So, you too think reading myriad classical texts sounds like a fun hobby?

So earlier this week I wrote about my desire to read a lot more canonical classical texts, and plan to use a university reading list to do so. This caused the minorest of flutters among my minute circle of acquaintances, which prompts me to write a second post today. How to leverage everything possible to make a mountain into a mole-hill?

My approach to reading texts is to use every tool possible to make the job of comprehending a text easier. Anything that makes a text easier to understand, is good.

So here are some of my thoughts/intentions for my own studies.

  1. Start easy.
  2. Use and abuse intermediate versions/books/commentaries
  3. Grade whole texts, read whole texts.

 

Start easy

… means what it sounds like. Particularly if you’re transitioning from a Koine background (!). In this case, Lysias 1 is a very common transition to intermediate text for 2nd year classical Greek students (and I’m pretty sure I read at least selections of it in such a class). It’s also well resourced. So, for myself, Lysias 1, and then Plato’s Crito, are first on my reading list. For Latin, Cicero’s 1st Catiline. If you want a reading-buddy, let me know.

 

Use and Abuse resources.

If you aren’t already familiar with them, (a) Geoffrey Steadman’s texts with vocabulary and grammatical commentary are (i) free to download pdfs of (you should buy some print copies to support him though), (ii) well-made and helpful, (iii) cover a considerable amount of text (9 whole books of Homer!); (b) The DCC commentaries; (c) the old BCP texts, now published by Bloomsbury (I believe) are also at the right level.

Essentially, no one should have to start by reading Oxford Classical Texts or Teubners or whatever. Sure, you might want to, but I would never start a student there. And, while many a grad student has got through their list with a healthy dose of Loebs, in general I don’t recommend using a facing-translation text (it’s not the worst thing in the world; I’d at least rather someone attempted the Greek/Latin by itself, and then consulted a translation post-lectum).

My plan at present is to work through Steadman texts, and some BCPs, see what I’ve covered by that point, and then work on filling out the CUA MA-list (thanks to some useful resources tailored to that list).

Grade whole texts, read whole texts.

I’d also suggest working from easier to harder texts, but not easier to harder passages. Chopping and changing authors might work in an assembled transitional reader, but for this kind of enterprise, getting into a single author and persevering through a whole text is worthwhile. Exceptions would be poetry though. I do think you can do single epic books and then take a break, no-one needs to read 24 straight books of Homer.

What about Patristic texts?

You know, I don’t know of any “Set reading list of patristic authors” for a grad program anywhere. If you do, please tell me. In any case, I have some brain space ticking over this question, because I think reading a canonical core of patristic texts in the original would do wonders for me as well.

 

 

Least of the classicists, as to one born untimely

I’m not really a classicist, I don’t pretend to be. Patristics isn’t Classics anyway, and my route to where I am was very, hmm, “liberal arts”. Across my studies I accumulated majors, or their equivalents, in Philosophy, Creative Writing, Latin, and Theology. My doctoral studies took place in a system which doesn’t have comps or the like. I, sort of, did something similar in my Masters. The assumption, in the Australian system, is that if you’re not competent in your field your thesis would reveal that anyway.

All of which leaves me feeling a little under-done in the area of classical literature in the original languages. And by classics I really do mean the canonical core of big-C Classics. Which is why I am thinking about (maybe have started?) trying to work through one of the reading lists for Classics students from a US college.

Not that US degrees are somehow better or worth more or whatever, but certainly the structure of US degrees is more rigid. And, fortunately, they tend to just post lists of the expected reading their students are meant to have covered. It’s not at all hard to compile such a list (I’ve included a selection at the end).

I don’t have a time-frame on this, I just plan to start, read what’s interesting, cover a great deal of Greek and Latin, and fill in some of those holes. I suppose, given that doctoral students might cover these in 2 years, I might do it in 8?

While I can’t imagine anyone sitting at home is thinking, “Yes, I too would like to do so”, I’ll have some related thoughts/suggestions on this later in the week.

 

Easily accessible Classics reading lists (no particular order or sorting):

John Hopkins: GreekLatin

Washington

Florida: MA List , PhD List (assumes MA)

Harvard

Boston College (MA, PhD)

Berkeley

Princeton

UCLA

Brown

Colorado: LatinGreek

Michigan

Yale

Review of Paradigms Master Pro

[Disclaimer: I was given a complimentary license key to this program in conjunction with doing this review]

I think it’s a brave person who asks me for a product review. Especially if you know the general tenor of my reviews, and general views on pedagogy. So, I had to really wrestle with whether I should do this in the first place!

Paradigms Master Pro is a relatively clean, straightforward program that allows you to test your knowledge of paradigms. It currently has options for Biblical Greek, Biblical Hebrew, and Modern Spanish. I tested out the Biblical Greek option.

When you first load it up, you’re shown a greeting screen:

Then can choose from a range of options:

Testing comes with a limited range of options. You can subdivide your categories, for instance, which allows you to focus in on what you’re currently studying (presuming your studies proceed in the traditional morphology by morphology route). You can also choose between multiple choice responses, and full parsing.

The multiple choice format looks like this. You are presented with an inflected form, and you need to select out of 4 options. Generally I find these a little too easy – you can usually work out from a selection of 4, which is correct. Of course, students will find this more difficult. You are given immediate feedback on each question: whether you got it right, and if you were wrong, you are told the correct answer. In the case of forms that could have multiple right answers, any are accepted.

There are also some ‘Ultimate’ tests, which just throw anything and everything at you. These are useful, because when you are just focused on studying a narrow range of something, the number of ‘things’ an inflected item could be are restricted. But, ‘in the wild’, you need to identify everything.

Here’s the example of what ‘full parsing’ looks like. You need to be a little extra careful, since (a) the full parsing table includes categories not applicable (here: gender, case) for all forms. Also, the program distinguishes middle, passive, and middle/passive, and will not accept ‘middle’ for ‘middle/passive’. Given my views on the passive, that tripped me up a few times!

 

What’s PMP good for?

I’d say, that if your approach to learning language involves or requires a great deal of memory work, learning paradigms, and drilling them, PMP could be a great go-to program for you. When I first learnt Greek, even though I now advocate different methods, I did a lot of memory work. Mainly by writing out tables by hand, and using electronic flashcards for vocabulary. These methods, in my view, are not ideal, but they are not worthless either.

Especially for the student enrolled in a course who is going to be expected to parse things by sight, and/or parse things without context, PMP is quite useful. Having a program generate forms, test you, and provide immediate feedback, is invaluable. It’s the language version of an automatic ball machine firing shots at you.

What’s PMP not good for?

I don’t fault programs for not doing what they’re not designed to do. PMP has not much to offer if you are pursuing a completely alternate pedagogy based on communication, oral or written. It’s firmly a construct useful for explicit grammatical identification and analysis, and it’s a good tool for that.

If I had some mild criticisms, they would be:

  • a feature to reverse the inputs: to be presented with a set of parsing information, and required to enter the Greek (with the option of accents required/optional; even though I think you should learn accents, it’s brutal to keep failing questions because you misplaced an accent).
  • multiple choice is often too easy to guess. Because ambiguity of forms often comes across categories, some more ‘cross-category’ groupings would let you test this a little more rigorously.
  • I think I’d redesign how the test accepts middle/passive answers. But that’s perhaps just me.
  • Use of more varied vocabulary. The program presents all the paradigms you need to know, but it does so with ‘paradigmatic’ verbs. It’s all very well and good to know your λύειν, ποιεῖν, εἶναι, etc., but testing a broader range of vocabulary, or at least having the option to, would also benefit students to move away from, “here are the textbook forms” to “here are a host of other words that follow the same patterns”.

 

Would I recommend PMP? Yes, but only to certain people. To students of biblical languages enrolled in a standard-style language course, or pursuing a traditional approach, I would definitely say that PMP would be of good use to them, as a tool for the necessary memory work in those programs.

The link, once more: Paradigms Master Pro

The colonial baggage of teaching EFL as a mission strategy

Within the orbit of evangelical mission activity, teaching English overseas seems like an easy and perfect fit. People ‘overseas’ want to learn English. You already know English. They often prize a native-speaker over accreditation or experience. And English provides a vehicle to the Bible and to the Gospel. Great?

Maybe not so great.

By teaching English as a foreign language, you engage in a host of complex issues and practices, and the unequivocal ‘goodness’ of this as mission quickly unravels. Teaching English as a foreigner easily buys into a set of assumptions – that you bring English to the table as a gift from a globally dominant language-and-culture, that they will be enriched and ennobled by learning English, that it provides them an entry to a broader world, that learning English is economically enabling, that Christianity is tied to English, that Christianity is tied to English-dominant countries, that the Bible is to be read in English, that Christianity is to be practiced in English, that Christianity is culturally and linguistically foreign to their native culture and language, etc..

All of these ought to trouble us. And to the extent that actual EFL practices of missionaries continue to embody such problems, requires considerable critical analysis. The Gospel, if it is truly translational, has to translate into a host culture. And to the extent that non-native-English-speakers become English-language Christians, they then face the difficult challenge of culturally translating that faith and identity across to their native identity-and-language, which is no easy thing.

This is not to say that EFL has no place in mission work. There is a danger of reacting by saying, “Well, we won’t teach you English at all!” This is colonial exclusivism – it presumes to tell people that they can’t have access to English, and to all that the Anglosphere provides. It acts as a gatekeeper to exclude, and to impoverish, and to dictate just as much to people what they can and can’t have. To put it in historical terms, would refusing to let anyone learn Latin have been any better than refusing to translate the Scriptures out of Latin? It’s patronising and just as much an exercise of power to refuse to teach English.

Which is why this is a conflicted and complicated issue, that is not so easy. Teaching English can be a colonial and imperialist act, but in some ways not-teaching English can be as problematic. Which is why I started writing this short piece – to complicate the picture.

So-called “Rigour” in teaching

I semi-regularly hear the term “rigour” applied to teaching programs, and worse, language programs, as if it were a kind of virtue. It might be, but what is usually meant by “rigour” is not virtuous at all, it just sounds like it.

What is “rigour” anyway, and why would you want it in your pedagogy.

If you mean “rigour” in the sense of precision, thoroughness, and exactness, then probably I’d want that too. But if you mean severity, strictness, harshness, ordeals, suffering, these things have nothing to do with learning and no place in teaching.

Often when people talk about “rigour” it means, “We teach (language X) by traditional grammatical methods, insist on the ability to formally reproduce tables, paradigms, and minutely dissect grammatical minutiae, and we don’t have any time for nonsense like fun, communication, active language use, or new-fangled methods.”

The result of this is a miserable class, with minimal learning, where “rigour” means most students fail to learn, or drop out, or pass and don’t continue. But languages aren’t meant to be trials by ordeal – this isn’t the entrance exam for an elite special forces unit where we’re trying to eliminate people.

This is why I think “rigour” is a rhetorical term designed to reinforce one, traditionalist, form of pedagogy at the expense of other, competing, pedagogies.

What if the mentality of language programs wasn’t about minimising who made the grade, and was more “no student left behind” (and not in a stupid NCLB way)? What if we measured rigour simply by hitting language acquisition milestones, not by the severity or misery of students? What if we recognised that tables, paradigms, and grammatical analysis are not themselves measures of thoroughness anyway, or at least they are measures shaped to a different pedagogical goal, one that is not directly correlated to the ability to read and understand in a target language.

Then, maybe, we’d think that “rigour” didn’t equate to “better”, or at least that it didn’t equate to traditionalist pedagogies.

 

What are we marking for anyway? (2) Essays

(And we’re back. Being sick threw my blogging schedule out the window.)

What’s the point of marking essays?

So often in humanities we make essay-writing the examinable element of a course, and the more I both read up on this, and reflect on this, the more problematic it seems.

Student A comes into my course, and they’re an average writer, they score credits (65% ish) usually. The work hard, do pretty well on course content, write a final essay, and they get a Credit. Why? Because that’s their benchmark ability in essay-writing.

What does this actually tell us about their mastery of course content and syllabus outcomes? Nothing. It tells me they write Credit essays. Maybe they work a little harder, get a Distinction (75%ish). Maybe they have a bad semester, only manage a Pass. But I’m marking their essay, and so really I’m marking their essay-writing ability, not their (insert course X here) ability and learning.

Isn’t this problematic, unless your course actually is a Composition class on Essay writing?

By all means, I can mark their essays, I can give feedback and work hard to help them improve as essay-writers, and master this particular genre of academic discourse, and be better essay-writers for future humanities courses. But this doesn’t get away from the fact that I’m marking their ability to write essays, a general skill that isn’t going to move that much over a semester, not truly their engagement and mastery of whatever course I happen to be teaching. And, given that essays are usually “hand in, get some feedback and a mark, move on”, they are unlikely to review or workshop that essay in a way that improves it anyway. The moment of marking is too late for most students to become about editing and improving.

I don’t really have a solution to this, but I do know that something is broken.

Reading for courses, how much and how fast?

Recently I’ve been trying to figure out some guidelines for setting readings for university courses.

There seem to be a number of complicating factors:

  • Do students read?
  • How much time can you expect students to read each week?
  • How fast can students read?
  • How dense is the reading material?
  • What level of engagement are they expected to have in the reading?

On question 1, I think this is similar to the question about lecture-attendance. These days, for some types of courses anyway, students simply do not turn up to lectures. They know that the content is fixed, that the lecture is a delivery system for that content, and that it will be recorded. They’d much rather listen to the recording at 1.5 – 2x speed and write down notes from that, than turn up and be bored by a droning robot. Attempts to circumvent this by essentially using ‘content protection’ rackets – not recording lectures, not doing handouts, trying to force students to turn up, are all pointless because they are attempts to salvage a stupid method of content delivery.

Anyway, that’s my tangent about lectures. While there may be good strategies for getting students to do readings, those shouldn’t amount to tricks and manipulation. In the end, if a student doesn’t want to do the readings, they are probably taking the wrong class.

Question 2 is generally fixed at a higher level than the subject level. The ol’ Carnegie Unit expectation is 2 hrs out of class for every 1hr in class. But that’s probably not going to be 2 hrs of reading. It is meant to encapsulate all the class’s external demands. It also depends upon how much set reading dovetails with assignment and assessment demands across the subject.

Assuming you have a class that fits the standard ¼ of a full-time work load, and has 2-3 hr of class per week, anywhere between 3 and 6hrs of reading could be reasonable.

Questions 3-5 are interrelated. The most useful site I found was this one here, which contains not only a discussion of the question of reading and workload, but a calculator built off self-reported data, that allows you to input Pages per week, Page Density (for different types of texts), Difficulty of Text, and Purpose of Reading (Survey/Understand/Engage) to produce estimated pages/hour.

From this, my rules of thumb going forward are 10 pages/hr estimate for texts to be discussed/engaged, 15 pages/hr for texts to be learnt/absorbed. On this proviso, a textbook chapter + a relatively short primary doc a week is more than feasible for an undergrad subject; a longer section of a scholarly secondary text could substitute for both.