Chapter Nine. Classes
It is time for a class. We begin with elementary Latin. There are about twenty students enrolled, and the class is scheduled to begin at 9:00 AM. Students drift in gradually, some as early as 8:30, settle into their seats, and rummage in their backpacks for paper and books. Some chat with one another. Some, it appears, are just now doing the day’s homework, and some are reading assignments for other classes. A few simply sit and wait, perhaps dozing. I enter four or five minutes before 9:00 and ask five students each to write one of our English-to-Latin homework sentences on the board.
The five students, getting up from their seats and moving past others toward the board, create a noisy disturbance that I like. It wakes us all up and enlivens the class. By the time the five have written their sentences and returned to their seats, it is 9:00, and we immediately go over the sentences. I call on other students, asking them if number two, say, has any mistakes. Most sentences need some correcting, or there may be alternative ways of rendering the English into Latin. This is the time for students to try out their ideas, and brief but useful discussion ensues. Some words, right or wrong, invite a quick review of some point of grammar or usage. Others are simply careless mistakes, not much use as teaching tools. Once we have gone over the sentences, I collect the students’ papers. I will read them after class, make sure they have correct versions of the Latin sentences, and check them off in my grade book. I will return them to the students in the next class meeting.
In the beginning, the practice sentences are very simple. The students’ limited vocabulary, and the need to give them practice with certain grammatical constructions–prepositional phrases, for example–can lead to odd sentences that, bereft of any useful context as they are, imply a sort of beguilingly surreal world:
By whom was a ship seen on a mountain?
The strange shape of the horse did not scare the prisoners.
Next month I shall find a house in which there are no bodies.
What is the matter with the water?
But by the third month or so, we will have longer sentences, ones that have subordinate clauses beginning with words such as “if,” “since,” and “although,” and we may have several consecutive sentences, or a whole paragraph, on one topic. A paragraph! When we have paragraphs, we will be reading, reading not just to see examples of points of grammar (though they are there, lurking quietly in the paragraph), but reading for meaning.
It is now somewhere between 9:10 and 9:15, and I use the next fifteen or twenty minutes to introduce new material, a new tense of the verb, perhaps, or a construction the students have not seen before, or a set of related words that can be confusing and so need some explanation. I explain, put examples on the board, and answer any questions there may be. We may also work with practice examples in our textbook. Thus by about 9:30, we have gone over the day’s homework and learned our new grammar, and we have twenty minutes for other activities. There are many possibilities for these twenty minutes. Among them:
I might go over new vocabulary, stressing correct pronunciation and discussing the range of meanings of various words.
We might have a short quiz. This could be either a pop quiz or one that I had told the students would be coming. I often gave brief quizzes on specific items or topics that I told the students about in advance because I wanted them to study those items in particular.
I might, for a few minutes, drill the students on something I had asked them to memorize, such as a given tense of a verb, or the declension of a pronoun. I ask the question first, pause, then call on one of the students to recite. (If you call on one student first and then ask the question, the other students will tend not to listen to the question, since they know someone else will answer it.)
Sometimes, we teachers would prepare a worksheet, with questions appropriate to the week’s material. We could go over them in class, or go over some of the questions and leave the others for homework.
We could, and often did, review a specific topic that we had first encountered a week or more before. This helped the students maintain the topics in long-term memory.
We could also look forward. I might have the students begin their homework in class, where I could help them; or I might introduce new material that they would not read about in their books for several classes yet. That would enable me to anticipate problems and explain difficult or complex matters gradually, over several classes.
I might talk briefly about some aspect of Roman civilization that was suggested by one or more of our sentences: the Roman army, kings, the Senate, Cicero, Nero, crucifixion, and dozens of other topics all might call for some comment, definition, or clarification.
On rare occasions, we might play a game. On October 31, I sometimes divided the class into groups of three or four students, assigned each group a Hallowe’en-related figure–witch, ghost, werewolf, and so on–and asked them to collaborate in composing a description or definition of the figure in Latin. After ten minutes, each group read its description to the rest of the class, which tried to figure out which evil character was being described.
No two class sessions are alike, and the teacher can and should vary the order of events from day to day in order to keep the class unpredictable and lively.
Leaving elementary language classes behind, we can move on to more advanced classes in the languages. Outwardly, these were similar to elementary language classes: most of them were in the same classrooms (though sometimes advanced classes were in rooms with single large round or rectangular tables); there was usually a limited number of students (fifteen to twenty-five in elementary courses, and six to fifteen in advanced ones); and there was an emphasis on written texts in Greek or Latin.
On the other hand, the more advanced classes were markedly different in content, and we therefore did different things in them. In these courses, we teachers were no longer presenting the basics of grammar and vocabulary, and our students were no longer dealing with made-up practice sentences. Instead, we were working together on real poems, stories, or texts written two millennia ago by real Romans, and the job we teachers had was to help our students make the transition from simple exercises to sophisticated literature. It was a big jump.
In the advanced courses we usually concentrated on one or sometimes two ancient authors, Vergil, for example, or Homer; or in another course, the satirists Horace and Juvenal. We would give our students an assignment for the next class: read these sections or pages of text, we would tell them, and be prepared to discuss them; and in the next class we would go over the assigned lines with them. I generally asked one student to read a sentence or two in Latin and then to translate it. If the student had problems or did not understand something or simply made a mistake, I or other students could help him out. Sometimes the problem was simple, just giving the wrong meaning of a word or the like, but sometimes it was more complex, and that might call for a review of some point or points of syntax. A conditional sentence might need to be sorted out, or the sentence might include a purpose clause or a result clause that for some reason caused trouble. The students had seen all of this before, but few of us remember everything we see, and on-the-spot review was often required. In addition, there would be things to discuss, literary or historical, in almost every sentence we read. Where, exactly, was Brundisium? What is “irony”? How does Vergil use fire as a metaphor for love? Can we trace the path of the great fire in Rome in AD 64? This would be the time for us to take up all such questions, and for teacher and students alike to ask questions.
One could vary the approach. A student might read, say, four lines aloud in Latin and then translate the same four lines. Or a second student could do the translating. Sometimes I had a student summarize rather than translate. (Students hated summarizing because it was less definitive than translating, so I tended to avoid it, but for some materials it was useful.) Or each student might read or translate a very short section, perhaps just a few words in a single clause. It was useful for instructors to anticipate difficulties in translating and to plan, before class, how to deal with them. If we did that, we could have our thoughts organized, and we could bring to class a handout with examples of, say, the uses of participles, both to go over in class and to provide further materials for homework exercises or study.
Students could and did play active roles in the class. I think we all had them give reports of various sorts. These might vary from a short report on something that came up in our reading (How big were papyrus rolls? Who were the Druids? What do we know about how Cicero was murdered?) to longer, more formal reports based on the students’ own research. In this case, the report might serve as a preliminary draft of a term paper. But the most important aspect of all this–the element we all learned from, students and teachers alike–was the constant give-and-take of question and answer, with all of us asking questions and trying our best to answer them.
Graduate courses and courses for graduate students and advanced undergraduates were similar, but of course the level of analysis was more sophisticated in graduate courses. Graduate students already knew a great deal. They had their own insights, based on their previous reading and study, and in graduate-level language courses we spent much more time discussing and trying to probe the depths of the text, and much less in translating. Sometimes hardly any translating at all was necessary, but translation is the ultimate form of commentary and useful in various ways, so there was often some translation and discussion of how to render difficult passages even in the most advanced courses.
In the advanced classes, and especially in graduate seminars, students were ordinarily expected to undertake original research and write up what they discovered fully and carefully, as pre-professional training. When I taught Latin epigraphy (the study of texts written on stone or metal; these included tombstones, honorary memorials, and all manner of documents), I would suggest, at the beginning of the semester, a number of topics which, to the best of my knowledge, needed study and might lead to publication. Each student could pick one of the topics I suggested or propose a topic of her own. Once the student had a topic, she would gather evidence, and if she asked for guidance I could help her define the topic, limit it, organize the material, or sharpen the argument. The point was to assist the students as they developed into young scholars. If they decided, once they had completed the PhD, to enter upon an academic career, they would be expected to publish original research. Term papers were a first step in that direction.
As in the undergraduate courses, students in graduate courses were expected to give oral reports, usually versions of some aspect of their research in the course. Here, the report could serve as a kind of draft of the term paper, but often it was the other way around, with the written paper preceding the oral report. Once a student had done the research and had a good idea of the shape of the term paper, I would ask for a report on a specific aspect or part of the research, as opposed to an oral presentation that involved a summary of the whole topic. I did this in order to encourage the student to choose and define a topic that had a clear focus appropriate for oral delivery, and one that could be dealt with adequately in a given amount of time, usually fifteen or twenty minutes. Often, in the epigraphy course, the class and I would organize a small conference, mimicking the professional meetings that faculty members attend: we would have one or two sessions of papers, all timed, with opportunities for questions from the audience. (The audience was invariably just the other members of the class, and me.) Then we would have coffee.
In all of this, there was a close interweaving of scholarship and teaching. I needed to do a good deal of reading before any such course began if I were to have any hope of advising my students on current problems and new discoveries and developments. The students themselves needed to read and to develop methods for analyzing their materials; that required an acquaintance with earlier research and methods. The reports and papers they produced were, if all went well, original research, advancing our knowledge of the ancient world in carefully controlled but often highly productive ways.
Graduate-level archaeology courses could be very similar to the courses I have been discussing, but in them the objects of study and analysis were usually the material remains of antiquity, so the methods were different. But the procedure of a class could be very similar: close study of the materials; an attempt to understand what we might learn from the materials; and the development of a methodology that would allow the student to advance our knowledge. Reports and papers were standard in such courses, just as in the language courses.
Onward, now, to the “classics” courses. These were courses that did not require knowledge of Greek or Latin, and all of the texts to be studied in them were in English translation. There were few graduate-level classics courses, but on the undergraduate level they were numerous and varied in subject matter. In some cases they attracted large numbers of students, but some had quite limited enrollments. First-year seminars (first introduced in the 1990s) were limited to twenty students, honors courses to fifteen. Most classics courses, however, were larger, and there was an important group of them that had enrollments of twenty-five to forty. They included courses that dealt with particular periods of ancient history, and with the literature and art that was produced in those periods. Such were “The Age of Pericles,” covering the great age of Athens in the fifth century BC, and “The Age of Augustus,” which dealt with the golden age of Latin literature, works produced amid the collapse of the Roman Republic and the early evolution of the Empire. Other classics and archaeology courses of about this same size provided study of a particular topic. These included courses on the archaeology of Egypt, Etruscan civilization, ancient athletics, and Roman technology.
One of the reasons for capping these courses at about forty was that they usually involved both essay exams and papers. The courses were intended not only to teach students something about the ancient world, but to help them develop their critical and analytical skills. We therefore expected our students to do some elementary research and a good deal of writing, and once they had written a paper or essay, we instructors needed to read carefully what they had written and provide comments and criticism. I for one found that I could not offer adequate feedback and guidance on papers if there were many more than forty students. Hence the limitation.
Classes in these courses tended to take the form of informal lectures. There were times when the instructor needed to pass along information, or help students see the connections between various texts, or between texts and material objects. In such cases, the instructor might simply lecture for part of the class, dealing with, say, a summary of Roman religion, or the Roman educational system, or the architectural subtleties of the Parthenon. At other times, where the goal was rather to have students practice and develop their critical skills and their ability to express their thoughts, a class might proceed by question and answer, with the instructor setting one or more questions before the class and guiding the resulting discussion. Debate, back and forth, was possible with forty students, and enrollments in that range also allowed time for the students to ask their own questions; those were often productive, since if one student was wondering about something the class had read, it was likely that others were, too. Needless to say, endless variations on the question-and-answer organization of a class were possible. One could divide the class into small groups and give each group one or more particular problems to discuss; one could ask individual students to set out provisional conclusions; and one could call on students to give short reports on particular topics. The particular format of a class was dictated by the content and nature of the reading assigned for that day.
Classes in large-enrollment courses had some similarities to classes in any other course: there were students, teacher, a room, and perhaps some equipment. The very size of a lecture class, however, meant that it was different in fundamental ways. From the teacher’s point of view, it required more energy. I remember entering the big lecture hall ready to teach, and being very much aware of the fact that nothing would happen until I made it happen. Getting 150 young minds to turn from their pre-class activities–reading the Tar Heel, chatting, having a snack–and focus on the day’s work, and helping them connect what they had read as homework with what we had done in previous classes and with the day’s new material: all this required energy. Maintaining the focus, challenging those 150 minds, leading them to discover for themselves the very points you wanted them to discover, was hard work not only mentally but physically as well. Smaller classes might be versions of the same process, but with only twenty students in a casual setting it was easier to succeed.
The lecture began when the teacher entered the room, walked to the front of the class, and secured the attention of the students. Lectures might include narrative and story-telling, explanation of challenging passages in the assigned reading, analysis of the material, the presentation of supplementary materials, slides if the topic of the day required visual elements (as archaeology classes almost always did), and anything else the instructor could provide that would lead the students to a deeper understanding of the material, whether it was a Greek tragedy or the murder of Cicero. Every lecture would allow time for questions and answers, as well.
Murphey 111, the lecture hall, had a central aisle and an aisle on each side of the room. The size of the room, and the aisles, could be put to use by a teacher. In Book Three of the Aeneid, the great mythical hero, Aeneas, and his people have been exiled from their home, and they wander for seven years, seeking a new home and trying to determine where the gods want them to go. They are often confused and always uncertain. To illustrate the wandering and confusion, my colleague Kenneth Reckford used to walk here and there, up and down the aisles, looking confused and troubled as he lectured about the poem, Aeneas’ travails, and the meaning of Aeneas’ troubles. Students soon enough understood what Reckford was doing and, having figured it out for themselves, remembered it.
I adapted Kenneth’s technique when I taught Greek mythology. One of the twelve Olympian divinities was Hermes. He had a number of specific functions. Above all, he was the messenger of Zeus, taking messages and orders from Zeus on high Olympus to other gods and to mortals down below; he guided dead souls from the land of the living to the underworld; he brought the goddess Persephone back from Hades to the surface of the earth, thus effecting a change in seasons from winter to summer; he was the patron divinity of merchants and of thieves; and stylized statues of him, called herms, marked boundary lines between properties and separated farms from one another. The question thus is: how are these functions, and others, related to one another? Students quickly realized that the unifying element–and the god’s essence–is boundaries. Hermes both protects boundaries (as a herm) and crosses them (from Olympus to earth, or from earth to the underworld). But then the question becomes, why do we need a whole god, one twelfth of the Olympian pantheon, just to manage boundaries? Are boundaries all that important? To illustrate the power of boundaries, I would leave the low stage and, as I listed and discussed Hermes’ attributes, walk slowly up one of the aisles. In so doing, I violated the invisible boundary between teacher’s space (the stage) and student space (the seats and aisles). The students felt this violation. My presence in their space made them uncomfortable, and they would look around nervously, shift in their seats, and smile uncertainly. As in Kenneth’s class on the third book of the Aeneid, the very size of the lecture hall became the teacher’s ally and a pedagogical tool.
For the most part, though, teachers used MU 111 exactly as one would expect given the equipment in the room and what needed to be done. Some teachers used the lectern, putting their books and notes on it and speaking to the class from there. Others moved out from behind the lectern, walked back and forth (the stage was about thirty feet wide), or stood far forward, at the very edge of the stage. What you did depended on your style. The teacher could write important names, terms, and dates on the large blackboard, but had to be careful to write large so that the letters could be read at the back of the room, some fifty feet away. If slides were needed, the teacher could lower a screen that was roughly fifteen feet high and thirty feet across. The screen was wide enough that one could put two large images side by side for comparison. When the screen was down, however, it covered the blackboard, and it took some planning to manage both screen and board. Throughout our half-century, there was no audio equipment in the lecture hall other than loudspeakers and a microphone for the lecturer, and no internet access.
There were occasional problems. The microphone and speakers were erratic. Sometimes they did not work at all, and we teachers would simply have to speak very loud. As we have seen, the room was often cold in the winter. The slide projectors were, from about 1962 on, housed in a projection room at the back of the auditorium, and teachers were usually assigned one or more graduate students to help with sorting and projecting the slides. On one occasion, one of the assistants left the projection booth during a lecture and accidentally let the door close and lock behind her. This was trouble, for she had left the key inside the projection booth. The department office had no duplicate; someone would have to come from security to open the room. Said person was duly summoned, but in the meantime the instructor had to adjust on the spot, from a lecture with slides to a lecture with none. On the whole, however, the equipment was so minimal and so simple that problems were rare.
 Ullman, B.L., Charles Henderson, Jr., and Norman E. Henry, Latin for Americans, First Book (New York: Macmillan, 1962 [revision of 1941 edition]), pp. 270, 90, 392, and 21, respectively. We used this book in the 1960s. Through most of the decades from 1970 to 2000 the Department used Wheelock’s Latin grammar, which has sentences drawn from or based on specific Latin texts. They can seem just as peculiar.