Musings on Post-Vocational Life

Just because you have gifts doesn’t mean you’ll get to use them. I’ve taught this many times. But it’s not an easy lesson to learn. I remember clearly one particularly member of a church, saying to me after a service, that he wasn’t sure how well I’d go if I wasn’t in ministry, dealing with the challenge of being a Christian when it wasn’t part of my profession.


Well, here I am, post-vocationally employed. After seminary I spent 2.5 years in ministry positions, and 3 years overseas in academic-ministry. And then 3 more years completing a PhD which was mostly conceived as an extension and a stepping stone to further academic ministry.

These days? You know, technically I have 2 employers who are seminaries. One a reformed protestant one, the other an Orthodox college. But I don’t conceive of my self as in a vocational ministry. I think for 2 reasons:

Firstly, I very much grew up in a theological tradition that was practically a-vocational. No one had a ‘call’ to lifelong ministry, and our ordination practices reflected that – people were ordained to positions, and if you didn’t have a position, they wouldn’t ordain you (though you certainly weren’t stripped of ordination if you subsequently didn’t have a position). So for me, ordained ministry was about taking up ordained ministry positions, and signing on to a party platform. Which I never did.

Secondly, the employment dynamics of ministry, including the positions I always held, were never “you are being paid to do X”, but rather “you are being given a stipend to set you apart to do X, rather than having to do paid employment”. I think that’s a right conception of how to pay Christian ministry staff – you are enabling them to be set apart from other forms of employment to focus on gospel ministry.

As much as I care about the students in my care, and approach my jobs with diligence and a sense of stewardship, and as much as the people I liaise with (work with is probably too strong an expression) are genuine and caring, the work I now do is the academic equivalent of day-labouring. You turn up to the agora in the morning and hopefully someone picks you up for the day. And if they’re honest, they pay you at the end of the day. Except in my case it’s a digital agora, and the contracts run for 3.5 months. But it’s the same principle. And I’m mostly disposable – sure, I’m unique, but the role I play is designed to be interchangeable. If I didn’t take a course, someone else would. That’s what casualisation does to our academies (and our seminaries)

So I don’t think of myself as ‘in the ministry’ in particular. Even though much of the labour I do is ministry oriented. But it’s not because I’m a-vocational. It’s because I’m a-vocationally paid. And that has involved a very long process of identity shift. As much as we talk about not being defined by your work, it very much was the case that I ‘was’ a minister, and I ‘was’ an overseas ministry worker, and now I’m not. And I’m 100% sure that some of my former colleagues wonder why I’m not “in” ministry anymore.

I was an above average preacher, but I don’t preach much these days. I was, and could be, a pretty fine academic teacher and researcher, but I don’t have the means to exercise those gifts much either. Having abilities is no guarantee, let alone right, that you’ll get to use them. Our world and our histories are full of people who never ‘developed their potential’. The two or so years, getting closer to 3 now I suppose, have been a slow process of grief. I was encouraged, more than once, to pursue further studies, to get into patristics, and I can honestly never remember a conversation that warned me there were no jobs at the end of this pipeline. That awareness came along the way, from peers and from social media, not from advisors. And the grief comes from letting go of a dream that is less and less tangible. I wasn’t a great job candidate at the end of my PhD, and I’m essentially worse off now, 3 years on, then I was then. My PhD is old news, and unpublished, my referees out of date, and my track record full of lots of non-research things. I’ve come to terms with that, for the most part.

So, here I am, post-vocational, perhaps. Though, the work that I do now, with languages, I still very much conceptualise as a vocation of a sort. There aren’t that many people doing what I’m doing with language. In Latin, sure, a sizeable minority. In Greek, very few. I’m not the best at this, either, but I keep drilling away. Because the general ability of people in historical languages is actually woeful. It is an open secret that most professors in classics and historical theology cannot, actually, language their way out of a paper bag. And there are clear pedagogical and linguistic reasons for that. Causes that we could change, if we fundamentally altered the way we approach historical language education.

And I guess that’s something I wouldn’t be doing unless I was where I am.

So, you missed the boat on learning Latin actively?

I think (perhaps naively optimistic) that we’re on the cusp of a generational divide in Latin education. And this post is an attempt to help some on the ‘old’ side of that divide, cross over to the ‘young’ side.

What I mean is this: In the last 20 years we’ve seen a strong, consistent, and considerable growth in active approaches to Latin. I can see a few different causes of that. The birth and growth of SALVI in north America, general revitalisation of communicative-based and CI-based language teaching in general, the spread of Lingua Latina per se Illustrata as a textbook from the 90s onwards (even though its origins are much older), and perhaps most critically, the society-wide transforming effect of the Internet.

I learnt Latin, firstly, through correspondence materials from a university, on paper, sent by post. I would never have come to hear about LLPSI or anything active if it were not for the internet. It’s the internet that let me order a copy of LLPSI back in 2007. It’s the internet that let me hear about what Latin teachers were doing to adopt communicative practices. It’s the internet that has enabled me to have live text-chat, and critically, live voice and video chats, in Latin. The internet is the great enabler and diffuser of what would have been a very geographically isolated phenomenon.

And these days I see the effects of the growth of active Latin approaches in younger students. High school students who are able to converse and use Latin as a living language at levels far superior to the painstaking ‘prose composition’ work of the traditionally trained. Granted, many of these younger folk are outliers, but I think the balance is shifting. I live in the hope that there will come a day when people are genuinely (not ironically and sarcastically, as I am) baffled that people learned, or still learn, Latin as an exercise in grammar-translation.

But what if you missed the boat? What if you’re a Latin teacher who’s busy with lesson prep, marking, school regulations, service requirements, association duties, a family, and umpteen other obligations, and you think, “sure, I do see that a more active approach to Latin would be useful, but I just can’t even begin.”

I think that’s a lot of people, to be fair. And I get it – I got through a 4 year college classics sequence as a top level grammar-translator. And it can feel like “learning Latin all over again.”

But it doesn’t have to, and that’s what this post is about: taking small, actionable steps to shift your Latin from “I know grammar and can translate to English” to “I know Latin and can discourse in Latin”

  1. You know a lot more active Latin than you realise


Even though I don’t think knowledge about language and acquisition of language are systems that easily ‘cross-over’, the fact is that all the knowledge up in your head about Latin is a tremendous wealth of data you can call upon, especially when you’re not pressed for time. That, and the considerable amount of Latin you’ve been exposed to, are assets, not detriments. You are not really starting over. It’s more like a cross-grade. So don’t discredit what you already do know.


  1. Go easy on yourself


And, related to this, be kind to yourself. You’ve probably spent most of your Latin life not using Latin actively, and so you are starting something new. Attempts to read Latin without translating, to write Latin, to speak Latin, are all going to be hard at first. And that’s okay. Embrace the suck, because no one is judging you (except yourself, probably)


  1. Start small


Choose small, attainable goals and habits to develop. Just as I would tell students new to Latin to get a copy of LLPSI and start working slowly and consistently through it, the same for old-hands who want to revivify their Latin in a new mode. LLPSI is perfect for this, because it starts so easy, it’s graded so well, you can do everything in it while keeping your brain in Latin, and you can pace yourself through it. Also, you can listen to Scorpio’s beautiful readings. I would tell you to commit to nothing else and nothing more than first working through LLPSI volume 1. After that, you can spread your wings.


  1. If you’re a teacher, learn from teachers

One of my prime motivators for switching my own focus to more communicative modes was the practice of teachers. And while this post isn’t only for teachers, if you are a teacher, know that you can shift your teaching with small steps too. Just introduce one small component of speaking at a time. You don’t have to go from all-grammar to all-communication in a day.

And you can learn from those who’ve gone before. There are plenty of teachers who are actively engaged in communicative teaching, and are willing to help.

Here’s a short list of super useful people doing specifically Latin-y things:


  1. Just start, and keep going


Maybe you’ll never become a fluent, advanced/superior level speaker of Latin. Maybe you will. Who cares? Just make a small start on become a better Latin speaker, and you’ll almost certainly become a better Latin writer, reader, listener along the way. You can have my money-back guarantee on that.

Introducing LGPSI, a guide for the uncertain

LGPSI, also known as Lingua Graeca Per Se Illustrata, and by its Greek name ἡ ἑλληνικὴ γλῶσσα καθ’ αὑτὴν φωτιζομένη, is an expansive writing project aimed at producing a new type of Greek reading text built for learners of ancient Greek.

It takes its name from the famous Lingua Latina per se Illustrata of Hans Ørberg. And, to some extent is designed to be a Greek edition of that, though with important differences.

The project consists of several elements:

The core text: The core text is main material of continuous Greek text which follows, at its centre, the story of a family in Antioch in the 4th century A.D., and those they met along the way. This material is being primarily authored by myself. The chapters are designed to become increasingly more complex in style, vocabulary, and grammar.



How can I get hold of LGPSI?


You can find LGPSI available online at:

This page lets you access the raw source files, and if you’re familiar with github, you can create issues/submit feedback directly:

This page lets you read the text in a html format, or access a script-generated pdf. These two versions are updated slightly less often, so corrections take longer to appear here.


Does it cost anything?

LGPSI is an open-access resource and you can freely access it and put it to use basically however you see fit. No, you don’t need to send me money. Yes, you can if you would like.

There may come a stage where some instantiation of LGPSI costs money (e.g., a print version). But my commitment is that LGPSI should be both open in the sense of ‘free to collaborate and improve’, but also ‘free to use without cost’.

What if I don’t know any Greek?

Unlike LLPSI where it really is possible to open up the first page, provided you know the Roman alphabet, LGPSI is not *quite* so adaptable. For this reason, I have in mind a couple of features. Firstly, chapter 1 follows LLPSI capitulum primum quite closely. If you know the Latin, you should be able to understand how the Greek parallels that. Secondly, what about the alphabet?

What if I don’t know the Greek alphabet?

I have in mind to produce a ‘chapter zero’ resource that should orient total ab initio beginners. In particular, teaching the alphabet through aural/visual repetition of characters, using minimal pairs and working up to words. It should then be possible to reproduce the audio side of this for several different pronunciation schemes/periods?

What kind of Greek does LGPSI teach?

LGPSI at present teaches ‘Koine Greek with Attic sprinkles’. It does this for several reasons. Firstly, the vast bulk of ancient Greek literature is written in Koine. Students who study Koine are well situated to access this material. Secondly, for those whose interest is primarily biblical and related studies, Koine is the idiom of primary interest. Thirdly, a significant portion of Koine writers deliberately and conscientiously employ a high-register of Koine that contains Attic features, for which reason you will find plenty of Attic influence in this text. Fourthly, the historical setting of the main storyline is late antiquity. I believe that students whose main interest is “classical literature” and “classical Greek” will still be well served by this text.

That said, I do have in mind that LGPSI as a broader project of multiple stories may, indeed should, grow to include spin-off texts that may focus on specific authors/dialects/periods. That would include a ‘high Attic’, a Homeric book, a Byzantine one, and other possibilities.

Where are the margin notes and illustrations like LLPSI?

I haven’t done them yet. But they are envisaged. Writing LLPSI was Ørberg’s life work, and LGPSI is a work in progress with zero funding. So what you get to see and use now is very much LGPSI as I’m literally writing it. That has two main consequences: (a) the text is somewhat ‘unstable’ as I will undoubtedly refine and revise it; (b) my primary concern at present is producing the core text.

However, (c) those elements are in my mind. In particular I am keenly interested in how marginal notes/footnotes/images/etc., may be incorporated at a digitally rich level, so that they are dynamically featured, not clued and tied to “chapter X, line 123”.

Also, to have illustrations we will need an illustrator.

I found a mistake

Please tell me. I love and appreciate feedback. I am usually able to incorporate revisions in a very short turn-around. Whether what you’ve spotted is a typo, or a systematic error on my part, I want to hear about it.

I think you could improve X, Y, Z.

Similarly, I am appreciative of broader feedback. I test this material out on students as I can, but the more feedback I have about all sorts of elements, the better we can make this for all.

Do you have any connection to the Cultura Classica LGPSI?

No, I don’t personally. I have some familiarity with Cultura Classica, but only from the outside.

Spin-Off projects

At present, two people have started spin-off projects that dovetail with LGPSI material:

Eric Sowell has a spin-off project ὁ ἑταῖρος

Fletcher Hardison is working on some Grammar (in Greek) and Exercises to accompany the material: see

Contact Details:

You can contact me about LGPSI at

If you want to tweet about LGPSI, #LGPSI is our tag


Ørberg, TQ: Setup, and writing LGPSI

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it many more times – Ørberg completed a work of genius in composing Lingua Latina per se Illustrata. The more I read it, the more I see how carefully he crafted it, and appreciate the finesse required to construct a book (more than a book) that so effectually teaches Latin, using only (a) latin, or (b) pictures to illustrate things.

That’s not to say that LLPSI is perfect. Indeed, based on the findings of Second Language Acquisition theory in the last 60 years, there are many things that LLPSI doesn’t do and several things that it assumes (incorrectly). For a prime example, LLPSI still operates on the principle, “if I introduce you to all the forms of the passive verb in this chapter, in contexts in which they are obvious, then by the end of this chapter you ‘know’ the forms of the passive verb”.

In sum, LLPSI is not undergirded by sufficient Comprehensible-Input principles.

And yet it’s still the best book by many metric kilometres. And one of those reasons is that it is Per Se Illustrata.

Lately I’ve also been reviewing some of the excellent materials available for Where are your keys, which is an awesome approach to language in general, and being put to amazing use in language revitalisation work by Evan Gardner and his colleagues. It’s also incredibly adaptable to purpose.

Among the vast array of ‘techniques’, is TQ: Setup – setting-up a scenario/situation/location/props in order to isolate and facilitate the elicitation and transmission of a particular ‘piece’ of language. A great example is teaching ‘longer/longest’. Ideally you want to have 3 objects, like sticks, rods, something that’s already long, flat, etc., that are identical apart from length. This is part of isolating the thing you want to get. So then you have minimally contrastive pairs. You might start with 2 of your sticks, to get long-er, then you might try a few variations to try to elicit long-est, and test this out to make sure you’ve got it.

LLPSI is full of set-ups. When it’s time to teach tam… quam…, in chapter 6, Ørberg introduces a set of roads in Italy, and then compares their lengths with (non) tam longus … quam…. This works with mostly already known vocabulary, establishes the tam-quam pairing, and provides more story material for the narrative that’s unfolding. In chapter 12 he returns to teach comparatives, (having in the meantime taught the 3rd declension noun patterns), and because tam…quam… is already established, he can match this with longior, (and brevior, gravior).

This is, admittedly, one of many struggles I find in writing LGPSI – finding the right set-ups. Partly because I do not wish to only repeat LLPSI over and over. It has great set-ups, but I want to tell different stories, with different settings.

And partly, there’s simply a CI-component that I want to exist in LGPSI that doesn’t in LLPSI. You don’t learn the morphology of the past-imperfective just by seeing enough examples, you learn it by seeing enough examples – i.e. exposure over and over and over to various forms.

Which is why one of the ‘solutions’ in LGPSI is just to keep writing. Writing more content, writing ‘forwards’ in terms of content/story/difficulty, but also writing ‘sideways’ – same “level” of material, different content; and even writing ‘backwards’ – revising old “content”, but remixing the language and complexity used to express it.

Thinking about communicating bite-sized-pieces by finding the right Set-Ups though, has been a really useful way of framing the challenges for me. Looking forward to finding more and more Set-Ups that work.

Adventures in Orthography and Transcription

Lately I’ve started copying out by hand the texts of Familia Romana and Italian Athenaze, complete with macrons, and full diacritics (including marking vowel lengths on alpha, iota, upsilon) in Greek.

I was prompted to do so by hearing from a few people how valuable they had found the former activity (both in A Strange Odyssey, and also Lucius Noster has said the same about Familia Romana).

When I tell people this, they consider it rather strange. What on earth is the pedagogic value of copying out whole passages of text? And how does this fit my own pedagogy and understanding of SLA?

My short answer is just: spelling.

But, more than that, the relationship between spelling and accurate pronunciation of Latin and Greek. It’s entirely possible to learn languages without becoming, or even using, literacy skills. However, given that vowel length and accent are features of these languages, they are features that ought to be learnt properly. Now, good oral input will do that – if you regularly hear Latin words with correct vowel length and appropriate stress, then you’ll be fine. But, even though I often have a good intuition for this in Latin, and less so but to some extent in Greek, I am often unsure when writing.

Hence the writing project – by considering diacritical marks not ‘optional’ but essential to my learning as a second-language-learner, I am compelling myself to learn these features in my literacy. Which will improve my writing ability. And spill over, to some extent, to my speaking ability.

So, we’ll see. It’s an experiment, to become a more self-conscious writer of ancient languages, and thus a more accurate speaker.

Book Review: Bringing our Languages Home: Language Revitalization for Families

I recently read Bringing our Languages Home: Language Revitalization for Families, edited by Leanne Hinton.

The bulk of the book consists of contributed essays by various families/persons involved in language revitalisation in a family context. There are 13 chapters grouped in 5 sections.

The first section opens with two families working with Miami and Wampanoag languages. These are incredibly powerful stories, since they involve families working from zero. Miama language revitalization began with Daryl Baldwin, and his family, after the loss of speakers, and beginning from documentation alone. So much so, that Daryl persuaded a linguistics degree in order to reconstruct the language. The second language, Wampanoag, is also a “resurrection” more than a revitalisation – there were no speakers from 1850 to the 1990s.

These are truly heroic efforts to reclaim language. Part two speaks to families working in situations where there are elders who are speakers. We have the stories of two families working with Karuk and Yuchi. I particularly appreciated the Yuchi chapter, because of the way it laid bare the ways in which the explicit colonialism of English language forces to destroy indigenous languages.

Part Three speaks to family-based revitalisation where it is in concert with community efforts. This includes speakers of Kanien’kéha, Māori, Hawaiian, Anishinaabemowin, and Irish. The Māori chapter particularly resonated with me. It is the story of Hana O’Regan, who speaks about her own autobiopraphy, struggles with Māori and linguistic identity, efforts for revitalisation, and the difficulty within her own family.

All my years of lecturing, writing poetry in Māori, composing songs in Māori, and debating in public and on national stages in Māori didn’t prepare me for the moment I first held my precious baby in my arms.


Yet when the time arrived, I learnt very quickly that I didn’t have at my disposal the language I needed, and it wasn’t just the vocabulary; it was the idiom, the turn of phrase, the terms of endearment. I didn’t know the term for winding or burping a child, or how to say, “Let’s put your legs up so I can clean you up”; these weren’t structures or sentences I had ever had to use in the lecture room or with my peers!

I had hopes, when my daughter was first born, to speak only Gàidhlig to her. but I quickly found that despite being a somewhat competent speaker, the domain-specific competency needed for parenting rapidly escaped me. That, and other factors, eventually led me to abandon that practice.

Hana also speaks honestly and frankly about the problem of encroaching English, and that children do not care about intergenerational language transmission. Quoting Colin Baker:

For the child, language is a means to an end, not an end in itself…Language is a vehicle to help move along the road of information exchange and social communication.

(Colin Baker, A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2000), 64)

Therein lies my own dilemma – young children will rebel against language they don’t understand when they know the speaker can use a language they do understand. These days a phrase or word in Gàidhlig is met by my now three-year-old with, “Don’t talk funny; talk properly; speak even gooder; what you saying that for” and similar. More about this below.

I also found the chapter on Irish (Gaeilge) very interesting. This was the story of a family that had joined with others in establishing a small group of houses in an area of Belfast together, for the explicit purpose of speaking Irish with each other, and fostering it as the first language among their children. It was interesting on several levels. The intentional decision to form a community to provide the children the opportunity to grow up in a Irish-first environment was always going to be challenging, as all forms of intentional community are. Secondly, the way in which the community faced schooling issues was also significant – once minority-language children start a majority language school, the balance of their language starts to shift. In this case, the families managed to achieve a critical mass to start a school, which initially was, ah, less than legal. Eventually it gained recognition, but then the growth of both external influences, and external parents wanting to have their children in an Irish-medium school, as well as the impact of ongoing school meetings and fundraising, placed very significant pressures on the community itself.

In all this, I have been struck by the way in which the language of home, of school, and of street, all interplay. Gàidhlig medium education in Scotland seems to face this barrier where students can get through a full sequence of in-language education (provided they can, the provisions in upper years are somewhat lacking still), but because it’s not the language of the street, the home, or the society, they disprefer Gàidhlig outside the classroom. Similarly, when a minority language is only used inside a home, it becomes a language of the home alone. Robust, widespread revitalisation appears to require deliberate incursions of the minority language into various domains.

Section IV is entitled “variations on a theme” and contains a couple of chapters that appear unique. The first deals with a family attempting to raise their child with Kypriaka (Cyprian Greek), and the challenges that presented in a variety of geographic contexts, ending with them eventually relocating to Cyprus. The following chapter is the reminiscence of Ezra Hale, daughter of Ken Hale, raised as a Warlpiri speaker. This is a fascinating chapter because Ken was the only Warlpiri speaker that Ezra and her brother knew. Ezra in fact has never been to Australia. And so it’s a fascinating case of “sole parent transmission” because Ezra’s only linguistic data for Warlpiri came from her father.

Section V deals with family-language programs. There’s a chapter on adapting master-apprentice style training to a family situation, with Kawaiisu, and a chapter on Finlay Macleoid’s work with Scottish Gaelic. I had encountered Finlay and his work (and opinions!) in the past, and he’s (to my impression) a man of decided convictions about language work. He has been actively involved in promoting the use of “Total Immersion Plus” work for Gàidhlig, and working to bring people into immersion contexts that also embrace “all of life”. He has also been involved in the development of Family Language Plans for Gàidhlig. These originally were produced with TAIC/CSNA, starting in the mid 80s. In particular, it’s notable the attention to providing appropriate plans for various home situations – both fluent speakers, one fluent speaker, neither fluent speaker, as well as considerations of community interaction. Finlay has also worked particularly to bridge the ‘domain gap’ (as I call it) of language with young children.

This was certainly my experience with my daughter. I didn’t have that vocabulary for Gàidhlig. I could read poems and stories, but I didn’t know how to talk about the fundamental things of life with a baby, or an infant, or a toddler. That was one factor that lead to my abandonment of trying to speak only Gàidhlig to her.

Finlay is still active, with the Moray Language Centre. Although it seems rather, hmm, less than easy to obtain some of the many resources he has produced over the years.

The book concludes with a chapter from Leanne herself, summarising some of the key points that emerge from the previous chapters, and offering some advice and wisdom for families.


So, to bring it back to myself. I live in Australia, far from most Gàidhlig speakers. My family is unlikely to make a significant contribution to keeping Gàidhlig alive. That does not mean, though that I have surrendered the fight. I have just reoriented myself to the current reality – I do not have all the tools and time to raise my daughter with a “One Parent One Language” strategy, and as she is now 3 years old, I am unlikely to ever shift the dominance of English.

But this book has galvanised me to begin a more active “resistance”. I am making conscious efforts to shift individual phrases and words into Gaelic. I use repetition and context to make sure they are understandable. Previously when talking about different languages, we would say “X’s language, Y’s language, Papa’s language”, but I have decided to refer to Gàidhlig as “our language” from now on. When Gàidhlig words are met with 3yo resistance, I offer gentle but firm push-back. For myself, I am working more diligently to expand not only my general fluency, but my domain-specific competencies. And every day I hope to shift the balance on the scales a little from English to just a little more Gàidhlig. It is a small, ongoing war against English.

Book review: A strange odyssey

Last weekend I was alerted to this book, A Strange Odyssey: Confessions of a Classicist, by Carlos Martínez Aguirre, translated to English by Elaine Riedel and Francisco Javier González Estepa; (Thanks to David Miller for pointing it out to me.)

This book resonated so much that I read it in a day.

The author takes us through an autobiographical trip focused on their experience of learning Latin (and Greek). Beginning with their school education, and first introduction to Latin, all through a supremely grammar-translation methodology.

[…] given the methods for teaching Latin at the time, not even the brightest or most hard-working students were able to learn Latin. We learnt other things such as declinations, conjugations, syntax, and morphology, but nothing related to what one usually considers part of learning a language.

This continued throughout high school, and into university. How many of us know that too well? endless grammar, morphology, translating painstaking with a dictionary, and then learning set texts well enough to ‘translate’ them without a dictionary. That, for so many of us, describes perfectly our university classics experience. This does, seem, a path to eventually being a reader of classical languages, but it’s the work of 20 years, not 4:

I remember once when I was starting to get a sense of where things were headed that I asked one of the Greek teachers with whom I had a good relationship; “When will I be able to read Greek fluently?” To which she condescendingly replied, as if to a child who does not know he has asked an impertinent question, “Uff! You will reach that after teaching for many years!”

The author relates that after university they went to Greece, where they worked teaching Spanish, and learning modern Greek at the same time. The combination of those (teaching Spanish in Spanish, of course; and learning a Greek that is a living language) acted as an epiphany, especially when they took their active learning of modern Greek, and applied it to ancient Greek. Here they describe buying a “bilingual” edition of Plato (ancient Greek with facing modern Greek):

[…] for the first time in my life, this appeared to me to be an actual text rather than a series of codes which I could only decipher with the help of a dictionary. The truth is that I still was not able to read Plato directly in the original but my level of comprehension of the text at first glance had improved in a spectacular manner and this in a year when I had studied absolutely no Classical Greek!

Going on, further scales fall from his eyes when being taught a history of language teaching, and he begins to wonder:

What is more, if instead of spending eight years of my life going around in circles with the spy games that grammar and translation consisted of, my teachers had focussed on speaking to me in simple Latin and Greek from the first day and had made me speak in these same languages, just as I did with the students of my Spanish classes, I would probably not only be able to express myself without difficulty and hesitation in the language of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but also be able to read with ease all types of texts, with a similar difficulty as someone who reads literature that is not their mother tongue.

The author returns to Spain and eventually takes up teaching. They go on to speak of their discovery of Ørberg, of the Vivarium Novum, and of latin-speaking circles in Madrid. All these feel so familiar to me, as echoes of my own experiences.

I commend this book to you all, as both an entertaining read, but as affirming in the life of another so much of what I continually say about Latin, Greek, and language learning. The book is available here:  or you can follow this link directly to Amazon and buy it on kindle very cheaply.

Rusticatio Australiana Altera!

I’m just back from spending a week (a mon-fri week only, quod me paenitet), at the 2nd Australian Rusticatio. What’s a rusticatio? Well, it’s a live-in, immersion week of Latin in a rural setting, in which you only speak in Latin, and participate in various activities including structured learning sessions, reading sessions, activities, preparing meals, and general conviviality. They are put on by SALVI.

This was the second year we’ve had one in Australia, and I commend you to read my report of last year’s one (partly so I don’t need to repeat myself!)

This year I was greatly looking forward to it, because I had had such a great time last year. Also, I was anticipating seeing returnees from last year, and renewing those friendships in Latin. Thirdly, I was expecting to take up some leadership in some of the small group sessions this year (which was not a false expectation…)

This year’s was a smaller event, with less Americans out to take the lead, and less participants along (for various reasons, some unavoidably beyond our control). It was excellent in every way, nonetheless, and the size of the event in no way regulates that.

I took on the role of a repetitor this year, which is not merely someone back for another time (though that is true), but also managing one of our various greges (groups). This meant leading some pleasant discussions in Latin on various readings, which was indeed enjoyable! Though daunting – people in my group undoubtedly have considerable years’ experience in Latin, and I by no means think I am in any way a better Latinist than them, just perhaps someone with more speaking experience.

I also enjoyed the confusing pleasure of taking a couple of eligenda (elective) sessions on “Greek via Latin” in which we worked with some of my simple translations of the Oxford Latin Course into Greek. Since I have myself started teaching Greek via Greek, talking through some simple Greek but in Latin was… a mix-up in my head.

It was also very pleasing to not only have returnees, but a good number of first-timers among us. It takes a lot of courage to say, “sure, I will go away with a group of virtual strangers to a bushland retreat and only talk Latin for the first time”, especially several of our newcomers were not even so far along in their Latin learning via any mode at all. They all did admirably, and new friends were indeed made.

And, opportunities to play any kind of role-playing-game in Latin are virtually as rare as unicorns, so it was delightful to play D&D again in Latin (uel, Sepulcra et Serpentes as we call it).

My great thanks to all involved in organising and running this year’s Rusticatio. It is truly a special event, both incredibly enjoyable, and amazingly profitable for one’s Latin.

In proximum!

Some thoughts on “fluency”

I’m not, generally, a big fan of the word ‘fluency’. It doesn’t do what people want it to do.

On the one hand, ‘fluency’ as meaning something like, ‘an ability to communicate at speed with accuracy’ is almost never what most non-linguistics people mean. On the other hand, ‘fluency’ as ‘a native-like ability to use the language without any real obstacles’ is what most people do mean, and this solidifies into a whole set of false notions…

I’d say that most people I talk to think that ‘fluency’ is a state that you achieve, the end of the language learning road. You go along as a beginner, intermediate, advanced learner, and then you arrive at ”fluency’ – where you understand everything, and speak like a native. And if you arrive at ‘fluency’, you also stay there – you can’t lose it, it’s locked in, and you can’t progress, because where would you progress to?

But the more you stare at ‘fluency’, the more it looks like a cardboard cut-out of the Eiffel Tower, and less like an Eiffel Tower. And then you get up close and walk around it. And realise it’s a 2d construct…

Because people do lose, or at least deteriorate, in their native languages (the ones they are fluent in), given the right (or wrong) set of conditions. A quick read-up on the research on language attrition makes it clear that even people’s L1s can decline, given lack of exposure and immersion in environments where L1 input is low or entirely absent.

Because people keep learning their native languages. On any given day I’m receiving hours and hours of English language input, and producing English language output. I learn new words. I encounter various structures, nuances, collocations, idioms, spellings, usages, and all this is continuing to shape my ‘English’. You never stop learning your native languages (provided you are exposed to input), because your mental representation of those languages continues to be shaped by that input.

Because there are things written in English that I simply cannot pick up and understand. Technical language, highly idiomatic language, emerging slang terms. These things may all be English, but without the requisite exposure, I can’t understand them. Here’s a fine example:

Besides its theoretico-didactic interest (it reveals the difference between Marx and Hegel), this representation has the following crucial theoretical advantage: it makes it possible to inscribe in the theoretical apparatus of its essential concepts what I have called their respective indices of effectivity. What does this mean? (Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses“)

What does this mean indeed. It takes a lot of mental parsing to process that sentence for me, and I do not possess the requisite background information to tell you what the respective indices of effectivity are.

This is why I shy away from talk of ‘fluency’, because it’s an impossible yardstick. There’s no final state of language attainment (except at death). There’s only progress, or attrition. And there’s only competencies – could I do this communicative task at this particular time (expression, interpretation, negotation of meaning) and with what degree of ease.

Enrol now in online courses for Term 3

I’ve put up my course offerings for term 3, starting at the end of July. I’d love to have you come and join me for some spoken Greek or Latin. All my classes are designed to run as much in the target language as possible.

If you have any questions about particular courses, or anything at all, please get in touch.

Latin Patristics Survey (Part 1) – a post-beginners Latin course, but an introduction to Latin authors and literature of the patristic period.
Galatians Reading Course – reading and discussing the epistle to the Galatians, in Greek.
Hellenistic and Biblical Greek (Part 1) – working through McLean’s so-titled reader, reading and discussing in Greek.
Lingua Graeca PSI – Level 1 (chs 1-10) – an course in Greek for the absolute beginner. Suitable for both those who have never done any Greek before, and those who are looking to develop a more active competency in Greek.
Lingua Graeca PSI – Level 2 (chs 11-20) – a follow-on course in Greek using the LGPSI material
Lingua Latina 3 (Familia Romana chs 25-35) – a follow-on course in Latin using Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata

Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 1, To Basil

[1] My promise was a lie, I confess, that I would be with you and join in the philosophical life, when I was yet in Athens, and a promise born out of our friendship and unity there; for, I have no appropriate word for this. [2] I lied, but not willingly, rather one rule overruled another – the rule of serving one’s parents overruling that of our association and intimacy. [3] For, truly, I am not completely false, if you for your part will accept the following: that half the time we shall be together with you, and the other half you chose to be with us, so that all may be shared, and there be equality in our friendship. By this arrangement, they will not be grieved, and I shall gain you.

Greek: the gift of a conservative writing system

Spend any time at all looking into Greek pronunciation and you will inevitably encounter the ‘pronunciation wars’. People have very heated opinions about how Greek should be pronounced. This ranges from virulent comments that because Greek is still Greek, modern Greek is the only way to pronounce it and every historical reconstruction is made up nonsense and never really accurate, to Attic purists who complain about Koine texts being pronounced in period-authentic pronunciations because “it sounds like Modern Greek and that’s wrong”, to Homeric purists who insist of perfect pitch accents and think everything from the 7th century onwards is a debased corruption.

All of whom are wrong.

To come at this from a different angle, I want to talk about writing, spelling, and orthography. Greek is a language with a long written history. And like most languages with a long written history, writing is conservative. Even as spoken language changes, written language tends to remain the same, unless there are major spelling-reform interventions. By the Attic period we know that some things were already shifting. By the Koine period we know that the pronunciation of the language had shifted dramatically towards what’s typically thought of as a Byzantine pronunciation. And that is itself much, much closer to Modern Greek. And yet, students of Greek, native speakers and L2 learners, generally learnt (a) to speak Greek as it was currently spoken and pronounced, and (b) to write Greek as it was standardised. This is one of the reasons why, e.g., I can read a Greek text from 500 BCE and from 800 CE and still have a fairly good comprehension. I could even push that second date forwards a bit, depending on the writing. We’re talking 1000-1500 years of literature accessible if you can read.

Now, let’s compare English for a little bit. English has truly awful spelling, if you consider it from a phonetic perspective. The Great Vowel shift didn’t help us. Nor did diverse vowel shifts in regionalised accents. Nor does the long tradition of spelling words differently based on which language we borrowed them out of. To learn English spelling, you need to get schooled in it. You need to learn how the sounds of your own dialect of English map to the words of English, and how the spelling rules work, which are often no longer well-related to how you pronounce things. And yet, the great advantage of English spelling is that it’s dismally phonetic. So you can read things written by speakers of other Englishes, or by Shakespeare, or even by Chaucer. You can read things from hundreds of years ago that native speakers undoubtedly pronounced not only differently, but in many cases in ways that would border on unintelligible to you.

That’s the gift of a conservative writing system. Which is why you should be thankful that ancient Greek remained relatively stable in its written form for so long. You can read, without much difficulty, a good two millenia of literature.

So stop whinging so much about how people pronounce Greek, and stop sniping at people for pronouncing it ‘wrong’. You’re wrong.

Translating Greek<>Latin

I’ve written plenty about how I don’t think translation is a very useful task for language learners. However, lately I’ve been having great fun in the sport of translation Greek to Latin and Latin to Greek. I thought I’d write a little bit about it, since my ephemeral twitter comments on it will inevitably disappear in due course.

One impetus was that there just isn’t really enough learner accessibly material for students of Latin or Greek. What if there were more? What if we took super easy stuff from textbooks and switched languages?

Another is that it’s actually a really fun challenge. Translating into English is boring, and not actually useful for my own Greek and Latin skills. Translating between the two forces me to relate those two languages, to figure out where the lacunae in my cross-linguistic abilities are. I would say that, broadly speaking, my Greek and Latin are roughly equal, but they are not at all equivalent. My ability to do various things, and domains of vocabulary, and so on and so forth, do not align across the two. I can talk much better Latin, I can compose much better Greek, for just one example.

Thirdly, writing (typing in my case) beginner level Greek and Latin with proper accentuation and vowel lengths is a powerful tool for learning to write and spell properly. It’s very easy to neglect these things if you are primarily oriented to reading. But if you want to write, you need to learn to spell to a standard, and writing and constantly checking is how you develop that skill. That goes against a lot of what’s valuable for language acquisition, precisely because learning to spell doesn’t have much to do with acquisition (I’ll talk about writing and spelling more in another upcoming post).

So, what have I been writing? Well, I’ve taken the Oxford Latin Course and been putting it into ancient Greek. This is great fun for some of the following reasons: telling a tale of Horace and the death of the Roman republic, but in Greek; all those easy ‘adjectives’ in the early chapters end up being verbs in Greek, often perfect-stem verbs; duouiri in chapter 4 forced my to break out dual-verb forms. And, notably, I’ve realised that I’m much better at turning Latin into Greek than vice versa. For L>G I’ve been translating Italian Athenaze, and it’s much harder. I have to constantly check vowel lengths. I struggle to find Latin verbs for Greek, even for words I know. And then there are all the Greek particles. And we haven’t even gotten to the participle system yet.

Copyright, of course, means these will never be publicly available or published. Alas.

I’ve also been writing some original Latin prose, which will turn into short cyberpunk fiction. But you’ll have to stay tuned for more of that.


Would I recommend this kind of exercise to people? Not to most. But if you have quite good Latin and Greek, and want to flex some output-oriented skills, this is a nice way to do it. Working with a textbook series also helps graduate the difficulty curve, so that you’re not starting, e.g. trying to turn Demosthenes into Ciceronian prose. Maybe, one day.

What I’ve been reading

I thought I’d take the time to just talk about things I’ve been reading. Especially since it’s been a couple of weeks: sickness, end of semester marking, general adjunct fatigue. Anyway, here’s things I’ve read or am reading, over the last 6 months.


I read sparingly in English. I’d like to read more, but I have to furtively steal time to read anything in English. This past 6 months I’ve read or been reading:

Burning Chrome (William Gibson) – an anthology of Gibson cyberpunk. I thought it would be useful to get me excited for writing some of my own cyberpunk fiction in Latin.

Deep Work (Cal Newport): I have a lot of problems with controlling my attention and dealing with technology. But I’m quite well aware of those issues and always trying to outsmart my brain before it outsmarts me. This helped.

The Adjunct Underclass (Herb Childress): about just how messed up colleges and adjunctification is. I wrote a review back here.

The Honours (Tim Clare): a fantasy book set in 1935 Norfolk. I read a recommendation on a news site, and decided to indulge in some fiction. I didn’t regret it.

Bringing our Languages Home (Leanne Hinton): I’ve just started this and already fascinated. It’s the stories, written by the people, of people involved in home-based language revitalization. This interests me on multiple levels. 1) Because I think language revitilization is truly valuable work. 2) Because it seems to me that minority language survival depends on both (a) home, and (b) school, transmission (for very different reasons, 3) it’s just fascinating work, 4) these are also fascinating stories, 5) some of this applies to Latin and Greek, indirectly.

Ola! A guide to Oral Language Acquisition (Hali Dardar): this is a kind of handbook for how to work on oral acquisition of, e.g., a traditional language. It’s built of some of the stuff that goes into monolingual fieldwork, but it’s not a monolingual context necessarily. This stuff has much more overlap with Latin/Greek, though again with big differences. But it gets me thinking, “how to do you do oral language acquisition/transmission in a way that isn’t so textbook/classroom/”teaching” oriented?” And that’s good.


When we turn to the classical languages, my reading is very largely shaped by students (a lot of school texts below). I wish I had time to read Greek and Latin for pure selfish reasons, and I do have some leeway, but not that much. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading in various contexts.

Aristophanes, Frogs
Plato: Critias, Ion, Apology of Socrates
Xenophon: Anabasis 1
Lysias: 12.
Euripides: The Trojan women
Athenaze (Italian): vols 1 and 2 (and gee the Italian version is good, just in case I haven’t told you)
Demosthenes, On the Crown

Not strictly in Greek, but I have been reading slowly, on and off, through Cambridge Grammar of Classical Greek.


Latin, like Greek, is often guided by students (which means I read a lot of Oxford Latin Course).

LLPSI: Familia Romana, Colloquia Personarum, Fabella Latinae, Fabulae Syrae, Epitome Sacrae Historiae, Sermones Romani, Roma Aeterna.
Cicero, Pro Archia, Pro Roscio.
Vergil, Aeneid book 1
Livy, AUC book 5.
Tacitus, Agricola.


I don’t do as much Gaelic reading as I’d like, but I do get some done. I’ve been slowly reading Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach (Tim Armstrong) which is a Sci-Fi book. I am only a few chapters in, but need to get back to it. Lately I’ve been reading Fo Bhruid (Torcuil Crichton) which is much easier going, and probably a lot shorter I suspect.

Vocabulary, Memorisation, and Digital Lexica


When I first undertook theological studies, which for us involved both Greek and Hebrew, an older scholar proclaimed to us with sage wisdom that learners should eschew electronic resources until they were rather advanced, instead proceeding with printed texts, and looking up words and structures in printed lexica and reference grammars.

Then, as now, the fear is that electronic tools make things ‘too easy’, by putting knowledge that once was “at bookshelf’s reach”, to just a flick of the mouse and a hover tool-tip. Depending on your language and text, automatic parsing (more or less correct), and access to increasingly useful lexica, is all available (sometimes even for free). But does this negatively impact the learner?

At the same time, I’m well aware that I am regularly engaging in “Do as I say, not as I did” when talking about language learning practices. Though, the tense of that maxim is important here, and let me illustrate.

Then and Now

Then: When I first undertook Greek, I was a very diligent student of traditional methods. And I took frequency based vocabulary very earnestly. I didn’t use SRS (Spaced Repetition System) but rather a very non-Spaced system, with +1 for correct and -1 for incorrect, all in an excel spreadsheet, and for Greek I rote memorised New Testament words by frequency down to <5 occurrences in the NT. I also, for my 4 years at seminary, took 1-2 subjects a semester of Latin externally, and learn practically all of a set text’s vocabulary by the same method.

Less Then: When it came time to learn Mongolian, I was more convinced of the inutility of such memorisation, and becoming more convinced that such an approach was mostly inefficient. Granted, I had classes 4-5hrs a day and lived in the target culture, but I basically eschewed any such rigorous approach to vocabulary, beyond perhaps the first few weeks.

Now: I do not practice any form of specific vocabulary memorisation, beyond reading and engaging in my L2s. I do not advocate that students do any specific memory work, except in certain circumstances: where students are enrolled in courses where they will be tested explicitly on isolated vocabulary, and that body of vocabulary is reasonably large compared to the time they have, then it’s appropriate to use brute rote-memorisation to learn such lists.

Why I shifted my position and my practice, and how this influences my advice to others

What’s going on when we speak of vocabulary acquisition? The whole premise of the flashcard, and variants, phenomenon is that you can store individual ‘bits’ of translation – side 1 is L2 word “X”, side 2 is L1 words “Y”, where you provide one, or more, glosses, covering as much of a range of meanings as you think either are likely to be relevant. You can include more information on side 1 or 2, as you see fit, but mostly you are trying to map a certain body of L2 content to a certain limited range of L1 material.

And, to an extent, this works. You can memorise lists of information like this, and when you see the L2 “X” in the wild, your brain will bring up your L1 “Y” and then you figure out what applies.

But, and this is the big caveat, vocabulary acquisition is both more complex in terms of what you’re learning, and more nuanced than the binary nature of flashcard slots represents.

All our ‘lexical items’ in our vocabulary, both in an L1 and an L2, kind of exist in a complex web, with multifaceted relationships to other words, and also other ‘things’. When we draw on a word in our L1, for instance, we are drawing on our entire knowledge of what that word can be used for, is used for, its collocations with other words, its register, its history, its nuances, and so on and so forth. And developing that complex tapestry of rich knowledge for L2 words takes (a) time, (b) lots and lots of input – seeing/hearing the word in various contexts, constructs, and usages. Moreover, our ability to draw upon those words is not binary, “yes, you remember / no, you don’t”, it’s much more a scale of how *strong* those connections are, and whether we can remember it in the moment its needed.

These things are difficult to represent most of the time. Which is where a good dictionary is incredibly useful. A good lexicon, say LSJ, or OLD, or the like, *describes* the breadth of usage that a word has across the language, and gives some evidence for those usages. I find myself reading full entries on words a lot more these days, something students would be well advised to do.

Which circles me back to the impetus for writing this – our friends over at Sententiae Anqituae lament, to a degree, that the ease of looking up a digital lexicon, or even using a text designed to aid students by glossing things quickly, seems to produce weaker readers, because the *inaccessibility* of the process of looking things up forces learners to memorise more.

I grant that that might be true at two levels: a surface one and an affective one. Yes, the ease of looking up words in digital text reading environments may impact the attentiveness of a learner, so that they are less inclined to mentally try to affix certain meanings in their head, knowing that indeed help is but a click (or less) away. And yes, the affect of such easy helps may produce an effect on learners’ processes, such that the robustness of lexical representations in their emergent vocabulary is weaker.

Yet neither of these two factors seem, in my view, to compensate for two much greater benefits. Firstly, the sheer speed and facility of using a digital lexicon is a huge benefit to us, both beginners and advanced. I almost never open my print OLD or even BrillDAG these days. The convenience of using electronic lexica is too great, even when I am going to spend the time reading through a full entry. Secondly, though, in speeding up the process of dealing with unknown or less-well-mentally-represented vocabulary, I can return to the process of reading more quickly, which means I can read more and more, more and more rapidly.

And this is where I land: for myself, and my students, I simply want them to read more text, more comprehensibly. Including, I should say, re-reads of the same text. Because it’s this volume of reading, and repeated encounters with words, whether they look them up 100 times or once, that is going to built both a *strong* mental representation, as well as an increasingly complex set of associations for each lexical item.

Which, in the end, changes the nature of “philology as slow reading”. The difficulty of reading texts in a foreign language often forces us to be slow, especially when we’re reading beyond our proficiency, and must use explicit tools to comprehend a text. But is that true slow reading? For a person who can only walk slowly, it makes little sense to talk of a deliberate practice of walking slowly. But for the one who can run, slow walking may become mindful and attentive. Learning to read slowly a text that one can comprehend proficiently opens up a whole new reading experience, and that’s what I’m looking for.

How Discord revivified my Latin

In January of 2018, so over a year ago, I signed up to Discord, an app basically designed for gamers to provide voice-chat, but with text-chat channels as well, and adopted and adapted to various other purposes. Here’s the brief story of how it changed my Latin.

But first, some background. I first attempted to pick up Latin somewhere around 2001? Maybe? With a copy of Wheelock’s from the university library. I then took a course in Sydney for 8 weeks or so, on Saturdays, working with Oxford Latin Course (I think). Doing a 2hr commute each-way for a Saturday class turned out to not be very sustainable. So in 2003 I enrolled myself in a distance university course, and did 4 years of a Latin major. At the end of that, I’d taken 10 subjects, read a lot of classical literature, and was frustrated that I couldn’t read naturally or fluently. I then discovered Ørberg, and began to dive into communicative based approaches overall.

Fast-forward to 2018. I was finished my PhD, my Latin was not too bad, having been used on and off through the years, but I was becoming more involved in teaching online, and I made two decisions that have really changed my course in Latin. Firstly, I started doing regular online conversations with a more experienced speaker, which helped me tremendously. Secondly, I joined Discord.

I actually joined Discord to join basically a small group-chat of friends happening there, but I knew from r/Latin that there was, in fact, a “Latin Discord”, and combined with my prior decision to start doing a weekly Latin chat, this seemed as good a time as any to join that Latin server.

And what I found there was an interesting… community. I don’t want to spend time talking about individuals, but here was a small, reasonably close-knit community of people ranging from school kids to, ahem, middle-aged, with various degrees of ability in active Latin, all interested in and engaged in developing better active Latin. It took time, but I found myself drawn more into that community, getting to know different people, but also just getting more excited about Latin in general and in my life.

Much of what makes the Latin discord work is that, even though core membership is still relatively small, there’s enough of a community from enough different places, that you can usually find someone to talk to, either in Latin in short text conversations, or about Latin (or Greek, or Linguistics) if that’s what you want. That, and that the population generally cares about not just Latin, but helping each other improve their Latin, through CI-based methods.

That extends to semi-regular voice-chats too. These happen on a more or less regular basis, and mostly involve reading a text, some discussion, questions about what people don’t quite understand, some chit-chat, etc.. A low pressure way to gather with international Latin speakers and those who want-to-speak.

It’s getting close to 1.5 years now, and a while back I found myself on the moderation team, keeping an eye on things, helping develop community, etc etc., and I find myself learning something new everyday, growing my Latin ability a little everyday, and enjoying the friendships, albeit digital and mediated, of Latin devotees worldwide.

If you’re interested in joining us, you’re most welcome:

Five specific ways you could help me

I’ll be back to regular old blogging about classical language pedagogy and other things later this week.

If you’re after specific things you can do to help me, feeling perhaps some sympathy after last week’s katharsis, here’s five:

  1. You can directly financially support either my academic research or my Greek language projects via my patreon. which frees my time for these things.
  2. Supporting my language teaching business directly (by taking classes) or indirectly (by recommending it), builds my business and frees me from casual academia.
  3. If you’re involved in fields that I’m involved in, academically or not, I welcome both collaboration and mentoring.
  4. Signing up to my newsletter helps you stay involved and supportive.
  5. If you’re a believer, prayer is always welcome.

My Adjunct life

This is a follow-up and personal lament to the book review from earlier this week.

I submitted my PhD dissertation in late 2016, and received my pass in March 2017. I graduated in September of that year, and it’s now 2019. I had already begun to realise how difficult it was going to be to move into any academic position. That awareness of the difficult reality of academic employment dawned on me once I came back to pursue my doctoral studies full-time. In 2016 I applied for 7 positions, without any hint of success. I applied for a further 17 academic positions in 2017. Since then I have barely applied for any, partly because I have seen almost zero positions in my field.

My field, strictly speaking, is patristics. My department was Ancient History, but really I studied patristics, and this puts me at a disadvantage for every job. I’m not familiar with the core areas of “Ancient History” – I couldn’t teach a class on core Roman republican history or classical Greece. I’m not a classicist for Classics departments – it doesn’t look like I know my classical canon of Greek and Latin. And I’m a rough fit for theology and history departments too.

Since 2017, I’ve been working primarily for two institutions, both small colleges. One involves online ‘tutoring’ – the materials for those courses are pre-constructed, and I am on sessional contracts to provide online interaction, guidance, email support, and marking for students. Students main point of ‘human’ interaction is supposed to be me, but it is all mediated, and I do not ‘teach’ material directly. The other involves me teaching my own course, but it is again asynchronous, and feels rather disconnected. A student approached me for a reference recently, a reference I’m reluctant to give because even after serial courses, I barely know them, and my reference is barely going to count for them anyway.

I do these jobs because I don’t know what else to do. If you include the courses I taught while holding a Masters and living in a 2nd world country, I’ve taught 31 instances of 19 courses. I have a specialised doctorate for which they are not even job openings. My current positions provide a liveable wage, only because of Australia’s strong unions, and the minimum hourly wages for academics remain decent. Nonetheless, I work long hours, late nights, and have no time to do research, the one thing that would make me actually employable. I attempted to persevere with research in 2017, with some success though no real publications, but my ability to do that has dwindled to practically none. It took all of 2018 to see an article go from submission to review to resubmit to rejection.

My experiences, and desires, suggest I could be a very effective teacher, but I do not feel capable of realising that potential. Anything I put into personal development comes out of my own time, and my own pocket. I have every reason to believe I could continue to do important, significant, valuable research in my field, but without any capacity to support that, it will also remain unrealised.

During my PhD I began language tutoring, not for the first time, but since then this work has expanded, and this year I have begun to make it as much a business as possible. I’m constantly amazed that people come to me with 2, 3, 4, or more semesters of Greek, and yet by their own admission have not really learnt Greek. That’s thousands of tuition dollars given to institutions that ought to have taught Greek better. I’ve invested heavily in time, and some money, in developing my own Greek and Latin, and ability to teach it communicatively, because I believe it’s truly worthwhile and effective. And yet even here my ability to do so is subject to the real contingencies of freelancing. A lost student is significant. Class sizes determine whether a proposed offering is viable or not. Nothing is guaranteed.

In academic circles, the practice of ‘passing’ is common. Anything to avoid being thought of as an adjunct. Even with those who know your employment, the tendency to ‘flatten’ differences in Australian culture serves to maintain a practice of just pretending these differences don’t exist, that we’re all equal members of an equal club. We’re not, because the salary for an entry level academic position is about 2.5-3x my current earnings. I never lose sight of the fact that we’re not equals, because we never can in our current conditions.

Among friends and acquaintances, the pretence is just as bad, in that there is a regular assumption that I have some kind of job with decent pay, leave, and at least some of the usual benefits of employment in Australia. I have almost none. Last year I fell sick at the end of semester and had to cede much of my marking, and thus part of my income, to someone else. ‘Leave’ means ‘not working and not getting paid’. Few of those around me understand, or could understand, that I am the academic equivalent of a burger-flipper.

I regularly feel exhausted, trapped, and unable to change my circumstances. I’ve trained myself into a career that doesn’t exist, and now work in positions that offer no advancement, and preclude the very opportunities that would allow escape. In response, I have and continue to try to carve out alternate forms of language education that both escape the systemic problems that plague classical-language teaching in universities, and rescue me from the grind of marking identical essays on identical topics by almost identical students. I don’t know if it will work. But the idea that I might once have genuine teaching relationships with students, or produce meaningful and useful research, seems more and more a delusion.

Book Review: Herb Childress, “The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges betray their faculty, their students, and their mission”

This one’s hot off the press, and I read it voraciously over two days. Which given how little time I can normally carve out for reading, is itself a testament to the book. It addresses the American situation. Australia is obviously not identical, but a raft of similar issues apply here. Indeed, over half of all undergraduate teaching in Australia is done by casuals.

Childress’s book strikes me as an important contribution to the growing body of literature dealing with the adjunctification or causalisation of academic labour in higher education, a phenomenon of which I am a part (and which I will write more about in a part 2 to this post).

The book offers us eight chapters, the first hits you like a brick in the dark – the rather grim realities of what it is like to work as a non-tenured non-member of academia – low pay, minimal support, incredible overwork, disposability, and no path out of that situation. The stories that pepper this chapter in particular are depressing, and verge on a kind of ‘adjunct depression porn’, but they are also the reality of the majority of college instruction, and need to be squarely faced.

Chapter two does the work of making clear, especially for those who aren’t familiar with them, of the fundamental ‘categories’ of academics – Tenure Track, Non-Tenure Track, and Adjuncts (of various kinds). Childress does an important service in working through some of the numbers in terms of who teaches, and who is taught by whom, and also about how some representations of these numbers obscure the on-the-ground reality: that most undergraduate teaching is done by contingent academic staff, and that the tenured class is disappearing.

Chapter three plays a similar role of educating the reader, this time not about the hierarchy within institutions, but between them, community colleges, middle-class colleges, small liberal arts colleges, and the big R1 research universities. He also speaks to how these correlate, strongly, to the class origins, and outcomes, of their students.

Chapter four speaks to the hiring side of the problem – the oversupply of PhDs, the incredibly difficulty of getting a position, and how the continued creation of PhD graduates with no job prospects is a cruel bait-and-switch that is being blatantly and recklessly ignored by universities.

Chapter five looks at the economics of universities – where do they get their money, and where does it go, and why isn’t it on hiring staff to actually teach students. While some of the material here is familiar, Childress’ analysis of how ‘transferability’ works to commodifiy college credits – a credit hour is a credit hour and they are basically homogenous, interchangeable goods, puts downward pressure on pricing, and contributes to making adjunct staff likewise interchangeable and indistinguishable. This is one reason SLAC resist adjunctification – they (a) have significantly high incomes, (b) they almost do not engage in transfers, and so students come, stay full time, and graduate with a unique experience. Childress also examines the way colleges’ pursuit of shifting economy and job relevance works against stability. The chapter covers other issues too, all relating to costs: diversity, student supports,

Chapter six talks about life on the inside rather than the outside: the position of Tenure Track faculty, and how this works in favour of keeping (and accelerating) the status quo. It’s easy to think of oneself as a winner of a merit-based game, and everyone outside as not as worthy; the place and role of adjuncts in departments is largely invisible to faculty, and many structures of adjunctification make current TT life possible.

Chapter seven goes on to speak about the ‘third parties’ that suffer. What about students, admin staff, support staff and so on? They too are losers due to increased adjunctification. This is also a chapter where Childress provides another important, indeed crucial, angle – what is happening in higher ed is not an isolated phenomenon. Contingency of employment, the ‘gig’ economy, etc., is occurring across sector after sector, and it’s hugely damaging to employees. Witness, for the easiest example, the rise of Uber and other similar services. By re-writing employees as contractors, driving down wages, and outsourcing practically everything, we commodify everything and the only people who win are consumers. But only those with wealth consume.

Childress also speaks to technological issues here, before turning to a second important point – ‘hope labor’. The emergent model of the web heavily relies upon people producing content for free, in the hopes of gaining enough publicity to monetise it. That works for some, but it works well enough for only a very few. And yet, massive success at the attempt to become well known enough to capitalise on it, comes with enough publicity that it creates an information bias – we only see those who are ‘successful’ (and not how much luck played into that), not the huge number of people producing free content in obscurity.

This is equally true in adjunct-land. Adjuncts live with a deluded hope that teaching and service, and going above and beyond, will get them good will, and a foot in the door, and eventually transformed into genuine faculty. This happens almost never. Indeed, it seems crazy to outsiders, but the longer you are an adjunct, the more experience you have teaching, the less likely you are to gain secure employment.

What about those who aren’t scrapping by on multiple adjunct gigs? Isn’t that just a minority? What about all those industry professionals? Childress offers an analysis in four categories of independent workers.

Primary Income Supplemental
Preferred choice Free agents Casual Earners
Out of necessity Reluctants Financially strapped


A recent (atrocious) article in theconversation, just like many in the higher-education community, wanted to point to the ‘casual earners’ and ‘free agents’ – people who enjoy and choose to adjunct because they want to, because they enjoy the ‘flexibility’ of multiple institutions, or are industry professionals who enjoy teaching on the side. These people exist, without doubt. But they are not representative of the bulk – people who are either reluctants or financially strapped (if you’re wondering, I’m in the reluctant category).

This chapter also speaks to issue of gender rebalancing and devaluation, technology, marketing, and generation demographics as factors.

Chapter eight is hopefully and depressing at the same time. I had wondered whether Childress would offer any ‘solutions’. Or just leave us to wallow in despair. Childress does another notably useful service to us here. Firstly, he doesn’t just say, “well, hire more faculty”. He begins with a parable of a complex problem that required a multi-faceted solution, which worked. Higher Ed needs the same. He also goes on to give some advice to people ‘in the mix’ which is depressing as anything, because it’s (a) prospective undergrads, (b) prospective grads, and (c) colleges. No advice for adjuncts because we’re already screwed. But noteworthy here is one of his pieces of advice to undergrads:

Ask each one of your teachers what their status is. Are they part-time, full-time on contract, or tenure-track?

Would that all students did this as a matter of course.

But beyond that, Childress lays out a vision for colleges that would rejuvenate higher ed and move it to a model that actually had ideals and pursued them. I’ll quote his summary:

A worthy college works to foster and to respect its web of relationships. It is a culture shaped and steered by its faculty. It places everyone into a place of continual learning. It asks for regular public demonstration of that learning.[1]

That’s a place I’d want to study at, or work at. Unlike:

A college should privilege content knowledge over the people who carry it. It is a business shaped and steered by its managers. It places people into fixed roles of fixed expertise. It examines and measures the proxies of learning, evaluated only by an internal disciplinary audience.[2]

which is the default reality of many institutions right now.

Childress’s book concludes with an ‘aftermath’, and 2 appendices. The aftermath relates Childress’s own experience of academia, and it’s heartbreaking to read. And it concludes with this:

All cults, all abusers, work the same way, taking us away from friends and family, demanding more effort and more sacrifice and more devotion, only to find that we remain the same tantalizing distance from the next promised level. And the sacrifice normalizes itself into more sacrifice, the devotion becomes its own reward, the burn of the hunger as good as the meal.[3]


[1] Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass (p. 154). University of Chicago Press

[2] Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass (p. 154). University of Chicago Press

[3] Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass (p. 163). University of Chicago Press.


What to do about teaching grammar? Four suggestions

Since we’re on a bit of a “let’s talk about grammar” roll at the moment, here are some more thoughts on the vexed problem of when to teach some grammar. But first, what is grammar?

In my view, when we are talking about Latin and Greek in particular, grammar is a surface description of the rules of the language’s morphology and syntax. That, by the way, is not a full-fledged linguistics definition of grammar, but the grammar that most students learn for Greek and Latin is not shaped by linguistics as a modern discipline, it’s shaped by the history of Greek and Latin grammar itself. And in that respect, the ‘rules’ that people learn are very often surface phenomena. They may be right, but they are not the whole story.

And grammar is also descriptive. It’s an attempt to theorise what the rules are based on what people wrote. Which is why my students infuriatingly hear me qualify almost every ‘rule’ with “this applies 95% of the time”. Because even violations of rules may not in fact be ‘ungrammatical’. A very clear example of this is the “genitive absolute” in Greek, which is so often not absolute, that calling it a genitive participial clause is my new preference.

So, if grammar is that, why teach it? I can think of three reasons you might want to teach grammar, and these relate to what I said in my previous post:

  • Learners often want to learn grammar because they feel like they understand what’s going on. (Affective)
  • Learners are going to interact with others (teachers, systems, institutions) where grammar is expected (Sociative)
  • Grammar forms a meta-language that allows speakers to speak meta-linguistically about utterances. It also provides an entrée to the language-user to engage with a history of meta-linguistic commentary on texts and language (Meta-linguistic)

Personally, only (3)  holds great persuasive force. (2) is a function of teaching learners in a variety of contexts and ends, and (1) I am fine to do because I think lowering learners’ affective filters and barriers as much as possible contributes to their overall wellbeing, and progress, as leaners. But for me, (3) is of most interest and importance.

So when and how do you do it?

Option A – you can sideline it and set it entirely as written material for students to read, or not, as they like. You could even set questions on it, worth 0 grades and 0%.

This has the advantage of providing learners all the grammar they want, but it takes it entirely out of the ‘must be learnt’ material. It shows that you genuinely don’t believe they need to learn it. But that you do indeed care enough to provide it to them. Grammar then becomes a kind of ‘bolt-on’ module that students can dive into, as they see fit, but not on ‘learning’ time.

Option B – Teach it all at the end

This approach basically says, “let’s front-load all our language learning, and when we’ve got a ton of that under our belts for the [X amount of Time], we’ll spend a bit of time at the end going over explicitly, what we’ve been doing implicitly.” I think this might work in year long blocks, perhaps semester blocks, but you’ve got two problems: (i) you’re giving up instructional time to do this, (ii) it’s going to be a lot of content.

Option C – Teach it in the Target Language.

This is what Ørberg does, of course. At the end of each Lingua Latina chapter is a section, latine, that explains the grammar of the chapter. It’s surprisingly effective, though I wonder how much that was for me because I already knew these things, and English grammar terminology is predominantly latine anyway.

The advantage of this is that you are giving learners the tools to talk in the language, about the language, as you go. So it’s more comprehensible input, and it creates more communicative possibilities.

The disadvantage, as I see it, is that it shifts learners’ focus back to grammar, and they may feel strong needs to ‘get this stuff down’, and ‘get it right’

One could also do this all in the language, but at the end. This would be like skipping all the grammar in LLPSI, but doing it all from scratch in Latin, once you got to chapter 35. I think the downside of this would be again, a lot of content in a shorter space, without giving learners the lead-up to acquire some of those words, structures, and concepts to talk about the language in the language.

Option D – Teach it as a separate module, and as linguistically informed as possible.

One final approach to this would be to modularise it off. Do your course in Greek, e.g., and then offer a course/unit/module that was explicitly Greek linguistics, designed to cover this material, and preferably in conversation with modern linguistics, not just the grammatical tradition. This could also be conjoined with a version of Option C. Indeed, if I had my way, I would do C ‘as we go’, and then ‘D’ as a separate course.

Or, I guess there’s option E – teach foundational grammar in the target language, until learners reach advanced levels, and then teach full-blown linguistics in the target language. I think that option will have to wait for my 4-year immersion college though….