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?