Teaching Greek

I often feel that discussions of Digital Humanities (capital D, capital H) focus on the research side of things, even though some of the most innovative and useful work has been done in order to support public access and teaching. I also feel that the field (discipline? area? community of practice?) focuses more on the tools than the users (more on this later). But I’d like to insist that perhaps the most fundamental element of the digital humanities (little d, little h) is the ability to foster the process of learning, discovery, and communication that takes place in educational environments. I’m currently teaching a second-semester first-year ancient Greek language class, and I’m struck both by the new possibilities offered by digital tools and by the ongoing importance of content created a century ago.

During the first month or so, we completed the textbook the students started with, Luschnig’s “An Introduction to Ancient Greek“. I wasn’t enthralled with this textbook, and although it does have an online companion, my students didn’t use it much (or at all, really). I did like the emphasis on English-to-Greek composition, though; this is something I think is critical to language learning, and I always include it, even at this level. I’m still looking for the perfect first-year Greek textbook, and although there do seem to be several emerging online possibilities, I’m guessing I’ll end up next time with another print version that has the features we’ve been using to learn Greek for half a millennium (morphological synopses, explanations of particular groups of grammatical or syntactical issues, irregular forms and principal parts, etc.). My students seem to like to have a physical copy they can thumb through in front of them, and frankly, so do I.

That’s not to say they’re not open to digital tools. At the beginning of the semester, the students were already well familiar with Perseus, and used its morphological tools avidly to check their forms and accentuation (they also used it for cutting-and-pasting Greek words into emails, since they weren’t yet comfortable typing polytonic Greek — and I think are still not, though now they know how, in theory). It was after we’d finished the textbook, however, that the digital resources and tools available for the study of ancient Greek really opened new doors. I introduced them to the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, to the Ancient Lives project and Papyri.info, and to the PHI database of searchable Greek inscriptions. We even transliterated and transcribed part of the Oath of Chersonesos, a 4th-century BC civic oath from Chersonesos in Crimea, using an interactively lighted image generated using Reflectance Transformation Imaging in the course of a workshop led by Cultural Heritage Imaging at the site in 2008. We used a wiki page in the Blackboard CMS system to work on this collaboratively, and the students managed, with relatively little input on my side, to produce a version of the first twenty lines that is relatively close to the established text (learning some Dorian dialect in the process).

Once we’d finished the textbook, we moved on to a blend of new and old language-learning tools (and some old tools in new formats). To keep up the Greek composition work, I’ve been assigning them sentences from North and Hillard’s Greek Prose Composition, the 1910 edition of which canĀ  be downloaded as a PDF from Textkit. There’s not much more traditional than a book designed for English schoolboys a hundred years ago and focused on sentences about generals, soldiers, and marching (even if it is digitized). But it still works, as long as we review a lot in class. For Greek to English translation, we’ve been working on Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, which has seen renewed popularity lately. I offered them two options for text: one a digitized version of a 1902 edition available in Google Books, and the other the text available at “Cyrus’ Paradise”, an online commentary and community (or, um, “communtary”, as it’s described) established by the Center for Hellenic Studies (www.cyropaedia.org). I think nine of the students are working from the online version; the other prefers text (I’m looking at both, since both offer different commentary information). None of my students, as far as I can tell, are contributing to the community at Cyrus’ Paradise. They are, however, very fond of the online morphological tools and the links to Smyth passages (they have also been consulting a PDF version of Smyth from Textkit).

There are some other tools I’ve introduced them to — for instance, Chris Francese’s Dickinson College Commentaries core vocabulary as it appears in the Mnemosyne Project, an online flashcard platform — and I’m hoping to poll them on the effectiveness of these tools at the end of the semester. My overall sense right now is that certain digital tools have become indispensable for the students — morphology and lexical tools in particular — but that the crucial factor remains the face-to-face, discursive element. I’ve had my students partner up to review each other’s Greek compositions, and I think this has resulted in more improvement than any of the online tools I’ve introduced. This makes intuitive sense to me, since human beings are programmed to learn language discursively, but I would love to see more systematic and data-rich analyses of the ways in which digital tools improve acquisition of dead languages in particular, and the ways in which face-to-face interaction remains necessary. This will be especially important as institutions of higher education seek to reduce costs and deploy digital substitutes for courses with low enrollment and a high faculty time commitment.