Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bignor Roman Villa as a tutorial venue

I tutor a variety of courses for the OU. My portfolio illustrates my claim to be a tutorial jack of all trades. Currently I am teaching AA100 The arts past and present, B201 Business organisations and their environments, and U116 Environment: journeys through a changing world.

My background is eclectic. My first degree was in classics, so when the staff team for AA100 suggested field trips as a possible substitute for dayschool appearances, I thought about doing a villa. Classics is one of eight disciplines covered in AA100 and they go large on villas and leisure in the final block. So I fixed up a trip to Bignor Roman Villa, and went there to do the risk assessment visit. That was in March when the ground was muddy. The AA100 dayschool visit happened in May and was a success. I dressed in a toga (an authentic one by the way, sewn and stitched in authentic Roman Lewes, none of this cheap fancy dress rubbish). See the photos here. One of the students commented afterwards that when they first saw it, they thought it was just a gimmick but they were impressed that I used it as a teaching tool at various points during the day to illustrate how things like dress demarcate social boundaries. The toga is not designed for manual work, so anyone wearing one is marked out as above that sort of thing. Some of the students also tried it on during the day, and came to realise quickly what a pain it is to get on – another factor in it not being a manual worker's garb.

The villa has plenty of evidence about daily life for both the manual classes and the leisured. We had the opportunity as well to consider how evidence survives and is interpreted. What can you tell about Roman society from this pot, sort of thing. We were able to look at how the Romans used the landscape and the way they farmed. Interestingly, much of that area is being repopulated with vines, so we have come full circle as the Romans introduced viticulture to this country. We were able to look at mosaic techniques; I had a small mosaic set for the students to experiment with. We were able to look at manufacturing techniques and I impressed upon them how differently everything had to be done in an age with no electrical or even steam power. We looked at diet (for the upper classes fish sauce in practically everything, yuck) and farming practices.

So all in all an excellent venue for a dayschool. As one would expect. Good coffee and wonderful cake in the café too.

My next move however was serendipitous. I had a problem with the date for a tutorial for my environment class. When this problem occurred the only available alternative I had was Easter Saturday. I knew that all the colleges we use as venues would be closed, so what to do. I thought of Bignor, and we duly held a tutorial at Bignor. This was remarkably successful, although when I booked it, it hadn't occurred to me why it would be. The key factor was that we could look at the piece of land on which Bignor stands and compare two utterly different ways of relating to it – ours and the Romans'. Geologically the land between the south and north downs is very interesting. It is part of the Weald-Artois Anticline. The south downs (a few hundred yards south of Bignor) are made up of the edges of layers of terrain broken by a massive upward thrust tens of millions of years ago. The north downs have similar edges. The bulge in between was worn away and an accumulation of soil has formed rich and flat agricultural land which has been farmed continuously since before Roman times. Apart from minor changes in temperature that have affected our summers and winters, there has been hardly a visible change over two thousand years. So this was a magnificent opportunity to observe how two entirely different cultures and technologies interacted with the same piece of land.

One of the key changes happened not exactly at Bignor but east and south of it. Stane Street is a well known Roman road that went just east of Bignor from Chichester to London. In Roman times it was a very important road. Nowadays this part of it is simply not used. So what caused the change? In Roman times Chichester was an important garrison, and the road was intended to allow for the swiftest possible movement of troops and equipment to London. Since then Chichester has ceased to be strategically important, for two reasons. Firstly a gradual silting of the harbour has meant that access to all but small boats has become impractical. Secondly boats have got bigger. With advances in technology in early modern times warships in particular got so big that Chichester, even at its deepest, became useless – deeper water ports were found along the coast at Portsmouth and Southampton, which is where the main roads past Bignor now point.

It was particularly interesting to look at ways in which people in Roman Britain might have had to look after their environment despite their small numbers and relatively low impact way of life. The population of Roman Britain at the height of the occupation is estimated to have been around 3 million. That's about four times the size of the population of West Sussex today. Plenty of room then. We had a look at the furnace for the underfloor heating (used mainly in the dining room). It was a salutary reminder about conditions of life. While the family were enjoying their three or four hour meal with friends, some slave or low paid farm worker was standing possibly barefoot in freezing mud, feeding charcoal to the furnace. The evidence points to charcoal being used rather than just baulks of wood. Charcoal production itself was a big industry, demanding technical skill on the part of the burner to get the temperature of the cooking wood just right – too hot and you got ash, not hot enough and you got very hot wood, but not charcoal. The amount of heating needed meant that an awful lot of wood got used to make the charcoal, and that meant that the wood growing round about had to be replaced if the workers were not to go more and more miles to find it. So the basic art of coppicing – sustainable management of stands of trees - was organised, and ensured the villa owners a plentiful supply of heat when necessary.

We also considered windows as a key feature in the relationship of people and nature. Having looked at the basic Roman art of underfloor central heating, we considered what happened as far as light and holes in the wall were concerned. The question is what did Romans put in their windows. They did have glass, but it was translucent rather than transparent – it admitted light but not vision. They might have had glass in the important rooms in the house – the dining room - but probably not elsewhere. Shutters were employed, but otherwise it was just open air. People were simply used to much greater variation in their living temperature, and having no, or very little control over it. That kind of thing makes for a very different relationship to nature than what we have now.

I wasn't sure whether taking my business students there would make sense, but Bignor is after all a business, and in fact currently has plans for an expansion of the operation with a new visitor and education centre. (Being private ,it hasn't been squashed by a lack of public money.) So I took them there. I gave them half an hour to look round the site, so that they could understand what the business was, and then we had a presentation from the site manager, Lisa, about the new business plans. We had a discussion about what they had learned and what they could see of the business. The most fundamental part – what does the business actually do – was one of the most interesting. It is easy to think of the villa as a historical site, in other words, its historical nature forms its business. But in terms of what people actually come for, it makes more sense in many ways to think of it as a small part of Britain's very large leisure sector. That alters the way you look at what the business needs to offer in order to be successful, because you look at what sort of things people expect to find when they visit a site. It's about “experience”, not just something to see, which forms the focus, but how people are treated while they are there. That gave rise to some fascinating discussion. It related neatly to the course theme “ways of seeing”.

I was then really cruel. I divided them into groups. I gave each group a theory out of those we had worked on over the previous few weeks, and I gave them the task of applying that theory to the business, and coming up with ideas for business plans based on their findings. (One of the theories was isomorphism - perhaps that was a bit over the top.) They spent about half the tutorial on that, an hour and a half altogether, while sampling the café's delicious coffee and cake. At the end of it, all the groups had some clear and pointed ideas for how to develop the business, but many of them said how difficult it had been to apply the theory. I thought they were right on target. They've been working through a variety of theories and a variety of approaches to the business world and their own experience, and about now is time they were getting into applying theories thoroughly to real cases. It's not easy (it is after all a level two university course), but it does repay effort.

The toga seemed suitable attire for teaching B201

One of my students overheard a visitor say to his partner, "Hey, there's a bloke in a toga!!" which gave rise to some discussion about the sales potential of dressing up....

So there you have it. One venue. Three entirely different groups of students, three entirely different subjects. And all found something of value. And great cake.

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