Awesome classes - Using pop culture to teach ancient history

Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Author: Mike Foster

Richard Burgess in costume, holding a light sabre

Giggles are not usually heard as students take exams. But then, teachers don’t usually wieldStar Wars light sabres or wear togas to class.

However, uOttawa professor Richard Burgess, a member of the Department of Classics and Religious Studies, is the exception: he peppers his courses on Roman civilization, Roman history and introductory ancient Greek with references to Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer... anything that pops into his fertile imagination and helps illustrate parallels with ancient history. 

His unconventional approach, which sometimes sees him wear a 20-foot long Roman toga or bring swords or his Roman coin collection to class, has been a smash hit. His course on Roman civilization (CLA1102) attracted more than 250 students last semester.

“For the first class, I am all serious and then at the end, I turn the lights off and say ‘I want to give you a sense of what this class is all about’…and then everybody is quiet and they hear zhumm, zhumm and I pull out the light sabre... I usually get a round of applause,” says Burgess.

But seriously folks, there is an educational purpose behind the amateur theatrics. Burgess says sci-fi and pop culture analogies help students remember key facts.

“The original Star Wars takes place within a political structure very much like that of the late [Roman] Republic and very early Empire (between 30 and 10 BC), where you have a senate and a democratic system, but there are serious problems with the senate, and out of the dysfunction of the senate, there arises an emperor,” he explains. “This emperor comes to operate without the senate or democracy, and exercises direct control over the empire. This whole situation is directly out of Roman history.”

Burgess says that most of his references come to him spontaneously in class.

“I tend to go off on tangents but my notes keep me in the right place. I do stories and funny accents,” he says.

As for his exams, multiple choice questions include references to Cylons, Asterix, Dr. Who and Honey Boo-Boo. Not only does this help relieve tension during the exam, it also helps Burgess come up with five potential answers for each of the 133 multiple-choice questions.

One question about the great Carthaginian general Hannibal, was that he:

a) crossed the Alps with elephants
b) crossed the Apennines with elephants
 c) was the father of Hamilcar Barca
d) crossed the Pyrenees with elephants
e) would love to eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

“As they are writing exams, students are all giggling. Sometimes they can remember things because of the analogies. My evaluations are crazy; people draw cartoons and write haikus. Students respond in unorthodox ways,” says Burgess.

Although his office includes a piggy bank that features Han Solo frozen in carbonite, a Star Wars battle cruiser stuck on the window and a fictional diploma from Starfleet Academy, Burgess also has genuine certificates marking his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and his doctorate in ancient history from Oxford university.

Burgess has authored a number of books, as well as many articles and book chapters, with a focus on late Roman chronicles. His works include the first volume of Mosaics of Time, The Latin Chronicle Traditions from the First Century BC to the Sixth Century AD (2013) and Roman Imperial Chronology and Early-Fourth Century Historiography (2014), which explore the accuracy of chronicles as a form of recorded history.

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