Teaching Ancient Religion Post-Covid

This TLAR meeting will explore the impact of covid on how ancient religion pedagogy is currently being done, and might be done post-covid.

Fri, 2 July 2021 14:45 (for 15:00) – 16:15 BST

This meeting will explore the impact of covid on how ancient religion pedagogy is currently being done, and might be done post-covid.

TLAR meetings to date – always in-person events – have focused on issues in teaching and learning ancient religions in the classroom​. This session will provide an opportunity to explore the impact of covid on how ancient religion pedagogy is currently being done, and might be done post-covid.

The meeting will be structured around presentations of covid teaching experiences:

  • Tyler Jo Smith (Virginia) – Leaps of Faith: Teaching Athenian Art and Religion as Performance Post-COVID
  • Irene Salvo (Exeter) – Religion in Livy between lockdown teaching and contemplative pedagogy.
  • Ralph Anderson (St Andrews) – On launching a new module in lockdown (and some very early thoughts on Greek religion and decolonising the curriculum)

We would very much welcome input from participants from a range of countries to explore different (and perhaps similar) experiences of teaching religion during the pandemic, including, potentially, use of Zoom and other platforms, blended teaching, what’s worked/not worked, how students have responded, looking ahead post-covid, whether ancient religion teaching has translated differently than other topics to remote learning.

Further information also here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/tlar-teaching-ancient-religion-post-covid-tickets-152148762043 


About TLAR

The TLAR (Teaching and Learning about Ancient Religions) network was set up by Esther Eidinow (Bristol), Susan Deacy (Roehampton) and Jason Davies (UCL) in November 2013 during a colloquium at Roehampton. Our aim is to establish an international network interested in teaching and learning about ancient religions. This reflects a sense that there is something distinctive about this particular area, even within the broad field of classics. Our initial expectation is that the centre of interest will be the classical world though we are not deeply interested in patrolling boundaries on this.

Material Culture and Ancient Religion: Suggestions from a Museum and University Collaboration


Material Culture and Ancient Religion: Suggestions from a Museum and University Collaboration

Dominic Dalglish (Oxford)

Wednesday October 16th, 2019; Room B05, Darwin Building, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, 5pm-6pm

One of the stated aims of the Empires of Faith project (2013-2018, British Museum & Oxford University) was to explore ways of better understanding religion through the study of material culture. In this session, Dominic Dalglish, one of the members of the project, will discuss the range of activities undertaken over five years including the Imagining the Divine exhibition (Oct. 2017 – Feb. 2018, Ashmolean Museum), the Talking Religion program for postgraduates, and their work with local religious communities through the photography exhibition, Those Who Follow (Nov. 2017 – May 2018).

Discussion themes will include:

  • Is ‘material religion’ a discipline? Is it relevant to the ancient world? Can we ‘teach’ it?
  • How do we use material objects and their associated images to think about religion when removed from archaeological contexts?
  • How do we teach the skills of analysis that allow students to do more than work with just the material in front of them?
  • How can collaborative approaches help to develop these skills?
  • What use can be made of presenting research to a public audience?
  • What is the value of considering modern responses to religious material culture for the study of ancient religion?

The room is on the basement floor and is accessible for wheelchair users via stairs and a lift. Information about accessing the venue is available here (opens in new window): Accessing UCL’s Darwin B05. If you will be using a wheelchair or have mobility questions by all means contact Jason in advance to look for you, and provide any assistance you might need.

All are welcome. Please send any inquiries to esther.eidinow@bristol.ac.uk, s.deacy@roehampton.ac.uk, or j.p.davies@ucl.ac.uk.


Ancient Deities in Bloomsbury: A Walking Tour

Thursday July 18, 2019, starting at 4.15pm. Please gather outside the Montague Place entrance of the British Museum. Led by Dr Tony Keen, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Notre Dame (USA) in England.

The walk looks at the way mythological gods, goddesses and other figures are embedded in the architecture of the Bloomsbury area of London.

There is no charge for the tour, but please let us know if you plan to attend (to aid logistics). Bearing in mind the current inclement weather, we will send a message to the Classics Liverpool list at 2pm on Thursday July 18 to confirm that the walk will take place as well as tweeting (@tlarnetwork).

Visiting the Oracle: An Immersive Experience

One challenge in teaching ancient religion is that you need to evoke the kinds of experiences that are profoundly unfamiliar.

Esther Eidinow and a team of Bristol students have used 360-degree video to give their audience a sense of what it might have been like to consult an Ancient Greek oracle.

Visiting the Oracle: An Immersive Experience is intended as a teaching resource. It consists of four short films that re-enact historical oracular consultations at the ancient Greek oracle of Zeus and Dione, at Dodona in Epirus. The films can be viewed separately or as one, longer film (‘in one film‘).

This immersive version of oracular consultation is the beginning of a larger project: if you have feedback about these films or want to learn more about the project, please email esther.eidinow@bristol.ac.uk



Classical Myth as a Learning Opportunity for Autistic Children

The Hercules panel in Roehampton University's Adam RoomWhat would Hercules do? Turning classical myth into a learning opportunity for autistic children

Professor Susan Deacy (Department of Humanities, University of Roehampton)

Thursday 6 December, 1–2pm 2018, Adam Room, Grove House, Roehampton (Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Special and Inclusive Education – CIRSIE)

“Elitism runs deep in my discipline: classics. Yet classics is changing, including through the work of democratically-minded classicists who are to seeking to surmount the structural and historical factors that perpetuate classics as a subject that excludes particular groups. This paper will concern a project I have developed to bring classics to a particular public: autistic children.

I shall briefly introduce the rationale behind my project, which I began after a meeting in 2008 with a Special Needs teacher who told me that, in the experience of herself and her colleagues, autistic children engage especially well with learning about an aspect of the classical world, namely its myths. I began thinking that this might be the case, and, then, started to wonder how I could contribute as a classicist whose key interest is in classical myth. My academic life was transformed from this moment, leading, for instance to a role as a disability co-coordinator and a blogger: https://myth-autism.blogspot.com/. Indeed, my paper will include a brief recommendation of blogging: for immediate dissemination of research, for reaching a wider public, and for the opportunity to develop a more reflective voice to complement the traditional, results-focused, voice that dominates academic writing.

Above all, I shall discuss the first of three sets of activities that I have developed to encourage autistic children to negotiate issues that, challenging for any child, can be especially difficult for those with autism. These activities centre around Hercules, a figure who, I shall show, has particularly rich potential to engage autistic ways of thinking and being. The activities are part of a European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood: The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/ (2016-2021). As I shall set out, each activity is accompanied by educational goals which will help teachers decide which activity to use according to their goals and their students’ abilities. These are divided in relation to the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy of ‘cognitive,’ and ‘affective,’ goals, while a third part deals with the students’ social skills and how these are promoted through the activities.

I shall then share the outcome of a workshop, held autumn 2018, with specialists in autism research to seek expert feedback on the activities. When I come to market these resources more widely, the collaboration and endorsement of these professionals will be integral. I hope, too, that they will take up these resources for use in a therapeutic context. After this, I shall discuss a pilot study of the activities with pupils aged 5–11 in a specialist autistic unit in a London state primary school. I shall end by outlining my plans for further pilot studies. The Hercules activities I have developed are intended to be inclusive and thought-provoking – and fun. They offer an opportunity for autistic children to think about such matters as how to cope with new scenarios and change, and how to engage in decision-making. They also offer a gateway to classics for those whose access to shared aspects of culture can be particularly challenging”.

Approaches to Teaching Students with Anxiety: Meeting Report


September 13 2017, 10am-5pm, at the Institute of Classical Studies, Senate House, London room 349
Organised by Esther Eidinow and Susan Deacy

Supported by the Institute of Classical Studies; funded by the HEA (National Teaching Fellowship) and  CUCD Education Committee


This one-day event was set up in response to requests from the members of Teaching and Learning about Ancient Religions network. They identified it as an issue on which they would like help to enable them to support the needs of students. Increasing numbers of students are living with anxiety and anxiety-based depression, and those teaching them face a wide range of challenges in providing appropriate support. Religion is a key feature of many Classics/Ancient History programmes, and it can also generate a variety of specific concerns among students, exacerbating anxiety and mental health conditions.

We soon found that there was a broader audience for this topic, and the workshop developed accordingly. We invited speakers who taught at School-level, and who were teachers of different disciplines, including drama and history of art. We also advertised widely across the Liverpool List, reaching out to teachers of other areas of Classics, as well as asking colleagues to spread the word across disciplines within their institutions. We were grateful that people responded in the same spirit, and, as a result, the participants in the workshop came from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, including neuroscience and history as well as Classics and Ancient History, and comprised not only HE professionals but also secondary school teachers and school governors.

The Presentations

The presentations at the workshop offered individual case studies as well as more general investigations of the educational environment.

1. Narrative, Fantasy and Latin: A Teenager Talks about His Worlds.

Steve Hunt (Cambridge)

Steve began the day with an inspiring case study focused on his experience of teaching Latin to a student with mild Aspergers, as part of a small class of students who had chosen to take the language as an extra subject, taught via fortnightly classes. Steve identified a gap in the literature on supporting autistic students and other disabled students, namely a discussion of what students themselves experience. He reported on how, through talking about the stories in the textbook (the Cambridge Latin Course), the student was enabled to explore his own feelings, something that he otherwise found it hard to do. Steve brought out the role that stories play in language teaching and its potential for enabling students, with and without mental health issues, to learn about the lives of others.

A summary of Steve’s presentation is also available.

2. Supporting Postgraduate Students with Mental Health Conditions: The Role of Supportive Supervision

Chrysanthi Gallou (Nottingham)

Chrysanthi began her presentation with an account of her own experiences supervising a student with mental health issues. She expanded this with a presentation of the survey that this had prompted her to carry out into the experiences of supervising PGR students with mental health issues. This was conducted as her PGCHE project: it collected data from among staff in the seven departments of the School of Humanities at the University of Nottingham. In this paper, she used this research to explore the needs of research students with mental health conditions,  examining how these conditions may affect their ability to engage with their research. She went on to offer some initial answers to the question of how research supervisors can support these students more efficiently, and make the supervision process more effective and engaging.

3. Temples, Classrooms and C-PTSD

Emma Griffiths (Manchester)

Emma drew on personal experiences to explain how students’ anxiety can evolve into a form of ‘Complex PTSD’, where the experience of being in a learning environment triggers further anxiety and hence impedes learning. With a series of vivid images, she demonstrated the effects of this disorder, revealing how it distorts perceptions of people and places. Drawing in insights from the study of religion, she went on to show how, by thinking about how we define spaces as ‘sacred’, ‘formal’, etc., teachers can make simple changes to their teaching practice. These can support not only students with anxiety disorders, but also all students to feel more relaxed and focussed.

4. Thinking about Assessment: Formative Assessments and Anxiety: Essay Plans and Presentations

Gaby Neher (Nottingham)

One of the ways in which anxiety can impact on a student’s engagement with a course of study is through a drop off in attendance, particularly towards a course deadline. As Gaby explained, the ensuing vicious cycle of anxiety impacting on attendance, creating poor performance, leading to poor performance impacting on a student’s ability to engage with an assessment is well known and difficult to manage. Extensions for pieces of work often just shift the problem, rather than resolving it. Formative, scaffolded assessment may be one way to address some of these issues, and in this talk Gaby explored two case studies focussing on formative and summative assessment of both essay plans, and presentations.

5. MA Students: Mental Health and Magic

Jane Draycott (Glasgow)

Jane brought us back to ancient religions and magic by discussing the development and implementation of a module on Women, Witches and Witchcraft, which she convened at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David for the Classics department’s postgraduate courses. She described how the module originated (the requirements of the institution, rather than her own research interests), and the approach she took, bearing in mind the cohort and the students’ needs.

The text of Jane’s presentation is also available.


Emerging Themes

During the day, the discussions highlighted the following ideas:

  • The level and nature of support that teachers are expected to be able to provide to students with mental health issues: participants often observed the contrast in the approach taken to physical and mental health at universities. Specifically, whereas teachers are not expected to offer guidance/advice or support to students about their physical health, they are often expected to support students suffering from mental health issues. This is made worse by a lack of adequate resourcing for counselling services within institutions.
  • Lack of institutional support in times of crisis: Colleagues from different institutions stated that they had felt particularly unsupported by their institutions in times of crisis, for example, when students who suffered mental health issues blamed the lecturer for their own lack of progress. They observed that the structures for dealing with such complaints were not even-handed: for example, the student was not required to provide evidence to support their complaint, while the staff were required to gather evidence to show that this was not the case.
  • The lack of discussion around or support for the mental health of staff: there is a notable lack of provision of support for staff who are supporting students. It was observed that providing such support is stressful in itself; moreover, the experience may exacerbate existing mental health issues for staff.
  • The gendered nature of support for students with mental health issues: anecdotal evidence suggests that the provision of support for students with mental health issues falls largely on female members of staff. This can be a very time-consuming and emotionally draining process, which is difficult to record in official workload, and so tends to go unrecognised.



The workshop was intended to provide a space for shared reflection on the pedagogical issues raised by teaching students with anxiety. We aimed to offer participants a safe space within which to raise problems that they had encountered and discuss possible approaches that they had tried—with more or less success. This was very much ‘a toe in the water’, intended to raise awareness, build a network across institutions and encourage related initiatives. We are pleased that a number of ideas were raised by participants for taking particular themes and topics further, including a survey among Classics staff investigating experiences of mental health issues during their supervision of PGR students; and a workshop that would bring school and university teachers together to examine the challenges of teaching ancient religions.

Feedback from those present, via an anonymous survey sent a couple of days after the event was mostly very positive, though one respondent noted something that it will be important to address, especially if we continue conversations between HE and school teachers:

  • ‘It was very focussed on academic level and not so much on the teaching younger people. Academia and school education are two different fields and should be treated differently.’

Other comments included:

  • ‘The speakers were all very competent and talked about relevant topics.’
  • ‘I liked the different student cases and how teachers dealt with them.’
  • ‘The diverse topics covered; the vivid discussion after each paper.’
  • ‘This was an excellent and eye-opening event. Definitely worth attending more of this kind.’
  • ‘It was really helpful to be able to discuss the challenges students face in learning situations specific to our subjects. Student anxiety is a real concern and many of the established teaching methods we have (eg for language teaching) are tricky to use with mixed ability groups, or are framed in a way that student don’t find inclusive. Hearing about innovative practice and the things that worked was very helpful & made me feel more confident about teaching my new module this year.’







Personal Belief and Teaching Ancient Religions: from minefield to pedagogical tool

  • Room 243, Institute of Classical Studies, Senate House, London
  • May 3rd 2017, 5.30-7pm

Ailsa Hunt agm46@cam.ac.uk

Religion (along with sex and politics) is proverbially banned from the dining room, but what about the lecture room, class room or seminar room? Few teachers, I suggest, would feel confident about bringing their sexuality or political leanings into discussion, say, of a passage of Aristophanes, even if they did deem such a perspective useful. Personal religious beliefs are probably even less appealing, a minefield to be avoided at all costs in the name of impartiality. And it is easy to see how reluctance to talk about our own religious position could spill over into our pedagogical practice, resulting in students who feel that their beliefs are to be left at the door of the class room and reclaimed on the way out.

But is it reasonable, beneficial, or even possible to talk about ancient religions, whilst pretending that modern religions don’t exist? If you identify as Hindu or Catholic or agnostic, should you try to ‘dissasociate’ from your religious identity when teaching or learning about ancient religions? This presentation argues ‘no’, and does so by exploring pedagogically valuable ways of introducing the religious beliefs of teachers and students into the learning environment. I show how this can both kickstart and deepen students’ engagement with ancient religions, providing intellectual routes in, as well as intellectual blocks and challenges which are themselves informative. At the same time, I do not wish to diminish the difficulty of introducing personal belief into the class room: this is a minefield, but not one to be avoided at all costs. Thus my discussion focuses on appropriately bounded and sensitive ways that personal belief can be given not just a place in the class room, but a positive role to play within the learning dynamic.

Ailsa Hunt


Introduction. Short Description of the Lesson (Summary of the Last Part of the Talk)

(This post is a reflection by Elena on the session she gave for us. You’ll find that immediately below).

If we imagine a teacher preparing a series of classes on the religion of the ancient Greeks, we can easily forecast the problems that he or she will have to deal with. And I am not talking about the philological, historical rigour required, or about the choice of texts to use – although that’s all very demanding as well.

I am talking about the effort which every Classics teacher makes to predict and prepare for the educational needs of their students, to imagine and anticipate, right from the planning stage, their doubts and questions, interests, yes, even the bait which we need to use to lure them through the complex labyrinth of Classical studies. In the final analysis, after having carefully examined everything which has to be studied, we can’t escape the need to make the Classics more appealing, and to do this without compromising the rigour of the discipline.

With this in mind, and remembering the last points that have just been made (about how to make the Classics more appealing), a good choice of topic might be initiation rituals – the very phrase evokes exotic, intriguing, images and scenes.

However, it’s just these images and scenes that make the teaching challenge even greater: the theme of initiation rituals brings up many of the difficulties inherent in teaching ancient religions:

  • Difficulties of definition: what are initiation rituals? What did the Greeks themselves call them, was there an emic term? How do we now define them in modernity, and why do we define them as we do?
  • Textual difficulties: what are the sources on initiation rites? Do they date from the period in which the rites were practised (or at least close to that period)? Or are they much later?
  • Difficulties linked to the scarcity of sources: how can we reconstruct rituals, when the textual sources are few and far between? Or when the sources are very late and are describing archaic rituals? Do we turn to comparative methods?
  • And here is another problem which has to be tackled with regard to the ancient religions: should we use comparative tools? And if we should, with the initiation rites of which religions should those of the ancient Greeks be compared? With which methodological tools? Should comparisons be diachronic or synchronic? Or should we just not make them?

These are some of the problems that the teacher has in mind when he or she walks into the classroom and starts to teach ancient religions, very possibly to students who have been drawn to the class by their fascination with the idea of initiation.

This fascination is somehow connected with the so-called “vogue for initiation” that fascinated scholars until into the 1990s. In spite of the fact the we have no clear and indisputable proof of the existence of tribal male initiation rituals in Ancient Greece, scholars tried to apply Van Gennep’s pattern to many religious rituals and cults. Their work shed important light on the real initiatic phenomen of Ancient Greece: an initiatic way of thinking the world. Combining the inheritance of The Black Hunter, Buxton, and Graf’s later work, and – more indirectly – that of Propp, the extent to which initiation rites function predominantly at the mental level is becoming increasingly evident: at the level of a paradigm which permeates the very structure of the stories told in connection with certain myths and rituals, which are somehow patterned in terms of initiatory activities. It’s as if the people telling the story – it’s as if our sources – thought in initiatory terms, and gave an initiatory (even tripartite) structure to the events which they were describing. And so we read about heroes who move away from their communities and then, after undergoing certain trials, return transformed, bearers of civilization; or of rites which involve young men leaving, and subsequently being reintegrated into, their community; of ritual combat which, if one survives, sanctioned entry to a particular group or society; of celebrations with tripartite structures to symbolize the renewing of the community: the Hyacinthia in Sparta, for instance, or the Anthesteria. And doesn’t the story of Dionysus seem rather initiatory? And that of Achilles? Not to mention the Argives, who used to cut off their hair when they’d been defeated. I could go on forever, or at least until the point at which we have to ask ourselves: but – if we see initiations everywhere we look, is it not possible that we are seeing reality through an initiatory filter?

This last question is very challenging. Even more challenging, however, is the following question: how can we explain all this to our students? I tried to do it this year in the context of my Ancient Greek History source by applying the flipped classroom methodology and the cooperative learning.

First I introduced the problem of initiation rites in ancient Greece, using the traditional, frontal, method; then I gave them a task on a text or context of their choosing: to find a story or a context, of any kind, which they thought could be described in terms of initiation; third I corrected the task and gave them individual feedback, sharing the most important comments with the whole class; finally I gave them some chapters from The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians by Xenophon (2-4) and Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus (16-18) in class. After 20 minutes, I divided the class into groups of 4 and invited them to compare their work and prepare a synthesis of it. There was a total of about 15 groups. I managed to apply the cooperative learning approach by dividing them in groups: they had to cooperate in order to co-construct a body of knowledge, from a perspective of knowledge sharing and in a context of peer-to-peer activity.

In the last 30 minutes of the lesson I invited them to help me fill in a chart showing the – supposedly – initiatory elements. I drew this chart in a post on Edmodo and filled in the elements so that the students could follow the completion of the chart on the slide projector. The students from the different groups raised their hands up and conveyed the remarks of their group in order to share the acquired knowledge with their peers- and with me.

In the final debate we tried to challenge the initiatory interpretation of the agoge by speculating one or more initiatory filters. The results were amazing.


At the end of the module, I asked the students for eedback, which they  gave anonymously.  The questions were:

  1. How did you feel during the group work?
  2. (if applicable) Did you find it difficult to work with people whom you didn’t know well?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 5, how well do you feel you now understand the problem of the initiatory pattern in the study of the religions of Ancient Greece?

Here’s the feedback, divided into two columns: the basically positive and the more negative. The last two are very pertinent (and interesting), and so I’ve put them in the centre.

 Most positive

Least positive

Well, I think this approach should be used more often.

It’s a stimulating approach, but too time consuming.

Well, having to find an initiation story autonomously has made me understand the term “initiatory paradigm”.

It’s a useful approach, but tiring for us students.

Well, I thought I hadn’t understood but then, explaining to the group what I had understood, I realised that in fact it was more than I’d thought!

Shy people are more at ease in frontal lessons.

Working in a group, I perceived aspects of the problem that otherwise I’d have ignored.

I prefer frontal lessons for learning stuff. For learning methods,
though, group work and the inverted classroom.

Working in a group made me analyze the texts in greater depth.

In the group I had to waste time teaching people who knew less than me.

Seeing that the others had the same problems as me in the individual work made me feel more confident.

I don’t like group work because individual responsibility is lost.

I’ve been able to relate to people who have different ideas and feelings and knowledge to me.

It’s more important to work on stuff alone. 

It was easier to share my doubts with the group than to ask the teacher about them.

It was an experience that allowed me to clear up doubts and uncertainties about some things that I might not have realised I had if we hadn’t done the “fieldwork”

I really felt I was being a researcher, and it was a good feeling!

I enjoyed working on a text, and being able to apply the method I’d learnt.

It was difficult to throw myself into it. But without challenges we don’t get anywhere.

I think whether or not frontal lessons or flipped classes combined with cooperative learning work depends on the topic being studied. If I don’t know anything about a subject, I prefer frontal lessons, but if I do have a basic knowledge I prefer preparing at home first and then group work in class. 

For bibliography see E. Franchi, “Guerra e iniziazioni a Sparta e a Yulami:
il miraggio spartano nell’antropologia oceanistica”, in I quaderni del
d’oro on-line, n.3, 2010, pp. 193-227 and E. Franchi, “Destini di
un paradigma: il rito iniziatico tra antropologia e scienze dell’antichità”,
Mythos 5, 2011, pp. 175-90.

Teaching history of religion by comparing different religions: initiation rituals as a case study (Elena Franchi, University of Trento)

Senate House, Room 246 5.30 November 2, 2016

Elena Franchi (University of Trento- Department of Humanities: elena.franchi@unitn.it)

Download Flyer

In previous centuries religious phenomena – rituals, for example – tended very often to be explained through comparisons with similar rituals in another culture, regardless of the temporal and spatial distance between the different historical contexts.

This approach allowed scholars to understand some, but not all, aspects of the rituals concerned; however, comparisons were sometimes off-target and led to creative cultural misunderstandings (White 2006): this was exactly what happened in the case of the initiation rituals of boys in Ancient Greece (Graf 2003).

In fact, ancient Greek boyhood initiation rituals were constructed by comparing them with modern initiation rituals. These comparisons were, however, misleading. Indeed, civic rituals performed in Ancient Greece were described as initiation rituals stricto sensu by classicists adopting a widespread ethnographical paradigm (Franchi 2010).

The aim of my talk is to show how to teach initiation rituals in Ancient Greece by exploring, with our students: a) the similarities and differences between Greek and other initiation rituals; and b) the pitfalls of comparativism in connection with the paradigm of initiation rituals.

The talk will therefore address the following points:

  • the question of the initiation rituals of boys in Ancient Greece
  • the use and abuse of comparativism in studying Ancient Greece
  • how to teach the initiation rituals of boys in Ancient Greece by:
  1. reading translated documents about these rituals in Ancient Greece ( e.g. Xenophon; Plutarch)
  2. reading descriptions by classicists of these rituals in Ancient Greece (e.g. Jeanmaire 1939)
  3. reading translated documents about these rituals as they were described by 19th Century ethnographers (e.g. Herdt 1999)
  4. comparing the content of these documents and inferring creative misunderstandings
  • how to use the inverted classroom methodology (Baumgartner-Fraefel 2014) in teaching points 1, 2 and 3 and the cooperative learning methodology (Terwel-Gillies-van den Eeden-Hoek 2001) for point 4″.


S. Baumgartner, J. Fraefel, “Mobile Sprachräume. Mobile Unterrichtsszenarien in einem Forschungs- und Entwicklungsprojekt der Pädagogischen Hochschule Zürich”, in K. Rummler [ed.], Lernräume gestalten – Bildungskontexte vielfältig denken, Münster 2014, 213-218.

F. Graf, “Initiation: A Concept with a Troubled History”, in C. Faraone-D.B. Dodds, Initiation in Ancient Greek Rituals and Narratives: New Critical Perspectives, London-New York 2003, 3–24.

E. Franchi, “Guerra e iniziazioni a Sparta e Yulami: il miraggio spartano nell’antropologia oceanistica”, I Quaderni del Ramo d’Oro on-line, 3 (2010), 193-227.

G.H. Herdt, Sambia Sexual Culture, Chicago 1999.

H. Jeanmaire, Couroi et Courètes, Lille 1939.

J. Terwel, R. M. Gillies, P. van den Eeden, D. Hoek, “Co-operative learning processes of students: A longitudinal multilevel perspective”, British Journal of Educational Psychology (2001), 71, 619-645.

R. White, Creative Misunderstandings and New Understanding, The William and Mary Quarterly, s. 3, 63 (2006), issue 1, 9-14.


With thanks to the Institute of Classical Studies for their hosting us.

Threshold Concepts and Teaching Ancient Religion: a Trifold Approach#2 (Jason Davies, UCL)


6TH BIENNIAL THRESHOLD CONCEPTS CONFERENCE: Thresholds on the Edge…June 15-17, 2016 at Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada

Having given a talk to ancient historians about using threshold concepts in September 2015 for this Teaching and Learning Ancient Religion Network, I then gave a talk about ancient religion to threshold concept afficianados at the biennial Threshold Concepts conference at Dalhousie University in June 2016. Both proved a bit ambitious in the sense that we could only begin to touch in the tricky aspects of each, but it was a start. This is written for this blog (ie ancient religionists) but I might redescribe it elsewhere for that audience. This particular piece has ended up being much more of a thought experiment than a report, but that’s being reflective for you…

The threshold concepts community is eclectic, a motley crew of many but not all academic disciplines, sharing a common interest in a useful heuristic tool (described in the first link above, but see also Mick Flanagan’s painstakingly maintained overview and bibliography). As I explained at Dalhousie conference, threshold concepts, as a pedagogic heuristic, seem to me to be particularly well suited to teaching ancient religion, given how teaching ancient religion requires the re-appreciation of existing materials (eg myth) without displacing the existing understanding: we don’t seek to overwrite the understanding of (eg) Ovid as literature and political commentary when thinking about the plentiful religious aspects of his writing, but to see it from a distinct perspective.

Some background

What is this idea, in a nutshell?

I’m suggesting that students start learning about ancient religion by first exploring, in a tangible way, some of the underlying ideas before they start tackling the ancient material. There are three stages:

  • Framing: introduction of a key transformative idea (threshold concept);
  • Struggle and experimentation;
  • Integration and application.

The ancient material really starts to feature only in the third phase. Generally we have been doing it the other way round, presenting students with material and warning them it might not make sense to start with. Gradually they start to identify ways of getting to grips with it but it can be hit-and-miss; more importantly they can be very unsure of whether they have understood. This also has a tendency to lock their understanding down to the ancient world when they are also learning some much broader and interesting conceptual stuff.

What are Threshold Concepts?

There is a brief outline in the preceding blog post.

Threshold Concepts and the Humanities

There is much discussion and some hand-wringing in that community about the humanities having rather a lot of potential threshold concepts, and it therefore being difficult to identify ‘key’ or ‘important’ ones. I can cheerfully reveal that not only are there an awful lot, but that there is actually very little else.

Scientists might confidently, and more or less successfully, ‘isolate’ patterns of relevance that are empirically repeatable, and then detect strange and wonderful insights amidst that material. However in (eg) History, the entire practice is discursive judgements: to study history is to make history and there is no more than the practice of it: that is why we don’t call it science.

So the material is not going to help dictate which threshold concept you work with in ancient religion, and since they generally implicate one another, it may be that it is not critical to find ‘the most important one’ though some are more amenable to the approach outlined here than others.

Why ancient religion and threshold concepts are a particularly good fit

One of the key issues with ancient religion is that people generally arrive already thinking they know what religion ‘is’ and a major task is to create enough space in their thinking to see that ancient religion is (probably) an (almost) entirely different creature from their assumed model. So if students begin to grasp it, it must be transformative (italics here indicate my running through the checklist of likely threshold concept features). Given how visceral many people’s position on religion is nowadays, especially with the hardening of atheist position, there are likely to be some troublesome aspects.

The second thing that has to be got across is that ‘religious material’ is potentially anything we know about the ancient world. The gods are potentially implicit in any account or omission, any action or inaction.

Thirdly, ‘religion’ tends to come in a single module in the latter part of a relevant degree (and students from another degree course entirely might be doing it): therefore it must be integrative and reconstitutive. There is more: understanding religion should not displace the understanding gained in other modules. Myth is still public literature, still enmeshed in power relations, statecraft and professional rivalry: seeing it as religious is a distinctive aspect, do the understanding must remain bounded.

Because it is not possible to cover every possible piece of evidence, we must try to get the appropriate historical gaze across to students so that they will be able to tackle new material in a distinctively religious way: as such it needs to be irreversible: there are findings across the disciplines that show that even if students can use sophisticated analysis in familiar contexts, it is not uncommon for them to revert to unproblematised assumptions when facing new material or situations. We want them to be able to recognise when they can usefully bring a religious perspective to bear. (I should probably clarify at this point that phrases like ‘religious perspective’ do not mean ‘interpreted according to religious ideas’ but rather ‘responsibly and historically interpreted as religiously significant in that context’). Thus it also invokes Meyer’s and Land’s take on liminality which (departing rather from anthropological ideas of initiation) involves crossing and re-crossing the threshold of understanding: it can be messy really mastering a threshold concept.

All of this is quite tricky to keep track of in one module. With this many considerations, it is difficult to design a curriculum that keeps these at the centre. There is also (let’s not forget) quite a lot of material we want them to become familiar with.

Why a structured approach to using Threshold Concepts?

The rationale behind formulating a structured way of using threshold concepts is that it emphasises the way threshold concepts describe learning
as a process which, like the initiation model that indirectly underpins it, has a distinct beginning, middle and end. One reason is therefore simply that we may as well organise ourselves explicitly and openly according to our method.

But the second reason is to permit and encourage teachers to take the lid off and find an approach and curriculum that not only works for them but also throws it open to students playing to their strengths or picking up possibilities that intrigue them and which they can see a relevance in. If you structure it right, you can give them room to fail, be eccentric, bring things to your world you had never heard of and most importantly, work something out by thinking it through in new ways (there’s a nod here to the anthropologist Timothy Ingold and Lego Serious Play which, if done well, can be surprisingly profound).

This expansiveness grounded in the students’ own world is what educational strategies like UCL’s Connected Curriculum set out to promote (judging from the general interest, this is coming from my university to yours in the near future).

To put it another way, can we find a a way to stretch their understanding in a way that is closer to serious play than frivolous work? The trifold approach I’m suggesting is obvious to anyone who is familiar with initiation as framed by van Gennep, so obvious it took me years to see it. Threshold concepts is the ideal launchpad for teaching and learning as initiation (not like initiation but as initiation).

Since the audience in this second talk was familiar with threshold concepts already, the trick was to tell them enough about ancient religion to understand how my suggested ‘trifold approach’ might work. I suspect all I did was baffle many of them. I originally intended to paraphrase the session as a report below but what emerged was a fuller piece thinking through some of the things there was not time for, so it’s more of a commentary and supplement.

A trifold approach

My proposed method was the same as presented in September but presented differently as it involved explaining just enough about ancient religion to get us started.

1. Framing: presenting a threshold concept in the abstract

In van Gennep’s scheme, this would be the initial separation of the initiands from the familiar. The task here is to re-present the world as unfamiliar, loosen the already-always understanding that they have. By ‘framing’ I mean choosing a threshold concept to work with and frame the material when we get to it. Other fields have taken a similar approach, explicitly foregrounding the threshold concept.

In very simple terms this means that the module opens with an explanation of what’s going on: before we address the ancient material, or what ‘religion’ was in the ancient world, we are going to explore ‘transcendsnce’ (or ‘ritual’, ‘belief’, ‘pilgrimage’ etc). Thinking in terms of curriculum planning, this session would involve setting people up to go off and ponder. Remembering that absolutely the hardest thing in teaching is explaining an activity that is perfectly clear to whoever devised it, this will probably take up the whole session.

What are you asking them to do? To find examples or explorations of the nominated concept and return able to articulate something about it. Here are some suggestions:

Let’s say you nominated pilgrimage. As will become clear, this is more accessible than many others.

Possible ways to explore this:
– research actual pilgrimages, preferably to familiar landmarks and find out where people came from. Get ethnographic accounts or travel diaries.
– design a pilgrimage from their home to the next teaching session
– redescribe a recent holiday as a pilgrimage
– create an artefact representing pilgrimage.

The point is that they should immerse themselves in the experience somehow, get inside it, taste it. If they hate it, they can say what they hate about it (possibly more revealing than enjoying it). Of course they have to work out what is the difference between being a tourist, an immigrant and a native.

Or you might nominate ritual. You will need to prime them not to be entirely negative (the default in our society). Ritual as structured and automated decisions and declarations are everywhere. Rappaport’s idea of ritual as ‘digital versions of analog processes’ might be a useful reference point here. Why do we vote every few years? Why are you legally an adult the minute you reach 18? Why does the Queen become absolute ruler of the country for a few moments between Prime Ministers?

They could:

  • go to a ritual (politely) and observe what goes on and their reactions
  • keep a diary of things that might usefully be ritualised (rotas for washing up, anyone?)
  • identify all the apparently arbitrary moments that their lives are structured for them (Timetables? Opening hours of shops?)
  • design a day in their lives as ritualistic and live it at least once, noting their experience: set mealtimes, eating in silence — things like that.

And of course you would run the following teaching session as a ritual.

One more example: if it is ‘transcendence’ then they might be prompted to think about:

  • electricity
  • light
  • matter
  • silence
  • (potential for) life

Then send them out to struggle with the concept, not to master it, solve it, answer it or anything like that: explicitly to struggle, to find what doesn’t make sense, to experience it without understanding it, and to come back ready to articulate that somehow.

2. Struggle: getting one’s head inside the abstract threshold concept

This phase is conducted outside the classroom. It consists of following the kinds of cues suggested in the framing but very much with their being able to devise their own version of the activity.

Calling this phase ‘struggle’ is very deliberate: it will not come easy (if it does, little is being learned). Send the students out into the world (or do an activity) that has them think hard, and problematically, about the nominated concept, and generate materials of some kind to show and discuss with the rest of the group.

This is where all sorts of interesting possibilities (and ‘failures’) arise. The important bit is that they create something (or, not as good, come across an artefact) and then get a chance to articulate what transcendence is in relation to that.

So this might occur in two parts: the identification or creation of an artefact, and a commentary on it. In fact, what we might hope for is something where it is difficult to articulate everything the student has seen. Someone might look at a blank piece of paper and be inspired by the idea that it implies an infinity of ideas. Should they wish to run with that, you might suggest finding a range of papers, from cheap A4 to vellum and or virtual spaces, and consider how that material ineluctably implies a certain kind of writing or representation — your cue for considering inscriptions as a genre…) Someone else might try to build something out of Lego that implies transcendence yet locatedness (cue prayer, statues and temples). Another might make a short movie of abstract shapes (cue finding of meaning in shapes and phenomona — dreams? divination? After all Artemidorus mentions divination by cheese-making….).

This phase requires the teacher to be responsive in various ways to guide and prompt; at this stage they don’t know that much about ancient religion, after all. You might give them short group meetings to discuss ideas and quick responses shortly after setting the task.

I’m not suggesting anything incredibly elaborate: this is something to get them started thinking without getting stuck in ideas about religion as religion. I’ll run with ‘transcendence’ in the examples below.

3. Integration: bringing it to bear

The exact form you might want to give this will vary: you might have a series of ‘show and tell’ activities; you might create a VLE activity where they show the artefact and do a short commentary, either audio/video or written. Then they have to familiarise themselves with at least (eg) five contributions and come to a seminar able to discuss it briefly.

The critical bit will be that they need to articulate something about the artefact in relation to the threshold concept: that’s where the learning will be. I would suggest setting some kind of minimum compliance level that is compulsory but not assessing this work summatively.

So at this point you will students in a variety of positions: some will have really seized on something, preferably beyond their ability to articulate it fully; others will perhaps be feeling very stumped and in the worst-case scenario, be in danger of withdrawing psychologically. You can head some of that off by stressing that the ‘normal’ teaching will follow (we are perhaps 2-3 weeks into a 10 week module here). Some will not see the relevance, and so on.

However, as you then present the material in a more conventional way, you can ongoingly integrate it with aspects of the threshold concept that came out in the early phase. Translations could be provided that bring out (or play down) aspects of transcendence, for instance. In a sense this phase lasts for the vast majority of the module (though I can imagine repeating the threefold cycle in the second half).

To prevent students getting stuck on there being only one important threshold concept, you can bring the structure of threshold concepts themselves to the fore, so that you can introduce further ones as the course progresses. As they get to grips with using them, you will be able to signpost difficult ideas, or indicate there is more to them than might initially be apparent: ‘we should probably treat that as a threshold concept’. Hanging signs saying ‘tricky — expect to struggle to get your head around this’ can shape their expectations appropriately.

An outline curriculum

Below is a suggestion for what a curriculum might look like, to ground the previous discussion.

Curriculum 1: Religion in the Graeco-Roman world

Let’s have a general ten-session course on the traditional classical world, based on transcendence as our starting threshold concept.

1. Introduction (framing): ‘transcendence’, threshold concepts and ancient religion

Introducing the notion of threshold concepts briefly, and outlining transcendence as a relevant theme. Ancient religion can initially be framed as a set of interesting and difficult questions about a wide range of material.

A few examples (glimpses) eg temples, prayers, moments in literature, role of religion in political life in one or two examples (preferably slightly contrasting)

Task set: create an artefact and start a commentary on transcendence.

2. (Struggle)

Have some interim ‘am I doing this right?’ presentations or seminar discussions about transcendence and where they are going: students present something or discuss something. Depending on numbers this might be in groups, with PGTAs and so on.

3. (Integration)

Now the group brings out all kinds of issues around transcendence; some might have a model temple (virtual or actual); some have written a prayer explaining to a deity why they cannot get to the temple but asking for help regardless; some found out about electricity, complete with a diagram about how batteries work; another with an Escher-like model to represent infinity in a physical or notional form. Some kind of general discussion can draw things out and link them together. It’s a sort of solo-yet-group effort to get to grips with it all.

4. Politics and Religion

Now we have more traditional presentation of issues: different states with different arrangements with their gods. We think here about the role of the gods in public institutional life.

What was going on when Athens built the Parthenon? Why did Roman generals vow temples in battle (or more interestingly, why didn’t they, sometimes?) Temples and statues can be brought in steadily with a circling around transcendence. You might also bring in something on divination here, and the relationship between military (or local) advisors and those back home.

You might organise chronologically or more thematically.

5. ‘Private religion’

Was there any? What does it mean if there was? Henotheism; monotheism. Perhaps philosophers in this session. Vows, pilgrimage and so on. Seems a good moment to start worrying in earnest about ‘belief’ as a possible threshold concept.

6. Oracles and divination

Also luck, fortune, destiny and so on. More importantly, can we integrate this kind of stuff into ‘real’ lives? How transcendent was it? What was being transcended? And what can we appropriately call ‘beliefs’.

7. Religious alternatives

Assuming the course is anchored in a pagan perspective, what other religious ideas were present in antiquity, and how did they affect traditional religion? Obviously Christianity has to feature at some point but this would also include alternative ways of living and organising (eg the Bacchanalia of 186 BCE), Judaism, Manichees, cult of Theos Hypsistos and so on.

8. Religious transformation

Imperial cult might get closer scrutiny here than before, and again, Christianity but this time as the new imperial religious mode, after Constantine. You might direct special attention to the threshold concepts you’ve been working with: what was distinctive about Christianity in terms of transcendence and beliefs? That could be a springboard for drawing in other aspects: don’t get locked into the threshold concept you started with.

9. The religion of everyday life

As part of the tying-up of the course, this session could be two or three snapshots at different times and in different places, perhaps working with inscriptions and archaeological records, showing how religion permeated life in the ancient world.

10. What sort of religion?

The final session could be a review: by now, we would hope that the students had used the threshold concepts as a ladder or trellis and gone past them. This could be a chance to bring in a new element that acts as a capstone or new element (to drive home that our enquiry is never complete), or to look beyond the module to wider issues, such as the organisation of cognitive life by institutional strictures. Or it might be a deconstruction of secularism.

This kind of curriculum might seem light on material compared to the information-rich (or -dense) ones that we are accustomed to but the explicit focus on modes of understanding forces that material to be ancillary to the understanding rather than constitutive of it. Learning (about) ancient religion needs to be more than just cramming material in though: it is deeply hermeneutic and constructed.