Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Operation KTHMA: The end of the mission, the birth of the practomimetic course, part 2—doomed mission to Methone

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

On Friday, in the final class-session of Operation KTHMA, I killed my students. Never have I had less desire to harm a class than I had to harm this one; nevertheless, it's the historical views of Thucydides we've been exploring in the second half of the semester, and no more appropriate ending could be imagined. This post is the first of two in which I talk about how those tragic, realistic deaths came about.

Of course, this utterly realistic ending was accompanied by an utterly fantastic collocation of Thucydides himself (whom they had gotten to know under his "nickname" Olorides), Herodotus himself, and Alcibiades himself, all of whom had volunteered for the same reconnaissance mission of which the students had been in charge. Such a fantasy, I told the operatives of KTHMA, was the kind of thing the texto-spatio-temporal-transport (TSTT) system (aka the teacher's desk at the front of the room, upon which rested my laptop) dreamt up in its AI in order to help the operatives get to the truth of the various ways to interpret Greek historical writing.

At any rate, having those three luminaries there made it possible to recover the bodies of the operatives' Athenian hosts, and get them back to Athens for burial at the public funeral later that year. You know, the one where Pericles delivers the funeral oration. Several weeks ago, I'd sent them back on a special ops mission to that funeral, to talk to Olorides about why he had written the oration up the way he did. The reason for sending them back out of sequence was twofold: 1) President Obama had just given his eulogy at Fort Hood, and the comparison to Pericles' speech was striking; 2) I suspected that I was going to kill the operatives before, chronologically speaking, the winter of 430, when the public funeral took place.

Here they were, though, at a place in Laconia called Methone, as recorded by Thucydides in Book 2 of his history—a place where Athens had its first success delivering hoplites into enemy territory, and where Brasidas of Sparta first enters the history, a general whose extraordinary fate will later be bound up with Thucydides' own, when Thucydides is exiled because of the battle of Amphipolis, where Brasidas triumphs, and dies.

On the flag-trireme, cruising off the Laconian coast, they had been asked by the three Athenian generals to stage a debate, the winner to be in command of the reconnaissance mission. Being in command was of great importance, because the teams' Athenians were now at odds with one another. Two teams had chosen to ally with the aristocratic faction led by Thucydides son of Melesias (not the historian) and three with the demotic faction led by Pericles.

The generals demanded that they imagine that a small island had opposed annexation by Athens. The artistocratic side was to pretend to be the islanders, attempting to persuade the Athenians to let them go free; the demotic side was to pretend to be the Athenians, attempting to persuade the islanders to surrender without a fight. In short, they were to enact the Melian dialogue. It was the TSTT's way (that is, my way) of talking about how the inevitable slide into a Law-of-the-Jungle, realpolitik world was already happening, as Thucydides sees it, at the very start.

In the event, we didn't get to finish that debate (leadership, as I'll detail in the next post, was determined by a die-roll). The operatives, however, made very fine contributions under the new model of action that closely follows the HoneyComb Engine. In this model, the students must declare what they want to do, then roll a die to see how successful they are, then narrate what happens. In a dialogic situation, it can make for very interesting and entertaining results. Above all, it takes a great deal of pressure off the students, who get to take refuge in silliness like "I say 'Athenians, we think that the gods will save us' and then I nearly fall off the boat." The other side can then respond, "Did they save you from falling?" and Thucydides' lesson about realism and idealism advances in their minds an important step. It's that wonderful situation where learning happens unnoticed.

This HCE model, from my perspective, is an extraordinary learning tool. On Wednesday, the second to last class-session, we took the whole class-period to debrief about the course. The bottom-line is that they liked it. More importantly, both their praises and their critiques were really well thought-out, and incredibly useful. I mention it now because a wonderful operative, code name Jessep, had two great things to say that have a bearing on the narration-by-students model: first, he, one of the most participatory and enthusiastic operatives over the course of the semester, recalled something I had forgotten about the first day of the course—that he had raised his hand and said, "Does anyone else just have no idea what's going on?"; second, he said that he had been taken aback by how many little things he now knew about the culture of Herodotus and Thucydides that profoundly affected his understanding of them.

Next post: which beacon are they going to light?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Operation KTHMA: The end of the mission, the birth of the practomimetic course, part 1—the collaborative research paper

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

Yesterday I debriefed the operatives about the final challenge of Mission 6, which they had just completed, having been awarded a week's extension by the Demiurge (that is, me) when I saw that things were not progressing as quickly as I'd hoped but that nevertheless the progress was very promising. This final challenge was the briefing in the form of a collaborative research paper that I mentioned at the end of my last KTHMA post. The topic for the briefing was "What is Thucydides' attitude towards Athens?" (a subject that's much more complex than the non-reader or even the cursory reader of Thucydides might think).

The operatives had a wealth of insight into how to make the assignment work better, but were nearly unanimous in their enthusiasm for the assignment itself. (Or so it seemed to me, though of course some might have been hiding daggers in their bosoms, waiting until I was safely out of grading range [I'm jesting here; I've never been more convinced of or impressed by a class' good will than I am by these operatives'].) Three of the teams have handed in papers that are collaborative (and very good indeed) from top to bottom; the other two shared sources and ideas, and I think (though I haven't waded into the depths of the papers yet) certain passages that were deemed especially felicitous.

The linchpin of this assignment is the class-team forums, where I insisted all collaboration take place. By picking through those forums, I'll be able to tell (indeed, I've been following along and so have a fairly good idea already) who did what, and grade accordingly not on the finished product but on the mastery of course objectives that their collaboration shows.

For me, this means that I can stamp "solved" on a problem I've had with the assessment of college writing since I began to teach it as a graduate student fifteen years ago: I have never had the opportunity to grade anything but a final product that is nothing but a stale exercise in trying to give the instructor what he seems to say he wants. Even with mandatory rewrites, I had no justification that would let me judge anything but what the student handed in, as a paper in fulfillment of a requirement for the course.

For classics majors, this was fine, because that stale exercise was a key part of disciplinary formation, or so I justified it to myself. But what about the students who desperately need to learn to write, but who get so, so little from learning to write a dead-end research paper containing unoriginal ideas about Thucydides?

And that's without even taking into account the absolutely enormous benefit the students derived from seeing each other work. Some of the students in this class are in fact very talented writers of research papers who may well go on to academic careers in which they put that skill to good use in producing new knowledge. The students who don't fall into that category had never, I'm fairly sure, had the opportunity to see that kind of student at work. I don't think I'm reading too much into the posts I saw in the class-team forums when I say that many of them found it truly eye-opening.

Did this assignment or its evident success have anything to do with the practomime of the course's framework?

("Practomime" is a word I'm audtioning to substitute for "game." Fear not: if it passes the audition I'll explain it further, and quite likely will never shut up about it either.)

While I would certainly recommend this kind of collaborative paper in any course, I think its success in this practomimetic course had a great deal to do with two elements that are unique to the practomime:
  1. The operatives of the course are used to collaborating because of the "AMISPEs" (Ancient/Modern Interweave Skill Practice Exercises) they've been doing from the beginning of the course. One could argue I suppose that if I'd divided the class into teams with no practomimetic frame I would have gotten similar results both on the AMISPEs and on the paper, but that seems to me more or less to grant my central point that things like "teams" are good; anytime you put teams on the field, you're doing practomime, I think. It was wonderful to hear one of the operatives say, "The paper was just like one big AMISPE."
  2. The narrative framework of the practomime has subtly influenced the way the operatives think about Thucydides so that they have a familiar lens through which to see the articles they were reading for the research. For all but the most seasoned students, research papers in past versions of this course have been an arduous exercise in trying to graft classics scholars' complicated arguments into the students' much simpler ones. This time, although as usual I could be thinking wishfully, the final products I've seen indicate a much deeper relationship with the secondary sources. It seems to me that that relationship can only come from the feeling that the operatives know what Athens was like and what Thucydides was doing there.
Over the next week or three I'll be adding to this post mortem series about Operation KTHMA. Next up (I think): the KTHMA team stands trial for hubris.