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.


December 23, 2015

2015: A review

Christmas and the turn of the year are coming over the horizon, so it’s as good a moment as any to have a look back over the last year. The blog has been a bit quiet since the arrival of infans, as my priorities have been geared towards getting on with my teaching and research rather than this enjoyable but not particularly critical activity. Which is a shame, as there have been several things I’ve wanted to blog about and may still get around to, but it’s not as much fun as introducing infans to stacking cups. However, the good thing about the silence on here (and the comparative silence on Twitter) is that there’s been a lot getting done elsewhere!

Teaching: this term I’ve been coordinating our first year skills course, repeat teaching Intermediate Latin and teaching Roman Life Stories from scratch. I’ve also had third year dissertations and some MA teaching, along with a spot of Catullus too. I’m really enjoying Roman Life Stories – it’s a version of the Roman Life Course module I taught at Birmingham, into two hours of seminar/lecture rather than just a lecture, and limited to third years rather than second and third years together. It’s lovely having the extra time and being able to have some proper discussion going about the sources, and the students seem to be finding it very interesting too. It’s slightly strange that I’m back to using very detailed lecture notes, written when I was a bit less confident, but it’s all getting there! I’m also enjoying seeing how students engage with secondary literature – I’ve got them leading discussion about a designated article each week in groups of three and four, and that seems to be going quite well.

Intermediate Latin is going pretty much as it did last academic year, with a couple of tweaks to the insignia system. The course has got to the stage where the students have settled down and are a bit more confident in their own abilities, which means they start having more fun with the language and that makes it more fun for me too. It’s always a pleasure to watch students levelling up, and this year is no exception.

Research: the big project this year has been getting on with the book manuscript… and I’m delighted to report that last week, I finally submitted a complete manuscript to the press and have just received the approval of their external reader. There’s still plenty to do – the reader requested a few minor changes, the manuscript needs to be gone over to meet the press style guide, there’s metadata to provide and indexing to sort… but with any luck, it’s all now into the technical bits and bobs, and the academic hard graft is done. Fingers very much crossed for this to go smoothly in the new year.

The other major project on the go has been the AHRC Family Archive project. It’s nearing its final stages – we’ve done all the outreach activities we built into the grant, and are now working on co-writing the two articles we had planned as a result of it. We had a meeting earlier this month to discuss how to structure those articles and what they should say, and it was delightfully productive and positive. I’ve been having a blast working with the project team, and I’m hoping we can find directions to go with this in the future.

I’ve also finally got the pedagogy article that’s been hanging around for a couple of years out the door, which is no small feat but a very nice one to have out of the way, and there’s been continuing admin work around getting the piece on women classicists at Newnham into print. Conference activity has been non-existent this year for pretty obvious reasons, but I’ll be gearing up with two papers in summer 2016 that relate to the Monster Project (which I really do have to write about properly before too long). I’m quite looking forward to getting stuck into new projects now that these ones are coming to their natural ends.

Personal: the most obvious amazing thing is the arrival of infans, followed closely by surviving my first term as a parent, followed even more closely by managing to submit a book manuscript (or as near as you can get) whilst parenting. At the end of last year, I wrote that this would be life-changing for me and my husband. Of course, it has been, but in some strange ways things have kept on pottering on just as normal – I still research, I still teach. I also now keep an eye out for new nursery rhymes and memorise any vaguely catchy folksong I come across, and have discovered Views I never knew I had about childrearing and high chair design. Other things have diminished to compensate for that, but they’ve not been things I’ve missed terribly much – and indeed, their current absence is more a fallowness than a complete loss. It does mean I’ve been saying no to things a little more, but that’s not actually a bad thing.

It feels slightly strange to put this under personal, but I’ve been delighted that my vague inclination that we should actually have a British equivalent of the Women’s Classical Caucus has finally started getting somewhere – the Women’s Classical Committee UK is now up and running (or has a proper webpage, which is just as good). We’re organising our launch event for April 2016, and it’s going to be fabulous.

The big question for 2016 is what’s happening with my job prospects. As you may remember, my contract with Royal Holloway lasts for three years, which ends on 31st August 2016. There are jobs coming up, but having a baby and a fixed abode means I don’t have the amazing geographical flexibility that lets me apply for everything. That’s OK – it’s a compromise I decided I was willing to take. Despite this being a three year post, it also comes with a three year probation period; maternity leave meant I had my mid-probation meeting with our dean this semester rather than in the summer. I’m very pleased that I will now be judged to have passed probation when the book is in press… it’s all so close! So if I get that done by Easter, that will be a double whammy. Let’s see how it goes…

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.


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.


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.


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”.


January 21, 2014

The classical pedagogy of trigger warnings

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 8:03 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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?


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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