Andy Cain



CLAS/HUMN 4130: Greek and Roman Comedy; 45 students, 3 cr.,
meeting TR 11:00-12:45, spring 2010

Target of improvement:

I had two basic goals: to help the students gain a better appreciation of the material by becoming more aware of the rationale for their learning this material and to help myself become more self-conscious about my pedagogy and thus to approach, with “fresh eyes”, a course that I have taught many times before.

What I did and what difference it made:

1) a series of one-minute response “papers” spread out evenly over the semester. There were eight in all—four followed lectures and four followed discussions of individual ancient comic plays. I used these in the way that Randy suggested back in January, i.e., to help take stock of whether the students and I were on the same page in terms of identifying the central points of a particular discussion or lecture. As the semester progressed, I noticed that more students were able to home in on the key points of each class meeting (the key points, that is, as I saw them). I attribute this to a combination of two factors: the students becoming better acquainted with my teaching “style” over time and me making more of a focused effort to emphasize (and, in some cases, over-emphasize) a handful of the most important points I wanted them to get out of a given lecture or discussion. This is the first time I’ve ever incorporated anything like this into a course. Not only did it consume minimal time (1-2 minutes of class time, plus about ten minutes after class reading through the responses), but it also gave me some interesting insight into where the students believe that their own educational priorities lie. I will definitely make use of these papers again.

2) beginning of semester questionnaire: in the past I have occasionally handed out 5-minute questionnaires on the first day of class and asked students to specify, among other things, why they were taking the course. I would then use this as a springboard into a discussion about why the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature is such a useful and even fundamental component of a proper humanistic education. In the past, I was always disappointed with the responses; many students, in fact, would say that they were taking my course because it fulfilled a requirement, etc., and this put a damper on the point I was trying to make. After the workshop in January, I came to the realization that this kind of open-ended question is just begging for a negative response. This time, I reformulated this question to say: “Why is learning to appreciate classical literature and the society and values it represents important for us as twenty-first century people?” This time around, I noticed that the quality of the responses was, on the whole, higher than in the past. Our discussion was definitely more fruitful than past discussions, and I was able to transition comfortably into a mini-lecture giving my own answer to that question, all the while incorporating as many of the students’ responses as possible into my formulated answer.

3) “troubleshooting” day: after the January workshop, I decided to build into the syllabus a 75-minute class period, on the first day (Tuesday) of the penultimate week of the semester, that would be devoted entirely to what I call “troubleshooting,” i.e., addressing any concerns about course material, etc. that students might have. This was not intended to be a replacement for the final exam review, which I still held on the last day of class, a week and a half later. This “troubleshooting” day was set aside for students to ask questions about anything and everything that seemed confusing and needed clarification, or about something that we did not cover much in class but that they wanted to hear more about. I hoped that this would simultaneously satisfy the students’ curiosity about the course material and give myself a sense of any weaknesses in course content that I needed to address in the future. The students *loved* this format and took the opportunity to ask probing questions about things such as sexuality in ancient Greece (we had covered this only briefly in an earlier week) and prostitution and adultery in ancient Rome (we spent a fair amount of time on this, but the students were eager to learn even more). Much to my surprise, this turned out to be one of our most exciting class meetings of the semester.

4) creative writing assignment: I got the idea for the following assignment during the January workshop, while I took two full days to brainstorm about how to make my course as “user-friendly” as possible. This assignment was the culmination of a five-week unit on Aristophanes, the most famous surviving comic playwright from ancient Greece. Aristophanes’ comedies are guided by a premise, a “great idea”: the protagonist tries to solve some real social, political, or military problem through some farcically unrealistic means (e.g., in Lysistrata, Greek women try to stop their husbands from fighting in a war by staging a sex strike). After reading and closely analyzing eight of Aristophanes’ plays, the students were asked to create the outline for their own modern-day Aristophanic-style comedy in which their own comic protagonist takes on a pressing problem in our times and resorts to some fantastical means to solve it. After outlining the plot and briefly describing the characters who populate their mini-dramatic universe, the students wrote one longer or two shorter scenes in which they were asked to apply the various comic conventions and tropes that they found in Aristophanes’ plays. The purpose of the assignment, moreover, was to give the class a chance to practically apply, in a creative way, the book knowledge they had acquired about Aristophanic drama. A class period was then devoted to sharing some of the projects. The students seemed to *really* enjoy this assignment, as I gathered not only from the quality of the work itself but also from the liveliness of the discussion.

How the classroom assessment helped me make adjustments mid-course:

I didn’t alter any of the formal features of the course mid-stream, but I did make my own, private adjustments in that, especially as the semester wore on, I found it necessary to actually think carefully, ahead of time, about the direction that I wanted my lectures and discussions to take and, more importantly, about where I wanted the students to be intellectually at the end of each class meeting. This may sound like an obvious point, but since I have taught this course many times already, I had gotten somewhat into the “auto-pilot” mode.

What worked:

See descriptions above

Sharing with colleagues:

On many occasions I have chatted (informally) with my colleagues about our classes: how they are going, what’s not working, what is working, etc. Since I’ve had some success with newer techniques like the response papers, I’ll be happy to throw these into the mix of future chats.

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