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.

9 thoughts on “The Future of Ancient Greek

  1. Great post! I will send it along to our school’s greek instructor. Please continue to keep us up-to-date on incorporating technology into our Latin and Greek classrooms to improve our students’ potential for learning and loving classical languages.

  2. Excellent post! I’m happy to see Dickinson taking the time to promote the future of reading ancient Greek. Check out the future of the classical commentary here in Cyrus’ Paradise, an online commentary to Xenophon’s *Education of Cyrus*:

    • Thanks, Norman. It looks like you have made a lot of improvements to the Cyropaedia site lately! The Lectiones site looks very cool. What did you use to build it? Are the mouse-over footnote annotations all from Smyth? Or are you custom writing some? It’s an attractive interface.

      • I’m not sure what the Lectiones site is built from; it was one of the more recent strokes of genius from David Carlisle, who manages the site. The references are from Goodwin and Smyth, who seems to have had a soft spot for the Cyropaedia, to judge from the many passages he references. At some point I would like to do a grammar and syntax just for the Cyr. so that users could see both Xenophon’s remarkable consistency and variation.

        • Norman, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on user-generated commentary on classical texts. In DCC we have gone completely the other way, to scholar-generated and authored commentary of a more traditional type. The reason is that we feel that’s what most readers of classical texts want. For myself, when I look at your site I find myself scanning through for your and David’s notes, and ignoring the rest. But maybe I’m atypical in that regard. But my view is that the reading culture of classical studies values expert opinion too highly to make crowd-sourced commentary viable in the long run. What is your thinking on this?

  3. We have actually spent a lot of time thinking about the question of participation in the commentary (and continue to do so). I will be happy to go into more detail over a gin and tonic some time. But the short answer is that one of the guiding principles of the CHS is that scholarship be as intergenerational as possible, and so we have tried to create a number of opportunities for users at all stages of proficiency to make helpful contributions. That is in part why we make all comments begin with a question: even if you don’t have the most carefully-researched answer, you might still spark an interesting discussion and you will likely be helping all readers orient their questions to a more contemporary context. Fortunately, one of the advantages of CommentPress is that you can search the comments by commenter, so if there’s one scholar whose take you really want on a certain passage, you can find it pretty quickly. You can also search the entire commentary for key terms, like “Herodotus” or “Homer” and have an instant set of relevant passages for a research paper on, e.g., “The *Cyropaedia* and Herodotus.”
    Now it is certainly the case that user comments (event the most expert ones) may come to clog the system, and we are currently try to think of ways to prevent this from happening. But as a final measure of quality control, we can always just delete comments that are terribly misleading, redundant, poorly-edited, or otherwise unhelpful to most users. Overall, though, I’m very pleased with how it has worked out so far. Undergraduate students will be using it for the first time this semester. We hope they will use and comment on the Lectiones sections extensively, so that they tell us what challenges they face and also take some pride in helping future users navigate these waters better.

  4. One addendum I forgot: we have also added a “Recommend this” button to each of the comments/questions, akin to a Facebook “like”, which gives users a chance to highlight the comments they think are particularly good.

  5. “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.”

    This is essential and I have built this into my recent Greek classes. But it made me think about a related issue…

    What are people doing for typing Greek (with diacriticals) on the iPhone/iPad? I can type pretty quickly using the polytonic keyboard on my Mac, but (I’m a bit embarrassed to say) I don’t have a clue of how I’d do it on a tablet.

    • Go to settings > general > keyboard > keyboards > add new keyboard.

      Search for Greek and there you go. When you are prompted to type with the keypad, use the globe key to switch keyboards.

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