Bridging Diverse Cultures
By Katherine Wills, WR Assistant Coordinator
“Understanding a culture, especially one as seemingly dead and remote as Byzantium, takes a lot of reconceptualizing effort. Writing and rewriting is an excellent process for getting to these deeper levels of cultural understanding," said Professor Kerry E. Spiers about his WR course History 551: The Byzantine State. He expects his students to do more than write formal papers and tests. He wants students to become cultural detectives, and to that end, he insists that students use writing to pry deeply into the cultural assumptions and daily lives of Byzantine citizens.
Understanding Culture through Writing
To get to the deeper levels of cultural under- standing, the history professor designed several sequenced writing and reading assignments that ask students to respond critically to ancient works and also to learn about Byzantine culture through contemporary experiences. Spiers decided to make his course WR when he saw how closely his pedagogy supported the WR program guidelines. Students write formal and informal assignments, give and receive constructive feedback, revise papers, and conduct research. Through their writing, students scrutinize the Byzantine culture. Through inquiry and discussion, students realize that historians and their interpretations are to an important extent products of their own age (Cassara 590).
Understanding Writing through the
Spiers is also concerned that students develop their writing skills. He constructs a writing assignment series that allows for fresh insights into ancient texts. Preferring analytical, not descriptive writing, he asks students to write four 500-word analytical reviews of primary texts and a research paper with a critical annotated bibliography. The length of the assigned research papers and bibliographies has ranged from a minimum of fourteen pages, or about 3,000 words, to as many as eighty pages for those students who became deeply involved in the culture. He firmly believes that historical research should not just be amassed; it should be evaluated and interpreted: “I want critical evaluations. Whether a book is deemed good or bad is not important. I prefer to examine a book’s ideas thoroughly.” In keeping with WR program guidelines, which emphasize the need for students to receive instructor feedback on drafts, students draft and revise papers as they explore another culture.
Understanding How Historians Write
Students are asked to research and analyze primary source material as a historian would. Thus, they encounter similar difficulties that historians face. Students learn what it means to write history, not just read history. They become aware of the perspectives of the historian both from the inside as a writer and from the outside as readers of other historians’ perspectives (Gribben 367). Through their writing and reading, students begin to see intellectual connections between Byzantine culture and our world today.
In addition to the writing assignment series, Spiers uses numerous analogies, metaphors, and real-life learning experiences to contextualize Byzantine texts and culture with today’s reality. He hopes that having students look at the Byzantine culture from their contemporary perspective can lead to fresh insights into history and our modern-day world. As a cultural immersion program, Spiers and some of his students travel to Greece and Rome, the heart of Byzantium, where Spiers piques students’ interest in the Byzantine culture through Lindsey Davis’ contempory detective novels, which are set in ancient Rome, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s A Flame in Byzantium. Students visualize walking down a narrow Roman street or imagine how ethnocentricity, the status of women, and the nature of class and power functioned in Byzantium. Reading these works as part of the summer immersion in Rome and Greece prompts students to consider the ways these issues differ today.
Spiers’ History 551 students read Procopius’ The Secret History. The controversial book, written in the sixth century by a Byzantine political insider, reveals the truths behind Byzantine government. Students eavesdrop on the gossip behind the emperor’s back. “If Procopius were an author today,” Spiers said, “his writings would be selling at the checkout counter at Kmart,” much like George Stephanopoulos’ All Too Human.
Spiers asks his students to expand their cultural scope from books to the art and architecture of the world around us today. For example, the mosaic on the second floor of Bingham Humanities is reminiscent of the mosaics of Byzantium. We see that Byzantine cultural influences surround us once we are made aware of the connections.
Understanding How Writing Shapes Culture
Spier’s capstone experience to expand the classroom curriculum and the understanding of culture at a global level is an optional student trip to Greece and Rome with the Kentucky Institute for International Studies program for study abroad. When students visit what was Byzantium, they may spend the afternoon at Meteora as the monks attend to their duties, talk to the nuns at the nunnery at Hagia Stephanos, and absorb the intellectual history at the church at Mistra.
For this history professor, writing serves to unite him, his students, and a past culture in an ongoing dialogue. His use of extensive writing in History 551 has also yielded an important by-product for his students applying to graduate schools. “I have a deep understanding about my students’ writing abilities. I can make substantive comments.”
His students’ writings about culture benefit Spiers, also. “Some people might think the Byzantine culture is a dead culture, but it is very alive to me through my students' WR writing,” Spiers said. “Writing about a culture keeps the history and culture alive for me. For instance, when I visit my good friend, Yannis Paleologos, it is hard for me not to think he is a descendent of the imperial family of Constantinople. It is all very much alive.” History 551: The Byzantine State, makes not only better writers and students of history, but also better scholars and world citizens.
Cassara, Ernest. “The Student as Detective: An Undergraduate Exercise in Historiographic Research.” The History Teacher 18 (1985): 581-92.
Gribben, William G. “Writing Across the Curriculum: Assignments and Evaluation.” Clearing House 64 (1991): 365-69.
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