Teaching Ancient World Literature

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted last. This semester has been busy and productive. I’ve been teaching EGL 111-02- “World Literature: Ancient to Modern,” which was a challenge at first because, while ancient literature is timeless and still so connected to modern literature in many ways, there is also a difference to it that I find requires a change in pedagogical approach. One significant element of ancient literature is the fact that we are often reading a translation (and sometimes a translation of a translation, or even a translation of a translation of a translation!), and meanings of individual words and phrases carry a different weight than they do in, say, contemporary American literature. There is also the aspect of historical context, a variety of mythological frameworks, and a great distance in time, distance, and intimate understanding from the cultures under inspection.

That being said, the first three weeks or so were an experimental period, playing with different methods of introducing historical context- from watching contextualizing YouTube clips, to giving concise background information that I know from my double-major background in Classics, to relying on the Norton introductions and supplementary material, to challenging students to come in with contextualizing information, to reading certain texts intentionally out of context to think about how we think about the text on its own, how it can transcend contexts, etc.

Some of these approaches worked better than others, and none was unsuccessful. Eventually, I fell into a strong groove, and I’ve have had some of the best classes of my entire teaching career the past few weeks. At the beginning of one class, I offered the students the option to either 1) take the two question quiz on the previous night’s reading for a total of ten points with no extra credit, or 2) elect two classmates to answer the two questions for the class as a whole, and then elect two more classmates for 1 point extra credit questions. I only thought of the idea on the way to class, and I’m glad that I decided to go out on a limb with it. Two of the course’s main themes are leadership and citizenship, so this became a real life exercise in democratically electing leaders, putting your trust and fate in somebody else’s hands, and being either happy or let down with the outcome. As I asked the first elected representative the first of the two quiz questions, the class unanimously voted for the second option, and the students were collectively a visible mix of excitement, nervous anticipation, and supportive cheerleading. She herself was noticeably anxious, but she answered correctly and the class erupted in applause, smiles, and sighs of relief. Then all eyes turned to the second elected representative. The class again was on the edge of their seats. The tension was palpable, which is something that’s hard to achieve in a positive way at 8:35 am in a class full of 18-21 year olds. I asked the student the second question, and he hesitate for a few moments, and then answered. He, also, was correct. The class again roared with approval, and they were clearly happy with their decision to choose an election. One of the two students got the extra credit question right, so the entire class earned 11/10 on the quiz. Immediately after the quiz, we connected this classroom experience to some of the stories we’d read through the previous ten or so weeks- The Odyssey, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, “Oedipus Rex,” “Antigone,” and Aristophanes’ “Acharnians,” to name a few. I could tell that they understood the concepts of leadership, citizenship, and democracy much more deeply after this exercise.

I’ve always thought that the most effective and meaningful way of learning is through one’s own experiences and discovery, and this was a fantastic way of creating an opportunity for that in class. It was an engaging and entertaining, but it was a real-life learning experience. As I continue to teach, I’ve been finding that it’s those authentic experiences that I want to provide for students.

Some other great teaching experiences this semester were:

-Intoducing the concept and practice of close readings through paintings of texts we’ve read (specifically, a painting of “The Belling of the Cat” to lead into close readings of Aesop’s fable, and another painting of Antigone leading a blinded, Christ-like Oedipus out of Thebes).

-Writing about 15 different topical phrases randomly across the board and having students control the direction of our class on the Bible. A student would raise her hand, identify which topic she wanted to discuss, and actually start the conversation by voicing an observation, question, or argument about the topic. Students would then respond and create their own critical conversation. I wasn’t sure how the experiment would turn out, but it was, without a doubt, one of the best classes of the semester. I think it had a lot to do with giving students a bit of agency and freedom in controlling the flow of class, even if I was still a guiding hand in terms of what the topics were and neutrally moderating the conversation.

-Comparing the decision of the NY Mets’ manager to keep in their pitcher after 8 innings because of the pitcher’s protests and the crowd’s urging (thus losing the World Series) to the actions of Pontius Pilate and a number of other leaders we’ve read about. This was particularly successful because almost all of the students in class are from the NY metropolitan area, so it was a way of bringing real life into our literary discussion.

-Using “Yellow Woman,” a short piece from 1974 by Leslie Marmon Silko, to radically shift the time period of our readings, connect mythology to the present world, and question whether myths have an impact on our current society and day to day lives. This was an incredibly rich discussion that ranged from race and inter-generational transmission of culture to comic strips to Harry Potter to the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving to globalization.

-Connecting the achetype of the classical hero to the modern day and asking each student of an example of a type of person or a specific person who our society thinks of as a hero. We came up with a list of movie stars, musicians, politicians, founding fathers, athletes (specifically basketball players and olympians), and literary characters. The class then compared our list to the list of classical heroes we’d been reading about- Oedipus, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Antigone, Pericles, Shahrazad, etc. How are they similar? How are they different? Why are they different, and what might that say about our culture and its ideals? It was a good exercise that brought what can be a disconnected, abstract topic into the immediate, personal lives of students.

Well, the semester isn’t over yet, so we’ll see what else I can add to this list in the coming three weeks!

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