Inclusivity in Greek and Latin language and literature: teaching and course design

Peter Olive, Department of Classics

College Postgraduate Teaching Prize 2020

A focus on inclusivity for one group of students (such as those with dyslexia) invariably benefits the whole class. A strategy for minimising cognitive load I took in 2018-19, for instance, led me to seek teaching methods that involve multiple means of expression. A friend who taught Greek to a deaf young man taught me a sign language she devised for Greek tenses; I have found this an indispensable way of teaching the difference between tense and aspect to all students of Greek ever since! I encourage graphical representations of verb systems, and increasingly promote technology — partly in response to student appetite for digital learning methods, such as a Greek verb-testing app that enables its user to keep score; such methods create welcome variety, and can help with motivation, too.  

The increasing visibility of students who suffer anxiety has also changed my classroom practice for the better. It has become clear that traditional approaches to participation (such as working around a classroom, with each student offering answers to language exercises) can be triggering for students. Maximising the use of all available learning environments has proved integral to addressing this concern. Firstly, I have encouraged students in the classroom to work in pairs; again, this has had benefits to all students: work in pairs has been shown to be valuable for students taking on a high cognitive load, who, between them, can solve a task they could not manage alone, which of course they find gratifying. Secondly, I have found that the use of exercises in virtual learning environments such as Moodle or Microsoft Teams has potential for mitigating anxiety, since the on-the-spot responses that seem to worsen anxiety are no longer essential. Thirdly, the opportunity to see students one-on-one in my office hour has been expedient in helping me address circumstantial difficulties.  

My course design also ensures that cultural concerns such as sexuality and gender can be addressed. As so often, the ancient world provides the opportunity for comparison with our own, with the intervening two millennia enabling a sense of distance that can be beneficial for broaching sensitive topics. Gender today is understood in ever-broader terms, and every year the topic of grammatic gender in Greek and Latin language teaching leads to a more varied discussion, which I nowadays build purposefully into my scheduling. Similarly, when I teach Greek and Latin literature, there are extensive opportunities to consider the societal expectations intrinsic to the very verbs that Greek, Latin, and English use to suggest the use and abuse of power. This attention on individual words and phrases has helped focus students’ minds on individual words, helping them fulfil the requirements of commentaries on Greek and Latin authors for their coursework.  

Inclusivity also informs my delivery of existing course design — in particular, a terrific set of seminars pioneered by Liz Gloyn and Sam Agbamu, which have created some much-needed opportunities for teaching and learning theoretical approaches to Classics, that at the same time call into question the validity of the discipline as we know it. These seminars have helped all students reflect upon the unexamined assumptions that lurk behind the concept and naming of the ‘western canon’ – a valorising phrase, whose very use can create a sense of exclusion, in which the action of ‘othering’ has already taken place.  

In peer observations, I have been praised for my attention to metacognition: devising methods to ensure not only that students have learned something, but that they demonstrate to themselves that they have learned it. Workshops for sharing and exchange between Royal Holloway language teachers have also been helpful; I owe many of my best ideas to such fora. The sign language for Greek verbs, the work in pairs, and the use of graphics have been all the suggestions of outstanding language teachers, mainly from within Royal Holloway.


Student feedback  

It is not always easy to coax students to confide negative feedback, but the use of three different learning environments (classes, one-to-one, and online) has enabled me to receive and respond to feedback both positive and negative. One student told me how much he enjoyed my passing etymological digressions; others liked the mischief of my trick questions, the rivalry encouraged in “spot the deliberate mistake I’m going to make today”, and my numerous wacky mnemonics.  

As for negative feedback, I have found that the question “how do you think the others are finding the course?” can enable students to voice dissatisfaction more easily. Similarly, I have found that students will sometimes confide concerns about other courses, and I have productively conveyed occasional and specific frustration to the relevant tutors. Often this has often turned out to have solutions as simple as “check your junk mail folder”! I therefore encourage students to confide in tutors they trust to handle concerns with sensitivity: ultimately, all tutors want their students to enjoy their studies and achieve success in them.





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