Classically Inclined

April 4, 2014

Teaching at Royal Holloway – a reflection

Term finished at Royal Holloway at the end of March; I’ve now had enough time to catch my breath and finish off all the odds and ends from my teaching, so I can look back over how the year’s teaching has gone. Of course, I’ve still got the marking of exam season to come – precisely when will depend on whether the marking boycott called by UCU as part of the current pay dispute goes ahead. That issue sadly highlights a problem in teaching – there’s more to the process than just the mark that you get in the exam at the end, and when that becomes fetishized as the only valuable outcome of the university experience, we’re doing something wrong. Plashing Vole has written about these issues far more intelligently than I can, so I suggest you read him on them while I think a bit about my first year of teaching in a new institution.

It’s been a heavy teaching load this year, with three and a half units (which is effectively the same as teaching four units in the second term). The first term was manageable, as the three language courses were mainly intensive in the hour of teaching scheduled rather than in the preparation – after all, once you’ve selected an unseen passage and put together the handout, there’s not really much more you can do until you’re in the classroom. However, the second term added a new lecture course to the mix, and that meant I had to prepare two hours of fresh lecture each week on top of nine hours of language teaching. That took a lot of effort, and left me with little time for anything else. On the plus side, I’ll be reusing my prep for Intermediate Latin and the lecture course next year, so it’s work well invested. A few thoughts come to mind about each course.

Intermediate Latin: this was probably the most difficult course to pick up cold, as I had no idea what to expect from students who had done only one year of Latin in the RHUL system – how much had they covered? What would they remember from the summer? How big was the jump from beginner to intermediate? I think I’ve got a much better grip on those sorts of issues now, and that will inform how I teach the first few weeks of the course next year. In particular, the sorts of homework activities I set were not designed to refresh and consolidate knowledge, so I’ll move forward some of the work I designed later in the course when I realised this was needed, and hold off expecting students to do translation for homework until they’ve got a bit more comfortable with translating continuous passages of prose. I think I’ll also prune out the poetry passages from homework and keep them for in-class unseens – poetry is a lot harder than prose, and while students need to experience it, throwing them at it unsupported in week two was (on reflection) a bit mean.

I am absolutely delighted with the introduction of one formative assessment that I was a bit nervous about, which asked students to do Latin prose composition in the form of a Twitter account for Apollonius of Rhodes (our set text for the course). I decided to incorporate this after reading John Gruber-Miller’s article in the latest Teaching Classical Languages on using composition as a way for students to engage meaningfully with a text. While the current assessment structure of the course won’t allow me to put as much graded weight on the assignment as an American colleague might, and so makes the possibility of non-participation more likely, there are so many benefits to getting students to do Latin prose composition that I thought I really should try to incorporate it into my praxis. (Even if I hated having to do it at A-level, but that’s a personal bug-bear and one I need to work past.) So I put the students into groups and asked them to compose a tweet per chapter for Apollonius’ adventures. This seems to have gone down very well, and I think I’m going to consider introducing it earlier in the year to see if it helps consolidate various things earlier.

Latin Language and Reading: I’m pleased with the text choices of Plautus’ Rudens and Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae, although the students seemed to prefer the former to the latter. That said, they did seem to get into the Seneca eventually, however grumpily, and the more difficult challenges of the prose were a sensible step up from the Latin of the Rudens. The ability mix of those first years who have done A-level and those who have studied Latin ab initio through the RHUL system felt less pronounced – everyone had their individual weaknesses, but in such a way that the group complemented each other well and brought everyone along together without an obvious ability split. It’s the first course I’ve taught where the goal has been to read a substantial text in toto for the first time, and there is a certain pleasure in that – not least explaining the conventions surrounding hairdressing practices and sexual deviation, which was something I never expected to cover in a class reading Seneca (but this is why I love him). I might rethink my attitude to unseen translations, which involved a lot of group work and perhaps not enough individual effort, but for this year it suited the dynamic of the group.

I also introduced prose composition to this class in the second term, asking students to write individual reflective diaries about their reading of Seneca. This was meant to give them an opportunity to think about the philosophical issues raised in the text as well as practice their Latin. I hadn’t quite appreciated just how much practice they would get in composing indirect statements of one sort or another, but it seems to have worked quite well (although they did ask why they couldn’t do a Twitter-based exercise too). An unexpected bonus for this group was that they created a Facebook group to fulfil my request that they peer-review each other’s compositions before giving them to me, creating an extra manifestation of community outside the classroom that I hadn’t anticipated.

Euripides: probably the course that evolved and changed most over the year, because of negotiating expectations and the changing dynamic of the group. Technically this is the Advanced Greek Author course, for those who have completed Language and Reading (so entered RHUL with either an A-level or a GCSE in the language). For Greek, that’s naturally a smaller number than in Latin, although in the first term we were bolstered by some visiting Erasmus students. I’d started with what, in retrospect, were over-ambitious aims, hoping to get through three plays of Euripides in a year (based on my RU graduate seminar when we’d got through three plays in an American-length semester). The students soon made it clear that this wasn’t sustainable – again, I hadn’t realised that reading a whole Euripides play would be an entirely new experience in terms of length as well as style. So we cut that down to two plays, one per term. We also shifted the nature of the discussion away from pure translation to more analytic and thematic discussion over the course of the year, partly because the students became more confident with Euripidean language and partly because my original conception of the course as a reading class fit more with what the Language and Reading stage at RHUL is meant to do.

I also used one of our hours as a discussion hour, which again developed and changed, mainly because it took a while to work through the difference between giving a presentation and acting as a discussion leader (I wanted the students to do the latter). We got there by the second term, and I think the students found it a useful skill to develop, although one that took a little while to get comfortable with. I think we also had some good discussions and I’m pleased that reading more plays in translation helped feed into the interpretation of the plays we read in the original. I’m also quite excited because reading the Medea and the Bacchae again gave me some research ideas, including a vague plan to come back to the first ever paper I gave at a conference and working it up into a short note (in my copious spare time). This course linked research and language teaching for me this year, and once it had settled down it was an immensely rewarding experience.

Roman Literature of the Empire: oh, this course. Designed by me to be the first years’ half-unit introduction to Roman literature, playing on my research expertise and a similar course I taught at Birmingham for second and third years, with my five favourite authors and some good interlinking themes. It was tremendous fun to plan and teach, but there were some rocky bits. Some classes Just Didn’t Work – I need to rethink a couple of the seminars, and I need to rethink how I do Lucan. I love him to bits, but the students find him challenging, and I think I need to reconsider what I’m asking them to do with him so more of them like him too. I also want to review my seminars, and make sure that I’m using sensible case studies that are accessible and generate discussion.

I’m also really pleased with a shift in my lecturing style that changing institution has allowed me to make, which is using Powerpoints as a structuring mechanism rather than as a way to display text for discussion or have a summary of what I’m saying. I made this change because I wanted my lecturing on these texts to be driven by the text, not by what I happened to have on a Powerpoint. The one exception to this was the lecture I gave on why Ovid is problematic, where I planned what I was going to say in rather more detail and thus my Powerpoint was more structured. While a text-based lecturing style let me model close reading for my students, I did find that I always had much more to say about the texts than I could ever fit into class time. I also found that I got better at the text-based thing the longer I did – my first efforts on Livy were a bit nervy, but I got into the flow of it more as we went along. Strangely enough, the less familiar texts were also a bit easier to lecture on as I wasn’t coming in with my set ideas, and had to work out what I thought of things – for instance, I’m really pleased that I chose to look at Livy 39, because it’s put a number of things together that I hadn’t thought about before, whereas I found myself having to work quite hard in the Satyricon lectures to say interesting things grounded in the text rather than offering some general observations (if that distinction makes sense). I’m filing this under a successful first outing, but the course will need another iteration next year to rub off the rough edges.

General thoughts: this year has been very skewed by the amount of language teaching I’ve been doing, which has been great in some ways, but not typical of a usual teaching load in others. It’s been very helpful to get materials and experience of a more traditional UK language sequence under my belt. It’s also helped clarify some things about my use of feedback mechanisms, and where they work best. I started out boldly saying I would use one minute papers in language classes – and then totally failed to do so because I talked to the students enough as it was! So instead I used the Dear Liz letter in language classes, and that worked well. I used one minute papers with the lecture course, and again, that did what it was supposed to. The one thing I didn’t use this year was the CIQ, and I think that would have worked well with the Euripides course if I’d introduced it from the beginning. Worth remembering for next time. I’m also pleased that I did read about ancient language pedagogy a fair bit, and have introduced some of the ideas I encountered in my reading to my students. There’s still more to do, of course, but I think my biggest challenge is going to be helping the Intermediate students navigate the jump up from the Beginners level next year. Of course, to some extent that’s always going to depend on the individual students who make up the course and their strengths and weaknesses, but I think I have a better idea of the structural challenges now to support them effectively.

Overall, a good year. Progress for me on my approach to teaching, as well as (hopefully!) for my students in their learning, and some ideas about how to do better next year. Of course, we’ve now got these pesky exams to get through…


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