Professor John F. Davidson - Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile from Professor John F. Davidson (School of Art History, Classics, and Religious Studies, Victoria University) - a Sustained Excellence Award winner 2004
School of Art History, Classics, and Religious Studies, Victoria University
Finding as many points of contact as possible between the ancient world and the lives of his students in the 20th and 21st centuries has inspired John Davidson's teaching of classics at Victoria University for 35 years. Since 1969 Professor Davidson has taught beginners language courses in Greek and Latin, advanced courses in the two languages involving literary texts (200 level to Honours), and classical studies courses to Masters and PhD level. His ability to engage with his audience in lectures is legend amongst both colleagues and students. Many can recall his lectures in detail some years on. He has been described as "one of the finest teachers I have encountered anywhere" and one past pupil and later colleague has "never met a teacher of like ability".
My philosophy is centred on my love of both learning and teaching, and on my desire to inspire others with my own enthusiasm for enquiry, critical thinking and ‘knowledge'. I teach an inherently exciting and appealing subject, and am privileged to be part of the long tradition of its teachers. This fact, along with the ongoing challenge represented by students of all ages, has enabled me to maintain my energy and enthusiasm while teaching the same subject at the same institution for almost 35 years. I am an active researcher in several fields, which provides a vital stimulus to my teaching at all levels.
Central to my approach is finding as many points of contact as possible between the ancient world and the lives of my students in the 20th and 21st centuries. I also use humour in my teaching, having found that a sensitive blend of the humorous and serious helps to create that comfortable and stress-free environment which is so important if learning is to occur. The implementation of my teaching philosophy also requires a high degree of energy on my part, since the retention of interest in any type of learning situation is a sine qua non of success. Although, over the years, I have naturally come to use an increasing range of technological teaching aids, I still firmly believe that the most successful learning takes place when the primary emphasis is the teacher's engagement with the students at personal, face-to-face level.
I am also fortunate to work in a place (specifically, the classics programme at Victoria University), which has a culture of excellence in teaching, with a clear majority of the staff regularly receiving very high ratings in teaching evaluations, and with several having won some kind of teaching award.
It is exciting to work in an environment of excellent teachers (often in a team-teaching situation) where both friendly ‘competition' and a system of mutual support and encouragement operate. Moreover, the opportunity to visit Mediterranean countries from time to time results in significant reinvigoration!
Passion and precision - my teaching philosophy
Throughout my teaching career, a crucial aspect has been an ongoing self-analysis and self-criticism of my performance and effectiveness; a determination to keep on learning and improving, in other words to do the very best possible in every teaching/learning situation; and an enthusiasm for receiving feedback from students and colleagues to assist with the improvement process. I make notes after virtually every class about what went well and what didn't, and about ideas for improvement. I have also developed an acute sensitivity to the ‘atmosphere' in any teaching situation in which I'm involved, to enable me to adapt what I'm doing, if necessary, so as to improve the effectiveness of learning.
I am a great believer in the value of ‘exploring the moment' and improvising, where appropriate. Thus I use notes rather than a written text for lectures. I do, however, generally offer a clearly articulated overall framework to focus the students' attention. I have highly developed listening skills, which are essential in the many one-to-one situations I find myself in with individual students, whether these are first-year students seeking help with their learning in a particular course, or thesis students with whom I am engaged in conceptual discussion. I have an open-door policy for all students in my classes. I must obviously adapt my approach, too, depending on whether I am lecturing to large classes, working one-to-one, or facilitating discussion in tutorials or smaller graduate classes. Close interaction with students is a key element in my teaching, and I have employed this technique to an increasing extent in a ‘lecture' situation as well as in discussion contexts.
In sum, my philosophy is to challenge, be challenged and respond to challenge; inspire interest which will hopefully lead to good learning outcomes; encourage critical thought; make the learning process enjoyable; exploit the talent and capacity for learning inherent in my students; instil a love for the subject I love; and to go on learning myself, joining with my students on the exciting road to new discoveries. At the same time, however, I will have my feet planted firmly on the ground and use hard analysis to assist me towards my goals.
Perhaps an appropriate motto for me might be: "passion with precision".
My philosophy in action - some practical approaches
Some of the key practical applications of my teaching philosophy can be illustrated through my approach to the 100-level classical studies course that I have run for more than 30 years. This course introduces students to the mythology and literature of ancient Greece through discussion of major authors - Homer, Sappho, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Plato. I have to develop students' confidence by building on the school background which increasing numbers of them now have, while avoiding straight reduplication of material, yet at the same time fully involving those with no background. Over time too, I have had to adapt to the decrease in the numbers of mature-age students and the broadening of ethnic representation. A clear majority of the students now are female, which requires particular sensitivity in the way in which I present material from what were notoriously male-dominated societies. A constant factor has been the presence of ethnic Greek students who have been able to contribute an invaluable alternative perspective, for example on kin relationships.
"My philosophy is to challenge, be challenged and respond to challenge".
The lectures often include periods of open forum discussion and are frequently illustrated with slides, videos, websites etc. Students are assisted with the preparation of poetry readings, as appropriate, with musical accompaniment when there happen to be suitable musicians in the class. Indeed, every effort is made to utilise a range of student talent. For example, those with a pictorial artistic bent are encouraged to express their response to a particular work in this way. A range of rehearsed play readings of short scenes are also used. Thus, learners experience a variety of points of entry into ancient Greece. With regard to myth, I will sometimes present, with a straight face, a convincingly ‘Greek' story that I've invented, in order to stimulate thinking about ‘myth' and ‘reality', ‘fact' and ‘fiction'.
I do a number of ‘special effects' lectures, such as adopting two different personae and engaging in debate with ‘myself' on some contentious issue - this also illustrates the Greeks' propensity for political and forensic argumentation. The most effective of these lectures, in terms of ongoing feedback, is where I enter the lecture room unexpectedly dressed in a Greek theatrical mask and my red London PhD gown and deliver some lines of the play being studied (in Greek and English). After ‘unmasking', I put on my PhD hat, thus transforming myself in an instant from a ‘Greek actor' to an ‘academic'. The point is to illustrate role-playing and role-changing as practised by ancient Greek actors. As the lecture continues, so I make simple changes into a variety of roles, using appropriate hats and associated accoutrements (including a football scarf and hat!). Students never forget this lecture. I sometimes vary this by having a colleague enter at a pre-arranged time in the middle of my lecture dressed in mask and robe, deliver some lines and then leave as silently as he entered. I may then startle the class by entering the room at a subsequent lecture dressed in the same mask and robe, to illustrate how the masking practice enables any actor to be transformed into a particular persona.
The weekly tutorials give students (in groups of about 15) the chance to discuss a range of aspects relating to the course. The aim is to get them relating the concerns of the ancient world to their own world, as illustrated, for example, by attitudes to death and burial in different cultures. I work with a group of tutors, holding weekly preparatory and feedback sessions with them, encouraging them to share their ideas. I provide the tutors with marking guides and advice on appropriate written feedback, and encourage them to check-mark against each other. I then check-mark representative assignments from each tutor as well as discussing and often taking over the marking of all problem cases. I will also personally see all students with particular difficulties, and it is my aim in general to get to know as many students in the class as possible beyond my own tutorial students, through working on play and poetry readings, and so on. Being able to relate as well as possible to students of both genders, every age group and ethnic group is a priority for me.
Plans for the future
I am currently on research leave, but am spending some time reflecting on how I can develop some new teaching strategies for what has politely been termed ‘the twilight' of my career. I haven't yet come to a final decision on how to spend the generous amount of money that comes with this award, but I plan to use a sizeable proportion of it to further encourage the teaching of my discipline in general. There should also be something left over to enable me to attend at least one conference dedicated to tertiary teaching, and to make even more effective use of available technology as an enhancement of (not as a substitute for!) the personal capital I put into my teaching. Vivat Academia! Vivant Professores!
Peer and Student Comments
I well remember the first time I saw John Davidson lecture in February 1995. This was in fact my first ever university lecture and I could not have wished for a more stimulating, entertaining or thought-provoking beginning to my sojourn at university. I walked out of that lecture and I knew I had made the right decision to enter university and study classics. Nearly eight years later as I walked out of my final lecture I reflected back on that first lecture by John Davidson with real appreciation.
Maamari Stephens, Solicitor, Russell McVeagh
I have tutored in John's CLAS 101 course for several years. During this period he has consistently offered a high level of support to his tutors, which has helped to make CLAS 101 not only one of the most successful courses offered by the classics programme at Victoria University, but also the one I most enjoy tutoring. The best thing about John's attitude towards tutors is that he is always available should we have any queries or problems. Unlike some lecturers, he keeps generous office hours. In sum, John's enthusiasm and dedication to his students and tutors has made CLAS 101 a real pleasure to be involved in.
Claudine Earley, VUW tutor and PhD student
At all times John Davidson has been able to interpret aspects of ancient Greece in ways that assist the Greek community to understand their heritage in a deeper way. He has also managed to represent the often contradictory and bewildering Greek character (at least to many non-Greeks!) in ways that show the greatest of respect for modern Greek society. He is able to accommodate both the old and the new, showing how each assists in understanding the other and has helped me to become more aware of my own culture even though he is not a Greek himself.
Dina Viatos, Wellington teacher
I became a student of John's in 1988, and have had the benefit of his teaching experience both as his student and as his colleague. In fact, it was the Greek literature course CLAS 101 taught by John that I took in my first year at university that consolidated my interest in classics and prompted me to make it my major, and my later decision to make my career in classics, and my ability to do so, are due in part to his unfailing support and encouragement. I remember clearly the CLAS 101 lecture when John appeared, an imposing presence in theatrical mask and robe, and declaimed - in Greek - the opening lines of Sophocles' King Oedipus. The entire lecture theatre was still. Recalling this as a lecturer, I am very much aware of the powerful effect of demonstrating something, rather than simply describing it, and apply this as much as possible in my own teaching. In sum, I regard John as among the finest teachers I have encountered anywhere, and as one who is always willing and able to share both classical and pedagogical knowledge.
Diana Burton, Classics Lecturer, VUW
John is an inspiring teacher. My experience has always been that he is impeccably prepared for class, current with the latest scholarship, and an expert and uncompromising communicator of knowledge in the classroom. I can't say I remember all that many of my undergraduate lectures, but John's exposition of comparisons and contrasts between Amazons and Wonderwoman remains as vivid to me now as it was two decades ago. I would not have pursued an academic career if it had not been for John and his colleague, the late Alex Scobie. In subsequent study at the University of Oxford, I never met a teacher of like ability.
Tim Parkin, Professor of Classics, University of Queensland
I have been very satisfied with the supervision I have received from John Davidson. He has been unfailingly helpful, supportive and generous with his time. His advice has been consistently good and he has been a source of reassurance throughout the whole process. He deserves praise (and a good holiday!)
Emma Madison, Project Officer (Research), Ministry of Education (former VUW PhD student)