Tweeting the Iliad

Two years ago I wrote a post on Using Twitter in Your Course that described how Margaret Rubega, Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut with a PhD in ornithology, had used Twitter to promote active learning in a large lecture course. The post also provides some basics on how Twitter works for those unfamiliar with the social networking application. Recently, a colleague, gave me a link to an example of a faculty member using Twitter in a humanities course.

Twitter Logo Blue BirdSjoerd Levelt teaches at Bilkent University, in Ankara, Turkey in the program Cultures, Civilizations and Ideas, a year-long intensive course focusing on the meaning of culture. At Bilkent, instruction is in English. Levelt’s students are from diverse backgrounds and departments “…including computer sciences, mechanical, electrical and industrial engineering, law, archaeology, and management.” Levelt has a blog, and recently he posted on a course he is teaching on ancient and classical civilizations, covering texts ranging from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Plato’s Republic. The blog post, #Iliad, discusses the challenges he faced in teaching this text (The Iliad) and how having his students use tweeting, provided a solution.

Levelt writes: “The Iliad is not an easy text to read. Robert Fagles’ translation is not an easy translation to read. This would be true for most students (actually, most readers); and my students are further disadvantaged in that for the vast majority of them, English is not their native language, and many of them, they don’t read (or even like reading) literature all that much to begin with.” He wanted to “… explore with my students how we can engage with the classical text through various media…”.

First he had students look at other examples of how tweeting had been used to comment on literary works. Then he asked them to discuss how and why tweeting was effective in these cases. Students recognized that tweeting provides summary, explanation, commentary, and humor, among other things. In fact, reading with the idea that one will need to summarize, comment, and explicate the text in short sentences, forces students to read closely in order to grasp complexity and subtlety.

Levelt did not require the students to set up Twitter accounts. Instead he had them tweet on prepared “tweet sheets” that replicated the look of a Tweet. The assignment was structured; students were assigned to tweet as one of the characters in Book 3 (the focus of the assignment).

#Iliad, Book Three
Write “tweets” –on paper!– describing (a selection of) the narrative of book 3, from the perspective of the person whose identity you have been handed in class:
Paris (@FoolForLove)
Menelaus (@BattleHungry)
Helen (@TooPretty)
The Achaeans (@NotAHorse)
The Trojans (@HorseBreakers)
Use all 6 “tweets” of your handout to give your version of Book 3. Each tweet: maximum 140 characters. Bonus for creative use of hashtags and @mentions. Perspective: think, for example, of what your character can know, what they would find important, how they would view certain actions and events, what kind of language they would use.

After the students had completed the assignment, he had them come together in groups in class based on their characters (all the Helens, all the Trojans, etc.). The groups selected tweets from the combined sheets to share. Levelt then, with the permission of the students, shared their tweets on his Twitter account. He teaches three sections of the course, so there are three classes represented. These are their tweets: Class 1, Class 2, Class 3.

Levelt writes: “I was very impressed with the range and variety of aspects of the text reflected in my students’ tweets – from Helen’s conflicted internal monologues to Menelaus’ asking the troupes for retweets, and from a baffled Menelaus wondering what just happened after Paris disappeared to Helen’s shocked ‘selfie’ watching the battlefield, there are many very interesting readings of the text, and very few poor ones. Many of the tweets also provided opportunity for further discussion in class.” Moreover, students commented that the assignment made them look at the text with fresh eyes and engage with it based on their own experiences, leading to reading in a way that they had not done before.

This is an innovative use of social media to stimulate student engagement and higher level learning. Please share in the comments section examples you might have of similar assignments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Twitter blue logo

Quick Tips: Teaching in Challenging Times and Facilitating Difficult Discussions

In the days following the election faculty and students across the country were faced with Image of a stylized human figure peering into the opening of a large circular maze.teaching and learning in a climate that made both activities difficult. The issues that divided our nation could not be ignored in the classroom. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University published a thoughtful guide for faculty: Teaching in Response to the Election, by Joe Bandy, CFT Assistant Director. The suggestions are practical, reference additional resources, and are useful not just today, but in thinking about supporting students in general. Three other CFT guides are referenced: Teaching in Times of Crisis for when “communities are united in grief or trauma,” Difficult Dialogues will be useful whenever topics of discussion in the classroom touch on “hot button” issues, and the guide for Increasing Inclusivity in the Classroom is relevant at all times.

We welcome your suggestions in the comments for facilitating difficult discussions and teaching in challenging times.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source:

Consider the OER (Open Educational Resource)

I should first disclose that I am not a longstanding, seasoned user of online strategies in my pedagogy. In fact, aside from very basic use such as posting images online for my students to review, my first real foray into systematic, thought-through online pedagogical strategies began in the summer of 2015.

A stitched image showing the Ishtar gate of Babylon in full view. Pergamon Museum, Berlin.In my discipline, specifically the study of Mesopotamian art but more broadly art history, I see two somewhat different audiences for online resources: 1) students (or student-like users) looking for content about art history; and 2) educators looking for pedagogical support/sharing related to the teaching of art history.

With respect to online resources for student-like users, two main trends in online pedagogy are apparent: 1) how to recreate and/or enhance the kind of activities that take place in face-to-face teaching; 2) how to add to, that is do something different, from the kind of activities that take place in face-to-face teaching.

My own foray into online pedagogy was primarily aimed at student-like users, although a secondary audience of other educators is also relevant because of the open-access nature of my project.

The arts of Mesopotamia – the “land between the rivers” in what is today Iraq and Syria – represent some of the earliest complex artworks dating back to 3500. Works from intricately carved seals to sculpture offer a wealth of arts that inform on the social, political, economic, and religious spheres of multiple ancient cultures, including Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria. The cultural heritage of Mesopotamia is particularly threatened at the moment due to the current political situation in Iraq and Syria.

Teaching this material at the undergraduate level, however, is a challenge as there is no reliable, up-to-date textbook available; the most recent usable textbook dates to 1954 (H. Frankfort, Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient). Publication of a traditional, hard-copy textbook now is considered financially impractical.

In the spring of 2015, pursuing a Technology Fellows grant from the CER, I proposed a solution: to create on-line modules to be used in teaching my course Palaces, Temples and Tombs in Mesopotamia in fall 2015. These modules are designed as Open Education Resources (OER) using a pre-existing Internet platform, OpenStax CNX, hosted through Rice University, which promotes the production of small “knowledge chunks” in an open license venue. Materials for the modules consist of freely available content and content created by me and my graduate student fellows, Megan Lewis and Avary Taylor.

What is an OER? From the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation “Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. OER include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.”

OER modules of instruction permit multi-media and non-traditional formats for conveying information, including virtual reconstructions and walk-throughs, videos, and hyperlinking in addition to providing up-to-date informational entries for the ancient artworks. For my course, I envisioned these modules as a means of engaging students before actual face time in the classroom in order to concentrate on discussion and exploration of the complex conceptual aspects of Mesopotamian art and culture during class time.

Over the 6-month period of the fellowship, five different modules were created and posted to the website at OpenStax CNX. They were an enormous asset to the class, because they provided background information and discussion points that were up-to-date in their content and specifically formulated to align with my class lectures and discussion. The modules also included helpful videos and virtual reconstructions of the ancient art that provided a fuller understanding for the students.

The online modules were evaluated through an online survey, developed with the aid of CER, and available to the students through JHU’s Blackboard (learning management system). All 12 students completed the anonymous survey, which consisted of 5 questions. 83.3% of the respondents said the modules were “very successful” in providing information related to the course content, while the remaining 16.7% said they were “somewhat successful.” The responses to the other questions were also generally quite positive, with appreciation for the multimedia components and for the fact that the modules aligned well with the lectures. Respondents found least useful about the modules some formatting issues inherent in the platform we used, and a few noted that they were slow to download.

Beyond the student reactions, I have had positive responses from colleagues in the field who expressed gratitude for making freely accessible materials on Mesopotamian art available.

The one downside for me was that the OERs did not necessarily promote a higher level of discussion as I had hoped; the modules were still too close to a textbook in terms of how students interacted with the materials

There were a few issues that we faced in developing the content, one of which was copyright.  We had to rely on what was freely available online and that sometimes meant using videos that contained inaccurate material. We also had to work with the OpenStax CNX version of an html coding program that made certain things difficult to manipulate and constrained format in terms of relationship of image to text.

These drawbacks did not discourage me from using OERs. In spring 2016, I received an additional grant through the CER’s Technology Fellows program to produce more modules for my teaching with the assistance of graduate student fellows Megan Lewis and Avary Taylor.

The modules can be accessed through various search mechanisms on the OpenStax CNX website, including through the authors’ names: Marian Feldman, Megan Lewis, and Avary Taylor. They are:

  1. Cylinder Seals and the Development of Writing in Early Mesopotamia
  2. Ur III: Continuity and Erasure
  3. Late Bronze Age Internationalism and the International Artistic Style
  4. Neo-Assyrian Palace Reliefs of Kings Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II
  5. The Ancient City of Babylon
  6. Mesopotamian Votive Statuary from the Early Dynastic Period
  7. Mesopotamian Cosmology and Mythology
  8. The Development of Sumerian Temple Architecture in Early Mesopotamia
  9. Sargon the Great and the Charismatic Rulers of Ancient Akkad of Mesopotamia
  10. The Babylonian Map of the World: A Portrayal of Mytho-Historic Reality
  11. The ‘Victory Stele’ of Naram-Sin of Akkad and the Development of the Public Monument in Ancient Mesopotamia

Marian Feldman, Professor, Departments of the History of Art and Near Eastern Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Image Source: A stitched image showing the Ishtar gate of Babylon in full view. Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Photo CC Radomir Vrbovsky, Wikimedia Commons.