Trends in Teaching the Classics to Undergraduates

by Mary Pendergraft, Wake Forest University

This paper was delivered as part of "The Future of Classical Education: A Dialogue," a panel organized by the SCS Program Committee at the 147th annual meeting of the SCS in San Francisco, January 8, 2016.

The economic volatility of the last decade has taken a toll on education at every level; the humanities in general and language studies in particular have suffered far more than STEM subjects; and among languages, Greek and Latin, which offer no immediately profitable benefits, feel especially vulnerable. Many of us feel this concern instinctively and find that anecdotes from around the country reinforce our concerns. In addition, three national organizations have published large-scale reports that each offer a different snapshot on the state of undergraduate education.Wake Forest student Mary Somerville talks with her teammates to solve advanced grammar problems in a role-playing game, April 15, 2013. Photo: via flickr, © Wake Forest University

AAAS

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has published two national departmental surveys of humanities departments in four-year institutions, in 2008 and 2013; only the second looked specifically at Classics departments. It tells us that

  • 276 institutions had departments of classics in 2012–13, with an average of 7 faculty members, for a total of 1,920 faculty members.
  • 4,770 juniors and seniors had a declared major in classics at the beginning of fall semester 2012, an average of 17 per department. The average number of majors was highest (32.1) for schools where the highest degree offered is the Master’s. The average number of majors in baccalaureate institutions was 13.6, and in doctorate-granting programs 23.7.
  • 2,240 Bachelor’s degrees in classics were awarded in 2012–13, an average of 8.1 per department.

For comparison, Philosophy departments were also first surveyed in 2012–13; they number 754, with a total of 7,830 faculty members. They average 27 junior and senior majors per department, and the greatest concentration is in research universities (18 majors per department); Baccalaureate and Master’s-degree institutions averaged 8 and 9 majors per department, respectively. 9,850 Philosophy Bachelor’s degrees were completed in that year, with an average of 13.1 per department.

SCS

Second, the SCS surveyed departments during Academic Year 2013–14; this study showed that approximately 190 majors graduated, a fact that suggests that the number of departments responding was smaller than the number in the AAAS survey. The average number of graduates per department in that year, however, was very close to the AAAS number: eight. There were somewhat more women than men, and on average fewer than two minority students, a disturbingly small number and an ongoing concern in every aspect of our discipline.

MLA

Both of these studies are interesting, but it is the annual survey of enrollments by the Modern Language Association where we find the most longitudinal data, stretching back to 1958. Their periodic surveys of language enrollments first included Latin and Greek in 1968; surveys of the twenty-first century, in 2002, 2006, 2009, 2013, show that Latin enrollments reached a high of 32,444, reported in 2009, and fell to a low of 27,000 in 2013. The latter number is comparable to the numbers for each survey in the 1990s. Greek, on the other hand, had the highest enrollments during the years surveyed—22,800—in 2006, only to plummet to fewer than 13,000 in 2013.

The SCS survey includes numbers for various courses in classical studies; there is no long term data for comparison, but the enrollments seem relatively healthy—something that my own observation supports. It seems that, while we can’t be complacent about Latin or Classics enrollments, it is Greek where we have good reason for concern.    

Pedagogy

With that background, I’d like to look at ways that course offerings and pedagogical approaches have undergone changes in the last decade or so, and I’ll tackle course offerings first. The SCS census asks about Ancient Art & Archaeology, Ancient History, Ancient Philosophy, Classical Civilization, Literature in Translation, Mythology, and Etymology—all titles, at least, that are familiar since my own undergraduate days. Two newer areas of focus appear as well, the Classical Tradition and Gender & Sexuality Studies. Where twenty years ago, for instance, a forward-thinking department would offer “Women in the Ancient World,” focusing on texts and inscriptions, say, today such a course reflects a theoretical sophistication that we would also find in a department of Gender and Sexuality. Similarly, as Classical Reception has emerged as a field of study, at the same time Classics courses that look at the afterlife of ancient models become more sophisticated as well.

Under even familiar headings, too, it’s very likely that the emphases and pedagogical strategies are new ones, and the same is true in language courses. I will simply call attention to some examples. Perhaps a dozen or more programs use Latin as the language of instruction—in whole or in part.1 And summer opportunities for practicing the active use of Latin are flourishing (see below for a list of Conventicula). Comparable programs for Greek are emerging more slowly.

Distance learning opportunities make it possible for programs to address larger audiences and in turn draw on a larger pool of offerings for their students: Synoikisis, a national consortium of Classics programs, is one very successful example.

Role-playing and gaming as instructional strategies can assume a variety of forms; in 2015 the SCS meeting included a panel of instructors who employ an array of such techniques. The Reacting to the Past project consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Classicists have been involved in this project almost since its inception.

Challenges for Greek

The importance of new teaching strategies, especially for Greek, was a lively topic on the Classics list earlier in January, prompted by James Romm’s article in last Sunday’s NY Times: “Beginning Greek, Again and Again.” His reflections on the inevitable frustrations that attend the joy of teaching Greek struck a nerve with many of us. At the same time, all the numbers we looked at above tell us that we need desperately to address declining Greek enrollments. Two themes emerge in discussions of that decline. One arose in that recent online conversation: the need to improve pedagogy in Greek. While examples of the innovative practices more widely adopted among our high school colleagues appear in some college Latin programs—the use of Latin in instruction, for instance—they are far less frequent in Greek. A strategy cited for its potential benefit is the use Comprehensible Input, that is, providing students with readings that are readily intelligible in order to increase their fluency. Again, far more materials are available for Latin than for Greek.

A second challenge facing Greek teachers has been raised by Willy Major of the Committee for the Promotion of Greek, and is echoed by others: As student demographics change, the study of Greek once again—still?—is perceived as a bastion of privilege removed from and absolutely unrelated to current concerns, and this perception persists to an extent that is not the case with Latin. This fact argues not only for new teaching but also for new entry points, perhaps, into its study. Students of engineering can be introduced to Archimedes, for instances; students whose tradition focuses on the Ottoman Empire need to know who founded Byzantium.

As an example of the kinds of changes that are taking place in teaching strategies and in content, I’ll take my own department at Wake Forest, the one I know best. From 1988 to 2008, there were four of us, good teachers all, but not, in general, engaged in pedagogical innovation. Since then three retirements have made us a department of teachers from a generation who have been engaged in questions of pedagogy in ways my age mates and I never were. My colleague Michael Sloan, for instance, is developing a repository of online Latin drills that can provide the out-of-class backbone for one kind of flipped class, where class time focuses on reading at sight.

My colleague Ted Gellar-Goad turned a required course for Latin majors—Advanced Grammar and Composition—into an elaborate role-playing game. His First Year Seminar combines two Reacting to the Past games, one set in Athens in 403 and the other in Rome immediately after Caesar’s assassination. John Oksanish developed an FYS called “Ancient STEM Societies.” Selena Witzke is designing digital portfolios for her course on women in the ancient world.

One of our most ambitious initiatives is still in the planning stage. Like many institutions, we see a growing number of students who are exempted from the language requirement for reasons of ability; large numbers of them are student athletes, first generation college students, and new Americans. In the case of some students, their disabilities are insurmountable, but perhaps that is not true for all of them. We hope to pilot an alternative Greek sequence that will be open only by recommendation from the dean’s office or the learning center and that will teach not only the Greek language but study skills, linguistic awareness, and more. At the same time, we hope that these students will gain confidence in their ability as learners. We’re very excited.

Conventicula:

Dickinson College

Paideia Institute

Polis: The Jerusalem Institute for Languages and Humanities

SALVI

University of Kentucky

University of Massachusetts-Boston

Wyoming Catholic College

Photo: Wake Forest student Mary Somerville talks with her teammates to solve advanced grammar problems in a role-playing game, April 15, 2013. Photo: via flickr, © Wake Forest University 


1. University of Kentucky; Davidson College; Ave Maria University; Washington University St. Louis; University of Houston; Christendom College; New Saint Andrews College; University of Massachusetts at Boston; Temple University; Western Washington University; Wyoming Catholic College; Cornell College.

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Recently, the SCS has focused attention on the importance on the variety of career paths pursued by those earning a Classics PhD. The Society has held a Career Networking event in 2018 and 2019 at its annual meeting, and will publish this summer a graduate student of edition of "Careers for Classicists", which will provide advice about seeking jobs inside and outside the academy. In recognition of the variety of types of employment open to Classics PhDs and in response to a request by an ad hoc group on graduate student issues, a precursor to the current Graduate Student Committee, the Career Planning and Development Committee has developed the following statement on the importance and value of many different careers. This statement has been endorsed by the SCS Board of Directors.   

Statement on Career Paths for those earning the PhD in Classical Studies

View full article. | Posted in Public Statements on Tue, 06/25/2019 - 9:20am by Erik Shell.

The Society for Classical Studies is proud to announce an upgrade to our Precollegiate Membership category.

In addition to enjoying all their current benefits, Precollegiate members will now enjoy full member benefits. These benefits include voting in SCS elections, serving on SCS boards and committees, and the opportunity to submit abstracts for the AIA/SCS annual meeting.

The annual dues for this membership will be $38 as of September 2019. Membership can be completed by joining online at scs.press.jhu.edu/membership.

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(Photo: "_DSC7061" by rhodesj, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Tue, 06/25/2019 - 9:01am by Erik Shell.

The twenty-second biennial New College Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Studies will take place 12–14 March 2020 in Sarasota, Florida. The program committee invites 250-word abstracts of proposed twenty-minute papers on topics in European and Mediterranean history, literature, art, music and religion from the fourth to the seventeenth centuries. Interdisciplinary work is particularly appropriate to the conference’s broad historical and disciplinary scope. Planned sessions are also welcome. The deadline for all abstracts is 15 September 2019; please see the submission guidelines on the conference website.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Mon, 06/24/2019 - 10:02am by Erik Shell.

The Presence of Plotinus: The Self, Contemplation, and Spiritual Exercise in the Enneads

Poznań, Poland, 9th-10th June 2020

An international conference organized by the Scientific Committee on Ancient Culture of the Polish Academy of Sciences
and
the Department of Classical Studies of  Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań

Invited speakers:

Sara Ahbel-Rappe (University of Michigan)

John Bussanich (University of New Mexico)

Martin Laird (Villanova University)

Christian Tornau (Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg)

The subject

View full article. | Posted in Conferences, Lectures, and Meetings on Fri, 06/21/2019 - 9:21am by Erik Shell.

(Written by David T. West)

Grace Starry West (1946-2019)

Grace Starry West, 72, died of complications from lung cancer on Sunday, May 19 at her home. She was a member of the SCS since 1973, Chair of the Local Arrangements Committee in 1999, and trustee of the Vergilian Society from 1986-1989. Her name will be especially familiar to Vergilians on account of her groundbreaking UCLA dissertation on “Women in Vergil’s Aeneid” (1975), and to students and colleagues from the University of Dallas, where she helped Classics grow into an outstanding program with three tenured faculty members and a steady flow of majors. As John F. Miller, Professor of Classics at the University of Virginia, recently observed: “Her work on Virgilian women was pioneering; her leadership at Dallas admirable.”

View full article. | Posted in In Memoriam on Fri, 06/21/2019 - 9:12am by Erik Shell.

'Addressing the Divide' is a new series of columns that looks at the ways in which the modern field of Classics was constructed and then explores ways to identify, modify, or simply abolish the lines between fields in order to embrace broader ideas of what Classics was, is, and could be. This month, we look at the divide between classical archaeology and philology by speaking with archaeologists Sheira Cohen, Eric Kansa, Kristina Killgrove, James Newhard, and Alison Rittershaus

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/21/2019 - 7:55am by Sarah E. Bond.

The American Academy in Berlin invites applications for its residential fellowships for the academic year 2020/21.

The Academy seeks to enrich transatlantic dialogue in the arts, humanities, and public policy through the development and communication of projects of the highest scholarly merit. Past recipients include anthropologists, art historians, literary scholars, philosophers, historians, musicologists, journalists, writers of fiction and nonfiction, filmmakers, sociologists, legal scholars, economists, and public policy experts.

Approximately twenty Berlin Prizes are conferred annually. Fellowships are typically awarded for an academic semester, but shorter stays of six to eight weeks are also possible. Benefits include round-trip airfare, partial board, a $5,000 monthly stipend, and accommodations at the Academy’s lakeside Hans Arnhold Center, in the Wannsee district of Berlin. 

For 2020/21, the Academy will also award three specially designated fellowships: two Andrew W. Mellon Fellowships in the Humanities, for work that demonstrates an interest in the topics of migration and social integration, race in comparative perspective, or exile and return. In addition, in memory of its founder, the Academy will name a Richard C. Holbrooke Fellow for a project that looks at diplomatic approaches to resolving major global issues, from armed conflicts to environmental challenges to the impact of new technologies.

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Fri, 06/14/2019 - 10:00am by Erik Shell.

Congratulations to Davina C. Lopez (Eckerd College) and Pamela Zinn (Texas Tech) for their 2019 ACLS Development Grants!

You can read the full list of 2019 recipients on the ACLS website.

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(Photo: "library" by Viva Vivanista, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Thu, 06/13/2019 - 10:21am by Erik Shell.
The Sphinx of Naxos. Archaeological Museum of Delphi. Picture by Yoandy Cabrera

This month, we spotlight the graduate research of Dr. Yoandy Cabrera Ortega, who recently defended his dissertation on the portrayal of human emotions in ancient Greek myths and in modern literature from Spain and Latin America. 

My dissertation was an interdisciplinary one, intertwining different approaches and fields such as classical reception, queer studies, affect theory, and Hispanic studies.

View full article. | Posted in on Thu, 06/13/2019 - 8:46am by Yoandy Cabrera Ortega.

Can a computer understand the hendecasyllables of Catullus, the declamations of Seneca, or the letters of Pliny? Not yet, and maybe never in any conventional sense of this word. No one has succeeded so far in teaching a computer to comprehend language – that is, to reason about, generate, act upon and, importantly, communicate intentions through symbolic speech – let alone to appreciate texts written in a dead language with a sophisticated literary tradition. (Embodied cognitive science claims, in fact, that without a human body no computer can ever hope to achieve human understanding). But it is possible to represent the meanings of the Latin language in a way that can be manipulated and analysed by computers. The idea of training machines in these meanings forms the basis for the field of natural language understanding, which is a specialized kind of natural language processing (NLP) focused on modelling linguistic semantics.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/07/2019 - 6:48am by William M. Short.

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