Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Plato Is Better Than Your Plato

I was very glad to receive all of your various contributions to the discussion about "small groups" in the classroom last week, so I thought I might impose on you again for your pedagogical insights. In the last few days of our core-humanities curriculum seminar, we were debating which translations of the core texts to adopt. The texts that seemed to pose the most problems for reaching consensus were Plato's Republic (with Jowett, Grube, Bloom and Reeve as the contending translators), Homer's Illiad (Fagles or Lombardo?) and Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (this one wasn't so much a "translation" issue as it was a debate about whether or not to use the very hefty and detailed The Landmark Thucydides or the "greatest hits" version of Thucydides collected in Woodruff's On Justice, Power and Human Nature).

Now, I should say, in full disclsoure, that I'm not a classicist and I don't read Greek. So, for me at least, the choice between these texts is mostly determined, first, by my familiarity with one or the other of them and, second, by what I judge to be their "readability" from the students' perspective. Because the course we are discussing is a "great books"-type course, meaning that we read a tremendous amount of material at a very fast pace, I am less inclined to consider some of the more minute differences in the actual translations, since we aren't able to spend the time with any one of these texts to make those issues really significant. However, I recognize that, for those who have a knowledge of and investment in the similarity between the translation and the original text, there is a lot at stake in the decision between translations.

One proposal that was floated was to allow each individual professor to choose the translation he or she prefers to use in his or her particular "section" of the course. This would be a significant departure from the past, when all students purchased and used the same versions of the same texts throughout the course. In principle, using "common" texts is more consistent with the spirit of the program, which is meant to provide first-year students with a "common" learning experience... something I very much support. However, given the seeming intractability of some of our instructors' preferences for differing translations, I was persuaded over the course of the discussion to seriously consider the possibility of allowing for more flexibility with regard to translations.

The way I see it, many of the texts we use in this course are texts with which (some) students are already familiar and, consequently, they already have their own copies. When this has been the case in my sections in the past, I have not insisted that those students go back to the bookstore and get a copy of the book the rest of us were using. I just told them that it was their responsibility to pay attention to the differences and make sure that they stay on the same "page," so to speak, as the rest of the class. This is particularly easy to do with Plato, for example, since all references are usually made to the Stephanus numbers anyway, but it requires a bit more vigilance on the student's part with Homer and Thucydides. However, I learned that many professors do insist that all of their students read from the same text.

So, my question is this: how do you deal with different translations in your classes? what are the real problems that arise with students using different versions of the same text?


Art Carden said...

That's an interesting question. I would say don't penalize students who decide to use non-standard editions of the text, but make sure they understand that you aren't going to change your standards, your procedures, or their responsibilities based on their decision to use a non-standard edition, either.

While we don't have to worry much about translations in economics--or about whether to use common texts across sections of econ 101, say--we sometimes have to worry about changing editions. My students are free to use whatever editions or translations they like as long as they get the assignments done, as long as they understand that the editions on the syllabus are the "standard" editions for the course, and as long as they understand that the decision to use a non-standard edition might imperil their ability to do the work as assigned (and, therefore, that it might imperil their grades).

When I first took English literature in college, I decided to use our (very) old editions of the Norton Anthologies rather than the editions that were assigned in class. It seemed like a great idea at the time but I realize in retrospect that I made a mistake. Trying to figure out how the assignments corresponded with my edition and trying to find readings that weren't in my edition was a big waste of time.

This doesn't say whether courses like Search should use standard translations across all sections, but I think it's a reasonable classroom policy. Learning to make wise trade-offs is an important part of becoming a responsible adult. If students are willing to accept the risks that come with using a "non-approved" version of a text, I see no reason to object.

Gregory Recco said...
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