Towards genuine reading courses in Latin and Greek

We’re now drawing in on the end of the 3rd year in which I’ve offered continuous structured small-group classes online in Ancient Greek and Latin. And one thing I have been working both on and towards is offering intermediate and advanced type classes. What do I mean by those? Well, anything where a student is past the point of needing to learn the fundamentals of the language as covered in typical intro/grammar books. I cover those things in my beginner classes, even though those beginner classes are also oriented towards communication and in-language work.

What happens in most classics departments is, sad to say, that beyond your first year, your class has an assigned text, and each week you have to translate X number of lines or however many words, and then in your class you sit around in a metaphorical or literal circle and translate sentence by sentence and your professor offers their feedback on the translation, points out your grammar mistakes, and makes various comments about things of literary or historical significance. I would say that describes a rather large bulk of classics degrees.

That seems somewhat boring to me. So this year in particular, I’ve offered intermediate level reading classes, where we have an assigned piece of text, I expect students to do some prep on it beforehand as needed, and in class we read it in Latin/Greek, and I ask questions in Latin/Greek, and we clarify difficulties or discuss some of the points in Latin/Greek. The most successful of these has been a sequence of 4 subjects in which I’ve read theological Latin from the early church period until right up to the Reformation currently, in a smorgasbord/sampler/anthology style.

The vision/model of reading/text based class I’m working towards, and will begin offering in more earnest in 2021, involves reading a set text week to week, with a set amount of material in particular, and coming to class to read/interpret/discuss all in the target language. At the same time, we’ll cover difficult to understand sentences, and unusual vocabulary, as it arises, as well as do paraphrase, question and answer at various levels, etc.. All in language.

One of my questions has always been, ‘how to make this manageable?’ Especially given the jump from ‘textbook Greek’ to real Greek. Well, by controlling the length of text. I have, now, a fair idea of how much text can be reasonably covered in an hour session, with certain amounts of experience. So, my plan to address this is to start to offer stages of intermediate/advanced classes – a very first post-beginner class will read Plato’s Crito, for example, which is 4172 words, roughly 410 words a session. In the process we’ll be able to develop Greek-Language glosses, explanations, paraphrases, etc, for the text: a new type of ‘Reader’s Edition’. And as I go on as a teacher, and as students go on with me, we’ll read longer works with longer sections, with more reading outside class but more discussion of themes and literary/historical (and theological where pertinent) questions in class. In a few years I hope to have students reading relatively long pieces of Greek and Latin, as naturally as any language.

This is part of my master plan – not just to teach more people Greek and Latin, but to create a new generation of Greek and Latin learners who are speakers, and readers, and can get through lots of material, and can talk and write about it effectively.

Next year, if you’re wondering, I have plans to teach a range of texts in this mode, dependent on demand: Platonic dialogues, Boethius, Medieval and Neo-Latin authors, Reformation Latin writings, Biblical and Patristic texts, and anything else I can convince you to take, or you can convince me to offer.

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