In Praise of Mnemosyne in the Classroom

Virtually all of us teach Latin, Greek, or both to beginning students. We constantly encourage and press these students (indeed all our students) to work at retaining both meanings and morphology for each word, as knowledge of these is essential for understanding a word in a sentence context. And we evaluate and grade their ability to accomplish this, often through quizzes and tests.
But many of us are acutely aware of the limitations of pencil-and-paper assessment tools. Vocabulary quizzes test words often without context and often through translation, and passage translation testing (15% of the total on the current Latin AP exam) encourages many students to maximize their knowledge of an English translation of what they have read at the expense of their knowledge of the original text.
I think anyone who has taught Latin to high school students for several years is well aware of these problems, and indeed of others, like the suddenly high frustration and burnout rate for students of traditional programs in third-year Latin. As teachers, we all want to do our best for our students. But the temptation to teach what you know and how you were taught is very great. Some very good teachers of elementary Latin are content to teach in the same way, with the same materials, throughout their career. Other good teachers have moments of insight and revelation that engenders change.
A true story: I often think of a teacher whose workshop at an annual meeting I attended many years ago (this was in another part of the country). This teacher was offering strategies to make third year Latin a happier experience for all involved. But first she told this story on herself: she had fallen asleep in class as she was teaching the First Catilinarian. She knew she really had been asleep because her head was on the desk, and all her students were staring at her in mute fascination. She maintained that she was so bored (and boring) that she had put herself to sleep. And she was honest enough to say that this moment forced her to really think about what she loved about Classics, and how well she was sharing that love with students.
Personally, I’m a big believer in memorization and recitation of notable texts, both on the level of the “quotable quote” and on the much more extended level of a dramatic soliloquy, as a graded assessment on a par with a test. First, it’s a great way for students to practice and develop good, consistent pronunciation habits in a way different from reading a text aloud (i.e. no visual processing). Second, it encourages students to think about and understand Latin words in their actual order, as they come out in real time, in the context of a whole phrase or sentence. This is something they should be doing in any case, of course; but not many students do. Third it encourages students to think about which words in a sentence are emphasized and which words are not.
I wonder how many state JCL meetings include Latin recitation contests in their academic competitions. I expect the issue is objective judging. I agree with someone who would argue that it is not fair to penalize a student whose Latin sounds like (is phonetically indistinguishable from) English because that’s how their teacher reads aloud. But it’s not impossible to come up with a list of consistent pronunciation features that would be the basis for judging (e.g. correct word stress, articulation of double consonants, distinction between long and short vowels).
I feel so strongly about the value of memorization and recitation because of the difference it made in my own knowledge of Greek. As an undergraduate, I was involved in two full-scale productions of Greek tragedy in Greek, playing the Chorus Leader in Sophocles’ Ajax and the Chorus Leader and the Second Messenger in Antigone. This required memorizing hundreds of lines of Greek for unison recitation–essentially choral performance in the modern sense without a composed melody. After learning and performing these roles, I knew Greek in a completely different way: first, reading a Greek text aloud was no longer a challenge; what Bill VanPatten and others call my “mental representation” of Greek was vastly richer and more sophisticated. In effect, I subconsciously “knew” where a word was going through a combination of silent reading and recognition of word patterns. And second, I really had assimilated a great chunk of vocabulary.
I’d also like to add a word for memorizing a number of maxims, as well as notable literary quotes. Learning sayings is a great way to absorb aspects of a culture.
I was lucky to have a formidable guide to Russian aphorisms when I was studying Russian, one Catherine Wolkonsky, who co-authored a very useful if unsystematic Handbook of Russian Roots published in the early 1960’s.
I met her the second-to-last year she taught, in 1984, when she was 88. Although her short-term memory was rather a mess, it hardly mattered to me, as Yekaterina Aleksandrovna, as we called her, was a living link to the Tolstoy family (she had been secretary and companion to Aleksandra Tolstaya, Count Leo’s youngest daughter). Madame Wolkonsky’s two unassailable assets were 1) irrepressible charm and humor and 2) the “Old Petersburg” accent, the Russian upper-class way of speaking before the Revolution. She also taught me that many Russian aphorisms, which almost always rhyme, are rooted in the barnyard and folk tale: “Love is mean (or evil)–you can fall in love with a billy goat!” “Sorrow awaits–swing wide the gates!”
Of course, a Roman Madame Wolkonsky would be awfully hard to find. But in compensation we have perhaps 2200 years of Latin aphorisms to delight in.

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