Posters in Parliament

There are few things more gratifying for any academic teacher than seeing one’s students succeed. The following is such a success story:

Abi Cousins, a current finalist in our department, recently won at the 2013 Reading Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) showcase event with a poster that displayed the main findings of her UROP project ‘Communication Disorders in the Ancient World: Lack of Language, Lack of Power?’. The project was carried out under the supervision of Prof. Peter Kruschwitz, and since then it has resulted in a preliminary publication of their findings in the JACT journal Omnibus.

In recognition of Abi’s excellent achievements, the University of Reading gave her the opportunity to present her research at the 2014 Posters in Parliament event in London on 25 February, organised by the University of Central Lancashire and the British Conference of Undergraduate Research.

In an overall heavily science-dominated setting, Abi’s poster – the only submission in the area of Classics from the entire UK and one of the very few posters based on Arts-and-Humanities-related projects – attracted significant attention: even after an hour and a half of answering questions (in what was planned to be a one-hour slot), Abi still found herself answering questions and offering offprints of her co-authored article.

Abi said: ‘It was an excellent opportunity and a great chance to meet people genuinely interested in my work as an undergraduate and talk to them about something I was passionate about. A long day but so much fun and so rewarding.’

Prof. Kruschwitz, who also attended, said: ‘It is excellent to see that University of Reading shows its ongoing, substantial support for, and belief in, Undergraduate Research, which gives due credit to all academic disciplines, including those of the Arts and Humanities. Abi has done herself proud – again! –, and she was a wonderful, enthusiastic ambassador both for the excellent things we do here at Reading and for her academic discipline. Our department has a long track record in successful engagement with undergraduate research (including a number of publications derived from such projects), and today has added an exciting new chapter to this lasting success story.’

Classics Department’s ‘Night at the Oscars’

Addressing assembled staff and students at the Undergraduate Research Showcase event on Wednesday 20th November, the Vice-Chancellor likened the event to the Oscars ceremony … and, well, to continue the metaphor, Classics came away holding a golden statuette!

Josh Kerr and Emma Aston toasting his poster on the Thessalian cavalry in ancient warfare.

Josh Kerr and Emma Aston toasting his poster on the Thessalian cavalry in ancient warfare.

At the event, every student who undertook a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Placement) in 2013 presented a poster on his/her research.  Posters were grouped by category, and in the group labelled ‘The Past’, antiquity was strongly represented in the form of Classics Department students Abi cousins, Josh Kerr and Will Burks.  Between them, their three projects covered a wide and fascinating range of ancient life and culture, showcasing the flexibility of the discipline.  Will’s project involved collaboration with University Teaching Fellow Dr Matthew Nicholls on the ongoing development of the latter’s digital reconstruction of ancient Rome.  Josh’s poster presented one aspect of his joint research with Dr Emma Aston on the role of the famous Thessalian horse in ancient society, and reflected his particular interest in military history and ambition to continue on to postgraduate study.  Abi Cousins had, with Professor Peter Kruschwitz, produced a ground-breaking study of speech-impediments in ancient culture, a neglected aspect of the ancient world with far-reaching implications for our understanding of language and communication.  What all three had in common was the process of painstaking reconstruction: reconstruction of lost buildings, reconstruction of beliefs and of ways of life now imbued with that hair-raising mixture of strangeness and familiarity which makes the ancient world so unceasingly fascinating to all who work on it.

Abi Cousins with her two pieces of shiny stationery

Abi Cousins with her two pieces of shiny stationery

For those of us who managed to tear ourselves away from ‘The Past’ (and it’s never easy), the other categories of research on display also provided interesting viewing, ranging from environmental science to cognitive processes in primary-school children.  Deciding which projects should be judged best in their categories can’t have been easy, and the hard work of all participants was recognised in the presentation of certificates and VC handshakes.  But when it came to the presentation of the awards, it was hard not to wait with baited breath.  And Classics gained an amazing double prize: Abi Cousins received not only the award for the best project in her category, but also the prize for best project overall.

Actually, there was no statuette … but she did receive golden envelopes (a classic HE equivalent, and very appropriate to these straitened times).  Not to mention, to use Homer’s phrase, a hefty dose of κλέος ἄφθιτον (‘undying glory’)!

Emma Aston

The Department of Classics showcases the Third-Year Module ‘Digital Silchester’ (CL3SIL). Interview held by Dr Rebecca Rist (School Director of Teaching and Learning) with Dr Matthew Nicholls (Department of Classics)

Dr Matthew Nicholls reflects on the use of digital modelling in the Classics Curriculum on the University’s Teaching and Learning blog:

1.  Dr Nicholls, you are particularly interested in the digital modelling of ancient buildings and places, especially the city of Rome, and you are currently talking to Cambridge University Press about a book and related digital / app publications as well as showcasing your work at the up-coming Higher Education Academy Storyville Conference.  Why did you and the Department of Classics decide to launch the new Part Three module ‘Digital Silchester’ (CL3SIL) this academic year?

There were a number of reasons that we decided to do this.  When I first arrived at the University of Reading I began to interest students in the results of my own digital modelling work through undergraduate and postgraduate modules on the city of Rome.  It soon became apparent that students really wanted to engage with digital modelling and once they knew about my research interests I was frequently asked if I needed any help with projects.  I have found that digital modelling is something that undergraduate students can pick up quickly and I really wanted to get them to participate in seminars, not just as consumers but as producers of their own material.  I have also over the years had a number of UROP students working on digital modelling.  When I saw that these students were able to pick up the necessary software and research skills well, I decided to run ‘Digital Silchester’.  Students are increasingly comfortable with digital technology and virtual worlds, and they enjoy the idea of engaging with something visual, which means the module has attracted a large amount of interest.  ‘Digital Silchester’ has been funded by CDoTL as part of my University Teaching and Learning Fellowship, and I am very grateful to them for awarding me a University of Reading Teaching and Learning Development Fund grant.

2.  The module ‘Digital Silchester’ is taught using a mixture of fortnightly master-class sessions as well as more academic lectures/ seminars on the history of Roman Silchester and its excavations.  Tell me about the academic content of the module.  What are the aims of the module and what are students expected to do to fulfil its requirements? 

The academic content consists of lectures about Roman Britain and Roman urbanisation in order to locate the archaeological remains at Silchester within a wider historical context.  We also look at the history and the excavation of the site itself.  To help with this the University of Reading library kindly digitised the entire series of excavation reports from the Society of Antiquaries dating back to the nineteenth century.  Since digital reconstruction is such a new area of expertise there is a rapidly expanding bibliography on the subject.  Students are asked to think about the reasons for making digital models, why different approaches are possible, and what are the principles, aims and methods of archaeological re-construction.  In order to fulfil the requirements of the module students have to complete two assessments.  At the end of the Autumn Term the students are asked to make a small digital model of a building from ancient Silchester.  I choose the building for this model – this year it was a possible early church – and they produce a written commentary justifying all the choices they have made in constructing their model in terms of structure, use of materials, etc.  This task also allows them to get up to speed with using the appropriate software and is worth twenty percent of the module mark.  Then in the Spring Term the students can choose any building from Silchester to work on.  Again they make a model and write a commentary on it and this part of the course is worth eighty percent of their final mark.  When I assess their work I don’t necessarily look for photo-realism but also for understanding of how re-construction can highlight important points about a building’s history and use.  Unlike some undergraduate modules, ‘Digital Silchester’ allows students to be creative rather than just learning to synthesise information, while the written component of the module encourages students to be really reflective.  I have found that this combination works well and allows students with visual or creative flair to put that to work in an academic context.

3.  ‘Digital Silchester’ is current and up-and-running from this academic year.  Tell me about student interest in the module, what the uptake has been like and how you aim to ensure student interest in the future.  

I have had a full quota of around 25 students for ‘Digital Silchester’ this year and I am expecting a full uptake next year.  Students like the module because it is new and different and I have had very good feedback, not just from Student Evaluation Forms but just generally from talking to them about the course.  In fact they have now started chatting about it on the Department of Classics’ Facebook page!  Students have also identified to me where aspects of the module might be improved in the future.  A lot of students who are interested in Archaeology take the module – currently about half of the students are from the Classics department and half are doing a joint Ancient History and Archaeology degree.  ‘Digital Silchester’ is also starting to have the knock-on effect of encouraging students to use digital modelling in other contexts, like their third-year dissertations.  The Department of Classics is keen to promote it at Open Days, at module briefings and at the annual Module Fair, although it is a module that really sells itself!

4.  ‘Digital Silchester’ is studied over two terms (Autumn and Spring) so that students can take full advantage of the (free) technology which ITS services at the University have installed and offer.  Can any students in the Department of Classics take this module or is a level of technological know-how required?  What sorts of students do you think are best suited to taking it? 

There are no formal pre-requisites for taking the module ‘Digital Silchester’.  The course is open to all students and although I would try to steer complete Luddites away! I think that any Reading student would be capable of understanding the software.  In any case I have found that by the third-year students are self-selecting and know whether they would be suited to the module.  I have also found that the creative element of the course really appeals to students while the visual element goes down well with a lot of different types of learners – so it is accessible to other types of students besides the very academic or intellectual ones.  Also, the world of digital heritage in an increasingly important component in Museum Studies and something that any student needs to know about if he or she is intending to make a career in the world of museums.  Our own Ure Museum already runs all sorts of digital projects including animation, iPad apps, and 3D scanning, so Digital Silchester fits in well with innovations elsewhere in Classics, and I am currently discussing the possibility of further collaboration with the Museum Studies degrees now offered through MERL and in close collaboration with Classics.

5.  In this difficult economic climate it is really important that students develop skills in computing and digital technology which they can then transfer to the workplace.  What particular set of skills does the module ‘Digital Silchester’ train our students in and help them develop? 

There are three particular sets of skills which I think ‘Digital Silchester’ helps students to develop.  The first is digital visualisation – i.e. utilising specific bits of 3D modelling software that are relevant to the module.  So ‘Digital Silchester’ has application in the real-world and develops directly transferable skills – I even designed my own house extension recently using digital modelling methods!  The second is that the module increases fluency in computing more generally because it involves image manipulation and the management of large and complicated files – in other words it encourages computer literacy.  Thirdly, although Classics trains students in a whole host of skills, the fact that digital models of ancient buildings are so unusual, means that students who take this module find that their interest in innovative technology goes down very well at interviews – it sets them apart and gives them an extra string to their bow.  Employers really like the fact that the module requires students to design their own assignment and set their aims and objectives.  So the module is very good for employability.

6. Two students from the Department of Classics have recently been highly successful in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme.  How did their studies contribute to the launch of ‘Digital Silchester’? 

Yes, I had two UROP students who were employed on summer placements to aid me with my digital modelling of ancient Rome.  The idea was to employ raw recruits with aptitude but no previous knowledge of the software within a limited timeframe (six weeks) and to help them during that period to produce a meaningful piece of digital reconstruction.  One student produced a digital model of parts of northern Rome.  The other worked on Roman Scotland and in particular on a model of a Roman marching camp based around the site of St Leonard’s.  This student’s work recently featured on a BBC Scotland TV documentary in which I was also interviewed about digital modelling.  The fact that the software proved so successful for this Roman digital modelling encouraged me to transfer its use to my new undergraduate module ‘Digital Silchester’.

7.  Having Silchester so close to Reading is a wonderful bonus for our Classics and Archaeology students.  How have you been able to use easy access to this dig both to enhance your teaching and to inspire your students?  

The fact that I have been able to go to Silchester with my camera and take lots of reference photos has really enhanced my teaching.  Silchester’s closeness to the University of Reading is also invaluable to students because, thanks to money from my recent Teaching and Learning Development Fund grant, I was able to take the whole class to the site right during the course of the module.  I hired a coach and drove them in the freezing cold to the site, firstly to see the physical remains and secondly to take photographs.  I also encourage students to visit the Silchester gallery in the Reading town museum in their own time and I am considering in the future making this a compulsory component of the module.

8.  In setting up ‘Digital Silchester’ you have been in consultation with the Department of Archaeology.  It is really excellent to see these collaborations across the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.  Tell me in what ways has Archaeology been particularly helpful in providing advice and material for the module?

The Department of Archaeology has provided lots of advice and I have had a number of meetings with colleagues who are involved in the Silchester excavations.  At these meetings I worked out with them what they would find useful in terms of dates – in other words what date to set the models at – as well as discussing what should be included in student bibliographies, what were the likely paedagogic difficulties students might encounter on the module etc.  Eventually we hope to construct a model of parts of Silchester for display online, perhaps through the Department of Classics and/or Archaeology website.  In terms of material colleagues from Archaeology very helpfully provided me with a series of images from display boards from the Silchester site with reconstructive paintings made by English Heritage – with whom they also put me in touch.  They also gave me pointers on how and where to secure excavation reports from the site.  And as a number of the students on the module are theirs, I have enjoyed chatting to colleagues from Archaeology as the module has developed.

9.  In an increasingly competitive environment ‘Outreach’ has become more important than ever in academia.  How, for example, has English Heritage in particular been supportive of your launch of ‘Digital Silchester’?

English Heritage gave me the permission to use high-res reproductions of previous reconstructions.  This means that we can discuss with students the complexities of approaching re-construction and how previous professional artists have tackled Silchester in particular as a site.  As for ‘Outreach’ more widely – this has the potential to be considerable.  I have already been on television several times to discuss digital modelling and I have recently attended a national HEA Conference where I discussed the paedagogy of digital modelling further with colleagues from across the sector.  That the Silchester dig attracts huge public interest also gives us a fantastic potential opportunity to showcase ‘Digital Silchester’, while the fact that it is a unique module in UK undergraduate circles means it is also a very useful recruitment tool for encouraging admissions to both Classics and Archaeology.  There is also the potential for international collaboration, particularly in the United States.  For example, I am currently in conversation with Duke University who are working on developing a student modelling programme for Venice.  And there is the possibility of future public engagement for the University of Reading through the new technology of MOOCS.

10.  It is great to see the Department of Classics at the forefront of digital technology.  Obviously the nature of the module ‘Digital Silchester’ means that it is particularly suited to such expertise.  How would you encourage other colleagues in the School of Humanities to think about using digital technology in their seminars and lectures, particularly those who teach perhaps more ‘traditional’, less practically-based modules?      

I blog about ‘Digital Silchester’ on the University of Reading T and L blog and I have spoken at and chaired recent CSTD events at the University, including lunchtime T and L seminar colloquiums.  Colleagues from the departments of English and Archaeology have also sat in on ‘Digital Silchester’ seminars in order to learn about the software and there has also been a lot of student interest from the departments of Typography and Systems Engineering.  The software to construct a digital modelling course is free – so there is no cost barrier.  You can easily teach yourself with the aid of free tutorials on the web and I would really encourage colleagues to have a go!  I would recommend colleagues to approach digital modelling in stages.  So start with just downloading the software (http://www.sketchup.com) and playing with it, make shapes, models of houses etc.  Then you can progress to making an actual model yourself to illustrate research and/or show students before moving on to constructing a whole module based around digital modelling.  There are lots of free web tutorials and videos available. The beauty of digital modelling is that you can apply it to any module you teach –whether that is a module which requires a model of the papal court at Avignon or the palace of Versailles – the possibilities are endless!

Bringing the past to life on screen

modelDr Matthew Nicholls of the Classics Department uses digital technology to create reconstructions of the ancient past. He’s been working for some time on a huge digital model of ancient Rome, which he uses a lot for teaching and research. Students find these dramatic visualisations of the past engaging and useful, so Matthew has now developed a new module, CL3SIL Digital Silchester in which Reading undergraduates research and create their own virtual reconstructions of our local Roman town.

Matthew’s work lends itself well to television programmes on ancient Rome, and he has been in demand for programmes on Rome and its colourful history. Over the summer of 2012 the BBC contacted him to ask whether he could help with a documentary programme on Roman Scotland. The problem that programme makers faced was that while the story of the Romans in Scotland is fascinating, the archaeological remains they left behind often don’t show up well on the screen – utf-8''DSC03128the forts and towns of the area, which never developed into settlements permanently occupied over centuries, often survive as bumpy fields rather than dramatic, easily-filmed standing ruins. The BBC decided they needed to create some computer graphics to represent these Romano-Scottish sites to the viewers, and asked Matthew to help.

After an initial research trip at the start of the summer, Matthew returned to Reading and began work in the library, reading up on the history and archaeology of the sites chosen – the legionary fortress at Inchtuthil in Perth and Kinross, a fort with civilian settlement or vicus at Inveresk in East Lothian, a village of roundhouses at Birnie near Elgin, and a huge temporary marching camp at St Leonard’s.

utf-8''IMG_0287For the last of these only the outer earthwork survives, so Matthew turned to an ancient literary source, Pseudo-Hyginus, whose work on how to lay out the ideal Roman camp within those ramparts turns out to work pretty well for a camp of this size – an interesting combination of literary and archaeological evidence. For this part of the work Matthew was able to employ a second year undergraduate assistant as part of the University’s UROP scheme  offering the student a fantastic chance to earn some money and CV points and to get his name on the credits of the finished documentary.

Matthew returned to Scotland at the end of the summer to film the use of these models on site, and then continued work on them to produce and render animations of the finished versions that were used in the finished documentary, Rome’s Final Frontier, broadcast in December 2012 The BBC kindly agreed to host some of the reconstructions online, providing a permanent resource for those interested in these fascinating sites.

Three UROP Placements Available For 2013

Once again the Department of Classics has been very successful indeed in securing UROP placements for our undergraduate studentship.

The UROP (= Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme) scheme is (almost) unique to Reading, and it gives those of our undergraduate students who are about to move into their final year the opportunity to undertake six weeks of work in collaboration with, and under the supervision of, a member of academic staff, typically resulting in some type of research output that acknowledges student collaboration. This alone is an excellent opportunity (and an asset to any CV), but it gets better – you also get paid, namely £1,200, tax free!

This year’s projects include

For more information please follow the links and visit the UROP webpage: http://www.reading.ac.uk/urop.

Still not sure whether you should apply? Listen to Dr Matthew Nicholls and Philip Smither and find out just how amazing this opportunity can be for our students:

Postgraduate Work-in-Progress Seminars, Spring 2013

As in previous years, there will be a series of postgraduate work-in-progress seminars running during the Spring term.  These will begin next week (Week 4) with Mick Stringer presenting his paper, ‘Why are clever men so stupid? Experientia and Experimentum in Roman agricultural treatises.’The seminar will be held on Wednesday 6th February at 1pm in HumSS 287.

All subsequent seminars will be held on Wednesdays at 1pm.  The programme for the remainder of the term is as follows:

Week 5 (13th February): Natalia Tsoumpra (University of Oxford). Venue: Ure Museum.
Week 6 (20th February): Rebecca Fallas (Open University).  Venue: HumSS 287
Chair: Laura Robson.
Week 7 (27th February): Elena Chepel (Reading).  Venue: Ure Museum.
Week 8 (6th March): Lucy Fletcher (Reading).  Venue: Ure Museum.
Week 9 (13th March): Niki Karapanagioti (Reading).  Venue: Ure Museum.
Week 10 (20th March): Nick West (Reading).  Venue: HumSS 287.

Department successful in UROP bid 2012

The Department of Classics is delighted to announce that it has, again, been successful in its bid for two UROP placements in 2012.

Reading’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) is a scheme that allows second-year Undergraduates to carry out a paid six-weeks research project in close collaboration with an academic over the Summer vacation. These projects are an ideal preparation for students who consider an academic career beyond their first degree, and they are an excellent preparation for the third-year dissertation project. (For further information please refer to the UROP pages .)

The two projects this year will be: