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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Fellowships, Scholarships, and Grants, January – April 2020

Some of our short-term fellowship and Classics Everywhere award winners are deferring use of their awards until Fall 2020 or 2021 owing to COVID-19. However, we congratulate everyone who was awarded a scholarship, fellowship or grant this spring, and we thank our selection committees for their hard work.

TLL Fellowship:

Amy Koenig

Pearson Fellowship:

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Wed, 05/27/2020 - 5:32pm by Helen Cullyer.

Please see below a message from the SCS President, followed by a listing of 2020 graduates:

With in-person celebrations ruled out by the coronavirus pandemic, the Society for Classical Studies is proud to recognize the many graduates at all levels across North America who have chosen to make serious and sustained study of the ancient Mediterranean world a significant part of their education.  For those who are earning PhD’s, we welcome the new contributions to knowledge that each of you has made, and we pledge our support and guidance as you negotiate an even more challenging professional landscape than you signed up for.  We warmly salute all degree-recipients who are pursuing careers in the vital enterprise of K-12 education.  For those who are going in other directions, we take great satisfaction in the variety of paths you will be following.  We hope the classical world will remain an important part of your lives, and we invite you to visit our website, read our blog, and join the SCS as “Friends of Classics.”  And we count on you as lifelong advocates for the value of studying Greco-Roman and ancient Mediterranean history and culture: please take every opportunity to spread the word that the ancient world still presents us with new questions to investigate and with multiple points of reference for thinking through our present-day concerns.  Heartfelt congratulations to all!

View full article. | Posted in Presidential Letters on Mon, 05/25/2020 - 12:11pm by Helen Cullyer.

The Arabic and Latin Glossary (hereafter al-gloss) is a free, online dictionary of the vocabulary used by medieval translators, primarily working in eleventh- to thirteenth-century Italy and Spain, to render the Arabic versions of Greek scientific and philosophical texts and original Arabic compositions into Latin. It is parallel, in terms of its scholarly goals and methodology, to the database Glossarium Graeco-Arabicum (hereafter gloss-ga), which is also run out of Germany but by a different team. In this review, I will refer to gloss-ga because it offers a point of comparison for assessing al-gloss’ editorial decisions and accessibility.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 05/22/2020 - 3:23pm by .
Books

Loeb Classical Library Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowships in Classics

2021-2023

The Trustees of the Loeb Classical Library Foundation announce funding of four two-year postdoctoral fellowships to be held in the academic years 2021–2023. [A further four fellowships will be funded for the academic years 2022–2024] The details for the first round of competition for these fellowships are as follows:

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Thu, 05/21/2020 - 2:30pm by Helen Cullyer.

Many congratulations to Erik Shell who graduates today with his M.A. in Education Policy from NYU. Erik has been working part-time on his degree while working full-time for SCS in many roles. He runs the the Placement Service, works on social media and our website, coordinates our departmental membership program, edits video, and does so many other things. Thank you, Erik, for everything you do for SCS and its members, and congratulations on a well-deserved Masters degree!

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Wed, 05/20/2020 - 8:09am by Helen Cullyer.

Have you ever thought about a terminal MA in Classics?

I have to confess, I hadn’t before coming to teach at Boston College, where we have such a graduate program. I had firsthand experience with Classics BAs in colleges that only granted undergraduate degrees, BAs and MAs in PhD-granting departments — heck, even a combined BA/MA program. But a freestanding MA degree that was a purposeful end goal rather than an add-on, an along-the-way, or a no-more-thanks? It never crossed my mind. To judge from the conversations that I’ve had since joining a department with a terminal MA program, I think that’s true of a lot of Classics faculty, as well as for a lot of students. And I also think that has led to some unfortunate misunderstandings about terminal MAs and their contributions, both to the field as a whole and to the personal and professional development of individual students.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 05/15/2020 - 8:26am by Christopher Polt.

Barbara K. Gold is Edward North Professor of Classics at Hamilton College, Emerita. She received her B.A. at the University of Michigan in 1966, her master’s degree in 1968 and her doctorate in 1975, both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on Greek and Roman literature, particularly Roman elegy, lyric, and satire; medieval literature, culture, and history; Roman social history; women in the ancient world; and feminist criticism. A prolific author and recipient of numerous grants and awards, Professor Gold was the first woman editor of The American Journal of Philology from 2000 to 2008 and is currently Vice President for Professional Matters of the Society for Classical Studies. She has also served on numerous college committees and was Associate Dean of Faculty at Hamilton College (1997-2001).

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 05/08/2020 - 5:01am by Claire Catenaccio.

THE ERICH S. GRUEN PRIZE

On behalf of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS), the Erich S. Gruen Prize Committee invites all graduate students in North America to enter the first annual competition for the best graduate research paper on multiculturalism in the ancient Mediterranean. This year the prize will be a cash award of $500. 

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Thu, 05/07/2020 - 6:55am by Erik Shell.

(From Anthony Preus and Caleb Cohoe)

Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy Network Facebook group has been set up as a forum for scholars working in any area of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, from Thales of Miletus through to Boethius and Byzantium. All members are encouraged to share ancient philosophy related events, questions, books and articles (including their own), and teaching materials. Any scholar with an interest in ancient philosophy, whatever their academic discipline, is welcome to join. Caleb will generally be able to respond to membership requests within 24 hours. 

He'll still be posting events and other key information on my ancient philosophy events calendar. 

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Wed, 05/06/2020 - 12:52pm by Erik Shell.

(Sent by the National Humanities Alliance on May 5, 2020)

As Congress considers additional COVID-19 stimulus funding packages, we are once again calling on you to advocate for additional relief funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

While we are very grateful for the $75 million awarded to the NEH in the CARES Act, currently available funding will cover only a fraction of the needed assistance.

Humanities educators and organizations across the country continue to face intense strains as they try to meet the growing needs of their communities. Whether it's humanities programming that connects people, scholars contributing to public discourse about the pandemic, or archives that have made a quick pivot to preserve artifacts of this moment, the humanities are proving crucial to community life.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Tue, 05/05/2020 - 3:11pm by Erik Shell.

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