February 28, 2017, by Will Leveritt
The Story of an Inaugural, by Professor Helen Lovatt
Text by Helen Lovatt
To view a recording of Prof. Lovatt’s inaugural lecture, please click here.
It is traditional for academics promoted to a professorship to give an ‘inaugural lecture’ in which they present their research to the wider community of the university and general public, discuss the direction of the subject area and pay homage to those who have taught and supported them. On the 15th of February, I did mine. It’s quite a tall order: how to sum up my career so far, give an idea where I want to go, and say something about Classics as a discipline? The first inaugural I went to was that of the professor with whom I lodged in my year as a temporary lecturer at the University of Keele. Miriam David was at the time just starting as Professor of Education, and had worked throughout her life on qualitative educational research. At the time I was awaiting my viva and she was studying the PhD viva as phenomenon. She presented her inaugural as a life story, and reflected on her own education as a microcosm of the field of Education. All her family were there, lifelong friends, students, colleagues: it was strange but moving to watch from the sidelines.
Little did I think that I would have to do it myself one day. I picked the theme of ‘Epic Journeys’, partly because I wanted to bring together my very wide-ranging interests, and partly because the journey is a frequently-used image for changing lives and times. In order to continue having a career I have had to accept a long commute and substantial periods of time away from home and the kids. This is not unusual in academia where it is not easy to choose where you get a job, particularly Classics (there are only about 28 Classics departments in the country). On the one hand this means I am not always there in person, but I have found ways of supporting, communicating and working with both family and colleagues at a distance. There is an element of escape at either end, but keeping my work life and family life radically separate in this way also allows me to concentrate more fully on each in the appropriate location.
Yesterday’s inaugural was particularly delightful because family and friends from the other side of my life came together with colleagues, students and friends in Nottingham to celebrate. I began with Statius and a bit of dramatic Latin, and moved on through the little known Orphic Argonautica, to think about how gender affects the way people approach travel (in ancient epic, but implicitly today), to some favourite modern receptions of epic journey, in C. S. Lewis and Terry Pratchett, bringing together the popular and the obscure, the comic and the tragic. My overall point was that Classics (and Classical Reception Studies) is itself a sort of journey in which we encounter many different cultures, learn about ourselves and others. I wanted to emphasise the importance of helping people, understanding people and being open to difference.
I was touched by the number of people who came to hear what I had to say, and all the different enthusiastic responses I’ve had, from eminent colleagues, to formerly silent students. Even my fourteen year old son declared it ‘good’, which I felt was high praise. I feel immensely lucky to be part of an institution that supports and enables the humanities and women in academia, and to be part of a community of enthusiasts in Nottingham and around, people who love the Classical worlds and come together in curiosity and openness to learn from and with each other. Thank you also to everyone who has sent good wishes and if anyone would like to watch (some of) the lecture, you can do so here.