Posted on 25 May 2023 in art, bulletin, digital humanities

Lesson Learnt: Challenges and New Ways to Experience the Physical in the Digital Classroom

In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 27, former ISRF Fellow Athena Hadji reflects on how she moved her Greek Sculpture classes online overnight during the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic and the unexpected benefits this brought.

Athena Hadji

Faculty Member, DIKEMES-College Year in Athens

Image in public domain. Original image by
Juliet Furst.

A monologue to introduce the topic

‘Am I then a digital humanist? Not according to some. Coding is an alien concept to me. However, I have been using Moodle since the beginning of my post-Ph.D. teaching career; I often resort to google images, when my own archive is not sufficient; I increasingly read e-books more than printed matter for academic purposes—I still enjoy the physicality of a book for leisure reading; I employ multimedia, consult databases, and have created a considerable digital photographic archive from museums and sites which I utilize in my lectures.’ I have been pondering the above while writing this piece. I belong to a generation of humans who were old enough to witness and benefit from the dissemination of the Worldwide Web. At the same time, I am on occasion bewildered by my students’ attachment to their digital devices. 


A shift in teaching that was already underway became visible, measurable, and irreversible because of and during the successive lockdowns imposed by the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Most, if not all teaching, at all levels, around the globe, switched to digital platforms. In higher education, the precious real time between Professor and student in the physical classroom was substituted by (yet another) screen-to-screen interaction.[1]

The present contribution focuses on my insight from teaching Ancient Greek Sculpture via Zoom from mid-semester Spring 2020, when the first lockdown was imposed in Greece, to Spring 2021. The shift was abrupt and techniques were devised gradually, with a fair amount of improvisation, in order to adapt a museum- and site- based hands-on focused art history course to the digital experience, relying heavily by necessity on the use of (digital) images and verbal descriptions of visual qualities.[2]

At times, teaching a Humanities course digitally felt like broadcasting: a screen-friendly dress code was established; gestures were reduced to shrugs and facial expressions with an occasional movement of the hands close to the face (since only a small portion of the upper body is visible by Zoom session participants); essentially, the third dimension both of the subject matter (ancient sculpture) and the living subjects (Professor and students) was eliminated. The multisensory experience that is studying sculpture as a three-dimensional entity engaging one’s own physicality in a dialogue with the physicality of the sculptures was transformed into a primarily audiovisual endeavour. Among many necessary modifications, in order to compensate for materialities lost, one that I found of particular usefulness was the introduction of the literary dimension: Greek sculpture has inspired a plethora of poets, both Greek and otherwise, through time, from antiquity to the twenty-first century CE, and I employed poetry not as a substitute for the museum experience but as a powerful means of engaging the senses in a radically different, albeit equally effective manner. I have incorporated the texts in the museum experience and, since Fall 2021, when we were able to return to a physical classroom and museum-based course, the texts have become an integral and indispensable part of the course curriculum. 

A timeline

I am a Faculty Member at a study-abroad programme here in Athens, College Year in Athens, one of the most popular study-abroad programmes around for US-American students. Expectations are high by those students who decide to cross the pond and join the programme and the first lockdown coincided with the middle of the semester, right after or right before their midterm exam. In Spring semester 2020, the course was taught by a colleague who was planning to retire anyway. After the literally overnight switch from the physical classroom to the digital one, she decided to retire early and I was called in to replace her until the end of the semester as an emergency plan. I am of course familiar with the subject matter but it so happened that this first digital form of the class did not simply entail real-time digital transmission of knowledge. As the US border closed abruptly, our students had to return home immediately and we had to resort to making videos of each class and uploading them for students to view in their own time, due to the inconvenient time difference between the two continents (as well as different time zones within the USA). We then devised various ways, such as quizzes, games, etc. to ensure the students followed up on the content and pace of the class in a remote asynchronous education model. This semester ended amidst a lot of insecurity for everybody, with a take-home exam and the physical aspect of education obliterated.

In Fall 2020, things began to look up. The semester started in early September with a few determined students, who, despite all, traveled to Greece, with museums and sites re-opened, and with an eagerness to engage with each other. In early November 2020, the second lockdown meant that we were now confined at home, museums were of course closed indefinitely, and class was conducted via Zoom again, this time in synchronous video-conferencing sessions with the aid of PowerPoint image-and-text presentations, videos, and links to websites. Spring 2021 was taught exclusively online, except for one memorable visit to the Athenian Agora towards the end of the semester, when archaeological sites, but not museums, finally opened. Syllabi were constantly updated to conform to changing circumstances, as were teaching style and methodology.

Teaching sculpture

Sculpture is about space. In fact, the first lesson every student of Ancient Greek Sculpture learns is how the Greek sculptors progressed from rigidity and frontality in the seventh century BCE to the conquest of space in late-fourth century BCE monumental sculpture.

Anthropomorphic sculpture, that is the sculpture that resembles the human form, is naturally and automatically juxtaposed to one’s own scale when encountered in the physical realm. This physical multisensory approach (with the exception of touch, a taboo for art museums) is one I advocate in my classes which are primarily conducted in the museum. The impossibility of being in the museum during lockdowns meant that I had to come up with a different methodological apparatus, in order a. to engage the students and keep them engaged for 1 hr and 35 min. of Zoom sessions twice a week, and b. to ensure a pedagogically effective and successful outcome for the course. 

Thus, I focused on the senses that I could use, especially ones that were prioritised in visual as well as auditory transmission. I emphasised the auditory, utilising a student evaluation of the first videos recorded during the half-semester of the first lockdown, who wrote that they found my voice soothing. In turbulent circumstances, away from home and uncertain about the outcome of the pandemic in the pre-vaccines era, I indeed noticed that my online presence had a calming effect on my students, being a structured, scheduled time segment in an otherwise chaotic time sequence. Also, although our cameras were on, the visual element was not foremost, contrary to the content and premise of an art history course, since the image analysis was not good. In addition, only a tiny part of a human being is visible on a Zoom video call, even as that image is distorted. And as far as body language is concerned, apart from facial expressions, nothing is communicated in this fundamental way of communication. Dress code was another adjustment that had to be made, namely I followed the basic rule for pandemic chic on Zoom video calls: a basic black turtleneck.

The physical aspect, which was missing, was substituted in three ways:

First, by a new type of assignment I came up with: since all we were allowed to do was more or less walk within a small radius, each student was assigned to discover, photograph, and present in (digital) class sculptures they encountered. The task was completed successfully, and the range was impressive: from sculptures in the nearby metro stations, to the sculpture garden that is the First Cemetery of Athens, as well as interpretations of Greek sculptures in Athenian street art and architecture (such as a well-known street art piece that resembles a centaur by artist Krah, or the famous neoclassical caryatids on Assomaton St. in downtown Athens, immortalised by the lens of none other than Henri Cartier Bresson).[3]

Second, another aspect that was explored, connected with the auditory and its impressive priority, was the introduction to class of text, more specifically poetry of a wide range of times and places, that was inspired by and directly referred to Greek sculpture, according to the particular theme we explored every day. Poets ranged from Rainer Maria Rilke to Greek Nobel laureate George Seferis.[4] The poem was presented to the students on a PowerPoint slide and I, or one of the students, also read it aloud.

Last but most definitely not least, instead of research papers, the students were invited to be creative with their term project assignments: wonderful pieces of work emerged, academically robust, and delightfully creative: poems; collages; short stories; the diary of a Kore statue; a dialogue between the ancient Caryatids and the aforementioned Assomaton St. ones; a hilarious comic strip about the groundbreaking sculptures from the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus (see images 1, 2, 3 at the bottom of this article). Text was again prioritised—as was the auditory. The students presented their work, recited their poems, read their short stories and an atmosphere of reverence was created. Humour was abundant and much craved for. 

The digital condition thus became part of the human condition, returning us to the fundaments of being collectively human: class as consolation, comfort, and camaraderie; knowledge as relief and escape from a grim reality; a community that was built around our shared appreciation of sculptural forms; and a re-invention of how to teach and learn one of the most contested categories of art ever created.

In lieu of a conclusion

The issue at stake is ultimately alternative ways of adapting to a rapidly changing teaching environment as a negotiation between traditional forms of knowledge transfer in the Humanities and new avenues of thought that involve sharing rather than transmitting. A considerable amount of time has passed since the end of Covid-19-related lockdowns and restrictions came to an end. I continue to teach Greek Sculpture, among other subjects, and the three ‘alternatives’ discussed above have now become staples in my syllabi. Every semester, sculpture students walk the walk, delve into creative ways of presenting their research, and engage their senses in the appreciation of poetry as a learning tool. 

Let’s immerse ourselves in experiential learning for a minute or so. Imagine you are stranded at home, in the middle of a horrible pandemic—not so hard, right? Then, relax, imagine a soothing voice reciting, and feel the words of the poem that follows: 

Cold, smooth wings of metal seem to stretch outward from a living torso. Her breath is a sharp wind which smells faintly of mint, and her eye-less stare is felt from every angle. Nike stands in the North, her image rendered both familiar and alien by the sharp angles of the metal arranged in a whisper of her classical shape. She has known many forms, but this is one of her favorites. Victory will stand eternal, yet ever-changing, just as this vessel exemplifies. Most of the gods are gone now—the famous Parthenos long lost, Zeus of Olympia all but dust—but Victory is universal, unmistakable. And yet she is also unpredictable: just when you think she’s on your side, she deserts you again. Nike shifts to a new vessel, far away: this one is simple, gentle yet powerful. She hangs on a wall like a kiss on a forehead, gold glittering in the evening sun streaming through an open window. The mere presence of her consciousness seems to bring warmth and color into the room, filling the luxury apartment with life as Nike exhales into this freshly blessed space. It is because of her nature—some would call it fickle—and not her power that she has preserved her relevance in this everchanging, shifting world. This piece of her demonstrates it well, she believes, which is why she visits it so frequently. Her essence is so clear here, yet so unexpected. She melts away at each end, just the way her allegiance will always be fluid, her resolve forever impermanent. She still belongs in the world because she shapes it: every winner on the field of battle has known her wreath. Every empire that swallows up the last has been guided by her lanterns. Each toppled, crooked king has stumbled because she made it so. As the sun begins to set Nike takes her leave, once more returning to the place she has so long now favored. Her dress of stone flutters around her ankles as she settles back in, feathers twitching, whispering in the growing darkness. This is her most powerful visage, not because of the size of her wings or the cut of her figure, but because of its history. The worlds that have risen and fallen around this statue, the eyes that have gazed upon her in this form over thousands of years. Much like Victory herself, this image has changed immensely over the eons. She has been reshaped, moved, been shattered and put back together. But through all of it, still she stands. She takes a breath and steps back into position: here she stands, at the bow of the great ship of Victory, to make and remake the world for eons to come.[5]

Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Archaic Torso of Apollo mandates: “You must change your life”. And change we did. 

Images 1, 2, and 3 (Gwyn Stith, Fall Semester 2020, reproduced with permission of the author).


[1] For a brief history of digital teaching, see B. Carter, Digital Humanities: Current Perspectives, Practices and Research (Bingley 2013: Emerald Publishing), chapter 3.

[2] For a detailed syllabus of the course, see here:

[3] and respectively.

[4] Examples can be read here:;

[5] Victory Through the Ages, Chase La Plante, Fall Semester 2021, reproduced with permission of the author.

DIKEMES-College Year in Athens

Dr. Athena Hadji (B.A., University of Athens, M.A. and Ph.D., UC Berkeley) is an academic, researcher, curator of contemporary art and published and award-nominated author. Athena is a Faculty Member at DIKEMES-College Year in Athens, where she teaches on Cultural Heritage, Art History and Curating Art; Adjunct Professor at the American University of Rome, MA Program in Sustainable Heritage; and on occasion Guest Lecturer at the National School of Public Administration of Greece on issues of Cultural Heritage and Urban Sustainability. 
Athena is the recipient of prestigious fellowships and awards, among others, from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, ISRF, the Fulbright Foundation, the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation, and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Her awards include a NEON Foundation award for her exhibition THE BODY IS…, a NEON/ Whitechapel Gallery Emerging Curator Award and a literary award from the Municipality of Rhodes.
Motto: kindness as praxis.

ISRF Athena Hadji