Starting a new course
I am just about to launch -- with a colleague -- a new Part II (final year) course for the history strand of Cambridge Classics (a "C2" course for you Cam classicists). I suspect students have very little idea what kind of work goes into getting a course off the ground and on offer. Maybe in the old days you'd say, in an old-fashioned Cambridge type of way, "I think I might give 'em a course on the Severans, next year", and everyone would nod wisely and leave you to it.
It's not like that now. You have to construct the more or less full course, months or years in advance, for approval by your "caucus" or subject group, by the Teaching Committee and the Faculty Board. You have to lay out aims and objectives and a schedule of lectures, you have to give a specimen exam paper (no specimen answers but I'll sure that will come), and you have to explain who will actually do the essay supervision work for the course. Some of this is a hugely good idea. It's no good launching a popular course if you havent got the foggiest clue who is going to do the supervision and small group work (and it's usually a good idea if it's NOT you doing that -- so the students get some diverse views or different perspectives).
On the other hand, my sense after more than 30 years university teaching now, is that advanced students actually thrive if there are a few loose ends. The more expertly packaged you have everything, the more they tend to follow what appears to be the party line -- and they tend to do well but not VERY well; fewer 2.2s and fewer firsts. That's partly because a bit of "throwing in the deep end" (... what do YOU think this course is all about) really does get them to get their noses into a bit of independent work.
Anyway we are launching a Part II course in "Popular culture in the Roman World", and it will be one quarter of a year's work. We're reckoning on 16 one hour lectures over a term, plus 4 two-hour classes, so that we can inject some discussion in and look at some evidence close up. The idea is to get students to think about what we can know about Roman life below the level of the elite, not just (or even mainly) in terms of housing, employment or economics -- but in terms of culture and ideology. Was there as distinctive culture among the relatively poor, a distinctive sense of humour and pastimes (NB the scene of gaming in the bar above), a distinctive attitude to life? And how would we know?
There's a great opportunity here to get students reading stuff that they wouldnt have come across much, if at all, before....from the "Roman Joke Book" to ancient proverbs, fables and popular fortune telling manuals.
One advantage of having two course organisers/lecturers is that you can get a bit of disagreement built into the lectures from the word go. I suspect that Jerry and I have rather different views on the subject of "popular culture" in general: with him thinking that it does exist separately from the cultural world of the elite. and with me being far less sure. So that's a good start.
Anyway Jerry came to dinner last week to discuss the programme of lectures we had drafted a few months ago and to try to work out exactly what the course be about. It is amazing how much you CANT get in to 16 lectures and 4 classes . . . we rather reluctantly decided that we could only glance at the Republic (which means not much from Plautus and Terence) and that we would want (and have) to include evidence from Roman Egypt (the kind of stuff that Peter Parsons discusses in City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish) -- but we couldn't make the whole course into a papyrological training ground.
It took the whole evening.... deciding, for example, that it would be best to do a class on fables rather than a lecture (as you really needed to get the student to discuss these apparently very simple, but actually rather tricky texts), and agreeing that they would need an introduction to how you might read ancient novels with our questions in mind, and that we had to face head on the issue of a distinctive slave culture (or rather the cultural intersections between slaves and the free poor).
It's funny, though, how even so you can forget things -- or forget to make them explicit (which in a course proposal amounts to much the same thing). The husband was vaguely overhearing our conversation and after a bit said words to the effect of, "So you are not going to mention any women in this course...".
The truth was that both of us were absolutely committed to thinking through the gender aspect of these issues, but we hadnt actually SAID SO. And maybe all those Faculty committees had assumed that too, because they hadnt actually said anything about the omission.
But aaaggh, how ignominious to look as if we were forgetting the Roman girls. Shows how useful a third individual pair of eyes (or ears) can be.