A student’s justification

I wonder if people will get used to the confused and slightly panicked look on my face that greets their question “so what’s your PhD topic?”

I have been asked it a lot this week, and my reply is usually vague and mumbled – especially when asked by a non-classicist. The problem is that I instantly feel the need to justify what I’m going to be researching. The majority of people I have been talking to at the OU’s induction events have been scientists working on climate change, space exploration, biochemistry, and such things with real-world applications. I find it hard to spin a project like mine, when the outcome will not save a single polar bear, nor find water on an asteroid, nor cure meningitis.

But I’ve realised that this is the point of doing a PhD in an arts subject. We are inherently studying stuff with a less obvious value than the sciences, but no less important to the advancement of knowledge. Ultimately everyone is studying when they are studying because they think it’s awesome, and would be doing it anyway, regardless of the outcome.

So – ask me what my PhD is on. Go ahead, I’ll tell you.

I’m looking at Roman curse tablets – these things.

ImageImage from http://curses.csad.ox.ac.uk/

They were small pieces of (usually) lead, which have been written on, and then deposited somewhere important. If you’ve ever seen HBO’s Rome then you’ve seen Servilia make one – it’s on YouTube (obligatory warning about adult language :P).

The real ones were made for a variety of reasons: cursing a thief, getting a girl to like you, securing victory for your favourite chariot racer, and so on. They touched every aspect of Roman society, but have always been considered by scholars as a superstitious, marginal practice. The aim of my PhD is to bring them into a more central place in our understanding of Roman religion, and see what they can tell us about how people thought about themselves and the world around them.

Naturally, there’s more to it than that; hopefully enough to write a thesis on or I might be a bit stuck. If you’re interested, keep an eye on this blog – I’ll write more as I go. A PhD requires justification, from beginning to end. This is just the beginning.

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One thought on “A student’s justification

  1. As a recent PhD grad in the “liberal arts” I have sympathy for your plight. Please know that what you are studying is incredibly interesting (even beyond history and archaeology). Given that I’m a Professor of Communication, I cannot help but see how this research topic is directly linked to communication practices in general (not so unlike Facebook or Twitter really…how many people do you know who write posts cursing others, sharing dreams, expressing annoyances? Maybe not exactly a like a curse tablet, but not so far off either). The need to communicate is in our core as human beings. So, from my perspective, researching historical artifacts will not only tell us a lot about a specific historical culture (i.e., Roman culture), but have the potential to teach us about human nature in general. So yes, we have advanced quite a bit technologically and need to study climate change and space exploration, but there is still quite a lot we can learn about ourselves and others from the social practices of our ancestors! I look forward to hearing more about your studies in the future. Hold that head up high. The studying of this topic will be well worth it.

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