Category: Cultural Days or Literature in Translation Classes

The Importance of Historiography

The Importance of Historiography

According to Bond, the Greeks and Romans of antiquity did not classify people as “white,” and many of the classical marble sculptures, sarcophagi, and steles from the Mediterranean were originally painted—frequently in gold, red, green, black, white, and brown. As the pigments deteriorated over time, art historians, including Johann Joachim Winckelmann—an eighteenth-century scholar considered by many to be the father of the art historical discipline—perpetuated the idea that the white marble statues of ancient peoples represent an ideal beauty, a notion that still fuels white supremacists today.

These thoughts (summarized here from Sarah Bond’s Hyperallergic article here) elicited death threats from members of the alt-right. This is a very troubling result of something very smart: an attempt to show how Classics may be unintentionally complicit in perpetrating racial thinking, how we can alter this complicity, and how this problem developed in the primordial soup of our discipline.

We need to be aware of the history of our field and, depending on the level of our students and courses, present this historiography to our students. It shows us why we approach certain questions and issues in certain ways. Here are some of the things we can do with this knowledge:

  • Show why a certain approach is beneficial. Certain materials are best approached from certain angles, or they can only tell us certain things. Over decades and centuries of research, scholars have determined some of these limitations and best approaches. Students can learn them too.Childe Historiography.png
  • Show why certain approaches, methods of presentation, or interpretations are, perhaps, wrong or troubling. Painted sculpture is a good example here. I presented another good example in my ancient history course: the idea of diffusion. Historically, it developed alongside ideas about Social Darwinism, and the large-scale diffusionist theory of V. Gordon Childe was contradicted by new data from C14 dating. This example allows us to talk about reasons for rejecting theories (i.e. it doesn’t fit the evidence) and for being cautious or worried about theories (i.e. it implies that some humans or cultural phenomena are more valuable or dignified than other humans or cultural traits). This is not to say that diffusion never happened, just that we need to be careful not to assume that “good” traits will spread to other cultures because they are inherently good. We need to explain that diffusion and its mechanism in a more sophisticated way that explains why the receiving culture would want to adopt that trait, practice, or object–in other words, in a way that affirms the dignity of all humans, past and present.
  • Frames these methodological issues in an academic, instead of a political, context. In these times of great political polarization when scholars receive death threats for explaining why we need to say ancient statues were painted, ethically sound statements that affirm the dignity of our students and people in antiquity could be construed as political statements (which could cause our students to shut down). However, if we thoroughly explain the connection between white statues and white supremacy or the connection between diffusion theories and Social Darwinism, the importance of methodological wariness and behavioral change is more apparent than if we make a simple statement to the effect of “But be careful about that interpretation or statement because it has racial undercurrents.”
  • Shows how scholars are a product of their times. For example, diffusion and Social Darwinism developed alongside each other, and research interests in sex, gender, and sexuality developed as feminism and the LGBT rights movement grew. It may help students understand why some scholars seem sexist, and it may encourage them to explore ideas that they care about because of today’s issues.
  • Shows why we, as teacher-scholars, approach questions in a way that may not be as interesting or comprehensible to our students as it is to us. For example, many scholars focus less on wars and the salacious stories in Suetonius’s de vita Caesarum than many of our students might like. However, by recognizing this, we can break out of this habit and explore things in a new way or in a way that engages our students more effectively.
  • Shows students why we know more about Egypt, Greece and Rome than about, say, the Hittite Empire. The dates for excavations and decipherments of languages are a huge factor here. As are the number of scholars working on each culture.
  • Shows students that there is more work to be done. All the answers don’t exist yet, and there are questions that can still be asked, perhaps by them.
  • Shows students how that work can be done. As we talk through different approaches and their benefits, the lesson is also a methodological lesson.

Effectively Using Theoretical Models

At the beginning of the spring semester, I wrote that my courses will be more focused around themes and theoretical models. One of my friends responded on facebook:

Love this! Can’t wait to hear how your semester goes. I’ve also struggled with getting theory into my classes (particularly my archaeology classes). I have a bad habit of talking about it at the beginning and then failing to connect it to the rest of the semester. It sounds like you are avoiding that well so far.

To some extent, I fell into the same trap she had: focusing on theory too much at the beginning of the semester and less at the end. Yet I also learned more about theory, Rome, history, and teaching in the process.

First, it is important to share theoretical concepts with our students. In articles and books, scholars use theory both to transparently explain their perspectives and interpretations and to simplify complex, unwieldy material. Both of these tasks are important for educators so that our students can best understand the ancient world, as well as possibly have a tool to understand the modern world.

Definitions of theory.pngSecond, “theory” is a word with a variety of meanings for people, so we should be clear about what we mean by the word “theory.” To do this, I use the slide to the right. In part, this comment seeks to reinforce and help clarify the work in, and efforts of communicating that work, the hard sciences (e.g. chemistry, biology, and physics).

As I had mentioned above, at the beginning of the semester or units, we focused on and explained larger theoretically concepts. In the Roman history course, we looked at various models about empires, as explained by Terrence D’Altroy’s introduction to Provincial Power in the Inca Empire. In class, groups of students presented about each model. This day did not go as well as a more interactive conversation about empires in my Ancient History course—this lesson was later in the semester. Students read the introduction to Michael Doyle’s Empires. As we discussed the definitions of empire and other types of interactions among states (see images below), students classified relationships among modern states and justified their classifications. This guided discussion and active engagement seemed much more effective at clarifying the theory under discussion. Importantly, the vocabulary level and complexity of Doyle’s introduction was lower than D’Altroy’s introduction–this also helped make the lesson more effective.

After this introductory lesson, more reference was made to theories of empire in the Ancient History course rather than in the Roman history course. In part, this was because the introductory lesson was more effective, and because Doyle’s theories were more helpful for the Ancient History course than some of D’Altroy’s theories for the Roman history course. In part, it was because the right slide, above, was a more helpful slide to copy into a future PowerPoint.

In the Roman history course, though, I did not completely abandon discussion of theories. For many lessons, we introduced specific theories that would be more helpful for understanding those lessons, or part of that lesson. The best illustration of this actually comes from my modern world history course. In a lesson regarding the economics and globalization of the 20th century and early 21st century, I referred to Immanuel Wallerstein’s ideas about an empire’s core, periphery, and trade. The picture on the left is the summary from my Roman History course’s overview of empires’ theories, and the picture on the right is from the world history course. I purposefully created the world history graphic so that I did not need to explain the entire theory or what theory is, but so that I could communicate the ideas as clearly and as quickly as possible. I think it worked really well as a good, two minute discussion of economics of empires and underdevelopment of the periphery.

Some takeaway points from this overview of my use of theory this semester:

  • Theory is helpful for everyone, students and scholars, to understand the past and present.
  • If you call it theory, explain what you mean by “theory.”
  • If you introduce a model for a lesson, an entire unit, and/or the course, ensure that the models are relevant and useful for the lesson, unit, and/or course.
  • Make sure the reading about a theoretical paradigm is at an appropriate, accessible vocabulary and complexity level for your students.
  • On the introductory day, guiding students may be a more effective active learning strategy than asking them to present on them.
  • Create a clear, powerpoint slide that helps digest the theory even more so that you can easily refer back to this slide in latter lessons.
  • After the introductory lesson, return to the theoretical concepts often and connect lessons to them, and/or use theoretical concepts in class.
  • You do not need to explicitly refer to it as theory or explain the theory, but you can still use the conceptual models to simplify the material for students.
  • Incorporate theory into your classes, acknowledge that it won’t always go well, and keep trying new methods to achieve this goal.

Narrative, Cause/Effect, or Question of the Day: A tension in lesson planning

In a recent post, I shared some of the lessons that I learned while teaching world history this semester. I also gained insight into another tension that I’ve always confronted while teaching a history lesson: do I tell a story or do I answer a research question? Strayer’s Ways of the World was enlightening because he often focuses less on an event, say World War 2, than on its connections to other events, cultural phenomena, and social movements. I really liked this method and used it as a model for several of my lectures, but it does seem like it’s often in tension with other ways of organizing a lecture. Here are what I see as some of the pros and cons of each way of organizing the lessons:

Narrative / The Story of History

  • PRO: It can be very entertaining for students, especially if it’s told in an engaging, soap opera-like way.
  • PRO: It provides the basic historical facts that students need to make sense of the past.
  • CON: It uses up class time–can this passive reception of historical facts be done at home through flipping the classroom?
  • CON: It presents your interpretation as if it is the only possible interpretation–as if it is historical fact. It doesn’t necessarily allow students to formulate their own opinions on the past.
  • CON: History is not always neat and tidy, and there is not always a good standard to help determine why you’re including one piece of information and why you’re omitting another.

Cause and Effect of Events

  • PRO: It encourages a higher level of thinking: making connections between events. Even if you’re the one doing all of this higher level of work, it models for students how this might work.
  • PRO: It allows you to highlight certain themes throughout the semester, such as the importance of nationalism or the limitations of ancient communication technology.
  • CON: Students may not have the basic skeleton of knowledge, which you’re attempting to flesh out with this method.

Question of the Day

  • PRO: By providing a clear direction for the lesson, the question focuses the lesson in a very targeted way. If the information does not relate to the question, it is omitted.
  • PRO: It models research.
  • PRO: You allow students to engage in the major interpretive debates about a particular field of study–for example, why did Rome gain its empire?
  • CON: Depending on how the lesson is taught, students will need certain background information that they may not have or that is not easily delivered by one reading. You may be exposing them to it for the first time in class, and so they may feel overwhelmed.

Ancient Slavery, a lesson plan

In a recent post, I commented on a difference between ancient slavery and the modern, American antebellum slavery: racism. Race was not a major factor in ancient slavery. But, how do we convince students of that?

This semester, in Roman history, I spent an entire day on Roman slavery and the growth of slavery during the Late Republic, so that they could understand the (perceived) economic problems confronted by the Gracchi. Since I wanted students to learn about many aspects of ancient slavery, and since the best way to understanding another culture’s ideology and thoughts is their writings, I developed several stations with various primary sources (Slavery Primary Sources): Cato’s De Agricultura on how to run a farm, Varro on which slaves to buy to be herdsmen, Livy and Strabo on how Romans obtained slaves from war and pirates, Horace about a slave auction, legal sources about fugitive slaves, and the plan of a first century BCE slave villa. The students spent about 5 minutes looking at each document and attempting to complete the Slavery Stations Worksheet before they looked at the next document. For each document, in addition to document-specific questions, students needed to make two decisions: (1) if the author’s thoughts about slavery were motivated by economic profit, and (2) if the author’s thoughts were motivated by racism or ideas about ethnicity.

In a very brief, rushed moment at the end of the class, to bring everything together and drive home points about slavery, economic profit, and racism, I asked if Roman slavery was motivated by racism to which my entire class provided a resounding “No!” When asked if it was motivated by economic profit, they shouted a resounding “Yes!” (Cf. The Half has Never Been Told on American slavery and capitalism). The following class, we went into a little more depth, reviewing the documents to discuss the conditions of ancient slaves (Had the class period been longer, this would have followed the two debriefing questions). Overall, this was a very good, thorough introduction to Roman slavery and practice of historical methods–and much better than if we had discussed an article or I lectured to them about it.

  • Side Note: As noted above, this lesson plan was motivated by a desire to show the historical reality: that Roman slavery did not involve racial thinking. In addition to the academic responsibility of making this point, I was also motivated by a concern for modern social justice (and thoughts on sensitive topics): to show that racism is man-made, it is not natural, and it is not inherently connected to slavery. In this regard, I think this lesson was successful. I do not think it was necessarily (or is inherently) successful at helping students identify or eliminate any racial thinking they might have, nor do I think this lesson was necessarily (or is inherently) successful at helping students understand the social and economic status of black people in the United States today. To get close to accomplishing that goal, I still think that something about Roman freedmen would need to be included, but that is a problem I am still contemplating (See an earlier attempt and a reflection on its inability to fully help students understand instances of police violence against black people).

How teaching World History will change my classes on the ancient world

This semester, I have had the pleasure of team-teaching modern World History with a Middle Eastern historian. The experience emphasized for me that there are likely certain differences between the ancient world and the modern world, and I want to learn more about these issues. I also think these differences are often overlooked by our students in Latin and Classics courses. We ought to be a little more upfront about and deliberate about highlighting these potential differences (even if it is just highlighting the differences in the degree to which these phenomena presented themselves), so that students have a better understanding of the ancient world. Here are the most important ones:

  • Nationalism – the idea that a nation (a people with a shared culture, language, history, etc.) ought to be united in and masters of their own state. Ancient Greeks certainly identified as Hellenes, but did they ever then desire to have one Hellenic state? I’m not positive but books by Jonathan Hall and Irad Malkin should help clarify that question. What about the Romans? There were certainly legal distinctions between Roman citizens (Romani) and non-Roman citizens (peregrini), but the question of empire and the spread of Roman culture gets mixed up with the possibility of nationalism. Relevant readings my be Timothy H. Parsons’s chapter on the myth of a civilizing empire and Greg Woolf’s Becoming Roman.
  • Slavery and racism became interconnected in the modern world as a result of the Transatlantic slave trade, and this has fed into rubbish racial thinking involving concepts of superiority and Social Darwinism. Slavery and race were not so interconnected in the ancient world. I did a cool, successful activity that addressed this a little bit more head on this semester, and I plan to share it soon.
  • During the Enlightenment, the idea of the Social Contract emerged and it argued that the state should work for the common good of all people. My gut reaction is that this view of the state was not as commonly accepted in the ancient world as it is in 21st Century America, but I want to read Cicero’s De Republica and other treatises on ancient political thought to learn more.
  • The Industrial Revolution completely transformed the world. Even though there were certainly some technological advancements in the ancient world, they were not as widespread or as transformative as the printing press, steam engine, the harnessing of electricity, or the telegraph. In these ways, I think it’s always helpful to remind students that a courier system was necessary when text messages did not exist, that salt was necessary before refrigeration, and that these technological limitations affected the way states acted.

timeline-major-inventionsThere are various ways to highlight each of these items for our students, including through repeated reminders about the importance of salt, the reliance on messengers, and the speed of sea travel. Another helpful way is through timelines (like this one), to help locate students thought processes in the right century and think about the right technological levels. Additionally, the differences regarding racial thinking and political thought, may be the “take-away” points to lessons about ancient slavery or ancient political institutions.

The Importance of Teaching Late Antiquity

This year, I have taught several ancient history or archaeology courses that end in the eighth century CE instead of with the rise of Constantine or somewhere in the fourth century. Admittedly, my class periods on Late Antiquity cover a lot of time quickly, but I still think that it is important we include Late Antiquity in our classes for these reasons:

  • Ending with the origins and rise of Islam seems like a more academically honest ending to a course on Rome than a (seemingly triumphant?) legalization of Christianity under Constantine. The spread of Islam through the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, Sicily, and southern Spain; the creation of the German kingdoms in Europe; and the retrenchment of Byzantium create the large cultural zones of the Middle Ages. These are the heirs and successors to Rome.
  • Islam is frequently in the news, and there is a lot of Islamophobia. Students would benefit from learning more about this major world religion and its origins. This is especially true because discussion of Islam in class encourages understanding (instead of fear) of Muslims, and it provides students with good information (again, instead of fear) about Islam.  If you’re looking for a good resource on Islam, my co-teacher for World History, who is a Middle Eastern historian, recommends John L. Esposito’s book Islam: The Straight Path as a good explanation of the religion and its history to Westerners.
  • Students have generally enjoyed and appreciated this introduction to Islam.
  • A discussion of the rise of Islam provides a less Eurocentric history of Rome and the Mediterranean.
  • A historical survey that includes more about Christianity includes the rise of the papacy, Catholicism’s intertwining with the state, and some of the possible sources of conflict within Christendom. Even if most of our students are not Catholic or even Christian, a better understanding of Christianity and its historical development would not harm our students, especially since it has had such an important role in European and global history.
  • Islam has also had an important role in the world’s history.
  • Some great recent scholarship has been done on Late Antiquity so it is more representative of Classics as a field.

I also admit that my training involved relatively little about Late Antiquity so it did require more research and work to prepare these classes. Nevertheless, that is not a great reason to avoid including Late Antiquity in the curriculum. After all, aren’t there all sorts of lessons that we teach even though we were not thoroughly trained in that subject matter?

Describe the artifact carefully.

augustus-prima-portaThis semester, many of my Roman archaeology students latched on to a tidbit from the textbook: that the bare feet of the Augustus of Prima Porta indicate that the is a hero or even a god. I am intrigued by this phenomenon because I’m not 100% convinced of this tidbit so I did not mention it in class–it had to come from their reading–and because it was something that had remarkable staying power among so many of my students.

I think I know why. It was something concrete to latch onto. It fit the “In Roman culture, X means Y.” It is tangible and easily recognizable. It was also in English (They didn’t latch onto the idea that “In Roman culture, when a statue’s arm is raised with an open hand, it is the adlocutio pose and this pose means that he is addressing a group of people.” … maybe because adlocutio is a funny Latin word they don’t know?).

Instead of just purely speculating about this one instance, I think it’s representative of something else.  All too often, while the textbook and I tried to balance our amount of description with how much we talk about the meaning and significance of an artifact or structure, we erred on the side of discussing the significance and meaning. After all, there are only so many pages and minutes we can describe things without boring our students completely to death.

But this last sentence is a little off the mark. When we talk about the Augustus of Prima Porta, or any other artifact and structure, we are constructing an argument about it. In order to be a good model for our students and to teach students how to read ancient images, we need to construct this argument by providing evidence: detailed, specific descriptions. These should be more than that the Laocoön provokes an emotional response from his pained look, but what about this pained look elicits this response? and what is this response?

When I have described objects in more detail, not only have I felt better about the quality of argument that I present my students, but I have also felt better about their level of comprehension because I have read their faces and moods. As we balance description with significance, we need to offer more nuggets like “bare feet = god and/or hero” and be careful that the forest not get lost through the trees.

*         *        *         *

By the way, I have found PRS questions are another very helpful way to develop students’ visual literacy. In addition to forcing students to take a position and giving them a chance to do the analysis, the questions are particularly valuable for correcting mistakes. If you see that a lot of students did not answer a question correctly, you can describe or explain the object in more detail or in another way in order to explain the answer more effectively. Or better yet, have students who got it right describe the object and explain their own answers.

 

 

What is in a name?

A paper by any other name would be as formal, right? Apparently not. This semester, I assigned several brief writing assignments in my mythology and Roman archaeology classes. I called them “Exercises” so that they would not seems as stressful and help communicate that they should be brief. Instead, I think the word “Exercise” communicated that the papers were less formal than I hoped. Many of the students frequently used the first person–“I think…,” “We know this because…,” “I chose to talk about…,” or something along those lines. It was not the rare, more formal “In this paper, I argue…” or “…, I argue,…” which you see in some scholarly settings. While reading these, I was impressed by how distracting the first person was for me and so how much I hated reading it. This is the most obvious example of how these “Exercises” seemed too informal.  Two were handwritten, many were a single paragraph of few hundred words, and many lacked a thesis statement.

Now, I am sure I seem like a crotchety old man here, and I am well aware that some of my complaints reflect other issues–students needing to improve as writers, changing language norms, students are often less invested in academics than their professors were/are–but there seems to have been a communication disconnect here. The students seem not to have understood what I meant, and this can have very bad pedagogical implications. For instance, when I taught my Roman archaeology class about the Colosseum, which was built on the artificial lake in Nero’s Domus Aurea, I said “The Flavians sought to give back the land from the Domus Aurea to the people because it was acquired after the Great Fire of 64.” Based on their answers on exams, students seem to have heard “The Flavians were giving back to the Roman people.” and understood it as a way to repay the people for something. These are two very different concepts of the Colosseum. One sees the Colosseum as a just return of land and an attempt to placate the people or buy their support, the other suggests the building was part of a social contract in which the emperor must thank the people for their support. The latter is anachronistic–the Romans did not have a Lockian social contract.

My pedantic point is that we must be careful about how we communicate with and phrase things for our students. We have been trained to think in certain terms and to understand our subject in a specific way. Our students most likely do not know what we mean by some of these terms (e.g. identity, reception, “draws on,” “in dialogue with,” power) or they have very different ideas about what we mean by them (e.g. paper, quiz, test, exam, short essay [vs. essay], monograph, blog post). In order to be good teachers, we must find a way to communicate most effectively: try to remember what it’s like to be a student, try to think in their terms, and teach our students what our/academic terminology means.

Next time I do these exercise assignments, I will call them “Papers” and let a word limit be the main indicator of how long it should be. Next time, I will say “The Flavians returned the land of the Domus Aurea to the people” or “The Flavians made the Domus Aurea‘s land more open, more public.” Next time, my exam sections will just be called “Essays” instead of “Short Essays.” Next semester, I will continue to improve.

Object-based learning

There’s something about handling an artifact or experiencing an ancient building during class that really unleashes a student’s latent curiosity. In Cincinnati, I loved to use coin replicas from the University of Cincinnati Classics Department’s study collection during class or in outreach presentations about ancient coins. Students were more engaged and asked a lot of questions when they had coins in their hands, and they were more willing to try and figure things out on their own. When I came to teach at Ohio University, I no longer had access to a study collection or set of artifacts with which to harness students’ joy and awe of directly experiencing the ancient world, so to reify the experience or the use of objects and buildings in my archeology classes, I relied on PowerPoint slides, videos, and descriptions from my own vivid experiences with the Pompeii Archaeological Research Project: Porta Stabia or studying abroad at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome (i.e. the Centro).

Yet the gap between the artifacts and the students only seemed to truly be overcome with a final brief writing assignment for my Roman Archaeology class. I asked them to wander the campus of Ohio University and the city of Athens to find a building or piece of art that is unquestionably inspired by a Roman monument, building, or artifact that we have studied this semester and then to answer the following three questions in an essay:

  • soldiers-and-sailors-monument
    Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Athens, OH

    How do you know this structure/object is based on a Roman building/object? How are they similar?

  • What does the Roman model tell us about the modern building?
  • In what ways does the modern building/object make you better appreciate the ancient model?

As I read through the papers, I was proud to see how much students had learned: how to objectively describe monuments, how to identify their models, how these models fit into Roman culture, and how to read the messages and features of any monument. Since I was able to see their personalities in their writing a lot more, it seems like they enjoyed this assignment more than earlier assignments. But I was also struck by a common answer for the third question: they could better appreciate the engineering, greatness, or reality of the ancient model. One paper admitted that comparing a chapel to the Pantheon was like comparing a kitten to a lion, and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is much smaller and simpler than Trajan’s Column; but this exercise reified the ancient monuments for them and gave them a taste of what the originals were like. It made me wish I had done something like this exercise earlier in the semester.

So what would it look like earlier in the semester? Several small blog posts throughout the semester could encourage students to discuss what they learn about a Roman building by looking at something modeled on it. For example, when we discuss Trajan’s Column, students could be asked to respond to this prompt: “Go look at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on campus, walk around it, and spend some time contemplating it and its decorations. Based on your experience examining the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, how would a Roman have responded to and appreciated the relief on the Column of Trajan?”

All too often, it’s hard to reify ancient buildings or objects for our students–even on site where many buildings only remain as foundations. By reifying them, we help students better understand the buildings, their messages, and their effects. After all, which of the images below is more engaging or helpful to understand Roman temple architecture?

cosa-arx-drawing
Reconstruction drawing of the temples on Cosa’s Arx
300px-1st_Christ_Scientist_RI_IL.jpg
First Church of Christ, Scientist (Rock Island, IL)    [Roman Temple Design filtered through Palladio’s Villa Rotonda]