Bridging the Gap Between First and Third Year Greek Courses with an Online Commentary to Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus
|December 23, 2013||Posted by Norman Sandridge under Online Education Forum|
Norman Sandridge, Howard University, Center for Hellenic Studies
Before I talk about how a collaborative online commentary can be part of a responsible Greek major, I want to echo Ryan’s point about collegiality in Sunoikisis. Besides creating opportunities for undergraduates at smaller institutions, Sunoikisis enables faculty to create ad hoc departments full of colleagues with similar interests and passions. I want to thank the “department” that has been kind enough to have me as a colleague for the past three years, namely, those who helped create the Education of Cyrus commentary: David Carlisle, Ryan Fowler, Allen Romano, Sarah Ferrario, and Jennifer Gates-Foster. I also thank Ryan Fowler, Kristina Meinking, and Kenny Morrell for inviting my students and me to participate in the introductory Greek course that Kristina is going to speak about next.
For my presentation I’m going to try to do four things:
- First, I will explain how the The Education of Cyrus, or Cyropaedia, cries out for collaborative commentary.
- Second, I will describe the advantages of a collaborative online commentary over the traditional book commentary and the single-author online commentary.
- Third, I will explain how the Cyropaedia commentary fits into the Sunoikisis Greek curriculum that Ryan has introduced, including a report on how the commentary has been used by undergraduates.
- Fourth, I will offer some final thoughts on how our commentary, known as Cyrus’ Paradise, can be considered “responsible”.
My presentation will be narrower than Ryan’s, in the sense that I’m talking about a single text and how an online commentary meets the needs of a third-semester Greek course; but my presentation will also be broad, in the sense that the mode of online commenting I describe can work with any text and serve the needs of any language course
To begin, I want to say briefly what the Education of Cyrus is, so that it will be clear why it requires collaborative commentary. The Cyropaedia was composed by Xenophon around 365 BCE. It provides a largely fictitious account of the Persian king Cyrus the II, who is also known as “the Great” because he was the first king of a vast multinational empire that lasted over two centuries. From Xenophon we learn about Cyrus’ youth in the Persian educational system, then his conquests, culminating with the sack of Babylon, and finally his very Socratic deathbed speech to his sons. An epilogue that some have deemed spurious tells of Persian decline after Cyrus’ death. Xenophon’s purpose for writing the work is, seemingly, to educate would-be leaders with the example of Cyrus.
Even though it is true that any ancient text requires an interdisciplinary approach, this is extremely true of the Cyropaedia. To know the work well one needs to know fourth-century Greek prose, particularly the historical and philosophical context in which Xenophon wrote. Ideally, one would be familiar with the Greek language from Homer to Plato because Xenophon draws heavily from the vocabulary and motifs of earlier authors. One also needs to know Achaemenid history and archaeology in order to figure what is Greek and what is Persian about the Cyropaedia’s characters, themes, values, language, and artifacts. One needs to know Cyrus in other Greek historians like Herodotus and Ctesias. And it doesn’t hurt to know about narratology and Iranian folklore; the Cyropaedia after all has been described as the first novel in “western” literature. Moreover, the reception of the Education of Cyrus spans from Alexander the Great through the Roman Republic and into the Renaissance, then on to the founders of the US constitution. Even today Cyrus is important for Iranian and Iranian-American political identity (note the recent tour of the Cyrus Cylinder in the US).
With this background I want to talk now about the commentary itself. I won’t go over everything in detail; those who want more detail may follow the slide show tutorial on the webpage. I will highlight some of the features of the commentary that enable a remarkable amount of intergenerational collaboration and new discovery. (I’ll explain what I mean by “intergenerational” in a moment.) Those of you who have a laptop or an iPhone may follow this part of the presentation by going to www.cyropaedia.org.
Cyrus’ Paradise operates on the CommentPress platform, which is both a theme and a plugin to WordPress. The main layout of the site consists of text on the left and commentary on the right. As with any blog, you can supplement the text with multimedia and links. The site also contains a normal blog page that features scholarly investigation at any stage of development. There are, by the way, a number for recent posts on the reception of the Cyropaedia and on Xenophon’s use of Iranian folklore.
One of the more innovative modifications we made to the site is what we call a question-based style of commenting. For example, if you click on the comments for Cyropaeida 1.1.1, you will see that one question is Why does Xenophon introduce his narrative with a reflection rather than a direct statement? If you are interested in an answer to this question, you can click. You may read the replies and if you are satisfied, you may move on. If not, you may pose follow-up questions or give your own answer. If you are not interested in the question at all, you can continue scrolling for a question that does interest you; or you may pose your own question.
To my knowledge no one has ever done a commentary that introduces comments by posing questions. In a book this would take up too much space, and the only one who could answer the question is obviously the author. The most a reader can do to search for information in a book is skim the comments or index. By contrast, a question-based style of commenting has the advantage of organizing dozens of otherwise untethered comments. And this approach invites more discussion than traditional online commenting. For example, if someone comments on a passage and you reply to it, you run the risk of challenging that commenter, whereas you are helping the commenter if you supply your own answer to the question posed. Also, it may be that you have a really interesting question you don’t know the answer to. You can benefit the users of the commentary by opening up new avenues of investigation. Such a feature is particularly valuable to readers who are new to a text or who may be introducing a new methodology. Finally, this question-and-answer approach lays bare the process of scholarly inquiry, warts and all, including misunderstandings and false starts, which can serve to caution those headed down a similar path. In short, the comment threads are like Socratic dialogues, in which participants are all philologists in the truest sense: they love hearing accounts of things.
In addition to being organized according to questions, the comments and blog posts are fully searchable. So, for example, there are 25 comments, four blog posts, and 19 bibliographical entries that mention Herodotus; these pieces of information would make good starting points for an investigation into Herodotus’ influence on the Cyropaedia. What is interesting about this search is that the comments and posts were left by different users. There is thus implicit collaboration built into the commentary unintentionally. We are all in effect “writing” a paper on Herodotus in the Cyropaedia every time we talk about Herodotus. This feature holds particular promise for undergraduates and grad students new to the work.
The commentary may also be searched according to commenter. So, if you want to see how a particular scholar interprets the Cyropaedia, you can. If you are looking to hire a new colleague, you have the chance to see how your candidate engages in scholarly debate. Is she knowledgeable? Is she helpful? Is she polite? Since all the comments are time-stamped, you have the opportunity to see how a commenter’s views evolve over time.
So far I have been discussing Cyrus’ Paradise in a way that might suggest that it is designed primarily for professional research. But this is not the case. Cyrus’ Paradise was designed from the outset to be intergenerational. The commenting feature of the site introduces students to the history of questions scholars have asked about the text. Even if students are not ready to answer these questions on their own, they can begin pondering them as they learn to read the text. The text on the main site is supplemented with multimedia and questions designed to spark the curiosity of beginners and experts alike. Most importantly, the first four chapters of Book One are supplemented with tutorials on all the available grammatical, syntactical, and vocabulary resources. Users hover over the footnotes and then link directly to relevant passages in Smyth and Goodwin. Students can even listen to a reading of the text and, as with any blog format, they can have their own discussions. Their comments and questions may guide future students on a similar path. One advanced undergraduate at Illinois-Wesleyan, Melissa Huang, has participated quite a bit on the site. She posed questions about the Cyropaedia in its historical context and offered helpful bibliography on the influence of the Cyropaedia on Alexander the Great.
Given this present focus on students, I want to explain now how Cyrus’ Paradise fits into the Sunoikisis curriculum as a third-semester Greek text. So far it has been used at three institutions: by Nancy Sultan at Illinois-Wesleyan, by David Carlisle at Cornell College, and by Joe Jansen at Rhodes College. It has yet to be used in a collaborative course on the model Ryan discussed, though in all iterations members of Sunoikisis have consulted on how to organize the course and have fielded questions from faculty and students. For example, in Nancy Sultan’s course I regularly engaged in discussion with Melissa Huang on the commentary. These resources, both live and electronic, are particularly useful for faculty at smaller institutions who may not be very familiar with the Cyropaedia but who like the idea of participating in a collaborative online commentary. I’d like to extend an invitation to anyone who would like to use Cyrus’ Paradise for a Greek course. I can promise we would be available almost daily to field questions and engage in discussion. It might also be a good opportunity to become involved in other Sunoikisis courses.
In Sunoikisis, Cyrus’ Paradise offers what we are calling a “bridge” course to the upper level Greek courses that Ryan talked about in his presentation. Specifically, the exhaustive grammatical and syntactical resources allow instructors to flip their classrooms and address more targeted questions during class. The audio recordings allow students to focus on the oral/aural components of learning a language. For example, you can have students write down what they hear on the recordings, have them make their own recordings, or even translate by listening (for example, you can have them imagine they are an interpreter at the UN). As Kristina will explain in the next presentation, the elementary Greek course uses vocabulary drawn heavily from Xenophon and it encourages students to spend most of their time reading passages about the young Cyrus.
The feedback on Cyrus’ Paradise from students and faculty so far has been encouraging. Students of course have long read Xenophon’s Anabasis in the third semester, but they appreciate the philosophical nature of the Cyropaedia and the interdisciplinary approaches to studying it. Joe Jansen has reported that the tools of the commentary have allowed him to cover more text than in a typically Greek III class and that an online commentary is especially useful to average students who might be reluctant to ask many questions in class.
I have so far tried to explain how Cyrus’ Paradise functions as a collaborative online commentary, and I highlighted the fact that this commentary was designed for students at all stages of Greek. This type of commentary has several obvious advantages over a book: it can hold more information, including multimedia; it can be edited and updated rapidly and at any time; it can incorporate a range of expertise no single scholar is likely to possess; it is searchable according to questions, commenters, and even individual terms; it is free and instantly available to anyone in the world. Cyrus’ Paradise also has advantages over other online commentaries, which, although very user friendly and erudite, are nonetheless produced by a single or at most only a few scholars. Consequently an online commentary that is not collaborative can expand only narrowly and at a linear rate. Because it relies on collaborative commenting, Cyrus’ Paradise has the potential grow exponentially.
From what we can tell based on anecdotal feedback from users and online stats, Cyrus’ Paradise is a popular and valued resource. In 2012, the first full year of use, the commentary’s pages were visited almost 13K times. In 2013 that number has increased by 30% to almost 17K page-visits at the time of this writing (Dec. 16, 2013).
But you may still be wondering about the quality of the comments. Who are the contributors to Cyrus’ Paradise? Can anyone comment? The answer is, no, only registered contributors can comment. Typically these contributors have an advanced degree in one of the fields pertinent to the Cyropaedia. But authorized contributors might also be students working on advanced degrees or even highly motivated undergraduates (as in the example of Melissa Huang above). Ultimately, users of the site have access to all of the available professional information on each authorized contributor.
You might also wonder, are all 1,100 of the comments on the site brilliant, succinct, and helpful? No, they are not, but neither is every comment in a Socratic dialogue. But like the participants in a Socratic dialogue, all of the authorized contributors bring informed questions and sincere attempts to understand the text. Comments are supported with parallel passages in Xenophon and other ancient texts, as well as secondary literature. None of the comments are sloppy, confusing, or ideologically biased. Those who use the site for scholarly papers will find ample bibliography and may site anything by commenter and date; each comment has its own web address. Worst-case scenario, users of the site may be inconvenienced by a wordy or unhelpful comment. No one is likely to be misled.
Another problem you may be wondering about is how do you get authorized contributors to give their best, most recent, and important work? This remains a challenge, both for us in the humanities and the sciences. For a good illustration see Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Discovery. Nielsen sees a classic tension between the good of the individual, in this case the scholar seeking academic recognition, and the good of the community, who stands to benefit immediately from open-source and expert information. One partial solution we have found is to have contributors share conference papers they have presented on recent scholarship or to summarize relevant passages of work about to be published as a kind of advertisement.
Our most successful attempt at getting the best work from contributors came in the form of an online symposium we hosted in June 2012. Approximately eighty participants registered for the symposium and around thirty made contributions to the site, some in the form of blog posts and some in the form of lengthy dialogues about the meaning of a single passage. This June we are planning another online symposium with targeted commenting on the most popular passages. Using the stats of most visited pages on the site, we can determine what is trending and what is most popular over time. I would invite any of you to participate in this online symposium (you don’t have to travel or stay in an expensive hotel). Finally, we are also exploring a procedure for giving authorized contributors scholarly attribution equivalent to a published article or book review. I won’t go into the details here, but would be happy to discuss in the Q & A.
In sum, my presentation has sought to illustrate both the need for a collaborative online commentary to the Cyropaedia and the means by which this commentary comes to serve the needs of the Sunoikisis Greek curriculum. I will go a bit further: we may have debates about who is allowed to comment or how to get the best work out of commenters; nevertheless online collaborative commentary is here to stay. Indeed I believe it is the future of reading all ancient literature. Going forward we may even see this collaborative commentary taking place over video rather than in writing.
To conclude this presentation, I want to pick up on one of the words in the title of our panel, “responsible”. There are many ways to think about the word “responsible” in this context, but we can focus on four here. First, a collaborative online commentary is responsible because it is free to all users. Second, it is transparent and democratic; in theory anyone is capable of adding useful content to the site, and we can all see who said what and when. Third, it doesn’t take a lot of money or a computer programmer to put a collaborative commentary together. I myself have almost no background in computer programming and could probably teach you how to create your own commentary over a long weekend. Fourthly, we may wonder if an online commentary is responsible enough to preserve a valuable place for the instructor in the home institution.
I think the short answer is, yes, though more discussion is certainly warranted. For a lot of reasons we will always need instructors to have regular face-to-face interaction with students. If anything, all of the activity I have witnessed in Sunoikisis requires more time and effort from faculty, albeit a very rewarding kind of activity. Instead of worrying that online tools may threaten our employment, I think it is helpful for us to highlight the many ways in which we can now enhance the student’s education and the new roles we can play in this process. Classics has always been interdisciplinary; we have always had the chance to talk politics, philosophy, archaeology, etymology, grammar, history and historiography all while reading a single paragraph of ancient Greek. Advances in the digital humanities, like the Cyropaedia commentary, allow us to make this point even more clearly. Looking ahead, I think an online commentary can enable us to do two more things:
- First, speaking for myself, I’m trying to become better at diagnosing the individual student’s talent, proficiency, and interest in the subject matter. Using Cyrus’ Paradise, I can challenge students to work on their own, but then use class time to figure out how well they’re doing with it.
- Secondly, I’m also trying to think more carefully about the reception of the texts I teach. What aspects and passages of a text like the Cyropaedia should be studied at this moment of time? Should we focus on leadership, Greco-Persian interaction, the history of the novel, or Xenophon’s elegant prose? Of course the answer will depend on what’s going on in the world, our campus, or in our own lives. But now we have the resources to be extremely flexible in entertaining these questions.
Apropos of these two goals, I want to close with a scene from the Cyropaedia. Early in Book One (Ch.4), Cyrus visits his ailing grandfather Astyages. Xenophon says that whatever Astyages needed, Cyrus was the first to leap up and tend to him. This passage is significant for the fact that it contradicts other versions of Cyrus’ relationship with Astyages. In Herodotus, Ctesias, and others, Cyrus makes war on Astyages in order to conquer the Medes. In Xenophon, however, Cyrus “conquers” Astyages by the exercise of therapeia, or what we might call “nurturing care”. He is the quintessential physician-leader. We, too, I think can think of ourselves as leaders and as physicians, who, by the way, have not been put out of work by medical websites like WebMD. Like physicians, we are in a position to diagnose the areas where students need to improve, and we can prescribe a very specific course of study to help the student become healthy. To extend this analogy, a collaborative online commentary may be thought of as a pharmacy from which we draw the healing drugs to treat whatever is ailing our students.