By Jules Salomone and Alessandra Migliara
This conversation is based on our visits to each other’s classrooms during Open Classroom Week, part of the TLC’s Open Teaching Initiative.
Jules: At the beginning of the term, I ask my students to tell me their major, if any, and the reason why they registered for a 100-level introductory Philosophy class. The answers to my first question vary (from bio to econ, to undeclared) as much as those to my second do not: they registered in order to satisfy a core requirement and because the subject sounded interesting. Part of the challenge is to cater to students with these diverse aspirations and backgrounds in a way that sustains their initial hearsay-based curiosity for the subject.
I’d be inclined to think you face a similar situation in your introductory Classics class, and something I really liked about your approach to teaching etymology is the way you interspersed your class with references to current concerns. When I visited your class, one of the topics was the Greek and Latin roots of English political vocabulary, and even though your class starts at 9:45, you already had prepared slides with screenshots of that day’s New York Times headlines containing some of these words that have Greek and Latin roots! In addition, I appreciated the variety of activities that you had planned for that day, from in-class exercises, designed to be worked out either individually or collectively, to more formal lecturing peppered with glances at Ancient Greek and Roman history and myths. Students seemed to engage playfully with the material; I bet quite a bit of them impressed their friends and family with the word triskaidekaphobia that day (which the readers can look up!)
Alessandra: I enjoyed observing your class exactly for this reason, because, like me, you deal with an introductory course to a discipline, like philosophy, that probably is totally new to your students!
My class of Greek and Latin Roots of English is an introduction to the study of linguistic etymology, and my aim is to raise the interest of the students about something that is, again, totally new to them (many of my students are freshmen), like the scientific study of language and the connection of our modern world with the Greek and Roman civilizations. In trying to do so, my first resource is the opportunity to interact with CUNY students, with all their linguistic diversity and variety of background.
I think you face a similar challenge, and I particularly enjoyed the way in which you constantly connected the philosophical concepts you were discussing (determinism and free will) with the real issues that we all have in our everyday life, filling the gap between theory and experience. I also noticed that you always involved the students not only by asking them questions about their perception of the matter, but also by trying to share every step of the lecture with them and to gain a shared conclusion before going on, or even challenging the whole assumption of the lecture. Through asking questions like “are we all convinced of this idea?” you stimulated the debate, leading the students to rethink critically the whole subject and to consider philosophical discourse something that they could master and enjoy.
Jules: As I was visiting your class, I was struck by the fact that you and I are European, teaching in the US subjects which, for various historical reasons involving conquests, oppression and hard-to-disrupt academic habits, are pretty Eurocentric, and hoping to spark an interest in these subjects among the very diverse students of Hunter College. Our syllabi, and the fact that—and here I’m speaking for myself—they’re not as diverse as they should be, are at least to an extent the reflection of the training we’ve received. One confidently teaches what one was first taught! At the beginning of the semester, I apologize to my students for not including more diverse authors among those that we read. And my hope is that my French accent and outsider perspective on the US invites them to critically engage, through the material that we cover, with their individual and social lives in this country.
Alessandra: Yes, it was particularly interest to share our experiences as European students and teachers in the American environment. As I never attended any school or college in the US, I live a twofold condition: on the one hand, I am always eager to learn about the American educational system and to apprehend and share new teaching strategies; on the other hand, I am naturally influenced by the education that I received in Italy, both in my pedagogical training and in the subject that I am teaching (as in the case with philosophy, my discipline, Classics, is historically rooted in the European environment). Since I am well aware that American students can have different kinds of perceptions of the Classical culture—compared to me, but also to each other—I always try to enhance and make use of this variety of approaches. I like to think of my class at Hunter College as a small reproduction of American society, in which we can all learn to appreciate and share our diversity. Observing your class and talking with you about our common European origin certainly gave me a precious opportunity to reflecting about the way in which this element can enrich, instead of diminish, our classes.
Alessandra Migliara is a doctoral student in Classics at the Graduate Center. Jules Salomone is a doctoral student in Philosophy at The Graduate Center.