Dr Elizabeth Gloyn, Department of Classics, has recently appeared as a talking head in a new Netflix series Myths and Monsters.
We caught up with her to find out what it was like to have taken part in the series and her motivation behind writing her latest book.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you worked at Royal Holloway?
I’ve been based in the Department of Classics since 2013; I came here following two years as a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity. Before that I did my PhD at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. I was offered PhD funding there on very short notice, and I wanted to do it, so moving to America was a bit of a no-brainer! However, I’d always planned on coming home, so I was glad to get my first academic post in the UK system.
2. Could elaborate on your role within the Department of Classics?
I’m a Lecturer in Classics, and I specialise in Roman Literature, so I spend most of my time mentally hanging around in the first century AD. I teach Seneca, who is my main research interest, alongside authors like Petronius, Pliny and Ovid, and I teach courses in our Latin language sequence. I’m also the department’s Director of Postgraduate Taught Studies, so that means keeping an eye on our five Masters programmes - our three intercollegiate MAs offered in partnership with KCL and UCL, and our two in-house MRes programmes which are more specialised and draw upon the department’s expertise in classical reception and rhetoric.
In December I attended the postgraduate graduation, which was the last big responsibility associated with the role that was new to me, and it was great to celebrate our students’ successes. Although we only have a small number of PGT students, PGT directors deal with things that would usually be split between several admin roles for the undergraduates; that makes it a good way of getting a thorough understanding of College regulations very quickly! It’s been quite intense, but the small number of students makes it manageable and it’s lovely to see students who are so interested in the subject producing such successful Masters work. Getting to see our own undergraduates continue their intellectual development is also really rewarding.
3. We hear that you will be starring in a new Netflix series! Could you tell us a bit more about it and how it came about?
I’m one of a number of academic consultants on a series called Myths and Monsters which was released on Netflix on Friday 23 December. It consists of six episodes, looking at shared sources of myths across ancient cultures and where stories come from. The production team came across my research interests on the College website; I’m currently working on a book on the use of the Classical monster in modern popular culture, which feeds into the Department’s Centre for the Reception of Greece and Rome.
I found it really exciting to be able to use the research I was doing for my own book in the episodes. Monsters hook everyone in, so being involved in this project and seeing the reaction to it has been really rewarding. People have seen it trending on Netflix, which is very much about offering accessible interesting content, and are getting excited about it. It’s nice to know that my research has that broad appeal and will attract a wide audience. The series has to negotiate a fine line between information and entertainment and the content is quite intellectually rigorous. I’ve been brave enough to watch three episodes so far, and it’s fascinating how the series editors are balancing story telling with academic expertise.
4. Could you tell us a bit about your research interests and any research you are currently working on?
The monster book tries to come up with a model of what the ancient monster is doing in the modern world, and asks what cultural work it’s doing. I also have a number of smaller projects I’d like to finish off, such as article about Seneca, fatherhood and rulership, and thinking about gendered forms of knowledge in the Priapea, a collection of poems once attributed to Virgil in honour of Priapus, the Roman god of fertility. There’s some very interesting stuff going on about the nature of knowledge and who knowledge belongs to in those poems, which I don’t think anyone has touched upon before, and I have a conference paper I’d like to work up into something more substantial.
I’m also thinking about gendered space and female characters in Roman drama. Seneca not only wrote a great deal of philosophy but also composed plays. His body of tragedies are the most complete examples of this genre from the Roman world – pretty much everything else is fragments. He uses tragedy to think about his philosophy, and approaching the tragedies from the perspective of thinking about space should lay the foundation for the next book, which will hopefully be about how Seneca’s philosophy of the family turns up in his tragedies and how it changes our understanding of those texts. I’m coming at it from quite an unusual perspective by combining my expertise in the social history, literary analysis, and philosophy, bringing it all into a sensible synthesis, and adding a great dose of feminism. My training leads me to ask different questions to the those asked by my colleagues who focus on one particular aspect of Seneca’s work, and adds a rich voice to the conversation.
5. Do you have any interesting hobbies or interests?
I am a trained classical singer, but it’s just the occasional bout in the Church choir since I had my son two and a half years ago. I’m looking forward to getting back to it at some stage. I was brought up in a very musical household and the musical tradition of the Church of England has always been part of our family life. It’s a rather lovely thing and its part of my identity.
6. What’s your favourite thing about working at Royal Holloway and within the Department of Classics?
Having worked at much bigger universities, I really love how comparatively small we are. I love how you can stroll into Crosslands, and see members of the Senior Management team getting a coffee, which is so different to other places where I’ve worked. We’re not hugely hierarchical compared to other places I’ve worked - of course there are problems, particularly with the challenges that higher education institutions are facing at the moment, but if I’ve got concerns it feels as if there’s a better chance that they will be heard.
One of the nice things about being Director of Postgraduate Taught Studies is that I meet colleagues in different committees and then meet them again when I’m walking to classes – we’re small enough to get to know people in a meaningful way. It’s a really nice environment, and it does feel as if we’re all invested and want to do the best we can. It reflects on the way that we engage with our students, and it makes a difference to how we, and the students, feel about the place. Another factor for me is working within an institution that is part of a tradition of education for women. For me this is really important, and continuing that legacy of women’s involvement in Classics means it’s is the right place for me to be.
7. Who inspires you inside of the organisation? Who inspires you outside of the organisation?
There are a number of female professors at Royal Holloway that inspire me. They are at the top of their game doing excellent work, they’re respected inside and outside of College, and balancing caring responsibilities. For someone like me, an early career researcher, having people who have been consistent, innovative, active and present in Arts and Humanities makes a difference to what you think you can do. It’s also a reminder that in ten, fifteen years, I want to be someone that people look at and see as a leader in the field. Their presence is also helpful for correcting some toxic assumptions about academia – they’re a reminder that a successful and brilliant academic career doesn’t happen overnight.
During my PhD in the States, I was lucky enough to get to know several women who have really raised the profile of feminism in Classics, troublemakers who are now in well-established positions, continuing to question, push and eye open. I am so grateful to have met these women and to be part of that network. I should also mention Sara Ahmed, who has worked on asking the difficult questions and not letting the status quo of academia sit comfortably. She does ground-breaking and inspirational work, and really challenges all of us in the field to do better.
8. You may have seen our latest recruitment campaign, ‘Find your why’. We are interested to find out what Royal Holloway has helped you to discover about yourself…
What it has made me realise is how much I value being in a community that talks with itself, that acts as a collaborative operation, where everybody has something to contribute and which works best when everybody pulls their weight. I want to make a difference, and I hadn’t realised until I got to Royal Holloway how dependent that is on the place that you are. On a day-to-day level you always make a difference to your students through your teaching, but it matters to be part of the institution’s conversation about improving things. I’m happiest when I think that everybody’s got a stake in making things work as best they can; I find that very important both in terms of job satisfaction, and also in feeling that what I’m doing has a point. That makes me feel good about coming into work every day.