The UNC Board of Governors has selected 17 outstanding University faculty members to receive the 2021 Awards for Excellence in Teaching. The recipients, who represent all 16 of North Carolina’s public universities and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, were nominated by special committees at each institution and selected by the Board of Governors Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs. Established by the Board in 1993 to highlight the importance of teaching, the award recognizes the extraordinary contributions of faculty members systemwide.
Sharon L. James, professor of classics in the College of Arts & Sciences, is the UNC-Chapel Hill recipient of the 2021 Award for Excellence in Teaching. Below is a description of James’ teaching philosophy.
“I fell in love with Greek and Roman literature, and then fell into the career of teaching that literature, because of spectacular teaching. My college professors took me seriously and engaged with me on the project of trying to understand two long-dead languages and societies for which we have frustratingly little evidence that is often fragmentary at best. They made me feel that Latin and Greek were the most exciting thing I could do with my life. Some forty years later, I’m still working on that project of understanding, and I count myself very fortunate to have had wonderful students working alongside me, both at Carolina and elsewhere.
So teaching is really the core of my work: I was brought into this career by teachers, and I see myself as preparing the next generation of teachers and scholars in the field of ancient Greco-Roman/Mediterranean studies and as helping a larger campus population see how exciting the field of Classics, how it remains relevant today, and how it can give them meaningful and important knowledge and perspectives. In my view, that is my greatest contribution to Classics, and I’m honored that this teaching award recognizes my efforts. I teach Latin at levels from intermediate to advanced graduate seminars, and I teach Classics in translation in courses that range from small first-year seminars to sizable lecture classes on women in the Greco-Roman world. My scholarship and professional activities have often been driven by matters of teaching—and my scholarship has enabled my teaching.
My teaching philosophy recognizes that different subjects and tasks take different kinds of teaching, that students learn in different ways, and that learning happens in stages. Understanding complex grammar in a foreign language is one thing; speaking that language, or reading it aloud, is another. Critical thinking may re- quire students to tolerate periods of mental discomfort as they work through conceptual conflicts, and lengthy discussions may be necessary to help them reach that understanding. Even in large lecture classes, I encourage discussion. A colleague once wrote, after observing me, that I made a lecture class feel like a seminar. I wouldn’t have claimed such an ambitious goal, but I was gratified: I do want my students to feel that they can participate. I tell them to use two lenses in their intellectual eyeglasses: to understand, say, the logic and workings of ancient Greek misogyny and then to critique it as a defective thought system. Learning is a process, and I seek to help students be patient with themselves in that process and to gain confidence as they go. In this way, they also discover what kind of learners they are, and they become not merely partners but agents of their own learning.
In all classes, I seek active learning from students, who recognize that I both assign a lot of work and help them with it. They discover that humanities are not easy, that they must think deeply about our materials. It can take almost half a semester to recognize that, say, a general education humanities course really demands attention because the materials are complex, but they find their work gains them important understanding. I spend hours in person and on email, helping them to understand course materials. We work together, in class and during consultation, to identify specific ways in which classical texts are important and to recognize problems inherent in ancient literature and culture, as well as differences between ancient and modern perspectives. Many former students, even from general ed courses, stay in touch long after their classes have ended, a correspondence I find very rewarding.
For some years, higher education has been dealing with a tide of student anxiety. I work to diminish that anxiety by offering choices in all sections of exams (so they can skip something they’ve forgotten), reading outlines and drafts of papers, and more. I urge them to see themselves as exploring issues rather than solving problems and mysteries. Students feel safe coming to me when they’re anxious, depressed, in need of help. In addition to accommodating them with deadlines, I refer them to CAPS or to the Psychology Department’s Community Clinic.
Although I’m generally considered a demanding instructor, I was honored in 2013 with UNC’s William C. Friday/Class of 1986 Award for Excellence in Inspirational Teaching, chiefly because of testimonia from students. One student comment, printed in the awards booklet, has really stuck with me:
Professor James told me one of the most important things I learned in college. She said, ‘don’t worry until I tell you to worry. It’s far more important that you have a good learning experience than that you write a perfect paper now.’
I’ve said exactly that to many students, so I don’t know who wrote it (and I’ve certainly never told anybody to worry). It was wonderful to see that my words helped someone feel more confident and free to take chances.
I’m fortunate to be in a stellar department, where I do much teaching and advising of both graduate and undergraduate students. The mentoring work is intense but very rewarding. My thesis advisees have been accepted into elite graduate programs (Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, Toronto, Penn); my Ph.D. students have gone on to meaningful and productive careers in Classics at all levels, from high school Latin to Ph.D. departments. It’s a great privilege and pleasure to watch them making their marks on this ancient field of study, and to keep learning from them as they do. My advisees are actively members in my field of Latin poetry and Roman comic drama, producing exciting and innovative scholarship and pedagogy.
Scholarship and Teaching
In 2012, I co-directed a pedagogical NEH Summer Institute. I had been pondering how best to teach the Roman playwright Plautus’ use of humor to showcase the fact the way that owner classes regularly threatened the people they enslaved with torture. These jokes succeed formally, but are horrifying and impossible to ignore: enslavement was an inextricable part of ancient Greece and Rome, and we must acknowledge the bad along with the good when we teach Classics. I needed to see these plays, which are rarely staged, so I dreamt up the Institute as a way to experiment with performance and comedy. I was extremely fortunate that Professor Timothy Moore of Washington University in St. Louis (UNC Ph.D., 1986), a renowned expert on Roman comedy, agreed to co-direct. We successfully applied for a grant designed to help pedagogy, from high school to graduate school, in several disciplines (Latin, classics, theater history, performance). Twenty- five faculty and grad students from various fields joined us to learn about the genre of Roman comedy, the conditions of its performances in the city of Rome, and the challenges that it poses to staging in the modern era. Their performances, professionally filmed in Gerrard Hall and Forest Theatre are online. To our astonishment, the videos have been seen more than 35,000 times and are being used in classrooms internationally. The Institute has also engendered a number of publications and stage performances by its participants.
The pedagogical purpose of the Institute fits with my scholarship on problems of teaching difficult to- pics. Because I teach women in antiquity, I often deal with the subject of rape, a harsh reality in antiquity as now. Greek myth and Roman mythic history are filled with tales of rape—so all classicists may find them- selves facing student distress on the subject. In 2008, I gave a conference talk on how much I’ve learned about these subjects from my students, who have made me a better and braver scholar, readier to discuss in print this disturbing subject, which scholarship and teaching had historically ignored. That talk set off a chain reaction that is still in effect today: a professor who was in attendance began organizing conference panels on the problem, then expanded her remit to include a wide number of unsettling topics that arise in the teaching of ancient Greco-Roman literature, art, and culture. Eventually an award-winning book of essays, which is finding broad use, was published. More scholars began to publish articles about teaching the subject of rape, creating an ongoing archive of resources for other teachers. These publications are particularly helpful for graduate students and early career faculty, who often suddenly find themselves teaching subjects such as Classical Mythology and really value the help they find in this sub-field of pedagogical publication.
My pedagogical scholarship is not always disturbing: on a cheerier note, I’m overseeing a series of translations of Roman comedy under contract at the University of Wisconsin Press, to which I’m contributing four translations of my own. These plays are useful to a range of courses, both in Classics and in Theater, but are rarely available in contemporary, readable translations. This series will allow these plays to be taught widely. Eventually it will be available electronically, in make-your-own combinations. I take time here on these subjects because they show how my teaching and scholarship are united.
In sum, I ask my students to work and think hard, and I work hard for them. It isn’t possible to make everybody happy, but my classrooms are lively and engaged, while we study complex, often-disturbing materials that give students much to think about and that offer new perspectives on their own world. In turn, their responses give me much to think about. Every class, even with deeply familiar materials, is new all over again.”