Stander Symposium

Today was a little different at the University of Dayton. Instead of regular classes, there was the Stander Symposium, a one-day conference-style day of classes where undergraduate and graduate students present their own research. Admittedly, yesterday, I didn’t really know what to expect. Today, I saw posters sharing science research and I spent the afternoon listening to history students present their research. After all, in true conference fashion, you go support your friends, or in this case students.

It was really cool.

Students were asking good questions and sharing their thoughts about important issues. Other students were hearing about research, attending talks they wanted to go to, hearing what their friends were doing, supporting their friends, and gaining practice doing all this in what can feel like a high stakes, high pressure format. And there was lots of good learning happening.

I went to a panel about how to use a variety of primary sources to teach high school history students about the mid-19th Century Irish potato famine. It was great to hear students talk about how a biased source isn’t necessarily a bad source, about how to carefully consider the background of a source so you see different perspectives on an event, and how you can still construct a historical narrative from these sources. It was great! I asked them what they learned from this project. They said they learned that biased doesn’t mean worthless, that subtext exists and matters, that getting multiple opinions is good, and that history is a constantly evolving, dynamic field. These are fantastic.

After that, I went to a panel of history majors presenting the current state of their capstone projects. There were lots of really good papers on some really cool questions that I hadn’t considered as much. They too all had a brief section on the historiography of their research question–focusing on anywhere from 2-6 scholars and separating them into schools of thought.

The Stander Symposium was great for a lot of reasons:

  • It encourages the fantastic gains described above, and the presenters are all over Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • It gives us a break and shakes things up 2/3 of the way into the semester when that break and shake up are very helpful and appreciated by everyone.
  • It challenges the primacy and domination of a textbook or professor in our classroom.
  • It shows students that human knowledge is still growing and developing.
  • It shows students that they can be part of this growth of knowledge.
  • It models the ideas of Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach (my reflection on it or a link to it on Amazon): that all of us in the classroom (and academia) are approaching the subject and sharing our insights to gain better knowledge of the subject–in my case, some approximation of the “historical truth” or an understanding of “the past and past peoples.”
    Courage to Teach Adapted
  • It shows professors that students are not idiots. Our efforts are not futile, and education is a long game. Given time, resources, and encouragement, students can produce some fantastic results. So we need to give them the time, resources, direction, and encouragement to do these things. Project-based learning, which was on display at this symposium, has a lot of value to it if done well, and part of that is actually sharing the results widely.

Grading Papers, Records, and Consistency

This semester, I’m team-teaching a class, and it’s been a great way to exchange ideas about pedagogy. My co-teacher taught me this trick for grading papers. As she grades papers, she records comments about the papers, a preliminary grade, and then the actual grade on a class roster. I did that with my most recent paper for another class, and I was very happy with the result.  Since I keep my grade book in Excel, I created another worksheet with columns for the students’ name, comments on the papers, a preliminary grade, any penalties, any minor extra credit for getting help from the writing center, and the final actual grade.

Here’s why I really liked this strategy:

  • It helped me think about the papers in a more productive way. By writing the comments in Excel first, I focused on how to assess the paper and I could write more carefully considered feedback on the students’ papers.
  • It yielded more consistent and fair grades. I have noticed that, sometimes, when I grade, I am often inclined to assign the same grade to many papers. For whatever reason, an 88% is common, but these papers are not always actually all the same quality. This method allows me to assign a provisional grade in my spreadsheet. Once I finished, I compared my comments on everyone’s papers and determined whether and how to actually differentiate the grades for all the students who somehow earned, for example, an 88%. For me, this seemed like a better method than using rubrics to yield a sense of consistency, fairness, and objectivity–although it may also be a problem with the rubrics I’ve made in the past.
  • It allowed me to keep a record of my comments on each students’ paper. There are so many reasons why this is valuable, including helping me remember where each of my students’ abilities are.
  • This record included what grades were before late penalties and such so that, in the future, I would be able to refer to a more accurate approximation of a student’s intellectual abilities.
  • It did not require significantly more time or paper for the benefits that I gained. In fact, it made me more comfortable grading papers over several days. In the past, I have tried to grade all the papers in a day or two, usually over a weekend, so that I was consistent with how I was grading the papers, but that requires a large chunk of time available to grade all the papers from a class. With this method, since I would be comparing comments when I finished reading all the papers anyways, I felt more confident that my grading would be consistent over multiple days.
Maps and Social Justice

Maps and Social Justice

This week, Boston Public Schools announced that they were changing the maps in their classrooms from the Mercator Projection to the Peters Projection (below).

Peters projection.jpg

Now, my students have probably caught on that I like to use a lot of maps in my PowerPoints (here, here, here, and here). I have also always loved the scenes from The West Wing where CJ meets with the Cartographers for Social Equality on Big Block of Cheese Day. So naturally, when I saw a post about another, more accurate global projection–the AuthaGraph World Map (below)–that presented the sort of spherical Earth in a flat plane, I shared it on facebook. This post includes Hajime Narukawa’s TEDx talk (in Japanese) explaining what’s so good about his map and the relevant clip from The West Wing.


The post and discussion of it on facebook got me wondering 2 things:

(1) What projection is used in Google Earth, which I use to make most of my maps? why?

  • There are some great explanations at this quora page. Basically, Google Maps uses the Mercator projection because it has a consistent north (top) and because, when viewed on a local level, things you want to see at right angles (like intersections) are at right angles. Most users of Google Maps aren’t looking at things on a global level so the distortions of the Mercator projection aren’t a problem.
  • Google Earth, though, allows you to view the world as if it’s projected onto a sphere. I was relieved to remember that I do this, but I don’t remember how I turned on that setting.  Therefore, all my recent maps from Google Earth are already less socially irresponsible.

(2) Why do I continue to use a Mercator projection in my classes, even though it stinks?

  • Like with Google Maps, Classicists often don’t need to use a global perspective. Maps of the Punic Wars don’t need the eastern Mediterranean, and maps of Pompeii or Rome are very localized. A city-, Mediterranean-, or European-wide map is enough, and the Mercator’s emphasis on Europe helps show these regions pretty clearly.
  • When I teach world history or show images of all of Eurasia, though, they are distorted. Admittedly, I’m much less likely to make a map on Google Earth for that class for five reasons: (1) the maps I’m showing are used to illustrate certain details, like trade networks in the Indian Ocean, that are harder to reproduce myself; (2) the projection allows me to show the entire world at once; (3) it’s too time-consuming to reproduce everything that I want in the maps; (4) it’s not my specialty so I’m less confident in replicating the maps; and (5) I’m used to the Mercator projection.

political_world_map3000.jpgAdmittedly, some of these objections–laziness and comfort–are less valuable than the need to show a flat map and my lack of skill and knowledge to reproduce a more accurate map with Google Earth’s spherical projection.  So, until there are a wealth of historical global maps that don’t use the Mercator Projection, the best solution may be to more thoughtful about the ramifications of a map I choose from a search on Google Images, so that my powerpoint overcomes some of the Mercator Projection’s problems. For example, even though the political map on the left does not meet all the needs I would have for a map, it actually places the equator half way up the map and so avoids some of the Mercator’s distortion. Admittedly, this is not a complete or fully satisfying solution, but it may help to slowly chip away at injustices where we can.


NPR: Quiz on myths about learning

NPR put together a cool quiz to test whether your believe myths about how learning works and best teaching/learning practices. Go take it here!

I got 6/7. I was tempted by the correct answer on the one I got wrong, and I am tempted to make it a greater part of my courses.

In-class discussions of primary sources

I have been frustrated with students’ analyses of primary sources. To be blunt, their interpretations seem superficial, not always tied too closely to the evidence, and usually are completely lacking nuance. I’ve been puzzled about how to teach these skills more effectively, and how to get students to read more critically.

I have thought back to how I learned to carefully read evidence. There were three events that I remember as particularly formative:

  • Learning Latin. This taught me to notice small details more and to think about every word being used.  The more I noticed and appreciated Horace and Cicero’s manipulation of word order, the more I was able to read closely and carefully.
  • Talking over papers with my undergraduate professors. I remember one professor chastising me for writing a page-long paragraph. Another professor, who was intimidating because he had a reputation for never giving As, was even more formative. His paper topics were nicely challenging at the time, but I see their pedagogical value at the time. The one that stands out in my mind asked how a passage of Thucydides illustrated the thesis or key themes of the text which he had been outlining in class lectures. This was a great way to force us to critically read Thucydides with a goal in mind.  I think it was this same professor who offered the same advice that I give my own students now. When you introduce a quotation, do three things: (1) explain the document and from where in the document the evidence is coming (or at least your motivation for mentioning it in your own paper), (2) provide the quotation, and then (3) provide your explanation of the quotation.  I’m learning that I also need to tell students not to omit parts of the quotation, and that, as they write their interpretation of it, to constantly refer back to the quotation.
  • Writing a thesis and dissertation. This conversation among me and my advisors made me constantly provide an interpretation, receive feedback on the interpretation, refer back to the evidence, and provide a more refined interpretation. This process and the peer review process hone(d) our skills to critically read and critically think about the relevant evidence.

The first of these three elements is field specific (and one of the many reasons why Latin and Classics matter), but the second strategy is something that all teachers can do: have conversations where we guide the students as they develop their own ideas. So how do we make that happen?

I think some of the key is flipping the classroom so that students receive information more passively at home and engage with the primary sources and learn to critically analyze them in class, where we can help them engage with the sources, or in papers where our feedback helps them improve. Here’s a more detailed version of how this class might work?

  1. At home, students read a history textbook and/or watch a YouTube video to receive background knowledge, and they read a primary source that will be discussed in class. I would also assign reading questions, an online quiz, or posts to an online discussion forum to ensure that students do the reading.
  2. At the start of class, students need to remember what they read about for that lesson. Briefly review the passively received content with a lecture, or ask them to summarize or skim back over the reading. I often find that summarizing it in groups is helpful.
  3. Depending on students’ skill level, provide them with reading questions or a worksheet to consider for the text.  This will guide their reading and hopefully make them notice more details that will help them become more critical readers. Again, depending on their skill levels and the class dynamic, ask them to work on the questions alone then in groups and then discuss it as a class. As the groups get larger, their ideas are challenged more frequently and put into a conversation with each other–they will need to be more critical about whether to maintain and how to adjust their ideas.
    Of course, how you frame these questions is important. Lately, I am hoping that two types of questions help students see more nuance: (1) “True or false or somewhere in between” questions that are then followed with “Justify your answer” (and “Justify” seems to work better than “Explain” when talking to non-academics), and (2) “On a scale of 1 to 10, …” that is then followed with “Justify your answer.”
  4. Do this often. The more you do it, the more engaged (or at least the more active learners) students become and the more critical their reading may become.

There is an added benefit for professors with this method: we get to discuss and develop their ideas and exchange ideas more often, and I think that’s partly why many of us enjoy teaching and academia. Of course, their ideas are not necessarily going to be profound but they can surprise us every once in awhile with a great discussion or new insight.

Note: This is very much like Socratic Seminars, but with more guidance from a worksheet or reading questions. I think, in some ways, this is also stuff that I’ve known already but I needed to reiterate and think through for myself again.

Additional note: Stations with worksheets are a great way to encourage students to pick up details, but they seem to lack the benefit of long conversation.


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.


Last week in our World history course, my co-teacher asked our students what they found interesting about their reading on Islam, or about what it made them curious. Many of the students were interested in how it related to our other readings, so we set about considering how to help our students make connections among the various lessons. One of our ideas was to create timelines. As with many of our ideas in the course, it ran into the problem that there’s just so much to include in a World history course from 1450-Present. Nevertheless, I added a timeline to the bottom of several of my slides in yesterday’s lecture to help students follow along and make connections.

Timeline - World History.png

I used the colored blocks to represent the time periods that we have focused lessons on, and I will add the Industrial Revolution to this timeline when we get there. Even with this arrangement, I found myself limited in how much I could fit on the slides. Indeed, on another slide, instead of “Columbian Exchange starts,” I wrote “Armed trade on the Indian Ocean” because that was the topic being reviewed on that slide.


This issue of so many events was not as problematic when I discussed early Bronze Age Mesopotamia in my Ancient History survey course. On those slides, I summarized the main ideas of the time periods.  This, more or less, followed the theme of the discussion accompanying each slide of the lecture. The timeline, I hope, is a way for students to remember our location chronologically, and the developments that we were discussing.

timeline-hittitesYesterday, when I talked about the Hittites in the Ancient History course, I used a similar strategy to the World History presentation. The colored blocks represented larger periods in Hittite history, but this time the “events” were the reigns of the kings who we discussed. On this slide, you’ll notice that Hammurabi is on the timeline for three reasons: (1) Hattusili I created a law code and this is a subtle reminder that Hammurabi had done so earlier, (2) Mursilis I sacked Babylon and ended Hammurabi’s dynasty, and (3) I’m hoping that it helps students remember when the Hittites were in relationship to the other lessons.


To further help chronologically orient students, I start each Ancient History lecture with a slide like the one to the right that juxtaposes the timelines for the various cultures we have already discussed. I find this particularly helpful because it allows me to remind students that the Hittite Empire was at the same time as the 18th Dynasty. This coevality was relevant later in the lesson as we talked about a few of the Amarna Letters written between the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I and the Egyptian king Akhenaten.

Similarly, this semester I have also frequently been using this slide to help jolt my students’ minds out of the 21st century so that they might more easily comprehend pre-industrial civilizations.


Honestly, I’m not sure how much this has been helping my students make more connections within and among the lessons, or if this is pure idealism. I have, though, noticed that the timelines help me communicate events and connections or summarize some lectures and topics more effectively.  For example, in Roman history, one day we discussed Livy’s foundation narrative, and the next we discussed the archaeology of early Rome. I ended the second class by asking how well the two types of evidence aligned, while they looked at a timeline summarizing the evidence we had discussed. It provided an excellent reference for me during the discussion instead of flipping between all my slides. Even if all these timelines are not helping students make those connections, I am very happy with all these timelines, which are inspired by a colleague at Ohio University last semester. Not only have they been useful communication and summation tools, but they have also helped me make connections, better understand the big picture, and make sense of various events and chronologies.

Timeline formatting shapes.pngSo, how do I make all these timelines?

In PowerPoint, I use the “Insert Shape” button which opens the menu of possible shapes, as shown to the right, and the “Format Shape” menu to make the dateline and colored boxes. Then, I add in textboxes and lines for the dates and events. Once I have created one timeline, I simply copy it and paste it to another presentation where I modify it for the new lecture. For example, the timelines for the Hittites and the Age of Empire were copied and adapted (and improved) from my presentation on Early Mesopotamia.

Online Discussion Fora

This semester, I’m trying to improve on last semester’s online quizzes that ensured students did the reading and tested their comprehension. For that process, I provided students with a set of reading comprehension questions and then wrote a new (though somewhat similar) set of questions for the quizzes, which had to be matching, true/false, or multiple choice so that the computer could grade them.  This semester, I’m shifting the workload from writing questions to grading–I’m just asking students to answer the reading questions on our LMS’s discussion fora.  Here’s my descriptions of the exercise from the syllabus:

For each regular class, there will be a discussion forum on the Isidore site with a series of questions related to the reading due for that class. Each student must provide a 1-3 sentence answer for at least 2 questions before class (and/or polite responses to other student’s posts). Each question should receive at least 3 answers from someone before class, so that you are provided with different explanations to help you better understand the readings—this will also serve as a partial study guide from the exams. These posts will be graded for completion—not for accuracy—although slight extra credit will be awarded for particularly good answers. These are open-book questions, so I encourage you to use the readings to help you answer these questions.  They will also guide our discussion in class on the following day.

In class and in the syllabus, I used these arguments to convince my students of the merit of the exercise:

  • It helps them understand the readings better because the questions suggest what is helpful to notice or consider.
  • One explanation of a topic may not be clear for one person, but a slightly different one may help students understand the idea much better. Therefore, their classmates’ posts could help them understand a section of the reading or textbook that particularly confused them.  Indeed, classmates are often better at bridging the gap of understanding among themselves than professors are, and students learn better through explaining something. Mike Caulfield first exposed me to this idea of choral explanations on his blog, and it’s the idea behind quora. Ever since reading about choral explanations, I’ve been trying to find a way to incorporate them into my classes, and I think this strategy comes close.
  • The allure of extra credit for very good answers.
  • It will be a good reference for them while studying for the exam.  This argument partially helps me avoid the expectation that I provide a study guide.
  • It also helps me prepare for class.  In the 15-20 min. before class, I skim the discussion fora to see how well students are “getting it,” what they are understanding, what I need to emphasize or shift their perceptions on, and gauge how well that class will go based on their responses.

How it is working

In general, I think it’s working really well, but not quite in the idealistic way that the syllabus implies.  To illustrate and guide my various comments, here are several screenshots from a reading about Old Kingdom Egypt:


  • Students are not ensuring that the questions are answered in roughly equal numbers. Usually, the first few questions have more answers than later ones.  This makes me wonder how often students are doing the reading (I called this class out on this yesterday and I am curious to see if that will change their habits). If we try to mentally adjust for this trend, the numbers of answers can indicate how well students are understanding the material. For example, Question 11 is clearly harder (and more confusing) for students than Question 5, so I can try to remember this while I teach and write future questions. This assessment is an unintended benefit.
  • For this class, I frequently ask students to read from the textbook (D. Brendan Nagle’s The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History) and to read a primary source. I abbreviated this as “Q1 (N)” and “Q7 (EE)” when we read the Enuma Elish, but this confused at least one student. Therefore, I adjusted to the notation shown here where the first question on a reading is “Q1 (Nagle)” and then abbreviated for later questions.
  • The questions are of varying difficulty and require different levels of thought. When I asked students about why some questions receive more responses, they said that some questions are just easier and some are harder. The harder ones (with few responses) are often the ones based on primary sources because the primary sources are harder to read than the textbook.  I told them that the “easier questions” are sometimes there to highlight things that I want them to notice/know for class or the exam, but I acknowledged this variability is a possible issue.


  • The quality of answers is variable. The first two answers are very similar and repeat each other, which is not as helpful when there are 8 or 9 like this. In fact, during our conversation about the discussion fora yesterday, one student complained about this repetition. The third answer shows more effort and is actually more helpful, I think, for understanding what ma’at is.
  • Despite this variety of responses, the narrative answers still give me more insight into students’ reading comprehension, engagement, and language abilities than the online quiz scores did. I appreciate this greater sense of students’ language abilities, so that I have more realistic expectations for papers and I know how often to remind students about the on-campus writing center–and that observation applies not just to international but to domestic students as well.


  • Assuming I have a comfortable amount of time before the lecture, I find myself responding to their posts more often than I expected. In this instance, I use “Very good” as a flag both to students so that they pay attention to this while studying, and as a flag to me to give this student extra credit when I go back and grade for completion.
  • I can reinforce good habits, such as providing quotations and explaining them. Depending on when/if the students read the comments, they get feedback before an exam or paper, which carry heavier weight in their final grades.
  • I can guide how students think about the ancient world outside of the classroom and possibly before exams and papers.
  • Unfortunately, only one of my comments (which are often phrased as questions) has received a response, so I am inclined to think that the students are probably not reading these comments.
  • I can add to the choral explanations. Generally, if only one student answers to a question, I usually comment that it is a good answer, clarify part of it, or add my own perspective on the question. I am trying to avoid answering a question that no student has answered.


  • Few students have actually responded to another student’s posts as suggested in the syllabus directions. While I am disappointed that this has not inspired much discussion of ideas outside of class (an idealistic hope!), I sometimes take these opportunities to arbitrate some of the disagreement or point out value in each student’s contribution.

Things I would change for future (lessons or semesters)

  • I am trying to ask fewer, more complicated questions so that (1) each question receives more answers, (2) so that students need to put more thought into them rather than imitating each other, and (3) students’ skills develop as they move up Bloom’s Taxonomy and grow as historians.
  • Next semester, I would grade for effort, not completion. Again, this is to discourage imitation and to encourage active learning, engagement with the sources, critical thinking, and actually practice being a historian.
  • Similarly, I would ask that students answer questions in more than 1-3 sentences, perhaps a word limit would be better. I might also ask students to answer more questions (or ask fewer questions overall so that students are answering a greater proportion of the overall questions). Again, the goal would be to encourage deeper engagement.
  • In general, I think the approach needs fine-tuning: how to grade it efficiently, how to make sure students are doing the entire assignment, and how to structure it so there is even more engagement that doesn’t ask students to spend too much time at home working on the assignment. I’m very satisfied with how this experiment is going and I would only consider going back to online quizzes for introductory level courses.

Structuring courses around themes

Last semester, as I as teaching Roman archaeology, I realized part way into the semester that I was really teaching a course about ideology and the spread of Roman culture into the provinces (Perhaps uncoincidentally that’s a large part of my specialty). Once I had this realization, I regretted that I had not realized or planned all of this earlier.  Without this realization, the early third of the class was less organized and I was not providing a clear, conceptual framework for my students to locate their ideas in this course.  Therefore, this semester, I am making a change. As I teach in the history department at the University of Dayton, I am going to be focusing on the following in each course:

  • World History: The importance of a global perspective and how world events are not Eurocentric.
  • Introduction to the Ancient History of the Mediterranean, Near East, and Asia: State formation and Empire
  • Roman History: Rome as an Empire. We will start with discussion of sources about early Rome, then talk about how Rome acquired its empire (i.e. imperialism), and then the various facets of an empire (e.g. economy, government, religion, power and sex, ideology, etc.), and the reception of Rome as the empire par excellence.

After I chose these themes, it was easier for me to develop syllabi and I am trying something new: offering students a theoretical background to some of the discussion before we talk about it. For example, the introductory ancient history class will have a day dedicated to State Formation theory before we talk about Egypt, the Ancient Near East, early China, and early Greece, and a day will be dedicated to ideas of Empire before we talk about the Athenian Empire, Rome, the Qin and Han dynasties, Korea, and Japan. I am hoping this theoretical framework will help students find more coherence in a class that combines so many disparate cultures and states.

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.

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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.