The Future of Ancient Greek

“The print textbook will be gone in ten years. What’s the Greek classroom going to look like?”  This is the question that Tom Sienkewicz put to Greek scholar and pedagogical innovator Wilfred Major of Louisiana State University. Major’s response, first given at a 2012 CAMWS panel he co-organized, has just been published in the latest issue of Classical Outlook (“Teaching and Testing Classical Greek in a Digital World,” CO 89.2 [2012], pp. 36-39). It’s an important article that should be read by anyone interested in the teaching of ancient Greek, and since it’s (ironically) not on line, I take the liberty of quoting in extenso.

“A future where digital platforms are the standard mechanism for teaching ancient Greek is nearly in sight,” he says. Crucial advances are being made. Advanced Greek readers are already very well-served on line by Perseus and the TLG. Intermediate Greek is also increasingly well-served by digital resources.

Computerized analysis of the lemmas and morphology of Greek texts has made it possible to prioritize the assistance new readers need at their fingertips, as they make the transition from beginners to intermediate and then to independent readers. Support for this transition includes providing vocabulary (entries appropriate to their level) and morphological data (in the form of parsing information).

Major points to developing projects like the DCC, Geoffrey Steadman’s downloadable Greek readers, and the ongoing series by Evan Hayes and Steve Nimis, which

make texts, facing vocabulary, and other support information accessible at a glance to intermediate students, saving the time and drudgery of flipping through pages and allowing both students and teachers to stay focused on the comprehension and benefits of what they are reading.

The stabilization of the core intermediate vocabulary in the DCC, he argues, means that advanced students can also get involved by generating running vocabulary in a clear, straightforward manner, and have the satisfaction of producing lasting pedagogical materials for other students.

The bottleneck, he argues, is in Introductory Greek, where high-quality but in some ways antiquated print resources have not yet been fully matched by digital counterparts.

with no disrespect to the authors and publishers of these volumes, in terms of presentation, information, layout and design, standard word processing programs can produce virtually everything found in these books. With the addition of images and slide programs (such as Power Point), a teacher can do more, and better, than anything in these books.

Such materials, he insists, must take full advantage of computerized analysis of Greek texts to help make students effective intermediate and advanced readers of digital Greek. This means taking into account vocabulary frequency and density of texts, and also statistical data about the frequency of morphology and syntactical structures (here Major sites Anne Mahoney, “The Forms You Really Need to Know,” Classical Outlook 81 (2004): 101–05, also ironically not on line!).

Beginning Greek must be reconceived as it moves to digital platforms. Merely transferring current print presentations to digital display monitors will strangle the learning of Greek, a shameful prospect when such treasures now loom just beyond the beginning stages.

Another interesting point in the article has to do with the typing of Greek. Students must be helped to become proficient in typing Greek as soon as possible, and must not be required to buy a new piece of software to do so. He urges keyboard designers to work with standard Modern Greek keyboards as a basis.

Both Windows and Apple devices now have polytonic Greek keyboards and inputs built in at the system level, which need only be activated. Both incorporate the Modern Greek keyboard. While the Apple system has more flexible input options, it includes all the same input options as the default Windows system. As things stand, therefore,we should promote this system for its widespread accessibility and compatibility. Expecting or requiring students to purchase and install additional software will inevitably lead to problems as they move from computers to phones, tablets, and so on.

Most important, Major stresses that digital platforms are ideal for encouraging the steady practice, repetition, and feedback with the core material of Greek in a way that best address the frustration and attrition that plague beginning classes.

The vocabulary and parsing tools already established for advanced and intermediate digital materials also provide a goal and clear purpose of method for introducing vocabulary and morphological identity from the earliest stages of beginning Greek. Doing so means we can dispense with relying on the dozens of pages of charts and paradigms that we, explicitly or implicitly, expect students to memorize as a precondition of just beginning to read the simplest continuous Greek passage.

If you are not familiar with Major’s work on this kind of pedagogy, I urge you to check out his articles “On Not Teaching Greek,” Classical Journal103 (2007): 93–98, and “Teaching Greek Verbs: A Manifesto,” Teaching Classical Languages 3 (2011): 23–42 (the latter co-authored with B. Stayskal), and the superb resources available on his frequently updated Greek resources page My own thoughts about using the DCC and its core vocabulary in a sight reading-based approach can be found in an earlier post.

The APA and Digital Populism

It’s election season at the American Philological Association. I opened up my ballot for next year’s officers and discovered that digital classics and digital outreach have vaulted to the forefront of debate in ways that would have been hard to predict only a few years ago. The APA is known as one of the more conservative of academic professional associations when it comes to matters digital, and its own web presence has until recently been very minimal. But now not only are they on Facebook and Twitter, but the new Digital Classics Association has been approved as a Type II Affiliated group, and there are plans for a new multi-million dollar portal of classics digital outreach. This is new and big and exciting, so I wanted to offer a little outsider’s guide to the candidates’ personal statements which, combined with some recent posts on the APA website, help to predict the near future of things digital at the APA.

A dash of context: Since 1989 the APA has been a major force behind the digitization of the nonpareil bibliographic research tool L’Annee Philologique. This is primarily for advanced scholars. But the APA has been much slower to engage with social media and the popular ferment of classics on the web. Previous efforts at outreach to secondary teachers and the popular audience (long a strong point of the AIA, for example), have generally been viewed as well-meant but not very successful. The APA has traditionally been a group that focuses on advanced research, and very successfully so. Big new initiatives are now aimed at speaking to the popular audience. A successful capital campaign is well underway to raise $4 million, part of that to be devoted to a new web portal called “The American Center for Classics Research and Teaching.” Ward Briggs’ capital campaign video predicts that the new portal will be “the authoritative site on the web for classical study,” and “will offer the highest quality information about classical civilization to the widest possible audience in the format best suited to each segment of that audience.” It will open the gates of classical learning, so that “a privileged background and an elite education will no longer be requirements . . . in this digital age.”

Briggs seems to see the site as encyclopedic, a kind of more open version of Perseus, with links to a broader variety of approved sites, organized by topic. This would obviously be a massive undertaking. Current President Jeffry Henderson, putting a different spin on the project, connects an APA web presence with public advocacy and improvements in pedagogy. The APA should “build information paths that connect professionals in the field and the lay public to data and information about the state and value of Classics, to 21st century resources for research, and about materials for pedagogical development.” The website, he hopes, will “make full use of social media on all media platforms, so that users can find information, follow developments in the field, enjoy presentations and other learning opportunities, and connect with colleagues.”

This year’s candidates for President and VP for Publications and Research do not exactly endorse all of these extremely ambitious goals. All support some kind of portal or gateway to classics as a way of bringing to bear the scholarly expertise of the APA membership in the digital realm. But how is this actually supposed to work?

Presidential candidate Kathryn Gutzwiller embraces neither Briggs’ expansive Perseus-like vision of an omnibus reference site, nor Henderson’s focus on professional networking and pedagogy. She sees it as more about announcing discoveries and aggregating (free? paid?) research tools: “The APA website should be a place where important discoveries in classics are announced and through which there is easy access to information about publications, to electronic resources, and to research tools. A well-constructed and accessible portal should appeal to classicists and non-classicists alike.”

Gutzwiller’s fellow-candidate for the presidential spot, James Tatum, sees the web site more in terms of teacher development: “It will enable us to support teaching at every level, even more than we do now.” He highlights the need for more dialogue between secondary teachers and college faculty, and thinks the site could help “Increas[e] collaboration between college and university teachers and teachers in secondary schools.” The site will “make it clear that the road between university and secondary education can run in both directions.”

David Blank, a candidate for VP for Publications and Research, helpfully acknowledges the difficulty of these tasks. It will not necessarily be easy to “mak[e] ourselves heard by scholars, students, and the general public amidst the profusion of digital divulgation, diversion, and distraction.” He floats the idea of adding scholarly video content to the APA website, although his specific example–reports from the TLL fellows on their experiences in Munich–would seem to have limited popular appeal.

Blank’s fellow-candidate for Publications and Research VP, Michael Gagarin, wants to make knowledge of the classical world as widely available as possible, but acknowledges that the digital is something of a problem for current modes of production. He identifies “dealing with digitization” as “the biggest long-term challenge for both research and publication.” I’m not sure if he means dealing with the problem of properly evaluating digital work (something the MLA has been grappling with), or if the challenge has to do with the economics of scholarly publishing, or intellectual property, or what. In any case, he is loathe to have the APA take on dissemination roles traditionally assumed by print publishers: “my preference is that the APA should play largely a support role, working with publishers and libraries to promote digital publication and with universities, foundations, individuals, and others to produce digitized resources and make them as widely available as possible.” The distinction between digital “publication” (presumably peer reviewed in some traditional way, and paid for), versus digital “resources” (presumably free but evaluated only after the fact by the APA) is implicit in Gutzwiller’s remarks as well. In both cases the APA should identify “the most reliable and useful” electronic resources and “provide access to these materials for all our members,” presumably through the new portal.

These are all exciting ideas, but implementation would probably take ten or twenty times the money being raised by the capital campaign. Moreover, none of the candidates or current officers mentions a model in another field for the kind of site they have in mind, or mentions any current classics sites that they could build on.

Perhaps a good model would be Rather than trying to be the final authority on all matters physical, it merely attempts to keep tabs on what is happening in physics on the web from day to day. It is jaunty and fresh and delightful to explore. This kind of crucial curatorial work is now being done in classics by lone heroes such as David Meadows and Charles Jones. It is highly useful, very popular, and not unduly resource-intensive. It seems to me that the APA could usefully give such work a more well-appointed home. The current APA Facebook page is mostly press releases. Going out and aggregating classical news and projects from around the world would be a great service to the profession.

As for professional networking and pedagogy, a good professional website model is probably the American Mathematical Association or the American Physical Society. But  I’m not sure we need a new APA-sponsored teacher community. The best thing would be for APA members to become more active on existing listservs and social media platforms for teachers, and of course to get out and visit classrooms and meet teachers in their own areas.The College Board’s AP Latin teacher community is very impressive example of collaboration between college, university, and secondary teachers, backed by some (not-for-profit!) corporate web development heft. And there is now, a kind of Facebook for classical languages and studies. This is still small, but it is populated by college faculty, secondary and primary teachers, and some students as well.

So it’s great to see this kind of energy coming from the APA. Thanks to all the candidates for volunteering to run and help pilot our profession through the tricky waters that lie ahead.

Summer Accomplishments, part 2

Jimmy Martin (’13) passes on this summary of his work over the summer:

He focused on creating the Greek Core list organized by parts of speech and by TLG frequency, and the Latin list as organized by parts of speech.
He read through the Amores helping create the vocabulary lists as he went. He read  through Cicero’s Pro Caelio, creating vocabulary list for his assigned sections. He read through most of Book 5 of the Gallic Wars, adding and subtracting vocabulary according to the updated Core Latin Vocabulary List.

Thanks, Jimmy, for all your important contributions to the project!

–Chris Francese

Summer 2012 accomplishments

We had a productive summer at DCC, thanks largely to the four wonderful Dickinson students who worked for eight weeks on the project. Here’s a roundup from Alice Ettling (’12) about her accomplishments.

Along with the rest of the group she started out the summer editing the various Latin and Greek vocabulary lists. The Core Greek and Latin lists are now sliced and diced various ways: alphabetically, by parts of speech, by tiered frequency, and by semantic groups.  Alice worked particularly on the Latin semantic grouping list and on organizing the Latin and Greek morphology lists.

With the rest of the crew she read Ovid, Amores 1, to prepare for the compilation of its vocabulary lists. She put together PDFs of all the core vocabulary lists, and kept these updated during the last minute editing process.

As the Amores 1 commentary developed, she checked the Allen and Greenough references already in Prof. Turpin’s commentary and added a few more. She read through a small portion of the Pro Caelio to create vocabulary lists for Prof. Reedy’s Latin 111 course in the fall. She put the Amores introduction online, and finally returned to the Greek list. Once that was done, she refined most of the vocabulary lists in Book 6 of Caesar and implemented some edits I made to the Amores commentary.
Alice is also the one who put together the map animations for Caesar, which have gotten so much positive attention. Thanks, Alice, for all your great contributions to the project, and good luck in all your future endeavors!

–Chris Francese