Teaching Philosophy

My belief in the value of the liberal arts drives my approach to teaching.  Too often people seem to think that a degree in classical studies has no real world applications.  But a liberal arts education has great value that goes beyond simple factual knowledge or skills.  For me the purpose of the liberal arts is learning to think critically and analytically while broadening one’s horizons and awareness of the whole world, and it is with this in mind that I develop and teach my classes.

First, I believe very strongly in the importance of having students read and interpret the ancient texts themselves. I have often seen that students view ancient writers as simple sources of facts rather than complex documents that need close and careful analysis. I approach this problem in several ways. In my own lectures I strongly emphasize the many problems of context, literary interpretation, and ancient traditions that we must deal with in using our sources, such as the importance of the sophistic movement for understanding Thucydides, or the impact of Domitian’s reign on the outlook of Tacitus. I also introduce non-historical texts to show how they can also be understood as products of the period that produces them. For instance, the three plays of the Oresteia of Aeschylus, while ostensibly treating mythical topics, are very important for understanding the period of the radical democracy at Athens. 

However, I want my students to actively analyze and interpret these texts and not simply parrot me. I promote this in several ways. I always have my students write a paper on interpreting primary sources. For example, in my Alexander the Great class I have my students look at passages in Diodorus Siculus and Curtius Rufus dealing with the same incident, the ascension of the Sidonian king Abdalonymus. Both authors based their accounts largely on the now-lost historian Cleitarchus, but by comparing them students see how each historian interpreted the event differently and used it to illustrate a different point.

The other technique I use to engage my students more closely with the ancient sources is class discussion.  I have found that managing class discussions is the most difficult aspect of teaching.  My position as instructor is like that of a symphony conductor trying to coordinate a group of musicians.  I need to get all the players to make their own individual contributions to the piece while ensuring that no one person dominates and that everyone can benefit from each other’s contributions. To facilitate discussions, I provide open-ended questions based on the current readings to help spur students to think harder about the texts and to make connections with other works we had read, such as the view of Rome in the works of Plutarch versus the works of Dio Chrysostom. This approach works better in smaller classes, but even with a class of 35 students I think the effort is worth it if I can get the students to think harder and more critically about our sources for the ancient world.

I also want to broaden my students’ horizons beyond just reading texts and show how the ancient world can only be understood by studying all aspects of it.  In particular, I use a great deal of visual imagery, from coins to sculpture to frescos, to further illuminate the ancient world. Not only do images enliven the ancient texts, they also show students that iconography was just as powerful a tool for rulers, leaders, and people in the ancient world, from Pisistratus to Constantine to the average person in the street, as it is today.  It is much easier to explain the historical impact of, for instance, Alexander the Great when I can show my students how his successors employed his image to justify and enhance their own regimes. As I have taught more courses, I have built up a library of more than 6,000 digital images.

I have been fortunate to teach Greek and Latin at the elementary through advanced levels.  My approach has been strongly influenced by my own experiences as a college student.  My Latin 1 professor strongly emphasized a methodical approach to the language, with particular attention to understanding and using the grammar to translate accurately.  The end result was that I had an excellent foundation for advancing to upper level Latin classes and was able to rapidly progress from translating to understanding and analyzing.  In contrast, my Greek 1 class focused on reading connected passages of simplified Greek, with little emphasis on grammar or forms.  This time, when I moved on and was confronted with actual ancient Greek texts I found myself ill-equipped to deal with them and spent a substantial portion of that semester teaching myself grammar and forms that I should have learned in Greek 1.  As a result of these experiences, I have emphasized the fundamentals and a methodical approach in the introductory classes I taught, leading up to reading an actual ancient text for the final few weeks of the second semester.  I taught introductory Greek first in a summer session and was able draw on that experience when I taught it over a full year.  This was especially helpful in knowing when and how to supplement a textbook with my own written materials, which I had to do quite frequently.  I was very pleased to learn that my Greek students who moved on to the next level, including one who went on to graduate school, were very well prepared.  In teaching the languages at all levels I have employed a Socratic approach to my teaching.  When a student translates something incorrectly, I do not simply feed them the right translation, but rather ask them questions about verb forms, noun cases, and other grammatical points until they are able to correct their own translations.  I have found that this approach helps students better understand how the languages work, and helps them more quickly internalize the grammar and forms so that they can read and translate more quickly and effectively. I have found that it is very important to be flexible and adjust my syllabus as necessary for the abilities of the students in a particular class.  

Ultimately, I view both the language classes and the history classes as part of my own growth as a teacher and a scholar.  I am very eager to teach more language courses at all levels and find that my own understanding of Greek and Latin grows the more I teach ancient texts in the original.  Similarly, my appreciation and love of the ancient world grows as I teach more classes on diverse topics, and I am continuing to develop new courses exploring antiquity in its many facets.