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Notes on Preparing for the Final Exam

During our Dec. 4 meeting we had a frank discussion of the concerns some of you have as we approach the final exam. It has become clear that some of you believe that I have not done enough to facilitate everyone’s grasp of the nuances of this difficult and complex subject matter.

There is some merit in these complaints. As a professed expert on the ancient world it is possible for me to underestimate the extent to which the foundations of the material you are encountering week to week is new to you. Students coming into this course are likely to be less grounded in the basics of ancient history than in, say, modern European or American (or even Asian) history. It would help if HIS 246, Civilizations of the Ancient World, were a prerequisite. I am glad to have been reminded of this fact, and will think about this a great deal in preparing for my upcoming courses.

That said, no one coming into HIA 320 could have been under any delusion about the difficulty of the course after the first day. It is a 300-level course largely attended by history majors; the syllabus makes clear the extent of work that will have to be done (multiple papers, regular quizzes, presentations, extensive reading assignments in both a textbook and a reader). In the first class I always make my philosophy of teaching crystal clear: my job is to provide students with the tools and resources to actively engage Greek history and come to their own understanding of the subject through personal agency, not passive receipt of knowledge.

In this course we cover a complex, high-achieving, and constantly evolving culture across a thousand years. Of course there’s going to be a lot of material. The Pomeroy text may occasionally get too involved, but any text that reduced the Greek story to snack-sized bits would be missing the entire point of studying the Greeks. We explore Hellas because it is complex and mutable—that’s why they are the essential founders of Western culture.

Every week in class I do my best to temper this complexity by discussing the key topics covered in the text. I try to do so from the angle that allowed me to get purchase on them, and I open up important topics to discussion amongst the students so that we can collectively get at the big picture. The lecture and classroom discussion is an essential part of making sense of this fascinating and convoluted culture. (The fact that two of the students complaining about my shortcomings as an instructor left class immediately afterwords as I was beginning my lecture, returning 20 minutes later with food from the cafeteria downstairs, is not lost on me.)

Let us consider the review sheet. After a good deal of thought I remain convinced that my strategy for the review sheet—reducing the material we have covered in the course to several key topics for each section, phrased as a question—provides a useful and practical way for students to prioritize their review of the material. A review sheet with just a bunch of facts is worse than useless, because (a) I am repeating material you already have access to in your notes and readings, (b) I’m suggesting these facts are all you need to know and you can flush the rest, which would be doing you a grave disservice, and (c) I believe fervently, ardently, passionately that history is about interpretation, not the evidence for those interpretations that are misleadingly called facts. Review materials, I believe, must be in the form of questions on key topics and problems, because your understanding of Greek (or any other) history is exactly your personal answers to those questions, supported by evidence from relevant examples. If you don’t agree, quite frankly I’m not sure you should be studying history.

The review sheet is designed to guide you to the points of our discussion that you most need to review, to help you deprioritize those things you have more comfort with so that you can spend time on what seems less familiar. To dumb down the review sheet would be to say that only some of the topics we covered in the course are important, and that, again, you can flush the rest, which, again, would be a disservice to you and actually handicap you on the exam, not to mention in your understanding of the Greeks. Looking over the review sheet you should be able to identify topics that seem familiar and topics that do not. If none of it looks familiar to you, the problem is not with the review sheet.

The other request that arose out of this discussion was to provide more guidance on the final exam essay questions. I am reluctant to do this, not because I’m giving you the “answers” but because there’s a danger that focusing on these subjects will encourage the pushing aside of other, equally vital aspects of Greek society. However, when there is enough dismay among the citizenry that they are driven to open revolt even against such a benevolent tyrannos as myself, it behooves such tyrants to ameliorate their people’s distress.

Therefore, here are the outlines of the essay topics I will provide as choices on the exam. Remember that you will write only two chosen from 6 or 7, so you’ll be able to pick the topics you’re most comfortable with. I will be looking for you to begin by making an ARGUMENT—an opinion someone could disagree with—and then to back it up with at least three detailed EXAMPLES from the text, the Reader, and class discussion.

The essay questions will involve the following topics, in no particular order (these notes are NOT the actual text of the questions, but are being provided to give you ideas for how to prepare): (a) If all the Greek poleis had separate identities, what does “Hellas” really describe? (b) There’s a big break between the Bronze age and the emergence of Hellas, but what can we say about the legacy the Minoans and Mycenaeans provide for the later Greeks? (c) If Homer was really the foundation for the Greeks’ sense of the divine world, how does that help explain the Greeks' understanding of how to relate to the gods and to each other? (d) The Greek attachment to the idea of freedom, as contrasted with, for example, the Persians’ enslavement to their king—how does that jibe with the fight for hegemony and how the Greeks treat each other? (e) What factors explain Athens’ rapid mutation into a radical democracy—a social structure unique to the Aegean world? (f) The Persian wars and the Peloponnesian wars stand out to historians as the key transforming events of classical Hellas—is it right to emphasize these military milestones, or are other transforming moments just as important for shaping Greek culture?

As for the identifications: it’s enough that they are all on the review sheet. I will not tell you that some are important and others can be ignored.

This is my final word on the subjects of (a) hints about the final exam and (b) my shortcomings as an instructor. I will not discuss either of these things further.

We will spend some time during our final class meeting discussing the themes of the course and any areas that could benefit from further discussion, but it needs to be question-driven. Please come to class on Wednesday with questions about anything that might her good to talk about further as a class.

MBW