Category: Strategies for in the Classrrom

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.


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.



Online quizzes

In a recent post, I mentioned that, after the exercise with geopedia, students need to complete an online quiz on BlackBoard.  This is one of the things that I have been trying out this semester so that I ensure students are doing their homework, and I think it has worked very well.  Students seem to be coming to class better prepared than they did when I was not having them take these quizzes (albeit at a different university) and they have a stronger background in the material for the day’s lesson.

Here are some of the things that I have noticed ought to be considered with this method:

  • Time limits for the quiz. I started the semester with a 10 minute limit, but I extended it to 15 minutes after students asked for a little more time so that they could think through matching-type questions.
  • Number of attempts on the quiz. Depending on your method of teaching each lesson, you may only want to allow one attempt (e.g. with team-based learning) but multiple attempts may also be helpful (e.g. with Socratic seminars or semi-meandering class discussions).
  • Implications of flipping the classroom. This method of ensuring that students do the homework is essentially flipping the classroom–students receive more information passively at home than in the classroom. As a result, your class should not be a complete reiteration of the reading or material for the quiz. I have learned to add more material or dive into it more deeply in class.
  • Implications of quizzing students on new material. Many students become anxious about quizzes and exams, and I think giving students study questions that relate to/are similar to the exam questions may help them take the quiz with better grades and in a more calm manner (as well as know what is important information to read for).
  • What type of questions to ask. I tend to focus on questions that are fairly low on Bloom’s Taxonomy, so ones that ask students to recall information (i.e. what is the Nemean lion) or apply an new idea from the reading (i.e. identify a pot with a painting of Herakles and the Nemean lion). Partly, this is because I’m using the quizzes to make sure that students are reading the homework, partly it’s so that we can (ideally) use the class time to move up to higher levels of the taxonomy. Next semester, I think I would tell students this at the beginning of the course, so that there is a greater expectation that they learn from the passive reception of data at home–sometimes I feel like I am generally reinforcing this information in class.  Admittedly, it’s good that there is the reinforcement in class, and this can be used to your advantage.  The questions can also prime students for the class discussion.  So, for example, if you will discuss similarities between Aeneid 12 (Aeneas fights and kills Turnus) and Iliad 22 (Achilles fights and kills Hector) in class, on the quiz you can ask questions that will highlight the similarities (e.g. Who chases whom? What god helps each warrior? Is there begging for mercy and burial?)
  • Planning Ahead.  If you assign the quiz to be completed for a class, you need to have written the quiz before the end of the prior class–you cannot write the quiz the day before class.  Ideally, you’d also have planned the class for which you are writing the quiz too.
  • Visibility of the questions after the quiz is due. Depending on the system you use, you can choose whether your students can see the quizzes, answers, and correct answers after the quiz has been submitted.  Your choice on this matter could be affected by a variety of factors, including what method you will use to teach each day’s lessons and how your exams will be structured. To study for the latter, students would benefit from seeing the questions after the quiz is submitted.

Geopedia, Pompeii, and Spatial Analysis

There is an excellent German website that combines Bing’s maps with wikipedia’s articles:  Like videos, this is a great tool to take students on a virtual field trip.  For example, in my Roman Archaeology class, I asked students to visit this site at home, explore the excavated area of Pompeii, and answer a few questions on an assignment sheet (pompeiispatialanalysisassignment).  After a brief explanation of spatial analysis (so, more or less, looking at the distance between sites and the ease of movement from one place to another), this assignment sheet asked some factual questions, and other questions that encouraged students to think about spatial analysis.  After answering these questions, students took an online quiz based on the first set of factual questions–the second set of spatial analysis questions was not graded or assessed with the online quiz.  This second set of questions tried to get students thinking about how to analyze maps of archaeological sites and it primed them for a class discussion about spatial analysis in Pompeii–where this type of analysis has been particularly fruitful.

geopedia Pompeii.png

In class, we discussed how spatial analysis has helped us understand the lived experience of Pompeii.  This discussion also allowed me to introduce various types of buildings: bakeries, fulleries, and fountains. Since the spatial analysis seemed to overwhelm some students, because of the level of the course, and because of what I wanted students to get out of the lesson, I told them that they only needed to know the conclusions from this analysis, not be able to reproduce it.

Things to Consider

  • Spatial analysis will confuse some students and is still not necessarily obvious from geopedia, but this is one of the best ways to let students play around and actively engage with maps of ancient sites.  So also remember to be clear about what you will assess students on: factual information, preliminary spatial analysis, and/or conclusions.
  • The assignments involving geopedia should be fairly structured so that students are guided through a difficult new skill or topic.
  • Geopedia is not GoogleEarth. Geopedia helps students identify sites from aerial images and provides information about sites in the same screen as the map. Google Earth does not necessarily provide these same clues and combination of information, but it does seem a bit easier to move around the map than geopedia.
  • Geopedia will not work well with every archaeological site or city.  Pompeii works well because it does not feature as many buildings from wikipedia as the Forum Romanum does.  It also features only buildings from AD 79 instead of from the 10th Cent. BC to the present day, like the Campus Martius in Rome. It allows you to focus in on what may be relevant and important for your course, instead of being distracted by a medieval church that (even though it’s very nice and interesting) is not necessarily relevant to your course.
  • The lesson plan here is still a work in progress.

Videos in classes

This semester, I have been teaching several archaeology courses, and I have definitely appreciated the value and power of showing different videos in class:

  • You get to cover more material in a short time. Whereas I may take 15 minutes to describe something in a lecture, a video can do it conveniently in 5 minutes.  As I have made my own YouTube videos, I have come to appreciate the care and detail taken with scripts, the ability to condense and efficiently deliver information, the ability to do multiple takes (instead of misspeaking in class), and the ability to draw on the interaction of images and a dynamic visual.
  • Even a silent video, such as this one of a water screw, quickly illustrates and helps you describe a dynamic action that would take far longer to explain without a video.
  • Students light up and become more engaged when they hear they will watch a video.
  • They allow you to take a “field trip” to places that may not be easily (or safely) accessible for your students, such as Pompeii, Babylon, or Giza.  This helps students understand sites better than static pictures allow.
  • They allow you to showcase the process of archaeology.  For example, many documentaries about archaeological sites are framed around an archaeological project, so they often discuss methods or relevant issues (such as safety in present day Iraq).
  • Similarly, by focusing on a particular site or issue, documentaries often feature the expert on that site or issue.  If it’s a good, clear documentary, I’d prefer to offer my students the insights of the expert, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, instead of my summary. And, since it’s made for a public audience, the producers often make sure that the expert’s ideas are easily digestible.
  • They allow you to show dynamic 3-D reconstructions of various buildings. For example, this reconstruction of the house of Caecilius Iucundus in Pompeii combines wall paintings, artifacts, and architecture that are nearly impossible to assemble effectively in PowerPoint slides. This computer animation of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius may also be a better way of explaining the eruption than a lecture, depending on your goals.
  • It allows you to engagingly cover material that may not excite you or that will not be engaging if told in lecture form.  For example, this video is far more entertaining than my description of the Olympic games.
  • They are relatively easy to find. With YouTube, NOVA, National Geographic, and many, many other sources, there is an abundance of videos out there on a variety of topics.

There is a key to this, though: you need to add an incentive for students to pay attention to and learn from the video. Make them fill out a worksheet–so they know what is fair game for tests and have good notes from the video–or quiz them with a PRS system right after the video.

Teaching the Homeric Question(s)

Homer is a foundational text for our discipline, and there has been a massive amount of scholarship about him and his poems.  Much of this work is detailed and complicated, and it draws on data points in many fields: Greek philology, archaeology, and Hittite studies. Many undergraduates do not possess the skills to grapple with this data–the ability to read Greek, for instance–especially at the beginning of a semester when Homer is usually taught.  So, how do we teach Homer in a way that students will understand the relevant problems?

First, we need to ask ourselves: how much do students need to appreciate the orality of Homer’s epics and the complexity of its time frame?  For example, in my mythology class, I do not teach mythology as a single unified body of stories.  I teach it more as “mythologies”–stories that are told often, develop over time, and change to fit their circumstances–much like Albert Lord and Milman Parry’s ideas regarding bards. In that class, students need to understand the Homeric Question. In others, such as a course that briefly mentions the archaeology of Troy, they will not need to.

To explain the Homeric question, after students have been introduced to the problems by the introduction to their/an edition of the Iliad, I would divide the class or unit into three sections:

First, “why could an inhabitant of fifth century Athens not have read an account of the Trojan War written during the Trojan War or soon thereafter?”  I get my students engaged with the issue and, as a class, we analyze the assumptions in this question:

It assumes that there was an account of the Trojan War written during or soon after the war. You can discuss how Linear B was primarily used for accounting purposes, so it likely did not record an account of the war.  Even if it did, the people of Greece forgot how to read Linear B during the Dark Ages.  After the Dark Ages, when Greeks began to write again, they adapted the Phoenician alphabet and some of the early writing (like Nestor’s cup from Pithekoussai or the pots from Methone) was poetic and contained potential references to the Trojan War (i.e. Nestor). So there existed no account that they could read.

It also assumes that there was a Trojan War. Archaeologically, this has been hard to confirm.  Depending on the course, it may be a distraction to discuss all the issues with Heinrich Schliemann and his excavation of Troy, but it may be helpful to point out that he dug straight down through many layers of Troy and called things by deceptive names (e.g. the “Jewels of Helen” from Troy II).  It is probably most helpful to discuss two finds from the recent University of Cincinnati and University of Tübingen excavations: (1) the Luwian seal and (2) the fortifications of Troy VI’s lower city (below).troy-vi-gate Homer provides a nice description of a gate like this:

“And they built within these walls gates strongly fitted that there might be a way through them for the driving of horses; and on the outer side and against it they dug a deep ditch, making it great and wide, and fixed the sharp stakes inside it.” (Iliad 7.438-441)

There’s only one problem.  In the Iliad, the Achaeans build this gate. At Troy, it is the Trojans’ gate.  This serves as a clear example of how literature and the archaeology of Troy/the Aegean Bronze Age do not quite line up with the idea of Homer as a reliable account of the war.  From here, you can mention the Luwian seal as a rhetorical device to lead the discussion towards the Hittite Empire and its documents, such as the “Treaty of Wilusa,” that have many close parallels between names of people and places: Wilusa/Ilion, Aleksandru/Alexandros, and Ahhiyawa/Achaeans.  Then, you might rattle off the various parallels or near parallels in archaeological discoveries and Hittite documents to objects and events in the Iliad.  The goal is not for students to remember all these details, but so that they get a sense that it is likely that Homer is representative of a memory that the Mycenaeans attacked the Hittites, possibly at Troy, and that Troy was destroyed.  This memory/memories had to be passed down orally, the story was embellished over time (including with the participation of gods), and that it seems to have some basis in (an) historical event(s).

Second, “If it makes logical sense to say that the Iliad and Odyssey were orally transmitted, what evidence in the texts is there for this?”  I would describe different features of oral poems, such as the epithet system and type scenes that lead to Lord and Parry’s important contributions.  After they have heard about these epithets and such, this is a great opportunity have students hunt through the text for epithets and stock phrases that would help an oral poet compose the poem on the spot and/or memorize it.  Similarly, I show the poem’s orality by reading a small portion of the Iliad aloud and ask students if it is more entertaining to have heard the poem than when they read it silently at home.  I would also inform students about rhapsodes, the Peisistratean recension, and how cities had different texts of Homer–and even how Plato’s text of Homer does not always match our standard editions.  It may also be helpful to discuss Homer’s two different versions of why Hephaistos was thrown from Olympus and who cared for him when he landed on earth.

Third, depending on your comfort level, timing, and the course, you could also discuss how the visual versions of the Trojan War myths on pottery also suggest that the Homeric poems were transmitted orally and not entrenched in Greek culture until the 5th Century BC. To show this, I select examples from my students’ reading and Steven Lowenstam’s As Witnessed by Images–the Ransom of Hector works very well because Achilles is portrayed very differently on the pots and in the Iliad.


Things to Consider

  • This is a very detailed way to introduce the Homeric Question, and this level of detail may be overwhelming, inappropriate, or unnecessary for some classes.  So, what do they need to know? In your particular class, can you just leave it at “Homer was an oral poet.” and these are a few of the implications of that?
  • This is still a very complicated way to introduce the Homeric Question, but it is an improved version of the seemingly successful lessons that I used in my mythology class this semester.
  • Similarly, this lesson plan can still be improved and I welcome your input on how to improve it.
  • Since high school and undergraduate students tend not to appreciate the value of literature reviews (and can be easily confused by them), I would avoid reviewing the scholarship on the Homeric question. Just report the finds and conclusions of the scholarship.
  • My lesson plan here follows Gregory Nagy’s interpretation of Homer.  You or the person who translated your edition of the Iliad may disagree with Nagy.  For example, I like Barry Powell’s translation because it is often easier for students to read, but he does not agree with Nagy.  Therefore, students may have a harder time finding epithets or type scenes that fit with Parry and Lord’s thesis–and so accepting that Homer is an oral poet.

Red-Green Colorblindness

Note to self: Avoid confusing students with red-green colorblindness.

I like to include maps in my PowerPoint presentations so that students know where all the European places are–because even if they know European geography well, we often use seemingly weird-sounding, ancient names for places that might throw students off.  I also like to use Google Earth to make these maps because you can hide the borders of modern nation-states and it looks a lot more like an ancient Greek or Roman might have imagined the landscape.  In my old maps, I marked cities with red dots, like this:

Ebro River Map.jpg

But with red dots over green lands, that could be confusing for people who can’t differentiate between red and green.  So, I am changing all my maps.  Following Google Earth’s default setting of white text on the blue/green/sandy maps, I’m using white dots now, like this:

Map of Wonders