Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge and a fellow of Newnham College. She is the Classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement, and author of the blog “A Don’s Life”, which appears in The Times as a regular column and is now available on Kindle. Her frequent media appearances and sometimes controversial public statements have led to her being described as “Britain’s best-known classicist”.
Her day involves biking round Cambridge, the BBC, Roman empire, not being a fan of Plato, and wondering why time has to be wasted researching research, plus a ginger beer instead of wine, which doesn’t go down too well
6am The alarm goes off – a bit over optimistically. I turn on Radio 4 and snooze till the 6.30 news, trying to pretend it’s a “lie in”.
6.30am Cat fed, coffee made, I’m sitting at the kitchen table dealing with the emails that have come in overnight. Sadly, email doesn’t stop with the British working day, and stuff from the US streams in overnight. I’ve been involved in an exhibition in California on ancient Pompeii, and we’re now planning the visitor audio-guide, by email. (The husband is understandably a bit grumpy that all I’ve done since I got up is stare at a screen).
7.10am There are other tasks that need shifting quickly – and some that can’t interfere with the “day job”. I’ve been making a series of documentaries for the BBC about ordinary people’s lives in ancient Rome, and we’re getting the voice-over commentary sorted. Every word counts, and it goes backwards and forwards between me and the director. It’s got to be absolutely correct – but not boring! We’re on something like the 10th version.
7.40am A night-owl student has emailed an essay (on the economy of the Roman empire) at 3am. I try to make all students get their work in by 6pm the evening before their supervision, but it never works. I read it quickly now (she’s written 5,234 words, my computer tells me!) so I can think out what will be most useful to discuss with her later today.
8.10am I have to be on the move. I don’t have breakfast (except for industrial quantities of coffee), and have got showering and dressing down to a speedy art, so I can check the email again and be on my bike for the Faculty of Classics where I do most of my teaching. It takes me about 15 minutes to get there – cycling along one of the prettiest routes to work that you could hope for.
8.45am I dump my things in my office, pick up anything waiting for me in my pigeon-hole (usually that’s more late essays that didn’t arrive electronically), and then I’m off to teach.
9am This morning I’m doing ancient Greek with two groups of students, for an hour each. We’re reading some of the philosophy of Plato, a book called The Crito. I’m not a huge fan of Plato – but the teaching is great. These smart students have all kinds of tricky questions about how to translate it, and what it all really means. The Crito is about whether you have a duty to obey the laws even if you believe they are wrong. It’s a question that speaks to them.
11am Straight after the Greek, I have an hour with a graduate student who’s just finishing her PhD. I’ve been reading her last chapter, and think it’s pretty much ready to be examined. We discuss career options, in a gloomy job market for academics.
Noon Then I have an appointment with a student from London. He’s thinking about a post-graduate course in Cambridge, working with me. So I guess we’re checking each other out a bit. I introduce him to some students who can fill him in on the student side of things – while I go to the common room for a coffee with a colleague visiting from France.
1pm I don’t do lunch any more (that sure helps you lose weight). So I squeeze in an hour in the library, checking out some new material on Roman slavery for a lecture I’m giving tomorrow.
2pm I’m chairing a meeting of our Faculty’s Research Planning Committee. Every four or five years there’s a major government assessment of the research we’ve been doing (now euphemistically called the “Research Excellence Framework”) and this takes months to prepare for (months we might better spend on research itself, I can’t help thinking). Today we’re discussing how to demonstrate the wider “impact” of our research. I hope my TV series will be useful here!
3.30pm Now it’s time for supervisions, with groups of two or three students discussing their written work (whether handed in promptly or not!). It’s one of the jewels of the Cambridge system, where you really make students think. I have three groups, each supposed to be an hour, on a range of subjects . . . the Roman economy, the sculpture of the Parthenon (we have some fierce arguments about whether the Elgin Marbles should go back to Greece) and democracy in ancient Athens (how much like ours was it?). I run over time, as usual.
6.55pm There’s post and the essays for tomorrow (most of them) waiting in my pigeon-hole. I pick these up, and bike home.
7.10pm Normally I would have a large glass of wine with the husband at this point. But we are “on Lent” (for health not religious reasons), so we rather miserably pour ourselves a pint of ginger beer, and get supper, before getting down to work again.
8.15pm First it’s an hour or so ploughing through the emails I didn’t catch during the day, then reading the students’ work for tomorrow. Radio 4 is on in the background.
11.30pm Blogging time. For the last six years or so, I’ve posted a blog twice a week for The Times Literary Supplement – giving a glimpse of university life, plus plenty of wry reflections on the ancient Greeks and Romans. I tend to write these late at night, but I’ve learnt not to actually press the “publish” button till the next morning. You’d be amazed how the rate of spelling mistakes and outrageous indiscretions increases after midnight.
12.45am Email check, a snatch of the early hours BBC 1 repeats (the ones they put out with sign language for the deaf), then bed.