A Letter from Latin Summer Camp

Collegis peramantibus Linguae Latinae Stephanus SPD!

I hope that you are returning to your academic responsibilities well rested and refreshed, in part from some time given to mental and physical recreation during the summer. I have two things to report on myself along these lines: 1) I retired and 2) I attended the Conventiculum Bostoniense (CB) in Salem (MA) for the first time.

As regards #1, I became eligible for the Maine Public Employees Retirement System this July through my work as a public school teacher decades ago. I’m only a little more than vested in the system, and can say it’s a heckuva good thing this pension isn’t a major part of my retirement planning.

But this additamentum nummorum will make the Conventiculum Bostoniense more affordable for me, which is good news. This summer gathering is a rollicking good time and just a boon for one’s Latin—even for senes like me.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, a conventiculum or conventus is a Latin immersion experience at which experienced Latin speakers share their ideas. Conventūs are more like conferences of professional organizations, whereas conventicula have more characteristics of a workshop. Also, conventicula are, generally speaking, an American species (although the Conventiculum Viterbiense took place in Italy this summer). Also, conventicula in my experience include a formal agreement/pledge/oath to use only Latin for the duration of the program. Beyond this I think it’s hard to generalize: conventional classroom experiences, lectures, model classes, excursions, group singing and skits and other dramatic performances can and do all figure in the mix.

I hardly consider myself a conventiculum connoisseur, but I have attended five summer conventicula, run by Terence Tunberg and Milena Minkova, at Dickinson College and also one meeting of LVPA (Latinitati Vivae Provehendae Associatio) in Poznan, Poland, in 2014, prior to this summer. What distinguished the Conventiculum Bostoniense in my experience was the number of instructors and assistants, the quality of their spoken Latin, and their diverse interests. This year, for perhaps 40 attendees, there were four instructors (all faculty at U Mass Boston) and five assistant instructors, themselves quite an international group, which makes for an instructional ratio of 1:4-5. The spoken Latinity of these instructors and assistants ranges from good to the equal of any I have heard anywhere in the world.

Let me outline my criteria for describing someone’s skill at speaking ex tempore Latin. What I am interested in is having the experience of comprehending Latin without recourse to translating it. Because of the way I was trained (and I do not intend any criticism of my mentors here), unless the Latin speaker is quite fluent, I cannot have this experience—the translation “switch” will not stay off in my head. So, to me, fluency is of prime importance, followed by lexical accuracy (recognizing that one might find oneself listening to a specialist in Classical, Christian, or Neo-Latin), followed by grammatical accuracy. I notice grammatical mistakes (it’s what I was trained to do) but try very hard to to focus on them. Speaking Latin is hard work for the majority of us.

In these terms there are several Latin speakers on the Conventiculum Bostoniense faculty who are truly astonishing for their fluency. For the first time in my life, I had the experience of listening to Latin for twenty or thirty minutes without the appearance of a single thought in English popping up in my head.

Others may have other, equally valid criteria.

What of high school teachers and college instructors who are first-time speakers? There were a number attending this summer, and (to judge from the group debriefing at the end of the program) the experience was rewarding but tiring, stressful, and led to real frustration for some.

The underlying reasons for the frustrations that many Latin teachers experience in these immersion workshops is worth a separate blog post. In general, it is important, I think, for an immersion program to provide a support system or safety net for participants who are feeling stressed. The Conventiculum Bostoniense does do this, although I can’t report on how well it works. Certainly the faculty is aware of the problem.

But—and let me emphasize this—the Conventiculum Bostoniense is not an intellectual boot camp. In fact a great strength of the program is its overall sense of play—of true recreation. Some instructional sessions are peripatetic, using the environment or the group to generate examples to focus on. We reviewed ablatives absolute and double datives in this way (both constructions that are incredibly useful when speaking Latin and which many speakers neglect). Scavenger hunts (one in downtown Salem, the other at the excellent Peabody/Essex Museum) are a wonderful way to take your mind off of how you’re saying something and to focus on what you want to communicate. Time for physical recreation (playing kickball or basketball, doing yoga) is planned into the instructional day. Singing (in both formal, instructional settings and informal ones) figures prominently among the activities. And board game playing in the evening is a way to encourage group socializing.

The range of interests of the Conventiculum Bostoniense teaching staff deeply enriches the program. We were offered sessions on ancient music, paleography, the work of the Mexican Neo-Latin poet Francisco Cabrera, and the uses of a well-designed web site for Latin teaching, in addition to the for-credit courses that comprise the academic “meat” of the program. I found this Smörgåsbord approach both stimulating and appealing. I should mention that all attendees enroll in a graduate-level course, either in active learning methodologies or in a literature topic. Inexperienced speakers take the methodologies course. Those who have attended both courses in prior years, who are over 60, or who are college faculty have an audit option at a reduced fee. I believe that this mandatory enrollment in a course is unique among American conventicula.

I most certainly plan to go again, more physically fit and with more pairs of comfortable shoes. Curate ut valeatis!

About Stephen Farrand

I've been teaching Latin to high school students, on and off, for 30 years. I've worked in both private and public schools in 4 states. I hope to finish my career with my current job at Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki, where I work part-time. I have been a proponent of oral Latin in the classroom for a long time: I remember sitting at a Mensa Latina at CANE with Alan Dobsevage in about 1989, and I shocked my fiancee by speaking Latin to my uncle (a Jesuit) at a family gathering in 1990. I've also worked hard to learn Russian, so I speak a modern language with a case system like Latin's and flexible word order.