I’ve been reflecting on teaching recently, a combination of the start of term (and a fresh batch of undergrad rookies), preparing to submit an application for Fellowship to the HEA, and writing cover letters.
While the teaching of my BA wasn’t bad, it was largely traditional. There were some wonderful outlying seminars (predominately taught by Jane Griffiths, who was the entire Classical Studies programme when I began by degree), but it mostly followed the ‘canonical method’: lectures, seminars mainly consisting of group discussion with ‘reporting back’ at the end. The first seminars I taught, when still an undergraduate myself, followed the same pattern. I didn’t think much about teaching method or how and why I should or could change this ‘tried and true’ formula.
Fast-forward many years, the award of three degrees, and many more hours of leading seminars. Last week my two-weeks-into-uni ‘Intro to Ancient History’ classes wrote newspaper articles about Greek tyrants using select bits of Herodotos as sources. I was very open with the style, format, and perspective they took, and specified they should be around 400 words in length. These were done in groups, ranging from 2 to 5 people in size, and students were able to self-select into the group they wanted to (we focused on Periander, Polycrates, and Peisistratos). I suggested a few things, but largely left the groups to their own devises, for around 30 minutes. These obviously weren’t meant as assessable pieces of writing. The range of responses I got back was astounding! Daily Mail-style sensationalist exposé, Onion-esque political satire, serious political journalism, a BuzzFeed list. These young students were not only thinking critically about Herodotos as a source, but deconstructing the way the he put his narrative together, and – critically, I think – writing about a primary source.
I am a huge advocate of ‘doing’ Ancient History. What I think my job as a seminar leader is all about is enabling students – even first-years with no Classics or Ancient History A-levels – to get in a actually ‘do’ ancient history as soon as possible, at the appropriate level. One of the things I felt was lacking in my own undergraduate degree is the idea of writing as practice. Just writing essays or exam scripts is not enough. Students should be used to writing in all kinds of different styles about both ancient sources and scholarship. Most, if not all, of this ‘extra’ writing shouldn’t be formally assessed. That’s not the point. The point is to practice thinking though specific aspects of a source and writing it out into your own words. Writing in your own words leads to greater understanding of sources (see, for instance, this list of strategies for critical reading. Note, number five: ‘Outlining and summarizing: Identifying the main ideas and restating them in your own words’).
By giving students access to a wide-range of ancient and modern sources; by showing them a way of reading those sources, of getting the information they need out of those sources, of getting them to figure out the strengths and limitations of those sources and how to fit those sources together – all of this leads to a constant ‘doing’ of ancient history. From writing newspaper articles to research dissertations, from reading small passages of Homer to reading the Wall Street Journal (because, after all, most of our students will not go on to further study, but the skills they learn in our classrooms are still important for the ways they approach their lives and the various kinds of texts that pepper life).
When, at the end of the newspaper writing activity, I prompted the classes to reflect on what they had gained from it, the range of thoughtful responses that came back at me was astounding. Students said that in that half an hour they rethought about Herodotos as an historian, they felt they were more able to pick out the reality and the ‘fantasy’ in his writing, and felt more aware of the limitations of the genre of ancient historiography.
The week before I’d asked them to go home and watch Tobias Menzies reading part of the Iliad, from the British Museum/Almeida reading during the summer. I wanted them to think about the orality and aurality of Homer, and think about the context of genre. I wonder how much this helped them recast Herodotos from ‘reliable historian’ into ‘text we need to read critically’. A few students did mention that they were more conscious of thinking though genre and author-intention after watching the Iliad reading, and I’m sure this must have had some influence on them during the Herodotos article activity.
I’m looking forward to this week, and looking at a whole different kind of text with them – some Near Eastern texts, including the wonderful Cyrus Cylinder!
And, of course, continual reflection on my own teaching. As, I suspect, academics are wont to do.