by Eduardo A. Escobar, Near Eastern Studies

Recipient of the Teagle Foundation Award for Excellence in Enhancing Student Learning, 2016

Related Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay: Live Digital Translation for Dead Languages

Benno Landsberger, one of the founders of modern Cuneiform Studies, believed that to examine a cuneiform tablet from ancient Iraq is to be confronted first-hand with an “alien civilization.” It is difficult to believe, as a first-time student or even a seasoned researcher, that these humble lumps of clay with impressed wedges represent the earliest records of human writing. And it is more difficult still, to imagine that modern scholars can use those broken documents to construct intellectual histories of ancient Iraq. Yet it is precisely the unfamiliarity of cuneiform’s history and the challenge of translating those documents that makes ancient Mesopotamia such a timely subject for the modern classroom. A classroom, that according Kathleen E. Metz (2011), is a space for learning how knowledge is constructed within a particular discipline. Although Metz may not have had in mind the literal piecing together of cuneiform texts from clay fragments, it is clear that her constructivist approach would find a home in Cuneiform Studies.

Traditionally, when students read cuneiform texts, they transliterate cuneiform signs into Akkadian (a member of the Semitic language family) and, thereafter, provide a tentative translation. It is an intimidating task, and as a student translator one is often faced with the issue of negotiating whether to translate lines literally, i.e., following the word order of Akkadian, or else producing a translation that attempts to capture the sense of the line without feeling beholden to archaic syntax. Neither option is superior, as both offer different methods of understanding a text. In fact, much of what makes translating ancient texts exciting is the pluralism of the activity, particularly within Cuneiform Studies, wherein a single sign can hold a range of meanings; the problem, in sum, is that there is simply no single translation that says it all.

As instructor of record for Cuneiform 101B, I addressed the plurality of translation using the “Collaborations” tool in bCourses (an integration of Google Docs). Every week, my students and I utilized a large HD display in order to examine fragmentary cuneiform sources from photographs and line drawings while producing a live translation of the text. In these sessions, each participant read a set of lines and provided a translation based on their research. Simultaneously, students and the instructor used footnotes to annotate the reader’s translation with semantic disagreements, textual variants, and a range of philological commentaries. The document is testament to a dynamic classroom environment, wherein students are rarely left waiting for their turn to read, and are, instead, in constant dialogue with the text and the other participants in the lesson.

The exercise was successful, and accords with Jean Lave (2011) concept of situated learning. Lave argued that collaboration is key to situated learning, as is abandoning the implicit notion that students “should learn in the way baby birds feed: by swallowing wholesale.” Using this situated learning exercise, allowed me, as the instructor, to act as a facilitator rather than a master with all the answers. Moreover, by creating a collaborative text edition, students themselves were able to identify and critique implicit practices used by cuneiform scholars that may not necessarily reflect their own intuitions and research questions. In sum, students were able to participate first-hand in cuneiform knowledge construction. Similarly, following Metz’s (2011) model of collaboration as disciplinary practice, students engaged with and challenged the “norms and everyday activities that form the backbone of an academic discipline.”

I was able to assess these collaborative documents on a weekly basis to determine each student’s progress. Furthermore, as a final assessment, I asked students to submit individual text commentaries at the end of the term; they did so without fear, using the same tactics learned in the classroom. Indeed, our collaborative documents yielded pluralistic translations and positively affected classroom power dynamics and time management, but there remains room for improvement.

The format of the collaborative documents did not leave a well-defined space for collecting student questions. As Lawrence Lowery (2011) notes, questions posed by students are often more engaging for discussion than those designed by the instructor. Taking Lowery’s finding into account, a future iteration of the same exercise would ask students to formulate targeted questions in addition to translations. This strategy may further acclimate students into disciplinary practices of advanced research. Specifically, it would introduce students to the complex (and creative) task of developing research hypotheses, the first step towards constructing knowledge as a professional scholar.


Lave, Jean. 2011. “Learning as a Socially Situated Activity.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center video, 25:00. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, March 22, 2011.

Lowery, Larry. 2011. “Effective Teaching for Effective Learning.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center, 23:06. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, March 29, 2011.

Metz, Kathleen. 2011. “The Interplay of Conceptual Understanding and Engagement in Disciplinary Practices.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center, 18:23. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, April 19, 2011.