Faculty Spotlight: Michael Furman

Michael Furman's primary research field is the political history of central Greece but he also helps train graduate students to teach.

Michael Furman is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Classics, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Tell us a little about your background.

After earning a bachelor of arts in Classics and English literature at Bucknell University, I went overseas to the University of St Andrews in Scotland where I earned a doctorate in ancient history in 2017. I started at FSU in the fall of 2018 and, as my first job straight out of graduate school, I do not think I could have asked for a better experience.

When did you first become interested in the history of central Greece in the fourth century B.C.?

I have been interested in ancient history since I was a kid. Indiana Jones may or may not have played a role in this. But my specific focus on central Greece in the fourth century has its roots in my undergraduate education. As a freshman, I took a Greek history course with professor Stephanie Larson. I went into the course expecting to mostly learn about Athens and Sparta, but she kept bringing up this city called Thebes and the region surrounding it called Boeotia. The more I learned about these places, the more intrigued I became.

Thebes is such an interesting place both mythologically and historically. Most people know it as the city of Oedipus, but it was also the birthplace of Dionysus and strongly associated with Heracles. In the Classical Period, it was part of a federal state with a representative form of government and repeatedly bested Sparta and Athens in battle. I was amazed it was so relatively unknown for how important it was, and that really motivated me to focus on it when I arrived in graduate school.

What are your current research interests, and what makes you passionate about them? You prepare graduate students to teach while introducing them to educational research; can you speak to what that entails and its value?

I continue to look at the political history of central Greece as my primary research field, but since coming to FSU another branch has emerged. This branch focuses on pedagogical issues, particularly the training of graduate students to teach. I offer a pedagogy course (FLE5810: Teaching Classics) to our first-year master’s student to get them ready to serve as instructors of record the following year. I place a heavy emphasis on evidence-based teaching methods derived from the fields of educational research and social psychology. I do this because the traditional, anecdotal approach to pedagogy stifles innovation and assumes all teaching experiences are the same. It is essentially giving students a hammer and assuming that every problem is a nail, so in my course I seek to provide students with a toolbox of strategies they can adapt to their own needs.

The value of this training is monumental at so many levels. Since our graduate students teach mostly introductory courses, they are going to be the first point of contact a student has with our department. We want to ensure a positive experience which can lead students to take more courses in Classics. For the graduate students themselves, having formalized training in pedagogy really helps them on the job market and we have an extremely high placement rate in secondary schools throughout the country.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?

In a nutshell, that there is more to ancient Greece than Athens and Sparta. Popular conceptions of ancient Greek culture and society tend to portray it as monolithic, largely due to the outsized focus on Athens, but it was actually incredibly diverse. Just to give an example, the public hears ad nauseum about how American politics traces back to the ‘birth of democracy’ in Athens, when, structurally, our political systems are very different. The Boeotian League on the other hand, the federal state I study, was made up of 11 districts that sent chosen representatives to a central federal assembly in Thebes. Local governments remained free to govern local issues, but gave up their individual power over foreign policy to be part of the federal state which provided for mutual defense and minted a common currency. Sound familiar?

Studying state systems like this at the structural level can give us insight into how power can be distributed in a way which limits the ability of any one individual to bend policy and law to their own will. It allows us to look past the great man theory, a still popular framework in historical scholarship in which development is attributed to the extraordinary abilities of a single individual, and to gain a view of political change as incremental and the work of a wider population.

Who are your role models? Who has influenced you most in your life?

My parents are absolutely my role models. They taught me the value of hard work through example and they always encouraged me to follow my passions. I originally applied to college as a chemistry major, but continually found myself drawn to Classics and ancient history after I arrived. When I said I wanted to change my major and eventually go to graduate school, they did not hesitate at all in their support. No one in my family is an academic, so this was really uncharted territory for everyone involved, but they supported me all the same and there is no way I would be where I am today without them. I am extremely fortunate and, recognizing that not everyone has the amazing support system I did, I try to encourage and help my students in achieving their goals, whatever they may be.

What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?

The hardest job to get after you earn your Ph.D. is your first one, so you often do not know where you will end up. I was extremely lucky to find a position at FSU that allows me to focus on what I really care about. I was excited by the offer from FSU because of the curricular design opportunities as well as being able to take supervisory responsibility for the teacher’s assistant program and teach the FLE5810 course. I have never been on a campus as large as FSU before, and I find the energy generated by all the students to be contagious. I come into work every day feeling enthusiastic and ready to go.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Teaching. I love being an educator. When you are teaching, there is a moment where you can see the light bulb switch on in your students. It might be after working through a particularly difficult section of text, going through feedback on their essays, or telling a story from the ancient world that elicits a reaction and gets people to lean in. I live for that moment. Students reflect what their instructor projects, and being able to share my passion for the ancient world is made meaningful to me when I see students discover their own interests, passions, and new understandings of the material.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Teaching. As I try to impart to my graduate students, being a good teacher takes a lot of work, especially self-reflection. I am constantly thinking about ways to engage the students and avoid what is now called continuous exposition or a lecture. If I try a new activity that does not turn out the way I expected, I go back and rework it in my course notes immediately, because I will not be able to remember if I wait until the next time I teach the course. Good teaching also takes a lot of listening. I solicit feedback from students throughout the course of the semester, so I am constantly processing this information and integrating it into the course to provide students with some degree of agency over their own educational experience.

How do you like to spend your free time?

Unsurprisingly for someone who spent five years living in St Andrews, I like to play golf. One of the benefits of living in Florida is that I can play year-round without having to throw on three layers of clothes.

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

That it is okay to be passionate about something and let others see that passion. I am unapologetic about how excited I get when talking about the ancient world in class, no matter how ‘nerdy’ it may seem. I want my students to see that and find ways to explore and express their own interests while at FSU and throughout their lives, whatever those interests may be.