I teach at the Program in Cultures, Civilizations and Ideas at Bilkent University, in Ankara. The Program teaches a year-long intensive course focusing on the meaning of culture, to students of the various departments of the University, for many of whom the course is obligatory. Bilkent is an English-taught university, and my students are from a wide range of departments, including computer sciences, mechanical, electrical and industrial engineering, law, archaeology, and management. This term, I teach a reading course in ancient and classical civilization, covering texts ranging from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Plato’s Republic; at the moment we are tackling Homer’s Iliad.
The Iliad is not an easy text to read. Robert Fagles’ translation is not an easy translation to read. This would be true for most students (actually, most readers); and my students are further disadvantaged in that for the vast majority of them, English is not their native language, and many of them, they don’t read (or even like reading) literature all that much to begin with.
This is one of the contexts of the #Iliad assignment I did with my students (inspired by, adapted from Alun Withey’s ‘Peasants’ Revolt … in 5 tweets!’). I wanted to explore with my students how we can engage with the classical text through various media (later in the semester, I want them to do a project where they choose their own medium); a second context, therefore, was provided by Almeida Theatre’s fabulous reading of the Iliad, which in addition to streaming video feed, was live tweeted. I first showed my students a snippet from Bertie Carvel’s intensely expressive reading from the work, and then gave them a handout of the @iliadlive tweets for the first book – which part of the text, at this point, most of my students had read. I asked them to comment on the different things the tweets provide: summary, explanation, commentary, humour, etc. were mentioned. Students were particularly good at picking up the humour, and were for example able to identify several layers of irony referred to in this tweet:
#Iliad, Book Three
Write “tweets” –on paper!– describing (a selection of) the narrative of book 3, from the perspective of the person whose identity you have been handed in class:
The Achaeans (@NotAHorse)
The Trojans (@HorseBreakers)
Use all 6 “tweets” of your handout to give your version of Book 3.
Each tweet: maximum 140 characters
Bonus for creative use of hashtags and @mentions
Perspective: think, for example, of what your character can know, what they would find important, how they would view certain actions and events, what kind of language they would use.
Subsequently, I handed each of them their ‘identities’ on pre-prepared ‘tweet sheets’ – ensuring students sitting next to each other in class would not receive the same character.
I had chosen to do the assignment on paper for several reasons, including the politicized position of twitter here in Turkey; the fact that I didn’t want to force them to participate in a particular company’s product; my fear that introducing too much technology into the classroom would take time, distracting from the principal aims of the assignment: I wanted to explore the limitations and possibilities of a particular medium, and felt twitter was especially useful for this, because of its very strict limitations and explicit set of ‘tools’ (e.g., hashtags, mentions). For me, personally, the assignment in this way also interacted in interesting ways with my (so far entirely serendipitous) thinking about what @senseshaper has called #dedigitizethearchive: exploring the various issues involved in moving back and forth between digital, mechanical, and manual media. I did ask how many students had their own twitter accounts, which about 70% declared.
So I sent them home with their identities, to read Book 3, and fill in their sheets. Next class, I grouped them according to their identities (all Helens in one group, all Achaeans in another – my classes are up to circa 25 students, so I had groups up to 5), had them compare notes, and fill in one more sheet as a group – some chose to select the “best” tweets, other created a consecutive series as a group. During their discussions, I circulated through the class – but after a little bit, they became so absorbed by the exercize, that my asking questions seemed more of a hinder than an encouragement, so I fell back until they were done.
When they were done, I collected the group sheets, and read them out in class, using them to discuss the various aspects that each picked up on. I put my twitter account up on display, but lack of time prevented me from tweeting all the group sheets during the lesson. In two of my three classes I did tweet one group’s tweets – after asking permission, to which no one objected (I expressly stated I would not tweet their individual work). I tweeted the other groups’ tweets later in the day, and am sharing responses to their tweets with them in our next class together. These are their tweets – written by groups of students who, in the vast majority, have never read a text like the Iliad before:
I was very impressed with the range and variety of aspects of the text reflected in my students’ tweets – from Helen’s conflicted internal monologues to Menelaus’ asking the troupes for retweets, and from a baffled Menelaus wondering what just happened after Paris disappeared to Helen’s shocked ‘selfie’ watching the battlefield, there are many very interesting readings of the text, and very few poor ones. Many of the tweets also provided opportunity for further discussion in class. They particularly commented on paying attention to details which would give them clues for how “their” character would look at events. In the process, they also had found humour where they previously had seen little. Perhaps the best result from the assignment, however, was what the students reported about their reading experience: the assignment made them engage with the text in an unprecedented way, both in the ways in which they were able to talk about it, and in their own experience: several told me that the assignment had made them read the text in a more engaged way than they had ever read any literature before.