An interview with Ryan Fowler (RU Classics PhD 2008) about Sunoikisis, a national consortium of Classics programs

Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. Credit: Gjon Mili, LIFE/Google

Recent (2008) Rutgers Classics PhD Ryan Fowler has positioned himself at the very cutting edge of top-quality interactive on-line instruction in the humanities, a pedagogical wave that none of us can afford to ignore.

After teaching Classics and Philosophy as a visiting assistant professor at two selective liberal arts colleges—Grinnell College (2008-2009) and Knox College (2009-12)—Ryan has taken up an appointment at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC as a Sunoikisis Fellow for Curricular Development.In this capacity he oversees the process of designing and conducting (with Richard Martin of Stanford) an ambitious inter-institutional course on Homeric poetry offered by Sunoikisis, an initiative based since 2009 at the Center.

Ryan Fowler PhD 2008 at Thera (Santorini)

Before we talk to Ryan, here’s the Sunoikisis program in its own words:

“Since 1999, Sunoikisis has yielded new collaborative and interdisciplinary paradigms of learning in the liberal arts for the 21st century…this collaborative program seeks to develop a set of common goals and achieve a degree of success and prominence that goes beyond the capacity of a single program.”

Sunoikisis continues that it “enables students and faculty at participating institutions to benefit from opportunities normally available only at large research institutions, while maintaining the advantages of a small liberal arts learning environment. The curricular elements within Sunoikisis include inter-institutional collaborative courses, excavations, internships, travel study, undergraduate research symposia, and faculty development seminars…To date, faculty members and students from nearly 35 colleges have participated in the programs offered by the initiative.”

You can read more here, including the story of the earliest days of Sunoikisis—when in 1995 Classics professor Kenny Morrell of Rhodes College and colleagues from sister institutions in the Associated Colleges of the South first planned Sunoikisis to be a “virtual” department of classics—as well as crucial later developments such as its 2006 membership in the National Institute of Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE), and 2009 sponsorship by the Center for Hellenic Studies. Or you can view more than 200 Sunoikisis-related videos here.

In 2012, in addition to all the work of development and preparation, it’s Ryan who is responsible for orchestrating his Homer course’s synchronous online meetings, and coordinating the evaluation of the students’ work and assessment of the class. This academic year—also under the aegis of the Hellenic Center—Ryan will also play a vital role in a new series of courses for elementary and intermediate students of ancient Greek.  But let’s start the conversation…

Rutgers Classics Blog: What’s the goal of the Sunoikisis program?

Ryan Fowler: Its goal is to supplement small or under-resourced classics programs with classes and lectures that a one- or two-person department might not be able to offer under typical circumstances. That’s why we do not offer a Plato or Virgil seminar, for example. That said, at the same time, many of our resources, and certainly some of our most avid contributors, come from larger or more developed departments, exactly because they have more resources at their disposal. You can see how collaboration and support is truly trickle-down.

Here (and in images below), the Sunoikisis faculty group at work at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC

RCB: How does the teaching work?

RF: Each professor in the seminar is responsible for responding to one week’s worth of assignments before running that week’s synchronous ‘Common Session,’ during which they are sure to reference postings by the students taking the course. All of the students are watching, wherever in the world they happen to be. This term they watch via Google Hangout™. The technology changes very quickly and our interest is always in free or public domain software. This work is all done on a volunteer basis, and all done especially for the benefit of those smaller departments, who are able to join the full 14- or 15-week course, or use the syllabus, assignments, and Common Sessions—archived online—however they might like. I say “especially” and not “exclusively” because a class from BYU is participating in the Homer course this term, for example.

RCB: How do you put together the syllabi for the various courses? I’m seeing Homeric Poetry, Lyric Poetry, Comedy, 4th Century Literature, and Hellenistic Literature, and on the Latin side, Early Republic, Late Republic, Neronian Period, Roman Empire, 70-180 C.E., Late Antiquity and the Medieval Period…that’s a lot of offerings.

RF: Ten professors from around the classics world gather every June. Since 2009, they’ve met at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC. Under the steady hand of a senior course consultant, all day for three days the participants read and discuss primary and secondary literature, first on a Greek topic, and then a mostly different group will spend three days on a Latin topic. The goal is to come out of each three-day session with a finished syllabus for one of the courses in a normal cycle of offerings each Fall.

RCB: Now, what’s to stop some misguided small college administrator from saying, “let’s use Sunoikisis and get rid of our tenure-line classicist”?

RF: Keep in mind that the CHS and Sunoikisis will offer their resources, their class materials, website assistance, and the support of the CHS/Harvard Fellow—which position I hold this year—only as long as each participating institution has a classicist ‘on the ground.’ In fact, we have found that over time this can lead to more hires, as more classes are offered and student interest is given an opportunity to grow. For example, how often do Rhodes students get to speak for an hour with a Reed professor on the epic cycle, who answers their questions in real time online? How often do Southwestern students read questions asked by BYU students, while also reading the feedback on the posts given by a professor at Ole Miss? The possibility of compounding different variations of perspectives and viewpoints is extraordinary.

RCB: I saw that recent article in the NY Times Education Life section about the impact of MOOCs [massive open online courses] on higher education….

RF: Rest assured: there’s nothing “massive” about the Sunoikisis program. Far, far from ‘canned’ lectures—which are very often without context, feedback, or specificity of audience—we emphasize contact and have a strong emphasis on developing new “best practices’”while combining IT with education. Without a doubt, this new medium is a powerful force in higher education; we know that there are better and (much) worse ways to implement technology in teaching. One will further overextend already underpaid, already overextended peripheral adjunct faculty, or even replace them. The other, in our opinion, will not. As I express to the colleagues and Deans to whom I have given presentations, who are already unsure about making creative use of digital resources and applications, there are ways to focus on a use of technology that is supplementary to what it is good professors already do, rather than as a replacement for it (or them).

RCB: So, the interactive aspects are one thing that makes Sunoikisis distinctive?

RF: Yes, the goal of the courses is to provide as much feedback for the students as possible. That in turn can be reviewed by subsequent classes of students asynchronously, which I have done more than once. This year, faculty and students from 18 institutions are participating in courses on Homeric Poetry and Medieval Latin. Some students are taking the courses for credit through their institutions, while others watch the weekly lectures as part of an independent study. Our enrollments this term are healthy: 18 students in Greek and 46 students in Latin.

RCB: OK, I can see how the students benefit.  How about the teachers?

RF: I can’t communicate easily in a blog interview the uniqueness of this opportunity to sit around a table with colleagues and discuss primary texts and recent secondary literature, all of which has been chosen by the course’s consultant, an expert in that particular seminar’s topic. It’s like graduate school without the egos, competition, or exams. This last Greek session in June, for example, the ten of us had a rather extraordinary day of discussions about Homer with Greg Nagy (Harvard), Lenny Muellner (Brandeis), Doug Frame (CHS), and Richard Martin (Stanford, and the course consultant). As an added bonus, each seminar group gets full use the Center’s library for a full day or two. To my knowledge, there is nothing else like this program for any other discipline, anywhere.

RCB: This is really interesting: can you say a bit more about the collegial aspects of Sunoikisis?

RF: As a participant in the program for three years, I’ve received a number of grants from my home institutions to attend Sunoiksis consortiums under the category of Faculty Development, which is what these programs truly are (not in name only), for a number of reasons. As a cooperating group, we look to each other as resources for invited lectures, lecturing possibilities, and opportunities for research collaboration. I really cannot do justice to the importance of our conversations during the shared coffee breaks, lunches, and dinners in which we have the chance to continue our discussions from the previous session, about our own work, and about the work of others, not to mention the remarkable chance to discuss primary texts with one’s colleagues and, in many cases, former professors-turned-colleagues during the sessions themselves.

RCB: We’ve talked about students, and the instructors…do you think Sunoikisis can help boost the Classics field in general? There’s hardly a year that goes by without some established department somewhere in the US facing a threat of being dismantled…

RF: Don’t get me wrong—I am all for letter-writing initiatives to help keep departments intact and lines thriving, but that process is intrinsically a reactive one. In my experience, Sunoikisis is an active, positive force behind classics and ancient history that has brought some of the best people I know in the field together. By the end of these Greek and Latin seminars, all of the participants are rejuvenated, reinvigorated, and revivified (if a little exhausted). But the real beneficiaries are the students who get a chance to be part of these courses. By teaching to our strengths, and adding so many positive perspectives into the creation of a class, the resulting course is better than any course a single one of us could offer alone. How often I have heard a professor come out of the last session on the last day of the consortium and say, “My God, why would anyone write a syllabus any other way?”

RCB: How does one find out more?

RF: I urge anyone with an interest to send questions to the staff at the Hellenic Center. And I urge anyone who is interested in meeting others who are using IT in innovative and effective ways (and not just through the Sunoikisis program) to come by the Sunoikisis reception at the 2013 APA in Seattle. There will be a number of people there who would enjoy saying ‘hello,’ and would be happy to provide a little more information about this program, as well as other interesting initiatives offered by the Center for Hellenic Studies—the new J-term travel program, for example!

RCB: Any parting words for our plethos of RU Classics Blog readers?

RF: As a final plug, I wouldn’t mind the chance to send your readers to the “world’s first” (we think) “comprehensive, online, communal commentary or ‘communtary’ for a Classical text” for Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. The commentary is the brain-child of Norman Sandridge and David Carlisle. They run it—I try to help out however I can.

RCB: Thanks so much Ryan!

One response to “An interview with Ryan Fowler (RU Classics PhD 2008) about Sunoikisis, a national consortium of Classics programs

  1. Pingback: Intercampus Teaching, Networked Teaching | Rebecca Frost Davis

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