Staff Interviews

Dr Katherine McDonald on the Women’s Classical Committee UK, her current research into ancient linguistics and her career as a Classicist (31st Oct. 2018)

Dr Katherine McDonald joined the Classics and Ancient History Department at the University of Exeter in 2016, drawn by the desire to bring “something new” to the department, especially given her niche specialism. Stating her admiration of the Classics department, Dr McDonald noted that she particularly enjoyed working alongside Elena Isayev: “She’s really knowledgeable about the history and archaeology, so she and I are interested in some of the same sources, but we look at them from completely different angles.”

Dr McDonald studied Classics as an Undergraduate and Graduate at Pembroke College, Cambridge, but her interest in ancient linguistics was piqued from a young age. She joked that her Latin teacher, when quizzed on the intricacies of Virgil, stated it was “probably because of the Greek”, having only studied Latin. This left Dr McDonald with the belief Greek held all the answers.

Dr McDonald reflected fondly on the positive reinforcement she received from her undergraduate dissertation supervisor, Olga Tribulato, and others, and that their support around her led to her career in Classics: “I had already known I was really interested in linguistics and the lecturers I had really had a big influence on me, particularly when I came to do a dissertation. Olga Tribulato, was the first person that said to me, “have you considered graduate study and staying for a masters?”.

In her research, Dr McDonald retains her specialist interest in linguistics, currently working on a project entitled ‘Connectivity and competition: multilingualism in ancient Italy 800-200BC’, for which she has secured the ‘Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Early Career Leadership Fellowship’ for 2018-2020. The focus of the project is thinking about multilingualism in ancient Italy, comparing different regions and considering how languages interact in those different regions:

“I’m hoping to compare how we get evidence of multilingualism in cities and urban sites, versus non-urban sites, such as sanctuary sites which are in the middle of nowhere – they’re not places where people live, so we get very different use of language in those places. I think what I enjoy in this work is that it draws not only on linguistics but on archaeology and history, and hopefully it’s something of interest to people working in a lot of different fields.”

Dr McDonald noted that her work was still in the early stages of research but that it was going very well so far!

In addition, Dr McDonald is a founding member of the Women’s Classical Committee (WCC) UK. She emphasised the committee’s dedication to raising equality and diversity within Classics. Dr McDonald went on to state that anyone can become a member of the progressive committee, including students and all genders, and that they do a lot more than promote equality within Classics! The committee also stages ‘wiki edit-athons’ – events in which members create or add to Wikipedia pages of female Classicists:

“Less than 1 in 6 of the biographies on Wikipedia are about women, and only 7% of the biographies of Classicists are about women.”

Shocking statistics. From our own department, the WCC team has added to the pages of Rebecca Langlands and Lynette Mitchell. Dr McDonald spoke extremely positively on the Classics Department at Exeter’s company of lecturers:

“We are lucky at Exeter that our department is so balanced, in both staff and students, so I think here we can feel a little bit insulated from that problem, but at other universities it can feel more marked, where the senior Classicists are much more likely to be male.”

To find out more on the WCC’s extremely positive work, follow the link below! If you want to get involved with a wiki edit-athon, the WCC provides training and you can keep up-to-date with future (and past) edit-athons by following #wccwiki on Twitter!

In some slightly less academic questions, I asked Dr McDonald which Classical figure she would bring to the modern day and how they might fare. Dr McDonald answered Lucretius, emphasising her interest in his innovative literature from a young age. She also believed that he would fare well:

“He’s not afraid of death so I don’t think he’s afraid of time travel either! He wouldn’t be fazed; he’d just be interested in our society, so he’d be fun to talk to.”

Further, when asked about advice she would give to students, Dr McDonald replied that she would encourage them to ask questions, whenever they are in doubt, emphasising her dislike of questions which are prefaced with ‘I think this is a stupid question, but…’:

“99.9% of the time they say something very sensible and appropriate to the situation. I try and encourage people to say what they’re thinking, if they think something about an ancient source is strange or weird or doesn’t quite make sense, it usually is something we should be talking about and asking questions about.”

Dr McDonald continued that all academics have felt nervous and unconfident in their ideas at some stage, but that asking questions and learning more is just part of the process!

Finally, I can reveal that Dr McDonald does indeed intend to go to the Classics Christmas Ball! She, in fact, already has her dress sorted – and we can’t wait to see her there!

Holly Brown and Josh Werrett


Feel free to browse the staff interviews undertaken by the Classics Society in the 2014/15 academic year, :

Dr Claire Holleran:

Dr Gabriele Galluzzo:

Dr Sharon Marshall:

Professor Lynette Mitchell:

(Note the 2018/19 interviews will be written not recorded)

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