It’s really possible

I started offering SeumasU classes (not by that name!) in 2019. I went full-time (ish), ditching my other work in 2020 thanks to the pandemic. So I’m now steaming and streaming into my 4th year of trying to teach somewhat-more-communicatively, online, as a full-time occupation (it’s not full-time, but it’s my full-time occupation, if that makes sense). And, it’s really possible.

When I look back over the slate of courses I’ve run in the last four-ish years, everything ranging from teaching absolute beginners the foundations of speaking Latin and Greek, through to playing table-top RPGs in Latin and Greek, through to reading the broadest selection of texts, covering 2800 years of Greek and 2100 years of Latin, with a high commitment to keeping our conversations in the target language as much as possible, using English whenever it serves best purposes, and helping students to learn to read, process, and communicate more readily, more accurately, more fluently, more confidently, and more joyfully in these languages.

My own speaking skills are coming along, as are my writing and reading. I don’t get as much time outside teaching as I’d like to just sit around reading slabs of Greek and Latin, but when I can I do. And seeing students come on board and read and discuss Plato, Homer, Lucian, Proba, Eudocia, Boethius, Ignatius, Augustine, Dhuoda, C.S. Lewis, Aquinas, Erasmus, Pausanias, Plutarch, Cicero, Tertullian, Egeria, Gregory of Nazianzus, William of Rubuick, (Ysengrimus), as well as some anthology classes, and even more. This is a dream come true.

Occasionally I get asked if I would think about taking an academic job. No one’s knocking on that door, and I am out of the academic game long enough that I make a terrible candidate. But also, you would have to offer me something incredibly compelling to give up the joy and the wonder that is SeumasU.

So, maybe it’s time you starting speaking ancient Greek and/or Latin, to read the ancients and the not-so-ancients in their own tongues, and to join the great conversations yourself!

So, you want to study Ancient Greek and don’t want to take a course, 2023 edition

Here’s my general advice for autodidacts, people looking to do a lot of Greek reading, or anyone really wanting to kickstart and turbo-charge their Ancient Greek. It’s also more of less what I tell students to do (especially if they have finished Athenaze vol 1)

These days I would almost certainly tell you to read Athenaze. My case for Athenaze as a beginning textbook rests on two principles. Firstly, it’s the best continuous-narrative textbook that we have. It’s far from perfect, the textbook itself isn’t great, but that reason alone is enough to use it. Secondly, while it’s difficulty + vocab gradient is too steep, it’s less steep than anything else. So, I would start with Athenaze.

Should you read the Italian version? Yes, but with caveats. (i) If you have no background in the language at all, buying the Italian version and not the English will leave you without grammatical explanations, which is going to make life hard; (ii) but if you can get things explained one way or another, the Italian is superior; (iii) the Italian editions can be hard to get hold of, depending on your luck in ordering things from Italy. (iv) the main advantage of the Italian is simply this: far, far more connected prose to read in Greek. At least double.

When you get to the end of volume 1, you should definitely do volume 2. But it’s also around this time that you can profitably read other beginner/basic things. I’m not saying someone should necessarily read all of the following, but one could! You’ll definitely need to do some lexicon work if you tackle anything outside the main line of your textbook though, so have Logeion bookmarked. But you could start by reading:

  1. Mark Jeong’s Greek Reader
  2. Alexandros, τὸ Ἑλληνικὸν παιδίον
  3. Charles Moss’ First Greek Reader
  4. The JACT Reading Greek course (at least 1-8 after Athenaze ch 16, then I would leave the rest until after Athenaze vol 2)
  5. Stoffel’s Epitome of the Greek New Testament
  6. My LGPSI
  7. Galilaiathen (my in-progress Athenaze-linked NT-Koine reader. Currently at ch 13 in writing this)
  8. WHD Rouse’s A Greek Boy at Home.

If you read all that, you’d be well, well situated for going on to read a lot of ancient Greek. This is how I’d design a fairly comprehensive reading program of extensive reading for beginning students. Once you get a lot of beginner reading done, it’s time to read more and more broadly and extensively, but I think that probably needs another post, another time.

Experiments with ChatGPT in Ancient Greek and Latin

So, like many people I’m intrigued by the possibilities of chatGPT. I have been particularly impressed that it renders responses to prompts for Latin with texts that on the whole both (a) grammatical, and (b) make sense. On the whole, it struggles with Ancient Greek, often producing texts in Modern Greek instead. I have had some limited success with getting it to produce Ancient Greek though. In the post below, I include some of my results with their prompts.

#1 Write a Latin poem in the style of Psalms about the absurdity of 21st century America
De Vanitate Americae Saeculi XXI

Quam vana res est, America saeculi viginti primi,
Omnia ubi summae sunt et nihil verum,
Ubi luxus et divitiae caecant mentes hominum,
Et veritas mendacium et error verum.

Ubi libertas vitiorum et libertinismi est,
Et virtus vilis et injustitia laudatur,
Ubi homines se ipsos amant, magis quam proximum,
Et invidia et avaritia regnant animis eorum.

Ubi technologia regit vitam hominum,
Et humana vita arctis nexus est,
Ubi amicitia frigida et amor frivola est,
Et solitudo et desiderium luctus creant.

O vanitas vanitatum, quae saeculum hoc replet,
Quid est homini prodesse, si totum mundum lucratur,
Et animae suae detrimentum facit?
Quam miseri homines, qui divitias volunt,
Et animae suae perditionem accipiunt.

Sed tu, Domine, es veritas et vita,
Tu solacium es humilium et spes peccatorum,
Ora pro nobis, ut via veritatis et virtutis sequamur,
Et a vanitate saeculi huius liberemur.

Note: probably the most impressive answer of them all. And it’s got some pretty sharp lines in there too!

#2 write a short story in classical latin about a dog and a soldier
Canis et Miles

Erat miles fortis qui in bello pugnaverat. Multos annos militavit et multa pericula passus est. Tamen, una die, dum ambulabat in via, invenit canem pauperem et infirmum. Canis fessus erat et famelicus, nec habebat ubi caput suum ponere.

Miles misericordia motus est et canem secum portavit. Canis deinde in castris militum habitavit et miles eum curavit. Dedit cani cibum et aquam, et canis fortitudinem recepit.

Per multas hebdomadas, canis et miles amici facti sunt. Canis militem semper secutus est et militem semper custodivit. Cum milites ad bellum iter facerent, canis semper ad pedes militis fideliter stetit.

Tandem, in una die pugnae, militem vulneravit hostis graviter. Militem inimici circumveniebant et occidere parabant. Canis tamen non deseruit militem. Canis ferociter latravit et hostes a milite repellit. Militem deinde levavit et ad castra reportavit.

Miles canem semper gratum habuit et semper ei gratias egit. Canis deinde in castris militum habitavit et semper militem custodivit. Semper amici fuerunt, canis et miles.

Notes: the story is predictable, a little boring, but very much sensible. The Latin is correct, if somewhat simple and almost a medieaval narrative vibe.

#3 Rewrite the previous answer in Ciceronian periodic style
Canis et Miles

Miles fortis, qui multos annos in bello pugnaverat ac multa pericula passus est, una die ambulans in via canem pauperem et infirmum invenit, fessum fameque aestuantem. Canis prope exanimis, ut nullum locum haberet ubi caput suum ponere, miserabilem illud spectaculum miles vidit et, motus misericordia, canem secum portavit in castra militum.

Canis ibi manere coepit, ubi miles eum curavit, deditque ei cibum et aquam, fortitudinemque accepit. Per multas hebdomadas, canis et miles amici facti sunt, et canis militem semper secutus est, eum semper custodivit. Cum milites iter facerent ad bellum, canis fideliter semper ad pedes militis stetit.

In una die pugnae, fortiter dimicans, miles vulneratus est, et hostes circumveniebant, occidere parabant. Sed canis, fidelis amicus, non dereliquit militem. Ferociter latravit, hostes a milite repellens, et militem deinde levavit et ad castra reportavit.

Miles semper gratum habuit canem, semper ei gratias egit, et canis deinde in castris militum habitavit, militem custodiens, semper amici fuerunt, canis et miles.

Notes: Obviously struggling to really get to actual Ciceronian, but it did create a more varied response here with greater syntactical complexity.

#4 Rewrite the previous answer in the style of Vergil’s Aeneid
Canis et Miles

Forte miles fortis, qui multos annos per bella erraverat et multa pericla passus erat, una die solus ambulans in via canem pauperem et infirmum invenit. Canis fessus erat et fame ac siti debilis, nullum locum habens ubi requiesceret caput. At miles, motus misericordia, canem secum portavit ad castra militum.

Ibi canis mansit, militis curae commendatus, cibum et aquam accepturus. Inter multas hebdomadas, amicitia inter canem et militem orta est, canis semper militi fideliter ad pedes stans et semper eum custodiens. Cum miles ad bellum iter faceret, canis eum semper comitatus est.

Tandem in una die pugnae, miles vulneratus est et hostes circumveniebant, occidere parati. Sed canis, fidelis acerrimus, non destitit, sed hostes latratu ferociter expulit, militi vitae rependium ferens.

Miles semper gratum habuit canem, semper ei gratias egit, et canis deinde in castris militum habitavit, semper militi amicus et custos. Tales sunt amicitiae inter homines et quadrupedes, talesque res gestae hominum, quae memoriae dignae sunt.

Notes: Again, the style prompt definitely had an effect and moved in a ‘Vergilian’ direction, but we’re not quite there yet. Nonetheless, the quality of this as a Latin text for sense and correctness is impressive.

#5 Write a 200 word short story in ancient greek about a philosopher falling into a hole in the ground
Ἐν τοῖς κήποις Ἀθηνῶν ἦν ὁ φιλόσοφος Πλάτων, ὁ θείος. Ἐβάδιζεν ἐν τῷ κήπῳ, συλλογιζόμενος περὶ τῆς ἀληθείας. Τότε ὁ Πλάτων ἀπροσδόκητα εἰς βόθρον ἔπεσε. Ὁ βόθρος ἦν βαθὺς καὶ μαύρος, καὶ ὁ Πλάτων δενδροκόμους καὶ λίθους ὁρᾷ κάτωθεν. Ἐν τοῦτῳ δὲ ὁ Πλάτων ἐσκέπτετο τὸν βίον τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. Ὁ βόθρος ἦν ὡς ὁ κόσμος. Ὁ Πλάτων δὲ μεταβάλλει τὰς διανοίας τοῦ θείου. Μακάριος ὁ θάνατος ὅταν ὁ βίος τῷ τέλει καταφέρεται, ἔλεγε. Καὶ ὁ Πλάτων ἐν τῷ βόθρῳ ἐσκέπτετο περὶ τῆς τελευτῆς. Εἶτα ἔλαβεν ἑαυτὸν ἀνέβηναι. Ὁ βόθρος ἦν πρὸς τὴν δύσιν τοῦ ἡλίου, καὶ ὁ Πλάτων ἐντεῦθεν ἔνοικεν, καὶ ὁ λόγος αὐτοῦ περὶ τοῦ βίου ἦν καλλίτερος.
Notes: This is probably the best result I’ve seen for Ancient Greek so far. I won’t litter this post with a bunch of my failures, but this is not terrible. It’s not correct though, there are ungrammaticalities and other oddities throughout. I did have it translate #4 above into AG and that fared better, producing the kind of translation one might expect from a computer, or a classics undergrad.

The Beatitudes, a new translation

The poor in spirit – that’s the good life! The Heavenly Reign is theirs.
Mourners – good on ya! They’ll be comforted.
The meek are bonzer, they’ll get the Land as an inheritance.
Hungry and thirsting for justice? Too beaut. They’ll have all they can eat.
Showing mercy? Sweet as. They’ll be shown mercy in turn.
Those clean in their whole being have got it made, because they will see God.
People willing to step up and step between to broker peace are on the right track, they’ll get called God’s kids.
Hounded for being upright – that’s the good life! The Heavenly Reign is theirs.
You flourish best when people hurl abuse at you, hound you, and speak every kind of evil thing against you, lying through their teeth, and all because of me. Be happy, be glad, because the payoff for this is considerable, in the heavens. Just like this they hounded the prophets that came before you.
Matthew 5.3-12, Seumas Super-Aussie Version.

πόρνος and πόρνη in 1 Corinthians

Why is πόρνη translated as ‘prostitute’, but πόρνος is not?

This question arose on the sinking-ship of Twitter, and since I was tagged, I started to think about it. I don’t have a very in-depth answer, in that I’m not a lexicographer, nor I have really done a very very deep dive on the question, but here are some initial thoughts. I am very happy to receive feedback, pushback, or any -back on this post.

Just setting aside the 1 Cor 5; 6 question, we are dealing with the relation of at least 5 words (certainly more, but at least 5 in tight focus): πόρνος, πόρνη, πορνεύω, πορνεία, πέρνημι

Working backwards a little, πέρνημι is a verb that tends to mean things like “sell as a slave”, and so perhaps more generally to turn things into marketable goods. This seems to be the verbal origin of πόρνος and πόρνη, and you can see how this applies to sex-slavery in particular – we are primarily dealing with women trafficked for sex.

So when you come to πόρνη, generally speaking you are looking at a noun that denotes someone trafficked for sex. No real distinction is made about who is doing the trafficking, but I would be pretty hesitant to suggest that a πόρνη was generally considered to be in control and agency of their own prostitution – that doesn’t fit ancient moral codes, views of women, or social and economic practices of prostitution. There were independent sex workers in antiquity, but for the most part these seem to have been women who were already sex workers who managed to obtain freedom, and continued on in the same trade. A woman who did have the freedom and economic means to not sell sexual services, and who then chose to do so, would fall under general Graeco-Roman society’s opprobium, because it’s seen as self-degredation, whereas enslaved women in sex-work are seen as degraded (by others), the social status being degredation in either case.

So when we come along to the masculine counterpart term, πόρνος we have a much more complex set of questions to deal with. The lexica tend to supply three main senses: (i) a [male] prostitute, (ii) an active or passive participant in male homosexual activity, (iii) a ‘fornicator’, and then metaphorically (iv) an idolator.

Sense (iv) really applies to biblical literature where adultery and fornication is set up as a metaphors for spiritual unfaithfulness. (i) is the male version of πόρνη. Generally male prostitutes were young males, with male clients. (ii) is used primarily in a pejorative sense, by extension of the fact that male sex-workers were young and generally serviced male clients. That leaves sense (iii).

Which is where we probably need to talk about πορνεύω and πορνεία. The verb πορνεύω seems to be used in the middle to refer to selling one’s sex services, and in the active its usage is a little less clear; the active seems like a later usage, and requires a bit more investigation than I’ve had time for so far.

πορνεία though, clearly is related to all these words, but I do agree with the general idea that it comes to be used as a catch-all term for “all forms of sexual immorality”, which is a pretty large set of practices, and it depends upon what speakers/communities consider to be immoral. If you’re in a community whose normative view of sexual behaviour is with a sexually faithful marriage, then any departure from that, whether it involves the transfer of money or not, could be considered πορνεία. We would also need to consider a bit more broadly the question of whether sex with enslaved persons “counts”, or is considered indifferently, and then how much this broader idea of πορνεία weighs back in to usages of πόρνη and πόρνος.

Alright, so this is me thinking aloud basically, and now I’m going to loop back to the original question – why do translators treat πόρνη in 1 Cor 6(:15) as a profession, but in 5:11 as a descriptor of sexual immorality? Let me suggest briefly then why this is a plausible reading and translation strategy:

1. πόρνη is established as a term to refer to female sex-workers, very often trafficked women. The noun stands with this meaning, it’s not transferring over a more general meaning from πορνεία to a women who is engaged in sexual immorality more generally.

2. πόρνος is a more difficult to pin down term, its more precise meaning differs more in contexts. Here, in the context of a vice list of descriptors of behaviour rather than occupations, I think it would strain our understanding of the text to suppose that in the midst of behavioural terms, πόρνος should be understood as an occupation.

Gender and translation into Ancient Greek: a conundrum

Lately I have been listening to Ursula Le Guin’s classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which portrays the world of Gethen, populated by a version of humans that are androgynous most of the time, except for a period once a month (kemmer) where they become male or female. It’s a good novel, and it’s a concept that is explored with rich texture and thought. However, one of the criticisms that Le Guin always endured was the choice to use the pronoun ‘he’ throughout for these androgynous humans. In a follow-up story in the same world in 1975, “Winter’s King”, she choose to instead use ‘she’ throughout. The choice of “they”, I understand, Le Guin felt was too confusing.

Of course, being who I am I wondered what would happen if you were translating this text into ancient Greek, and this strikes me as offering up a particular conundrum. I’m of the view that Ancient Greek’s gender system basically breaks down to:

Masculine = positively marks a person (a sentient animate being)

Feminine = positively marks a person as female

Neuter = categorises something as a person or non-person

That needs a lot more exploration and explanation, especially I don’t mean that the grammatical gender that nouns have, implies the above. But when you use modifiers, articles and adjectives, and you select a grammatical gender for them, this is the kind of implication. You can read a much smarter discussion of this here: Mussies 1971 on Grammatical Gender.

Now, if we were to translate LHoD into Ancient Greek, what would we do, what should we do? Here’s the question- I think that by Ancient Greek’s own patterns, you would default to masculine pronouns, articles, adjectives throughout for discussing the humans of Gethen, because they are marked as persons. I think you’d only use feminine modifiers and determiners to refer to a Gethen human during kemmer when they took on female biological traits.

Except, and here’s the conundrum part, most contemporary readers of Ancient Greek have been habituated to think of gender in several modern languages (including English), and in their reading of Ancient Greek, so as to treat masculine as marked for maleness, the way English ‘he’ has come to be marked for exclusivity rather than inclusivity, and so a contemporary reader of an Ancient Greek translation of this sort is probably going to read it in the same way that contemporary readers of Le Guin’s English novel read the “he” choice as unsatisfactorily gendering the androgynous humans of Gethen. Which, if you were going to cater to the sensitivities of contemporary readers of AG fiction (small group that they are), you would be left with a set of translation questions similar to Le Guin – do you then choose to use feminine modifiers as a reverse of standard practice, do you use neuter ones and risk the de-personalising effect that tends to have by turning persons into non-persons, or do you attempt some creative reimagining of the language to create a 4th gender category (the way some Latin speakers use a non-binary set of endings in contemporary Latin)? Or, do you just translate it with masculine modifiers and tell modern readers to learn to read them as marking personhood not maleness exclusively?

Syra Surda : a simple technique for forced indirect discourse

Syra, quae male audit, id quod medicus dīcit audīre nōn potest; itaque interrogat: “quid dīcit medicus?” Aemilia (in aurem Syrae): ‘Medicus puerum dormīre’ dīcit.”

So, in Chapter 11 of Familia Romana, Ørberg uses a simple but effective technique to introduce indirect speech (oratio obliqua, or as I prefer to teach them, clauses acting as nouns) to the learner. Syra can’t hear well, and so has to have the doctor’s comments repeated to her. This device or trope invites endless repetition, moving between direct and indirect speech.

The other week I inflicted the same technique on my Greek optatives class. As one of the optional uses for the optative is indirect speech in secondary sequence, you can generate infinite (though possible boring) content by taking any text, and fronting it with some kind of Greek equivalent, e.g. ἡ Σύρᾱ εἶπεν ὅτι…. You can do this transformation on direct speech in dialogues, of course, or even on a third person narrative, by reporting sentences as the speech of the author/narrator. You can even do this to textbook content, to keep it easy:

«ὁ Μῑ́νως οἰκεῖ ἐν τῇ Κρήτῃ· βασιλεὺς δέ ἐστι τῆς νήσου.»

τί εἶπεν ἡ Μυρρίνη;

ἡ Μυρρίνη εἶπεν ὅτι ὁ Μῑ́νως οἰκοίη ἐν τῇ Κρήτῃ, βασιλεὺς δὲ εἴη τῆς νήσου.

CEFR musings

In light of last week’s discussions on twitter and then here, I ended up doing a bunch of reading and reflection about CEFR things…

Not that you have the time, but sitting down and reading some of the extended documentation on CEFR scales is not an unprofitable activity. I think in a lot of discussions we drop CEFR assessments as macro stand-ins for proficiency, without really paying attention to what they are meant to mean. In particular, the CEFR standards also recognise that different skills also have sub-elements. E.g. just in terms of speaking you can rate how a person speaks in terms of fluency : how quickly they speak, how and why they hesitate, how long pauses are, and turn-taking; accuracy : how consistently they use grammar and vocabulary correctly; range : in terms of both breadth of vocabulary, and also breadth of structures they use; phonology. People can be better at some sub-elements, and worse at others. It’s not monolithic. Proficiency is a multi-factor, multi-faceted thing.

Secondly, I was doing some musing on how long it takes to achieve various levels and what is required. I spent a bit of time looking at the cross-language estimated for various European languages, which tend to break them down into “Instructed Hours” and then “Additional Hours”. These estimates tend to come in around 1000 instructed hours to reach C2, and an equivalent number of extra hours.

I broke that down with some examples as:

Option A: 4 years of college, 2 x 12 week semesters, 2.5hrs instruction a day, 4 days a week.

Option B: 5 years of SeumasU, 40 weeks a year, 5 classes every term (e.g. 5 contact hours a week)

Option C: Live-in immersion, if you could take 52 weeks of 5 days a week, 4 hours of class + 4 hours minimum extra study.

I also often refer to an article in the Foreign Language Annals [1] , “Setting Evidence-Based Language Goals”, by Senta Goertler, Angelika Kraemer, and Theresa Schenker, which looked at benchmarking in the college German program at MSU. The research is interesting on a number of levels, but not least that they place some revised benchmarks for levels of college study:

First semester A1/A2 (IL)
Second semester A1/A2 (IL)
Third semester A2 (IM)
Fourth semester A2 (IM)
Third year B1 (IH)
Fourth year B1/B2 (more B2) (AL)
Graduate classes C1 (AH) C1 (AH)


It’s also worth noting, if you don’t know, that there does exist a set of CEFR-aligned tests for Ancient Greek ( covering A1, A2, B1, for “Reading and Language Use”. The sample materials are worth looking at. The A1 vocab list is very long in my opinion, full of things that aren’t that common in Ancient Greek teaching materials. It costs money, and it probably needs to be done through online proctoring, which I don’t really believe in.

There are no vocab estimates or lists for CEFR standards, they don’t function like that. There are some estimates out there. I imagine it differs by language. Something on order of 10,000 words for an active C2 vocabulary. That’s quite large by any standard. More like 5000 for C1, which is closer to the active vocabulary of a native speaker without tertiary education. Greek, I think, has a smaller core vocabulary, but a larger peripheral vocabulary. Which is why a mastery of a smaller range of words goes further, but also why you never feel like you know all the words.

All this got me thinking in turn about two things:

  1. Could you write Ancient Greek content keyed to CEFR guidelines?

To which the answer is yes. I am doing some experimenting in this area at the moment now, thinking through “okay, a person at A1 is attempting to learn core functional abilities in the language, to cover a certain range of situations and competencies, what is the Ancient Greek needed to do that?”

Don’t expect me to release Ancient Greek for A1 any time soon though…

That said, the amount and volume of material needed to go from A1 to A2, and then A2 to B1, and then B1 to B2, just grows and grows. You need reading material, listening material, watching material, and time spent in live conversation. And more and more of it. A full sequence of material to take you from A1 to C2, we are talking about a minimum of 2000 hrs of content. But really more. So, no, I am not releasing “Seumas’ Course to C2 Mastery in Ancient Greek.”

  1. C2 isn’t unrealistic for PhD graduates in classical languages

I mean, plenty of them aren’t C2, but let’s put it like this – if you do a 3-4 year bachelor degree, and then 7 years for a PhD, that’s 10-11 years you’ve put into higher education. Even if you didn’t do Greek (or Latin or whatever) in school (which I didn’t, by the way), you could very reasonably get to B2 at the end of 4 years, which is often considered functional fluency, and then you have 7 years to reach C2, which is entirely achievable. That suggests to me that it is a methods problem, though it’s not only a methods problem. But PhDs in Ancient Greek could be C2 proficient active users of the language, if we designed our education systems to produce them.

[1] Foreign Language Annals, Vol. 49, Iss. 3, pp. 434–454. © 2016 by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Should everyone who’s not C2 in Greek just shut up already?

I’m responding to recent twitter Discourse kicked off by @CarolusCarman about whether the push for CI means that we are in favour of sub-par content, and whether it’s okay that the classics world has a bunch of people running around who aren’t truly ‘proficient’ teaching or producing content. This post is a slightly longer-form attempt from me to cover some of the issues.


First, it’s super important, I would say, that we understand that CI is a theoretical concept about how Language is acquired. That learners acquire language by being exposed to comprehensible input. That’s a piece of SLA theory that, in a broad form, is very widely accepted. It’s not a method of teaching.


But a lot of people (and I’m probably guilty of this), talk about CI methods. If we want to be more correct we say “CI based methods”, because what we really mean is “methods of teaching based on an understanding of CI and with an aim of providing learners with lots of exposure to CI”. *How* that is done can vary a lot.


When we talk about the quality of language in CI resources, I think we have in mind 3 variables.

1 Is it correct?

  1. Is it “good”?
  2. Is it complex?


Those three are related but definitely not the same. I think all CI advocates think that input ought to be ‘correct’, by which I mean “recognised as possible and grammatical utterances”. Nobody thinks that ungrammatical Latin or Greek ought to be fed to students as a principle. That said, we need to return to this point later.


The second criterion is much more nebulous. In Latin, people often talk about Latinitas, with a sense of “is this idiomatic Latin that reflects idealised utterances of idealised speakers who have a flavour of Latin“. Latinitas is very hard to judge well, because huge reams of Latin writing through the centuries could be judged as Bad-Latinitas. I do think, however, that we can speak of “more Latinish” and “more Greekish” ways of expressing things, and that this generally is a quality to be striven for. But a lot of the time this is deployed as gate-keeping, elitism, and “if its not Ciceronian, don’t bother me.”


The third criterion is complexity, and here’s where I want to talk about proficiency scales and the like. I think a lot of learners, especially those with a few languages, polyglot interests, etc., have an unhealthy interest in thinks like CEFR and ACTFL proficiency scales, and C2 etc.. Most people do not normally talk, write, or operate at the “C2” level, because most daily language use does not involve highly technical, abstract, complex, or academic language. Nor do CI resources need to have that complexity – by the time most learners are approaching material of that complexity, they don’t need scaled materials anyway. So producers of content for learners do not themselves need to be C2 speakers. That is a myth and a harmful one.


In fact, if we look at global language teaching, there are vast numbers of people teaching other people languages who are not C2. Who are B1, B2, C1, gosh even A2. Would it be better if every single one of those people were a more competent language user? Sure, yep, absolutely. Is it essential? No.


Because you can produce correct and idiomatic language even if your language is limited. For example, take Benjamin Kantor’s first Hebrew Immersion video, in which you learn phrases for “Hello”, “Name”, “What’s your name?” “My name is…” etc.. A person who carefully pays attention to that video, and then uses those phrases in Hebrew correctly, is speaking correct and idiomatic biblical Hebrew. They might know nothing beyond that, but that is high-quality, beginner-level CI content. Would it be great if person A teaching person B knew more than that? Absolutely. Is it necessary if all they are teaching is that tiny set of material? No.


So, now let’s talk about the quality of “CI material” on the Latin market. This has been a perennial debate. Especially around the quality of Latin in the Latin novellas. Let me say that I think almost everybody can agree that some of the novellas contain Latin that is not good ‘Latinitas’, and some of the novellas contain Latin that is unidiomatic or even ungrammatical. That is a real shame. I suspect if you asked 95% of those authors if that’s what they wanted, they would say no.


Personally, I think anyone producing material, especially more permanent resources, has an obligation to seek out external editing. Either beforehand through careful proofing and feedback from others, or in an open-source format (which is what I do – I am happy to release material in draft format and get comments from anybody on the fly, and edit my own work). Latin and Greek teachers tend to be much better at finding others’ faults than at avoiding their own.


The more ephemeral the content, the more forgivable the mistakes. If you’re in a conversation and mis-speak, no one should stop you and correct you. Or even care. Every speaker of every language, even native ones, sometimes has the wrong thing come out of their mouth. Accept that as a fact and move on, because error correction doesn’t help.


Now, specifically the point has been raised about the general proficiency of “CI based teachers” in Latin and Greek, in comparison to modern languages. I think there are several no-brainer points to be made here. Absolutely teachers of modern languages tend, on the whole, to be more competent language users. Why? Simple. It’s much easier to get more competent in a modern language because there exists the opportunity to interact with communities of contemporary speakers, and there is likely a wealth of audio, visual, and print materials. Even for quite a few lesser languages. The more minoritised a language is, the harder this is, but it is still often true. Move to another country for a couple of years, take some classes, interact with speakers, and you can achieve a pretty surprising high level of competency relatively ‘quickly’, because you are investing hours and hours and hours in CI.


You cannot generally do that for Latin and Greek. Yes, opportunities exist, but they are far and few between. Perhaps the most significant option is Vivarium Novum, and Polis Institute. The former, which is held up by many as this shining light – well, let’s be clear that full-time year-long options there are sexist and ageist – you need to be a young male; as well as be willing to abide by their particularist vision of secular classical western humanism. You don’t need to agree to it, but it shapes their community values.


I want to circle back around to some specific points that CarolusCarman has made, some of them with a bit of attitude to them.


  1. Do we really believe that C2 proficiency is necessary to teach accurate and correct Latin/Greek?


Honestly, I don’t. Plenty of people in the world right now are learning English from non-native teachers who aren’t C2, and they are learning English. They’re not even going to speak to native English speakers, they’re going to speak to other L2-speakers of English. Plenty of school teachers in the US are teaching languages right now that they are not C2 in. This phenomenon isn’t going away. Yes, it sometimes creates problems. It’s a problem that many teachers of Gaeilge in Irish schools are not even remotely competent speakers of Gaeilge. But, but – you don’t need to be C2 to teach accurate and correct and idiomatic language. That’s just untrue. A person who is B1, B2 can teach a beginner language that is accurate, correct, grammatical, idiomatic. Would it be better if every teacher were more proficient than they currently are? Yes. That’s just a different question though.


  1. Is that in any way pragmatic?


I don’t think it’s at all practical to think that everyone who isn’t C2 should just shut up shop, and not bother until they are C2. Carolus’ presumed solution is that anyone who wants to teach packs themself off to Europe and learns from a true master until they can guarantee they are C2. I think that’s idealistic, elitist, and not even remotely practical. Plenty of teachers right now have graduated from programs, are already employed teaching, have neither the means, nor the time, nor the possiblity to just go off to Europe and study for immersion Greek for 3 years. What are they meant to do? Give up teaching and find another job and forget all about Greek? Where will that leave Greek teaching and learning as a field? Should they give up CI as a principle and just stick to grammar/translation as a methodology because they aren’t perfect speakers? That too is wrong-headed – we know G/T is a flawed method of teaching, so even if you were less than competent as a speaker you would still want to use methods based on CI. The genuine solution to this difficulty is to create as many opportunities and as much (good) material as possible, to help everyone get a little bit better. It’s not to idealise ‘masters’ of the language who live in Europe.


  1. Is the problem that more teachers know about CI than know their language well?


This is thinking about the problem the wrong way. What would be the solution if the problem were this – less teachers knowing about CI? Isn’t that just absurd? Rather, let’s put it this way – more teachers should be better informed by SLA theory and put best practices in language teaching into their own practices, and all teachers should be looking to improve their own language abilities.


  1. Should someone who isn’t C2 dare to (i) teach, (ii) produce publicly available ‘content’, (iii) represent themselves as knowing the language?


I don’t think people who aren’t C2 should proclaim that they are. I also don’t think courses should promise to teach people to a C2 level (because I’m pretty dubious any course out there is doing that, despite the advertising I’ve seen from some European institutions). But I do think the idea that you just need to shut up unless you’re C2, and not teach/write/video/promote is also a form of elitist nonsense. People ought to teach what they know. They also should feel free to produce content, especially if they’re committed to improving the quality of their own content. A mismatched adjective/noun agreement probably isn’t going to kill anyone, let alone ruin their long-term language acquisition.


Let me say, towards closing, that some of @CarolusCarman’s comments seem to suggest that content makers are in it for the money. I honestly find that offensive. (A) almost all content makers are doing it for the love of it, because that’s what drives most creative-content fields, (B) the money to be made from content creation is pretty minimal. Sure, it varies, but no-one is raking in $$$ and living fancy lives of this. Plenty of the novella writers don’t make back their production costs. Of course, there’s a spectrum, but if someone wanted to get into Latin content production to make it rich, they need an appointment with a career’s advisor. It’s a terrible way to make money. (C) it’s not wrong to make money anyway! Let’s not buy into a false discourse that says you have to do it for the love of it otherwise you’re not pure. These people are putting time and effort into producing content, and they’re brave enough to put it out there, knowing that classics-folk have an unhealthy bent towards being nit-picky, critical, pedantic, and elitist. Just scroll through the comments on any Latin/Greek video, novella, or tweet, to see this at work. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about quality, but most of the comments of correction that I see in the public sphere are not well-intentioned, otherwise they would have been made privately. If you feel the need to comment publicly and correct someone’s Latin or Greek, ask yourself why – 100% it’s about you and not about them.


If there’s a plea here, it’s just this: how about we all strive towards improving our own language, teach within our abilities, create and promote better and better content, and show kindness to ourselves and each others when we, and our language output, isn’t perfect.


Ad Aspera Per Cameras: an online conference

This weekend, I’ll be hosting an online conference on the online teaching of (classical) languages. If you haven’t heard that by now, apologies for not telling you! I thought I would put up a last call for registrations here. It’s On Saturday 15th October, 3-6pm US Eastern Time (New York). You can find out about our excellent range of speakers here:

I’d be so pleased to have you join us, and if you’d like to register, head along to this page and let us know.



Strange Fruit, an ancient Greek Translation

Strange Fruit (original by Abel Meeropol)

(English Below)


καρπὸν τὰ τοῦ νότου ξύλα φέρει ἄτοπον
(ἐπί τε φύλλοις αἷμα, τῇ τε ῥίζῃ αἷμα)
ἀνέμῳ σῶμα αἰωρούμενον μέλαν νότῳ
ἄτοπος τῶν λευκῶν κρεμασθεὶς καρπός 
νόμιον τοῦ ἐσθλοῦ νότου θέαμα
ἐξῳδημένα τε ὄμματα στόμα τε διεστραμμένον
μαγνωλίᾱς εὐωδίᾱ καινή
καιομένης ὀσμὴ σαρκός ἀλέπτη 
καρπὸς τῇδε τοῖς κόραξι δρέπειν
τῷ ὑετῷ συλλέγειν, τῷ ἀνέμῳ ἀνασπᾶν
τῷ ἠελίῳ σήπειν, τῷ ξύλῳ καθιέναι
καρπὸς τῇδε ἄτοπός τε πικρός τε.



Southern trees bear strange fruit,

(Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,)

Black body swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.


Pastoral scene of the gallant South,

(The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,)

Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,

(And the sudden smell of burning flesh.)


Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Psalms: An LXX Devotional Reader

I realise that by now you are mostly used to me starting umpteen projects. Some of those get finished. Some of them are ongoing. And some eventually wither and die due to my lack of impetus. Anyway, none of that deters me, really. I spend my free time working on things that I get passionate about, and if that passion gets sustained to completion, all the better for you and for me.

All of which is to say that I’ve been working away at something else new recently, and I want to share a small glimpse of it. The idea is to produce a Reader’s version of the LXX Psalms, with accompanying devotional commentary and notes. It aims to do three things: (a) combine enough tools and tips in one place for your intermediate and up reader of Greek to read the Psalms with understanding, (b) alongside a framework for understanding the content and theme of each psalm, in a way that makes them more approachable for personal (and corporate) prayer, (c) while giving myself an excuse to diligently read and write about the Psalms in conversation with the great tradition of the church.

Unlike some other things that I’m working away at much more rapidly, I expect this to take a few years to reach completion, and I’m quite okay with that. I’ll post future samples for this to my patreon.

LXX Psalms Dev Reader Sample

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 5: imagining and reimagining)

So, if you’ve read through parts one, two, three, four, you’ll have gathered that I have a lot of criticism of online theological education as a model. In this post I want to push back against myself, and really suggest that there are two key things that are worth thinking through and applying.

Firstly, I think we do need to circle back to the question of who theological education is for. And in this regards, I think the two different populations : (1) those heading into full-time vocational ministry, and (2) a broader group interested in theological education, set up different demands on theological educators. I would posit that generally speaking, the best approach for group 1 remains full-time residential community living and in-person instruction. I don’t think you can do formation of character and spiritual-formation in particular, very well, except through intentional community life. The shift of that type of education to online is a mistake.

I will add certain provisos. I do think that there’s a strong reverse case to be made, where people either involved in or aiming for vocational ministry in their current contexts should not be pulled out of those contexts. In that case there becomes an even stronger onus on the community, ecclesial or otherwise, to be the locus of spiritual formation. Let’s say, for instance, a ministry candidate from a minoritised ethnic group who is deeply embedded in their local ethnic-ecclesial community, and lives pretty far from seminary. It would be better, I propose, for that person to stay put, and be mentored in their context, and access theological education in terms of knowledge and skills, by distance. Preferably through online delivery + residential intensives. This should then become a kind of dialogic process between student, community, and seminary.

Insofar as online actually makes it possible to serve a broader theological education remit, increasing access to students who could not or would not otherwise take theological education, especially in terms of distance or part-time study, I think that’s a different kettle-of-fish. So, I think seminaries probably ought to make a conscious and clear distinction between “here’s our program for those training for congregational ministry, you come live here for 3-4 years, and you do X”, and “here’s our program for anyone else – you do a diploma/degree structure program, over an extended period of time, but this isn’t an equivalent to the other program”.

That said, my second main point is this: do (online) education better. I realise that in ’20 and ’21 it was a scramble for most professors. Everyone had to move online at a moment’s notice, and those who weren’t used to that found themselves balancing (= crushed) by not only the stress of the pandemic, but also the demands of online teaching. But, recorded lectures, static content, etc., will not do the job. If we want online education to be good, it needs investment. That means (a) that institutions and their teachers invest in making it good, and (b) that institutions spend money to make it good. Teachers can’t make it good if their institutions don’t enable and empower them to. Or, they shouldn’t. I know this won’t dissuade some from doing so anyway, but professors shouldn’t be up to 2am creating amazing online resources and investing untold unpaid hours for an institution that doesn’t value them and invest in them.

In my view, doing it better means we need active investment in (i) delivering quality content, (ii) with an active pedagogy that is prepared to do the hard and difficult work of moving beyond presentational and lecture type models, (iii) does not divorce content production from instructor-interaction, (iv) sustains and practices live synchronous interaction of instructor and students. Let me say it again, if online instruction is primarily content you consume, then how is it truly better than reading some books, listening to a free lecture series, or watching youtube tutorials?

I have yet to see an institution, seminary or secular, truly do online education well. I’ve seen plenty doing their best, but I’m waiting to see someone blow me away with an approach that is thought-through, pedagogically informed, and invested-in by the institution.

My third point is a bonus: neo-liberalism will gut seminaries. The massive on-going shift of neo-liberalism in tertiary education has the effect of turning faculty into employees, divesting the bulk of teaching to casualised adjuncts who are shut out of long-term academic careers because they are disposable waste-products of research programs, and treating the institution as a money-making endeavour in which administrators run the show. This is a mistake on every level, and it is bad for everyone except an elite. It shouldn’t be this way in seminaries, but the more that seminaries adopt college/university models, the more they trend in this direction as well. Seminaries need a renewed vision of what they are (a community of faith-scholars gathered around the common pursuit of knowledge seeking and knowledge sharing), and what they do (practice lives of scholarly virtue and inculcate others into the praxis and dogma of their communities). That ultimately means that faculty are the college, which means investing in long-term tenured faculty, as well as divesting themselves of a business model or a model in which administration is actually in charge.


Okay, I think I’m done. Hope you’ve enjoyed this series. If you ever find a college doing online well, let me know!


Read Greek Patristics with me, and make books

This upcoming term (Oct 2022) I’m launching a new class which I’m hoping will become a long running entity. It’s Greek Patristics Readings, and it differs in two important respects from my usual class offerings.

Firstly, unlike the vast majority of my classes, this class isn’t geared towards getting you speaking Greek. Would I love you to speak Ancient Greek? Absolutely. But I also know that’s a big demand, and by running this class more in English, I hope it will open the doors to more students who want to read early Christian theological literature with me.

Secondly, participants in this class will be involved in a project to create Steadman style readers for more patristics texts. If you aren’t familiar, Geoffrey Steadman has done significantly, magnificently valuable work in making Greek and Latin texts available in a format that enables more rapid reading, with vocabulary and commentary on the page with the text. I have previously done a few of these as pdfs, and one small book, but as you can see from the website, I haven’t worked actively on those for quite some time.

Thirdly, as a bonus one might say, I’m running this class at a considerable discount. That’s partly because I will be spending that hour reading patristic Greek whether anybody is in class with me or not, partly because I want to lower the barrier to reading these important texts from early church history as much as I reasonably can. So come along, this coming term we’ll be reading Ignatius of Antioch.

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 4: What happens when we go online?)

This is part four of our series reflecting on online theological education. In our previous instalments we considered what for, who for, what is education, and who are our communities. Now I want to turn to “what happens when we go online”
Distance education has existed for a good while. Hans Ørberg’s famous Lingua Latina course was written for independent study, mailed out to students across Europe. I took Latin as a distance student in the 90s, and that involved receiving course booklets in the post, and snail-mailing in assignments to the university. In the 2000s, at least as I observed it, things began to change. LMSs became a thing, more content became available online. In 2006 I was taking an online university course that was recorded audio lectures and an online tutorial hour, with an online exam. By 2009 I was taking video classes online, and by the 2010s we were seeing a shift to some offerings entirely online.
Covid-19 changed things rapidly though. It forced almost all institutions to go online, whether they had previously entered that space or not. Obviously some institutions had, and were better equipped. Other professors were left (by their institutions, in part) to simply scramble to run their offline content, online.
I’ve seen the inside and outside of at least half a dozen institutions, as teacher or student, and think I have a reasonable grasp of the range of online offerings. I’m talking about education broadly, not simply theological education, but I’ll return to that specifically. Don’t think that I’m picking on anyone in particular, because I’m about to tell you why online education is less than ideal, and what I want us to focus on is why. I do fully aware that I’m someone whose fulltime occupation is currently online education.
At one end of the spectrum, online offerings equal : here, we recorded the lecture (either video, audio + slides, audio only), and you can listen to it, do the 2-3 assignments (reports, essays, etc), and sit the exam. Honestly, this is pathetic. Yet, if we’re indeed honest, many students at bricks and mortar institutions get the same experience, simply in-person, of a set of lectures, a few assignments, and an exam. Large courses are particularly vulnerable to this pedagogy. It’s old, it’s stale, it doesn’t represent best practice in offline learning, it sucks online. You might as well spend your education dollar elsewhere.
The above model reflects, in part, a mindset that still thinks of education primarily as content-transfer. If we move to something that’s more like skill-formation, we find different models online. These tend to be “here’s modular content, and here’s a set of tasks, and work through them in sequence, taking and applying the knowledge we’re giving you”, regular assignment, piecemeal, with a greater degree of online interaction, though probably asynchronously. This is better, but it’s also hard work for both sides of the fence (instructor and students).
Probably the biggest game-changer is when an institution requires attendance at an online seminar, on zoom or similar, which involves participation. I’ll come back to that point a little later here.
Other models I’ve seen include developing a complete and fairly static online content, consisting of lectures or short lectures, readings, online asynchronous discussion, e.g. forums, etc., and then regular tutor feedback. I think that’s at the upper end of thoughtful, engaged pedagogy, and I’m going to suggest that it still falls short. It falls short for a few reasons. Firstly, to the extent that the teaching content is pre-made, the relationship between students and lecturing professor is parasocial. Yes, I learnt from “Professor X”, but Professor X didn’t teach me. That relationship is entirely one way. Secondly, if the one running the tutor-engagement is not that teaching professor, as so often is the case in our casualised and adjunctified world, then there is a real disconnect between teacher and tutor and students. For adjuncts, this is soul-draining. Thirdly, it’s very very hard to build online community, and so the notion of character formation and community very rarely emerges in online forums (I’ll return to this again later too). An online cohort of students engaged in text-based communication once or twice a week is not sufficient for community nor for spiritual formation. Students might come out with better knowledge and skills, but they are not truly being formed-in-community. I would go so far as to say this model has systemic unhealthiness – it divorces teaching from research, delivers content as a static product to be consumed, relies and exploits an adjunct underclass, and dis-integrates the whole college as a community of faith and learning precisely because of its fragmentation.
What really happens when we go online is that we add one layer or another so that our interpersonal relation is mediated. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the nature of technology. Writing a letter, or reading a book, is also mediated communication. The question we must consider is how it’s mediated, and what effect that has. I’m suggesting above that those models are too mediated, and are severing what I see as essential elements of connection.
What about online seminars/tutorials? I think these are the sine qua non of online education. If you are in a program and you’re not being at least offered live video sessions with an instructor, I’d tell you to leave and find a better program. Especially if you’re paying hundreds or thousands of dollars out of your own pocket. Live videoconferencing is a technological marvel, in that it allows us to talk in almost real-time to people we can also see in almost real-time. Yes, it’s still mediated, yes it’s not quite real time. Yes, it’s harder to have free-flowing discussions with larger groups on Zoom. Yes, it’s still not the same as being there. But it’s so much better than any other option above. Not that the above aren’t useful, in fact I still think you want a backbone of online content and guidance for students to work through material, but that should come together in live discussion with an instructor and other students. Because when you do that, you are engaging in actual learning in relation to other human beings, and that to me is the key ingredient in education as courses rather than education as I read things in books and figure it out myself.
However, however, this probably still isn’t enough to form community to the level that you need for spiritual or character formation. I’ve been on all sorts of internet spaces for a long time, and seen communities of various sorts : email lists, reddit subs, various forums, including institutional spaces, chat groups, the twittersphere, and for the last 5 or + years I’ve moderated a fairly large Latin Discord community. And what “nebulous” community requires is, I posit, relatively simple: it needs shared time in a shared space with shared communication. This happens not entirely by itself in a residential campus setting, but it’s a lot easier. Online, it means people spend time at their screen, regularly, multiple times a week, often multiple times a day, checking in, reading, commenting, talking. Even better if it’s some kind of live chat interaction. That gets you closest to experiencing conversation. Very few educational institutions are deliberately attempting to foster this level of relationality among their student cohorts online.
And even if they were, it’s still probably going to fall short. Why? Let me tell you, I have an online shared space with two other friends, whom I primarily know online, in which we discuss theology, share our lives, and pray for each other. That’s a rare thing. Building that level of community, across a seminary, is just too hard for most places to do. And when you do, you need to be asking your students to spend a considerable amount of time online, that they are then not spending in physical space interacting with whatever people are in their physical lives and places, and that is not healthy either. Neither can you, again I posit, really build an online community that serves together, prays together, worships together, lives together. You can’t and you shouldn’t.
All this, however, really has in view “group 1” of the who for – vocational ministry candidates. In part five we’ll discuss imagining and re-imagining, and the possibilities that exist for better pedagogy, healthier institutions, and the access and inclusivity that online can provide.

Upcoming courses (Oct 2022)

Upcoming classes!

(I stopped doing posts simply about upcoming classes, mostly to reduce clutter, but I realise some people read this blog but do not get updates on my courses via other means. So, I’ll make a habit of doing a regular post before each term, and then deleting it subsequently)

I have a range of classes beginning soon, and I’d love you to come and get a healthy dose of Latin or Ancient Greek with me. Courses on offer include:



Greek 101 – Intro classes working with Athenaze from chapter 1. Get started speaking from day 1.

Greek 102 (Sun, Thu) – Two continuing cohorts working with Athenaze from ch 7.

Greek 104 – A continuing cohort working with Athenaze from ch 17.

Greek 227: 1 Samuel LXX – in which we read and discuss 1 Samuel in Greek

Greek 273 : Plato III – in which we read Plato’s dialogues. Currently reading Meno

Greek 261 : Coulda Woulda Shoulda – A targeted class where we work on active use of Greek optatives.

Greek 266: Short intro to Conversational Greek – A 5-week only course where we sample strategies and activites for speaking Ancient Greek. Run on UK time.

Greek 292 : Harry Potter in AG – with Isaac : reading and discussing Peter Wilson’s translation in AG.

Greek 293 : Intermediate RPG lite – with Isaac : play a carefully scaffolded RPG-type story-telling game in Ancient Greek.


Latin 101 – A introductory course to Latin covering LLPSI 1-12 as well as readings from my Cassandra novella.

Latin 121 – For those who have done Familia Romana and are looking to consolidate their Latin. Reading and discussing selections from Gesta Romanorum

Latin 208 : Melanchthon on the Sufferings of Teachers – An intermediate reading and discussion class in Latin

Latin 233 : Proba – An intermediate reading and discussion class in Latin of her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi.

Other things:

  • If you can get a group of at least 2 people, I can put together a custom course to suit your needs.
  • I have a number of scholarships available, if finances or other circumstances put these beyond your reach. These are particularly available to students from minoritised backgrounds. Contact me via email ( to apply.
  • If you’re unsure of what might be a best fit for you, I’m happy to arrange a chat to discuss your background, needs, and goals in language learning.

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 3: community)

In our previous two posts we reflected on what for and who for theological education exists, before discussing (albeit far far too briefly), what education is. In this post I turn to consider the question of ‘communities’ – which communities are in view when we talk about education as a formative experience.

If education is merely the transfer and acquisition of knowledge, then community is actually irrelevant. Who cares who sits next to me in the lecture hall or the dining table or the library, as long as I acquire data to store in my head? Yet, we are not such machines. Knowledge is a richer tapestry than mere pieces of fact. Human learning is always contextualised, and we are embodied beings who learn in relationship. We learn from people, alongside people, and in conversation with people.

Now, of course, we don’t have to do so, but the act of a sole person sitting along reading a book is also formative. It’s formative in two other senses: (1) reading books is a means of human relationship mediated by technology across space and time, in which one person speaks but never hears, and the reader hears but never speaks back (or, they may reply, but the writer [generally] will never hear them). It’s a one-way, slightly parasocial, relation. (2) The person is alone. They may exist in community in other contexts, but given enough time spent reading alone, they are making a deliberate choice towards the solitary life, and that deserves its own reflection. So too the person who acquires knowledge sitting at the screen, consuming videos and web pages.

Most of us, though, are wired for some forms of communities, and those communities are inevitably formative on us. We both shape other people by our relating to them, and are shaped by them, as we act and be together. The conversations in class, or at lunch, or walking across campus. But also activities – if we work together, play together, sing together, pray together, all these inculcate patterns of living into us and create us into the future person we will be.

In my imagined prior context, it is inevitable that the residential full-time campus is a primary locus of community for seminarians. They come to live together, and for those 3-4 years, are shaped by (i) their cohort, (ii) their instructors, (iii) the normative rule of life in that community. That’s part and parcel of what a seminary offered in terms of spiritual and personal formation – you come to us, live with us, and are shaped by who we are and what we do, and after a few years of that, you’ll come out changed in certain ways. Not a guaranteed cookie-cutter process, but the products of such education bear enough similar traits that people can say, “Oh, so-and-so went to X college, you can expect Y of them”. Certainly true (generally) of the theological college I trained in.

This is not the only pattern of community formation we can think about though. The other community that most theological students inhabit is likely to be that of their local congregation. Whether they be full-time students who participate in an outside congregational setting weekly, or whether they be students already in ecclesial communities who study part or full time but are resident instead in their congregational location. This kind of community can be as rich and a formative one, but two problems immediately arise. Firstly, it’s out of the control of the theological college. Let’s imagine a congregation, First Eastern Orthodox Mennonite of Nowheresville (no, there are no E.O mennonites). Whatever the quality and shape of community life at FEOMN, the seminary has no control – they can’t guarantee patterns of life (prayer, worship, service, etc) that will shape their student who lives and ministers there. So their control over the formative community patterns for our student X is limited, very limited, to actual engagement in classes, whether online or just part-time in person. Which also means that they have fair less guarantee that student X comes out bearing something like the “college brand” in terms of spiritual and character development.

Now, it may be that FEOMN is an amazing ecclesial community, with very deep practices, spiritual mentoring, rhythms of daily prayer and worship, etc., that do form student X well and deeply, and into the kind of person that both College Y and FEOMN want. But this is happening under the aegis of the local church community, and most colleges feel this is something that ought to be theirs. More pressing, I would say, is that theological colleges are semi-unique places, comparable in some ways to monasteries. They are somewhat secluded from ‘real life’. They are intentional communities. You don’t find a high volume of people in your local congregation who are devoted to a high level of ‘religious’ commitment in terms of studying theology, and living a spiritually oriented life. Sometimes you do, but not generally, because choosing to spend your life that way is often what lands seminarians at seminary in the first place.

This brings me explicitly to the second problem – theological colleges feel it’s their job to do that level of spiritual and character formation, in order to put a big ol’ “seal of college X” on a graduate. If students, both future vocational minister, but also the broader demographic of “anybody seeking higher theological education”, choose to remain in their ‘home’ communities, then the onus for that development goes back onto home communities, which means in turn we need to ask how do we equip churches to do robust spiritual formation of their own people. This requires a greater dialogue between colleges and churches.

I will say that there is one great advantage of someone remaining in the community of faith that they grew up in (whether from childhood, or in the faith) – people “going off to seminary” more often then go on to other things than return to serve those people. This is especially true when social and cultural dislocation occurs, I would hypothesise (I only have anecdata). That is, pull someone out of a minoritised culture and put them into a majority culture theological education, and majority culture communities, to learn “proper theology”, and they are going to find it harder to “go back”, for various reasons. Keep them in their home community and help them do contextualised theology, and they are more likely to flourish and to serve that community long term.

I have other thoughts to say about online especially in this question of community, but we’ll save that for our next post, on what happens when we go online.

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 2: What is education?)

In the previous post in this series, I began to reflect upon the nature of theological education, and online education in particular, through the lens of what for and who for. In this post I want to turn our attention to “what” education is. What exactly do we think we are doing when we are educating people. Let me offer a suggestive taxonomy:
  1. Content transfer
  2. Skill Development
  3. Character formation
If you open up most unit syllabi, really people think they are doing all three. They’ll talk about the content the unit is meant to impart, the skills students are meant to acquire, and the kinds of people they are also meant to become. But most course syllabi are 83.1235% educational jargon/fluff.

To wind back 70 years (again), most of what was happening in colleges was this: professor gets up and delivers lecture. Students furiously take notes. Repeat for the semester. Write a paper or two. Sit an exam. That model, by its praxis, is functioning primarily on the idea of content transfer – here is body of knowledge X which professor has, and you will acquire that body of knowledge by listening, reading, writing, and reproducing.

Education as a field has obviously shifted a great deal, and there is a considerable emphasis these days upon developing skills. Especially ‘transferable’ ones. In humanities education, this often looks like (theoretically), teaching students to think critically, evaluate arguments, research effectively, argue persuasively. It still involves content transfer, especially acquiring enough of a foundational basis in a discipline to do those other things effectively.

If we think about skill development though, I’d say that a lot of our education models have moved far away from fairly static “here is knowledge, now apply” models, even if that continues to persist in actual education. If we want future-ministers to develop a certain set of pastoral skills, isn’t that better done through a process of mentorship, practica, ongoing analysis and feedback, as they do they things they are meant to do, and then critical reflect and evaluate, and apply theory-informed knowledge back to those skills. It seems to me that most of that kind of work does not happen in a seminary context, even less so in an online context. Arguably you can train future-pastors in rhetoric as public speaking, but not in preaching as community-embedded pastoral application of Scripture unless they are in a relevant community (a question we’ll return to).

On the other hand, those who are accessing theological education precisely because they already are in extra-campus situations where they are involved in ministry or the application of theology, arguably are better situated to practice active models of skill development, precisely because they are practicing and applying relevant ministry skills in a ministry context. Then it becomes a question of how does an online course facilitate that process.

Let’s turn, though, to the third element of character formation, and specifically for seminaries this is spiritual formation. Character development is probably the most nebulous part of theological education. It’s so hard to quantify, so hard to program for, so hard to ‘guarantee’. Yet I would also say that colleges are staking their reputation on it. Congregations do want to know, “okay, so and so comes from seminary X, I can expect them to be this kind of person, with this set of beliefs, and this kind of character”. That happens in person when theological colleges are residential communities because in-person face-to-face time shapes who we are through the rhythms and practices of life together. It’s not perfect, it’s not fail-safe, but I think that’s how true character formation happens. Who we are is shaped by the people we are with and what we do together. It occurs in thick relationships and they really only flourish when we spend considerable time together. Quantity of time cannot be short-cut. Nor can it properly be replaced with quality time.

This is seminaries’ major concern with online – what happens to spiritual formation of students who only access theological education online and at distance? And this issue goes beyond the population of ‘future ministers’ to all students at theological educations – what sort of people are they, what sort of people will they become, and how does a college’s reputation play in to “this person is a graduate”?

It’s this kind of question that I think is most, most pressing, and it can’t be resolved until at least part 4, when we talk about what happens when we go online. But at this stage we need to be thinking about what education is, and to the extent that all three of the above things are distinct yet interconnected, we also need to be thinking about what best practice for in-person theological education ought to be.

re-re-thinking online theological education (part 1)

In this and a series of subsequent posts I’m going to think-out-loud my thoughts on theological colleges, seminaries, and online education. If you’re here usually for mostly classical language pedagogy, feel free to take a short break from reading! But otherwise, we’re going to be thinking about five core questions:

  1. What is theological education for?
  2. Who is theological education for?
  3. What is education?
  4. Who are our communities?
  5. What happens when we go online?

And in today’s post I’m discussing the first two of these questions: what is TE for, and who is it for?

If we rewind 70 years or so, and think about the nature of theological colleges as seminaries, that is as training places for preparing (almost entirely young men) people for a career-length vocation as ministers in denominational settings, I think we get a clearer sense of the earlier version of theological colleges. Those were places generally, where you could expect a man, often unmarried, to come and live for 3-4 years and be trained in how to be a pastor. They’d then go out, get a church, and be in (the) ministry for 30-60 years.
In that historical context, theological education exists for the purpose of producing trained vocational staff for the church. That is still very much part of the rationale for theological colleges – they train ministers. However, that is not all they do, and shifts in (i) ministry-patterns, (ii) education-patterns, (iii) broader demographic changes, all mean that:
  1. less and less people present as young unmarried persons ready to enter a lifetime of vocational ministry. They are often older, married, with children, and they are less likely to spend a whole ‘career’ in congregational ministry (because our patterns of work, career, vocation, etc., have also changed).
  2. who goes to theological college has also changed, as education more broadly has become more accessible, more piecemeal, and more ‘configurable’. Few colleges offer only a single “here’s the 3-year package, sign up and enlist” model. Much more common are multiple degree programs, wide selection of electives, modular, part-time, etc., etc., which increases the diversity of people entering theological college, and hence changes the intended outcome
That means that theological colleges are preparing a broader range of people for different outcomes. No longer is “you will go and be a minister” the sole outcome of a seminary’s training program. And so the what for has shifted.
I think recognising and wrestling with this shift is incredibly important, because theological colleges are essentially trying to do (at least) two main things. (1) continue to train and produce vocational ministers for congregational settings (e.g. your local pastor, your parish priest, etc).. and (2) provide access to tertiary-level education in theology for anyone who wants it, including a broad range of people training for other forms of Christian ministry that aren’t congregational-minister. What’s best for those two groups is interrelated, but the demands you may be prepared to put on group 1, don’t necessarily apply to group 2.
So, what theological education is for is actually tied up with who it’s for. And the shift to open the doors of theological colleges to a wide variety of people seeking deeper theological knowledge, either for their own growth, or very often for greater capacity for service, whether formal or informal, paid or unpaid, in the church, in parachurch organisations, outside the church – that shift is a good thing because it takes “theological education” out of an elite reserved only for a ministerial class, and opens it up to the people. I think it’s reasonable then to claim that theological education institutes exist to “instruct and form people in the knowledge of God for the works of God in the world”. I just made that up, and I might revise it in later posts.
All that said, what we expect of theological colleges still must concern group 1: what sort of theological training ought a college offer to produce “ministers”, full-time vocational congregational church workers. That I think is a question that ought not go away. And the what for, for them, is closely bound up in “what attributes should a graduate of this college take with them when they go from here, out to take up a position as (often) the pastoral leader of a church?” These questions of “what for” and “who for” and inevitable bound up with our next question, what is education?