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.

Zuntz revisited

I’ve been spending more time with Zuntz’s textbooks, and I thought I would write some follow up thoughts (subsequent to this earlier post)

Firstly, over on this post from 2016 in Textkit (a surprisingly active forum, given how terrible its interface is. In fact, most forums should have gone the way of usenet. Much better architectures for discussion around. #sorry #sidetracked), are a very useful and interesting set of links. They include

  • PDFs of the 3 volume German edition of the Griechsicher Lehrgang
  • Some articles about Zuntz
  • A few articles by Zuntz about other textbooks.

Reading these is very insightful. In particular, the obituary by Hengel linked at the top of the page is fascinating, and Zuntz’s comments in his article on Chase and Phillips. The picture that emerges in relation to his own text is dominated (in my perception) by (a) his commitment to original text, not made-up Greek, and (b) the very long gestation period it had. The text really did have a long period of development, the culmination of both his own considerable classics experience, and explicitly teaching. It is somewhat ironic that it had to come out in Germany first, given his life as a scholar in England.

I have mixed feelings about the insistence upon ‘original’ Greek. On the one hand, this is commendable because Greek students (and in particular Greek students, I would say, compared to other languages I work with) often have a tough time transitioning from ‘textbook’ Greek to real texts. So, exposure to real ‘artefacts’ of the language, early, with minimal adaption, is fantastic.

On the other, there is nothing wrong with Greek written by those who weren’t, e.g., 5th century BCE Athenians. And there’s no linguistic reason ipso facto that contemporary speakers/writers couldn’t/can’t write ‘genuine’ Greek, if we mean Greek texts free from solecisms and barbarisms. Indeed, if a comprehensible input approach is to be taken, this is absolutely necessary.

Which is one reason why that textkit poster, rmedinap, has really hit upon something in suggesting Zuntz and Italian Athenaze as a paired resource. They don’t seem like a natural pair, but they are the two best resources for Greek students ‘on the market’, even though they are not really on most people’s ‘market’ at all.

Zuntz in English is very difficult to obtain, except through libraries. One can use the German text, but not without (a) German, or (b) help. Similarly, It. Athenaze must be ordered from Italy (at least easier these days), and also requires either (c) Italian, or (d) help. For English language monoglots, it’s difficult to access one, let alone both, of these resources.

A few more comments about Zuntz in particular. Zuntz has some other features that are commendable:

  • Zuntz provides a philologist’s cornucopia of information about how forms derive. This includes the presence of digamma, and how its loss affected word formation. It also includes a lot of other ‘letter dropped out’ changes. This in particular helps students go from Attic to Homeric, because Homeric is so often the uncontracted forms.
  • Zuntz’s exercise section is frustratingly brilliant. Exercises for each lesson include both the skeleton structure of oral Q&A work, as well as oral drills, adaptable for a communicative approach, and old-school parse the heck out of this, write out some paradigms, and re-translate sentences back into Greek.
  • Zuntz also includes an anthology of easy texts for use later in the course/after the lessons.
  • Zuntz doesn’t neglect poetry, and includes poetic texts throughout the lessons.

Less helpful, perhaps:

  • That in the print versions, the vocabulary is in the same volume as the text. Since the text is not graded to inculcate vocabulary, either a lot of page-turning needs to be done, or else some other work around.

So, yes, get Zuntz. Get the German and work around that difficulty if you must. It is well worth the effort.

What are we marking for anyway? (1)

I’ve thought a lot about marking, and I have never come up with any good answers.

What exactly are we marking for?

The topic that got me thinking on this recently was a question about learning relatively rare irregular noun paradigms in Greek. Language instructors, I feel, have a tendency to include the irregular patterns as something students are tested on, sometimes to a level of perverse sadism. And so, is it fair that, say, ναῦς should be weighted the same as λόγος? What would the effect and the rationale of altering the weighting be? For example, if we scored a full paradigm of ναῦς on a test as 1 compared to λόγος as, say, 8. Suddenly we de-emphasise the importance of less common forms, reflecting that they are less important for reading. The argument might go the other way, that we should reward students who put in the extra work and learn something less common. Then λόγος would be 1, and ναῦς would be worth bonus points for difficulty.

Actually, neither of these is good solutions, really. Though, if I had to choose between 1-1, 1-8, and 8-1, I would probably argue that weighting less common forms with less marks makes the most sense.

The thing that really matters, is the question of what we are testing for. If we are testing to see whether students have learnt material, then our marking is diagnostic. In which case, all marking ought to do is go back into our teaching – students haven’t mastered the forms of ναῦς? I need to produce more content and expose them to more comprehensible repetitions of ναῦς in its forms until they do. Oh, wait, they’re not on top of λόγος? We need to backtrack and not move forward.

In this sense, the semesterisation of education is deleterious. When testing and marking that ought to be diagnostic becomes instead evaluative, all this tells me is that some students mastered the material to a greater degree than others. And yet, apart from fail grades, this has zero impact on pedagogy and pacing. If a Greek course were divided up into discrete ‘bite-sized’ pieces of atomised information, and students couldn’t proceed without mastering the material to that point, this would be fine. But a semester’s worth of material is not a suitable point to say, “no, not enough, do-over.” That is actually stupid. Imagine a language tutor getting to the end of 100 hours, and then deciding that you hadn’t learnt enough, so they were going to repeat the whole 100-hour block.

So long as you have a cohort of students, language instruction ought to be open-ended to the extent that a class does not move on unless students genuinely comprehend content. 90% at 90%. Testing is not the only way to diagnose that, but it’s one that is difficult to eradicate in formal contexts. What is imperative, however, is that we actually test both what they ought to learn, and what they have been taught. Which is why paradigm testing is actually terrible.

In a later post I’ll talk about my issues with essay-marking as an evaluative practice.

Greek Intensive round-up

In lieu of the many other posts I have floating around my brain and yet to make it to the digital page, I offer some reflections on the week just gone.

This week, and now for the 6th time in a row, as a tutor at least, I was teaching at the Macquarie Ancient Languages School, which operates twice a year, summer and winter. Each session I’ve taught what was formerly labelled Koine, now Biblical/Patristic Greek course. Actually, I’ve never covered a Biblical text per se, on the rationale that there’s no shortage of resources to help students read New Testament texts, but there is a considerable dearth of help to read anything non-canonical (or even LXX), especially if you come from a Biblical background and not a Classical one (I have always found classical students to do rather well, which I generally attribute to the combination of a broader experience of Greek, and for those who have gone through several years of classical study, much more exposure to the language).

Over those six sessions, I have instead taught the Martyrdom of Polycarp, The Passion of Perpetua (in its Greek recension), Selections from Josephus, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Acts of Thecla, Nazianzen’s Oration 29, Nyssen’s De Deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti, and in this week just complete, Hermas’ Visions. I had originally planned to do Visions 1-4, as a discrete unit, but we moved at a rapid pace, and I had full days instead of half-days, so we also covered Vision 5, which itself is the start of the second ‘half’ of the book, and in our last day read some of Polycarp’s Martyrdom as well.

It’s always good, and refreshing, to spend some time just teaching Greek. There are not enough opportunities like this around, for me in teaching, but also for those keen to spend time in the language and in texts. I had a small but enjoyable group of four this time around.

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Plenty of other things to get on with for the present.

So, you want to know about the Italian Athenaze?

The Italian version of Athenaze, which first appeared all the way back in 1999, has long remained something of a mythical creature for a lot of English language students. Athenaze, of course, is the venerable Oxford produced Classical Greek course first produced in 1995 and now into its third edition. It isn’t without its own problems, but apart from JACT, it remains one of the best attempts to produce a reading lead, inductive-ish course with a hybrid, explicit post-factum grammar explanation.

A lot of people, rightfully, have found great benefit in using Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata course for Latin. It remains the best executed example of a Direct Method text I’ve ever laid eyes on – the more time you spend with it, the more you see how carefully and consciously it has been composed on DM principles.

So, a lot of people started thinking, “Hey, why isn’t there an Ørberg for Greek?” To no avail. Until 1999, when L. Miraglia and T.F. Bórri of the Accademia Vivarium Novum released Athenaze: Introduzione al greco antico, in 2 volumes. This was an adaptation and Ørbergisation of the 1st edition of the Athenaze course. It is, sadly, not a complete Ørberg-style Direct Method Greek course. You can view a description of the volumes and view a generous, extended preview of the texts, on the Vivarium Novum site here: volume 1 and 2.

Miraglia and Bórri took the Athenaze text, formatted it in an Ørberg style, added side-column illustrations and Greek notes. They also (a) doubled (so far as I can estimate) the amount of Greek text per chapter, and (b) added Italian glosses for some vocab at the foot of pages; (c) rewrote the grammar sections in Italian for their own purposes, and (d) reproduced the exercises in Italian <> Greek rather than English <> Greek.

Out of those 4 things, (b) is a departure from Ørberg. (a) is both amazing and incredibly helpful, because more graded reading is what most learners need. (c) is understandable but also unfortunate, because grammar is not taught in Greek as it is in Ørberg, and (d) is neither here nor there. This is why I said before that it is not a “complete” Greek Ørberg. But it is more than anyone else has done, or will do for some time I suspect. It is also a major feat itself, and of great help to us, if we take the opportunity to work with what we have.

So, besides the main two volume (506 and 588 pages respectively), there are also two workbooks of exercises (Μελετήματα I and II), and two additional workbooks for volume 1, Quaderno d’esercizi I and II, and lastly a similar-style version of The Tablet of Cebes. All those supplementary works, I have not seen personally and can’t comment on.

It used to be much harder to order these outside Italy, but if you can navigate Italian Amazon, you can get them.

Who could/should get the Italian Athenaze, who would it benefit?

  1. If you read Italian and want to study Greek, get this.
  2. If you have done a Greek course before, and want a sustained reading-based approach, you could make use of this without great difficulty. That is, if you have the grammatical background knowledge, the absence of Italian won’t slow you down that much.
  3. I wouldn’t recommend trying to use this if you’re both new to Greek and don’t know Italian, unless you had a guide/teacher. Athenaze (the English version) was never designed to be per se illustrata, and the Italian version hasn’t made up that deficit. Go and read this post here (and the comments!) for an analysis of how problematic the vocabulary introduction is in Athenaze. There’s no getting around the fact that no good Greek course exists. Athenaze is the best of the worst, and Italian Athenaze is a huge, huge improvement on English Athenaze, but the scaffolding is Italian!

I think Italian Athenaze could be adapted back to an English market, but it never will be commercially, because the whole licence provision that allowed the unique Italian version to come into existence was/is (as I understand it) a restriction of it to the Italian market.

That said, with a competent teacher, you could re-scaffold the text for a non-Italian speaker. Either by using English where the text uses Italian, or by putting together Greek language resources for grammar and exercises (probably they would require some English too, to be honest, because Greek grammar terms are a long way from being as evident as Latin ones).

Lastly, before I finish up here, let me say that I have some interest in teaching/facilitating/leading a small group of interested people in working all the way through Italian Athenaze, and this would involve developing a dual English/Greek ‘scaffold’ to support the text. If that would interest you, get in touch with me by email thepatrologist@gmail.com



I have more to say about Italian Athenaze, but I will save that for another day.

Why learn Greek and Hebrew? A friendly rejoinder

Recently an acquaintance of mine blogged this post, What is the Benefit of Greek & Hebrew?, in which he says, “[r]eading in Greek and Hebrew slows me down and helps me rummage around in the text and reflect.” And goes on to reflect on this.

I think this is half-right and half-wrong, and both halves are interesting to think about. Firstly, half-right: learning to read in a foreign language does slow you down, and if your interest is the Scriptures, this is a great thing! I too have had that experience and benefit of being forced to slow down, to explore, to make connections, to dwell on the text. These are all good and positive outcomes of the process of learning a foreign language.

But I don’t think that’s the why, the ἵνα τί so to speak. Because it contains a contradictory seed of its own destruction within itself. Presumably we want to “get better” at reading in Greek and Hebrew. And as we get better, as we read more fluently, we can read faster. And so imagine you achieve the dream, you read Greek or Hebrew fluently, or near-natively, or even just “as fast as English”. Suddenly you have progressed to a point where that benefit is gone, and if that benefit of forced-slowed reading was your reason, you’ve outwitted yourself!

To put the same point in a couple of other guises – is it not possible to learn to read slow and rummage around the text in English? What about the Greek Fathers, for whom the New Testament was not a foreign language at all – what benefit to them of reading in the original?

This is the half-wrong, in that I think it confuses a benefit with a purpose (to be fair, Brian doesn’t call it a purpose, he just calls it the main benefit). I think the purpose is to rummage around in the text without a veil. Anyone who has learnt any second language knows the inherent difficulties of translation, difficulties that will never go away. To access the original languages is to deal with the texts as they are, at the source. this is the why. Slow reading is a skill in itself, you can learn it, practice it, in English if you like. In another foreign language, if it please you. But it’s not the why, it’s a by-product of the long and slow road towards language proficiency.