Teaching Thursday: Teaching Greek History

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.

 

Worrying Wednesday: DATAM Conference Paper and Modernity

Over the weekend, I spent some time puttering around with a paper that I’ll be giving at the Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean (DATAM) conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World next week.

I prepared a first draft a few weeks ago and posted it here. The paper argues that there are several digital divides. The first is the typical one between those with access to a well developed digital infrastructure and those without (or with significantly less access to broadband, to computers at home and at school, or to the latest technology). The second is sometimes called the “second level digital divide” that distinguishes consumer from so-called “prosumers” who produce content for the web as well as consume it. These prosumers are not only more invested in the digital world, but also more comfortable with digital tools and practices. The final digital divide that my paper dissects is that between data and analysis. Data is often represented in exclusively digital ways and articulated as a raw material (i.e. “raw data”), as a natural resource to be mined or drilled into, and as something that exists outside of (or beneath) analysis and interpretation. While most critical archaeologists understand that these metaphors have limits and do not reflect the realities of practice, there is a tendency in the classroom to place data and analysis into sharp relief. I then go on to discuss how an awareness of these divides has shaped my teaching in a Scale-Up style active learning classroom.  

As it reads now, however, the paper lacks an edge and a conclusion. My instinct, at present, is to try to demonstrate how the Scale-Up classroom creates another kind of digital divide between how the students engage with their learning and how my position as instructor can see their engagement. The barrier between what they can see and do and how I can see it is essential to the rise of a digitally mediated surveillance culture. The way that social media, search, and ecommerce companies track our behavior and produce responsive algorithms that depend on obscuring not only how they collect information, but also how they shape the way that we engage with their sites.

The metaphor of the panopticon from Bentham and Foucault, of course comes to mind, and its ability to condition the modern subject through the practice of being observed. That the panopticon also describes many aspects of our digital culture which strive to make us more willing consumers of both products and experience on the web is hardly debatable. What’s more worrisome, I suppose, is the way in which this same logic has shaped educational expectations. While it might sound naive to assume that somehow education – a thoroughly modern discipline – could avoid inculcating students with the expectations of the market, I do worry that our own use of digital tools and environments do little to prepare students to resist these pressures. On the other hand, perhaps an encounter based around dissection and breaking down these digital divides at least offers a tool kit for students to expect there to be limits to practices and to engagement in the digital world. This, of course, does nothing to undermine an ironic view of the modern world where strategies of dissimulation and occlusion obscure the real function of power and the making of meaning.

Three Thing Wednesday

It the time of the week (and frankly, semester) where the best I can do is muster three quick thoughts for the ole bloggeroo.

1. Inspiration. In my historical methods class yesterday, we read Michelet and discussed historical writing that sought to convey the emotional power to inspire readers and create the powerful emotional bonds that often define nationalism. My class was singularly unimpressed with Michelet’s project and declared him biased, unprofessional, and (in classic North Dakota style) arrogant. (Reader’s note: In North Dakota, arrogance is a blanket term to describe anyone who does anything in a way that deviates from fairly narrow norms. The assumption is that personal motivations and a sense of individual superiority are the only possible reason to be different. Standing out is the same as standing above and is a moral flaw.)  

This got me thinking about whether I do enough as a teacher (and, here, I’m thinking about UND in particular) to inspire our students. We do well to instill within our students a kind of a sense of confidence in the organization of the university and the curriculum. Students dutifully fulfill requirements, advance through majors, and achieve credentials. In fact, the confidence in the structured experience of credentialing is sufficient that many programs are concocting certificates, minors, and, there’s even talk of “badges” that indicate an individual has fulfilled the requirements for a particular program. The more of these credentials that exist, the more they structure how a student engages with a curriculum and forms expectations of performance and achievement. In such an environment, there is little room for the kind of individual or personal experiences evoked by Michelet, in part, because such experiences fit awkwardly within a curriculum that emphasizes the achievement of certain credentials that have explicit and often quantifiable benchmarks. In this context, experiences like self discovery, inspiration, and, even just chance, are, at best, epiphenomenal to the accomplishment of a common goal, and, at worst, a distraction or complicating factor that requires streamlining. 

In other words, as higher education becomes more formalized, structured, and quantifiable, it also leaves less room for inspiration, contingency, and inspiration. To paraphrase a colleague of mine in music, this song achieves its intended goals because every note is where I learned to put it in class. I need to do more to challenge this view of education in my students. 

2. Open Access. I had a nice chat with a colleague the other day about open access publishing in archaeology. She made the point that many graduate students or early-career academics can’t afford the time (or the risk) to do what I’ve done and start an open access press. In fact, many of them can’t even necessarily afford to publish in open access journals or series because many of these journals rank lower than their limited access counterparts and universities have come to rely more and more on the reputation of journals (some of which are from commercial publishers) to vouch for the quality of academic work. These are understandable and real problems for open access scholarship.

There are, however, some solutions that do not involve taking a risk by publishing in a new, untested, or less well-established, open access publication. Cite open access publications in your work. One of the key metrics for establishing the quality of a journal or publisher is, for better or for worse, citation counts in other quality publications. There are plenty of high quality open access publications that contribute to a wide range of fields. If you want to promote open access publishing, be sure to include these in your footnotes, citations, and bibliographies!  

3. Extended Intelligence. I need to get back to revising the ramshackle paper that I pre-circulated prior to the EAA meeting. It was not terrible, but it had – as the kids say – a lot going on. I would like to develop a bit more fully the sections on “logistics,” “assemblages,” and the archaeological “supply chain.”  In particular, I’d like to tie it a bit more closely to the concept of transhumanism and a transhuman archaeology. 

Yesterday, I stumbled across some of Joichi Ito’s work on extended intelligence and think that it offers an appealing hook for understanding how networked intelligence leverages the rhetoric (and technology) of logistics to transform and expand the very concept of thinking, knowing, and even in some cases feeling and experiencing (check out this rather extensive bibliography of the work of the MIT Affective Computing group). I’m not sure how much of this will make it into the final draft of the paper, but Ito’s reading of Norbert Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1954). As quoted by Ito, Wiener opined:

Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.”

 

 

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean: Dissecting Digital Divides

Next month, I’m giving a paper at a conference called “Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean” and hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. It’s title is “Dissecting Digital Divides: Teaching, Writing, and Making Knowledge of the Mediterranean Past.”

Right now, I only have a title and the dread feeling that I really have nothing significant to say about digital approaches to teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. 

I do, of course, have a little swarm of unrelated ideas and a strong yearning to be the kind of senior professor who can give a paper on three of four random things to a rapt audience. (Rather than feeling like an undergraduate who is trying to recycle the same three ideas that I’ve had since 2004 into another paper and hoping that nobody notices!).

So here are my ideas.

1. Digital Divide. There’s been a good bit of scholarship on the digital divide in secondary and higher education. The digital divide, in its most basic form, argues that a significant divide exists between those who use and have access to digital technologies and those who do not. This divide usually mapped along social, economic, and regional lines. Rural states, like North Dakota, tend to fall on one side of the digital divide especially when access to broadband internet is concerned, but I’d also argue —at least anecdotally— that students at UND are generally less technologically savvy and comfortable in digital environments than their more affluent and more suburban counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. 

I need to get data for this, but just observing my classes over the last few semesters, I continue to be struck by the significant number of students for whom technology is not a constant companion. Many of my students do not bring their laptops to class regularly, for example. In a recent field project that involved using mobile phones to take video, a number of students had such outdated phones that they could not accommodate more than short video clips; one student had a flip phone. While it was easy enough to negotiate the different access to technology, it remains clear that the digital divide—in terms of hardware—remains firmly in place. (A recently updated “smart classroom” with a series of small group work stations relies on students to use their own laptops too access the large, shared monitor. This seems like an optimistic implementation of technology.)   

Access to the right hardware, however, is only part of the digital divide. Over the last decade of teaching at UND, it has become clear to me that something as simple as a broken hyperlink or a pdf document oriented the wrong way, represents a significant barrier to accessing information. A significant group of students lack the standard tool kit of web “work arounds” that range from savvy web searches to negotiating the standard elements of user interfaces across multiple software. Even something as simple as using a mobile device as a quick and dirty scanner or looking for an article on Academia.edu or institutional repositories that they can’t access at UND remains on the fringes of their practice (even when such approaches are modeled in class).     

In my larger Scale-Up style class where groups of 9 work together to produce text, it was pretty apparent that even relatively simply digital interfaces – like editable Wikis or shared documents in Google or Microsoft 365 – caused myriad small scale obstacles that frustrated students and complicated group work. 

2. Prosumer and Consumers. My experience teaching at UND has suggested that access to hardware and familiarity with software (and these often go hand-in-hand) sketches one level of the digital divide and contributes to the existence of the “second level digital divide.” The second level divide maps the difference between individuals who are consumers of digital material on the web and those who are so-called “prosumers” of digital and web-based content. I contend that this second level divide is far more problematic that the first level divide for implementing digital approaches to teaching and, as a result, I have dedicated more time to cultivating prosumer culture among my students and demonstrating how digital tools facilitate certain kinds of collective knowledge making.

I will admit that my general approach is a naive one. I continue to have a certain amount of faith that the last unfettered wilds of the internet hold out a glimmer of hope for a society that is far more likely to be shackled, monitored, and manipulated by technology than liberated by it. I want my students to understand the power of Wikipedia, the ecosystem that produced the growing number of open educational resources and good quality open access software, and the potential, if not unproblematic character, of maker culture, and be prepared to contribute to it. 

On the other hand, I also understand that most aspects of prosumer culture have been coopted by the usual suspects of capitalism, exploitation, sexism, racism, and technological solutionism. By producing new knowledge, creative works, and tools, we are also likely to be producing profits for transnational corporations who are as comfortable limiting access to our own work as they are preventing us from foment even very small revolutions that cannot be monetized. As the kids say: “the revolution will now be monetized.”   

I still have hope, though, and at very least I want to work to undermine still-persistent attitudes that certain incredibly exploitative industries (like textbook publishing) represent a meaningful source of authority in the time of Wikipedia. 

3. The Other Digital Divide. History students obsess over and are baffled by the distinction between primary and secondary sources. For students of the ancient Mediterranean, their consternation is understandable and useful in unpacking the relative uselessness of this distinction among practicing historians. A source is a source and only primary or secondary in relation to its use. 

Practicing archaeologists sometimes find ourselves in the same bind, of course. The divide between “data” and “interpretation,” for example, coincides with the primary and secondary source divide among historians. The persistence of terms like “raw data” (which I think is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from use) reveals an understanding of archaeological knowledge making the divides data from interpretation. It seems to me that digital data makes this divide all the more convenient in part because the data itself appears so distinct from interpretative texts, and partly because digging down into the data represents a useful play on the modernist assumption that excavation (literally or metaphorically) provides access to a view of the past less encumbered by present interpretation. While intellectually, we may understand this divide as naive—as generations of archaeologists who celebrate reflexivity and methodology has taught us, we nevertheless tend to lean on the distinction between data and interpretation to frame our conversations. Endless references to archaeological data populate academic conferences, publications, and, I suspect, our teaching. For students who continue to want to see “facts” as the antidote to “fake news,” the transparent use of data appears to be a compelling ontological tonic for their epistemological anxiety. 

To my mind, this digital divide is every bit a pernicious as the other digital divides described in this post. In fact, it might be more dangerous in the era of “Big Data” than the other digital divides because it tends to see data as holding a particular kind of fundamental and inescapable authority in how it describes the world.  

4. Prosumption Critique. For the last 5 years, I’ve taught a large, Introduction to Western Civilization class at the University of North Dakota in a Scale-Up style classroom. The class generally enrolled 150-180 students and the room was set up for them to sit around round, 9-person tables. Each table had three laptops connected to a monitor and also came with a whiteboard and a microphone for the students to play with when bored. A central teaching station allowed me to observe most of the groups and to project content from the tables onto four large projection screens in the corners of the room.

The design of the room encouraged students work together and at least in theory sought to mitigate the hardware aspects of the digital divide by ensuring that at least three students had access to a laptop. In the most common implementations of this design, a student or students worked as the scribe for the table on a provided laptop or students worked in smaller groups, three to a laptop, sometimes installed with appropriate software for the task at hand. While I did not formally leverage the practical aspects of three-laptop design, it did work to mitigate the uneven access to technology among my students.

The class sought to mitigate the “second level digital divide” by encouraging students too critically work as prosumers of educational content. In practice, this involved having the students write a Western Civilization textbook with each table working on a series of chapters that would come together at the end fo the class as a completed book. This task encouraged students to recognize the value of their own voice, critical abilities, and their ability (and maybe even responsibility) to produce their own historical narratives and analysis. It also subverts some of the economic and political power of textbook publishers, although, I do ask them to buy a used copy of an older version of a textbook as a model.

Finally, the students start with more or less a blank document. I do not provide an approved list of primary or secondary sources or even offer much in the way of a critical guide to navigating the internet. Most students get that journal articles are “better” than random webpages (of uncertain authorship and content), that Wikipedia is a good place to glean chronology, geography, and additional sources, and that historical arguments are only as good as the sources they identify to build their arguments. If they can’t find good evidence for an argument, then no amount of rhetorical savvy is likely to make it compelling.

 

At the same time, this approach de-emphasizes the idea that there is a body of data “out there” ready for consumption, analysis, and interpretation. Instead, it encourages the students to see the body of useful evidence and data as the product of their research questions and priorities. The “raw material” of history is not something that is “mined” for knowledge, but something that’s built up as evidence FOR arguments about the past. 

In an era where relational data is literally being treated and traded as a commodity, it is hardly surprising that we envision knowledge making as a kind of extractive industry (and, here, I’m thinking of a paper that I recall my colleague Sheila Liming giving a few years back on the metaphor of “data mining” and “text mining”) rather than, say, performative or generative. It seems to me that encouraging students to be critical and conscientious prosumers of historical knowledge offers a little space to push back on both the economic and intellectual (or at very least metaphorical or rhetorical) underpinnings of our digital world.     

 

Teaching Thursday: Teaching to the Room

This semester, I’m teaching in two classrooms that enjoyed recent renovation. Both rooms are active learning classroom, of a type, with tables, white boards, and as many TV monitors as a sports bar. The rooms are fancy, well-appointed, but also a bit awkward for teaching history. 

The building in which they are located is the old medical school and many of the rooms were originally designed as labs. As a result, they were originally oriented perpendicular to the central hall way with large windows on one wall and a door on the other. To make them into classrooms, the university removed the divisions between the labs or offices and oriented the rooms parallel to the central hall way. In some cases, this created square rooms that can accommodate about 30 students:

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This room is oriented by the teaching station which stands in front of a wall with a large dry erase board and a pull down screen for images. While it lacks the bells and whistles of an active teaching room, the chairs are on wheels and can be easily rearranged and the additional white boards on the back and side walls allow for students to re-orient the classroom or to break it group work spaces with their own dry-erase boards. 

The room where I’m teaching Greek history is a bit less flexible, but it seats 60 students. One of the challenges of O’Kelly hall is that the central hallway and weight-bearing walls mean that a room of this size must be substantially longer than it is wide.

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Rather than chairs with desks on wheels, this room is organizes around 9, six-seat desks each with a video monitor and a dry erase board. The teaching center in on the hallway side, flanked by two doors and opposite a wall with several large banks of windows. Because the room does not allow for a clear view of the wall behind the teaching center, it lacks a large pulldown screen for projecting images, and instead it is possible to send images out to the remote monitors on each table. The wall behind the teaching station does feature a small dry erase board, but it is not visible from every table in the classroom. Finally, the teaching station is not centered in the room. The classroom extends about 4 meters further to the right of the monitor than it does to the left.

This presents some challenges for my teaching style.

First, despite the ability to send images out to individual tables, it is hard to teach from images or plans because it is difficult to point to various features in an image. The little pointer disappears when its stationary for more than a moment and to illustrate or point out any feature, I need to be focused on the monitor at the teaching station rather than the rest of the room. This is awkward.

Second, the asymmetrical orientation of the room means that I have to shift to the right to be equally close to the entire room when I talk to the class, and this moves me away from the teaching station. This invariably starts a little dance where I walk to my right, say things, and then move back to the monitor to point things out. Back-and-forth, I’ll wear a path in the carpet.

Third, the group work space is not bad, with six chairs around each table, but since the classroom accommodates classes from 35 students to almost 60, this arrangement doesn’t necessarily scale well across the entire range of possible class sizes. My Greek history class is ~35 students with about 30 showing up on any given day. This is at the upper range of a class in which a full-class discussion can happen. The arrangement of this room, however, makes this almost impossible. In fact, the orientation of the students toward one another and the monitors makes it challenging to get the students to engage the entire class. 

Lurking behind these observations is that my class remains anchored in lectures and full-class discussions. In the normal class, I engage the students every 10-15 minutes with a discussion of a text or an image. This style of teaching is a hybrid of the lecture style and the seminar and is generally appropriate for a class of 30-50 students.

While it is not the latest in active learning methods, it represents a disciplinary tradition that is consistent with what many of my colleagues do in upper level classes (giving the students a sense of familiarity), and also general effective in achieving learning outcomes that emphasize basic content knowledge and improvements in reading unfamiliar and challenging texts and images. The difficulty in using this room for this style of teaching is, to me, an interesting problem.

On the one hand, this is the tail wagging the dog with classroom design forcing faculty to adapt their teaching style. At UND, department have less control over their classrooms than in the past, and it is clear that the room in which I’m teaching was not designed with history classes in mind. In fact, when we created a similar active learning room, we designed it with more flexibility making it easier to adapt to the lecture-discussion style favored by our department.

On the other hand, I’m kind of intrigued by the challenge of making this space work and adapting my teaching style to these unique constraints. One of the more interesting things about teaching at a university is seeing how shifts across campus impact what we do in the walled-garden of our department. Budget cuts, new classroom architecture, no strategic initiatives and other shifts in big picture university planning influence how we do what we do, teaching what we teach, and know what we know. It’s fun to have such an explicit example as this classroom to use as a laboratory!

 

 

Teaching Tuesday: First Day Jitters

Like most of us who teach for a living, the first day of classes is exciting. It’s when we get back to doing what we’re sent here to do and for all the chaos and competing priorities in our professional and personal worlds, the classroom is one place where we can block those things out and focus on the task at hand.

I enter most semesters with a sense of confidence. I do all the teacherly things that are hot these days. I design my courses backward from the final assignment of the class to how I present the syllabus, I flip the classroom (and one a good day, I can get it to loop-de-loop), I try to maintain an inclusive classroom, and I am attentive to a range of assessment needs among my students.

The one thing that I rarely fret is content knowledge. This is mostly for two reasons. First, I am so intent on issues of pedagogy, course design, and method that I rarely spare much thought for what the class is about content wise. At my best, I have packaged content into neatly organized modules around course goals and manipulate what I know (or what I can learn or teach) to accommodate what I want to do in the classroom. As I’ve blogged about before, one of the key things in, say, a flipped classroom or in a classroom that is open to wide range of views is to be tolerant of ideas and perspectives that I think are probably wrong. Learning how to learn is often about a willingness to confront ambiguity in what we know. That means, as a teacher, we have to give folks space to be wrong, to rethink, to be wrong again, and then – maybe – eventually be right (but never to think you’re so right that you can’t be wrong). In other words, encouraging students to be wrong and giving them space to be wrong is fundamental to my pedagogy. The downside to this is that I have to check at the door the privilege that I’ve acquired from my expertise in a particular area. Knowing that a student is wrong is far less important than letting them figure out – whether in my class or later – that they’re wrong.

Second, I tend to teach at the margins of my area of expertise. I teach Western Civilization I where most of the time is spent with a high altitude survey of the West. I spend as much time wandering the Ancient Near East and the Middle Ages as I do in Ancient Greece and Rome, and even when I do find myself in my bailiwick, most of what I teach is rather different from what I know about the ancient world. Describing antiquity in a general way produces an ancient world that is quite different from the nitty-gritty that I’ve spent so much time learning. Otherwise, I’ve taught graduate historiography classes, undergraduate historiography classes, and methods courses at various levels. In other words, I never teach what I know, and this has given me the space to focus on both teaching and methods.

This semester, though, some of this will change. For the first time since 2004, I’m teaching Greek History. Not only do I know Greek history (well, some of it), but it’s something that I am still actively researching through my work with the Western Argolid Regional Project, through publishing on abandoned villages in the Corinthia, and through my longterm interest in Late Roman and Early Christian Greece. In other words, this semester I feel like content matters.

This realization has sent me into a bit of a spiral. Usually my classes are tightly organized around learning goals  and outcomes, pedagogy, and classroom practices. And while I recognize that this is might sound like putting the cart before the horse, I think it speaks to a classroom where our hope is to teach students broad concepts, transferable skills, and methods for learning that they can hone throughout their lives. These things are important, of course, even in my Greek History class, but perhaps because of my own passion for Greece and the topic, they are less important than actually understanding Greece. 

Starting this afternoon, I have to do more than let the latest pedagogical best-practices and course design philosophy dictate what I teach, I have to teach what I want students to learn and hope that over the course of the semester we find out way together. 

Wish me luck.

Syllabusing Greek History

This fall I’m teaching Greek history for the first time since 2004. I’m a bit apprehensive about it. Instead of just focusing on the ancient world, I think I’m going to try to think about the complex relationship between antiquity and the post-ancient Greece up through modern times. Since rather few of my students will be particularly interested in antiquity and even fewer will be Classics majors, I think the approaching the class like this will make it more relevant for students. 

The main texts for the class will be Johanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt (2017), which I’ve blogged about here, and John Bintliff’s The Complete Archaeology of Greece (2013), in celebration of our department’s merger with anthropology. Each module will have a little lecture, a primary source, and some kind of material culture. There are still a few gaps in the syllbus – for example, I don’t have a primary source selected for Medieval Greece (maybe something from the Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents) – but I have time to clean that up over the next few weeks (and I’m mostly interested in finding online primary sources). The class will have a midterm and a final as well as a review of an optional book and a primary source paper and a group project probably related to Hanink’s book.

Introduction to Greece
August 21
August 23

Bronze Age Greece
August 28
August 30: Knossos, Linear B, and Mycenaea
Optional Book: Cathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism. Chicago 2009.

The Classical Debt
September 4
September 5
Required Book: Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in the Era of Austerity. Harvard 2017.

Archaic and Classical Greece
September 11
September 13: Herodotus Books 1, 6, 7, and 8
Option Book: Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece – And Western Civilization. Simon & Schuster 2005.

Classical Greece
September 18: Athens
September 20: Thucydides Books 1, 2, and 6.
Optional Book: John M. Camp, The Archaeology of Athens. Yale 2004.

 

Hellenistic and Roman Greece
September 25: Athens and Corinth
September 27: Pausanias, Book 1 and 2.
Optional Book: Susan Alcock, Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece. Cambridge 1996.
Or David K. Pettegrew, The Isthmus of Corinth: Crossroads of the Mediterranean World. Ann Arbor 2016.

Late Roman and Byzantine Greece
October 2: Marinus, Life of Proclus 
October 4: Corinth in Late Antiquity
Optional Book: Amelia Brown, Corinth in Late Antiquity: A Greek, Roman, and Christian City. London 2018.
Or Richard Rothaus, Corinth, The First City of Greece: An Urban History of Late Antique Cult and Religion. Leiden 2000.

Byzantine Greece
October 9
October 11: Orchomenos and Osios Loukas
Optional Book: Anthony Kaldelis, The Christian Parthenon: Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens. Cambridge 2009.

Medieval Greece
October 16
October 18
Optional Book. Sharon Gerstel, Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology, and Ethnography. Cambridge 2015.

October 23
October 25 Writing Day

Ottoman Greece
October 30
November 1 – Evliya Celebi
Optional Book: Fariba Zarinebaf, John Bennet, Jack L. Davis, A Historical and Economic Geography of Ottoman Greece: The Southwestern Morea in the 18th Century. 2005.

Early Modern Greece
November 6
November 8 – Early Travelers
Optional Book: Eleni Bastea, The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth. Cambridge 1999.

November 13
November 15 – Writing Day

November 20 – Paper due
November 22 – Thanksgiving

Modern Greece
November 27
November 29

Catch Up Days
December 4
December 6

 

Teaching Thursday: Using a Building for Unstructured Teaching

This semester I’m teaching two very different classes to a similar (and somewhat overlapping) group of students. The student response to the two different classes is pretty different and I think I have a grasp as to why (although one can never entirely isolate the variables!) and I’m not sure that it’s entirely “fixable,” but it is at least intriguing enough to me to warrant a little blog post.

As a bit of preface, I have always benefited from structure. When structure is absent, I tend to create it. I’m a creature of routines, self-imposed deadlines, and arbitrary, but deeply held goals. Academically, I always sought out structured educational environments and gravitated toward languages which required daily discipline and history which conducted a syncopated rhythm of writing and reading. I have generally tried to bring this sense of structure to my classes, but over the past decade or so of teaching, I’ve found that, in some cases, my love of structure has produced a kind of compliance culture among students who see the structure less as an opportunity to systematically explore a topic and more as a series of tasks to be completed for points and, ultimately, a grade. As a result, I’ve gradually backed off from some of the more structured aspects of classes and now even build open days into my classes so that we have more flexibility to approach a challenging concept or skill or just get a breather. 

This semester, I’m teaching a three-credit honors class on the UND budget and guiding students through the complexities of a large institution with a large budget to get them to understand where various decisions and structures impact their lives. I’ve tried to balance the need for structure and the need for more conversational and exploratory time in the class. Over the semester, though, I’ve probably tipped the balance more toward structure lately. The results have been a bit predictable as the class has slowly slid into a kind of sleepy malaise as the students look to me to frame the next challenge. This isn’t bad, but as we have six weeks left to the semester and the larger project of completing a small book on the budget for students is going to require creativity, energy, and independence. I hope I haven’t stifled that.

Some of the same students are taking another, one-credit, class focused on documenting two buildings associated with Wesley College on UND’s campus and what we’ve called the “Wesley College Documentation Project.” This class is completely unstructured. Aside from causing me some late-night anxiety and following a loose set of practices – for example, we’re systematic in how we document the modern spaces and objects left behind in the building – but the goals of the activity remain pretty open ended. What’s remarkable is that the students are more engaged and enthusiastic.

Of course, the class isn’t even bound by the structure of the classroom, much less the tyranny of the contractual syllabus or a set of well (and narrowly) defined education outcomes. In fact, the class is much more like play than my typical classes. The time in the abandoned buildings is filled with music, laughter, as well as pondering, serious conversations, and unanswered questions. While this isn’t a profound observation, I wonder whether students don’t actually get more out of such an open-ended, play-oriented class.  

Teaching Thursday: Two Old Buildings on Campus

I have come to realize that I’m more or less addicted to one too many things on my plate, one too many adventures to be had, one too many ideas, one too many books, and one too many causes to champion. Maybe it’s the adrenalin rush or the welling up of anxiety that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of losing it with your mind skipping from idea to idea like a rock skimming across a flat pond. In fact, for me, I suspect, it’s the tension between flat pond and the skipping rock that draws me back to being over-extended day after day, week after week (well, that and the prodding (and encouragement) of friends like Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, and Bret Weber. They all at various times feel like the academic equivalent of that friend in college who convinces you to start drinking at 1 pm on a Thursday.)

This is a long introduction, to introduce my first effort at a one-credit pop-up class.

HIST 300

History 300 will focus on two (actually four) old buildings on campus of the University of North Dakota: Roberstson/Sayre Hall and Corwin/Larimore. They’re both hybrid buildings with one part built in the first decade of the 20th century and one part built in the 1920s. They offered housing and classroom space for a hybrid institution: Wesley College. Wesley College grew out of Red River University which had branches in Fargo and Whapeton. In Grand Forks, it worked in symbiosis with UND and offered classes in music, art, and religion. Some of the most famous graduates from UND came through Wesley College in one way or another including Maxwell Anderson. The college functioned as a residential unit that also offered classes and in that way, it worked a bit more like today’s residential colleges in the UK and, say, at the University of Toronto. In 1965, it was absorbed formally by UND and since then, the buildings have served as the homes to various department and university units.

Earlier this year, both buildings were slated for demolition and Corwin/Larimore is empty. Robertson/Sayre is almost empty as well. Because I can’t resist the temptation to document, explore, and investigate, I created a one-credit class to get some students into these buildings before they’re are gone to study and document them. While the outsides of the buildings are on the way to becoming pretty well documented, I’m interested in getting the students to help me notice the traces of use left in buildings that have stood on campus for over a century. The class will focus on the history of the buildings based on archival documents in UND special collections, the history of the architecture of the buildings (and the UND campus, which Kostis Kourelis is already developing), and, more importantly for me, the careful autopsy of the buildings.

Since the class is only one-credit, I can’t expect too much from the students in terms of reading, but I can’t resist including some recommended readings (and I suspect that Richard and Kostis will add to this list!):

Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016).
Laurie A. Wilkie’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: a historical archaeology of masculinity in a university fraternity. (2010)
Timothy Webmoor, “Object-oriented metrologies of care and the proximate ruin of Building 500”in Ruin Memories ed. Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir (2014).
Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer, “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus” in Modern Material Culture: the archaeology of us. Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer eds. (1981).

Teaching Thursday: Two Classes and a Textbook

I haven’t written a Teaching Thursday for a while, and this semester, my teaching has been particularly invigorating (aside from having to fix a million broken links in an online class!). 

Teaching the Controversy: The UND Budget

First, my class on the University of North Dakota’s budget cuts has been a joy to teach. (Here is my syllabus). In fact, I’m doing far less teaching and mostly working hard to stay out of the way as the students explore the complexities of higher education. They’ve already wrestled with the big picture issues related to state-supported higher education as a “public good” and the small scale complexities of the methods used to distribute funds on campus. They chatted with our budget gurus, a dean, and, this week, with UND’s Provost. Next week, we welcome a vice chancellor, the following, an important legislator, and then the VP of Research and the Dean of the Graduate School at UND. We’re working our way through Christopher Newfield’s book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Johns Hopkins 2016). As we gain momentum in the next six weeks, I’ll post some more substantial information here.

Abandoned Campus Buildings as Laboratory Classrooms

Second, because I just can’t leave well enough alone, I decided to teach a one-credit (well, this is pending our ability to create a class at his point in the semester and allow students to enroll!) class on two buildings on the UND campus slated to be destroyed this year. The buildings are hybrid structures and twins with the original buildings dating to the first decade of the 20th century and additions dating to the 1920s. They were originally part of Wesley College, a Methodist institution that from its early days was associated with the University of North Dakota and offered classes in arts, music, and religion. They are beaux arts classical in design. A. Wallace McCrea was the architect of at least Sayre and Corwin halls, if not the entire complex. They form the east and west sides of a lovely quad that opens onto University Drive and stand as a orderly counterparts to the college gothic of most of the UND campus. They’ll be missed! 

My plan to document these buildings currently involves three phases. First, we make sure that the architecture of the buildings is thoroughly documented – including plans, 3D scans, and photographs – and the location of the buildings and the surrounding space and situation is documented as carefully as possible. Second, we need to do some archives work and sift through the relatively extensive records on the history of Wesley College and these two hybrid-buildings. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, I’m going to put together a team to comb through the buildings looking for the traces of their past lives in both the building fabric and the things left behind. In short, the last intervention in the life of these buildings will be an archaeological one. 

Open Education Textbooks

The last week or so, I’ve been working my way through a pretty complete draft of an open access textbook on Late Antiquity. The book offers a compelling political and ecclesiastical framework for the Late Antique world. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that some of the author’s discussions of the religious controversies in Late Antiquity are among the clearest that I’ve ever encountered. 

What is intriguing to me is that Late Antiquity, despite being defined by political events and institutions (whether the fall of Rome or the reign of Diocletian, Constantine, Justinian, or Heraclius), has become increasingly described as a series of cultural phenomena ranging from the rise of Christian practices (and various forms of syncretism) to architectural forms, decorative practices (like spoliation), urban transformation, tastes in movable goods, literature, art, and even ritual practice. A political narrative is not necessarily outside the realm of culture, of course, but for Late Antiquity, the long shadow of Peter Brown and his amazing lineage of students has ensured that cultural issues have eclipsed political ones. The concept of the “long late antiquity” is almost always a culture one which argues that despite political and religious differences, certain aspects of the Late Antique world persist into the 7th, 8th, or 9th century. While this sometimes harkens to Pirenne’s old argument that the end of the ancient world occurred when the caliphate moved its capital to Bagdad and the Mediterranean moved from the front yard of both Western Europe and the Early Islamic world to their collective backyard, it also embraced similarities and connection around the Mediterranean that produces common cultural affinities. 

In the next month or so, I’ll be returning to this project and asking for folks to help me navigate this unique open educational resource into the public realm! Stay tuned!