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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On November 3, 1903, the Department of the Isthmus separated from the Republic of Colombia and became its own republic. This act ended 82 years of history between them. The reason? to allow the US to build a canal after Colombia refused to in August of that same year.

The new republic entered the twentieth century with great emotion and with the dream of finally seeing an interoceanic canal. New projects were sought, but there was also an uncertain future accompanied by the first conflicts with the Canal Zone and the United States. Which were initiated by the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty of 1903, as in Article 1 indicates that the US will guarantee the independence of the Republic and the right to intervene in the affairs of Panama as it is set forth in Article 136 of the 1904 Constitution. The former raised doubts, and questions not only from the neighbors countries that said that Panama was now a US a protectorate and that in fact it was not Latin American, but also by the same Panamanians that felt that way and understood it as an attack on sovereignty and as a risk on the national identity and Panamanian culture.

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 11/16/2020 - 7:57am by .

Res Difficiles 2.0: A Digital Conference On Challenges and Pathways for Addressing Inequity In Classics

Organizers: Hannah Čulík-Baird (Boston University) and Joseph Romero (University of Mary Washington)
Date: Saturday, March 20, 2021
Platform: Webinar

ResDiff 1.0 was timely respite in the midst of a pandemic that forced us to change whether and how we convene and exacted costs disproportionately in underserved communities by reinforcing the durable inequities that have come to define our times. What was conceived as an intimate gathering on the campus of Mary Washington for those teaching Classics was transformed into a digital event attracting 250 registrants from twelve countries. In our papers and conversations, we explored how people on the margins in our texts and contexts are invited—or pushed further from—the center, and explored avenues through with such marginalization might be addressed. Following the conference, recordings of the presentations were made available online at resdifficiles.com. Furthermore, a selection of those papers is being prepared for publication in a co-edited series of consecutive issues in Ancient History Bulletin which will start to appear in 2021.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Sun, 11/15/2020 - 1:21pm by Erik Shell.

Some months ago, a piece by Leah Mitchell and Eli Rubies on Classics and reception studies in the 21st century reiterated the importance of studying the reception of classical antiquity. It was a reminder that reception of classical material itself predates the scholarly field devoted to it.

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 11/09/2020 - 7:29am by .

(Please Read Part I First)

Playing Cleopatra: Hollywood and Anglophone Television Castings

View full article. | Posted in on Tue, 11/03/2020 - 6:02am by .

On October 11 2020, American screenwriter and producer of Greek descent Laeta Kalogridis posted this tweet:

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 11/02/2020 - 9:13am by .

Dear colleague,

You probably don’t remember the muffins.

Over the last decade, we’ve tried all kinds of messages to encourage you to support the SCS Annual Fund.  We’ve used inspirational quotes from Homer, Ovid, Plutarch, and Cavafy; we’ve included testimonials from grateful recipients of fellowships; we’ve offered matching gifts; we’ve set our text as limericks; and yes, we’ve even tried muffins as metaphors.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Wed, 10/28/2020 - 1:58pm by Helen Cullyer.

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 discusses a project for school-age children in rural Italy that draws attention to the ancient past through the contemporary world.

View full article. | Posted in on Wed, 10/28/2020 - 10:56am by .

FELLOWSHIPS FOR RESEARCH AND STUDY AT THE GENNADIUS LIBRARY 2021-2022
 

The American School of Classical Studies at Athens is pleased to announce the academic programs and fellowships for the 2021-2022 academic year at the Gennadius Library. Opened in 1926 with 26,000 volumes from diplomat and bibliophile Joannes Gennadius, the Gennadius Library now holds a richly diverse collection of over 146,000 books and rare bindings, archives, manuscripts, and works of art illuminating the Hellenic tradition and neighboring cultures. The Library has become an internationally renowned center for the study of Greek history, literature, and art, especially from the Byzantine period to modern times.
 

COTSEN TRAVELING FELLOWSHIP FOR RESEARCH IN GREECE: Short-term travel award of $2,000 for senior scholars and graduate students, for work at the Gennadius Library. Open to all nationalities. At least one month of residency required. School fees are waived for a maximum of two months.

DEADLINE: JANUARY 15, 2021.
 

THE GEORGE PAPAIOANNOU FELLOWSHIP: Ph.D. candidates or recent PhDs writing on Greece in the 1940’s and the post-war period, civil wars and the history of the Second World War. Fellows are required to make use of the George Papaioannou Papers housed at the Archives of the ASCSA. Open to all nationalities. School fees are waived for a maximum of two months. Stipend of €2,000. 

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Mon, 10/26/2020 - 7:23am by Erik Shell.

August 2020 saw the release of  Total War Saga: Troy, a strategy video game where the player takes on the role of one of various heroes on either side of the Trojan War and leads their armies to victory. If you’ve ever wanted to play Penthesilea defeating Achilles, here’s your chance.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 10/23/2020 - 8:03am by .

Call for Papers, “Contact, Colonialism, and Comparison” Conference

Different methods of ‘comparing antiquities’ do or do not presuppose the existence of contact between the civilizations they compare, or else weigh differently the importance of contact to the work of comparison. Underlying these differences are methodological questions like: to what extent, and in what ways, the history of contact between different civilizations plays a role in the work of comparison? To what extent the fact of contact between two civilizations legitimates their comparison? How the aims and methods of comparison differ in cases where contact has or has not taken place? More subtly, how should the intellectual history of contact in later periods of a region’s history affect how we do comparative work on earlier periods of that history?

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Wed, 10/21/2020 - 11:15am by Erik Shell.

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