Aphrodite and 'Learning Communities':  An Approach to the Teaching of Classical Mythology

Theodore A. Tarkow

University of Missouri,  Columbia

"Learning Communities" are increasingly part of the landscape on college campuses across the country.   And for good reason:  these programs play, as study upon study demonstrates, major roles in student academic success, retention, and ultimate graduation1.[1]

On the campus of the University of Missouri - Columbia (MU), one particular type of "Learning Community" has achieved considerable success since 1995.  This initiative has encouraged entering freshmen to participate in "Freshman Interest Groups" (FIGs) as a way of enhancing their "transition" from high school to college. Data gathered and analyzed at MU (remarkably comparable with data reported by such peer institutions as the University of Oregon and the University of Washington) point to extraordinary positive outcomes in student "engagement" with materials, "avoidance" of various negative behaviors, and "involvement" with peers in ways that strengthen student learning.

Each FIG consists of 12 and 18 freshmen who share initial academic interests or goals, are registered in three identical courses (or identical sections of multi-sectioned courses), and live in the same residence hall.  They also enroll in a one-credit "Proseminar" intended to cover subjects traditional to "Freshman Year Experience" courses, to integrate some of the content in the three "shared" courses, and to enhance, via speakers and other programs, the quality of the first-term experience.

The purpose of this presentation is to illustrate the impact which the FIGs program has had on my own section of "Classical Mythology", and in so doing to offer suggestions on how this "staple" of a 21st century classics department or program can be "energized" by close integration of reading, writing, and oral assignments with the other aspects of freshman "transition" experiences.   For the sake of illustration (and brevity), the specific focus will be Aphrodite's birth from the sea, a topic of broad conceptual significance to Greek mythology in general and in its own way potentially useful for effective dealing with the transition of freshmen from high school to college.[2] The fact that what I am able to accomplish adds to the value of the FIG adds also to the value of what for most students is their sole introduction to the Greeks and Romans, a fundamental reality that those of us who regularly teach "general education" courses must increasingly acknowledge.

[1] See, for example, K. P. Cross, “Why Learning Communities? Why Now?”, About Campus 3,1998, 4-11;  Barr, R.B. and Tagg, J., “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education”, Change 27,1995 (13-25); Schroeder, C.C., Minor F.D., and Tarkow, T., “Learning Communities: Partnerships between Academic and Student Affairs” in Levin, J.H. (Ed.), Learning Communities: New Structures, New Partnerships for Learning (Monograph 26), University of South Carolina: National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition (1999); and Nancy S. Shapiro and Jodi H. Levine, 'Introducing Learning Communities to Your Campus,” About Campus 4 (1999) 2-10.

[2] 2See, in addition to appropriate passages in Hesiod, Theogony, the very useful study of Rachel Rosenzweig, Worshipping Aphrodite (Ann Arbor:  2004), esp. 6ff.   See, too, Mary Lefkowitz, Women in Greek Myth (London: 1986), esp. 115ff; the secondary text I am presently using is Barry B. Powell, Classical  Myth (ed. 4)  (New York: 2004).

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