Teaching Tuesday: Greek History

It’s the time of the semester where I tend to jot down some class notes for the classes that I’ve taught. Ideally, these notes are to serve as a guide for the next time that I teach a class, but in most cases are more effective as an opportunity to reflect on the semester rather than as a template for improvement.

This semester I taught my first “new prep” in about a dozen years. The course was a significant rethinking of my Greek history class that I taught in 2004. I expanded its coverage into the Medieval, Ottoman, and starting this week, the modern national period. Covering a such a wide span of history history for a rather narrow geographical area has proved challenging because I expect my students to have broad familiarity with the narrative of European history. A graduate-school mentor once noted that we tend to imagine classes with long time spans to be surveys and easier to teach and best suited to students at the introductory levels. Oddly enough, the ability to synthesize and to understand vast swaths of history is usually bound up with certain threshold concepts in history: managing and deconstructing issues of continuity and change, the ability to integrate simple and complex causality, and the relationship between disparate historiographic traditions. In other words, survey classes are often more appropriate pedagogically for upper division students, whereas more chronologically focused narratives often suit introductory level students better. (Of course, I do understand that chronology and focus are only part of what makes a class appropriate for a particular level of instruction. Writing and reading levels, performance expectations, and the ability to dig deeply in research and analysis also play key roles. 

In any event, my Greek history course brought with it some interesting challenges and opportunities. Here are some of them:

1. Narratives. I am not aware of any English language textbook that covers Greek history from Antiquity to the present. John Bintliff’s Complete Archaeology of Greece was the best that I could do and that book served as a de facto textbook. It’s emphasis on material culture, however, made it challenging to use to frame more historical (and political narratives). Johanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in the Era of Austerity (2017) offered another perspective for the class that allowed me to connect Greek antiquity with the modern period, but it overlooked the Frankish and Ottoman period and focused mainly (and appropriately) on the relationship between modern Greece and the West. The Edinburgh History of the Greeks is pretty remarkable, but far too expansive to use as a textbook.  

As a result, I had to craft a narrative of the Byzantine, Frankish, Ottoman, and Modern periods. On the one hand, this is my job as a teacher, but on the other hand, this was pretty hard! I had to both manage the complexity of unfamiliar periods and institutions with the students (e.g. feudalism, devşirme, the Septinsular Republic, et c.) while maintaining a useful tension between continuity and change. This means that students had to take notes!

2. Continuity and Change. One of the great opportunities in teaching a class like this is that we can dig deeply into the significance of the classic “continuity or change” argument in history. Often the larger significance of the tension between continuity and change in how we understand and construct the past and the present gets lost in the details about a particular period. For my period, Late Antiquity, we fixate on ceramic chronologies, architectural change, and the appearance of new kinds of settlements and assemblages. The issue of continuity and change determines the relationship between (various) present(s) and (various) past(s), and while we can approach the question using empirical methods, the goal of this kind of question is usually associated with claiming the past for a particular identity. Obviously, discussions of continuity and change play an important role in the construction of modern ethnic and national identities and are often a kind of rearguard action used to reclaim useful pasts from the explicit discontinuities introduced by the Enlightenment’s effort to produce a narrative of progress. The nice thing about starting the class with Hanink’s book is that we begin our study of Greek antiquity with the recognition that we’re reading about the past through a series of modern narratives that, in some way, shape the kinds of questions, problems, and arguments that we can make. 

3. Social History. Unfortunately, my fascination with modernity and the Greek nation pushed me toward a rather top-down view of Greek past. I’m particularly envious of my colleagues who manage to integrate gender, race, and slavery into their courses on antiquity and to use the past to problematize pressing issues in the present. While I recognize that not all history classes can address all the pressing issues facing the world in the 21st century, I do feel a bit tone deaf when I have the class pivot around issues of modern political history to the exclusion of groups, processes, and events that fall (or where pushed) to the margins of national building and the construction of the Western world. The best I can hope for is that by acknowledging the parts of the story that I do leave out and by making clear that our view of the past exists in a particular political and social context that allows me to narrate history as I do.

4. Limping Lectures. Because I don’t have a textbook that offers the kind of narrative that I’d prefer, I’ve had to lecture in class. My students are clearly a bit uncomfortable with the “sage on the stage” scene and the classroom is rather ill suited to my approach. To be clear, I do work in regular discussions and try to be interactive with my lectures, but its pretty clear to me that the age of the lecture may be coming to an end. In any future versions of this class, I need to weave in more primary sources, more activities, and more opportunities for engagement than I do at present. 

What’s remarkable to me is that this shift from the expectation of lectures in an upper level history class to the expectation of more active learning has happened so suddenly. While I don’t teach very many upper level courses, between 2004, 2013, and 2018, the classroom environment has changed significantly. Ten years ago, I’d have to beg students to engage and to participate in classroom discussion or activities, whereas today, students know the drill and chime in with the understanding that participation is part of their educational experience. On the flip side, lecturing students now seems to all the more uncomfortable as students clearly struggle to take notes, process information on the fly, and recognize that listening to a lecture is a form of active learning.

5. Pacing and Coverage. Finally, I have basically three classes left to cover the 19th and early 20th century. The post-war history of Greece was covered in part by Hanink, but I’ll have to weave some of that into my class over the next few days (while also preparing them for a final exam). This is not entirely satisfactory, of course, and partly because I missed a few days for conferences throughout the semester. At the same time, I need to determine when and where to cut or compress material. It was easy, for example, to skip lightly through the Ottoman period which I began with a lecture on Mystras, discussed with readings from Evliya Çelebi and William Martin Leake, and wrapped up – more or less – with the Orlov Rebellion (1770).  I tried to introduce some of the themes present in Molly Greene’s history of Ottoman Greece, but my lack of ease with the Ottoman period certainly showed. By marginalizing the Ottomans in the history of Greece, I’m more or less continuing the kind of colonial practice that imagines away these centuries in the formation of Greek identity. My hope is that I still do enough to demonstrate that by recognizing the discontinuity in my own narrative, that I can problematize this decision for students. At the same time, I’ll draw rather freely from Tom Gallant’s volume in the Edinburgh history which uses a narrative grounded in a Thucydidean approach to causality to balance between the proximate and local (Ottoman) causes of the Greek War of Independence and the larger position of Greece in the European world. Compared the Hanink, Gallant spends little attention on the various 19th century Philhellenes and their economic and political bases in Western Europe, and instead focuses on Greece as a post-Ottoman state. In hindsight, I wish I had my students read Gallant’s book at the end of the class and compare it to Hanink’s, not to point one out as better and another as worse, but to wrap us the class with a good example of how the questions we ask of the present shape our view of the past.  

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