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Digital Classics: Exploring the Wine-Dark Sea

“To study ancient Greece is to study what it means to be a human being in antiquity,” said Michael Laughy, assistant professor of classics. “When you look at the sculpture, the pottery, the architecture, you are going to encounter some of the greatest works in human history. But through these media you also encounter the spirited, dynamic history of the people who created these objects–the art of Greece tells the story of wars, democracy, mythology, trade and religion.”

Laughy’s research takes him to Greece, where he oversees the field excavations of Athenian Agora, the civic and commercial center of Ancient Athens. “When you’re on site, you are uncovering all sorts of material, from the 1950s and ’60s all the way to the Bronze Age,” he said. “When you uncover an inscription or an artifact, you’re the first person to see this in centuries. You don’t get that kind of experience pulling a book off the shelf.”

While Laughy would like to create a similar hands-on experience for his students in Lexington, the artifacts that he uncovers must remain in Athens. So he seeks other ways to bring the material alive. He often reconfigures the typical classroom structure–reading, lecture, exams–with a livelier syllabus incorporating digital technology to engage his students’ creative side. The use of computer apps is a growing trend in the humanities, and Laughy sees it as a natural fit for today’s students. “It’s tapping into the way this generation already sees the world,” he said. “They are remarkably at ease with the technology.”

The major class project for his Trojan War course involves a 12- to 15-minute documentary, which takes as much research, thought and preparation as a term paper. “Instead of just words, words, words, I want them to incorporate video clips, still images, music, all while telling a story,” said Laughy. “There still has to be a thesis, footnotes and source material, of course, but in this style of presentation they have to be thinking about their audience, too, all while having the freedom to experiment and make executive decisions. At the end of the term, we watch all the videos, and there’s a celebratory feeling in seeing what they’ve accomplished. I’ve been delighted by the results.”

Similarly, his Greek Art and Archaeology class also incorporates a digital approach. Throughout the term, students build a digital timeline of Greek artifacts, providing a detailed analysis of each object they post. “They become mini-experts in their area,” said Laughy. “As the timeline is populated by data points and images, students are able to see the relationship among artifacts in a three-dimensional way. Moreover, they begin to see how their contributions help the class as a whole.”

Digital technology also plays an important part in his Introduction to Greek course. “The challenge is that the language looks scary, and the textbooks that are out there teach you everything you would ever want to know about the language–an approach that can be overwhelming because there are a lot of dialects and rare forms,” he explained. So Laughy has adjusted his course in two ways. First, he focuses on reading not only on Classical but Biblical Greek, which is easier for some students to master. Second, there’s no textbook for his Ancient Greek language class. Instead, Laughy has created online presentations that focus upon the most essential aspects of the Greek language. This makes for lessons that are alive and responsive, since they can be edited throughout the semester to reinforce particular points, or accommodate the interests or abilities of his students. “In the process of learning Greek, we’re reading great literature, discussing linguistics and examining different approaches to composition. This makes for a much more well-rounded introduction to the language and will hopefully keep students interested in sticking with it for a few years.”

For Laughy, to study the Classics is an exercise in “raw curiosity. When you’re in college you may have a general idea of what interests you, and in your classes you’ll bump into this or that until you find the thing that will light all your lights.” In his classes, he hopes that having students delve into the past will spark interest in the fascinating connections among religion, history, art, literature and politics, an approach that is, after all, the very essence of a liberal arts education.