Project Orpheus



Project Orpheus:

Enriching Introductory Humanities Courses


Collin Hughes

Michael Delahoyde



Project Orpheus will enrich andgenerate enthusiasm for introductory Humanities courses (at Washington StateUniversity, 101: The Ancient World and 103: Mythology), and will help inspireboth teachers and students, through the development of a comprehensive andinnovative resource website. The intention of the project is to demonstratemultiple ways that the material in the Humanities courses is relevant andtherefore of interest to teachers and students, reaching out in particular toteachers, teachers-in-training, and those students planning to major ineducation. The model of this resource website is collaborative and would bereadily shared with and expanded to other campuses such as the communitiycolleges included in the CO-TEACH program.


The Title

The Orpheus of myth serves as aninspiration to teachers. His lyrical talents are inspirational and the miseriesof the underworld grind to a halt when he is en forme. He has been to hell and has returned. Even torn apart anddecapitated by mindless bacchanals, his music continues to sweeten the livesthose who would listen.



The Humanities courses need toaddress a variety of different learning styles. Therefore, the material needsto be presented through a variety of engaging classroom activities and avariety of media (not just text, but also film, images, etc.). Classroomactivities and assignments must be designed to provide a variety ofopportunities to different kinds of learners. Most of all, the materialpresented in these classes needs to be shown to have relevance to our livestoday.


The Problem of Relevance

The objectives of the introductory Humanities courses mightbe said to include these: for students

·     to gain exposure to some of the major artistic workswhich have shaped Western culture and the way we think.

·     to increase intellectual maturation and clarificationof our own values through examination of ideas and attitudes in culturalcontexts.

·     to develop skills in verbal analysis through reading,discussion, and writing about literature and other artistic media.


In essence,the courses are designed to acquaint students with a body of materialwith which cultured people of the Western world have been familiar formillennia. Through readings and exposure to other works of art, they can cometo know some of the world’s most influential mythology and ancient worksin more thorough and meaningful ways than these materials’ contemporaryreduction to cheesy vestiges and obscure trivia questions. Teachers canencourage students to see and to make connections between ideas, attitudes, andcultures in classroom discussions, and to keep track of similar ideas (ormyths) currently circulating that interest them.



One usefulapproach is in using simple categories that define fundamental human questions.For example, one can introduce stories as the primary way we, as homo sapiens,define our relationship to the natural world, our relationships with the peoplearound us, and our relations with the cosmos. Therefore, ancient texts andimages mix with modern in thematic organization.


Forinstance, in the context for studying “our relationships to eachother,” one can include John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20,1961. [Paraphrase: Each generation of Americans will have to define for itselfits degree of loyalty to the state.] This can be treated as a basic heroicquestion. Ancient and modern narratives mediate basic dualisms: community/individualism,savage/civil, etc. We can measure one intention of the Epic of Gilgamesh, theoldest text of antiquity, by looking at the trnsformation of a king’sconsciousness –– Gilgamesh the tyrant, defined by his ownindividual lusts, and Gilgamesh the king who is capable of altruism. Thistransformation represents an initial pedagogical perspective (having studentssee themselves in relation to others) and therein is useful in understandingthe plot of the story. Once again, the goal is to show students how this playsout in their own lives. Later, one might move into more contemporary examples:Gilgamesh’s transformation is somewhat identical to to the transformation ofRick Blain in the 1943 film Casablanca:Rick goes from an isolationist position of “sticking his neck out fornobody” to sacrificing his truest love for a national cause. (The film isan allegory. Blain also represents changes in American sentiments in generalduring that time. One also can explore these stories as propaganda; just asVirgil’s Aeneid is written to reshapethe image of Rome, certain films are designed to influence public opinion.)


Sophocles’female character Antigone can be used in conjunction with Henry David Thoreau’snotion of less government in Civil Disobedience. One can juxtapose this kind of thinking to heroes likeAeneas and his extreme sense of duty in the Roman epic, Virgil’s Aeneid. In many ways, the Roman mind-set is consistent withFreud’s more critical notions of individualism in Civilization and itsDiscontents. In all cases, students shouldbe considering the implications of these texts in their own lives.


There arealso compelling points of convergence between the Sciences and the Humanities.We will develop ways of teaching “the natural world” while introducingabstract notions such as archetypes.


Otherconnections and relevances include, in shorthand form:

·     etiological myths–– Western culture’s insistence that it must pinpoint a firstperson, place, and authorized hierarchy, vs. creation myths of other cultures.(Consider Stephen Gould on the myth of the creation of baseball vs. the morerealistic paradigm of evolution.)

·     Homer’s perspective on war–– ask students reading the Iliad which side they support and why. Homer’s decentering ofwar motivation makes for challenging discussion.

·     myth as metaphor (somethingJoseph Campbell made much of) –– ask students to finish thefollowing sentences: “The worst time of my life was like …” and”The best time in my life was like …” (even, “In a past life,I died …”), and watch their responses match up with stories frommythology.

·     Ovid and environmentalism–– in his case, it’s not so much that that tree you’re cutting downor that animal you ran over may be your grandmother (although Pythagoreanmetempsychosis is featured in Book 15); it’s that each flower and bird has itsown life story.




Constructinga Teaching Resource

The proposedwebsite would address the following, most ubiquitously anthologized, texts:

·     Gilgamesh

·     Creation Myths(cross-cultural: including Genesis, Popul Vuh, Native American creationstories. etc.)

·     Old Testament excerpts (TheStory of Joseph, Job)

·     Homer’s Iliad

·     Homer’s Odyssey

·     Hesiod’s Theogony

·     Greek Plays [by Aeschylus,Sophocles (Oedipus Rex, Antigone), Euripides (Medea)]

·     Greek Philosophy (Plato,Aristotle)

·     Greek History (Herodotus,Thucydides)

·     Virgil’s Aeneid

·     Ovid’s Metamorphoses


The proposedwebsite would include the following components:

·     Introduction: anexplanation of the site providing the pedagogical philosophy behind it, itsspecific purposes, its uses, and an invitation for further contributions.

·     Texts: links to onlineversions of the ancient texts when available, bibliographical reference to themost available print and anthologized versions.

·     Further Readings:helpful and digestible shortcuts for an optional but better grounding andexpansion of knowledge in each work.

·     Notes for Teachers:

·     Comprehension: anextensive list of basic questions about people, places, and events in eachtext. Teachers need to make certain students know what happens before they candiscuss what it might mean. Detailed summaries of the stories would be offeredhere as well.

·     Commentary:introductory comments on the texts and descriptions of general approaches toteaching in relevant categories such as heroism, travel, authority and power,deceit, revenge, love and romance, master/slave relationships, individual/community or civil/savage dynamics. This section will suggest ways thatteachers can renovate particular themes so they can be made applicable tocontemporary life, and thus relevant to the lives of the students. This sectionof the resource would provide a body of knowledge in the form of commentarieson literature, philosophy, architecture, and art of the ancient world. As partof an ongoing conversation about Western civilization, we will discuss andevaluate the ways ancient texts continue to shape human consciousness andsuggest ways that these texts may help us better understand the enigma we calllife.

·     Connections: thissection would introduce ways to utilize the reading and writing of scholars indiverse fields –– from history to literary theory to science andpsychology; again, here we are attempting to create simple metaphors thatstudents can “see” and then apply to their act of making meaningthrough reading. The connection between science and the humanities is ofparticular concern. We will also include here a large section called Film and Mythology, showing teachers how Hollywood filmscan used as valuable reference points for discussing mythic concepts in theclassroom. We will provide a list of films (that have discernible mythologicalplots) and teaching strategies for viewing these films.

·     Activities: thissection would include straightforward advice for getting students to expresstheir thinking out loud in front of others. We will include descriptions ofwhat has worked and what has not. (This area will provide links that involve”teaching tips” from teachers around the Pacific northwest). We havea good deal of practical information and advice on teaching: how to usetechnology in the classroom, how to use images and art in the classroom, how touse poetry, how to use science. These facets would be applied to tips on how toguide a successful discussion.

·     Assignments: samplewriting assignments, activities, and exams would go beyond comprehension toinclude analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and then application tocontemporary life. We would provide diverse suggestions. The section will alsoprovide suggested models for final projects and collaborative projects.


The project seems massive, butmuch of it will emerge from knowledge, practices, and experience we each havealready amassed in the teaching of these classes for the past six or moreyears. Both of us are experienced with website development and management, sothat we realistically can create, develop, and maintain this site. In short,Project Orpheus targets clear pedagogical goals and seeks to generate a seriesof comprehensive choices for achieving these fundamental goals, providingguidelines for making connections to other disciplines and eras of history andpre-history. Individual teachers will be able to select from a variety of waysto enrich the presentation of the Humanities in their own classrooms.