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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ANTIQUITY IN MEDIA STUDIES is holding our first-ever virtual conference, and you're invited!

via Zoom on 11-12 December 2020, Eastern Standard Time

AIMS is a newly organized group of scholars who collaborate on research, pedagogy, and outreach activities that examine and enrich how people around the world engage with the concept and contents of "antiquity" in a variety of media. Since our inception via the Classical Antiquity section of the Film & History conference, we have been expanding our focus to include the wider Mediterranean world, with the goal of welcoming engagements with antiquities from around the globe.

In recognition of the ever-greater ubiquity of screens in our professional lives under COVID, this year's conference focuses on receptions through screen-media platforms, including film, television, streaming video, video games, and social media. Our closing session features remarks on the state of Classical Reception Studies by Monica S. Cyrino (University of New Mexico, Albuquerque) and Antony Augoustakis (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign).

The detailed program, abstracts, code of conduct, and other information are available at the conference website:

View full article. | Posted in Conferences, Lectures, and Meetings on Mon, 12/07/2020 - 6:40am by Erik Shell.

(Un)-Forgotten Realms: Science Fiction and Fantasy in and about the Ancient Mediterranean

25th Annual Classics Graduate Student Colloquium

University of Virginia

Saturday, April 17th, 2021

Keynote Speaker: Jennifer Rea (University of Florida)

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Fri, 12/04/2020 - 2:58pm by Erik Shell.

Late in the afternoon on November 5, 2020 — close to 24 hours after polls across the country had closed for the 2020 elections — the NRA tweeted a familiar phrase: “Come and Take It.”

In May of 2018, I wrote about the valorization of ancient Sparta for Eidolon. The article underscored Spartan culture as a romantic figment of the far right imagination within America. The growth in the use of Plutarch’s alleged quote of the Spartan king Leonidas, whom the Greek historian says answered back ‘μολὼν λαβέ’ (“having come, take” or in less direct translation, “come and take [them]”) to the Persian king Xerxes when told to surrender his arms, continues to grow in popularity among gun enthusiasts on the far right. 

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 12/04/2020 - 7:52am by Sarah E. Bond.

Non-human Animals in Ancient Greek Philosophy and Religion

May 13-15, 2021 (Online Conference)

Non-human animals figured prominently in ancient Greek agriculture, diet, medicine, visual art, homelife and war practices. They were also portrayed and examined in various poems, plays, dialogues and treatises. This conference aims at examining ancient Greek philosophical and religious views on issues pertaining to the nature and status of non-human animals and the attitudes of human beings towards them. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. The religious significance of animal sacrifice in Greek antiquity

  2. The depiction of animals in Greek myth and poetry

  3. The goals of the systematic study of animals in Ancient Greece

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 11:53am by Erik Shell.

Specialized Labor in Classical Antiquity: Economy, Identity, Community

May 14-15, 2021, Zoom Webinar

Keynote Speakers: David Hollander (Iowa State University) and Lynne Kvapil (Butler University)

The notion of ‘specialized labor’ informs research on economic growth in antiquity, ancient slavery, urbanism, philosophical discussions of craft and knowledge, and so much more. But what is specialized labor? In what contexts did it exist in classical antiquity, and why? What were its economic consequences, and how did its existence shape discourses concerning work, knowledge, and identity? Who were the people performing this labor, and what impact did it have on their lives?

The past decade has seen a surge in interest about the lives of workers both in the ancient Mediterranean and beyond. From in-depth case studies (such as Flohr 2013; Tran 2013) to expansive volumes (Verboven and Laes, eds. 2017; Stewart, Harris, and Lewis, eds. 2020) and dedicated conferences, there is an increasing awareness of and interest in what labor looked like in classical antiquity. This conference will join that conversation. Specialized labor provides an approach to understanding labor that bypasses the valuation of labor as ‘skilled’ or ‘unskilled’ by focusing more closely on the division of labor rather than its social prestige. Charcoal burners and mosaicists alike may be specialists, for all the differences in their professional lives.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 6:32am by Erik Shell.

PhD scholarships in the Humanities at Newcastle University

Northern Bridge Consortium offers up to 67 fully funded doctoral studentships to outstanding applicants across the full range of arts and humanities subjects, including Creative Practice disciplines, and interdisciplinary studies. As of 2020/21, all international students will be eligible to apply for Northern Bridge Consortium studentships, including EU and non-EU citizens. 

We run an annual competition to select the best doctoral candidates and provide a comprehensive and attractive package of financial support over the duration of study, which incorporates:

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Mon, 11/30/2020 - 11:35am by Erik Shell.

1st -3rd September 2021

Abstracts are invited for contributions to a conference on “Reflections on language in early Greece”, to be held on-line (via Zoom or a similar platform) on 1st-3rd September 2021. By ‘early Greece’ we have in mind texts and other cultural artefacts earlier than Plato, and materials that are all too often overlooked in scholarly discussions of Greek reflections on the nature of language. We envisage the conference as offering a series of independent yet mutually illuminating contributions, which illustrate the significance of the topic in this period and the wealth of views and approaches adopted towards it, beyond and besides the traditional opposition between physis and thesis, or between a Cratylus and a Hermogenes. To this end, we hope that our conference will cut across genres, traditional periodizations and academic disciplinary boundaries and we welcome contributions that straddle the divide between Classics, Philosophy, and Linguistics.

Themes that we wish to examine include, but are not limited to:

·         The correctness or incorrectness of language (incl. names)

·         The potential of language to represent reality; the role of language as a tool for accessing reality or as an obstacle to doing so

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Mon, 11/30/2020 - 11:34am by Erik Shell.

The American Journal of Archaeology (AJA) was founded in 1885 and is the distinguished, peer-reviewed scholarly journal of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). The AJA is published quarterly in print and electronic forms (see www.ajaonline.org).

The Editor-in-Chief (EIC) of the AJA reads initial submissions, decides whether to assign them to peer reviewers, and determines whether the final version is publishable. The EIC develops an editorial vision and solicits manuscripts consonant with that vision. The EIC works closely with the Managing Editor and editorial staff as well as with the AIA’s Vice President for Research and Academic Affairs.

The EIC appoints peer reviewers and an Editorial Advisory Board, assists the AIA Development Department in raising funds in support of the journal, and provides written reports on the status of the journal to the AIA Governing Board. The EIC oversees a part-time Editorial Assistant and the work of two independent contractors: the Book Reviews Editor and the Museum Review Editor.

The EIC serves as an independent contractor for a term of three years, with an option to extend for two years. Compensation is normally in the form of release time from the EIC’s home institution; appropriate adjustments will be made in the case of independent scholars.

Required Qualifications

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Mon, 11/30/2020 - 10:54am by Erik Shell.
"Empty Theatre (almost)"by Kevin Jaako, licensed under CC BY 2.0

"Old Victories, New Voices"

Lecture and Concert Video Nancy Felson, Helen Eastman, Alex Silverman, & Live Canon Ensemble

In the fifth century B.C., Pindar of Thebes wrote odes to celebrate the victories of great athletes at the pan-hellenic games. He celebrated their prowess by re-telling the myths of ancient Greece in a way that elevated the athletes' status and suggested that they, like the heroes of old, would be glorious forever. But the mythic women had little to say. Instead, they were frequently abducted or maligned. In this lecture-concert, learn more about some of those silenced women in new music and poetry and hear some modern victory odes, including two that celebrate winners in the recent U.S. elections.

The program, which is part of our Performing Pindar Project, aired Thursday, November 19 at the University of Georgia's (virtual) Spotlight on the Arts Festival. It featured new writing by Live Canon poets, performed by members of Live Canon Ensemble, and new music by composer Alex Silverman and lyricist Helen Eastman. The original music includes ballads of Cyrene and an instrumental piece based on the meter of Pindar’s Ninth Pythian Victory Ode. This video should appeal to a wide audience of students and faculty -- anyone who welcomes creative responses to ancient poetry.

Please click on the link below anytime in the next two weeks to see the full program:

View full article. | Posted in Conferences, Lectures, and Meetings on Wed, 11/25/2020 - 2:19pm by Erik Shell.

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 to modern leadership practices to collaborations with artists in theater, music, and dance. Most of the projects funded take place in the US and Canada, though the initiative is growing and has funded projects in the UK, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Ghana, and Puerto Rico. This post centers on two projects that explore the experience of studying Classics in secondary schools, and amplify the voices of Classics students during their early encounters with the field.

View full article. | Posted in on Wed, 11/25/2020 - 7:53am by .

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