Thursday, July 28, 2011

Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ: after-action report

Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ is in the books. Most of the nine students who stuck it out have done extraordinary things. Seven of the nine made some kind of A, and I sincerely believe that they would have those A’s no matter how the course was being assessed, but that at least four of them wouldn't have had A's if the course had been delivered in a traditional way. What I see in these students' work is what I can only describe as a “situated” attitude about ancient Athens that far exceeds anything I’ve ever seen in even the best students in this course previous to it being turned into Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ.

The easiest way to characterize that attitude is by describing their ability to make connections between texts. In the traditional version of the course, year after year I’ve lectured until I’m blue in the face about how Thucydides and Sophocles are talking about the same problems in pre-Peloponnesian-War Athens, but the exam essays answering the question "How are Thucydides' and Sophocles' views of Athens similar?" always came back in the form of a laundry list. I never managed to get students to think about it like a classicist until I had Aeschylus, grandson of that Aeschylus, introduce my students’ avatars to the grand-daughters of Pericles.

And the way I see this difference is in a trivial little mechanic I used for the very first time: team annotation. The texts for the course are all on Google Docs (all public domain), and the operation team earned Hellenism Points every time they commented on the text. Casually, at the end of the course, they drew connections between Plato and Homer, Aristophanes and Thucydides in those little comments that were hardly bigger than tweets, and then they shared those insights with their individual character-teams as they deliberated on what action to take in 399 BCE without even realizing that they had absorbed an understanding of ancient Greek culture far more nuanced than that of the A-students of past years.

I think that’s because they knew they needed to use the intel in these texts to figure out how to meet the challenges their characters face in ancient Athens. At the end of the operation, they were trapped inside Plato’s head as he tried to figure out how to deal with the death of Socrates. The ΜΗΝΙΣ operatives had to figure out how to help him, by explaining to him why he wrote what he wrote. They couldn't have done that unless they understood how he agrees with Thucydides and Euripides about the reasons for Athens doing things like killing Socrates.

Their final exam--their final boss fight--was of course to justify, on the basis of everything they’ve read and “seen,” their characters’ votes to convict or acquit that same Socrates. And when they did that justification, to my great joy, they voted as Athenians. That is, they achieved the learning objectives of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies 1101.

This post originally appeared at