the bouncy castle…!
I made the decision to set up a website for four main reasons. The first was purely practical: I wanted somewhere to put my teaching resources so that they would be easily accessible if I had to go to a tutorial venue with an eccentric IT set-up!
The second reason was about connection. Every year I watch around a hundred students leave my modules. Most of them don’t have the time or the resources to pursue further study – but they still have a passionate interest in Classics. I wanted to help them to stay connected to the world of Classics in a way that would be free, friendly and easily accessed.
The third reason was a pedagogical one. As my tutoring has moved increasingly online over the last few years I’ve been feeling the need to be more visible to my distance learners. The literature on online teaching often refers to this as ‘Social Presence’. It’s not easy to be socially present when you’re not physically present, and it takes work and ingenuity to overcome the problem of distance.
Finally – but perhaps most importantly – I was motivated by my own passion for accessibility. We at the OU are very good at offering forms of interaction for those who want to interact. We have excellent tutorials (face-to-face and online) and day schools and cluster events and drop-in sessions. We have many, many forums. But for some students, this kind of interaction is not at all what they want or need. I thought that perhaps I could reach those students by doing something different.
So once I’d found my feet and figured out how everything worked, I added an extra strand to CSS – a weekly blog, which I called ‘Weekend Reading’ and which could be sent out as a regular newsletter. The Weekend Reading posts, which have been running for two years now, give a round-up of all the Classics-related items of interest from that week (articles, blog posts, news, cartoons, podcasts etc), prefaced by a ramble about whatever has caught my interest on that particular Friday.
These blog posts give me an opportunity to ‘talk’ to all my student groups at once, and readers can talk back if they want to, in the Comments section. Over the last couple of years this has built into a friendly and supportive community of regular readers. However, most readers don’t feel the need to comment; they can be part of a community just by reading the blog and following the links.