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The Patrologist

Some rambling thoughts on an ideal ancient languages classroom

A response to Fran’s comments here.

I don’t think anything I have to say here is particularly new, from my perspective, in that I haven’t changed my views that much in the past couple of years. An old but still valid post on this topic is here.

I’m convinced pedagogically, and experientially, that an ancient languages class ought to major on comprehensible input and communicative methods even if the main orientation of study at a macro level is the reading and interpretation of texts. The not-as-traditional-as-presented Grammar/Translation methodology does not produce good readers of texts, except almost accidentally among those who do enough G/T to get a relatively large among of ‘exposure’ to comprehensible input.

It does produce students, among those who survive, capable of commenting on texts using grammatical jargon. This is not totally useless, but teach grammar and you produce grammarians.

Meta-language discussions (linguistics/grammar) I would want to (a) teach in the medium of the language itself, (b) teach in (English/other) separately to the language classroom.

I do think there’s a difference between seminary settings and college/university/other settings. That primarily has to do with time available to students for languages, and scope of their target texts. Seminary students primarily want to read a very limited corpus (e.g. the New Testament), which is understandable but problematic (from a language perspective), and they have more restricted time (a Greek course sitting precariously amidst myriad other commitments). Students in, say, a classics program (or parallel situation, but I’ll stick to rambling about Classics for now) ought to do a lot more language, a lot earlier, and shift their upper level courses into using the target language as medium of discussion.

What else would I want to say? I don’t think it’s true that most teachers of Greek at theological colleges have only one year of actual Greek study. Based on my analysis of staffing practices, Greek is almost always taught by New Testament lecturers with PhDs in New Testament. The problem there is not lack of Greek, but that how much Greek you need for a PhD in New Testament is surprisingly limited.

I don’t do enough communicative work in my own limited teaching, partly my own failings, partly due to the fact that I predominantly tutor students enrolled in other people’s programs who need to conform to those expectations not my own. I do think with a free hand, a radical overhaul is worth it.


Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek

Well let’s have another brief review, shall we?

Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek dates back to 1993, at least, and has long been in use at UC Berkeley, and elsewhere. A second edition was released in 2013, though I am only familiar with the first edition. Both editions are well supported with some internet resources at (2nd edition; a site for the 1st edition thankfully remains online. (A list of changes between editions can be found here)

Mastronarde outlines his pedagogical beliefs in his preface, saying, “My presentation is based on the belief that college students who are trying to learn Greek deserve full exposure to the morphology and grammar that they will encounter in real texts and full explanations of what they are asked to learn.” And the textbook does just that. Mastronarde does not hold back on quite full explanations, and expects (or at least presents) the panoply of Greek morphology through.

Personally, I came to Mastronarde twice – first as an independent learner trying to transition myself from a Koine background to Classical Greek, secondly as a student picking up a class to ‘fix’ my Greek (it was a class covering the second half of Mastronarde, and it was probably worth it though perhaps unnecessary).

Each chapter presents a thorough treatment of new grammatical material with in depth explanations of the reasons for morphological changes and examples of usage patterns. This is followed by vocab to be learnt and then exercises. Exercises include reading/translation passages (Greek > English) and translation exercises (English > Greek).

Mastronarde also states in the preface his aversion to a reading/inductive methodology where students are exposed to a reading text and meant to figure it out by themselves. However, he certainly doesn’t disavow reading itself. The textbook constantly brings the student into encounters with real Greek texts, and the expectation of the author is that the textbook may be used alongside, especially in the second half, the reading of a first Greek text (Xenophon being an obvious candidate).

Personally, I still turn to Mastronarde if I want an explanation for something. It’s in-depth, and yet user-friendly enough that it’s often more useful to read Mastronarde’s treatment of a grammatical topic, than to turn to a reference grammar like Smyth. For those who like a rigourist approach of grammar/morphology/reading/translation, I do recommend Mastronarde to them, as it’s a lot more friendly than, say, H&Q, though no less a stern taskmaster. I’m not sure I’d teach from it, but as usual that’s more due to my pedagogical preferences. Mastronarde is probably one of the better offerings on the market for traditional Classical Greek introductory textbooks.

PhD passed: some initial reflections

Late last Wednesday I received the email from our Higher Degree Research Office informing me that my doctoral dissertation had been passed, “subject to some corrections”.

It was a while later before I was able to begin to read through the examiners’ reports. In our Australian system there is no viva, and dissertations are sent out to three external examiners for comment. I suspect this is a result of the tyrannies of distance, and also a relic of an age when theses had to be sent back to Oxbridge because God-forbid an Australian give a degree to an Australian.

The examiners were very positive, with two out of three being exceedingly so, and one employing such outrageously laudatory language that it became a little embarrassing. This was very pleasant to hear, naturally. Moreso, because a lot of my dissertation had been done in relative isolation – I didn’t have a good peer-group in my field on-campus, and my supervisor had been so overwhelming positive and un-critical that I was beginning to think my work must be genius or nonsense but who could tell?

A number of typos slipped through to the end, which is a shame, but almost inevitable despite careful proofing. I was heartened, though, that when someone corrected the accent on a Greek infinitive, they were as wrong as I was, and the correct form was something else!

On a substance level, the examiners were also very positive (indeed, emphatic) on the move to publication, and gave strong feedback on areas to address and improve in moving from thesis to book.

So at present I’m making those final edits – mostly the correction of typos – which will see the PhD ‘completed’ properly. The next graduation is not until September, sadly. I’m feeling very buoyed by the positive reception of the thesis though, and will move on to turning it into a book as quickly as is reasonable.



State of the Projects, March 2017

I don’t know if anyone enjoys these or not, but they are helpful for me to write.


Still waiting on examiners’ reports. It will be 3 months on Monday, so I really do expect to hear shortly.


Continues to be unsuccessful. 9 rejections and 1 job cancelled to date. Still have a few ‘out there’. I have picked up an array of casual positions (some adjunct work, some language tutoring, some marking, and some other things), so at least there will be some money coming in.


I sent off one article for a journal about a week ago. I have the core of a second article done but it needs another revision and strengthening. No shortage of other things to write on, but time is very short these days.


I’m almost finished a first pass through Gregory of Nyssa’s De Deitate. It’s not difficult, it’s quite enjoyable, but again time is short. The second pass will be much quicker, and I should be able to get a patristic reader text, a publishable (?) translation, and maybe some thoughts for an article or two.

Blogging plans

We got started on our textbook review series. I missed this week though. Still, good to be blogging a bit more, and hopefully more to come.

Ørberg’s Lingua Latina: an introduction for the uninitiated

Alright, let’s get to a textbook I really enjoy. Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata: Pars I: Familia Romana

This is, without exaggeration, the best Latin textbook on the market. It’s not perfect, it’s not the be all and end all, but there’s simply nothing better as a book to teach/learn with.

Firstly, how I came across it and used it. It was towards the end of my 4 year sequence of Latin at university, and a sense of growing frustration that modern language students would be reading their languages ‘fluently’ by this stage, but here I was painstakingly analysing/translating my way through Roman literature. What had gone wrong?? Like many products of the philological tradition and Grammar/Translation methodology, I knew a great deal about Latin, but I couldn’t read Latin straight.

At the time I started listening to Latin teacher online a great deal, and that’s how I first got plugged-in to the world of comprehensible input, communicative methods, etc., etc.. And that’s how I heard about LL – a holy grail of textbooks, in that it taught Latin entirely through Latin. I ordered a copy post-haste.

I recall reading the first chapter and being a little in awe both at how much I understood, and how well it is paced. Of all the “readers” that exist for classical languages, LL truly accomplishes its goal of initiating the student into the language without recourse to outside aids or a second language. From page 1 it is possible to go all Latin, all the way.

The text carries the student from the fundamentals of Latin ‘grammar’ through everything they would cover in a standard class, over 34 chapters. Plenty of repetition of vocabulary and structure helps too. “Grammar” is not entirely neglected, as each chapter ends with grammatical notes in Latin. Exercises end each chapter, of three types: fill in the ending, fill in the word, and respond to latine questions, with answers latine.

Some criticisms can be made: it’s still a textbook, and some students will not find the text engaging. It proceeds by a ‘grammar’ sequence, not a natural one. It introduces too much vocab, too quickly, and this is a slight problem. It wasn’t written for active, communicative Latin (Ørberg himself expressed surprise in learning that students were using it for this! He envisaged it as a direct method text for reading).

Nonetheless, it remains unsurpassed. It always tops my recommendations, and I’d teach from it at the drop of a hat. Even advanced students would benefit from ‘going back’ and picking it up to increase their reading fluency.

Today’s review really only treats of volume 1, Familia Romana. I’ll talk a little about the other volumes and resources another time.

Latin Pedagogy: thoughts on the conversation between Gallagher, Dickey, and Fontaine

There was a great recent article on Eidolon, “What is the Best Way to Learn Latin?”, which is a conversation between Daniel Gallagher (student of Foster) and Eleanor Dickey, mediated by Michael Fontaine.

The article is great for a few reasons. Firstly, Dickey has done some great work on ancient pedagogy, both Latin and Greek. Lately I’ve been working through her Greek Composition Book as well. So ED is really ‘up there’ in a knowledge of (a) ancient pedagogy and rhetorical school practices, (b) her own Greek and Latin!, (c) teaching. Gallagher, on the other hand, ‘represents’ the Reginald Foster ‘school of thought’. Having been slowly reading through Ossa Latinitatis Sola myself and trying to understand that school, it was great to see him in dialogue here.

The early discussion of chreia type exercises – the systematic substitution of elements in a sample sentence and manipulation of those forms (case/number), is interesting because this type of exercise has become more popular in recent years in textbooks, but I’m yet to be convinced that it is truly pedagogically effective. I do think it’s a more effective way to force students to master morphological forms through active manipulation, but I’m yet to be convinced that this pushes us in the right direction overall.

Both Dickey and Foster emphasise “total philological mastery”, though they differ in how they think this should be achieved. Foster’s approach eschews reliance on rote memorisation of tables and charts, but it still appears to end up in an ability to take any form and manipulate it any which way. It remains hard to see how this is emphatically different than a rote mastery of those forms.

Dickey is on file elsewhere as not being a fan of communicative methods, and thinking that the “tried and true” ways of grammar remain the best. For that, I likewise remain sceptical.

There’s a great line from ED about halfway through:

There is definitely something that I do not understand about Reginald’s method, namely what the students are actually doing.

Yes, I have often wondered the same thing. Gallagher goes on to give a decent example of what Reginald would be doing in class.

Another great line comes later on, this time from Gallagher:

Although the ability to speak Latin used to be the goal, today it is literacy. Developing our students’ ability to understand and digest ancient texts is the reason most of us have dedicated our lives to teaching Latin.

I whole-heartedly agree. The goal for almost all our students is literacy – an ability to fluently read target texts in their target language. However, speaking Latin, or more precisely, an oral/aural communicative fluency developed of comprehensive input, is (I am convinced), the best, fastest, and most effective way to reach that literacy goal.

That’s where my pedagogy is headed – active communicative Latin/Greek/whatever is a primary outcome because it’s a better guarantor of reading fluency than merely aiming for reading, or worse yet, aiming for grammatical analysis + translation.

Hansen and Quinn, An Intensive Course: an even briefer review

The copy I have of this, from the library is from 1980 and is described as a “Preliminary Edition.” A quick look at Amazon tells me that there is a 2nd Revised edition from 1992 though I can’t comment on what changes were made.

Originally written for Summer Greek Intensives in New York, the text certainly lives up to the “Intensive” in the title, trying to deliver 2 years of college level material over 11 weeks (six weeks to cover all the grammar, 5 weeks spent reading Plato and Homer: the book only covers the grammar).

The structure of the material is unrelenting grammatical information, in a classic instructional style (no inductive learning here), with each unit followed by grammatical drills of the Grammar-Translation method: translation, parsing, morphological manipulation, grammatical analysis.

Admittedly I have never used H&Q as a teaching text, nor have I put myself through all its rigours. It does make a handy volume to go through and make one’s own grammatical notes, because the grammar is laid out very clearly through units and numbered sections, and the contents page tells you where to find everything. This is very pleasing to see (if you’re going to have a grammar-based approach, a really clear contents is critical, in some ways more important than a good index).

Would I recommend it? No. It’s like Wheelock’s Latin, but less forgiving.

That said, if you want an old-school, master-all-the-forms approach, H&Q is attractive if only because they lay it out so well. The text lacks up-to-date linguistics, but the exercises are also a smorgasbord of traditionalist training, if that’s what you’re after.