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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Call for Papers
Sapiens Ubique Civis VIII – Szeged 2020
PhD Student and Young Scholar Conference on Classics and the Reception of Antiquity
Szeged, Hungary, September 2–4, 2020

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 2020, for PhD Students, Young Scholars, as well as M.A. students aspiring to apply to a PhD program.

The aim of the conference is to bring together an international group of young scholars working in a variety of periods, places, languages, and fields. Papers on a wide range of subjects, including but not limited to the literature, history, philology, philosophy, linguistics and archaeology of Greece and Rome, Byzantinology, Neo-Latin studies, and reception of the classics, as well as papers dealing with theatre studies, comparative literature, contemporary literature, and fine arts related to the Antiquity are welcome.

Lectures: The language of the conference is English. Thematic sessions and plenary lectures will be scheduled. The time limit for each lecture is 20 minutes, followed by discussion. It is not possible to present via Skype.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Tue, 01/14/2020 - 9:26am by Erik Shell.

Our second interview in the Women in Classics series is with Shelley Haley, Edward North Chair of Classics and Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College. This is the second of a two-part interview with Prof. Haley, which picks up at the point when she decided to apply to graduate school to study Classics.

CC: How did you decide to apply to graduate school?  

This was a very turbulent time in American history. I was fed up with the United States of America, absolutely fed up. I remember the conversations we used to have about the women’s movement. This was back in the dark ages. There were three or four white women on my floor in college having a deep discussion, wringing their hands and saying, “But how, how, how are we going to have a family and a career? How?” In my head I was just frustrated. My mother, my grandmother, her mother before her, all of them always had to work, and always had family. It can be done. I think that was my first introduction to black feminism, and to the line that divides it from white feminism. I had had enough.

View full article. | Posted in on Mon, 01/13/2020 - 6:24am by Claire Catenaccio.

Our second interview in the Women in Classics series is with Shelley Haley, Edward North Chair of Classics and Professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College. She was born in upstate New York and earned her B.A. from Syracuse University in 1972. She received her M.A. in 1975 and her Ph.D. in 1977, both from the University of Michigan. An expert on the figure of Cleopatra, Dr. Haley has discussed the subject on both the BBC and the Learning Channel. Her publications include Fanny Jackson Coppin’s Reminiscences of School Life, and Hints on Teaching (1995) and numerous articles on the role of women in the ancient world and on race in the discipline of Classics.

View full article. | Posted in on Thu, 01/09/2020 - 4:47pm by Claire Catenaccio.

“Whose Heritage is it Anyway?”: Local Responses to Cultural Heritage Preservation in the Age of UNESCO

UT Antiquities Action 2020 Annual Symposium
Keynote speaker: Yvonne Therese Holden, Director of Operations, Whitney Plantation

UT Antiquities Action invites the submission of abstracts for its 5th annual symposium, to be held on Saturday, the 4th of April, 2020 at the University of Texas at Austin. 

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Thu, 01/09/2020 - 9:23am by Erik Shell.

Homer in Sicily: An Academic Conference and Tour of Ancient Sites

Exedra Mediterranean Center
Syracuse, Sicily, 12-15 January, 2021
With a post-conference tour of Greek Sicily, 16-18 January

Homeric Thrinacia – our Sicily – is the legendary home of the Cattle of the Sun, the Cyclops, the Laestrygonians, Aeolus, and close neighbor of Skylla and Charybdis. Samuel Butler, in the nineteenth century, memorably theorized that the Odyssey’s author was a young Sicilian woman, glimpsed in the figure of Nausicaa. Otherwise, surprisingly few scholars have explored Sicily’s association with the Homeric epics, the Odyssey in particular. The goal of this conference is to bring scholars from a variety of disciplines to Siracusa to discuss Homer’s epic vision and to visit the archaeological traces of the mythic places and beings of the Odyssey.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Thu, 01/09/2020 - 9:00am by Erik Shell.
"Empty Theatre (almost)"by Kevin Jaako, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Joan and Mason Brock Theatre, Susan S. Goode Fine and Performing Arts Center, 5817 Wesleyan Drive, Virginia Beach, VA

Fri 2/7/20 7:30pm to 9:30pm

View full article. | Posted in Performances on Thu, 01/09/2020 - 8:30am by Erik Shell.

The SCS Board of Directors has endorsed the following statement developed by the American Anthroplogical Association in collaboration with a number of other societies and associations:

Targeting Cultural Sites is a War Crime

On behalf of more than 50,000 scholars and researchers in the humanities and social sciences, our scholarly and professional societies call upon people throughout the US and, indeed, around the world to remind the President of the United States that targeting cultural sites for military activity is a war crime except under the narrowest of circumstances, and cannot be justified under any circumstances.

View full article. | Posted in Public Statements on Tue, 01/07/2020 - 10:21am by Helen Cullyer.

Graduate Student Caucus Meeting

Hosted by the SCS Graduate Student Committee

Friday, January 3, 5:00pm-6:00pm, Independence Ballroom Salon C

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Come hear about the Graduate Student Committee’s plans for 2020 and offer your feedback on how best the SCS can serve graduate students.

We hope this meeting can be the springboard for a new level of collective action of North American Classics graduate students.

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This event will be followed by a Social Hour, also hosted by the Graduate Student Committee, which will take place Friday, January 3, 7:00pm-8:00pm on the Mezzanine Level of the Marriott Marquis. Come get your drink ticket while they last!

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Tue, 12/31/2019 - 4:16pm by Helen Cullyer.

That contingent faculty members make up a significant portion of those teaching on college campuses today is a well-known fact. This fact also holds true in our own fields of study (e.g. Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology and Art History), and over the years much attention has (rightfully) been paid to the many challenges and problems that stem from this reliance on contingent labor. At the same time, and despite these challenges and problems, contingent faculty members have been making important contributions to our fields in the areas of service, teaching, outreach and research, and these contributions have only grown in their significance as the number of scholars working in these positions has grown. As members of the Committee on Contingent Faculty, we believe it is time to acknowledge these contributions and celebrate the accomplishments of faculty who are working off the tenure track in our related fields. While we continue to search for solutions to the problems of contingency and advocate for those in precarious positions, we think it is equally important to bring visibility to some of these exceptional members of our scholarly community. To that end we seek to publish a series of individual profiles/interviews on the SCS blog over the course of the next year featuring some of our NTT colleagues at various stages in their careers, who are making a difference and making their mark in our discipline.

View full article. | Posted in on Tue, 12/31/2019 - 1:50pm by Chiara Sulprizio.
 
The SCS Board is delighted to announce a new prize, which will be awarded for the first time in 2020. The Gruen Prize honors Erich S. Gruen, Gladys Rehard Wood Professor of History and Classics Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.  It will be an essay prize for the best graduate student research on multiculturalism in the ancient Mediterranean, and submissions about any aspect of race, ethnicity, or cultural exchange will be considered. 
View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Tue, 12/31/2019 - 11:04am by Helen Cullyer.

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