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.

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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 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.

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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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…

May 21, 2012

Communicating with students: the one minute paper

I realised recently that when I’ve been talking about the Critical Incident Questionnaire on the blog, I’ve talked about it as a natural progression from the one minute paper technique. Without ever writing about the one minute paper technique. So, for those of you who haven’t come across this method of feedback before, here’s how it works and some thoughts on using it in the UK and the US.

The method is taken and adapted from Cross and Angelo’s Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, which is the bible of Cool Stuff For Your Classroom from which most people who run workshops on this stuff tend to draw their material. The purpose of using the one minute paper is that it serves as quick and instant mechanism to pass feedback and other communication between students and the lecturer; it’s a method with a low time cost; and it encourages reflective learning in students. The process works as follows:

  • The final slide in every lecture asks students to answer two questions:
    • What was the clearest point made in class today?
    • What was the muddiest point?
  • Students anonymously write down their answers on a notecard or piece of paper and hand them in to the lecturer as they leave.
  • The lecturer (or postgraduate teaching assistant, if one is available for a large class) goes through the answers looking for broad themes of clarity and confusion.
  • Some possible responses:
    • If one big issue has confused students, write a handout addressing the issue and make it electronically available.
    • If one big issue has caused confusion, allocate time in the next lecture to resolve it.
    • If many little issues have come up, pick three or four questions that best reflect common areas of confusion; write a handout that answers those questions and make it electronically available.
  • At the start of the next lecture, the lecturer begins class with a one minute summary of the one minute paper issues, or a reminder that the handout is now available on WebCT.

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March 5, 2012

Teachable moment

I had a couple of unexpected insights into my teaching last week, one caused by circumstances beyond my control, one a consequence of a choice I’d made to vary my approach.

The first occurred in the first year literature survey, where I was giving my second lecture on Cicero’s Catilinarian speeches. The lecture of the previous week had dealt with the dates and chronology and the who and why of the conspiracy itself, so that I could spend its companion talking about the interpretation of the four speeches to people who had all the background material and thus would get what was going on. So far, so good.

But when I got to the classroom, the computer wasn’t working. It just wouldn’t turn on – which meant no Powerpoint. Drat, I thought. Rather than mess about with the machine, I decided to pull up a stool and give the lecture from my notes. The slides had a couple of particularly relevant quotations on them, but there was nothing that the students hadn’t read before and couldn’t look up afterwards. So I gave the lecture, and at the end, as usual, asked students to complete a one minute paper for me. (I have realised that, despite talking a great deal about one minute papers, I have yet to blog about them. It’s on the list of future topics.)

To my great surprise, a good number of students completed a one minute paper to tell me that they had preferred the lecture without the Powerpoint. It was easier to concentrate, they said. I could take notes better without being distracted. I enjoyed the lecture more.

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