On March 5–6 the Department of the Classics was pleased to welcome Jeff Beneker, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as our visiting “distinguished teacher” and facilitator of a series of workshops and colloquia collectively dubbed the Distinguished Teaching Series. Our department had never done anything like this before, but when I came up with the idea in my capacity as Departmental Teaching Fellow, it was met with universal enthusiasm and support. The main lofty goal of the Series was to engage our whole community in the conversations about teaching and learning that often take place among small groups of teaching fellows and faculty, but less often on a broader scale among the entire community. A few months of planning resulted in a series of five events that was by all measures and most accounts a great success.
Each of the five events attracted a different but equally varied audience of (primarily) graduate students, from G1s looking ahead to their first teaching experiences to G4+s with significant experience of their own to share. The Series kicked off with a colloquium on discussion leading––a perennial source of concern among graduate student teaching fellows. Through an open and collaborative discussion, and Jeff’s important perspective from outside Harvard, we all managed to add at least a few more tools to our discussion-leading tool belt.
The most interesting set of events for me personally was the workshop on lesson planning for language teaching workshop and a linked class observation the following day. In the course of a wide-ranging conversation about some of the most difficult-to-teach concepts of dead languages, the group collectively designed a lesson plan for the next morning’s session of a second-semester Latin course. We settled on experimenting with teaching the day’s material through an intuitive approach that few of us had tried before. Jeff graciously agreed to test drive the lesson plan, while all the participants in the workshop were invited to observe him in action. In the reflective discussion afterward, we agreed that the experiment had been a productive one and we all came away with some pedagogical ideas big and small from watching Jeff teach. This was an especially neat opportunity for the G1s and G2s to participate in the process of creating, executing, and evaluating a lesson plan, and to actually see a Harvard Latin classroom in action before they find themselves in front of one in the near future.
We also gathered for a colloquium on course development, focusing on the “standard” lecture courses we might be asked to teach as newly hired faculty, like Classical Mythology or Greek/Roman Civilization. Jeff’s experience with several such courses that have been extremely popular at Wisconsin was a great resource. Questions ranged from how to choose which translations of ancient literature to assign, how much to engage with modern pop culture or moral issues, to how to integrate discussion sections in the overall design of a course.
The Series finished with a bang through a capstone panel discussion on teaching Classics in today’s challenging economy, moderated by Jeff, who introduced the topic with some sobering statistics about changing Humanities enrollments and alarming proposals from some politicians seeking to make degrees in Humanities more expensive than those in “STEM” fields. A great turnout from faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate concentrators made for a lively discussion of the reasons for and benefits of studying Classics, and how we as a field can do a better job of communicating them to students, their parents, deans, and the wider public. It was just the sort of big, energizing, conversation the Distinguished Teaching Series was designed to provoke, and one that will continue within our community in the months to come.