WHAT’S IT LIKE? Episode 1: Professor Eleanor Dickey – A Specialist in Ancient Languages and Education.

Interviewee: Prof. Eleanor Dickey, Interviewer: Bunny Waring.
Date: 19th February 2021

Welcome to the Classic Department’s series What’s it Like? During these episodes staff, volunteers and students who specialise in all fields of Classics, Archaeology and Museums, will share with you the realities of their jobs. What to be a Linguist? Museum Curator? Archaeologist? Lecturer? Well Travelled Researcher? A Barrier-Breaker? Have No Idea? Then read on!

This week: Professor Eleanor Dickey

A Specialist in Ancient Languages and Education. 

Name: Professor Eleanor Dickey, FBA
Area of Specialism: Classics
Topics of Interest: Education in antiquity; language teaching; linguistics; papyrology; ancient languages
Job Title: Professor of Classics
Job Responsibilities: Teaching (all levels from first-year undergraduates to PhD supervision), research, research impact (Reading Ancient Schoolroom), Study Abroad coordinator, academic tutor, a union rep for Classics and a union caseworker.


I’ve wanted to be a scholar since I was a little girl; it seemed like it must be so much fun to discover new things about the past. And you know what? It is so much fun! It is also hard work, but I love being a Classicist, and that’s why I do it. Of course, I also want to transform my students’ abilities by brilliant teaching, to bring the ancient world to life for people who might never have understood it, to make discoveries that advance scholarship, and to write books that people will want to read and use long after I’m gone. Little things like that. And I work very hard at these goals — but the heart of it all is simply a love of the ancient world.

A favourite papyri

What is your daily life really like?

You’re sure you want to know? Absolutely sure? You wouldn’t rather keep your illusions about the luxurious life of the full professor? Okay, so here goes…

I work pretty much all the time, from long before dawn until late at night. I’m married to another Classical linguist (Philomen Probert of Wolfson College Oxford), whom I’ve known since we were students together; we live in a little house crammed full of books, with a cat inherited from another Classical linguist. Both our lives are completely focussed on Classics — it’s a passion that we share. And that’s good because life with Philomen can be demanding. For example, lately, she’s been teaching Hieroglyphic Luwian in Swiss German over Zoom from our dining room table before dawn, every single day, even on Christmas.

On teaching days I normally spend about 12 hours on campus and eat all meals in my office. I have a lot of teaching hours (up to 6 per day), but I prefer it that way because it means that my classes are all small and interactive, rather than big, passive groups. I enjoy the kind of teaching where you find out what the students are thinking because that allows you to help them learn effectively; I’ve never been convinced that lectures do much of anything towards learning. My own student days were mostly wonderful, exciting periods of challenge, stretching, and constant discovery; although the discoveries about the subject matter were good, the best were the discoveries about the extent to which one can develop new abilities. University transformed me from someone hampered by endless limitations into someone who could do pretty much whatever she set her mind to — and now that I’m a teacher I want to give my students something similar. They don’t all want that, of course (many are just as attached to their limitations as I once was to mine, because limitations are an important part of one’s identity), but some do.

On days in between teaching days I spend most of my time reading student work; of course, that’s entirely my own fault for assigning so much of it, which I do because I’m convinced that that’s the best way to give students the experience I’m aiming for. I enjoy reading the work when it goes well, and tear my hair when it goes badly.

Out of term, and in terms when I’m not teaching (such as this one), I concentrate on research. I’m currently finishing a book on Latin loanwords in ancient Greek; I’ve been working on it for over a decade, and the book is enormous, so I’m very keen to send it to the publisher soon. But I don’t want to ruin my reputation as a scholar by making mistakes, so I have to double-check it very carefully, which is taking forever. My main workspace is the bed; I sit on it with the cat and the laptop sharing my lap and books and papers all around. It would be a bit easier if the cat wanted to sleep somewhere else, but then I’d miss her.

One reason this book has taken so long to finish is that I’ve also been working on other research projects. One of those is editing 35 papyri (scraps of ancient paper dug up by archaeologists) as part of a project at the University of Naples (https://platinum-erc.it/) that is producing a re-edition of all known Latin papyri (there are thousands). I really enjoy editing ancient texts, because you’ve got a good chance to discover something completely new. For example, I recently discovered that one of my papyri was a copy of a text that is supposed to have been composed in the sixth century AD, except that this papyrus had been written at least 300 years before then. So suddenly our whole understanding of that text has to change (Read more). The other reason I enjoy editing texts is that it’s a great excuse to travel: you need to inspect the original papyri or manuscripts, and those inspections result in delightful visits to libraries, museums, and even beautiful monasteries where women aren’t allowed in at all, unless they need to see a manuscript.

Most years I also run an event called the Reading Ancient Schoolroom (www.readingancientschoolroom.com), in which we re-create a Roman school for a few days and invite local children to come to experience it. This is a research-impact project based on my work on ancient education , so we focus particularly on what children actually did in ancient schools, from interrupting the teacher and saying hello as they came into reciting poetry from memory. But in order to make it feel authentic, we also have Roman costumes, wax tablets, reed pens, papyrus rolls, etc. We also have a slave, because slavery was an important aspect of ancient life that can’t be ignored, but as the director of the event, I feel uncomfortable about asking anyone else to play a slave. So I always take that role myself.

Prof. Dickey ready to teach at the ancient schoolroom.

What is the best part of your job?

1) The subject matter: Classics is endlessly fun.

2) I get to do a lot of travel and practice foreign languages because I’m frequently invited to give lectures in interesting places (although sometimes I bite off more than I can chew and end up wishing I hadn’t accepted quite so many invitations). I also travel to look at manuscripts and papyri when editing texts, sometimes for weeks at a time.

3) The job is highly varied, so you don’t get sick of doing any one thing (except perhaps e-mail).

4) You’re always learning and overcoming new challenges, so you continue to grow and improve.

5) Academia is a very tolerant place, which is great if you have characteristics that some people don’t like. I’m an immigrant, married to another woman, with prosopagnosia (face blindness: I can’t normally identify people by looking at them). In some settings, I might have a very difficult time, but universities are very tolerant in these respects.

Why do you think your specialism is important?

Understanding other societies and cultures is important because it helps us understand our own world better and appreciate something of the range of cultural possibilities within which our own ways of doing things fall. In order to decide whether you want to continue doing things as usual or try something different, you need to know what other options exist. Of course, you can get those benefits from studying any other cultures, but understanding ones from the past is particularly useful, because that allows you to know what happened on previous occasions when various other options were tested out.

More specifically, take my research specialism of education in antiquity. Ancient education was fundamentally different from its modern equivalent, because instead of grouping children by age and expecting them all to master particular skills at particular points in their lives, it was highly individualised with each child learning at his or her own pace. That has some obvious advantages over our own system in terms of reduced stress, anxiety and boredom for students whose brains work faster or slower than average, but also obvious disadvantages in terms of efficiency: the modern system allows more students to share one teacher. Are there elements of the ancient education system that we could adopt into our own without losing too much efficiency? In fact, if you look, you see that there are. For example, does everyone always have to have the same deadlines? Inspired by the ancients, for several years now I have been letting my first-year students choose their own essay deadlines, and that is a classic win-win solution: not only do they each get the deadline that suits them best, but I get my marking spread out over a month, which makes the essays much easier to hand back quickly.

 If you didn’t have you current job, what else could you apply your skills to?

With some reorientation I could do pretty much all ‘graduate jobs’ that don’t require degrees in specific fields: charity work, financial services, consulting, advertising, publishing, etc. Most such jobs require skills that any good Classicist has: how to think analytically, write well, argue persuasively, work hard, learn fast, take responsibility, be creative, not let your colleagues down, etc. By this time I’m also very good at studying, so if I wanted to do something that requires further study, like being a lawyer or engineer, the retraining wouldn’t be too difficult. I could even branch out into careers that require non-academic learning, such as farming or plumbing: once you really understand how to learn fast and efficiently, you can apply those learning skills in different ways.

Did you always want to be what you are today?

Not really. I had a tough childhood and wasn’t very ambitious about what I could achieve. I wanted to be a scholar, but without fully understanding what a scholar is; it wasn’t until I got to university that I started to realise what my options really could be. If someone had said to me when I was young that eventually I would be a professor of Classics, publish ten books, travel all over giving lectures and workshops in different languages, and live in a house Oxford with a wife and a cat, I’d have been thrilled (especially about the cat), but I probably wouldn’t have entirely believed it.

Where do you hope to be in 5 years time?

I hope my current book will be finished and published, and that I’ll be in the middle of another project that’s just as good. Apart from that I’d like to be just where I am now, because this is a lovely department.

 What 3 tips would you give to someone who wants to follow a similar path?

Work really, really hard: that’s the only way to get here.

Never give up on a goal just because you haven’t got the right abilities: most abilities can be acquired if one is determined enough.

Pay close attention to reality and see things as they really are: self-deception, even if temporarily soothing, is limiting in the long run.

What to know more? Click the book for more details or visit the ancient school room website here.



What a Year!

Author: Bunny Waring.
31st December 2020

As the end of 2020 draws near it is time to take stock of all that has been survived and learnt over the last 12 months. From Brexit to COVID19, 2020 has required us all to react, adapt and rethink the way we teach, learn, communicate, organise, care and progress. Here, some of the Classics community at the University of Reading have shared their most memorable experiences.

Barbara Goff – Professor of Classics and Co-Head of Department says:

“A shout-out to the colleagues who organised our thrice-weekly coffee mornings in the first lockdown, keeping us all connected and moderately sane; to the colleagues who experimented with different Teams backdrops, keeping us highly entertained as their hair flew about into various enthralling scenes; to the cleaning staff who went above and beyond; to the support staff with whom I was suddenly having conversations about interior décor; to the brave students who suffered through meetings in my (very spacious) office with the arctic gale blowing through my (virtuously opened) window; to the students who studied my module Transformations of Helen online, contending with dodgy mics and cameras, but nonetheless reading carefully and responding critically; to the students who persisted in coming on to campus, enduring the view of me teaching in my Jimi-Hendrix-headband-visor. Here’s to slightly less embarrassment in the New Year!”

Eleanor Dickey – Professor of Classics says:

“It’s been great fun! First, all the conferences I’d agreed to go to were cancelled because of lockdown, enabling me to get to know my family again and also to do some real research. (Okay, so I still did not completely finish my book. But I tried!) Then in the autumn, I was able to continue teaching in person by switching my first-year module ‘Texts, Readers and Writers’ from the usual lecture-and-seminar format to a seminar-only format. So we were able to do all kinds of fun, interactive activities such as ethopoeia, an ancient rhetorical exercise in which students tell the story of a literary work from the perspective of one of the characters. The students became very good at this, and some of them were very creative filling in bits of the minor characters’ stories; it was lovely to hear their productions. And the MA Approaches module had 12 students, twice as many as the most I’ve ever had in it before, and every single one was a fun person to teach!”

Jackie Baines – Teaching Fellow and Admissions Tutor says:

“With the coming of online teaching due to the pandemic, came the making of screencasts for our lectures and teaching. In response to this new teaching environment, I made some screencasts to explain grammar points for the students of the beginner’s Latin language module. In Microsoft Stream, these screencasts come with automatic captioning and these captions struggle to reproduce exactly what is being said, particularly with unfamiliar Latin words. The resulting captions were some of the funniest things I have read all year. A new view of Latin 1st and 2nd declension noun endings! Below is a sample of how a few minutes of grammar were translated.

Enjoy the adventures of Sir Warham dative and others!”

·(Timing)1:22 -First attention feminine puella.
· 01:25 -Accused him to Alam genitive plural. I dated through a lie
· 01:30 -ablative por la. It is actually along a dirt poor law. Plural
· 01:35 -nouns up well, I accused of porlas genitive por la room.
· 01:41 -Dative and ablative Hoooly Screw
· 01:44 -Elise. And the second attention masculine ending in US.
· 01:49 -Sadwith nominative singular said woman accused of said, we
· 01:54 -genitive said whoa and said, whoa, same endings dative a
· 02:00 – narrative singular plural nominative said we accused of
· 02:04 – said worst genitive plural. Sir Warham Dative, and ablative
· 02:09 – serwis serwis do look at any similarities so you can see in
· 02:16 – the date of inhabited plural ISI
· 02:19 – SIS. And I asked both the 1st and 2nd declension. There is a.
· 02:25 – A similarity is there not between the genitive plural? Who
· 02:29 – are Lauren and the genitive probe Sir war room our room, or
· 02:34 – am so just be aware of that poor Lisa and a stem-nouns, so that’s
· 02:39 – hence the A in there. Also note that there are cases where there
· 02:44 – they are the same as each other, but of course the case could be
· 02:49 – different. So if you got poor
· 02:52 – lie. Could be genitive singular plural, I could be
· 02:55 – dated singer, or it could be nominative plural.
· 02:59 – In the second collection, masculine said we could be
· 03:03 – genitive singular or nominative plural, so you’ve got to lookout
· 03:08 – for those kind of differences.
· 03:11 – This week we will look at nouns which have a slightly different
· 03:14 – ending. In the second
· 03:16 – declension. But nominative singular, like we’re poor.
· 03:21 – Lee, bear again.
· 03:24 – They.
· 03:26 – Look different there, but their
· 03:28 – endings. Immediately become the same. It just depends what you
· 03:33 – and add it onto. So poor boy, poor prayer room, Prairie.
· 03:38 – Libre. A book becomes Libre Libre, so sometimes it
· 03:43 – retains the E. Sometimes it loses the E and then the
· 03:47 – important thing to note is what is this the purpose of these
· 03:52 – cases? What do they do? We’ve already seen that the nominative
· 03:56 – is for the subject of the
· 03:58 – sentence. Accused of is for the object of the sentence. The
· 04:04 – genitive is for the possessor of
· 04:07 – an object. So the goals book or the book of the girl. The
· 04:11 – girl would have to go into the genitive case.
· 04:15 – In English, the genitive is often represented by of or an
· 04:20 – apostrophe, so just watch out what’s going on there, date if
· 04:25 – it’s two or four, the word dative comes from a Latin verb,
· 04:31 – which will be looking at this week, and it becomes a learning
· 04:36 – verb to learn. Doe Dorie I give.
· 04:40 – So give two SO two or four. You’re giving a book to the girl
· 04:47 – you need to put her Twilight into the dative, where lie to
· 04:53 – the slave said. Woe to the
· 04:55 – slaves serwis. And the ablative is used for by with or from,
· 05:01 – very often with prepositions, and sometimes without
· 05:05 – prepositions. So if we’re going with a sword gladi Yo, and you
· 05:10 – need the ablative case.
· 05:14 – So that also brought in at this point are the second attention
· 05:18 – neuter nouns. The majority of endings from genitive onwards
· 05:21 – are the same as second declension masculine, but what
· 05:25 – you need to note is that in normative singular ends in, Umm.
· 05:30 – And they could have similar. Singular is the same, UM then?
· 05:36 – In the plural, Bella Bella surrendered a so there could be
· 05:40 – some confusion with other nouns. So just be careful. You will
· 05:44 – have to learn a list of neuter
· 05:46 – nouns. Sometimes that’s all you can do, or most
· 05:50 – times all you can do you have to learn the list.
· 05:54 – And finally, this week will be looking at prepositions which
· 05:59 – take the ablative, and they’ve got our AB by or from.
· 06:05 – AOX from out of so the difference between R and AB or A
· 06:10 – at X if it’s just the R or the A, The next word begins with a
· 06:16 – consonant. If the next word begins with a vowel, will have
· 06:20 – to say AB or X come means with…

Reading Ancient Schoolroom 2017

Photo: Alex Wickenden

This year’s edition of the Reading Ancient Schoolroom ran for two weeks and welcomed several hundred schoolchildren to campus. Led by a team of specially-trained volunteers, some of them Reading students and others coming from as far away as Edinburgh to participate, the children experienced first hand what life was like in a Roman school. This year there was a focus on Roman mathematics (pictured above: maths teacher Dom O’Reilly with children from Dolphin School), but children also practiced reading from papyri, writing on ostraca and tablets, using quill pens, memorizing poetry, and studying Latin and Greek the way ancient children would have studied them. They also had the opportunity to sample Roman food made by our magnificent Roman cook, Reading undergraduate Charlotte Edwards, and special object handling sessions in the Ure Museum. For more information (and lots more pictures) see https://readingancientschoolroom.com/2017-schoolroom/. Schoolroom director Professor Eleanor Dickey was interviewed about the event on UKEd chat; you can listen to the interview at https://ukedchat.com/2017/07/17/ukedpodcast-episode-12/.

Watch: Naked From the Knees Up – Ancient Latin Textbooks Rediscovered (by Prof. Eleanor Dickey)

On 8 November 2016, Prof. Eleanor Dickey gave a talk to the Roman Society entitled ‘Naked From the Knees Up – Ancient Latin Textbooks Rediscovered’. You may watch her talk here, courtesy of the Roman Society:

Reading Classics in the News

The past few months have been exciting ones for the Classics department owing to a blitz of media attention covering the publication of Professor Eleanor Dickey’s book Learning Latin the Ancient Way as well as the annual Reading Ancient Schoolroom.

It started in February with an article in the Guardian and lasted until April, when the CBC Radio Canada broadcast a half-hour interview with Professor Dickey; along the way we featured on national TV and radio as well as the Times, the Telegraph, and numerous European publications. The final tally was (as far as we know) 3 printed newspaper pieces, 11 online newspaper pieces in 6 languages, 2 national TV broadcasts, 2 BBC South TV broadcasts, and 6 radio broadcasts (4 in UK, 1 in US, 1 in Canada).

Here is the full list:

Wednesday 10th February

Thursday 11th February

Friday 12th Feburary

Saturday 13th February

Sunday 14th February

  •  BBC 1 TV, 2:24 am

Wednesday 17th February

Saturday 20 February

  •  Announcement of Naples ‘Presentazione libro’ sent out on Notiziario Italiano di Antichistica

 Monday 22nd February

Thursday 25th February

Tuesday 1st March

  •  ‘Presentazione libro’ in Naples (public event in which book was discussed by a pair of Naples Classicists; in Italian)

Monday 7th March

Friday 1st April

For more information on the Reading Ancient Schoolroom, see http://www.readingancientschoolroom.com.

Learning Latin the Ancient Way – Reading research in the Guardian

Learning Latin the Ancient Way, Reading Classics professor Eleanor Dickey’s latest book published this week by Cambridge University Press, has been reviewed in the Guardian. The review can be seen at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/10/ancient-greek-manuscripts-reveal-life-lessons-from-the-roman-empire The book explores how Greek-speaking students in the Roman empire learned Latin, using the fragments of their Latin textbooks preserved on papyri from Egypt and in medieval manuscripts. In some ways these ancient Latin learners had an experience strikingly similar to that of modern students: they used grammars, dictionaries, and commentaries; they read Cicero’s Catilinarian orations and Virgil’s Aeneid; they memorized vocabulary; they looked up the hard words and wrote translations into their Latin texts.

Prof. Dickey's most recent book: Learning Latin the Ancient Way (Cambridge, 2016)

Prof. Dickey’s most recent book: Learning Latin the Ancient Way (Cambridge, 2016)

But in other ways the ancient Latin learners had a very different experience from that of their modern counterparts. Some of these differences come from the fact that ancient learners came to Latin knowing ancient Greek rather than English. So they struggled to learn the Roman alphabet, but they had no problems with the distinction between nominative and accusative cases. Other differences come from ancient educational conventions: ancient beginners started off with bilingual texts, easy Latin accompanied by a running translation. Of course the students could not translate the Latin for themselves as a modern learner might do, since a translation was provided; instead they memorized the Latin, rather the way a student studying French today might memorize a dialogue about ordering croissants in a café in Paris.

Indeed the texts read by ancient beginners have much more in common with material read by modern French learners than with that read by modern Latin learners. Ancient students studied short dialogues and narratives about daily life: buying clothes, buying food, having lunch, borrowing money, and visiting sick friends. Of course, ancient daily life was not quite like modern daily life, so the dialogues also cover going to the public baths, winning court cases, making excuses, getting into fights, taking oaths in temples, and coming home drunk after a Roman orgy. Just like their modern counterparts, these dialogues were written to teach students about culture as well as language; therefore they offer us priceless insight into life in the Roman empire as Romans saw it.

Learning Latin the Ancient Way provides extracts from all types of ancient Latin-learning texts: bilingual dialogues, alphabets, grammars, dictionaries, annotated copies of Sallust, word-lists to Virgil, prose composition exercises, Aesop’s fables, stories about the Trojan war, letters of congratulation for sending to successful legacy hunters, an explanation of the Roman law on manumission, etc. Portions originally written in Greek have normally been translated into English, but the Latin remains in Latin; this means that modern students can experience and use these texts as their ancient counterparts would have done (or ignore the English and treat the passages like any other translation exercise). A few passages lack word division and punctuation, to make it clear what reading was really like in antiquity.

Professor Dickey hopes that her book will be used by modern Latin teachers and students (it is suitable for learners who have already done at least one year of Latin) and that it will enable modern learners to enjoy the ancient Latin-learning materials, which are now able to be used once more for their original purpose.

Copies can be purchased from Cambridge University Press (to whom Professor Dickey is very grateful for pricing the book at an affordable £18, a sharp contrast to most of her previous books): http://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/classical-studies/classical-languages/learning-latin-ancient-way-latin-textbooks-ancient-world?format=PB.

Reading Ancient Schoolroom

The Reading Ancient Schoolroom welcomed more than 100 participants to campus on 27th and 28th January. Groups from Farnborough Hill School, Leweston School, St Gabriels School, and Langley Academy, as well as numerous families and individuals, learned how to act like Roman children. Participants also read Homer from papyrus scrolls, wrote with styluses on wax-coated tablets, learned how to do mathematical calculations on an abacus and Roman counting board, wrote with reed pens and ink on ostraca, studied Latin from a textbook used by ancient Greek speakers to learn Latin, learned the Greek alphabet the way a Roman would have learned it, and recited poetry from memory. There were also opportunities to handle objects in the Ure Museum.

Participants ranged in age from 4 to 18, and all reported having a great time. Volunteers, who included numerous first-year undergraduates as well as graduate students and staff, also had terrific fun; this is good as no-one is paid for work on the schoolroom. So we are EXTREMELY grateful to all our hard-working volunteers!

More detail on the event, and more photographs, can be seen at http://readingancientschoolroom.com/2016-schoolroom/Writing 15

Congratulations to Professor Eleanor Dickey for new accolade!

Less than a month after her election as Fellow of the British Academy, Prof. Eleanor Dickey has received another prestigious honour: she has just been elected as a Fellow of the Academia Europaea.

The Academia Europaea is the European-Union equivalent of the British Academy and the Royal Society, an international learned society composed of leading experts in the physical sciences and technology, biological sciences and medicine, mathematics, the letters and humanities, social and cognitive sciences, economics and the law. It was founded in 1988 and currently has c.3000 members, drawn from across the whole European continent. Only 24 of these are UK Classicists, so Professor Dickey joins a select group.

This honour is wholly independent of the British Academy election, as each election was based on a distinct and lengthy peer-review process. The rare double honour is testimony to Professor Dickey’s standing in the international scholarly community as well as in the UK.


Prof. Eleanor Dickey to give the 2014 Gaisford Lecture

Dickey photoWe are delighted to announce that our colleague Prof. Eleanor Dickey has been invited to give the prestigious Gaisford Lecture.

She will speak on the topic of

Lucian’s Shortbread Eating Primer’: how to make fun of your language textbook

Thursday 8 May 2014, 5 pm, Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, Oxford.

Prof. Dickey will also give a lecture on the topic of

Education, Research, and Government in the Ancient Greek World

Thursday 8 May 2014, 1pm, Gresham College, London.

Both lectures are free and everyone will be welcome.