‘Socratic Friday’ with Dr. Michael Sloan’s Classics 261 Class on Greek Myth

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon where there were faculty members at each table and they talked to their non-faculty tablemates about what they taught.  I was seated with Dr. Michael Sloan of Classics.  He employs some very interesting teaching methods, including something he calls “Socratic Fridays.”  I had taken a Greek Myth class in undergrad and loved it, and I was intrigued by the idea of what the next generation of Classics classes looked like, particularly this thing called Socratic Fridays.

He explained Socratic Fridays as the old Socratic method of questioning students to see what they have learned.  Every Friday in class, he has a stack of index cards with each student’s name on it, and he calls out a name, has the student stand, and asks questions of him or her until he is satisfied.  One internet definition of the Socratic Method is this: “What is the Socratic Method?  Developed by the Greek philosopher, Socrates, the Socratic Method is a dialogue between teacher and students, instigated by the continual probing questions of the teacher, in a concerted effort to explore the underlying beliefs that shape the students views and opinions.”

Unlike my own time in undergrad, when Classics classes were somewhat modestly attended, this class had 64 people enrolled in a class that was originally slated for 50.  The high demand for the class appears be a testament to Dr. Sloan’s engaging style and youthful energy.  I was dying to see this class at work, and Dr. Sloan was kind enough to let me sit in the back and observe.  Here’s what I found.

First order of business was a quiz that all the students appeared to take on their laptops via Sakai, which is a suite of online educational tools we use.  This took about maybe 5-10 minutes.

socratic fridaysThen after the laptops were put away, Dr. Sloan announced “Welcome to the Agora [public assembly place]!  Stand and deliver!”  And he brought up a PowerPoint with a Jeopardy-type grid on screen that showed categories of Imagery, Gods, Quotes, Murders, and People.  There were five point total options at each question, ranging from 10-50.  I believe the students’ performance on the questions can add some points to their overall grade.

The first person who was to Stand and Deliver chose the Murders category and had to discuss the particulars of the Aegisthus and Clytemnestra murders.  She had to tell everything she knew about those murders.  Dr. Sloan probed a bit further and asked some follow up questions about the type of weapon that was used and why.  After he is satisfied with the answer, he allowed her to sit down again and thanked her for her comments.  (With subsequent students, he always thanked them, told them they did a good job, and/or pointed out something that they did particularly well.)

The next student to Stand and Deliver picked a real stumper of a question.  Dr. Sloan allows students to do the ‘phone a friend’ concept and ask someone else in the class for help.  In some cases, he is kind enough to suggest which student to phone for help.  And if a student is really stumped on the answer, he will help them by moving back to a lower point value in the same category with a different, easier question that can help lead the student to the answer of the original question they chose.

What I noticed throughout the proceedings was that if a student got an answer partially right, Dr. Sloan would redirect and ask additional questions to make sure the full question was covered.  My take was that he wanted to be sure that not just that student, but the whole class in general, got the full range of the intellectual point the question covered.

And lest you think that this is all dry and boring Greek myth that has no relation to modern life, you are wrong.  Throughout the questioning and some of his follow up thoughts, Dr. Sloan managed to bring in current events and tie them back to the text.  A theme of the text covered today was how in the Oresteia, there is a great deal of fury, and there are two ways a community comes together – either in mutual love of something or in shared hatred of something.

Dr. Sloan gave the example of how we might, as Deacs, be united in pulling against star basketball players from UNC and Duke when we play against them – but when those same students are playing on the USA Olympic basketball team we’ll root for USA because they are uniting for our country.  Common love of country trumps hatred of an individual blue-clad college player.

He gave a second example from the text.  The Furies stated we ‘have to have one common will for love and hate with one strong heart.’  History tells us that whatever civil strife we might have ends when there is a common enemy we must jointly confront.  He tied this to post-9/11, when patriotism was at an all-time high, or in wars between countries when everyone rallies around the flag.  It was interesting to watch how Dr. Sloan brought made these ancient texts come alive and related them to how we experience the world today.  Still relevant after so many centuries.

The more I observed the class, the more impressed I was.  The very nature of fragmented questions with varying levels of difficulty and a breadth of topics means he can’t do a straight-up lecture in logical order.  Based on which questions the students chose, he had to weave in themes and points.  It was almost like jazz – he riffed off the questions that got asked and kept the threads of various subjects weaving back and forth.  He was very nimble on his feet.  For me, it was a fascinating experience of class, and I can see why so many are clamoring to get his courses.

For those who want to know more, you can see Dr. Sloan’s profile here.  He also wrote an editorial in 2013 “In Defense of the Liberal Arts,” following some statements made by Governor Pat McCrory about the value of a liberal arts degree.

Many thanks to Dr. Sloan for letting me observe, and to his students for being good sports having a stranger in the back of the room.

PS – when you asked the question about what the Furies wore at the end, I was about 90% sure it was armor.  I hope I get partial credit!

 

— by Betsy Chapman

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