Now More Than Ever

This Fall I am teaching Latin 101 for the first time in longer than I care to remember. Five years? Six? One tends to lose count as the years roll by. The salient point is that the last time I taught Latin 101 digital technology, and especially social media, had colonized much less of the individual and collective mind than it has in 2015. We are now– students and faculty alike– far more used to the instant gratification of googling instead of research, of apps in place of memorization, and of games in place of work.

I don’t mean to sound grumpy. I find Om-nom and Facebook as seductive as the next person. But I have observed and felt the diminishing exercise of our brains and had wondered how that would translate into teaching Introductory Latin in the new information era.

What I have found is perhaps surprising, although fundamentally I don’t think so: I have found a thirst in my students for “old school” learning. For memorization (of forms). For cross-referencing of information (person and number of verbs with case and number of nouns). For interpretation of grammar and content alike.

I may, of course, be deluding myself, but I hope that it helps that I tackled this potential problem head on. I informed my students from the first day of class that learning Latin would probably a new and different experience for them, even those who had taken some Latin in high school. I told them that there are no short-cuts, but that this material provides an opportunity for their brains to do what they were truly designed to do: learn, connect, interpret, and grow. I told them– repeatedly, no doubt– that this is a rare gift in a climate of fast-paced information overload. Slowing down intellectually, focusing intently on strange words, terms, morphology, and puzzle-solving can be an oasis in what sometimes seems a mental desert of junk knowledge.

They have risen to this challenge and exceeded my both my expectations and my hopes. I don’t know that I have ever been so proud of a group of students. I have certainly never been more sure that our brains, in this time of frenetic but often superficial mental activity, continue to need Latin, now more than ever.

Small But Mighty

As the Chair of a (small) Classics department at a (small) liberal arts college, I tend to chuckle when I hear my peers at similar institutions lament that they have to make do with four, or five, or three faculty lines. This is not only because they have—from my perspective—a wealth of human resources, but also because one of the benefits of being small is the discovery of how much a Classics program can do with less. While I would love to have more human-power on our teaching side, I when I jokingly refer to Agnes Scott Classics as small but mighty, I mean it.

When I say small, I mean a usual tenure-track complement of two. As we prepare to hire in the second line vacated by the death of my colleague in Spring of 2012, I am reflecting on the unanticipated benefits of being small. Specifically, a department of two allows for a focus of purpose and a curricular unity that is extremely rare. Having only one course in English at each level (100, 200, 300) each year permits a clarity of purpose and a progression of skills that is easy to keep track of, assess, and communicate—and yet is still flexible and open to innovation, both by individual instructors and the faculty working in tandem.

Our 100-level courses, for example, are respectively Greek and Roman History, in which the main goal is to introduce students to historical method—especially how to use primary sources— alongside historical content. In 200-level courses, Mythology on the literature side and Gender and Sexuality on the civilization side, primary source engagement is still paramount, but secondary sources also come into play. Here students have a specific assignment for reading articles critically, and another on “theory and practice” in which they choose a methodological approach from an article the class has read and apply it to a different primary source. These courses take as their final project not an exam or research paper, but a topic proposal and oral presentation that requires them to combine a theory-and-practice approach with secondary source research methods. By the time students arrive at a 300-level course, the topics for which change with each offering, they are able practitioners of primary and secondary source analysis, have experience crafting research proposals, and are ready to write a full research paper and present it to their peers, aware of all the steps they must take along the way. When they revise such a paper or develop a previous proposal in their senior seminar, our students have the practice they need to make the experience the capstone it is meant to be.

The same is true for Latin and Greek, which are of course the backbone of any Classics program. The introductory sequence (101-102) lays the grammatical groundwork. The third semester (LAT 201, GRE 211) introduces primary and secondary source analysis on a small scale. The fourth (LAT 202, GRE 212) progresses to either more in-depth primary source criticism or a theory-and-practice assignment. Students in our combined advanced/ advanced intermediate Latin classes similarly conclude either with a research paper (advanced) or topic proposal (advanced intermediate). While in an ideal world this would include advanced/ advanced intermediate Greek, the reality is simply that our institution is too small, at around 850 students, to support those courses on a regular basis. However, I can rest assured that students who choose to study third-year Greek at Emory or in an independent study are prepared for the challenge.

Communicability is also key, not least in explaining to students why it is they are doing what they are doing, and how we expect it to prepare them for the “real world” beyond Agnes Scott— no matter what course they are in or what their post-collegiate plans may be. Our students know the what, why, and how of the Classics program, and thus can develop a clear sense of their strengths and of where they can work to improve: critical skills for leadership, both of one’s self and others. It’s a mighty claim for a small program, but I stand behind it.

Up She Goes! Summit and Classics: Latin is a Team Sport

As Agnes Scott College launches its Summit Initiative—a liberal-arts-based program of global learning and leadership development that ensures all students gain perspectives and skills necessary for navigating an increasingly interconnected world—it might be helpful for me to articulate what Classics can contribute in this new model.

The Global Learning connection is so obvious as to require little comment; the influence of the classical world is all around us in our governmental systems, social constructs, imperial agenda, literary and artistic works, et cetera. Leadership Development may seem less obvious, but for me it presents an opportunity primarily to be more transparent about how Classics has always emphasized important leadership skills in addition to providing ample material for many approaches to leadership studies.

This brief post presents the example of my revisions to the 2015-16 Intermediate Latin sequence (LAT 201 and LAT 202) and how I plan to pair the latter with a new course (LAT 302) that incorporates advanced Latin students in a leadership capacity. In each part of these revisions, I am refining pedagogical methods I have used for a number of years rather than starting ex nihilo: group work during class times, collation of resources for primary source translation and analysis, location and analysis of secondary sources, informal and formal oral presentations.

My overall goals—which I will of course share with the students—are to help these young women to think critically about their own learning process, to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, to seek out help when they need it, to help each other, to understand that learning Latin is an ongoing process that is never “done,” and hopefully to gain a more realistic and more confident assessment of their own abilities. Each of these goals is addressed through specific assignments both in and out of class, and center on three main leadership skills: teamwork, information fluency, and public speaking. Rather than repeating myself, I encourage you to look at this presentation I developed during May’s Goizueta Foundation Summer Curricular Innovation Institute, generously and capably run by our Education professors Lesley Coia and Toby Emert.   Latin is a team sport can be found here. Should anyone make their way to this post, questions and comments are welcome.

Why assessment?

In my “about” page I reveal that I am an assessment (not a dirty word) enthusiast. This may fill my two or three readers with confusion or dismay. So perhaps I ought to explain myself. Yesterday Melissa Dennihy published a piece on “How to Talk About Assessment in Faculty Job Interviews” in Inside Higher Education that may help me do so. It’s good. Very good. I suggest you read it; if you’re spending any time here at all, it can only mean that you care about this, too, or are motivated to try.

In the piece, Dennihy provides advice to job seekers about how to handle possible questions about their experience with assessment. I would emphasize the last three items she mentions– transparency, communication, and failure– as particularly important to me. Over the past several years, as I have worked to develop a coherent and consistent curriculum on the language and civilization sides of Agnes Scott’s Classics program, I have become increasingly transparent about the assessment I do. On syllabi. In assignments. Through rubrics. With students. With my departmental colleagues. With college-wide colleagues. Communication is key, and it is a two-way street, or maybe more like Little Five Points down the road. Involving students as well as colleagues in discussions of learning goals is essential to success, and to avoiding or improving upon failure.

To explain what I mean, let me provide an example of how I have been using assessment to rectify what I saw as a bit of a failure: our students were arriving at their capstone experience, our senior seminar, not fully prepared to develop a sophisticated and well-supported research project. I asked myself why. I looked at the range of courses they usually take before arriving at that point. And I decided to reverse engineer the majors to ensure sufficient preparation for that experience (and, of course, the world beyond). I made specific changes to provide students with multiple rounds of practice locating and assessing primary sources and their value; reading, digesting, and redeploying scholarly approaches to problems in the field; crafting and presenting potential research topics and thinking about how to pursue them; and developing those topics or others in subsequent courses. This has led to initial primary and secondary source exercises in all third semester Latin and Greek courses and 100-level courses in English. It has led to “theory and practice” exercises and research proposals in fourth semester Latin and Greek courses and 200-level courses in English. It has led to the development of such proposals in advanced Latin and Greek and in 300-level courses in English. It has also led to improved senior seminar projects– more clearly defined, more manageable, better supported, and better written– and to greater coherence and consistency in the program as a whole.

In the big picture, though, these evidence-based changes that have benefitted Classics majors and minors have, I think, benefitted the much more numerous ranks of students who take all of our courses. They now have a clearer idea of what the program prioritizes and why, how we help students reach the department’s learning goals, and how a range of approaches from our Classics faculty can support these goals. Ideally, both our program as a whole and individual student learning have improved, with individual faculty autonomy and creativity still of critical importance. If I write another post– and again, don’t hold your breath– perhaps I’ll tackle that topic: how to promote and autonomy within a framework of shared goals, and how to assess its success.

Don’t hold your breath

Because I doubt I’ll be posting here very often.

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