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Some thoughts on Social Media, Twitter, and Engagement

This little piece is me responding in my own way to Alison Innes’ post “Thoughts on Twitter Outreach” and it in turn bounces off Michael Fontaine’s “Promoting Classics to the Public – what worked, what didn’t what couldn’t

Firstly, I find “Outreach” a funny thing in the Classics world. I certainly ‘get’ it – if the discipline is to survive it needs to connect with people outside its own little bubble, it needs to continue to demonstrate relevance, and it needs to attract new people to be involved in it (in the church we call this evangelism!). All interest-groups have this same imperative – to engage outsiders of the interest-group for the sake of the interest-group’s survival. Classics is just another version of this and it’s unclear to me why Classics thinks it has any more warrant on public attention than any other interest group.

Anyway, this is all besides the point. Outreach is primarily about (a) increasing visibility (remember how hard it was to find out things in the pre-internet age? Of course, you don’t), (b) leverage visibility to create engagement, (c) turn engagement into buy-in.

So, on to Fontaine’s article. I quite like Fontaine’s Latin-related pieces, but this was a bit bizarre. Basically, he says he just tried everything that he thought would work or even things that wouldn’t work. The weirdest part is this:

My experiment with Twitter proved to be a failure. I began by obeying the rules of etiquette, then breaking them deliberately to see what worked.”

Of course, it didn’t work. Twitter, like all social media, evolves its own set of social norms (well, really multiple sets of social norms because Twitter is not itself a monolithic culture, but a series of related sub-cultures. I understand the “exploratory” desire to break social norms on Twitter, but turning up to a party and breaking all the rules doesn’t work (unless, apparently, you are trying to become the US President.

Fontaine’s goal, and the SCS’s, was to reach non-classicists. Innes’ post goes on to interrogate Fontaine’s approach. It critiques the vague idea of ‘outreach’, and prefers “humanities communication” and engagement. Innes’ article is interesting on its own terms, and most interesting to me when she discusses Twitter.

Twitter, in my own social media engagement, has become a fabulous place. Every social media “place” has its own vibe, culture, demographics, and sub-groups. Also, how one chooses to use those platforms may change. I have very peculiar usage patterns for Facebook, for instance. Twitter, however, is a free-for-all.

What Twitter has done for me is to bring me into conversations with a wide range of people in my disciplines. And particularly, having the (un)fortunate circumstance of a single foot in several disciplines, it engages me in conversation with a range of people I would never have come across without Twitter. Twitter is the virtual equivalence of the conference, the coffee shop, and the seminar room. It doesn’t replace any of those particularly well, but it mediates global (and national) communities for me in patristics, classics, biblical studies, and classical languages/linguistics.

I don’t have a social media strategy, or at least a super-well-thought-out one. However, I do think social media is a great invention because it is essentially social – the conversation of people, and a medium – a means by which that conversation takes place. It’s ability to mediate that conversation (removing the necessity of unmediated access, i.e. in person relationship) is precisely what makes it invaluable.

Oxford Latin Course: a brief review

The Oxford Latin is not quite as well known as the Cambridge Latin Course, the latter appearing firs tin the 70s, the OLC not until the 80s. It is primarily the work of Maurice Balme, and James Morwood. I had the pleasure of meeting Morwood a few years back. As I recall, he said that the OLC was produced really to ‘fix’ the problems they perceived in the CLC. Regardless, the OLC is now one of several ‘staples’ on the Latin market, and enjoys particularly wide usage in schools.

My own experience of it is linked to this. I tutor a student whose school utilised OLC and I teach him likewise through these materials.

As with CLC, OLC attempts to adopt a reading-based approach, mostly inductive. However, I have to say that the main difference between ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ reading approaches is whether they place the grammar before or after the reading. OLC is divided intro three main Parts, with a main storyline following Horace’s life, interwoven with related passages. In the final text, now a 4th volume, there are selected reading passages from Classical authors.

Each chapter begins with a short cartoon, which frankly does little to engage the reader and mainly serves to illustrate a grammar point. It is then followed by a reading, with both ‘new vocab to learn’ on the page, and ‘necessary vocab helps’ on the side for things needed in the reading, but not needing to be learnt yet. The reading is followed by a few (not enough) questions in Latin responding to the content of the text. Then a secondary, related, reading is given, with some questions on content in English. Finally, most chapters then have a page or two of History/Culture notes.

In the rear of the book is found the Grammar and Exercises. The procedure through the grammatical concepts of Latin is much the same as most courses. Exercises include standard fare: translation Latin > English, and English > Latin, parsing, manipulating forms.

Overall OLC is a pleasant, and reasonably well-executed textbook in its style. Its faults, then, are the same – the pacing of material is probably too quick, the space for repetition and exposure too little, the exercises not enough and too traditional. The narrative itself does benefit from being based (except for the childhood) on Horace, and helps students to grapple with the main historical events of the death of Julius Caesar and the rise of Octavius; likewise having a single continuous narrative is a positive.

Verdict: The Oxford Latin Course does what so many of its vintage tried to do: combine ‘newer’ reading-based approaches with traditional pedagogy. It succeeds as well as most of its rivals did, which is to say not-quite well enough.

It does make for a pleasant read for the experienced Latinist though.

State of the Projects, February 2017

PhD

Still waiting on examiners’ reports. They nominally have 3 months, so I don’t expect a result before the start of March anyway. I’m feeling less anxious, mainly because I have other things to worry about.

#Jobsearch

Totally unsuccessful so far. 7 rejections and 1 job cancelled to date. I have a few more applications out there, but expect them to fail as well.

Articles

I revised what I think of as my ‘major’ article on partitive exegesis, and sent it back to a colleague for a second read-through. This month I’m working on turning my paper on Chrysostom from a conference last year into a paper, and it’s progressing well enough. I hope to churn through the rest of it in the next two weeks.

Beyond that, I have a good 6 or 7 other articles to work on this year. Some are revising old material and turning them into publishable material. Others are just ideas or things I think could be articles.

Translations

I said previously I was working on a translation of Gregory of Nyssa’s De Deitate. That’s continuing at a slow pace. I did teach a short intensive course on the text, which was helpful for me personally. My main ‘slow-down’ is that I am also preparing the text to be a patristic reader text, which takes more time but gives me a more useful resource.

I’ve also started work, with a friend, on producing an English version of Hilary of Poitier’s Tractatus Mysteriorum. I expect that will take us most of the year.

Blogging plans

I plan to blog more this year, and more than just these updates. Weekly you should get a nice series on Greek and Latin textbooks, and also weekly I intend to write about what I’ve been reading, hopefully starting in a couple of days time. So that will be fun for all.

 

Reading Greek: a review

A short foreword: I thought, thanks to a suggestion, that I’d start blogging my way through reviews of introductory materials in Greek and Latin. I don’t pretend to thoroughness or rigour, just my thoughts on textbooks and readers I’ve dealt with in some way or another. I’ll alternate between Greek and Latin as best I can for the duration of the series. I’m also open to requests.

No further ado required:

Another product of the late 70s, Reading Greek appeared as a joint project (a second edition, much improved, appeared in 2007) under the auspices of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. It aimed to produce a reading-method text via a “continuous, graded Greek text, adapted from original sources”, and then accompany this with grammar explanations, and exercises. In the first edition, this was done in two volumes, with running vocabulary notes put into the second volume, the first being the main text alone.

The text itself is a tour-de-force. It has nineteen sections, with various subsections, and moves quite rapidly from a heavily adapted ‘framing’ story, to more lightly-adapted material drawn from classical texts (primarily 5th century Attic material, but not entirely). The spread of material through the nineteen section suffers from being uneven (some sections are shorter, others longer), and on the whole moving to too complicated Greek too quickly (a problem with most readers). The removal of the vocabulary to a second volume was a mistake, rectified in the second edition which (a) moved the vocabulary to the same volume, and (b) fixed another glaring problem, the linking device. The first edition had ‘connected works’ marked by a ‘linking device’, and then listed those words as a group in the vocabulary. This was fine in principle, except using the article this way made the vocab a mess.

The grammar presentations in the first edition are cramped, and not particularly user-friendly. They are followed by the usual Grammar-Translation exercises. The formatting in the second edition improves some of the first issue – grammar is presented more readably and with better formatting.

My own experience with RG is really using it as a post-introductory refresher for reading. I haven’t taught from it, and I probably wouldn’t choose to do so. A graded reader is a great idea, but it needs to be incredibly well-formulated if it’s to meet fundamental pedagogic needs, and those require very careful sheltering of vocabulary and scaffolding of grammatical structures, and a ton of repetition. RG doesn’t accomplish this, because it chooses (for some good reasons) to use as much original classical Greek text as it can. This is commendable (students do need to grapple with original texts early, and not with merely ‘composition Greek’), but at the same time difficult (most of our literature that classical Greek students aim to read is ‘high literature’, they need ‘easy’ Greek for pedagogical reasons).

For these reasons, I wouldn’t recommend RG as a primary book for introductory learners. I think it makes a great supplementary reader for introductory learners at least into a second semester, or as a great source for post-introductory learners who should be getting some more extensive reading in. For this purpose, the second edition text + vocabulary book by itself should be sufficient.

There are some follow-on volumes that tackle (1) Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles, and (2) Euripides, Thucydides, and Plato, as well as a (3)rd Anthology volume. I haven’t read my way through any of these but if I do I promise to give them their own review.

Zuntz: The Greatest Grammar You Never Knew

The other day I mentioned Zuntz, and I realised later that many do not know about this wonderful text. So in this post I’m going to introduce/overview it for you.

Günther Zuntz (1902 – 1992) was a phenomenally gifted classical philologist and scholar. You can read about his life here in the Proceedings from the British Academy.

He also wrote a Greek primer, originally in German in 3 volumes. An English translation was done by Stanley Porter, and released as a two volume work, “Greek: A course in Classical and Post-Classical Greek Grammar from Original Texts”, and published by Sheffield Academic Press. It’s very difficult to track down, but you do find it in libraries. Online it will cost you an arm and a leg.

The text consists of four sections:

1. Greek Lessons: These are a series of texts, all taken from original texts covering a fairly full range of Greek literature. In the early stages, some texts are very, very minorly adapted. Zuntz is no fan of composed, non-original Greek, and thinks you should learn from original texts as much as possible. This makes part 1 a delectable smorgasbord of carefully selected Greek. It is followed by an Anthology of readings, and the Fasti Graeci, which gives dates and facts to grant historical contextualisation.

2. Exercises: As valuable as part 1 is, the exercises complement this well. Firstly, Zuntz writes, “Language is speaking” (20), and the first section of each lesson’s exercises consists of material for oral practice. The second, also, aims towards oral practice, but in questions and transformations based on the readings. Only section 3 turns to “conventional” exercises: parsing, paradigms, translation.

3. Vocabulary: a running list of vocabulary to help render each lesson intelligible.

4. Grammars. The grammar is divided into a running Appendix Grammatica, with grammar explanations for each lesson, and a Summa Grammatica at the end.

Now, what to say about this 1000-odd page “Primer” in Greek?

Firstly, it has peculiarities you will not find elsewhere and may not enjoy. Zuntz, for instance, prefers students to learn texts with iota adscript instead of subscript. (i.e. instead of θεῷ you will regularly find θεῶι). However, these are mostly excusable on the grounds that you will survive them. Secondly, Zuntz explains things no one else does. His grammatical explanations constantly compare with Latin, and then give reference to (Proto)-Indo-European, and you are just left with answers to questions you always wondered (or didn’t know to ask). For example, I have always simply accepted that α-stem feminine nouns always accent as -ῶν in the genitive plural, but it took Zuntz to explain that it is because the form was -άων and that contraction has occured, fixing the accent regardless of where it occurs in other cases.

So Zuntz leaves no stone unturned, which make for a “rigorous” course. However, it’s not for the faint-hearted. In the introduction he says you can get through the whole and still have time to read Plato’s Apology, in a year with six lessons a week. Provided that you also follow 2 hours private work for each hour of class. So that’s (assuming 1hr lessons?) 18 hours a week for 2 semesters.

One shouldn’t mistake Zuntz for a traditional grammar-translation textbook, that’s not how it works and not, I think, what he envisioned. But neither is it an inductive reader. It’s more a traditionally grammar-driven anthology of hand-picked texts to initiate you into the big, bad, wide world of Ancient Greek, with a second course of orally-drive exercises that ought to be done in a communicative fashion to make you a modern Demosthenes, and a third course of classical philology on steroids so that you’re not only well-versed in ancient Greek, but properly drenched in why Greek does what it does.

Don’t go rushing out to buy a copy, you’re looking at $200 minimum if you can even locate a real copy. But do check your library. It’s never likely to get another print run, and so sadly never likely to get much classroom use either. The best thing that could happen to this wonderful primer is to see an open-access high-quality pdf of it released to the Internet.

The importance of the beginner-level language teacher

Yesterday I tweeted a quote from the preface to Günther Zuntz’s monstrous “A Course in Classical and Post-Classical Greek”. It’s only monstrous because of its size. Zuntz leaves no stone unturned, not even the tiny crushed ones that were what was left of your ego before you started Greek. Also, the two volumes in the English edition are enough to start weight-training as well as break the bank at current prices.

Anyway, Zuntz writes, “Rather than being for the spare hours of a novice, teaching Elementary Greek is a demanding task for a conscientious professor; as difficult as it is important.”

I think this is dead right. There’s a tendency to think of the introductory levels of language instruction as something that can be palmed-off to the less advanced. And, in one limited sense, that is true – you only need enough Latin/Greek/whatever to teach those knowing less than you do. However, this is short-sighted.

Assuming, as is most common these days, that your students arrive at a tertiary level without their requisite languages, their first language teacher has a vital role. They are responsible for introducing them to the language, and so their task involves two essential elements. Firstly, students must learn to love the language enough to learn it. Our whole appreciation and attitude towards a language is bound up tightly with the person who teaches it, their approach to teaching, the ambiance of the classroom. Introductory Latin, Elementary Greek, these are the gateways for Classics students. They will almost always have larger numbers than any intermediate or advanced courses, because you will only drop numbers from your beginning enrolment. Any hope of seeing good retention of students depends upon students actually enjoying their first-year language course.

Secondly, how well they learn language in that first year is critical to their success. Any deficiencies in their acquisition in the first year will be felt throughout the rest of the program. One simply cannot go on to the reading of texts without the language ability to handle those texts. This is the cause of Zuntz’s comment – he goes on to say that a one-off bad lecture on Paul or Plato won’t do that much harm, but failure to learn the language of Paul or Plato will do much harm.

This is why the choice of the first-year teacher is so important. It should not necessarily be the most junior person, because that person may well lack the depth of language to teach it effectively. Neither should it be the most lauded researcher, for language acquisition is not necessarily aided by research in fields that depend upon language. Indeed, even being a specialist in, say, Greek linguistics, is no guarantee of solid pedagogy for the beginners’ class.

No, I contend that the teacher of the elementary levels of a language ought to be someone passionate and committed to applying the best practices and latest research in second language acquisition, and bringing that to bear on the classroom experience. You want someone who wants to teach first year Latin, and who zealously pursues the best methods to do so. Whatever else is in their portfolio, archaic religion, Attic politics, post-Augustan poetry, they need to be someone who is hell-bent on seeing beginner students thrive and acquire the language as best as possible.

Early Christian Studies/History in the Australian tertiary context

I have a vested interest in this topic, since I’ve just completed a PhD in the field and would like a job in it. So, I thought it would be interesting to look at the place of ECS/ECH (Early Christian Studies/History) in Australian tertiary institutions.

By ECS, I specifically mean post-biblical material, anything from the Apostolic Fathers through to the early middle ages. I exclude New Testament studies as a specific discipline for reasons that ought to be relatively apparent.

I divided my survey into three categories: Evangelical institutions, non-Evangelical religious institutions, and Universities (generally state, but not always).

  1. Evangelical institutions.

I examined 12 different colleges across Australia, drawing my data from publically available Faculty profiles, and course descriptions. Of these 12, 11 are affiliated with the Australian College of Theology, a kind of umbrella accrediting organisation. This is important, as I will explain below. I defined ‘primary specialisation’ by examining the doctoral thesis of faculty, and considering listed research interests and publications where available.

Of these 12, only 4 staff have a primary specialisation in an ECS/ECH area. 2 of those faculty are at the same institution, so 3/12 colleges have a faculty member with an ECS/ECH specialisation.

I also considered what the primary specialisation was of the faculty responsible for teaching ECH. For members of the ACT, ECH is a single overview subject of “Church History to 1550” in the undergraduate and graduate programs. Of the 12, the 9 who did not have ECH specialists have the subject taught by someone whose specialty is either (a) systematic theology, or (b) reformation or denominational church history.

Furthermore, at 3, or possible 4, of these institutions, ECH is currently taught by someone without a doctoral degree (generally an MTh).

That’s the data of Evangelical Colleges. I would now like to speculate as to why. Firstly, ACT exerts a controlling influence on the course structures and units provided, so that ECH is, in a 24 unit 3-year degree, a single unit, which is either (a) The Church to 1550, or (b) Early Church History (30-451). There is no single unit that covers 451-1550, so all periods of medieval and byzantine theology are excluded.

The ACT also provides for these same 2 modules to be taught at varying levels (200, 300 representing undergraduate subjects, 500 being MDiv equivalents. Theology of Augustine may be taken as a higher level subject for an MA, 700 level.

Nonetheless, for most member institutions, ECH represents a single, undergraduate overview subject. It is difficult to put forward a specialist ECS hire for a teaching load of 1-0, and such a hire would have to teach outside their specialty. This in itself is not a problem, but I suggest that Evangelical institutions are far more likely to hire a reformation/denominational history specialist, or a systematic theologian, and ask them to teach ECH, than vice versa.

Of the 4 faculty with ECS specialisations, one is the principal and has a strong NT and Greek profile. One presents more as a systematic theologian whose primary doctoral research happens to be in ECS. One was in their faculty position prior to completion of their ECH doctorate, and the last is a focused ECH specialist.

I mean these observations primarily as observations, and my critique should be considered very mild at best.

  1. Non-Evangelical Institutions

To survey these religious colleges, I examined member institutes of the Sydney College of Divinity, and the University of Divinity (formerly the Melbourne College of Divinity). These two do not represent all such colleges, but I believe they are a representative group. In each case I looked at who the primary faculty responsible for ECH studies/courses were. This approach is justifiable since these institutes are generally too small to field research-only faculty.

This generated 17 institutes, 4 of whom are Catholic in identity, 3 Eastern (one Eastern Orthodox, two Coptic), and the rest a mix of protestant denominations (including liberal and conservative groups).

Out of these 17, 3 faculty members have identifiable ECH specialisations, and they teach in the Orthodox/Coptic colleges. These colleges, likewise, have more than 2 ECH subjects as part of their standard curricula.

In all 14 other non-Orthodox and non-Coptic colleges, ECH is taught by a non-specialist, and typically occupies a single subject, or 2 at most (often ECH forms a single subject taught at multiple levels, or else is subsumed in a larger survey history subject). Even at Catholic institutes, where one might have expected more ECH expertise, ECH is taught by specialists in other periods.

  1. Universities

To understand the place of ECH in Australian universities, one needs to understand how religion is differently situated in Australian higher education, compared to say the USA or Britain. The founding of the University of Sydney, in 1852, occurred at a time of significant religious conflict in that Oxbridge entry was restricted to Anglicans. Australian universities avoided sectarian conflict by pursuing a deliberate secularisation strategy, excluding theology from their purview and ordained clergy from faculty. ‘Religion’ was apportioned out to the ‘member’ colleges, which now primarily serve as residential colleges for the university rather than true colleges in the Oxbridge model.

This explains why, unlike the USA or Britain, almost no major university has a theology department in Australia. That has changed since the 60s and the Martin Report, and some universities such as Flinders (SA), Murdoch (WA), and Charles Sturt (NSW) do include theology, often in partnership with local religious colleges and faculty.

Religious studies has re-entered some institutions, such as U.Sydney, but not in a significant way. At U.Syd, for example, ECH occupies a single subject, taught by Iain Gardiner, whose specialty is ECH areas.

This leaves two universities where ECH is flourishing: Australian Catholic University, and Macquarie University.

ACU is the host of the Centre for Early Christian Studies, which includes such powerhouses as Pauline Allen, Wendy Mayer, Geoffrey Dunn, and many others. It is a research focused centre with considerable funding. It sits within the Theology and Philosophy Faculty of ACU, which lists at least 13 faculty staff with Patristics or ECH as specialist areas.

Macquarie University’s Ancient History department took on an ECH focus largely due to the pioneering influence of Edwin Judge. That work continues in the broader setting of a large Ancient History faculty, with at least 5 faculty/staff that I can identify working primarily in ECH or Late Antique patristics. Particular research has focused on papyri.

So, that’s a wrap. University wise, almost all ECH work is being done out of two places in Australia – ACU and Macquarie, and they have different foci. The larger of these is definitely ACU and that is unlikely to change. Reflecting back across the religious colleges, only the Orthodox and Coptic colleges can be said to have a major interest in ECH in their curricula and faculty, while the number of protestants, evangelical or otherwise, specialised in ECH is very low.