Classically Inclined

October 6, 2014

On trying new things: my very first MOOC

Filed under: Learning — lizgloyn @ 11:51 am
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As those who follow me on Twitter will know, I recently took the plunge and signed up for my first MOOC. MOOC, for those of you to whom this is newspeak, stands for Massive Open Online Course – it is, apparently, the new disruptive technology that means we won’t need universities any more and everyone will just access electronic higher education from the best professors more or less for free. Or, alternatively, it is the development that will lead to a dystopian nightmare of low-paid part-time staff doing all the actual dealing with students while star professors record a couple of videos, fees calculated on a per appearance basis, and students become utterly detached from any form of intellectual community. You can read the fears and dreams that cluster around MOOCs in articles appearing in the educational and popular press more or less weekly, and if you want some chunky analysis of the language that gets used, you should go and read Melonie Fullick’s Speculative Diction blog, which has some excellent pieces unpicking the rhetoric that both sides use on this subject.

Now, I am a selective Luddite – you won’t find me near an e-reader, but I do apparently get on with quite a lot of this new technology stuff reasonably well. So I decided that rather than sit and nay-say about MOOCs, the only sensible thing to do was to sign up for one and give it a go. I decided to sign up with FutureLearn, which is the first UK-based MOOC platform, because they were running a course on the English Literature of the Country House, which appealed since I like both literature and country houses. I was also curious about the FutureLearn platform, as it’s still in development but looks like it’s marketing itself very much as the UK option for universities interested in providing this sort of thing in the future.


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.


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.

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”.


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.


April 25, 2013

Outreach: speaking with IRIS

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:36 am
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I’m sure most of you who hang around here will have come across the awesome IRIS Project, whose mission is to give children from all walks of life an opportunity to learn about the languages and cultures of the ancient world. One of their initiatives is the Mayor of London’s Love Latin scheme, where Boris has put his money where his mouth is – after saying publically for so long that Latin is wonderful, he’s backing a scheme to get Latin into as many schools in the capital as possible, not just those in economically privileged areas. The scheme pairs volunteers with schools; the volunteers then go in to give a talk on whatever subject the school would like. Hopefully this then creates the opportunity for the school either to use the interest that generates in pupils to start teaching a new subject, to continue as members of the scheme next year, or to build on the experience in some other way.

Given that my roots are in London and that I too think it’s hugely important to let students from as many backgrounds know that classics is for them as much as it is for anybody else, signing up to be part of the scheme was a bit of a no-brainer. I wasn’t able to participate last year, which was the first year the project ran, but I was able to fit something into my schedule this year. So last week I pottered off to a primary school in Highams Park to give two Year Four classes an hour’s taster of Latin, as the beginning of their unit on the Romans.

I will admit to having some nerves about whether I’d aimed the talk at the right level – Year Four is eight and nine year olds, and while I had quite a lot to do with that age group when I was a teenager working with the YMCA Day Camps, it’s been a while since I engaged with them in a meaningful way. Thankfully, it soon turned out that I’d pitched it just right, with three activities for the hour and enough variety to keep the children engaged. They’ll be going to see the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum in May, so I finished off with a bit of graffiti – real graffiti, mind, albeit with a little bit of judicious age-appropriate editing and a very informative crib sheet (and thanks are due to Jane Draycott for pointing me in the direction of Ancient Graffiti in Context). They all got extremely excited about this, which is what I was hoping – even in a heavily supported fashion, that feeling of solving the puzzle of translation is a reward worth earning.

I’m still smiling over the feedback sheets that they’ve filled out for the IRIS project. There’s something about the unrestrained enthusiasm of that age group that makes you grin – not to mention the boost to the ego of knowing that you have earned the accolades of ‘best time in the history of school’ and ‘the best ever visitor’. Shame that sort of keenness doesn’t last when students come to fill out university module evaluation forms!

January 10, 2013

Age asymmetric marriage in ancient Rome

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:09 am
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Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have spotted, just before the new year, an unscientific poll I undertook about what the average age difference between partners was among my followers’ peer groups; I asked the same question on Facebook as well. I was curious whether my perception of differences in ages was accurate – I had thought that most of my friends were within a five year gap, but Geoff countered that he thought among our peer group the difference was narrower, more like two years. What better way to check than to ask the internet?

The responses were quite interesting, not least because some people offered their thoughts about why the age gap looked like it did. In general, my sense that gaps of two, three and four years were most common seemed to be borne out, although more people than I was expecting said they felt the average among their peer group was a year or two years. People identified outliers (fifteen or twenty years difference), but tended to label them as outside the norm, either within the peer group or usual social patterns. Most people who offered suggestions about why this might be thought that socialisation had a lot to do with it – people had met partners at university, or alternatively had met through their university friends’ wider networks which tended to be roughly age-equivalent, hence the prevalence of one and two year gaps.

So why was this on my mind? Because of the Roman Life Course class I am teaching today, looking at age asymmetrical marriage in the Roman world. I’ve asked students to look through one of Plutarch’s Lives and think about what features of the life course can be traced through it; the class this evening will focus on what we can pick out about their marital habits from the texts. I spent most of my Christmas and New Year working through the Lives in question myself, and tracing the marital histories of Antony, Cicero and Pompey. Pompey is the particularly interesting example; he married five times, prolific even in a society that structured itself to encourage remarriage wherever possible. His early marriages appear to be fairly age-equal as far as these things go – for instance, his second wife (Sulla’s stepdaughter) would have been about eighteen and he would have been about 24 when they married, which is a bit wider than we’d normally see now but not unheard of.

However, his fourth and fifth marriages show a really interesting shift in perception. His fourth wife was Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar; she was about 24 and he was about 47, so there was a 23 year difference. Plutarch comments on Pompey dedicating himself to his young wife and being distracted from the political life of the state, but the impression is that this age gap at this stage is not unusual and other men have found themselves in the same situation. However, it’s a different story with his fifth wife, Cornelia Metella – while he’s about 55 when they marry, she’s only 21, making a whopping 34 years difference. Plutarch snidely observes that she would have been a more appropriate wife for a son of Pompey than for Pompey himself, suggesting that this time he’s gone just that bit too far in crossing the age boundary. The Romans can cope with a wide age difference, but there are limits; Pompey’s case demonstrates roughly where the unseen boundaries of acceptability lie.

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.


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.


January 26, 2012

Seneca and the impossibility of purchasing knowledge

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 11:16 am
Tags: , , , ,

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…)

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