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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December 30, 2014

Reflections and plans at the end of 2014

We’re half-way through the academic year, and coming to the close of 2014, so for a variety of reasons it seemed a good moment to pause and reflect on how things are going so far.

Teaching: as I mentioned in my most recent syllabi-wrangling post, my two biggest obligations were putting together a new half-unit on Virgil and a new Advanced Latin course (in two half units) for intercollegiate MA provision. I also decided to gamify intermediate Latin. I think gamification deserves its own post again, but I will say that I’ve been enjoying the process of incorporating game theory into my language teaching at this level, and it’s certainly appealing to some of the students. Some of the pitfalls I’m coming across are similar to those I’ve encountered with other techniques that have worked in US classrooms but seem to falter a bit in UK ones, but as I say, I’ll hold those thoughts over for another post.

The Advanced Latin course has been quietly rewarding in its own right, partly because of teaching Suetonius’ Life of Vespasian for the first time (which has turned out to be surprisingly good fun), and partly because of the student response to the independent project element. I set this up using the second year undergraduate projects we set students at Royal Holloway as an initial model, so while I knew that the format would work in principle, I had no idea whether the students in the course would bite. Well, it turns out that giving MA students an opportunity to work on texts that they actually like and want to work into their research means they have fun with the assessment you set. I’ve had some fascinating conversations with students about their individual research and where they see it fitting into their broader profile as researchers, and the students have shown me directions these projects can go in that I hadn’t envisaged when putting the syllabus together. For some reason, our impression when setting these courses up had been that they would be of interest mainly to those working on history and literature – my brain had completely left out the possibility that students with a primary research interest in classical reception might want to polish up their Latin too! The projects aren’t due in until the new year, but I’m really excited to see how they’ll turn out. And I think the students’ Latin has improved too.

The Virgil half-unit has basically been a new build, and I’ve found myself being more comfortable with a note-and-text based lecture style than I have been previously. I’ve also rather liked the seminar-lecture two hour format, although I think that in the future I’d like to experiment with the active learning/lecture format that I used during my Roman Life Course unit at Birmingham – leaving students to their own devices for more or less the first hour and then lecturing at them for the second hour isn’t a format that I think works for me particularly well, although I’m very glad I’ve tried it and seen how it plays out in practice. In the end, because of the number of students, I ended up not assigning in-class presentations on secondary literature, but I think there are other ways to work that skill-set in. However, the most rewarding part of the whole course has been re-reading the Aeneid with fresh eyes and trying to get some more enthusiasm into the students about the text. I think my decision to keep Virgil out of the first year Roman literature survey is definitely the right one, as it gives students a year off and the ability to come at the poem fresh. All in all, I’m quite pleased with the experiment.

Research: a year-long view here. As far as the book is concerned, I’ve revised two chapters, finished off writing a new one, and have done a complete text/translation review of the manuscript as well as respond to a set of readers’ reports. I need to redraft the conclusion (sometime before term? Who knows?), but there’s been slow and steady progress towards getting the manuscript together. However, I will admit to being quite frustrated that another year has passed and I still don’t have a contract in hand. Still, none of the work I’m doing is wasted, and let’s hope 2015 is The Year Of The Book.

I’ve also written a chapter on women classicists at Newnham, been awarded an AHRC grant for work on the Family Archive Project (about which I will blog on here before too long, I hope!), got some thoughts together about women, space and the stage in Plautus, had the Ad Polybium article published at long last, given several other conference papers, almost got a pedagogy article finished about preparing a text commentary for the Companion To The Worlds of Roman Women, and have some positive developments on the Monster Project front (of which also more before too long, hopefully). I have to be honest that while I feel like I’ve stalled a bit on the book front, other research has been bubbling alongside it. I think the trick is going to be making sure that these opportunities generate tangible results rather than Interesting Thoughts – I’m sure they will, but the trick is going to be in the planning. So the book stays at the top of the research to-do list, but I’d also like to spend next year working on the AHRC project and preparing an article on Seneca’s use of imagery in his political philosophy that’s come out of writing the new book chapter.

Personal life: as some of you may have seen me announce on Twitter recently, my husband and I are expecting our first child in April. We are both excited and petrified in equal measures, which I gather is the sensible position to be in at this stage. Because infans has had the grace to time themselves conveniently, I’m planning to complete my spring 2015 teaching before going on maternity leave at the start of April; I hope to be back in September or October at the start of the 2015-16 academic year, all being well. It goes without saying that this is going to be a massive life-changing event for us, and we have no sense of the impact that it is going to have on our quotidian existence, let alone something as rarefied and intellectual as research. We’re looking forward to finding out – for the foreseeable future, this little project is going to be taking top priority.

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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March 13, 2014

Cloelia and Feminist Language Pedagogy – A Survey

As some of you will have picked up on Twitter, I am acting as the guest editor for the forthcoming edition of Cloelia, the magazine of the Women’s Classical Caucus. Even though I’m not based in the US any more, I still have extremely warm feelings for the WCC as a place where intellectually like-minded scholars can come together and discuss both research and professional issues experienced by women in the academy. In fact, I’m starting to think that a project to start in the next couple of the years is setting up a UK equivalent of the WCC, not least because it would be great to have a UK equivalent of Feminism & Classics as a semi-regular feature in the conference schedule. That, however, is another story and quite a long way down the road, but expect me to keep on making murmurings about it until I have time to apply for the grant.

As I was saying, I’m acting as the guest editor for Cloelia, and the theme of this year’s magazine is pedagogy. Specifically, I’ve suggested that we focus on ancient language pedagogy – one of those areas that I’ve discovered from my teaching experience this year is perhaps rather less well covered than it might be. I thought Cloelia would be a great venue to pull together best practice, find out what’s going on in a range of departments, and hopefully get a sense of the ways in which the WCC and its members might support each other in this valuable enterprise.

This post is basically a rather long-winded invitation for those of you who are teaching the ancient languages in your day job, either at the university or the secondary level, to fill out the 2014 Cloelia survey on pedagogy. I’ve put it together with the permanent editor, Alison Jeppesen-Wigelsworth, as a way to collect information and experiences from those of us at the linguistic coalface; the results will be published in the 2014 edition of Cloelia, which will also be freely available on the web. We’ve already had some really interesting responses, but we’d like more! So if you are an ancient language teacher or you know ancient language teachers, please take a minute to fill in the survey or ask them to do so. We’d really appreciate your input, and it will help us get a better sense of what we as a profession are actually doing when it comes to this area of our teaching.

September 11, 2013

Syllabi-wrangling at Royal Holloway

I haven’t talked about what I am going to be teaching at Royal Holloway yet, and now seems as good a time as any to do so. The biggest difference in my teaching load will be that most of my courses this year are language-based. I will be taking Intermediate Latin, Latin Language and Reading (essentially upper intermediate Latin, or the A-level group), and Greek Author (or advanced Greek, for which I have chosen Euripides). In the spring, I’ll be offering a first year lecture course option on the literature of the early Roman empire, which basically means I get to teach my favourite boys with all the gory bits, but that’s not my current priority.

Having three language courses means I actually need to think a bit about my language teaching pedagogy. My teaching of language at Birmingham was not where I worked on my innovation – that happened in other courses, and language was about getting on with it effectively and efficiently. However, having this much language teaching means I can pay some attention to what I’m doing and why I’m doing it a little bit more. It also means that some of the techniques I’ve used before will have to go on hold – I don’t think the CIQ is appropriate for anything I’m teaching this year, for example, although if the registration for the lecture course ends up being about 20 students I’ll reconsider. One minute papers are definitely making an appearance for the two Latin classes; although this will be first time I’ve used them systematically in a language context, they should help in identifying points of grammar which need more attention. Learning logs and blog posts are, sadly, going on hold because they don’t really have a role in what I’m doing – I might try to get back to using discussion boards for the Roman literature lecture, and I will be having small group discussion in the Greek Author class, but because there are only six students taking it the blog format seems a bit overly cumbersome. I’m going to keep on asking students to facilitate discussion and to report back on secondary literature, but in a more classroom-based way – the focus is, after all, meant to be on translating the Greek.

I’m also going to have to think what, if anything, I want to do with Twitter. I still want to use it as an informal channel of communication – in fact, I have included my Twitter handle as well as my e-mail address in the information I’ve posted on my office door. But I don’t know how to use it effectively as part of my language teaching. My new colleague Sigrun Wagner suggested using it to see which student could generate the best tweet to explain a Latin word or concept, but that might involve more students being signed up to the platform than is likely, and I don’t want it to be exclusionary. I also don’t feel these classes give me the forum I had in the first year projects at Birmingham to make having a Twitter account to track the week’s classically-related news part of the course activities.  

What all of this made me realise was that I haven’t really got as good a range of techniques to draw on when teaching language as I do when teaching non-language material – so it’s time for a refresh. I have a couple of strategies in place for handling this, not least of which is the small treasure-trove of language books that I’ve collected over the years and which are now coming into their own for offering examples, helping to build up exercise handouts and so on. However, my biggest investment will be in my own copy of When Dead Tongues Speak, an APA-sponsored volume on language teaching strategies at the university level. I started reading a copy at Birmingham but moving got in the way; however, it looked useful enough to invest in my own copy, and I’m hoping to find suggestions of various new and alternative techniques to use in the classroom. I’m also going to put a bit of time in to looking over Teaching Classical Languages to see if anything there might be of use. These are mainly American resources, but that seems to be where things are published and I’m not aware of a university-level equivalent in the UK. If anyone is aware of something similar in the UK context, do let me know – the more I can read and think about what I do in the classroom, the better chance I have of making sure that I have ways of getting through to every student, not just those who get on with my tried and tested methods.

December 17, 2012

End of term wrap-up

What with one thing and another, I’ve been run off my feet for the last fortnight or so. Term has now officially been over for a week, but I don’t feel as if I’ve got the paperwork and administration for everything quite under control yet. It’s getting there, but there are a couple of things that still need finishing off. I have, of course, finished all my teaching. The Roman novel first year seminar is working much more smoothly than it did last year; this is partly due to the department increasing seminar lengths from one to two hours across the board, meaning there’s more space for presentations and discussions, but I think the tweaks to the syllabus that I made at the start of the year have paid off as well. There’s still one class that isn’t quite working as I want it to work, but I’ve had another go at redefining the discussion questions, so we’ll see if that helps. It is, in fairness, the class dealing with literary form (e.g. why are parts of the Satyricon in poetry, and do we care?), so I think it’s going to be a case of continually experimenting until I get the formula right. I shall miss my first year tutees, who will be disappearing off to pastures new, but it will be good to meet some more of the first year intake next term.

The Roman Life Course lectures are going well – I have a good group of students, and we’ve established what feels like a productive discussion-based atmosphere to complement the parts of the session where I lecture more traditionally. The material seems to be engaging the students’ interest, and I’m sneakily incorporating as much philosophical evidence for social history as I can – one of the surprise hits was Plutarch’s The Training of Children, which seems to have gone over rather well! The blog posts are still working more or less as I want them to, and the students seem to like the idea of blog-based work in principle even if the practice is a little shakier. I’m also glad that I decided to stick it out with the critical incident questionnaire, for the simple reason that it’s really helping me see what is and isn’t working with this sort of teaching.

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October 1, 2012

Syllabi-wrangling – the 2012-13 edition

Things have been so busy here that I haven’t had the chance to talk very much about what I am actually doing this year in terms of my teaching. I have three major courses that are swinging into action this term – the Roman Novel first year seminar again; intermediate Greek language; and a lecture option on the Roman Life Course. Now, I’ve been thinking a bit about the new forms of assessment and interaction I worked with last year, and have come up with some changes and alterations for this year’s teaching:

  • Learning logs: I am going to have another go at doing these, particularly with my first year students as I think there’s a real benefit to using them and getting good study habits established early. This is made a bit easier because all of the department’s seminars and projects now last for two hours rather than one, meaning there’s a bit more time not only to have decent discussion but also to include some more pastoral-style checking in, particularly at the first year level. So I am going to incorporate this into our weekly sessions and see whether that makes the learning log a more effective tool. I am, however, dropping the reflective journal from the option course, given how unpopular it was last year.
  • Blog posts: instead, I’m going to use the method from last year’s epic seminar in the option course.  This time around I’ve got twenty students enrolled rather than seventy, which should make using this kind of micro-format a bit simpler and let everyone get involved. As I don’t have a seminar this year, I’m suspect I’m going treat the option as a slightly over-large seminar, so we’ll see how well that goes.
  • CIQs: given that the numbers for the Roman Life Course are fairly small, I’m going to take the plunge and carry on using the Critical Incident Questionnaire with the students. I will admit to being a bit nervous about this – an option is a different kind of fowl to a seminar, after all, and there are slightly more students here than I thought I was comfortable with for using the CIQ. But we shall see how it goes, particularly as I want the comparative material on how well the method works with a larger group for whenever I eventually come to write something on this. I also want to be better at keeping records of student responses – I suspect the departmental scanner will come in handy!
  • Twitter: as I said in my reflections at the end of last year, I’m in the process of reconsidering how best to use Twitter in class. I am still requiring my first year students to use it as a way to keep up to date with developments in the discipline and cultivate a classical identity; however, I think I want to move towards a more social-media-esque attitude to it rather than a formal class discussion backchannel. I do know that a lot of my now-second years are still on it and are still using it for various purposes, so at least that is heartening. I’ve started a proper list of staff and students currently at the IAA, so hopefully that should also provide some potential for students to discover each other.
  • Discussion: I’ve also made some broad outline tweaks to the Roman Novel syllabus – after teaching the course twice, I think I’ve worked out what I wasn’t doing enough of (deep engagement with the primary texts), and I’m trying a more student-driven approach to discussion to see if that remedies the problem. I haven’t tried student-led discussion in my teaching very much, apart from a couple of sessions in epic at the very end of last term, so I’m curious to see how this works out.

The one course missing from all of this is, of course, intermediate Greek! I figured that getting to grips with a new textbook was going to be enough of a teaching challenge for the time being – we’ll see if I’ve changed my mind by the Christmas break…

January 26, 2012

Seneca and the impossibility of purchasing knowledge

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 11:16 am
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I feel I should be saying something interesting about the news that the government is apparently planning to shelve its proposed HE bill for the time being, and the changes that will be held off and the changes that have already been made, and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, I am currently under a particularly tall pile of marking and lecture prep, and any spare brain power I have is going into job applications and trying to get the Harryhausen article into shape for the end of the month.

However, I have just finished translating Seneca’s Epistulae Morales 27 in preparation for teaching it to the Latin IV class (who, I am glad to report, appear to be finding Seneca quite good fun, thus reinforcing my firm belief that he’s a brilliant author and more people should read him earlier). Letter 27 is about the the process of improving oneself and attempting to acknowledge and cure the faults in one’s character; Seneca tells his addressee, Lucilius, to think of him as a patient in the same ward rather than as a doctor with the infallible cure. However, the second half of the letter is about the impossibility of getting someone else to do this sort of work for you.

With typical Senecan verve, the letter recounts the story of the freedman Calvisius Sabinus, who had a lot of money but not much sense; he got Achilles, Odysseus and Priam mixed up, he couldn’t remember his literary references, and generally had a really rotten memory. (In a nice touch of class snobbishness, Seneca comments that he is “not like us, who knew these names along with those of our school-slaves” – ignoring the fact that Sabinus might well have been a school-slave himself, never mind that he would not have had the educational opportunities afforded to the sons of Roman knights and senators). Seneca’s disdain, however, truly comes to the fore when he reports Sabinus’ solution. Rather than put in the time and effort to actually read Homer and get to grips with the basics, Sabinus used some of his extraordinary wealth to order some very specialised slaves – one who knew Homer, one who knew Hesiod, and one for each of the nine lyric poets. Having the slaves in the house, Sabinus claimed, was as good as knowing the material himself, since anything a member of his household knew, he knew too. (more…)

July 19, 2011

Teaching language through translation – an idea

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 6:31 am
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Back on 6th July (yes, time has run away with me recently), one of the people I follow on Twitter shared an excellent idea for language teaching which I thought deserved further propagation:

Dr. Finch teaches German, so she’s familiar with the usual challenges of teaching a class to translate a passage into breathing English rather than the rather stilted translatese which results from the first pass. My immediate thought about this was how beautifully the idea would transfer to translating Latin poetry. The beauty of using poetry is that each poem is a small self-contained nugget that should make sense, so one could assign something of eight or ten lines’ length without feeling that intermediate students were either being overburdened with translation work, or with the labour of creating poetic masterpieces. Since some of the Roman poets felt they worked best in poems of eight or ten lines’ length, that provides excellent source material for assigning this kind of thing. There’s also no shortage of longer poems (or indeed chunks lifted from the trusty Aeneid or slightly less trustyworthy Metamorphoses) for more advanced students, so it’s an activity that works at any level.

Additional value comes from this exercise because when translations are shared, students are suddenly forced to confront wider issues about translation than simply having to look up an unfamiliar word. Translation issues have been Very Trendy recently, particularly in classical reception fields – why do we translate some words as one thing rather than another? It’s something I did a bit of work on, many moons ago, in my undergraduate dissertation – I was interested under what circumstances we translate the Latin word carmen as ‘song’ and under what circumstances we translate it as ‘spell’ or ‘incantation’ – and why the majority of the latter cases seemed to involve women’s speech. When you are operating as a lone translator, it’s easy to avoid questions of how you choose what word fits where, and to simply opt for whatever meaning you routinely use. Working through translation in a group, and engaging with other people’s choices, creates a greater awareness of the semantic choice you exercise as you translate – and, hopefully, an awareness that when we read translations, whether of ancient texts or modern news broadcasts, we are always subject to someone else’s judgements about what word best communicates the sense of the original.

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