My Teaching Philosophy

DOCENDO DISCIMUS!

In my experience, one of the most challenging aspects of teaching classics is confronting the students’ expectation of mastering both the languages and the wide gamut of knowledge related to our disciplines in a short time. For this reason, my teaching strategies are aimed at constantly supporting the students and motivating them throughout the whole learning process. For attaining this goal, I particularly value two pedagogical tenets. The first one has to do with accessibility and dialogue. I find that sustained interaction allows me to determine students’ existing knowledge and then to understand what assumptions they start with. At the same time, this dialogue helps them overcome the emotional barrier that keeps them from openly expressing their difficulties and participating in the class in a more consistent way. For example, when teaching Apuleius, I remember opening one of our sessions by asking them the etymology of securus. This led us to think about cura and curiositas and, from there, to treat the role of curiosity in the novel as a whole. To keep this kind of interaction alive outside of class, I use not only office hours, but also online discussions. In my view, this is a powerful tool which multiplies class hours while producing, over time, an archive of questions, answers, grammatical and cultural notes that are useful materials for the students to refer to and use for practice and review. These materials can be used for periodic “debriefings” of the material analyzed by providing the students with a summary of key notions that build up over the course of the term. This solid scaffolding of requirements can help them channel their potential to the very best. My second pedagogical tenet has to do with transparency of my expectations. Since there are many types of learners, I deem it not only fair, but of paramount importance to clarify from the very beginning what path will be followed in the course, and what goals I expect students to meet. This means not only that I must provide a clear syllabus, or class schedule, but also a thorough description of assignments, exams and term papers. For my language classes, I set three fundamental goals: a solid grounding in grammar and syntax, knowledge of the cultural and historical background, and a basic grasp of the relevant scholarship. To achieve these goals, I train my students to target the text scientifically. I teach them to use basic tools such as a Thesaurus, concordances and lexica, as well as certain on-line resources. For courses in translation, I still require my class to read the text with great care and to use it as the basis for further questions and investigation. Students, I find, enjoy getting familiar with this technical lore, as they feel that they are acquiring specific competencies. Once the text is fully understood in terms of its genre, themes, devices, and so on, I take my students into the historical and cultural background, posing questions concerning the history, archaeology, and social working of the text. Finally, once students have developed their own set of ideas, I introduce them to some selected contributions of modern scholarship. It is gratifying to see them penetrating the richness of ancient literature with competence, and making assessments that are no longer impressionistic but based on rigorous training.The method described above has proven effective with students at all levels of preparation. I still remember the nice work we did on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. After having understood the grammatical functioning of the text by making the best use of Stevens’ Bryn Mawr commentary, I taught them how to consult the TLL, by assigning them some basic word searches. While discussing the results in class, some students were able to notice similarities between Lucretius and Manilius. This provided us with a way into a larger discussion of Hellenistic and didactic poetry, and the nature of the relation between Greek and Roman worlds in the time of Cicero. My students were able to get a sense of the cultural traffic that travelled between the two worlds, and they began to think about problems of traditions and cultural translation. As a term paper, each student selected, under my supervision, a work of art (from classical artefacts to contemporary production) and discussed how classical ideas of cosmos, death, fear of death and beliefs about the soul’s immortality were incorporated into those works of art. The observations they provided were remarkably creative and, most of all, they showed that they had completely assimilated the text in question, and they were able to use it to express original critical thought.In the Poetics, Aristotle writes that learning is the most pleasant of all experiences and that much of our learning comes from imitating others, or from imitations that express the insights of others. This intrinsically humane aspect of teaching I value dearly. When I teach, I remember my masters, their reliability, compassion and humility. I try to honour their legacy by passing on the knowledge of this discipline of ours that bridges past and present. I consider teaching not less important or rewarding than research. For, in my opinion, it is part of the essence itself of the classics. I find it extremely important to constantly encourage my students, to demonstrate to them that I understand their struggles, and to show them my genuine interest in their achievements and opinions. This allows me to reach out to them and, in the end, to bring them to an appreciation for the classical heritage.