Classics Volunteering at BSIX College

This post was contributed by Deborah Hyde, a recent graduate of Birkbeck’s MA Classical Civilisation and joint winner of the 2010-2011 Catherine Jane Booth prize for the study of classics.

“If some women were out partying with the king and he was the top man in Rome, what was wrong with that? Why did Lucretia win the contest for being the best wife?”

It was a great question; the perfect starting point for a spirited discussion about ideals of female behaviour, gender and power relationships both today and in ancient Rome – and much more besides – as I helped a group of students get to grips with the text of Livy’s Rape of Lucretia.

It is just one of many wide-ranging, illuminating, amusing and thought-provoking conversations I’ve had with students studying A/S level Classics at BSix College in the London Borough of Hackney, east London. I’ve been attending their classes as a volunteer over the past academic year, as part of new partnership working between BSix, Birkbeck and other HE institutions to encourage wider participation in the study of classics and ancient history by students from all walks of life. 

Together we’ve had many fascinating discussions. For example, how communities decide who they are and what they stand for, and the role of mythology in that process. What constitutes a hero, and ‘heroic’ behaviour in Homer’s Odyssey,  or the pervasive role of religion in ancient lives.

On a selfish note, it has been invaluable ‘work experience’; I have a long-standing interest in finding ways to make history accessible and engaging to wider audiences, and I have recently completed preparatory studies for teaching adults. All of these students first came to class without any of the ‘building blocks’ such as previous study of ancient languages or classical literature that students from more privileged backgrounds often have. But this has in no way prevented them from engaging with such challenging texts as classical Athenian court speeches; Xenophon’s Oeconomicus; Plutarch’s Lives; the letters of Pliny The Younger; or the rape of the Sabine women (Livy again). Indeed, the freedom and energy with which they have deployed their own inner-city life experiences have been at the dynamic heart of the quality and depth of our studies.

Equally, as their endlessly supportive and enthusiastic BSix teacher Toni Shelley has noted, their own personal family histories routinely involve recent immigration to the UK, very often from countries ruled or colonised by ‘super power’ nations.  This appears to have given them a ‘take’ on the ancient empires of Athens and Rome that I’ve found very refreshing – one which I think has an invaluable contribution to make to the future range and quality of classics study and debate, and one which I think the wider classics community will fail to nurture at its peril.

My volunteer work at BSix is part of wider moves involving Birkbeck to try and ensure that contribution is made. For example, Birkbeck has been involved with the new, Hackney-based East End Classic Centre since its launch last summer. Along with other partners such as BSix, UCL and Oxford’s Pembroke College, it is helping the Centre gain growing profile and momentum for a programme of classics-based activities.

But for now, as I help the BSix A/S level Classics “class of 2013” get to grip with essay and exam questions on topics such as fate, free will and the gods, or Homer’s use of literary technique, and as they look ahead to the life-changing possibilities of university applications, I’d like to thank them – and BSix and Birkbeck – for the exciting and rewarding times we’ve spent together, and for all the food for thought they’ve given me. Working with them has been an experience I’d recommend very highly to other classicists.

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