Category: General Reflections on Teaching

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.

From the Inbox

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.

Politics in the Classroom

In the midst of some intense political happenings in Washington, DC, it seems appropriate to ask: how does a teacher responsibly and ethically handle, or remember regarding, politics in the classroom?

Here is the fruit of my research:

  • Recognize your own positions. We all develop beliefs in response to our perceptions, feelings, interpretations of the past, interpretations of our own lives, and what we hear from family, friends, colleagues, the media, social media, our culture, etc. We must know our own positions and values, the evidence and causes behind them, and be conscious of how these positions and values affect our teaching and presentation of material.
  • Remember and acknowledge how our values affect our course design and lesson planning.  If we talk about slaves, we are influenced by a Marxist approach to history that encourages discussion of the subaltern. Depending on how we structure the lesson or where the conversation goes, issues of race and economics will be involved.
  • There is an uneven power dynamic between students and teachers. Most teachers develop the assignments for the students. Teachers evaluate and grade students. Ethical teachers cannot give points to students with whom they agree politically.
  • There is a difference between “settled issues” and “open issues.” Franke Wilmer uses the example as the Holocaust as a settled issue. It happened; it’s very sad a historical fact. Diane Hess uses the example of climate change. It is a settled issue that the climate is changing, but the appropriate response to climate change is the open question. Similarly, regarding an issue we might encounter in a Latin or Classics class, it is a settled issue that rape is bad, but the punishment for the rapist seems to be at the core of the debate raging today. It is important to differentiate between these for ourselves, and for our students. It may foster more constructive dialogue and it help us recognize that we are more similar to one another than our current polarization implies. Wilmer, though, acknowledges that drawing the line between “settled” and “open” can be difficult.
  • Focus on issues, not events. Often, we do not have enough knowledge of specific, very recent events, such as a police officer shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, to discuss them adequately or fairly; but we do have sufficient knowledge to focus on issues, such as racial inequality, the militarization of the police, police wearing body cameras, etc. This will also help students see the historical context and systemic issues behind current events.
  • There is a difference between “public”/”civic” values and “private” values. To quote Tom Huddleston, “The kind of values that characterise a pluralist democracy, such as ours [referring to the UK, but the same applies to the USA], include: social justice; political equality; tolerance; human rights; respect for the rule of law; and a commitment to negotiation and debate as the ideal way of resolving public conflict. This difference [between public and private values] allows a distinction to be made between the values that may be legitimately taught in schools–indeed, which schools have a duty to teach–and those that are more properly the province of the home, particular interest groups and religious or political parties. Thus, … [teachers] may quite legitimately condemn and prohibit injustices which contravene our community values, such as racism and human rights abuse – wherever they take place.”
  • Provide all points of view regarding an issue, and present them in a neutral manner. You can play ‘devil’s advocate’ to challenge what seems like an early emerging one-sided consensus, or encourage students to share and explain their own thoughts. You can invite a variety of community members into the classroom (especially if they are parents who are worried about you indoctrinating their children).
  • Do not establish yourself as the sole authority on a subject. This will demonstrate your open mind and the value of other opinions, and it will help students see that there are a variety of opinions.
  • Ask students to actively engage in a discussion of the issues. To quote Tom Huddleston again, “If children become accustomed to discussing their differences in a rational way in the primary years, they are more likely to accept it as normal in their adolescence. Citizenship education helps equip young people to deal with situations of conflict and controversy knowledgeably and tolerantly. It helps to equip them to understand the consequences of their actions, and those adults around them. Pupils learn how to recognize bias, evaluate argument, weigh evidence, look for alternative interpretations, viewpoints and sources of evidence; above all to give good reasons for the things they say or do, and to expect good reasons to be given by others.” In other words, do not just teach the issues, but teach the skills of being a good citizen.
  • Have rules for discussion. Students should be respectful and attentive, and they should approach the discussion with open minds. Opposing opinions should not be dismissed but respectfully interrogated so that they are better understood. The discussion should be based on fact-checked evidence, and arguments should be critiqued on their merits (not on whether or not the teacher agrees). Teaching students these rules for less controversial, political issues will establish a safe, respectful environment for discussing more hot button issues.
  • We must model approaching issues with an open mind. Do not reveal your own preferences unconsciously through facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, choice of respondents during a discussion, etc. Do not make sarcastic comments or jokes that are political or partisan in nature–that polarizes students.
  • If you share your opinion, make it clear that it is your opinion. State that it is “in my opinion.” Step out from behind a podium. State that students must make up their own minds.
  • Do not focus on cynicism and fear. Find upbeat messages and the good side of what may seem like crazy times, and share them with your students.
  • Are students initiating the discussion because they want to talk about it? or are you? There are differing levels of comfort that come with each cause.
  • To what extent are your students, their families, and their communities personally affected by an issue? Emotional levels will run high or low depending on your answer, or you may need to devote more or less time to issues that directly affect students before their learning can take place.
  • Should students be allowed to opt out of the discussion if it is particularly hard for them due to their religious background or personal past? Considerations similar to those for trigger warnings apply, on the one hand. On the other hand, Paula McAvoy mentions that we don’t let students opt out of tests, democratic discussion allows participants to walk away, and democracies rely on participants overcoming their discomfort regarding discussing their opinions.
  • Is the issue something all students ought to know about, regardless of whether it is in the curriculum?
  • We are a very politically polarized country at the moment. Current political polarization may mean that some comments are interpreted as political even though both sides agree on the idea (despite caricatures on the media or social media) or even though you did not mean them to be political, and it may mean that emotions will run high during discussions. However, respectful discussion is what is missing in our national discourse, so it may be beneficial to encourage it in our schools–to teach students how to be good citizens.
  • Remember there are difficult balances to maintain here, and success will not be immediate with every group of students. Don’t give up trying. It is important and engaging to connect Classics to the modern world, and to acknowledge the modern world’s effects on our perceptions of the ancient world. These attempts show why Classics matters. But the questions of whether and how political to be–that’s up to you, your students, and your administration.


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?

Grading English Language Learners’ Writing

This semester, I’m teaching more international students than I have in the past. Since some of them do not always have the best English, it raises a question: how do I grade their writing? How much do I focus on their ideas and how much do I focus on their ability to communicate their ideas and arguments? While this problem is not unique to international students, it is particularly important when the students seem to only have been studying English for a year or two rather than a decade or two with native speakers.

Personally, I find it ethically problematic to significantly punish students because they cannot communicate their ideas because they do not know our language. But how do I know what aspects of their paper are unclear due to a language barrier and what is off due to confusion, bad ideas, or problematic interpretations?  This semester, most of my international students with poor English are from China, so I was particularly happy to stumble across this explanation of Chinese language while preparing a class about ancient China:

Chinese is almost the opposite [of Japanese]. The word order is closer to English, with the verb coming before the object (e.g., “I read [a] book”). The Chinese language is also completely uninflected, having no tenses or plurals or any grammatical modification of word endings whatsoever. Honorifics, for the most part, are absent: Chinese is not a respect language. Chinese is also monosyllabic, at least to the extent that every Chinese character (written symbol), without exception, is pronounced as a single syllable and is a discrete unit of meaning. (Chris Holcombe, A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century, 1st edition, 2011, p. 16)

From this, I think that, when grading the writing of students whose first language is Chinese and who are still learning English, we can be a bit more lenient about tenses and the inflection of plurals. Spelling, too, may also be a problem while adjusting to the Latin alphabet.  Additionally, many sentences are likely going to be pretty short and simple–just as our Latin sentences rarely approach Cicero’s in length or complexity. With these cautious allowances, I think we could be fairer to our students as they struggle with learning a complex language. Of course, they may require us to do more work to decode our students’ papers–and in some ways our Latin learning and teaching experiences have helped prepare us very well for that task–and that provides other grading dilemmas regarding what is their idea and what is our [creative?] reading of their paper (It’s worth noting that we also face the problem of decoding some native English students’ papers).

I’m not saying we shouldn’t gently encourage them to improve their English–I think we should. I think we should also encourage them, along with all other students, to seek out the help of an on-campus writing center, learning center, or a peer editor. I just think we shouldn’t excessively punish them because they aren’t a skilled native speaker.  So how much is fair to deduct from their scores due to grammatical and syntactical problems? Perhaps a few points, just like you would with a native English speaker. After all, their papers will probably already suffer if a language barrier diminishes their ability to understand their sources, so avoiding double jeopardy seems fair.

Essentially, I suggest that we should not treat them worse than you would a native English speaker. Provide them with similar advice, resources, and guidance about writing. Deduct similar, reasonable amounts of points for grammar mistakes, but put more effort into trying to understand their writing and ideas by understanding how English and Chinese differ. That may help us see through some of the fog that clouds our vision of their ideas and help us arrive at a more authentic and appropriate grade.

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.