Old vs. New Pedagogy:


Thoughts from a Parodic Agn

Jan Parker

What are the Humanities Good For?

At a recent conference on Teaching and Learning in the Humanities, a heated debate broke out when a generic model was powerpointed to the audience. The slide showed Higher Education as divisible into 1) Academic Higher Order, 2) Professional (=discipline specific research) and 3) Transferable skills. What was missing, we insisted, was that engagement with Humanities texts and processes of thinking were to be valued in themselves, not as producing skills or as bases for future academic or business employment. (It is not that Classics courses do not have such outcomes: Classics graduates show up well in 'graduate skills' profiles, but that such are results, not objectives, of Classics education:

It is the basic assumption of a liberal approach to education that language, literature, thought, art and history are worthwhile and compelling subjects of study and understanding in and for themselves. All honours degree programmes in the arts and humanities will accordingly have as their principal aim the goal of enabling students to attain such understanding, to appreciate the values of its objects, and so to enjoy the life of the mind. (Classics and Ancient History Subject Benchmarking Statement, QAA 2000)

Humanities courses, we insisted, were based on bringing students progressively into the discipline community, involving them from the start in the processes, dialogic knowledge creation and critical life of the Humanities.

Language Teaching: Processes not Skill Targets?

This debate carried over to a LTSN Subject Centre Classical Languages discussion group, one which proposed various objectives for undergraduate language teaching other than that of enabling various entrant level students to graduate with language skills sufficient to undertake original-text based research. Ways of including language study at the heart of the curriculum were suggested, models combining Classics and Classical Studies students into an inclusive curriculum.

It seemed, as in the opening distinction of a Humanities-specific rather than a generic model of HE, that what was needed were models which focussed on the value of the processes of language leaning, not purely on the outcome in skills terms - say, on the understanding of comparative linguistics, of the alienness of the text, of the quality of discourses at play. It was suggested that what was needed were models where language learning was an underpinning activity in a Humanities process; eg which sought continuously to see the alien in the common.() Such a model might result in Staff and students being brought together in common endeavour: reading a common spine of texts in the original and in prepared, glossed, parallel texts. There might result in programme where a 'good enough' language was the key which unlocked the riches of the classical world.

But it was also suggested that such a curriculum base - crossing as it does the Classics/Classical-Civilisation divide - demanded new models of teaching and learning; and more challengingly, new models of what Classics is and what value - aspirational, intellectual - it has. A new paradigm, in fact - at a time when all kinds of pressure tend to make us cling to past and present ones.

There are many innovative Classics departments which are acknowledged by their institutions to have led the way in creative adaptation and in openness of curricula. Such departments have drawn together as a team whose members continuously evaluate and change what and how they teach. Our community of scholars is actively engaged in agenda-setting for the future and is concerned to explore new approaches and to open up the subject to critical scrutiny. Issues of teaching and learning and the implications for pedagogy of new agendas are increasingly being discussed ... and yet: have not the new curricula and new agendas for Classics also brought new insecurities and orthodoxies?

The history of Classics is bound up with strong, often inspirational, and always shaping, individual models of teaching and scholarship. It is perhaps unusually difficult therefore for us to individuate, to move beyond either reproducing, or reacting against, past models. Truly progressive curriculum development demands a fresh start; some new lecturers and students report that in trying to establish themselves as Classicists they feel caught up in what now seems an old debate. A very old debate, in fact: one which they might, with Aristophanes, caricature thus:

The Old vs The New Pedagogy

Xo. First you, Old Buffer, your hallowed tradition

Expound to this youth: we prize erudition.

Then you, New Bluffer, in sharp suit (no geek)

Update us on Progress and Realpolitik

(apologies to Clouds 935-937b)

Old Pedagogue

In the old days schools really taught them something - proses, unseens, parsing, Greek and Latin standard authors. They already had the training for a university education -background reading, comprehension, ability to précis - as well as the languages and knowledge of the basics.

My first post was as a lecturer - I lectured in term and researched in the vac. Faculty weren't asked to do language or 'skills' teaching or survey courses or spend days 'redesigning the objectives' for exams. Lectures were show pieces: the latest approaches and the latest research. When I came up at 18 the Dean said, We are all scholars together; some are further down the path and their job is to give a hand to those who are starting out. I've never forgotten that. . . and that is what is was like - teaching was talking to younger colleagues. You could drop in a quote from Horace and they would get the point; you could hand out a bit of Plato and they'd both understand AND go away and read the rest. You don't get any of that nowadays - you're lucky if you don't have to construe Vivamus ... atque amemus! And they don't read around anymore: in fact, they don't read anything that isn't a set text and those mainly in translation.

It's not only that they don't have the languages - they don't have the skills or any of the basics. They just don't know anything that would enable them to understand a text - 3/4 of last year's second year didn't know what 'sportula' meant in their set text! Students now are plain ignorant ... and don't seem to see that it's up to them to learn. They don't know how to make lecture notes or use the library - they expect you to give them everything on a handout. They don't know how to write essays - they expect you to tell them precisely what to do and then complain if they don't get a 2:1. They can't take instruction and they can't take criticism.

They just don't care the way we did - they don't do anything now that isn't on the syllabus, and not even that half the time. You can't have a conversation with students nowadays - the whole time is spent correcting their mistakes and explaining how to do the simplest things - it's spoonfeeding, not teaching. They only really start work when they do the Masters.

New[ish] Practitioner

We teach a much wider range of students now and a much wider curriculum: my module on 'Gender-bending in the Second Sophistic' for instance attracts students from all over the Arts School. They don't have, but they don't need to have, accretive content knowledge: we have a 'skills outcomes'-driven Programme where skill levels are appropriately developed and assessed.

It's certainly not true that they don't work independently - there are portfolios and assessed presentations and most of the third year is spent on their original project. The Externals always comment on the projects' quality and diversity - all on 2.66 contact hours each! This year we had a multimedia reconstruction of Trimalchio's feast and no fewer than five on 'The Penetrated Body' (but all from different angles).

The first year courses do tend to be rather basic - we take students from all over the School and anyway Classics A levels are so various these days you can't rely on anything. Students find the first year quite unthreatening: it gives them time to sort themselves out and get used to being away from home.

Classics is genuinely integrated into the School programme now - we have Odysseus twinned with Gulliver for the 'Identity and Travel' module; Medea in 'Introduction to Family Therapy' and Roman archaeology is the core unit in 'Arenas of Power: Massacre and Ideology from Nero to Hitler'.

We don't have the luxury of a genteel chat over port in tutorials: our teaching sessions are highly structured and effective. But there are always some students one gets to know personally, who come to monthly open office sessions, borrow books and ask advice. They have to take the initiative, but I think that's a good thing: they're not at school any longer and have to learn to interact with an institution: a very important transferable skill!

Myths and Models

The 'Old Education' argument above is based on documented remarks, some overheard at meetings and conferences but mostly reported by Classics students - they are either things said to them or representative of attitudes they believe their teachers [young as well as old, female as well as male] to hold. They are evidence of real hurt; hurt from teachers who can't teach the way they used to and from students who feel they are being compared to a Golden Age generation and found wanting.

The 'New Education' is a composite, a creative 'gloss' on expressed but half-formulated student discontents. Both of course are partial, in all senses: interesting only if striking a chord, as a basis for a reflection on our commonalties and differences of practice. Both are parodic - if the cap fits, what does that say about the cap or the wearer?

Issues Old and New

The Old Educator sees pre-existing linguistic fluency as the mark of a Classics student, quotations of Horace or Plato as shibboleths marking those inside the community. He identifies lack of language skills with lack of intellectual training: the schools don't teach them anything these days. He does not see himself as, and indeed is not, qualified to teach language acquisition skills.

New has an open curriculum where any student can move into Classics (or Classical Studies, as the Old Educator would surely pejoratively call it) for the duration of a module: language classes are presumably optional. Neither has a model of 'good enough' language skills or a curriculum designed specifically for post-secondary language learners: to help them to integrate linguistic with intellectual development as is proper to 'higher' education.

The consequence of considering linguistic fluency as the mark of Classics can be unfortunate both to those inside and to those outside the pale: those inside (or, rather, given the diminishing numbers of A level candidates, those who have to be brought inside) have to subordinate to language learning the development of other, arguably more intellectually taxing, discipline-specific skills (such as critical reading, analysis and contextualisation of the richly diverse written and material texts of the classical world). Meanwhile those outside are denied direct engagement with the texts and with much of the discourse of the scholarly community.

There is a place for a re-evaluation of the effectiveness of 'halfway houses' - of courses designed not to enable the student to parse or do unseens or prose composition but to give students a bare working knowledge of the language: sufficient to see the structure; to use translations and glossed texts critically; to use electronic texts, tools and searches, to be helped to undertake literary and source analysis and to engage both with texts and scholarly debate.

Curriculum, Progression, Coherence: 'Becoming a Classicist'

The Old Educator has a deficit model of the curriculum, whereby the start and end point of Classics is fixed but students now have to be brought up to the start during their tertiary education: a start, which is defined by a threshold of linguistic fluency and basic subject knowledge. The end point is where it always was - mastery and the pre-requisites to proceed to research - but he despairs of it being achievable within the undergraduate course.

The New, on the contrary, has a sequence of self-standing and mostly optional modules, where appropriate content knowledge and subject-specific skills are taught within the module. His institution has encouraged flexibility across the Arts courses, so there can be no assumed common basis of knowledge.

The agn, as set up, is actually between an educator who believes in an unchanging and finally single discipline of Classics and one who sees Classical studies as an agglomeration of discrete thematic studies that happen to fall in the temporal and geographic areas of the 'Classical World'. The latter, presuming comprehensiveness across texts and disciplines to be clearly unachievable, may construct a module out of an innovative approach (e.g. from gender studies, post-modern reading, or reception studies) that is interesting for its own sake and applied to any handy type and period of material. Less ambitiously, a module can consist of a canonical or 'new' subject, structured solely on the delivery and testing of subject knowledge. Students are free to study and gain credit and will graduate with a certain number of subjects safely 'banked'. Progression between modules can be demonstrated in Quality Assurance terms - progressive skill acquisition - but is more nebulous in terms of 'becoming a Classicist'.

For the New, progression is defined by cognitive and transferable skills and acquisition of independent study skills rather than as mastery of languages and deployment of interacting/converging subject knowledge and expertise. The students progress from assessed presentations and portfolio to independent research - from regular teaching slots and assessments to an end-loaded independent study.() The modular system and independent learning allow for high level work; it is not clear the extent to which weaker and less motivated students are engaged and whether the course as a whole provides a satisfactory, and satisfying, intellectual coherence.

Progression for the Old Educator is from incompetent to about-to-be-competent: the students are ready to 'start work' at Masters level. A less jaundiced account would say that the progression is in two stages: the first is language-based while providing some progression in skill and knowledge. The second stage introduces the students to tertiary level intellectual approaches and disciplinary procedures which allows them to specialise and work at a higher level. Institutions have to be, and I know are, very conscious of the problems over access to, challenge and possible attainment of stage 1 and over the coherence of the transition from stage 1 to 2.

Teaching Models

The Old educator, as many of us, is teaching in the way that he was taught: but to students who no longer have the language-base and cultural knowledge he had. His model is that of Master-novice - of teachers as Masters of the discipline who show their apprentices their own work processes and so induct them into their shared scholarly craft. The students are presumed to be already junior members of a community, who can be expected to absorb, understand and become proficient in all aspects of the discipline. They are also expected to share the engagement and the discourse of the masters.

This is exactly what some of his students want too - only they feel debarred, unworthy of the Noviciate. He perceives himself instead to be acting as an old fashioned schoolmaster - correcting mistakes, handing out material to be learned. He probably does not realise how devastatingly disabling his current tone and style are; such a teaching style in, say, classes on critical reading and translation can prevent any learning at all taking place.

The New educator delivers a course designed to meet various institutional as well as departmental objectives; consisting of a series of discrete activities that take place at designated times to designated ends, though he is willing to respond to a student who wishes to enter into a more individual teaching relationship. There is a hint that the first year is less than engaging, that those who have come with high expectations and good previous knowledge find this underchallenging. The innovative assessment strategies may allow them to work at their own pace but may equally allow them to 'live off' their secondary school teaching through to their 3rd year dissertation

It is interesting to note that both Old and New share a sense that what today's students want is a programme with clearly defined objectives and [de]limited commitment. As a revealing mirror image, many students interviewed complained of their courses' narrowness and lack of challenge, and at their teachers' lack of engagement. I had a sense that neither students nor teachers knew who was supposed to be providing the passionate interest and engagement. Each was expecting the energy and final rationale for the course to come from the other: a downward spiral of disenchantment. There is certainly a place for access courses which are overtly aspirational, showing the challenge and importance of Classics and allowing students to become in some sense practitioners right from the start, rather than any form of 'ignorance filler'.

Assessment, judgement and standards

The Old sees that standards are slipping and that by any real [sc. linguistic] assessment criteria his students would fail. Presumably assessment is of linguistic competence, demonstrated by unseens and set book translation exercises. Students find both potentially threatening and feel (probably rightly) that they are proceeding much more slowly and working at no higher level than if they were still at school. Set book work was universally disliked: indeed the interviews at this point became heated. The process of working through a set text on their own to pass an examination was described as 'dog work': repetitive and unintellectual, designed to test obedience to the system rather than any critical or linguistic skill.() LTSN languages networks discussing alternative ways of teaching and testing language skills is gathering innovative and exemplary practices() which the Old educator would do well to adopt!

The New uses portfolios and assessed presentations: both usually reported on very positively by former students, although both can lead to selective attendance. There is clearly a problem over breadth and depth of subject coverage in both systems: students on a traditional Classics course who had not studied Classical Civilisation or Ancient History at school reported spending most of their first two years 'acquiring the basics', in the Old educator's terms - putting together a working knowledge of names, dates, genres and discipline skills. They agreed with the Old educator that they did not read the books on their Reading Lists - saying that by the time they had worked out what the essay question, and the terms used meant (one cited not knowing the difference between Hellenic and Hellenistic) they had very little time left. For them, some innovatory assessment tasks within a comprehensive yet challenging survey course might be more productive than the weekly essay format.

The problem in all Classics courses is using even summative assessment formatively. Students of Old educators agree that they can't take criticism: because they perceive assessment tasks as hurdles at which they will fall, rather than as incentives and opportunities for feedback. The challenge is to use assessment as the carrot with which to make all parts of the course and all teaching sessions engaging and stimulating for all.()

The attitudes in the Old and New discourses above contain various models of the nature and purpose of HE Classics which students have found unsatisfying or alienating - perhaps because of misunderstanding or because of unfulfilled, and possibly unfulfillable, expectations. Both are, from the students' point of view, remarkably un-aspirational: the Old Educator blames this on the students and the schools while the students blame this on the teachers - a potentially downward and self-fulfilling spiral of diminishing ideals and aspirations. The Old Educator is harking back Nestor-like to a Golden Age; the New is responding to delivery models and structural constraints from outside the discipline and does not see himself as producing a coherent, demanding, enhancing Classical education. There is, as the advert says, another way: to develop inclusive, distinctive and aspirational models of Classics in the 21st century

- where students, postgraduates and all teaching staff are engaged in the formulation of progressive definitions of Classics and Classics curricula

- where open access but highly challenging first year courses lay the groundwork in all classics disciplines, including the structures and key discourses of the languages, and create a mind map of classical cultures;

- where linguistics, comparative philology and transmission studies give an intellectual framework and impetus to language learning;

- where language learning is interpenetrated by close reading of core texts shared by student cohort and staff;

- where a wide range of texts are read in parallel edition with 'classic' translations, and attention paid to their power to mean and affect across cultures (reading through rather than in translations);

- where survey courses are bound into language learning and rendered intellectually engaging by being structured around literary and cultural discourses: e.g. of power, gender, religion, metaphysics, moral and cultural construction;

- where secondary school work (e.g. discourse analysis now taught in English studies, cultural analysis taught in many curricula; the challenging range and depth of knowledge of classical texts required by A level Classical Civilisation, Philosophy and Ancient and Modern History); the discursive and debating skills and the engagement with and ownership of knowledge now inculcated in schools is built on;

- where students are allowed to make a start as 'general practitioners' from an early stage; while being able to make one or more subject or discipline areas their own;

- where all the disciplines and texts of Classics are taught within an inclusive framework which allows all students to bring whatever language level they can to the common task of appreciating Literae Humaniores.

Is this Utopian or is this already happening in Classics/Classical Studies departments across the UK? I would be very interested to hear.

Jan Parker

The Open University


CUCD Bulletin 30 (2001)
© Council of University Classical Departments 2001

Bulletin ContentsCUCD HomeRoyal Holloway Classics Dept

[owl]