Week six: Dispatches from Rome

This week’s update is a special one. We’re hearing from Professor Diana Spencer, who is currently in Rome on research leave before resuming her position as Dean of LANS in the next academic year. Here Diana gives an insight into her fascinating project: Out of Place.

As every LANS student knows, not only is setting up a new research project a significant intellectual challenge, the complexities of an interdisciplinary project are myriad. But the excitement of undertaking research remains a genuine motivation for me (you can see the things I’ve been publishing over the past years if you check out my profile), and I believe it’s important that our students see us academics working on original research as well as on communicating our expertise. After six years without research leave, this year I’ve entrusted LANS to Julia and the team, and am beginning something new!

Pyramid and windowWhat can you see? How many different pasts and presents? What stories? (looking south-ish, from Piramide, Rome)

The start of my sabbatical was taken up with tidying up the completion of my last major piece of research: i.e. copyediting (that’s the final stage a manuscript goes through before checking the proofs, doing the index, and publication) my book, called Language and Authority in de Lingua Latina: Varro’s Guide to Being Roman. It’ll be published in spring 2019, it’s about 150,000 words long (plus bibliography!) and has taken me 6 years to get to this stage! If you’re interested in how language and culture intersect with politics, imperialism, and identity, you might want to see how I’ve traced those themes for Rome in the first century BCE.

I also spent a week in October working with graduate students from around the world as part of a PhD workshop in association with the University of Oslo, at the Norwegian Institute in Rome. For this year I’m based in Rome, and am lucky to have great library environments with exciting interdisciplinary communities of scholars to work with, such as the British School at Rome, and the American Academy in Rome.

My new research project, which I’ve called (for now) Out Of Place, investigates how and when and why certain kinds of ancient Roman experience of place remain accessible and intelligible to people today, and what this might mean for us, our understanding of human nature, and our ability to engage meaningfully with the past. In a nutshell, this means exploring what is essentially the same and different for a Roman citizen 2,000 years ago, (for instance) walking through a forest, and you or me following a similar path; and I’m asking how do the chronologically and linguistically different ways in which those strolls are described shed light on big questions of humanity and environmental experience in the anthropocene.

Perfection brings destructionWhen a Latin text turns English, lights up in neon, what difference does it make? (Ovidio in Mostra, Rome 2018)

This is a huge topic, and sits across various disciplinary boundaries including neuroscience, ecolonguistics, human geography, object-oriented ontology, discourse analysis, and psychology. As a classicist, I can’t be an expert in all of them, so I’m using this semester to develop a preliminary bibliography, to put together a loose/informal advisory group from a range of disciplines, and to start to write some short case studies (ideally I’ll complete one “theory” case study and one “evidence” case study by January 2019). 

RuinsArranged? By whom? Why? When? (beneath the Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio, Rome)

My expertise is in literary-cultural analysis, and so my primary evidence base is Latin texts. One of my current tasks is to narrow down the materials to a manageable but still interesting group, using authors who take different perspectives. I’m focusing at present on prose texts, and texts with a “didactic” or dialogic quality. I’m also exploring the limits of what can constitute “place” for the purposes of the project — at the moment I’m including only spaces whose experience exhibits interactive qualities in contact with human or animal occupation.

Projection onto architectureRecognise this Roman building? (Solid Light show, 2018)

So this semester much of my work is investigative, and speculative, but I hope to be moving more into defined case studies and writing by spring 2019! If anyone has questions, or wants to know more, I’ll be in Birmingham for a few days in the last week of term – Mary Ann can find you a slot in my diary ☺

You’ll find me on twitter [@dianajspencer] if you fancy seeing what I’m up to on a day-to-day basis…


We look forward to hearing how Diana’s project progresses!