Starting from Scratch: a Collaborative Approach to First-Year Greek

Kristina Meinking, Elon University

Although this may by now sound like a mere refrain, I want to begin my comments this this afternoon by taking a moment to thank my Sunoikisis colleagues for their contributions not just to this panel but also to the elementary Greek sequence specifically. As you’ll hear in a few moments, these courses are, as the others, the product of collaboration between the four of us as well as other members of the consortium. But I would be remiss not to draw your attention to the sheer amount of work and energy that Kenny Morrell has poured into this project, not to underscore the extent to which Ryan Fowler’s expertise and enthusiasm have kept us all, students and faculty, afloat for two years, and not to share with you how much Norman Sandridge’s participation this past fall enhanced and improved the course in countless ways. My role today is to tell you about the mechanics of the course and to share my perspective as the type of instructor about whom Ryan and Norman have both spoken, namely the sole classicist at her institution.

As I describe this course, I’d encourage you not to have in your mind an image of only a typical college classroom, but rather to start with a clean canvas: a course with no textbook, no rote memorization of paradigms, no enforcement of just one correct pronunciation, and no lengthy explanation of the rules of accentuation. Craft in your minds instead a classroom that is both real and virtual, with four professors instead of one, with students learning grammar in Greek, speaking Greek, asking and answering questions in Greek, in which assignments ask — in Greek — students not just to translate, but also to draw maps and pictures of Cyrus the Great’s family, to record their readings of passages, and wherein students come back to the same passage over and over again, each time with new questions. In what follows I attempt to sharpen and define the lines of what may very well be a blurry image. Near the end, we’ll watch a short clip so that you can see how the technology and the instruction work together to create a truly blended classroom environment, which is to say one that looks very different from a typical online course or MOOC.

1. Background to the initiative

One of the reasons we choose to begin today’s discussion with Ryan’s paper about Sunoikisis and the advanced Latin and Greek courses is so that you’d have some sense of how the consortium has worked historically and how we approach new initiatives. Just as with the advanced courses, the elementary Greek sequence originated from the realization that many smaller programs and departments are unable to offer many courses, including several which larger, more firmly planted departments would think of as both basic and central to any classics curriculum. It is the case, for example, at my institution and many others, that Latin takes precedence to Greek, and that even with strong departments of Philosophy and Religious Studies, ancient Greek remains unavailable to interested students. (This is a problem compounded by enrollment requirements; generally a class needs at least ten students to run, and will be canceled with fewer than ten.)

In the fall of 2011, professors from nine institutions gathered at the Center of Hellenic Studies to brainstorm what these courses would look like, from the particulars of course scheduling to those of textbooks. Again, as an extension of the advanced courses and as a project informed by several participants’ work on the Cyropaedia, everything about this process has been collaborative from the very beginning. I’d be happy to speak to how that sort of interaction — scholarly, pedagogical, and collegial — has made a difference for me, professionally, and for my program, in the Q&A. Rhodes and Elon piloted the course in the 2012-13 academic year; my focus today however will be on the most recent iteration, in fall 2013, as I think it opens up more avenues for discussion than its forebear.

2. Method and philosophy behind the course

A few words about the philosophy behind the course and the method of instruction will be helpful at the outset. Kenny — who is responsible, amazingly, for all of the course content — was influenced by a number of language acquisition research projects, including Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Alice Hadley’s Teaching Language in Context. Building on this research on language acquisition, especially that done for modern languages, he opted to use an inductive approach to the learning of Greek. Actually, we avoid the words “learning Greek,” and talk instead about “acquiring Greek,” in the way that we mean it when a child “acquires his or her first language.” For students, this meant an emphasis on (1) engaging with the language in ways that make it comprehensible, (2) engaging with the target language as frequently, and as by as many means, as possible, (3) insuring that engagement with the target language is a regular, habitual part of a student’s day, and (4) being comfortable with using the language, and with making mistakes.

Not unlike the Greek courses that many of us experienced, this elementary course relies heavily upon repetition. The repetition, however, is not one of forms and of paradigms, but of a reading. Each lesson consists of a reading, and each lesson builds upon, expands, and adds to the one that preceded it. Sometimes students are asked to work through a reading on their own as preparation for a class meeting; other times they first see a new passage in class itself, and they begin the process of parsing out its various components together with the instructor. They also must give a summary at the start of each class of what they read and got out of the last class. As a way to keep them mindful of the various processes that together constitute reading — and understanding — a passage, students are required to keep a journal in which they record the following: the date and time when they begin a session of study and when they finish; and notes on the morphology, syntax, and vocabulary of the passage; a summary of each passage (as a conclusion to each session).

This approach to acquiring ancient Greek is, as I’ve noted, rigorously inductive, requiring students to play an active, conscious role in the process. They must pay close attention to what they do and do not understand, and reasons why they both comprehend and do not comprehend certain words and passages. Furthermore, they must demonstrate their level of understanding during the class meetings and pose questions about anything they do not understand. When they don’t get something, they must describe when and where they get stuck—the exact moment, and how and why they get stuck (not just general questions about what they don’t understand). The focus shifts from “getting it right” to their ability to work through a passage from context. Those observations and questions combined with responses from the instructors and other members of the class constitute the primary activity of the class meetings. Importantly, we do not use a textbook with a sequenced introduction to grammatical phenomena, and explanations about morphology and syntax, rather, we address the morphology and syntax of the language as we encounter them in the readings. In effect, students construct their own textbook, reference grammar, and lexicon over the course of the semester, in the form of their journals. We make resources like Goodwin and Smyth available to them but again, no textbooks are assigned.

3. Syllabus — highlights + content

The absence of a textbook brings us to the matter of content, and here I want to be careful to note the close ties between the readings of the elementary Greek sequence with the Cyropaedia as a third-semester text. As with many, if not most beginning Greek courses, ours had as its aims the development of students’ ability to read, understand, and respond to texts written in Greek during the classical period, thereby helping students learn the skills necessary to understand (eventually) all texts from Homer through the Hellenistic period. One way in which this course likely differs from the majority of ancient Greek courses, however, is that it understands the language as a rich and dynamic medium of expression, that is, as not just a “dead” language but as one by which students can communicate orally and verbally both inside and outside of the classroom.

You’ll see part of this in action during the brief segment of class that we’ll view in a few moments, but I’ll mention now that even the students took ownership of this idea — one student, for example, realized that we could call the “word of the day,” “onoma hemeras,” making “word of the day” into a word of the day. From the instructional standpoint, instead of the Latin words for linguistic constructions or lexemes: for example, instead of asking “what is the case?” we use the Greek forms and ask “Ti esti he ptosis,” instead of “nominative,” they all reply “he ptosis esti onomastike”. The case is nominative. So, these students use their well-developed linguistic and cognitive skills to “learn” or “master” some information (e.g., the concept of case), which supports the process of acquiring ancient Greek.

With an eye toward having students fully immerse themselves fully in the ancient Greek world, the course begins with adapted selections from W.H.D. Rouse’s 1909 reader A Greek Boy at Home, itself an accompaniment to his First Greek Course, one of the first reading-based courses. About midway through the course, readings shift to include portions of the Septuagint; at all points they make use of various media to support student learning. [SLIDE] What students learn, and how they learn it, then, at this early entry point to the language prepares them for the third semester and the Cyropaedia. Joe Jansen, at Rhodes College, has taught students who have learned this way at the elementary level and has provided us with helpful feedback about how students perform, especially at reading — I’d be happy to share that with you later in the session.

4. Classroom layout at Rhodes + remote sites / technology

So far, everything I’ve described could sound simply like a pedagogical innovation (although a radical one!). What makes this approach even more remarkable, however, is that it is employed not just in the confines of one classroom and one college, but rather, in the 2013-14 academic year, across four colleges and universities, each of which is located at some geographical remove and none of which shares many similarities as far as their classical studies programs are concerned. Rhodes College (which we might think of as our center) in Memphis, Elon University in NC, Howard University in Washington, DC, and Southwestern University in TX all participated in this second iteration of the course. Before we view the short video, I’d like to sketch out for you how the classroom layout and logistics of our synchronous meetings worked.

All of the synchronous meetings took place according to the Rhodes’ class schedule, which was MW 12-12:50 and TuTh 4-4:50, Central time. As much as was possible, students and professors at Elon, Howard, and Southwestern joined this class meeting via Google Hangouts, which allows for up to ten users to communicate via video and audio [SLIDE]. When existing and/or institutional course schedules made a synchronous meeting impossible, students and/or professors would watch archived YouTube videos of the class meeting. This model worked differently at each institution: the Rhodes students, of course, were enrolled in a traditional class and met with Prof. Morrell each day; the Elon and Southwestern students joined the synchronous class twice a week; the Howard students joined once or twice a week but were also meeting with Prof. Sandridge for a regularly scheduled Greek 101 course — more on this, later, but clearly the way in which the course existed at each school offers various models for how other institutions might incorporate this sort of hybrid, blended learning opportunity into their curricula.

I’m going to rely on a series of images to help explain and illustrate how the classrooms at Rhodes and the remote institutions were arranged. The Rhodes classroom uses two workstations that serve the purpose of broadcasting the class and displaying the broadcast [SLIDES]. When you’re in the Google Hangout (the platform we use for the synchronous classes), each remote site can see Prof. Morrell and be a part of his classroom, virtually. The technological set-ups at the remote institutions allow for participants to have full video and audio capabilities, while still maintaining a focus on the passage, or lesson, for the day, and allowing them to interact with all members of the class, both student and faculty.

5. Video clip

In the clip that we’re about to watch, you can see this  in action. As we learned early on, key to the success of the synchronous sessions is that Prof. Morrell reaches out to the students at remote locations — indeed, this is one of the fundamental ways in which this course can be distinguished from a MOOC, and retains the type of high-touch characteristics of a more traditional classroom setting. What you’ll see is that it’s not just the Rhodes students on film, interacting with and striving to impress their instructor, but rather the students at the remote locations also being compelled to stay on their toes, focus, and participate actively in the class session. [2-3 MIN CLIP]

6. On the ground/strengths/challenges/etc

In the time that remains, I’d like to say a few things about the strengths and challenges of this model, with the hope that we can continue this conversation in the Q&A.

First, the positive. As should be apparent by now, the inter-institutional model of Sunoikisis allows for courses to be offered at institutions that would otherwise be unable to expand their curricula. In the case of ancient Greek, the elementary-intermediate-advanced courses that the consortium has developed now make a full Greek minor or major available. Both Ryan and Norman have touched upon the collaborative elements that go into each project, and I want to stress that this model exists both on the undergraduate and at the faculty level. Each class meeting introduces students to different pedagogies and pedagogical styles, allows faculty to observe how other colleagues teach a concept or answer a question or solicit a student response, and offers an opportunity for intellectual exchange that would otherwise be absent from their day. Not insignificant, too, is that having multiple professors “in the room” at once allows for an unparalleled opportunity for real-time correction and input from faculty. It’s not unusual, for example, for one of us to check an accent, a form, or a use of a word.

In addition to the clear benefit for classics students and faculty, institutions also benefit from involvement with the consortium. This is true indirectly — faculty who are more engaged with their colleagues and pedagogy in their field are better faculty, and the school can claim to offer more classes and courses of study — but is also true directly, and in the long run. If we think, for example, of a one-person program or two-person department, there will of course be an upfront cost of time and investment on the part of faculty members, as we have heard in the paper about the advanced courses. But it’s key to remember that the end-game here is not to make online courses available so that no faculty need exist at a given institution, or to create, perpetually, more work for already overworked and overcommitted faculty. Rather, the mission, the ideal, is program growth. An elementary Greek class that begins with one or two students might, we envision, in its third iteration have seven or eight, and in its fifth, the requisite ten (or more!) to necessitate hiring another instructor to teach the course. And the need, for a one- or two- person program or department, of another classicist on the ground cannot be overstated: not only does it allow the program to offer more courses, and thus attract more students, but it alleviates the burden of sole responsibility from the original faculty member. In fact, one could argue that a second person, at the very least, is an absolute necessity for real program growth.

Before that happens, however, there are of course challenges to consider. As I noted earlier, each institution approached the class a different way: at Elon, I had one student and we treated the Rhodes class meetings as our own; one student at Southwestern joined the Rhodes class twice a week and met with Ryan another few times a week; Norman’s students at Howard had regular class meetings in addition to joining the Rhodes class about two times a week. With these differing arrangements came different ways of negotiating how the course “counted” for faculty — for some, it counted toward their load, for some it was a paid overload, for others it was an unpaid overload. Given the importance (indeed, the requirement that there be) a home instructor for every Sunoikisis course, I would argue that it’s imperative for each faculty member to seek out ways to have their work with the courses acknowledged, in whatever way they feel most comfortable, by their institution. No one model will work for every instructor at every institution, but we need to develop a way for this important work to be recognized: having a consistent faculty presence is the only way a model like this can work; when that presence is lacking we have seen disinterest and attrition.

As more and more institutions look to the type of consortium created by Sunoikisis, we also need to think through ways of making hybrid learning more palatable to students. The idea of an online course — however limited the online component is, in reality — can scare off many (though certainly not all!) students, a phenomenon which depends, I think, very much on the type of institution at which students are enrolled. Even when students remain in the course, the distance element of the course can be a roadblock, for example when it comes to office hours. Each of us had usual office hours to which our students were invited, and Prof. Fowler held online office hours and made himself available to students on a regular basis throughout the fall semester. Yet students at remote institutions seemed more inclined to email him with questions than to meet virtually, and even then it took several overtures on his part before they responded. On the one hand, this evidence from the fall term speaks again to the importance of having an instructor on the ground; on the other hand, it suggests that we need to experiment with ways to encourage student buy-in and promote a sense of community among all involved. One way of doing this takes a cue from psychology, and a study that has shown that online therapy sessions (with a pre-writing requirement) can be as or more effective than traditional sessions.

In closing, I want to come back to something that Ryan mentioned in his paper, and that Norman illustrated, I think, in his, namely the potential of the Sunoikisis consortium as a model for hybrid education. Even after the hype of MOOCs and their apparent demise [SLIDE], it seems likely that some form of non-traditional classes will still be needed as well as viewed as beneficial to students and faculty alike. What we have seen, and what we should expect to see more of, I think, is the introduction of models like the SMOC (Synchronous Massive Online Course) and the “Blended MOOC” and the DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course) — all of which seek to build, to greater and lesser degrees, a model that classics has had available to it for nearly twenty years. I would argue, then, that we have in this model an opportunity to promote our discipline not just on our own campuses, but across the humanities, academia, and to the general public [SLIDE https://www.sunoikisis.org/courses/].

About Kristina Meinking

Kristina Meinking joined the Elon faculty in Fall 2010 after completing her PhD at the University of Southern California. In her time at Elon, her courses have included those in the beginning and intermediate Latin sequence, Introduction to Classical Studies, Magic and Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World, Classical Mythology, and Culture of Greece/Rome. Her research interests include Late Antique religion, politics, and intellectual history as well as Latin pedagogy and Roman topography.
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