Get to Know a Teacher – Greek and Roman Studies’ Alejandro Sinner

Alejandro Sinner

Greek and Roman Studies Assistant Professor Alejandro Sinner talks to Stephanie Harrington about his archaeological field work with students and how virtual reality can be used to explore Roman ruins.

Your archaeological research covers the social and cultural history of Roman Spain and centres on the site of ancient Ilduro, Cabrera de Mar. How did you originally make a connection with this location? And why did you decide to engage your students in your research?

I felt in love with the site on the very first day. Some colleagues have a revelation visiting Egypt, Greece or Rome, but for me it was Cabrera de Mar. I was just a second-year undergraduate student who got fascinated by how a single place could bring the past back to life. Although the site was discovered in 1998, it was during 2006 and 2007 that most of the archaeological area got uncovered and I was part of that team. It was an amazing time; every day we uncovered new walls, sherds, coins. So many simple but meaningful questions were raised: What did they eat? What did their houses look like? What language did they speak? To whom did they pray?

I decided to engage my students in my research because I want them to have the opportunity to feel as I did (and do). Students are curious, they like the puzzle. They learn fast and they are a key aspect of my research. Without them, I would not be able to do what I do. Finally, engaging them with my research also helps them to clarify what they want to do. Not everybody likes research, or fieldwork or dirt. Some have come just for the experience and decided to pursue a career in archaeology. Others thought that they wanted to do archaeology and after engaging with the project see themselves doing a different type of work. In both cases they have succeeded.

What have your students learned from the field school experience that they otherwise wouldn’t get from a classroom?

Archaeology is as practical discipline as much as it is theoretical; it cannot be taught exclusively in the classroom. In the same way that kinesiology or medicine requires a practical component, archaeology needs fieldwork as part of the student formation. Our field school, by excavating, exploring and studying a late-Iberian/Roman site directly, provides our undergraduate and graduate students with practical training in the areas of archaeological research and field methods, data management and analysis, recognition and analysis of material culture and the value of archaeological evidence for historical analysis of the shifting social, economic, cultural and political conditions at the site in its broader Mediterranean context.

Thanks to the field school, every year a significant number of students with no previous archaeological experience are accepted in our program and trained in these aspects of archaeological methodology.The project not only gives them the opportunity of gaining the necessary experience to participate in other excavations in the future but also a unique experience. For many of our students this is the first time leaving Canada or visiting Europe. The field school is a unique personal experience and something that students look back on fondly at the end of their degree.

You have been experimenting recently with virtual reality technology. In the fall, you hosted a workshop in which students were able to navigate the ruins of an ancient Roman home while wearing virtual reality (VR) equipment. How successful has the project been so far?

It’s been very successful. Students were able to put on a headset and navigate our archaeological site in Spain without leaving UVic. VR is a fairly new technology in the classroom, but it is really powerful. You actually feel like you’re in the place. It allows students to get comfortable with the space and learn its geography. If they later join the field school, they are already familiar with our archaeological site. VR and 3D modeling also give students an opportunity to do some important community engagement and public good. Some of the archaeological sites in Cabrera de Mar are not open to the public and some have been buried again after the excavation took place in order to protect the remains. Aside from a website and several 3D models of the site, we have been developing a program that allows the whole community and our students to access the site in virtual reality whenever they want.

Many of them comment that they would be more likely to take classes incorporating this technology in the course and that VR is an effective learning experience and preferable to a traditional lecture or PowerPoint. Of course, this must be put in context. I have not used VR to teach a whole course. That probably would be overwhelming and the feedback very different. I have used this technology only in two or three classes during the semester to complement some of the contents that have been discussed in class, like some sort of a humanities lab.  

What potential do you see for virtual reality in teaching? What advantages does the technology offer that students otherwise wouldn’t get?

I think that new technologies have a huge potential that we’re now just starting to understand. We live in what some researchers have called "the Experience Age." Over 90 per cent of teens (and many adults) are online daily, streaming, playing, sharing, and posting. I like to say that the new generations speak proficiently a different language in which we professors are sometimes beginners. Virtual reality can offer an immersive type of experience, it appeals or triggers mechanisms—things that we can feel in our bodies—that are hard to activate in a normal classroom setting. This type of technology proves very effective in student engagement, active learning, abstract learning and emphatic learning among people.