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.

Categories

Follow SCS News for information about the SCS and all things classical.

Use this field to search SCS News
Select a category from this list to limit the content on this page.

The Classics Department at UNC-Chapel Hill is sad to announce that Philip A. Stadter died last week at the age of 84 in North Carolina. In over forty years of teaching at UNC, and in almost twenty years of a very active retirement, Philip wrote influential books and articles about Plutarch, Arrian, Thucydides and other authors, and his friendships and mentoring and collaborations extended around the world. There is an obituary online, with information about a service Tuesday 2/16 at 2:30 Eastern time that will have an online component, at https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/newsobserver/obituary.aspx?n=philip-stadter&pid=197767979.

A longer statement from the Department about his life and work is forthcoming.

View full article. | Posted in In Memoriam on Wed, 02/17/2021 - 1:34pm by Erik Shell.
Women's Classical Caucus logo

The Women’s Classical Caucus (WCC) invites you to celebrate the winners of its 2020–2021 Public Scholarship and Advocacy awards and to learn more about how their work is influencing our field. Over the next month, the SCS Blog will publish a three-part series of in-depth interviews by the WCC with the award winners, who discuss their work in strengthening communities within the field and introducing new audiences to Classics.

View full article. | Posted in on Wed, 02/10/2021 - 10:11am by .

The Interplay of Spectacle in the Roman Arena

Call for Papers: An Undergraduate Research Conference hosted by the Texas Tech Classics Program

The Conference will be held virtually on April 17th, 2021.

Featuring respondents Dr. David Larmour (Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Classics at TTU) and Ms. Cait Mongrain (Doctoral candidate at Princeton, TTU MA ‘15, BA ‘12)

 

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Mon, 02/08/2021 - 10:46am by Erik Shell.

The Cathartic History Conference is a digital conference, free and open to the public, that aims to propose Aristotelian catharsis as a new lens for historical inquiry. The conference will take place over two days: Friday, February 26th, and Saturday, February 27th. We also invite everyone to join us on Friday, February 19th at 7:00 pm ET for a public lecture by Dr. John Garner on Aristotle's Poetics.

You can learn more at the conference's website here.

View full article. | Posted in Conferences, Lectures, and Meetings on Wed, 02/03/2021 - 10:05am by Erik Shell.

New Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at the Harvard University Department of the Classics

The Department of the Classics at Harvard announces the following opportunities and initiatives designed to advance our community’s goals of diversity and inclusion. Prospective applicants and colleagues with questions about these programs are welcome to contact the Department Administrator Teresa Wu (ttwu@fas.harvard.edu).

1. Summer School Scholarships for Intensive Ancient Greek or Latin at the Harvard Summer School

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Mon, 02/01/2021 - 10:35am by Erik Shell.

Sapiens Ubique Civis VIII – Szeged 2021
PhD Student and Young Scholar Conference on Classics and the Reception of Antiquity
Szeged, Hungary, September 1–3, 2021

The Department of Classical Philology and Neo-Latin Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Szeged, Hungary is pleased to announce its International Conference Sapiens Ubique Civis VIII – Szeged 2021, for PhD Students, Young Scholars, as well as M.A. students aspiring to apply to a PhD program.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Mon, 02/01/2021 - 10:28am by Erik Shell.
"Empty Theatre (almost)"by Kevin Jaako, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Plautus in the late 19th c Heartland: a Symposium and Performance

In May 1884, nine female students at Washington University in St. Louis staged a performance of Plautus’ Rudens (“The Rope”) in Latin, also publishing their own English translation to coincide with the event. The Washington University Ladies’ Literary Society was one of the first groups in America to perform an ancient comedy in Latin, and their work made a splash at the university and in St. Louis.

What were the aims of the Ladies’ Literary Society in putting on the Rudens, how did the show look and sound, and in what social and academic context did these young women train for and execute their ambitious plan? At a virtual symposium hosted by the Washington University Classics and Performing Arts departments, and open to the public, four scholars will explore this historic event in lectures situating it in literary, academic, cultural, and St. Louis history. Following the lectures and discussion, a group of St. Louis classicists will give a virtual performance of the Rudens using the Society’s translation.

The February 6th symposium will begin at 9:00am Central Time with four lectures by Timothy Moore of Washington University in St. Louis, Julia Beine of Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Judith Hallett of the University of Maryland, and Amanda Clark of the Missouri History Museum. The performance, directed by PhD student Henry Schott, will begin at 2:00pm Central Time.

View full article. | Posted in Performances on Mon, 02/01/2021 - 10:26am by Erik Shell.
Relief of Porphyrius the Charioteer. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The papers of Alan Cameron (1938–2017) have been donated to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University.

Cameron was educated at St. Paul’s School (London) and New College, Oxford. After posts in Glasgow and London, along with an unexpectedly exciting year as a visitor at Columbia (1967–1968) that included the student uprising of spring 1968, he served as Anthon Professor of Latin Language and Literature at Columbia from 1977 to 2008.

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 02/01/2021 - 10:24am by Roger Bagnall.

The Department of Spanish Studies and the Department of Classical Philology of the University in Lodz would like to invite you to the third interdisciplinary academic conference

Rome and Iberia.
Diversity of Relations from Antiquity to Modernity. III

April 22-23, 2021

View full article. | Posted in Conferences, Lectures, and Meetings on Mon, 02/01/2021 - 10:23am by Erik Shell.

Academic freedom and tenure are of fundamental importance, indeed the basis upon which America has achieved pre-eminence in higher education. Without its protections, faculty are at constant risk of arbitrary termination, with chilling and destructive effects on their ability to conduct groundbreaking research and provide state-of-the-art teaching. To enable termination of the appointments even of leading faculty members at any time and for any reason would inhibit the free flow of ideas, the building of stable departments, and the continuity necessary to conduct quality research and effectively teach students. The result for the university would surely be difficulty in attracting and retaining talented faculty, in securing research funding, in assuring current and potential students of a high-quality education with teachers and mentors who can be counted on to be there when they need them, and in living up to the expectations of our broader society, not least the citizens of Kansas. Academic freedom and tenure should be a line that no institution should be tempted to cross on any grounds short of actual exigency.  Furthermore, members of the faculty accepted their positions in reliance on the existing policy, which was that in place at other institutions; this change is deeply unfair to them.  Of course, the pandemic has caused financial crises in higher education, but that is why the policy allows for the declaration of financial exigency.

View full article. | Posted in Public Statements on Fri, 01/29/2021 - 10:19am by Helen Cullyer.

Pages

Latest Stories

Conferences, Lectures, and Meetings
Calls for Papers
CfP: Affect, Intensity, Antiquity (Online Conference)

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy