I'm a big fan of the reflexive journal, and find it particularly useful for facilitating students to digest the information from classes and from the assigned readings. On a more practical note, having students write down (or type up) what are normally assigned as thinking tasks, and then bring that work to class means they have something they can refer to during discussion - they aren't just relying on their memory of the readings. I also find it quite successful in making sure they actually do the reading!
I've just typed up my brief list of reflexive journal tasks for a third year class called Sparta in the Greek World, so I thought it was a good time to share it. Please feel free to use this as a template to design your own reflexive journal tasks. There is only one thing I will say: these work better if the students understand that they are private and where they are checked but not assessed.
Please let me know what you think, and if you use reflexive journals how does your system compare to mine?
Yesterday, I ran a workshop for third-year dissertation writers at King’s, and I wanted to get some thoughts about the experience while they’re still fresh in my mind.
When I was asked to run a workshop on abstract writing, my entire body spasmed with no-ness. I am a notoriously terrible abstract writer. All of my thesis abstracts have been bad. Plus, a large number of my conference abstracts. But actually, I reasoned with myself, this might be an opportunity for me to learn something as well. Maybe I could end up with a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ style class.
So I thought. I thought about converting a proposal-writing game I had developed a long, long time ago at Monash – but without having long enough lead time it wouldn’t work. That is to say, each of the students at Monash already knew what they wanted to write about, and had written proposals – the exercise here was to make their proposals sharp. So I went back to the drawing board.
Alongside this, I’d been doing quite a bit of reading and experimenting with creative non-fiction. This is part of my ongoing goal to make my writing better: more simple, more clear, more precise, more fun, more entertaining – in short, more enjoyable for me to write and more enjoyable for someone else to read. But it wasn’t until we were at a Thanksgiving dinner playing an online Pictionary-style game that this all kind of came together.
Pictionary is a game where you have to draw something, and another person has to guess what concept or thing your drawing represents. Drawing is quite a bit like writing: it relies on a reader having all the information to put your idea together and come out with the right answer (that being, the answer which you – the creator – intended). I’m sure we have all come across scholarship that we have to pass over things two or three times before we can feel like the information makes sense, and times when the information is so obscured in the complexity of the prose that it just makes no sense.
Creative non-fiction is about clear engaging prose, that’s entertaining and informative. A big part of the concept is about not distorting or adding to the facts. So, this all came together in my mind and finally formed itself into the workshop I would eventually run.
To start with I got the participants into pairs and gave each person a quote to illustrate. Each pair got the same two quotes:
It would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life. (Hdt. 8.144.2) [i.e. Greeks have common blood, common language, common gods]
I had assumed (perhaps because of my own fascination with how it’s used in scholarship) that the Herodotos quote would be much easier to draw, but I was wrong.
No one got the exact right quote, but one participant came really close to guessing the Cicero quote (‘something like, if you have loads of books and a tree then you can be happy?’). The point, really, was whether or not the drawings made sense once the guesser had the information – that is, once they knew what they were meant to be looking at did it make sense. And yes, I’m pleased to report, it did.
All in all, this activity was meant to be more of an icebreaker and a fun introduction to the need for clarity and brevity and giving your reader the right hints than anything. We moved on to some more detailed abstract writing activities, some chat about creative non-fiction (which I’ll be writing more on) and some prompted free writing – I will write the session up in a modified form and post it in the Teaching section soon!
I think this activity could probably be modified for all different kinds of things, and if you do happen to use a Pictionary-inspired activity in your classrooms I’d love to hear about it!
I’ve been reflecting on teaching recently, a combination of the start of term (and a fresh batch of undergrad rookies), preparing to submit an application for Fellowship to the HEA, and writing cover letters.
While the teaching of my BA wasn’t bad, it was largely traditional. There were some wonderful outlying seminars (predominately taught by Jane Griffiths, who was the entire Classical Studies programme when I began by degree), but it mostly followed the ‘canonical method’: lectures, seminars mainly consisting of group discussion with ‘reporting back’ at the end. The first seminars I taught, when still an undergraduate myself, followed the same pattern. I didn’t think much about teaching method or how and why I should or could change this ‘tried and true’ formula.
Fast-forward many years, the award of three degrees, and many more hours of leading seminars. Last week my two-weeks-into-uni ‘Intro to Ancient History’ classes wrote newspaper articles about Greek tyrants using select bits of Herodotos as sources. I was very open with the style, format, and perspective they took, and specified they should be around 400 words in length. These were done in groups, ranging from 2 to 5 people in size, and students were able to self-select into the group they wanted to (we focused on Periander, Polycrates, and Peisistratos). I suggested a few things, but largely left the groups to their own devises, for around 30 minutes. These obviously weren’t meant as assessable pieces of writing. The range of responses I got back was astounding! Daily Mail-style sensationalist exposé, Onion-esque political satire, serious political journalism, a BuzzFeed list. These young students were not only thinking critically about Herodotos as a source, but deconstructing the way the he put his narrative together, and – critically, I think – writing about a primary source.
I am a huge advocate of ‘doing’ Ancient History. What I think my job as a seminar leader is all about is enabling students – even first-years with no Classics or Ancient History A-levels – to get in a actually ‘do’ ancient history as soon as possible, at the appropriate level. One of the things I felt was lacking in my own undergraduate degree is the idea of writing as practice. Just writing essays or exam scripts is not enough. Students should be used to writing in all kinds of different styles about both ancient sources and scholarship. Most, if not all, of this ‘extra’ writing shouldn’t be formally assessed. That’s not the point. The point is to practice thinking though specific aspects of a source and writing it out into your own words. Writing in your own words leads to greater understanding of sources (see, for instance, this list of strategies for critical reading. Note, number five: ‘Outlining and summarizing: Identifying the main ideas and restating them in your own words’).
By giving students access to a wide-range of ancient and modern sources; by showing them a way of reading those sources, of getting the information they need out of those sources, of getting them to figure out the strengths and limitations of those sources and how to fit those sources together – all of this leads to a constant ‘doing’ of ancient history. From writing newspaper articles to research dissertations, from reading small passages of Homer to reading the Wall Street Journal (because, after all, most of our students will not go on to further study, but the skills they learn in our classrooms are still important for the ways they approach their lives and the various kinds of texts that pepper life).
When, at the end of the newspaper writing activity, I prompted the classes to reflect on what they had gained from it, the range of thoughtful responses that came back at me was astounding. Students said that in that half an hour they rethought about Herodotos as an historian, they felt they were more able to pick out the reality and the ‘fantasy’ in his writing, and felt more aware of the limitations of the genre of ancient historiography.
The week before I’d asked them to go home and watch Tobias Menzies reading part of the Iliad, from the British Museum/Almeida reading during the summer. I wanted them to think about the orality and aurality of Homer, and think about the context of genre. I wonder how much this helped them recast Herodotos from ‘reliable historian’ into ‘text we need to read critically’. A few students did mention that they were more conscious of thinking though genre and author-intention after watching the Iliad reading, and I’m sure this must have had some influence on them during the Herodotos article activity.
I’m looking forward to this week, and looking at a whole different kind of text with them – some Near Eastern texts, including the wonderful Cyrus Cylinder!
And, of course, continual reflection on my own teaching. As, I suspect, academics are wont to do.
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