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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The creation of Pandora by the Olympic gods. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

The Classics Everywhere initiative, launched by the SCS in 2019, supports projects that seek to engage communities worldwide with the study of Greek and Roman antiquity in new and meaningful ways. As part of this initiative, the SCS has been funding a variety of projects, ranging from reading groups comparing ancient and modern leadership practices to collaborations with artists in theater, music, and dance. Most of the projects funded take place in the U.S. and Canada, though the initiative is growing and has funded projects in the U.K., Italy, Greece, Belgium, Ghana, and Puerto Rico. This post centers on online reading and discussion groups that engage local communities and the broad public in the discussion of ancient texts and contemporary issues.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 01/29/2021 - 10:01am by .
"Portrait of a young woman from Pompeii (so-called 'Sappho')" Courtesy of Creative Commons

This piece was co-authored by Del A. Maticic, Alicia Matz, Hannah Čulík-Baird, Thomas Hendrickson, Anna Pisarello, Amy Pistone, and Nandini Pandey.

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 01/25/2021 - 12:00am by .
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Session Recordings Available

All sessions that gave unanimous consent for post-conference publication have been made available on the OpenWater annual meeting platform.

You can access these recordings by logging in the same way you logged in for the annual meeting, navigating to the paper session you want to see, and watching the recording streamed on the registration site itself.

You can find a list of available recordings below. All those not listed did not give consent for their sessions to be published.

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Tuesday, January 5

  • SCS 1- Merchants and Market in Late Antiquity
  • SCS 6- New Approaches to Spectatorship
  • SCS 10- Roman Comedy

 Wednesday, January 6

  • SCS 15-Staging Epic and Tragedy
  • SCS 16- Virgil and Religion
  • SCS 17-Usurpers, Rivals, and Regime Change: The Evidence of Coins
  • SCS 24- Lightning Session 2: Crossing Boundaries

 Thursday, January 7

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Wed, 01/20/2021 - 12:48pm by Erik Shell.
57th Presidential Inauguration, 21 January 2013. View of the U.S. Capitol building from the crowd, with people waving flags.

Were Joe Biden ascending to the chief executive office in Ancient Rome — as one of the year’s two elected consuls — he would start his inauguration day with augury—that is, by taking the auspices. It would, first of all, be January 1, rather than the 20th; according to a surviving Roman calendar, in fact, the state’s year began then “because on that day magistrates enter office” (Fasti Praenestini, Jan. 1). That morning, Biden would look to the sky and request a sign from the gods. If Jupiter announced his favor — a lightning flash on the left was the best omen for this occasion—then the installation could proceed.

View full article. | Posted in on Wed, 01/20/2021 - 9:44am by .

The Society for Classical Studies is delighted to announce that the TAPA Editor Search Committee has selected Joshua Billings and Irene Peirano Garrison as the new co-editors of TAPA. This is the first time in its history that TAPA will be led by two co-editors. Professors Billings and Peirano Garrison will cover TAPA volumes 152-155 (2022-2025).

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Wed, 01/20/2021 - 8:38am by Helen Cullyer.

On December 21, 2020, which now seems like eons ago, Donald Trump issued the “Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” (EOPBFCA). This understandably has been overshadowed in recent days by discussions of the Executive Order on Promoting Besiegement of Federal Civic Architecture (also EOPBFCA). Nevertheless, we should not forget to examine the original document (which, in draft form, was opposed by the SCS Board in February 2020), especially since the two occurrences are closely related — and not only in the sense that the latter action seems in direct violation of the first. The two are actually intellectual cousins.

The “Purpose” section sets the tone for all that follows:

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 01/15/2021 - 9:21am by .

Against the backdrop of the United States’ first non-peaceful transition of power, there is a much smaller-scale — and much more peaceful — transition happening: the changeover of the SCS Communications Committee chair and SCS blog Editor-in-Chief. Sarah Bond, after three years of visionary leadership and fantastic direction of the blog, has handed the reins over to me, as a veteran Committee member. I think I speak for the Committee and for the blog’s readership when I offer Sarah my profoundest gratitude and appreciation for her awe-inspiring work during her term. I’ll be standing on the shoulders and following in the footsteps of a giant.

View full article. | Posted in on Tue, 01/12/2021 - 7:47am by T. H. M. Gellar-Goad.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies Postdoctoral Fellowship September 2021 – August 2022

For the third year in a row, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies (SNF CHS) at Simon Fraser University invites applications for a one-year Postdoctoral Fellowship focused on Hellenisms Past and Present, Local and Global. Our search committee welcomes applications that span disciplinary boundaries from candidates working on comparative approaches to the advertised fellowship theme. Applicants from all fields of the humanities and the social sciences are encouraged to apply.

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Mon, 01/11/2021 - 3:02pm by Erik Shell.

34th Biennial Conference of the Classical Association of South Africa

Order and Chaos

19 – 22 January 2022

University of Cape Town

FIRST CALL FOR PAPERS

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Mon, 01/11/2021 - 2:57pm by Erik Shell.

The Ausonius Institute (CNRS – Université Bordeaux Montaigne), under the patronage of the  Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (AIBL, Paris), the International Association of Greek and Latin Epigraphy (AIEGL) and the Société Française d'études épigraphiques sur Rome et le monde romain is pleased to invite you to the 16th International Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy, which will take place in Bordeaux  from August 29 to September 2, 2022.

The aim of the conference is to reflect on the situation of epigraphy and the role of the epigrapher in the 21st century. The congress will, therefore, be organized around thematic, chronological or geographical reports, which will allow us to assess advances in our knowledge with regards to methodological, technical or ethical issues that occur in contemporary epigraphic studies. Particular attention will be paid to new epigraphic perspectives made possible by the development of digital humanities.

You can find more information on the conference website here: https://ciegl2022.sciencesconf.org/

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Mon, 12/28/2020 - 12:03pm by Erik Shell.

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