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P.5.Severy-Hoven

“It caused me to think about Attic tragedy as an active kind of theater rather than the passive kind on the page which I’m used to.” “Working to reinterpret a tragedy lends itself to understanding the nature of myths and their constant reinterpretation in the past and present.” “It brings a new level of understanding to try to create a tragedy."

 anonymous student evaluations, spring 2011

 Since I began teaching Greek myth and surveys of ancient Greek culture to undergraduates, I have been striving to create an assignment that communicates what I believe is critical to understanding Attic tragedy: 1) the rules of the genre, 2) the potential of an ancient story to comment upon contemporary issues, and 3) the experience of performance. Finally I have a tragedy project which accomplishes these goals well. In small groups, students select an ancient myth and a modern issue to explore using that myth. They then compose and perform to the rest of the class a play in English which observes the conventions of Attic tragedy.

The assignment is designed to help students figure out how tragedies work through creativity and emulation, rather than through argument. As students often comment in their course evaluations, creating a play within the boundaries of a genre forces them to take apart existing plays and work out the nature of the genre even more carefully than they do in an essay. Imitatio encourages close analysis of diction, tone, character types, plot structures, monologue and dialogue forms, and can be accomplished even by students who do not have the technical vocabulary to describe or make arguments about these. Moreover, Attic tragedy was a civic event, and part of the experience of a citizen was to perform as well as hear and see plays. This project provides an experience of performance on these many levels. Finally, I have found that students do not really appreciate how flexible Greek myth can be until they craft a version of one themselves.

In my talk I will present brief excerpts from student work. Their plays have utilized the myths of Dionysus and Pentheus to think about peer pressure, binge drinking and the legalization of cannabis, the Trojan War to ponder war profiteers and challenges faced by veterans, and Orpheus and Eurydice to explore illegal immigration and border control. They often invent Attic comedy by parodying rather than strictly imitating tragedy, but this is both pedagogically useful and hilarious, even though such groups cannot receive the highest marks.

 Within the scholarship of teaching and learning, problem-based learning has received great attention, but less so in the humanities (see, for example, Duch, Groh and Allen). What is a ‘real world’ problem for arts and letters? Creating something new is considered the most demanding and engaging of cognitive processes within the revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives; creating requires lower level skills including understanding, analyzing, evaluating and applying (Anderson and Krathwohl). In addition to this cognitive domain, as well, the tragedy project engages students emotionally and physically in their learning, since it requires group work and performance. My course evaluations bear out their high level of engagement in the assignment. Moreover, I see progress in their understanding of myth and literature in their final essays, in which students analyze a 20th or 21st century American reuse of Greek myth. In courses with the tragedy project I receive many fewer student papers organized around ‘how the storyteller got it wrong.’ Instead, I observe students situating the work in question within a tradition going back as far as 5th century Athens in which myths were meant to be revised and adapted to the needs of the day. Teachers in ancient Rome and modern composition instructors are on to something with the pedagogical technique of imitatio.


Anderson, L. W. and David R. Krathwohl, D. R., et al, eds. (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon
Bloom, B.S. and Krathwohl, D. R. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. NY, NY: Longmans, Green
>Duch, B. J., S. E. Groh and D. E. Allen. (2001) The Power of Problem-Based Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus

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