Classically Inclined

April 3, 2017

Experimenting with student-led seminars

Term’s been over for a week or so now, and I’m just about catching up with myself and all the things I’d meant to do over term but didn’t get around to. And by ‘catching up’, I mean ‘making a list rather than just remembering them and occasionally flailing’. There are a number of things I could write about, but let’s start with the pedagogy, which has been one reason this term has been so busy – I’ve been running two new courses, which has been a lot of fun but a lot of work as well. I’ve also been trying out something new, since pedagogy only works if you keep it fresh and keep tweaking it to make it better, and I wanted to give up an update on the experiment.

Full credit should go at this point to the marvellous Ellie Mackin, who planted the seed for this project in my head back in the autumn term. At the start of November, she vlogged about her use of the student-led seminar format as part of her teaching, and in chatting about it, I started to get the germ of an idea. I’d come across the student-led seminar when reading around pedagogy, but to be honest it had never appealed – it always got sold as something to make learning student-centered, and I firmly believe in subject-centered learning, plus I couldn’t see how it would operate beneficially with the kinds of subjects I generally teach. However, one of my courses this spring has been our Advanced Latin Author unit, which this academic year has focused on Latin Letters, and I realised that this might be my chance.

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October 2, 2015

Gamifying Intermediate Latin – the first year

Following on from my noodlings here about whether I should submit my gamification of intermediate Latin for a College Excellence Teaching Prize, I managed to put the paperwork in before the small boy appeared – and I’m delighted to say that I won one of the awards! The prize was awarded for “an innovative and creative project, which engages students from diverse backgrounds in motivational extracurricular learning”, which is rather nice as that was what I was after. As those of you reading who teach intermediate language classes will know, it’s probably the most diverse set of student experiences you find in a college classroom, and thus presents some really interesting challenges.

For those of you coming to this fresh – gamification is a strategy that tries to use the human enjoyment of games to enhance the learning experience within the classes. Last year, I reworked how I teach intermediate Latin to make the formative work I’d assumed students would do out of the goodness of their hearts into a tangible system of game-based activities. This would make the previously unspoken assumptions about the workload in the class clear and visible, and hopefully also give students the motivation to keep on top of the work required. The introduction of short-term rewards in a game format functioned through an insignia or badge system, where each activity had its own specific sticker type to collect. Students competed to collect the most insignia over the course of the term, with a ‘top three’ scoreboard updated regularly on Moodle. I wrote about how I thought things were going after one term here.

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January 23, 2015

Gamifying Intermediate Latin – a mid-year update

When I posted that I was intending to gamify intermediate Latin, I got quite a positive response back, and I promised to give you an update on how it was all going. As we start the second week of the spring term, now seems like a good moment to review how things have gone so far. I should also add that I’m thinking of putting together an application for our college teaching excellence prize based on this, not least because (as a colleague pointed out to me the other day) the potential applications of the technique go beyond the languages, which is where I’d thought it might be useful – every subject has got its bit of ‘stuff we need students to put the work into, that doesn’t feature as part of the summative assessment, but that will impact students’ performance in the summative assessment’. When I explained what I was doing, she immediately thought of how useful it could be for statistics, which wasn’t something I’d thought of at all. At any rate, now seems like a good moment to reflect on the experience so far.

To recap, the goals I had in gamifying Intermediate Latin were:

  • Give students a short-term motivation and reward for doing work they otherwise wouldn’t see paying off until the medium or long term.
  • Increase participation rates in optional homework activities.
  • Through this participation, increase student confidence with vocabulary, grammar and other skills they need for in-class tasks.
  • Generate a bit of friendly competition in the classroom and thus build community among students on the course.

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September 22, 2014

Gamifying Intermediate Latin

I said in my post about this year’s syllabus-wrangling that the biggest change in my teaching was going to be my gamification of Intermediate Latin. I figured the subject deserved its own post, so here it is. Gamification is rapidly increasing in popularity as a way to plug into our basic motivations as humans, in that we enjoy playing games where we get rewards, can follow strict rules and so on. Academic courses respond well to being gamified, because it is a way of making the implicit rules we expect our students to follow explicit, and associating them with a value system which the students buy into. This model of teaching is, as far as I am aware, doing particularly well in American institutions, at least in part because of the freedom to change assessment requirements in individual courses that instructors often have. This means they can link accomplishments within the course-game explicitly to a student’s final grade without having to run it past, for instance, a university registry office and external examiners to get their approval. However, just because I don’t feel I can go that far doesn’t mean that gamification is a lost cause.

This term, following my colleague Tim Phin’s lead (and very generous sharing of materials), I am trying to gamify Intermediate Latin. As I have implied, this won’t affect students’ final grades – they’ll still have their in-class quizzes and end of year exam to do that. However, what struck me teaching this course last year was that there is an awful lot of work expected of students that they don’t actually get any credit for, and I suspect that may be part of the reason why it often gets neglected. For instance, I expect students to be finishing off hand-outs and translations from class, doing translation and grammar homework, learning vocabulary, reviewing their performance on tests… none of which ever gets any recognition, except for the pay-off they hopefully receive in their grades for the in-class quizzes. For students who perhaps work better with short-term than medium- or long-term motivation, that’s not really a winner.

So I am trying to give that previously unacknowledged work a value by borrowing Tim’s system of insignia or badges. Tim structured his course so that students won insignia for in-class activities, homework and other challenges; the number of insignia won corresponded to the final grade in the course. I’ve taken his model and instead created different kinds of insignia for different kinds of tasks – there are insignia verborum for vocabulary learning and insignia grammatica for grammar-based homework tasks, for instance. Students can keep track of which insignia they have won by a chart and – you guessed it – stickers. When I first found myself thinking about gamifying the course, my mind immediately went to auto-awarded badges and technology and all the clever things you can do with programming – but actually, that’s all a bit of a distraction from the underlying gamification principle. It’s a nice add if you can have it, but if you can’t, stickers will work just as well to signify that the work is being recognised, and as things to be won and collected. I’ve even bought a special stickers, because what’s the point if you can’t generate some excitement? Mind you, my mind goes back to my first Latin 101 class at Rutgers. Whenever they scored over 90 on a quiz, as the quizzes were designed to let them, I would give them a little star sticker. After the initial ‘wait, we’re back in high school now?’ moment, the competition for those stickers and who got them on each weekly quiz became one of the most intense contests that I’ve ever seen in a classroom. Technology may be shiny, but never underestimate the power of a sticker.

I’ll be keeping close tabs on how this strategy works over the coming year, and will report back on how well or otherwise it works. I’m optimistic, but it will only work if my students buy into it.

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.

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February 21, 2014

The Problematic Ovid lecture

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 11:57 am
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I wrote recently about my thought process behind putting a content warning on my Literature of the Roman Empire syllabus for a particular lecture on Ovid. This post seems to have struck a nerve, and I’ve had a number of people asking how the lecture went. I’ve now delivered the lecture, so I thought I’d let you know my thoughts on it, both as a reflective exercise for me and as a way to share good practice.

A couple of contextual observations. Firstly, this isn’t the first time I’ve taught difficult texts, particularly those which deal with sexual violence. I’ve thought about them as part of a conversation that started in the Women’s Classical Caucus and has been slowly moving outwards – I recently published an article on a test-case lesson that formed part of a gender and sexuality course I ran in the US aimed at a diverse range of students, and you can download a post-print of that article here if you don’t have access to Classical World, where it first appeared. This lesson was an opportunity to try out some of the strategies I developed in that context with UK students specialising in the subject, and also to see how they worked with a different group of texts – that class focused on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this lecture looked at selections of the Amores and the Ars Amatoria.

Second, this lecture formed part of a Literature of the Roman Empire course where, frankly, my goal is to make my first year students realise that there is more to the world of the Romans than A-levels let on. Some of them have looked at Ovid as part of a Latin AS level, but the selection of the Amores chosen is the most insipid and uninteresting four poems in the whole corpus (at least to my mind) – it’s doing Ovid without doing Ovid, which is profoundly cross-making. Mind you, here is one of the reasons I teach at university level, to be able to teach the sorts of texts you can’t teach to the under-eighteens without getting angry letters in the press. However, for a lot of students this will be their first exposure to Ovid in a systematic way, let alone to the world of Roman literature as a whole, so I’m really laying the foundations for how they think about and approach texts, as well as widening their horizons. In that sense, a lecture saying ‘so, this is difficult, what do we do with that?’ is a necessary question to ask at this stage of their undergraduate careers, because this sort of stuff happens all over classical texts. As one colleague said to me, “at least you’re not trying to teach comedy”.

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January 21, 2014

The classical pedagogy of trigger warnings

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 8:03 am
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So, I was putting together my syllabus for Roman Literature of the Empire recently, which is the half-unit course I’m currently teaching to the first year students. It is going to be awesome – we have Livy, Ovid, Lucan, Petronius and Seneca, so I get to spend some time with my favourite boys talking about my favourite things. However. I had decided that for Ovid, if I was going to get the students to read some of his love poetry, I needed to have a lecture titled Why Ovid Is Problematic.

Why? Because it’s not pedagogically responsible to set students loose on the Amores and the Ars Amatoria without explicitly talking about sexual violence and rape. There is a darker side to our witty, playful poet that does need to be talked about, and students need to be given the tools for thinking about these difficult issues. This is, in part, what my article handling teaching the Metamorphoses in the classroom addresses. I had to think quite carefully about how I structured that lecture and what I do with it – I want to talk about the romanticisation of rape in terms of the Sabine women, the abuse of power as it appears in the two Cypassis poems, the violence against the female body as it appears in the two poems about Corinna’s abortion, and the problems of consent and its absence that some of the Amores pose, which feels like a well-structured progression through the issues posed by this sort of writing with some concrete examples.

I have, of course, yet to face the issues involved in actually preparing the lecture. My problem when I was constructing the syllabus was how to make it clear that the content of this session could be disturbing for survivors of rape. What is the pedagogy of the trigger warning on the syllabus?

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December 10, 2013

Getting student feedback: the ‘Dear Liz’ letter

I mentioned on Twitter that I had decided, after some reflection, to return to asking my students to write me ‘dear Liz’ letters. 140 characters isn’t really enough to explain what they are, so here’s a blog post to do the job.

I picked up ‘dear Liz’ letters in the US, as a strategy that complemented the one minute papers I’ve written about before. When I came to Birmingham, however, I had a rude awakening – students in my ancient religion course responded pretty well to one minute papers, but absolutely hated the ‘dear Liz’ letter, and were happy to tell me so! So I dropped them, and moved on. Fast forward to this year, when I’m teaching far more language than I usually do. I wrote in that post that I wanted to use one minute papers to get a clear grasp of grammar that was causing problems. However, despite good intentions and introducing them at the start of the year, I haven’t actually used one minute papers. At all. They don’t seem helpful – my classes are such small groups that I’m engaging with each student heavily in each class session, and it’s easy to flag up areas of confusion through obvious problems of translation and comprehension. I don’t need one minute papers to tell me what I already know. Equally, the Euripides course doesn’t encourage me to use one minute papers either – my students are in single numbers, meaning that debate and questions flow comfortably. If anything the CIQ would have been a better fit here. However, while I feel I have quite a good handle on how individual classes are going, I don’t have any way to take the temperature of the course more broadly. As I’ve got to know the students quite well, I now think they’ll respond well to this reflective assignment.

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September 4, 2013

Reading Rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: A Test-Case Lesson

Some of you may remember that I wrote a post back in January last year about pedagogy research and reading rape in Ovid. I’m delighted to be able to share that the article I wrote about then has finally appeared in print – the PDF and the bibliographic reference are on Project Muse, and the journal is Classical World. You will need an institutional subscription to read through that link, but if this is of interest and you don’t have such a subscription, do get in touch.

This piece has taken its time to turn around – it was first given as a conference paper in January 2009, and since then has been working its way through the long process of peer review and journal scheduling that’s a bit inevitable in these things. However, I’m really pleased that it’s now appeared along with two of the other papers from that conference panel. Together, they make a well-proportioned suite of papers offering sensible resources for coping with teaching difficult topics.

A number of other workshops and publications around these themes (looking more broadly at difficult topics rather than specifically at rape) have now started to surface, and it’s getting some air in the pedagogic discussion in our field. I’m really pleased that this article is now out there and part of the conversation. There’s been a very positive reaction to it over Twitter and Facebook, including from people who have already had their copy of the journal in the mail, and I can only hope that everyone who reads it finds it practical and helpful.

May 10, 2013

Unexpected dips: this year’s module evaluation forms

This week I’ve finished writing up my responses to this year’s load of module evaluation forms – I wrote a little bit about them last year, although under different circumstances. This year, we have a new shiny system – although the forms are still completed manually, they are processed by computer, which means that all the clever number-crunching stuff is now delivered to one’s inbox in a shiny PDF. Along with a duplicate e-mail containing the same shiny PDF along with data in three other PDFs which do not appear to be particularly distinct from one other, but never mind, it’s the main one that’s interesting. Particularly clever is the fact that the scanning machine can capture written responses, so as well as the prettified data the PDFs also contain scans of what students actually wrote – meaning the time I put aside to carefully type them all up was wasted, but that’s a small price to pay for progress.

When I last wrote about these module evaluations, I expressed quite a bit of frustration about the conflicting feedback, and the problems with actually identifying anything concrete to do about the sort of comments that completely contradict each other. For that reason, I’m usually a big advocate of using things like the CIQs and one minute papers to engage with students on a micro-level rather than wait for the final assessment when it’s too late to solve problems that have affected students throughout the course. But this time around, a couple of things stood out, and I do have a few things that I want to do differently next time.

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