For various reasons, I dusted off my Greek history class this semester for the first time since 2004. I generally don’t teach upper level courses which at UND have a 300 or 400 designation. Since 2004, I think I taught Byzantine history once and that’s probably it for upper level offerings. But departmental needs change, so I offered Greek history.
So far, I’ve managed to stick to the original plan for the class which is a survey of Greek history from the Bronze Age to the modern period. The focus is on ways of seeing the past and starts with Joanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in the Age of Austerity (2017) before the typical litany of primary sources, Herodotus, Thucydides, Pausanias, and this week Marinos’ Life of Proclus, as well as material culture using John Bintliff’s The Complete Archaeology of Greece (2012) as our guide. For each source, we consider how they understood and communicated the Greek past and the midterm and final ask students to bring this together.
So far, so good.
Now that I’m half way through the class, I’m confronted by several things.
First, the course is largely political history and maybe this is appropriate in a time seemingly dominated by politics, but it feel sort of olde skool to me. My original goal of starting with Hanink and thinking about how people in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Early Modern era thought about the Greek past was to foreground and problematize the way that we think about the past. This is a very conventional historical approach which supports most critiques of the West, for example, as well as larger conversations about what matters in history.
Recently, however, I’ve been following the work of various scholars who deal with complex issues of race and gender in antiquity and come to realize that structuring my course around a framework of political history profoundly shapes how students read the ancient sources (e.g. Rebecca Futo Kennedy and the various scholars who contribute to Eidolon as well as conversations with my old buddy Dimitri Nakassis). While the structure of a course and its goals will (and should!) always shape how we engage a text, it structure me that the chronological organization of my course into politically defined chunks (e.g. the Archaic period, the Classical period, Antiquity, the Byzantine period) move the students to read these same political priorities into the sources and makes it much more difficult to use these sources to read these sources as evidence for race, general, social institutions or even continuity (as opposed to historians persistent interest in change).
Second, lecturing feels antiquated. My course is structured around the conventional lecture/discussion format. One out of every three classes focuses on a discussion of a primary source in a way that either ties this source into the themes of the course or uses the source to anticipate issues that will appear in the next few lecture. Today, we discuss Marinos Life of Proclus, for example, and that will intersect with my lectures on Christianization. (There will probably a powerpoint of Early Christian churches in the near future, just sayin’).
This approach feels pretty tired to me. After a five years teaching in a Scale-Up style classroom and, in particular, after last semester, running a discussion-based class on the UND Budget Cuts and about understanding and documenting Wesley College, it’s really hard to go back to lecturing. It feels pretty stale. Moreover, it feels almost authoritarian. Of course, I have my excuse (that I tell to myself before every lecture class) that there isn’t really a single volume survey of Greek history from antiquity to the modern era so I HAVE to provide narrative structure (which is, of course, too often a code word for political history, see my first point).
The frustrating thing is that I know I can do better in this class, but more than that, I know that I can do this differently because I have in other classes. Version 2 of this course will be different. And as I look ahead to teaching Roman history (gasp!!), I realize that to be comfortable in the 21st century classroom, I need to engage it like a 21st century teacher.
Finally, while I love antiquity and have now spent the majority of my life thinking full-time about ancient things, my passions and interests have changed over the past decade. In fact, I often feel more nostalgic when preparing or teaching my Greek history course than genuinely passionate about the material (with some exceptions). Part of me realizes that the expectation that one feels passion for one’s work is the ultimate sign of privilege, but another part of me thinks that my students might be better served if I taught things in which I’m currently invested like publishing, digital concerns, or archaeology of the contemporary world.