Beginnings — roundtable at Roehampton

This was where the network was founded…

Call for interest

This roundtable, supported by the Classical Association, will explore the experience of teaching, and being taught about ancient religion in HE institutions.Some of the challenges facing teachers and students of this subject include working with or against current attitudes to religious practice and beliefs (e.g., popular perceptions of the relationship between science and religion); difficulties in understanding abstract concepts such as belief or faith in a predominantly secular society; and showing sensitivity to the religious beliefs of individuals.Examining the experience of teaching and being taught about, ancient religion in HE institutions will help generate a deeper understanding of the experience of teaching and learning about sensitive subjects in HE more generally, and will provide a model for embedding interculturalism within the curriculum.This roundtable would be part of a larger project that aims to raise data about teaching and learning about ancient religion in HE institutions, which will start with an initial exploratory meeting of HE teachers and students on this topic (provisionally scheduled for Tuesday November 5th 2013 at the University of Roehampton, London). We hope that the roundtable will offer the opportunity to raise new topics, as well as deepen existing discussions, and to advertise the project to new participants.

Participants

Ralph Anderson, Hugh Bowden, Elena Chepel, Allan Cross, Jason Davies, Caroline Gudge, Theodora Jim, Katerina Kolotourou, Ellie Mackin, Alexander Millington, Lindsay Driediger
– Murphy, John North, Nick Lowe, Sonya Nevin, Keiran Redmond, Chloë Roberta Sadler, Irene Salvo, Hannah Saunders, Amy Smith, Julietta Steinhauer, Thea Woolf.

Opening and introductions

Organisers: Susan Deacy, Esther Eidinow

Bessborough Room, Parkstead House, University of Roehampton, LondonSusan warmly welcomed the participants to the Bessborough Room, a beautifully proportioned room in Parkstead House, Whitelands College; she pointed out the restored 1760s neoclassical temple in the gardens below, the capitals of which may have been collected from Italy by the 2nd Earl of Bessborough. After a brief description of the workshop’s origins and aims by Esther Eidinow, the meeting began with two brief introductory briefings.

Teaching and Learning: Believers and Unbelievers (Elena Chepel and Hugh Bowden)

Elena raised questions about the extent to which it is relevant and ethically permissible to draw parallels between ancient religious practices and modern ones, and to appeal to students’ own religious experience and upbringing. She pointed out the variety of contemporary religious practices, and how this destabilises the assumption that attitudes to religion are universal or self-evident. Depending on the context, it could be helpful to set out rules for acceptable modes of speaking in the teaching room. She also suggested that finding themes around which individuals could find commonality might be a useful approach: experience of religious practice might be one example.Hugh was concerned with the overestimation of the importance of abstract concepts in religion as it is actually practised. He argued that students are not necessarily coming with Christian or Jewish assumptions. More fundamentally, he drew attention to the way in which religion is characterised nowadays by many as something private to the individual, and a matter of choice, associated with liberal claims to freedom of thought and conscience; he suggested that comparisons to modern religion might not be a useful place to start when teaching ancient religion.The discussion that followed raised questions about whether or not it was a useful and/or necessary approach for teachers and students to identify their own religious beliefs, and if so how to do this (most felt that it was not helpful). The axis polytheism vs. monotheism was rejected as too simplistic a contrast to make between ancient and modern religions. Suggestions were explored for how to enable students to explore key terms.

Teaching and Learning: Terms and Concepts (Nick Lowe and Ralph Anderson).

Nick explained that he had come to find out how religion was taught around the country. He was interested by the question of how one draws a line around the topic ‘religion’ since ‘the secular’ does not really exist in the ancient world. He wanted to understand what he called the ‘pistics’ of the ancient world, and how we might go about examining what is, in effect, a mega-text of culturally invested narratives, both supernaturalist and naturalist.Ralph began by exploring the significance of the term ‘interculturalism’ which had been part of the workshop description, and asked how one should aim to position Greek culture as one of many. He explored the difficulties of using key concepts that we encourage our students to deconstruct and challenge: if we ask them to unthink their mental furniture and deconstruct their language, then don’t we rob them of an effective vocabulary and set of concepts. He pointed out that it is difficult to get students to engage with anthropological texts, and also to teach those that have no background in ancient languages.There was extensive discussion of how different teachers introduce theoretical concepts and theories to their students—whether this should be done initially or later in a course. There was also some debate about when students are ready to be taught about ancient religion: many argued that it was only possible once the students had sufficient historical knowledge, and so it had to be towards the end of their course. However, some participants had experience of teaching students with no background in ancient history, and noted that this did not in fact seem to be an obstacle. Some of the students present noted how useful they found it to be taught about religion as being a part of ancient culture more generally.It was noted that teaching ancient magic seems to introduce some similar problems to those of teaching religion, but also raised distinctive challenges related to students’ preconceptions and assumptions about the topic.

At the end of the morning, participants highlighted the following themes as topics that they wanted to pursue in more detail:
– Modularisation

  • Mixed groups

  • Which level?

  • Secularism

  • Manipulation

  • Language; terminology

  • Greek/Roman; Late Antiquity

  • Hands-on experience (e.g. sacrifice)

  • Religious interactions

  • Credulity (e.g. magic)

  • Belief

  • Learning outcomes

  • Selection of material

  • Frustration, including assessment

  • Backgrounds

  • Background of teachers

  • Pitch to religious/non-religious students

  • Mythology and ritual

These were summarised under the three headings ‘curriculum’, ‘content’ and ‘assessment’.

Curriculum, Content and Assessment

After lunch, the group returned to talk further about topics under these three broad categories. The afternoon discussion was structured around individual descriptions of teaching and learning experiences.Some teaching tools/approaches raised during the session included:
– Online blogging to explore themes—as groups or individuals
– Mind-maps to explore themes, questions or concepts
– Start with gods
– Introduce conceptual questions at the end of the module
– Try to bring elements of religion into modules on other areas
– Bring in current experience; make parallels with modern phenomena, e.g., processions

Concluding thoughts

It was decided:
– That the group would like to start a network: a mailing list will be developed
– A regular seminar series should be established: the final conference of this project will be the first of these. Suggested timing: end of 2014/early 2015. (Action: Susan, Esther and Jason Davies)

As many as possible will come to the roundtable at the 2014 Classical Association, at Nottingham. Topics for discussion in Nottingham were invited from the group, and included:

  • Resources for teaching: currently being used/that are missing
  • How ancient religion is taught in school/HE and focus on a topic on the school syllabus for Classical Civilisation
  • Teaching magic and teaching religion—overlaps and differences

The meeting was concluded at 4.30pm.

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