Teaching Classics with Open Educational Resources

By Mary Jean McNamara


This spring will be my second semester teaching “Tyranny, Democracy, and Empire,” at Brooklyn College. The course introduces students to both ancient and modern texts that examine human rights and political participation, and the selection of readings includes excerpts from Homer, Sophocles, Hobbes, Locke, and Mill. After finishing the course last semester, I felt students had an understanding of the main points of the respective works but I felt there was a gap between what I thought the students took away from the texts, and what they actually took away from the texts.  Looking for ways to make the texts more accessible, I applied to the Library’s Open Pedagogy Fellowship program.

When I told one of my advisors that I was taking a course in ‘open pedagogy,’ she asked, “What is that?” Her confusion about the openness of resources is understandable. The teaching of Classics and the idea of open anything is marred by a long history of exclusivity. Going back to 92 BCE when the Roman quaestors closed a school that offered training in rhetoric for students with no knowledge of Greek, access to the Greek and Roman authors has been linked to privilege.

Restricting access is at odds with the themes and issues explored in the early texts of Greece and Rome. For instance, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex has continued to enjoy universal appeal. Going back to the initial production of the play, it was originally performed in Athens as part of an annual festival which all citizens were expected to attend. Theater in ancient Athens served as a common platform where the citizen and the occasional non-citizen would engage in the important questions of their day. The theater provided both a stage and a forum where performance and participation mingled side by side.

Like the theater in Athens, I am hoping that my students can use the course website as if it was their version of the Athenian theater. My hope is that interacting on the website will yield more engaged participation in the political environment that goes beyond the confines of the classroom.  In an article that appeared in The Guardian, Edith Hall, professor of Classics at King’s College, argues for the relevance of reading texts such as the Iliad or Oedipus Rex in an era in which more and more students enroll in math and science courses. Hall’s argument for expanded access to Classics rests on her belief that the Greeks were unique in their ability to form questions based on their experience. Likewise, I am hoping that the OER-based platform will encourage students to form questions based on their experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom.


Mary Jean McNamara is a second-year doctoral student in Classics. Her interests include early Greek citizenship, political organization in archaic Greece, and the reception of Athenian democracy. She is currently teaching a course at Brooklyn College entitled “Tyranny, Democracy, and Empire” and is grateful for the opportunity to learn about new ways of connecting students with the study of ancient Greek political theory.