Podcasting, Performance, and Pedagogy

Another great post from the wonderful Deborah Beck

“Imitation is innate to humans from childhood and they differ from other living creatures in this, that they are the most prone to imitation and their earliest learning comes about through imitation.”

τό τε γὰρ μιμεῖσθαι σύμφυτον τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ἐκ παίδων ἐστὶ καὶ τούτῳ διαφέρουσι τῶν ἄλλων ζῴων ὅτι μιμητικώτατόν ἐστι καὶ τὰς μαθήσεις ποιεῖται διὰ μιμήσεως τὰς πρώτας. Aristotle Poetics 1448b5

For the second year, my advanced Greek class at the University of Texas at Austin is creating a podcast series about our experiences reading and teaching ancient Greek. Last fall (2018), I piloted this idea in a course on Homer’s Iliad that satisfies university distributional requirements in writing and independent inquiry. I thought that a podcast would be a great way to work on both of these skills, while also giving all of us an opportunity to reach out to people beyond our own classroom who are interested in Greek literature.

Our series, “Musings from Greek 365,” was a great first effort – we all had a good time; the relatively small number of listeners who found our work enjoyed it (including Sententiae Antiquae); and I learned a lot, both about the Iliad and about how to create an effective podcast. So did the students. But it was clearly a first effort, and I ended the semester with a long list of what I wanted do differently next time. This fall, with the benefit of the experience and mistakes of last year, we’re off to a great start with our series Sophocles Antigone in 2019.

A podcast series uses a consistent structure for the series as a whole, within which every episode has a lot of leeway for individual creativity. Traditional storytelling in ancient Greece works the same way. In classical mythology, the broad parameters of a given myth are stable, but individual poets, artists, and writers can adjust the details as they see fit. So, each podcast episode in our series consists largely of close reading and interpretation of a particular section of the play that a given student has already taught to their colleagues during a regular class period, along with some reflection on their experience of teaching. But podcasting, like mythology, allows for and indeed thrives on individual choices.

I simply talked for all of my introductory episode, and some students have done that. Other students use music to enliven their episodes, while still others chose to discuss their material with fellow students. In Episode 5, Lyle discussed modern versions of ancient tragedy with a friend in the College of Business, with whom he had read the Antigone in high school. The various media, rhetorical styles, and modes of speaking that students use in their podcasts call to mind the range of meters, stylistic levels, and musical styles in Greek tragedy itself. But at the same time, our shared norms and interests as a class tie together the individual episodes, just as particular characters and themes crop up repeatedly in both the Antigone and students’ podcast episodes about the play.

Podcasting, in other words, reminds us that tragedy is a performance genre, something that can easily fall by the wayside as students struggle through the highly abstract and allusive Greek of a choral ode, or the compressed style of back-and-forth dialogue. Podcasting also makes a fruitful pairing with teaching, itself a kind of performance. In both teaching and podcasting, and for that matter in good writing, we have to decide what we really want to say about our material and how best to say that. If we try to say too many things, or we introduce details that we think are interesting but no one else cares about, we lose our audience.

Mosaic_of_the_theatrical_masks_-_Google_Art_Project_(crop_without_borders)

Furthermore, the manner in which we perform our material can play a huge role in how effectively it connects with an audience. In fact, I decided to go to graduate school to become a professor in part because I had been active in high school theater, and I thought (correctly) that I would enjoy the performance aspects of teaching. And the students enjoy it too. Although each of them has commented – either informally or in their podcasts, or both – that teaching is much more time consuming than they had expected, if you listen to our podcast, you will hear in their own words that they relish the experience and they learned a lot.

Different students, unsurprisingly, came away with different take-aways. In Episode 3, Cassie tells us that she enjoyed her experience as a taste of what having her own class might be like. Laura came to see Creon’s attitude in her passage not as humorous, as she had initially thought when she served as “Teacher of the Day,” but as a complex and even sympathetic character. Laura finished Episode 4 with this summing-up: “If I’ve learned anything from this assignment, it’s that the close reading and the thinking I had to do to teach this passage showed me both the complexity of the text, and the complexity of Creon’s character.”

What has the professor learned? Unfortunately, I failed to come up with a good name for our podcast. I am bad at catchy titles, and this podcast is no exception. I chose “Sophocles Antigone in 2019” to point to the enduring relevance of the Antigone for conversations about justice, law, and good government. This becomes a more cogent aspect of the play with every passing day, but it’s still a boring name.

I did, however, improve the assignment guidelines for how to create a podcast, which I am happy to share with anyone who would like to see them. These guidelines break down the process of producing a podcast episode into a series of concrete steps with specific due dates attached to each. As a result, students complete their podcasts in a timely fashion – a consistent problem last year – and our series releases new episodes on a regular basis throughout the fall semester. I wanted to make sure we had a regular release schedule in part to make the podcast more appealing to listeners.

Better publicity was, and is, at the top of my list of needed improvements. Last year, we had no publicity at all, except what was generated by traffic on Podomatic, our free podcasting platform. This did a real disservice to the terrific work of the students, and one of my main priorities for this year was to learn more about publicizing a podcast. So, we have a regular release schedule, we have some public domain artwork, and I am in the process of listing our podcast with iTunes and Google Play. So far, so good. When this course ends, I’ll doubtless have a fresh list of ways to do various things better next time.

Podcasting is a lot of work. It’s also really fun and everyone involved will learn a lot, often in unexpected ways. At the end of Episode 2, Dylan says, “I’m not just trying to translate the lines, but trying to understand their place in the text and how they serve the play as a whole. This came as a bit of a shock, because I think it’s easy for us to think at first that if one can translate the lines, they must already understand them. After this experience, I can certainly say that’s not true.”

If you listen to our series, drop us a note and tell us what you learned.

On Reading (and Writing) for Pleasure

Note: this is a guest post and possible first of many from the amazing Deborah Beck.

“Whenever I hear a man discoursing on virtue, or on some other form of wisdom, who is a true man and worthy of the words he says, I am hugely delighted, admiring at the same time both the speaker and how the things being said are fitting and harmonious with each other.”

ὅταν μὲν γὰρ ἀκούω ἀνδρὸς περὶ ἀρετῆς διαλεγομένου ἢ περί τινος σοφίας ὡς ἀληθῶς ὄντος ἀνδρὸς καὶ ἀξίου τῶν λόγων ὧν λέγει, χαίρω ὑπερφυῶς, θεώμενος ἅμα τόν τε λέγοντα καὶ τὰ λεγόμενα ὅτι πρέποντα ἀλλήλοις καὶ ἁρμόττοντά ἐστι.

 Plato Laches 188c

Several years ago, I taught an advanced undergraduate Greek class on Homer’s Odyssey.  Many of my students were vociferously indignant about the poor quality, as writing, of much of the scholarship that I asked them to read. I was unable to disagree with them, as I often feel much the same way. I suspect most professional Classicists do, whether or not they are willing to admit it. Reading Sophocles, or Livy, or Galen, or Ovid, is usually more fun than reading our colleagues’ views on these authors. The rare exceptions to the generally disappointing quality of academic writing as prose can be easily identified by the lively enthusiasm with which a book reviewer comments on the writing style of a new publication.

The summation of the BMCR review of Mimetic Contagion, by the late Robert Germany (Oxford 2016), is the exception that proves the rule: “This impeccably produced book is unpretentiously erudite; as the saying goes, much more than the sum of its (very many, ancient and modern) parts, impressively documented and arranged: literary-philological analysis and performance criticism, art-historical and anthropological inquiry, sociocultural and intellectual history. Germany regularly deploys critical theory pedagogically judiciously, painlessly introducing uninitiated readers to Benjamin, Foucault, Frazer, Gell, and Irigaray, to name some. Ultimately, Germany’s sophisticated and dense analysis, masterfully delivered in clear, serene prose is a pleasure to read.”

How often do we encounter such praise of academic writing? Not often at all. My students’ annoyance about this was a wake-up call. Why, I wondered, do we put up with so much academic writing that is so lackluster as English prose? And what can be done about it?

Sententiae Antiquae is one answer. It has tens of thousands of enthusiastic readers in large part because it helps us to explore learned matters, and complex and challenging topics, by writing about them with engaging clarity and vigor. A post on Sententiae Antiquae always sounds like a real person speaking. This is a key reason that SA has been so successful in fostering substantive conversations about difficult issues in both Classical literature and current affairs. The writing styles of SA’s contributors put out a welcome mat for anyone interested in the subject under discussion. In fact, SA models for readers that writing style is important, because writing style makes an idea both more enjoyable and more persuasive to its audiences.

An ongoing complaint about the academy in recent decades, and about the Humanities in particular, is that our scholarship has become so specialized that no one outside of a small group of experts can understand it. Specialization in and of itself, in my view, is not the main problem. This way of framing the issue creates a false dichotomy between erudition and accessibility. It allows scholars to wiggle out of the problem by making the issue one of too little knowledge on the part of someone else, instead of taking responsibility for asking necessary questions about what “erudition” should look like. At a time when many Classicists are eager for ways to bring more people into our field, a meaningful yardstick for measuring erudition is the ability to create conversations about specialized ideas in which both the learned and the not-as-learned can participate with enjoyment.

This does not mean that scholarly writing needs to be “dumbed down” in order to be appealing to a wider audience. Nor am I suggesting that everyone now writing scholarly monographs for Oxford and Cambridge should instead write general interest books. My beef is not with scholarly writing and argument per se, but with the default understanding of what constitutes good scholarly writing. In my view, the clotted and wearisome “Academic-ese” writing style that we too often equate with erudition can also be seen as laziness. It’s hard to present a scholarly argument in a clear and straightforward way that can be understood by anyone familiar with the ancient evidence. It’s much easier to write the kind of “insider baseball” footnotes that remind knowledgeable readers of scholarship they have already read, while leaving everyone else frustrated and confused. It’s easier to dismiss calls for scholarship that any devoted reader of Homer can enjoy than it is to try to write such scholarship. But this is something that scholars should be thinking about, because “more accessible scholarly writing” is one answer to the question, “how can we make our field more welcoming to more different kinds of people?”

Learning to write in a more user-friendly way is an ongoing project. Whenever I am working on a new publication, I now ask myself whether those former students of mine would be aggrieved if they were asked to read my piece. If the answer is yes, I’ve done it wrong and I should try again. If you’re not sure if you’re one of Those Writers, who are writing in Academic-ese rather than English, ask yourself some questions. How many multisyllabic Latinate abstractions have you used? Can you read one of your paragraphs aloud without stumbling or running out of breath? How many subordinate clauses does your typical sentence have? Ask a non-teacher to read your latest paper, and invite them to be brutally honest with you about the style. Then listen carefully to their answer. My students have made me a better writer, in ways that all of us would do well to think about.

Image result for medieval manuscript reading
Bohun Psalter and Hours, England, second half of the 14th century. Cow reading (@BLMedieval, Egerton 3277)