how to write a student commentary

Student Commentaries (#CL351) on Cicero De Natura Deorum or De Divinatione

You must include the following elements:

  1. Choose a passage of at least 350 words; you may copy + paste the text from, but note that there may be textual differences, so make sure to check against the text
  2. Write an introduction to the passage that contains information about the author’s life and work, the genre of the selection, and an overview or outline of the work from which the passage is taken
  3. Write a reflection, based on research (use bibliography on syllabus), about the broader significance of the content of the passage, and how it relates to the rest of the work
  4. Write a translation of the Latin passage in your own words
  5. Give a bibliography of print and internet sources consulted
  6. [optional: A print-out of images that illustrate the text, with references]
  7. Comments to the text arising from student reading, such as:
    • complete dictionary entries for less-common words with the recommended translation for the word, as it is used in the immediate context, placed first, followed by a range of possible meanings
    • explication of grammatical forms, syntax, word order, rhetorical devices
    • identification of people, places, events, references
    • interpretation of ideas in the text and meaning that is not readily apparent

An example of a student commentary on Aeneid 2.771-775.

Students of the current CL 351 produced the following (partial) commentary with me on ND 1.3ff., Tuesday 12th October. Asterisks denote passages which will need to be filled in by further reference and research. What is nice about this, the product of a very short workshop, is how many ideas can be generated from even a little piece of text. And the asterisks are an index of initial thoughts which can be developed with further investigation.

Classroom test case:
De Natura Deorum 1.3-7

[3] Sunt enim philosophi et fuerunt, qui omnino nullam habere censerent rerum humanarum procurationem deos. Quorum si vera sententia est, quae potest esse pietas, quae sanctitas, quae religio? Haec enim omnia pure atque caste tribuenda deorum numini ita sunt, si animadvertuntur ab iis et si est aliquid a deis inmortalibus hominum generi tributum; sin autem dei neque possunt nos iuvare nec volunt nec omnino curant nec, quid agamus, animadvertunt nec est, quod ab is ad hominum vitam permanare possit, quid est, quod ullos deis inmortalibus cultus, honores, preces adhibeamus? In specie autem fictae simulationis sicut reliquae virtutes item pietas inesse non potest; cum qua simul sanctitatem et religionem tolli necesse est, quibus sublatis perturbatio vitae sequitur et magna confusio; [4] atque haut scio, an pietate adversus deos sublata fides etiam et societas generis humani et una excellentissuma virtus iustitia tollatur. Sunt autem alii philosophi, et hi quidem magni atque nobiles, qui deorum mente atque ratione omnem mundum administrari et regi censeant, neque vero id solum, sed etiam ab isdem hominum vitae consuli et provideri; nam et fruges et reliqua, quae terra pariat, et tempestates ac temporum varietates caelique mutationes, quibus omnia, quae terra gignat, maturata pubescant, a dis inmortalibus tribui generi humano putant, multaque, quae dicentur, in his libris colligunt, quae talia sunt, ut ea ipsa dei inmortales ad usum hominum fabricati paene videantur. Contra quos Carneades ita multa disseruit, ut excitaret homines non socordes ad veri investigandi cupiditatem. [5] Res enim nulla est, de qua tantopere non solum indocti, sed etiam docti dissentiant; quorum opiniones cum tam variae sint tamque inter se dissidentes, alterum fieri profecto potest, ut earum nulla, alterum certe non potest, ut plus una vera sit. Qua quidem in causa et benivolos obiurgatores placare et invidos vituperatores confutare possumus, ut alteros reprehendisse paeniteat, alteri didicisse se gaudeant; nam qui admonent amice, docendi sunt, qui inimice insectantur, repellendi. [6] Multum autem fluxisse video de libris nostris, quos compluris brevi tempore edidimus, variumque sermonem partim admirantium, unde hoc philosophandi nobis subito studium extitisset, partim, quid quaque de re certi haberemus, scire cupientium; multis etiam sensi mirabile videri eam nobis potissimum probatam esse philosophiam, quae lucem eriperet et quasi noctem quandam rebus offunderet, desertaeque disciplinae et iam pridem relictae patrocinium necopinatum a nobis esse susceptum.

— Pease commentary [available online thro’ Haithi]; this is at the more dense end of the spectrum
— Dyck commentary [Mugar: PA6296 .D4 2003]
— P. G. Walsh commentary [Mugar: PA6308.D4 W35 1997]

phi latin corpus < use this to find how other authors use words or phrases
Brill New Pauly < use this to look up unknown names
Logeion < use this to look up words in Lewis & Short
Allen & Greenough online < use this to look up and reference grammar/syntax < use this to look up scholarly articles



*NB this assignment is modelled on the Companion Text-Commentary exercise. 


Syllabuses for Fall 2017



I’m teaching two undergraduate classes this Fall: Women in Antiquity (#CL206), a class which is crosslisted with gender studies; and a Latin Seminar on Cicero’s De Natura Deorum and De Divinatione, “Gods and the Universe” (#CL351). Both of the syllabuses are online (see below). I’m keen to have a public element to these classes, so I’ll be tweeting about them using the hashtags #CL206 and #CL351. Students, or anyone, can join me on twitter in discussing these topics. The Women in Antiquity class will have a stronger social media component, with weekly blog posts from me to develop a set of questions for the week’s readings, to generate IDs, and to dialogue with in-class discussion.

Scholarly Engagement & Social Media

As part of our recent event at the University of Southern California, sponsored by the USC Classics department, the Levan Institute, and the USC Society of Fellows, I gave a short presentation on the ethical value of scholars being part of the project of the internet, using the tools of social media. See below a link to the slides from my presentation. We’ll be posting a piece on the Classics and Social Justice blog soon with a summary and reflection of the two day event.

Link to slides.
PDF of slides (with clickable links).

Write-up — Pedagogy of the Empowered: Teaching as an Act of Resistance in 2017 and Beyond

On April 6th 2017, the University of Southern California’s Center for Excellence in Teaching held an event entitled “Pedagogy of the Empowered”. Four Teaching Assistant Fellows — Leslie Bernsten, Mary Donhoffner, Rima Basu, and Lizette Solórzano — spoke individually about how to be inclusive in classroom dialogues on political or difficult topics, providing us with strategies and practical advice on how to deal sensitively with specific scenarios that can and do happen. This is exactly the kind of event that is essential in the current political climate, and I left the session feeling that everyone who is teaching right now should attend an event like this at least once. I was grateful to be able to attend.

Leslie Bernsten opened the session by saying that teaching is a caring profession; research supports that the best teaching is that which is above and beyond the call of duty. She mentioned the anxiety that some may have of being a teacher at an R1 university, where you might not be expected to make teaching a priority, and perhaps will receive less support from the institutional framework around you. But she affirmed something that I have always felt — that the best teaching happens when human beings treat others as human beings. Here are some tools and strategies which I took away from this event:

  • If you want to respond to a recent political moment in the classroom, be clear with yourself and your students on why you are doing so. The classroom is not the right place to rant about how you feel about what’s going on in politics. If you want to talk about something that is happening, make sure you tie it in to part of the curriculum, and take the time to present it in a way that does not simply reflect your own political beliefs, but allows students — who have many different beliefs and experiences — to be able to engage with it.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. If you want to talk about a politically charged issue, prepare as much as you can in advance.
  • Create a classroom contract. How do you set up your classroom so that serious conflicts do not occur? How can you make sure that everyone feels fairly treated, and that the class discussion is productive for everyone? One way to prepare is to be clear from the first day what your students can expect from you, and what you expect from them. Guide them through the syllabus to show your expectations. How will late work be dealt with? How will grading work? How will conflict in the classroom be handled? An effective strategy is to have the students workshop community guidelines: have your students work together to write a charter which describes how they will behave towards each other. And always explain to your students why you’re having them complete a task; doing this can help avoid a sense of being infantilized.
  • Be aware of how you can help marginalized students. Many students have had experiences which leave them emotionally and legally vulnerable. Recent studies show that at certain universities up to 30% of female students are survivors of sexual violence. That means that you need to keep in mind that there is a very high probability that several of your students (male and female) have had this experience. If a student confides in you that they have been sexually assaulted, you are legally obligated to report this to the Title IX officer at your university. Many of your students may also be undocumented, or their family members may be undocumented. These students are living with a very real threat of deportation. If a student confides in you that they are undocumented, you must not tell this to anyone else. This is an example in which maintaining confidentiality is crucial. Teachers at the university level are not necessarily (and perhaps even usually) trained to be able to give students the support which they need; instead, we have to know where to send them when they need help. So we should know what the counseling services are, and whether our university has an immigration clinic. In these cases, we must send our students to trained professionals who can help them emotionally and legally.

The Latin dictionary — digital or physical?

Welsh Latin dictionary 1632, John Davis Mallwyd.JPG
Welsh-Latin dictionary 1632, John Davis Mallwyd (wikimedia)
I’ve been writing a syllabus for an undergraduate Latin seminar and thinking about whether or not to have my students buy a specific Latin-English dictionary. After seeing some slides from a presentation on twitter that came out of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference on the burden of the cost of textbooks on students, I became reaffirmed recently in my dedication to try to make as many of the readings (and visual/material culture) on my syllabuses come from Open Access or at least online sources. With the way things are going, this is becoming easier and easier. But a dictionary should be part of a Classicist’s arsenal, right?
I went to twitter first to ask what Latin-English dictionaries instructors have assigned to their Latin students. The one that I used as a beginning Latin student, and still sometimes use, is the Langenscheidt pocket dictionary. But it’s not so easy to get your hands on in the US. The most popular suggestions from twitter were Cassell’s, Chambers Murray, with some votes for Traupman; although one respondent mentioned that they got into trouble with Traupman when doing Latin prose composition, and switched to Lewis & Short. None of these is especially expensive (under $10), although both Chambers Murray and Langenscheidt are tricky to get new copies of.  It’s clear that we hold on to the tools that we begin learning with very fondly — even though I teach in the US now I still can’t give up Kennedy’s Latin primer, whose table of principal parts I have given to every Latin class I’ve ever taught. (The reason why Kennedy’s is a problem to use with US students is that the case order is N./V. Acc. Gen. Dat. Abl. rather than Nom. Gen. Dat. Acc. Abl.).

My next question (via a twitter poll) was whether Latin instructors encourage their students to use online dictionary tools.  My assumption, just based on casual discussions or passing comments with colleagues IRL, is that many would be against it just in principle. But perhaps asking Latin instructors on twitter is not the venue for cynicism about digital tools. As I write the poll isn’t closed yet, but the majority of respondents use digital tools in some form. Cillian O’Hogan () replied that he had that day taught his students how to use Logeion’s online version of Lewis & Short; he also mentioned that he gives lessons in how to use physical dictionaries, including a demonstration of their shortcomings. The important thing here, whether you have your students use physical or digital dictionaries, is to dedicate time to demonstrate how to use them. It’s not degrading to anyone to take the time to meditate on issues or forms which seem self-evident — in fact, it can be quite a profound experience.

I recently read a discussion by Geoffrey Nunberg of the limits of the physical editions of the Oxford English Dictionary that have been overcome in its online edition:

The advent of online historical corpora has also altered the lexicographer’s method. Word sleuthery has become a game that anyone with access to a search engine can play. It’s not hard to find examples that antedate the OED’s earliest citations for words, particularly in the modern period. The first use of Ms. listed in the second edition was from 1949; the Wall Street Journal’s language columnist Ben Zimmer tracked it back to 1901.

The issue with online Latin dictionaries is probably not so much about the quality of its contents as much as the question of whether use of a digital dictionary is detrimental to the student’s progress in language acquisition. Anecdotally, we classicists as a group seem to think that using a physical dictionary leads to better vocabulary retention. After I posted the twitter poll, Clara Shaw Hardy () responded with a blog piece in which she described her own experiments with students, who tried both physical and digital dictionaries and reported their experiences; Hardy also cites an article in Teaching Classical Languages by Jacqueline Carlon arguing that students retain vocabulary that they learn “the hard way.” Hardy also put forward the suggestion that online dictionaries develop a means of quizzing students on the words which they have looked up in a given session. Patrick Burns responded to this with a blog piece of his own, which is a tutorial on how to use Learning with Texts (LWT) to learn vocabulary in context. 

All in all, I’m encouraged by the fact that many classicists are not ideologically opposed to using digital dictionaries. Although there is evidence that doing things the old fashioned way has better results, in a world where students are more naturally inclined to turn to the internet as a source of knowledge, I think that there is something to be said for using rigorous, philological online lexical tools like Logeion. Whether physical or digital, dictionaries are a technology that need to be explained, explored, and contextualized. I feel that a lot of the resistance to digital forms probably comes from an inherent conservatism within classics that says more about the discipline than it does about the functionality or pedagogical outcomes that result from use of digital dictionaries. The important thing is to explore different avenues with an open mind, rather than allowing cynicism to hold you back from new teaching opportunities.


AAUW’s livestream: “(Not) All in Your Head: How Women Internalize Sexism”

This morning I tuned in to — and live tweeted — a live streamed panel organized by the AAUW (American Association of University Women) on implicit bias and sexist microaggressions:  “(Not) All in Your Head: How Women Internalize Sexism.” The moderator was Soraya Chemaly, and the speakers were Abigail Lewis, Gina Torino, and C. Nicole Mason.

The panel discussed the fact that sexist behaviours against women often come in insidious, undetected forms. Sexism happens casually, unconsciously — sexist ideas are so ingrained in our culture that they feel natural, but such gender coding has long-term effects for women, their treatment by both men and women, and their opportunities for leadership.

The AAUW panel discussed some of the implications of institutional sexism, and offered some solutions. The term “microaggression” was first used by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s in the context of racial discrimination in commercial advertising, but has been expanded greatly by psychologists in recent years. Gina Torino was one of the co-authors of a highly influential academic paper, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”, which defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of colour (2007:271). The fact that the term originated in the study of racism and has been expanded to include sexist and classist behaviours alongside racist ones demonstrates that intersectionality is at work here.

The panelists shared their experiences of microaggressions: a male co-worker only says good morning to his male colleagues; a woman of colour is asked where the professor is when she’s the professor; another professor makes digs against women in an engineering class that is 20% women. In each case, the implicit message is: you don’t belong here, your body signals you as different from what I want or expect. Even if the person (man or woman) responsible for sending the message has no idea they are doing so. The panelists cited studies in which respondents, asked whether sexism still existed, answered “no” but still blamed women for not being more proactive in their achievements. The problem is that sexist behaviour is so prevalent that it becomes invisible. This means that women keep being silenced and excluded, and then they are blamed for their apparent incompetence. And women also blame themselves when they are at the receiving end of sexist behaviour.

The panelists also discussed strategies for communicating the problem of sexism to an audience that is inclined to deny its existence. They said that studies have shown that male listeners are likely to “circle the wagon” when confronted with reports of sexism; they double down on the status quo. The panelists suggest making changes by seeking support: find female colleagues who can validate your experiences; communicate your experiences through storytelling to male and female audiences. What doesn’t seem to work is an explicit statement of the problem — this seems generally to provoke an impulse to deny. If there is any way forward it is through persistence and through empathy — shining more light on the stories of sexism, and communicating these personally.

The AAUW also has an excellent discussion guide, which lays out how to engage in productive discussion about sexism in a formal setting. What I especially like about this guide is its care to bring muted voices into the forefront in the “community agreement”, which in many ways reminded me of WCC’s practical tips for feminist pedagogy:

  • What’s shared here stays here, but what’s learned here leaves here.
    The group agrees to confidentiality of names, but the knowledge and insight garnered will stay with them once they leave the room.
  • One speaker, one mic.
    When someone is speaking, they should not be interrupted. Everyone who would like to speak will be given the opportunity.
  • Move forward, move back.
    If you normally are the first to contribute to the conversation, considering allowing others the chance to speak. If you normally are shy, challenge yourself to share your opinions.
  • Challenge by choice.
    While everyone is encouraged to leave their comfort zones and share their thoughts, no one will be forced to share.
  • Listen to understand, not to respond.
    When others are talking, make sure you’re digesting everything they’re saying, rather than simply waiting for your turn to speak again.



“Elegy for the Library”

This morning I read a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by novelist Mahesh Rao (@mraozing). Online it has the title “An Elegy for the Library”— but in print it seems to have had the title “Lost in the Stacks”, pointed out by Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself) on twitter. “Elegy” — in the sense of lament— might be the right word for a piece that celebrates the virtues of libraries while maintaining an anxiety about their potential demise. But the idea of being “lost” (and found) in the library is also fitting — as Werner pointed out. In the NY Times piece, Rao does a good job of demonstrating the social power of a library as a public place. In Mysore, India, the library ‘lists “uninterrupted lighting” as one of its services — a real draw in a city that suffers from frequent power cutoffs. This is a place of refuge.’ In a world awash with information, librarians are the guides — Rao points to a poster of a Neil Gaiman quotation: ‘Google can bring you 100,000 answers but a librarian can bring you the right one.’ The agency of people and how they shape knowledge is stressed. Rao cites journalist and academic, Sophie Mayer, and her sense that in a library “each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge – the book.”

This piece made me think of the libraries that I’ve used. In Glasgow, my hometown, there was a public library by my house that was attached to a Victorian-era swimming pool. I vividly remember reading Euripides’ Hippolytus in that library. The swimming pool has since been knocked down, but the library, I’m glad to say, is still there.

One of the powers of the library is the fact that it is a public, and physical, structure that persists. Its physicality is striking in a world where our information is increasingly created and stored on the internet. And its public nature is important. At my current university (University of Southern California), its research libraries are open to the public — which makes me proud. One of the characteristics of world class universities is the fact that their libraries are closed off from the public, and carefully guarded. When I was an undergrad at Oxford, my late night reading sessions at the Bodleian felt rarified. Rao’s piece stresses the democratic principles of a library, without using the word itself — the idea that public access to knowledge is important, valued, and supported. Rao is talking about the experiences of a library that anyone can have, but, as an academic, my experience of the library is privileged. With the institutional blessing, I have a kind of access that many don’t.