How my training in Classics helps my work as a journalist

By Juliette Harrisson

I am a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History, with three degrees relating to the ancient world (BA in Ancient History, MA in Myth, PhD in Classics). I am also a freelance journalist, writing primarily for website Den of Geek (you know all those statistics about how many people have to work lots of part-time jobs to generate a living wage due to the recession/economic downturn/word-to-describe-utter-financial-meltdown-of-the-week? That’s me!). As I’ve started to do more and more work as a journalist, I’ve been very pleased to find that all those years of university weren’t wasted, as my training in the humanities (specifically Classics) has proved to be an enormous help in the world of journalism.

I work in arts and entertainment journalism, writing about entertainment and culture (primarily film, television and popular literature). One of the mainstays of entertainment journalism is interviews with actors, writers and directors, and these are conducted in various forms. Some interviews are one-on-one, whether it’s a long face-to-face chat, a telephone interview or a brief few minutes as part of a press junket. Other interviews and chats with the people behind films and TV programmes save time by addressing a group of journalists at once, either a small group in a roundtable discussion or a large group in a big Q&A session or press conference.

Nothing is better preparation for a roundtable interview than attending and participating in seminars at university. To take part in a roundtable discussion, you need to pay attention to what others are saying, consider what the answers to other journalists’ questions have revealed and most importantly, you have to have mastered the art of polite butting in. Whereas in a bigger Q&A or press conference, questioners will raise their hands and wait to be called on by the chair, in a small roundtable interview, people will jump in with a question whenever they have one, and if you want to drill the actors, writers and creators on the aspect of the show you’re most interested in, you need to be able to get in there. If you interrupt and talk over everyone else, of course, you will not get a very favourable response, but if you’re too shy, you won’t be able to get a word in edgeways.

(It is, of course, possible to simply listen and report the responses to other people’s questions, and in a larger Q&A with a big audience, this may be the only realistic option. However, it’s important to be able to ask your own questions in a small Q&A because different publications need different information. Imagine writers from a fashion magazine, a tabloid newspaper, a TV guide and a science fiction and fantasy magazine all sitting down to interview an actor about a science fiction show. The fashion magazine will want details of the costumes, the tabloid will want personal stories, the TV guide will need general information about the show and its intended audience, while only the science fiction and fantasy magazine is likely to be interested in whether or not the main character would be able to defeat Captain Kirk in a fist-fight).

While I was doing my MA at the University of Bristol, all of us MA students were instructed to attend the weekly departmental research seminars, and once there, we were positively encouraged (read: ordered!) to ask questions. This was a terrifying experience; we all felt that we knew nothing compared to the veteran scholars also attending these seminars, and we were terrified of asking something that would make us look stupid. It was only through attending and forcing myself to ask questions, even though my hand was shaking as I nervously held it up and I had to concentrate fiercely on every word, that I gained the confidence needed to ask whatever you need to ask, and to understand that there are no stupid questions. (You also learn how to disguise or excuse potentially daft questions; the phrase ‘This is really a question coming out of total ignorance, but…’ is by far the best way to ask something that may sound terribly obvious to a specialist in the field).

While doing my PhD at the University of Birmingham, in addition to attending departmental research seminars, I also participated in the department’s postgraduate forum. This gave me invaluable experience in presenting, dealing with questions on my own papers, chairing and joining in a conversation without being (too) rude. The more informal nature of the postgraduate forum meant that, although sessions were chaired and questioners usually raised their hands, sometimes a more lively and free-wheeling discussion would break out. By interrupting, talking over and generally annoying my friends (who forgave me, I hope), I learned how to participate in free discussions like this in a professional manner, making myself heard without making myself too difficult to put up with.

Without all those years of training, I would have been far too terrified to walk into a small roundtable interview and ask my own questions. I remember how much of a fraud I felt when I first started to open my mouth at Bristol’s departmental seminars, one of the youngest people there with two degrees less than most of the others. Bristol taught me that my opinion was just as valid as anyone else’s regardless of age or experience, and that’s why I was able to walk into my first roundtable interview and speak up, even though I once again felt like a complete fraud, surrounded by much more experienced journalists. Birmingham taught me the art of being heard without being obnoxious, which is what gave me the confidence to get my questions in there. And it was thanks to my experiences at both institutions, and years of ridiculous questions on my part, that I felt assured that honestly, the worst that can happen is that you look a bit silly for five minutes, then everyone forgets about it – so go ahead and ask the potentially odd question if that’s what you need to know. No-one remembers the time I mistakenly got the idea that Diotima was actually supposed to be at the all-male discussion in Plato’s Symposium except me, and more importantly, no one cares!

I’ve talked mostly about my postgraduate experience here, but an undergraduate degree in the humanities provides lots of valuable experience as well. Most institutions hold research seminars that are open to all, so undergraduates, if you’re interested in either postgraduate work or a related field like journalism, go along and join in! It’s pant-wettingly terrifying to ask your first question of a professional at a research seminar, but the experience is invaluable. And training in humanities subjects like Classics helps in other ways as well. I’m a critic and features writer, and I know that it’s my years of pulling apart primary sources every which way looking for new angles, new perspectives and new arguments about them that have trained my brain to see the possibilities for discussion in the simplest of stories. Thinking of interview questions is also harder than it looks – so the more time you spend asking questions in lectures, seminars, conferences and so on, at whatever level, the better prepared you are to come up with enough interesting questions to fill a half-hour one-on-one interview. Even the specific subject matter of Classics degrees is occasionally useful, considering how many film and television writers like to cite Greek tragedy or Jungian archetypes as their inspiration – but more importantly, it’s the skills developed in the course of studying Classics that have helped me make the move into journalism.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance journalist and part-time lecturer for Newman University and the Open University. She blogs about Classical reception in popular culture at Pop Classics and she also writes for Den of Geek and Doux Reviews.


About The Secretary

The Secretary acts as secretary to the CA Council and other committees, runs the CA office and handles all queries from members and non-members alike. She likes tea, Greek history and Marmite on toast.
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