Classically Inclined

January 2, 2012

Book Review: The Lake of Dead Languages – Carol Goodman

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:53 am
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A friend passed this on to me, saying that I would enjoy it immensely – and he was right. The Lake of Dead Languages is a murder mystery set at a girls’ boarding school, The Heart Lake School for Girls, in the Adirondacks. The protagonist, Latin teacher Jane Hudson, is an old girl of the school who has come back to take up the position that has not been successfully filled since her own school days, when she was involved in a particularly nasty set of suicides that implicated the then-Latin teacher, Magistra Helen Chambers. Whispers of the curse of the school are raised when the pattern seems to be repeating itself – but could there be more to it than that?

Well, the answer is ‘obviously’, but the novel manages to weave its tale very cleverly indeed, and it took me a while to cotton on to what was going on (although I should add that I’m normally quite bad at guessing these things anyway). The book’s strength is that the truth about what happened in the last year that Jane spent at Heart Lake is gradually revealed during her first year there as teacher; memories, new evidence and fresh realisations are pieced together by Jane as much as by the reader, and it’s a nice twist on the unreliable narrator trope to make the narrator unreliable because she is not in full possession of the facts rather than because of deliberate deceit on her part. (more…)

December 19, 2011

Reflecting on the autumn 2011 semester

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 2:27 pm
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A recent Faculty Focus post on End of Semester Reflections: Beginnings, Endings and Spaces Between reminded me that I wanted to do some thinking about the term that has just finished, especially since it is the first term that I’ve spent in a full time position. I’ll do some more specific reflection on the new assignments I’ve been tracking later in the week (I hope!), but this post is more of set of general reflections on the experience while it’s still fresh in my mind.

I think what I will remember most about this term in five years is that actually, I coped rather well. Not only did I have to learn an entirely new system of timetabling, assessment setting, university norms and all the general institutional process that comes with a new job, but I stayed on top of it – and even managed to get some research done. I kept two weeks ahead of my teaching prep, which is the practice that keeps me sane and gives me a buffer in case something goes wrong; I didn’t stay up until 3am doing prep; I got all my marking done on time; I gave every lesson and lecture I was supposed to; I didn’t miss any deadlines. True, I was sometimes scrabbling around said deadlines, but I got there in the end – and I think that’s a pretty impressive achievement for a first term. (more…)

November 1, 2011

Guest post for the Guardian!

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:39 am
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I’m glad to report that I have a guest post up over at the Guardian’s Higher Education Network – observations and lessons from my first week of teaching. It does exactly what it says on the tin – talks about some of the issues that struck me as I worked my first full week back in a UK institution, and some of the lessons I learnt over that brief period but intense. Do click through and have a look!

October 27, 2011

Busy, busy bee

I think this has been the most busy week I’ve had to face at Birmingham, and it’s driving home to me just how much catching-up work I have to do as a new academic. This week is crunch point for student meetings of several types – I have dissertation students coming to talk about the first piece of written work they’ve produced for me; my first year students have their Adjustment Tutorials to make sure they’re settling in to university life, and to help us identify anyone who might be in need of extra support; and I’m having initial meetings with the second years planning their study tour, a great feature of the Birmingham course which funds students to go overseas and visit sites and museums relevant to their areas of study. These are all crucial and exciting meetings to have with students – the first real insight I get into how third years are tackling their dissertation work, sharing the highs and lows of the first month at university, beginning to plan foreign travel and come up with realistic ideas about what can be accomplished in the time available.

But all of this exciting student contact has to be fitted around writing my lectures, which this week includes planning a seminar on the first two books of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica and preparing a comparative lecture on Greek cults and hero worship, plus what now seems like an inordinate amount of other meetings. I’m sure that if I’d been thinking straight, I wouldn’t have planned to attend both the university Central Induction event and a training session on supervising students in the same week as the mid-term IAA school meeting… but hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s too late to worry about that now. The lecture on Greek cults and heroes seemed like a great idea when I was putting the syllabus together, but as usual, coming to write it is a bit more complicated than I expected. There have also been some admin jobs that I haven’t been able to put off, including such domestic delights as buying a new mop and picking up a kettle from the Post Office – which don’t sound particularly thrilling, but demand their own chunk of time which I can’t then devote to other things.

Mind you, after you’ve gone through eight adjustment tutorials in a row, like I did this morning, your brain has turned into well-intentioned mush – it’s important to check in with first year students that they’re making friends, the finances are alright and they’re balancing their workload, but moving out of pastoral care mode into hardcore lecture writing mode is surprisingly tough. It’s days like this I envy my senior colleagues, who are able to review and revise their lectures rather than do a whole series from scratch, or at least have notes for one course they’ve taught in this format before. I’m consoling myself with the thought that if I put the effort into producing good lecture notes this time around, I’ll have good material to reuse elsewhere. It doesn’t hurt that it’s reading week next week; after this week of back-to-back meetings, I’m going to appreciate a bit of a breather.

September 29, 2011

Film review: Educating Rita

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 12:27 pm
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Last week’s Times Higher Education magazine included quite an interesting article on how members of academic staff feel about the start of a new term; emotions recorded include fear, panic, nightmares, trepidation and the whole gamut of angst that you would expect, as well as the more positive emotions like enthusiasm for new teaching and the opportunity to meet and engage with a new group of students.

I was considering writing a blog post recording my emotions about a new term (which, for the record, are torn between not being able to wait to get back into the classroom after two years out of it, and the inevitable first day nerves of starting a new job at a new institution where you’re still learning the ropes), but then I got my next DVD from Lovefilm through the post and settled down to watch it. Said film was Educating Rita (1983), adapted by Willy Russell from his 1980 play, starring Michael Caine as the English lecturer Frank and Julie Walters as Rita (real name Susan) as a non-traditional student who has decided to take her degree via the Open University. (There’s also a wonderful cameo by Maureen Lipman, but I shan’t fangirl.) I use non-traditional to describe Rita not just because it’s a more appropriate word to describe students than ‘mature’, but also because at the start of the film Rita isn’t mature – part of the whole point is the slow maturation process that she goes through, and the conflict this causes for Frank as he sees her ‘getting an education’ and cheerfully (and gratefully) discarding most of the things that made her, to him, an interesting and unique student in the first place.

The THE article mentioned lecturers who have rituals for first classes – playing a particular piece of music beforehand, wearing lucky socks, a specific activity they set students. I think I may just have started my own start of year ritual with watching Educating Rita. (more…)

September 26, 2011

PSA: Possible disruption

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 7:19 am
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This is just a quick heads up that there might be a bit of disruption on the blog this week, as I’m currently enrolling my epic seminar students in their blog, which I’m also administering off this account. I’m not quite sure how this is going to work, as it’s my first attempt at doing this – but just in case something goes wrong, I thought I’d give everyone a warning!

September 15, 2011

A better way of marking essays?

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 4:47 am
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The assessed essay forms a big part of the formal assessment for students’ degrees at Birmingham, and students have the opportunity to write practice essays throughout the year. Now, I have a small confession to make – I think that I saw a reference to the article I’m going to talk about here in a Faculty Focus e-mail, but the piece I remember appears to have vanished into thin air, so I may have come across it somewhere else. In which case – sorry, whoever  I’ve forgotten! However, clearly the idea in the e-mail or blog post jumped out at me, because I downloaded it straight away, since it seemed that it might be a useful addition to the arsenal of resources for providing useful assessment feedback for this kind of work.

The article is titled Generating dialogue in assessment feedback: exploring the use of interactive cover sheets, and is authored by Susan Bloxham and Liz Campbell; I’ve put a full reference at the bottom of this post. Their starting point was that dialogue is starting to be recognised as a really important part of meaningful learning (that is, active engagement trumps passive receptivity). The dialogue they want to create, without overburdening staff, is between student and tutor about written work, with students asking questions about their own work when they submit each assignment. There were problems – students didn’t always know which questions would begin a “meaningful dialogue”, for instance – but nonetheless, the idea still seemed to have potential. (more…)

August 24, 2011

The trouble with required texts

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 8:45 am
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I got into a discussion on Twitter last night with @RuthFT and @BoneGirlPhD about required texts and their role in syllabi. Ruth expressed shock that a US student might be expected to shell out $100+ for their required books for each course each semester, Kristina wondered how UK students all kept doing the same thing without a required text, and the conversation went from there.

What is very clear to me, as someone who has worked in both the UK and the US systems, is that there’s a really big culture difference here. The fact that UK students are studying a single subject and US students are studying cross a broad range makes a real difference to the expectations courses have of how students will use textbooks and secondary literature. In the US, for first year courses, you assume your students know nothing. Not a thing. You begin from a base point of nul point and build up from there – and, what do you know, there’s a whole market of textbooks that will help you teach Word Power 101 or World History 101 or Chemistry 101, and will essentially write your syllabus for you, and provide all the information and structure that your course needs, and of course your student needs that textbook (in the current edition, naturally) because that’s what the assignments and the readings are going to come from, and it essentially serves as the liferaft for the whole course.

In the UK, the assumptions are very different. We give students a list of recommended reading – proper secondary literature, journal articles, books and chapters of books – and expect them to bring the quality of their work up to speed. There’s a much smaller market for textbooks written specifically for the university market, because university lecturers here tend to assume that the best way of getting undergrads comfortable with secondary literature is to plunge them in at the deep end and see if they swim. The base-line of the A-level gives us a guarantee that this material won’t be completely unfamiliar, so a university’s job is to move the dialogue beyond that point. We give our students some direction on how to do independent research, point them in the direction of a library, and see how they do. The thing is that in the UK, we can get away with it. The A-level system means there’s a knowledge base we can take for granted. We are also teaching students the norms of reading and writing in a single field – once you have got the hang of the conventions in, for instance, Roman poetry, you’ll probably be more or less alright in Greek prose. The skills you spend building up during that first rather anxious term are going to serve you in good stead for the rest of your undergraduate degree.

Students in the US, however, aren’t building up that kind of a depth in a field. Over their college careers, they will take one course in classics/physics/geology, to fulfill whatever core requirement that needs its box ticked, and then they will never look at the subject again. I know that if I have to navigate secondary literature in different fields, it takes me quite a while to work out the conventions of (for instance) sociological research as I go – and that’s for an article that I want to read, and that should have at least one point of contact with material I’m already familiar with. For US students to be dealing with courses that essentially pull them in three (or four, or five) different disciplinary directions each term would be an absolute intellectual nightmare. When your attention is spread over very diverse fields rather than concentrated in one, suddenly the attraction of a course that’s taught to the textbook becomes very clear indeed.

August 5, 2011

What students tell you by their questions

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 7:56 am
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I’m just back from a week in Bavaria, seeing Parsifal at Bayreuth (courtesy of my parents, who have been on the waiting list for tickets for at least fifteen years), so things have been a bit quiet on the research and teaching front. Now I’m back and starting to get my head around my teaching load for next year, so I expect that some thoughts on syllabus construction will be appearing here fairly soon.

In the meantime, as I read through the accumulated e-mails in my inbox, I came across this article from Faculty Focus, titled “What Are Students Telling You by the Questions They Ask?” The author splits questions out into four types. There’s the higher-order question, which indicates a student has a good grasp of the subject and wants to know more about higher level synthesis and so on. There’s the content-specific question, which asks for information the student hypothetically could have found in the assigned material. There’s the process question, which asks for some hand-holding through using a system or process they aren’t comfortable with. (Library catalogues and Chicago referencing spring inexhorably to mind.) Finally, there’s silence – and goodness only knows what that means, as the student isn’t communicating at all. All these questions, the writer suggests, help us see the underlying issues for each individual student, and we can start addressing those as well as the surface issue the question addressed.

One thing that came to my mind is that when I listen to student questions, while they often do fall into these categories, there’s something else they communicate in addition to the suggestions the post makes – and that is student interest. Questions are a great way of gauging what topics are really capturing the imagination of students. When I was teaching my course on gender and sexuality in the ancient world, questions were a really useful indicator for me of what topics were actually grasping the attention of the class, especially since so few of the people in it had any background in classics. Questions always came up around issues of religion, for instance, since the ancient world had very different views on religious practice to us, and students found that difference intractably fascinating. (This may have had something to do with the fact that the course wasn’t focused on religion but dealt with a lot of religious content – Euripides’ Bacchae, for example, and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.) If I get another opportunity to teach that course, I’m definitely going to do something to capitalise on that content interest and connect it to the overarching themes of the syllabus; drawing interconnections with topics that generate this kind of buzz means that you spread that interest through all the content you want to cover.

So questions do give us ways to informally assess student learning and thus provide the teaching individual students need to progress along their own educational journeys. But at the same time, questions help us as teachers learn where the spark-points of interest are, and so give us pointers as to what to use to get our students really engaged with the knowledge that we are trying to share with them. Listening to what gets discussion going can also help us construct our own discussion prompts for in-class discussion, at least as starting points. Student questions have a lot more to offer us than meets the eye, and we should try to use all the information that we can to improve what we do and how we do it.

July 6, 2011

Next year’s plans – good news!

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 5:26 am
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As those of you who follow me on Twitter know, I have spent the last few months working through the job application process, and my endeavours have borne fruit. I am delighted to tell you that I will be joining the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham as a Teaching Fellow in Roman literature for the 2011-12 academic year.

I’m looking forward to joining the department very much; it sounds like I’m going to be doing a wide range of teaching, both in terms of subject and approach, and the course requirements are set up in very interesting and cool ways. The final details will probably be hammered out next week, but whatever the final details look like, it’s going to be an exciting year.

Of course, next year’s job market will usher in another period of running around like a headless chicken in pursuit of multiple forms and paperwork, but for now, it’s very satisfying to be able to rest after the chaos of this year’s job hunt, and the international move, and, um, finishing off the PhD. I suspect I’m due a proper holiday…

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