This week I’ve completed my service as a Judge on the Classics and Archaeology Panel at the Undergraduate Awards (I’ll be carefully avoiding spoilers, because the names of the winners aren’t due to be announced for another few days!).
It’s been a really interesting experience, not least because it’s encouraged me to question what I assume when I hear the words ‘undergraduate essay’. Some of the essays I read over the summer – sent from universities all over the world – did not at all fit my expectations.
I know what a top-scoring undergraduate essay looks like: I’ve read a lot of them over the last two decades, and written a few myself. A great undergraduate essay answers the question smoothly, incorporating all of the expected material as well as one or two unexpected extras. It has sound referencing and a thoughtful conclusion. It uses a judicious selection of primary material, discussed with insight; it covers the relevant secondary source debates and takes a position in relation to them.
But some of the essays I read weren’t like that. Some were powerful and passionate, driven not so much by the need to answer the question as by the desire to make a point and challenge perceptions. Others were highly innovative, leveraging the student’s own background (gender, ethnicity, experience) to find a new angle on an old question. A few were structured like a dissertation, with chapters and a contents page, setting out a nuanced argument based on a significant body of primary evidence. In some cases, only a bit more work would be needed to make the essays into publishable journal articles.
What impressed me most was the way these undergraduates were taking on received ideas with energy, conviction and a strong belief that they had something to contribute to the debate. It’s easy sometimes, as a tutor, to drift into the habit of thinking that an undergraduate degree is a sort of apprenticeship, a time for learning and acquiring formal skills which might form the foundation for more creative work later on. Judging the Undergraduate Awards has reminded me that students don’t have to wait until an MA or a PhD to find their voices, or to challenge authority with a powerful idea.
If you’d like to know more about the Undergraduate Awards, here’s the link; and for OU students, here’s a guidance sheet I’ve put together.
This week’s links from around the internet
From Classical Studies Support
One of last year’s Highly Commended entrants talks about the Undergraduate Awards – Classical Studies Support
Roman gold in a theatre – The Local
On Greenland ice cores – Massive Science
Anointing antiquities in Athens – DW
A Greek altar in Russia – TASS
Experiencing the loss of antiquities in Brazil – Society for Classical Studies
Tourism in Syria – The Media Line
Encountering the past in Athens – The Guardian
Comment and opinion
Madeline Miller on Circe – Elle
Being a Jew in the Roman Empire – The Daily Beast
Talking about Legonium – Antipodean Odyssey
Influential Roman women – History Extra
Myth in Assassin’s Creed – Ancient Origins
Sulpicia the reader – Lugubelinus
A Day in the Life of a Classicist – Society for Classical Studies
Learning about Digital Humanities – Classical Fix
Greek female master potter – Science
Pliny’s ghost story – Eagles and Dragons
Thucydides and Spike Milligan – Sphinx
The Roman invasion that didn’t happen? – Daily Mail
Organising Homeric armies – Ancient World Magazine
The past is another country – Le Temps Revient [and I already have the Loeb-sized pockets!]
Greek ‘facts’ – History Extra
Using new methods to see inside scrolls – Mental Floss
Sappho and sexuality – Classical Wisdom Weekly
On the influence of ‘Reginaldus’ Foster – In Media Res
Attending Gladiator School in Rome – The Telegraph
Poetry and Barbarians – The History Girls
Pronouncing botanical Latin – The Guardian
Visiting Morocco – A Don’s Life
Hercules, zombies and the moon – Ancient Blogger
Mark Zuckerberg on Augustus and world peace – CNBC
More Morocco – A Don’s Life
Seneca, Trump and opting out – Eidolon
On scientists and the Odyssey – Forbes
Podcasts, video and other media
Discussing the Iliad – In Our Time
Making haste slowly – Ataraxia Alpha
Talking about Clodia – Emperors of Rome
Poor Laocoon – Ivy Crowned
Thinking about Classics and the alt-right – History Talk
On fathers, sons and the Odyssey – The Art of Manliness
Rome and rhetoric – Interventions
Was Sappho a woman? – Gresham Lectures
On Greek Epic – Ancient Greece Declassified
Alexander’s logistics – Kings & Generals
Antigone and feminism – BBC Ideas
3D scanning of Athens – BBC Two
The financial benefits of OU study – Wonkhe
2 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Judging the Undergraduate Awards”
I like your take on revisiting the ideas on marking essays. As someone who always tended to run off along a narrow idea path and try to be passionate about where it was leading ( often not leaving myself room to u-turn!) it is refreshing to read your view, and I thought this week would be all about Mark Zuckerberg looking to Augustus for answers to Facebooks problems!
Well, I can’t say I wasn’t tempted, Neil: I love it when Augustus makes headlines! But it’s been interesting for me to see how undergraduates from other countries manage to combine their own ‘narrow path’ with their institutional requirements, to produce some really exceptional work. Lots to think about…!