Murmurs of a Dead Language:
An Ethnography of Latin 201

by Paul Lawson

Louise Wetherbee Phelps Award Winner--Lower Division

From the writer: The facility with which I wrote this essay, an assignment from  my Freshman writing studio, was due to my instructor's statement concerning  the guidelines for writing an ethnography. Having ricocheted throughout the  windowless neon-white box of learning, the words "This is your paper,"  reached the pinnae of my ears and reverberated in my brain, causing me to  cast a complacent smile at the linoleum tiles on the floor. My creativity  relatively unshackled, I wrote an ethnography, in which I sought to gain  insight about the process of acquiring a liberal education, through the  microcosmic view of my Latin class.

From the teacher: Paul's ethnography evolved from his previous WRT 105 project in  which he explored his understanding of collegiate literacy. When Paul selected his Latin class as the site of his ethnographic research, he hit academic gold. Reading his essay, I was initially impressed by the thick descriptive detail and the humorous exploration of an elite subculture. As Paul revised his ethnography, his preliminary preoccupation with individuals yielded to a stronger interest in the Latin class as a subculture whose cliques, tensions, values, hierarchy, traditions, rituals and discourse required intensive interrogation and analysis. While this essay fulfills the demands of the ethnographic study in WRT 105, it succeeds independently as an engaging essay about members of the Academy.

From the editors: Lawson's use of description and language not only provides readers with an interesting and detailed ethnography, but also helps to illustrate his points on human communication and understanding through language. Despite his lessons in communication, Lawson makes sure we realize the first step in achieving anything, is a willingness to learn.

To Whom It May Concern:
The identities of the individuals in this ethnography have been protected with the use of false names. I refer to each student in the class, as well as the professor, with the name of a Roman. Specifically, each name alludes to a character in Cicero's De Amicitia, and the name may be indicative of the person's standing in the class, attitude, or personality. For example Gaius Laelius (the name I gave the professor) is the name of a Roman who was surnamed Sapiens (Philosopher, Wise), the chief speaker in Cicero's Book.
Paul Lawson

"Senatu Populusque Romanus; Puella, puellae, puellae, puellam, puella; lex, legis, legi, legem, lege; cogito ergo sum, esse quam videre, veni vidi vici; tempis fugit." My eyes were making jejune attempts at focusing on a single pebble of the conglomerate highway as it whirred past their mulling gaze, and preoccupied by my concentration, they abstained from the seductive view of scenic countryside through the window on the passenger side of the car--I was jumbling through these scattered remnants of the Latin language as if I had just brought down a dust-covered box of them from my attic-mind, where I had haphazardly stored them for the summer. A few minutes earlier, while reading the Opening Weekend handbook with euphoric anticipation of my first day at college, I had realized that once I arrived at Syracuse I would have to take a placement exam for Latin. Immediately I began to review the basics, squinting my eyes to dim the piercing sunlight in which the car was submerged, and as I glanced down at the blurring asphalt I expected to be placed in an unchallenging Latin course due to my lack of preparation for the exam. I ended up in Latin 201, the course number for third semester Latin. The professor explained to me that we would study Cicero and Ovid as we concurrently acquired a more fluent understanding of the language. He did not seem boring to me for he talked about the language with a noticeable passion. I did not know what to expect, but I was eager to get into the class. So far so good, I thought. It turned out that Latin 201 would only have a few students. I prefer smaller classes over ones held in huge lecture halls, full of students and a professor with whom I would never speak. My initial judgment of the course was that it would be worthwhile for the advancement of my knowledge of the language, and that due to the small number of students in the class I should have no problem doing well in it.

However, I still held the convictions toward Latin classes that I carried with me in high school, the language-slacker thoughts. I thought about how I did not really gain much from my fourth and fifth years of Latin in high school because I slacked off, being the only student one level above the small body of students in my school that were pursuing an advanced Latin curriculum. I sat with my books in the back of a patchwork class of first through third year students, reading Caesar and getting my questions answered every two weeks when the teacher gave the lower levels a quiz or test; I did not have to do work. Then I began to wonder if Latin 201 would prove to be one of those classes where you can do well, yet gain very little. Taking the course was the only method I had for verifying what strengths and weaknesses a class of this type has.

In Huntington Beard Crouse, the door to room 200 opens. On my immediate left at my feet is a little standless podium, normally used by teachers when they are teaching on their feet, but here it makes a great doorstop. My eyes roam up the wall; the soft white is interrupted by blank industrial aluminum, a frame. It surrounds a cork bulletin board, a collage of brochures for everything from contact lenses to credit cards and enlistment in the Army Reserves. The Army slogan reads, "You've got brains, you've got ambition, you've got debt, apply now." I brush aside that option to look at a long blackboard lined with an aluminum chalk ledge on which new pieces of chalk are abundantly provided. At the start of the chalkboard on the left wall the right wall ends, and the class opens up. There is a window on the both the north and east walls, if you consider the doorway the southernmost tip of the room. You cannot open either window, but you can block out the sun with the horizontal venetian blinds that hang loosely over the heaters installed in front of each one. There are no desks in the room; instead loose chairs and a makeshift long table. The table consists of three small rectangular tables; two arranged parallel to each other, and the third perpendicular to the crack between the other two, and parallel to the blackboard. There are many more orphaned chairs than the five or six we occupy daily. I often enter the room to see the tables and chairs arranged in various other patterns than our customary rectangle, and I often have to put chairs up against the north wall so that we can get to our seats. The space between the backs of the chairs at the table and the wall, excluding the one in front of the blackboard is small enough that I can lean back until my back touches the wall and still hold the paperback book open in front of me. The books common in the class are Cicero's De Amicitia, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Latin: An Intensive Course, and various Latin/English dictionaries. Each of the students brings a notebook to write translations and notes in and a pencil or pen. I prefer a pencil; I always have to erase.

The class has a total of five members, two of whom are auditing the class. The students who are taking the course for credit are Gaius Fannius, Quintus Mucius, and myself. We are expected to be at the class every day and we are responsible for familiarizing ourselves with the information on tests, and translating in class what we read for homework. The two audits, Publius Scipio and Quintus M. Scaevola, come to the class as often as they possibly can, and each appear erratically. Scaevola, a graduate student studying English history, takes the class, I can only assume, to be able to read the Latin of medieval England and perhaps just for the sake of learning it. He shows up at least two of the four days that the class is scheduled, and usually is annoying. Scipio appears less frequently than Scaevola, but when he is in class he works diligently at understanding the language. As a philosophy graduate, he drops in bits of philosophy that pertain to those that are in the readings. He emits the light of a liberal education veteran; very stern and attentive. Fannius is a sophomore, taking the class in sequence of having completed the first Latin courses in his freshman year. Mucius and I are both freshmen; he took three years in high school, whereas I took five. I met him at our placement test, which was more like an interview. Professor Gaius Laelius went around the room and asked each of the few students in the room to tell him how many years of Latin they had taken in high school and to what extent they felt comfortable with the language. Mucius had studied it more in extensively in high school than everyone there, excluding me. I suppose this is how Laelius came to the conclusion that Mucius would do fine in 201, another reason was probably his desire to fill the class, or to have a sufficient complement of students to conduct it. It seems the knowledge that Laelius thought necessary for taking the class was a basic understanding of grammar, syntax, and a moderate vocabulary, which all of us who were taking the class indeed had proficiently mastered.

Fannius usually shows up for class first; he stands at the window on the north wall looking down on passing students, or sits at his chair reading the assignment we were to have ready for the day. I show up second or third, sometimes even fourth depending on the day, but whenever I do I can always look forward to the pre-class chat. It is as though the three of us that take the class for credit have formed an inner circle. We always talk about what homework we did, or did not do and how irksome Scaevola is or will be. Some days there are only three of us, other times four or five, but most often four; the three credit students and one of the audits. We talk until Laelius comes in, when a deafening silence fills the air, broken only by his mostly cheery "Salve. Quid agis?" My classmates and I hardly ever reply, most likely because we are reluctant to speak gibberish Latin, and risk being reprimanded for it.

After greeting us, Professor Laelius asks if we have any questions about what we have translated the night before. If there are any questions he never hesitates to explain them thoroughly, yet not exhaustively. He expects us to understand quickly, and we usually do, but many times Scipio or Scaevola will jump in at the last second and ask him if what they have is acceptable. When the professor is done answering questions, we begin to translate. Laelius requests that someone start, and then the class proceeds in translating, sentence by sentence clockwise around the table. First the student translating is to read the sentence aloud in Latin. A sentence may not seem like much, but with Latin a sentence can take up half of a page. The Romans used many clauses to make up one sentence, so in essence, a sentence in Latin is more like a paragraph or three of the four sentences in English.

It is not that easy to translate Latin literature, but the professor leads a comfortable class. I have never seen the professor become irate, or even annoyed when one of us cannot translate the work. If we do not have the translation ready, all we really have to do is rely on what we already know and try to make sense out of it. The effort is what I think Laelius is looking for in class. My favorite cry for help is, "I couldn't make sense out of this." I use this phrase whenever I truly cannot make sense of the translation, or if I did not manage to study the night before. When a problem arises during translation, Laelius offers a verbal explanation. And then, in response to the blank and puzzled faces of my classmates, he moves from his relaxed yet controlling position in his seat, and takes the one-and-a-half steps to the blackboard. Here he writes out the topic of the question and offers a brief addition to his initial explanation. Recently he stood up to explain a certain form to me and wrote with such zeal that he broke the fresh piece of chalk in half.

Laelius does not expect us to be pros at this, but if we say we cannot make sense out a sentence that is easy, he says, "This really wasn't that difficult." He urges us to "Let the Latin tell us", and often makes the point that, "to read Latin you have to paraphrase." At this remark, the student translating sighs in frustrated relief. The student continues translating, managing as well as he can to finish the sentence he began. This process continues until the end of class, which is followed by the Inner-Circle's post-class chat. The topics of this chat spring from reactions to the occurrences in the class that day. For example, during the last class before our second test, Laelius told us that we were to study chapters I, III, V, VII, and XXVI of Cicero's De Amicitia. Once the professor and the two audits left the class, my fellow credit students and I discussed the anticipated difficulty of the test and the fact that we had not been studying. I remarked, "We have no idea what will be on this test." Mucius attempted reassurance with, "there is one gimme, [paragraph] 103, or [paragraph] 104." And upon this remark, the three of us futilely discussed what we thought would be on the test, and then left, unable to make any concrete conclusions.

I do not believe that there are any true conflicts within the class, in that I do not often feel an air of resentment in the tone of voice of any of my classmates when speaking about another classmate. However, Fannius has a definite opinion of the two audits, Scaevola especially. He is greatly peeved by Scipio's showers of philosophy and the naive diligence with which Scaevola takes the class. Fannius is vexed because he studies the work at home, and when he comes to class he has to listen to two guys, who do not even take the tests, waste class time with their propensity to engage in intellectual repartee with the professor (he does not seem as interested in the philosophy and the surrounding history of the literature as much as he is in the translation that the teacher would accept). Each time Scaevola or Scipio asks a question, most of which display their ignorance, I can count on Fannius to roll his eyes and sigh deeply as he leans back in his chair with a look of disgust on his face. Another thing that Scaevola is known to do is make comments that either speed up the class, or cause us to do more work. He asks things like, "do you want us to go ahead?" or "what do you want us to have for next week?" I believe Scaevola says these things to keep some grip on the class, since he only shows up a few times a week; however, mentioning things like this simply serve to remind the professor of hitherto unassigned tasks. Fannius probably asks himself, "why should this audit dork set the pace for our class?" I understand his frustration, but I laugh now every time Scipio or Scaevola speak, as I wait for Fannius's reaction. Mucius seems less annoyed by the audits, for he does not have time to pay attention to them. He is too busy racing through his notes, or writing the accepted translation into his notebook as Laelius dictates it.

It is important to note that I do not only pay to the discourse among the Inner Circle, before and after class. I also observe the dialogue between the professor and the students. In doing so I have recognized that our class obeys certain rules that have never left the professor's mouth. Although there is a fixed structure of the class's proceedings, there does not seem to be any rules of discourse. All of the students respect Professor Laelius, and thus when he is speaking we are not. This may be due to the fact that a class with five students really does not have any opportunity to chat amongst themselves. Moreover, I think each of the students in the class is mature enough to realize that productivity in class is hindered by random discussions. The only time I have heard Laelius ask someone to be quiet, was a few weeks ago, when Fannius kept trying to translate past what the professor asked. Laelius wanted us to "read the Latin"; he was trying to make the point that what our English translation says is not as important as reading and understanding the Latin in Latin. This was the only scolding I have witnessed since the first day of class.

As long as we let the teacher have the floor when he speaks, he does not mind if we throw in comments and trivial questions on the side. At least one time during each class, my classmates and I must endure a corny joke or two from Laelius. He has a database of them in his head, but Fannius has told me that Laelius tells the same ones all the time (Fannius had Laelius last year). I once said, "That is damn poetic" when commenting on a passage of Ovid. Laelius simply said, "No, not damn poetic, just poetic." With this example one can see the comfort that exists in the discourse between professor and student in Latin 201. A similar phenomenon I have often observed in class is the constant humor toward women that we notice in the ambiguity of Latin text. For example: rastroque intacta…tellus, which means, "the earth untouched by a hole." Laelius made known the common idiom intacta puella; meaning literally untouched girl, or virgin. I think the fact that all of the members of the class are male writes with transparent ink a license to poke fun at the other sex, but it is all in jest. We are just grasping at the attitude that was held toward women in Roman times and admiring the poetic verse in which that attitude is often conveyed.

The intimacy of learning Laelius has with the students of the class allows him to thoroughly explain each question. I imagine that he enjoys teaching the five-student class, just as I enjoy taking it. There are evident benefits in this type of class for both the professor and the students. In his Latin 201 class Professor Laelius must feel as though he is reaching his students, more so than in his lower level classes, 101 and 102, each of which have an enrollment of at least 20 students. I often reflect on the frustration to which a professor teaching a hall of students must be subject. Any desire to teach a course thoroughly to students is halted exponentially by each student enrolled in it. The professor is forced to create a course structure that offers the necessary information for knowledge in the field of study, but due to great numbers he or she must generalize the course for the masses. Then the students take the class and are bored with the rigidity of the course structure and its lack of substance, which only yields disinterest. In Latin 201, and I would suspect any course held with a faction of only five students, the professor and the students are given more opportunity to delve into the subject, and work more productively which diminishes the likelihood of students to lose interest.

When listening to each of the members attempt to read the Latin, each has their own style of oration. Of all the students, Scaevola seems most eager to speak the Latin as a Roman would. He diligently sounds out each syllable, trying to roll each "r", and let the words flow forth from his mouth. His forehead is always tight and the look in his eyes seen through the thin wire frame of his spectacles is one of constipated determination. I think he tries too hard, but that is common of first and second-year students. Fannius and Mucius both read the Latin with an indifferent tone. They both seem more concerned with the translation than the language itself. When listening to either of them speak Latin (Mucius more so than Fannius), I sense an effortless attempt at gaining a fluent voice for speaking the language. I pondered this fact, and then looked to the two older audit students, both of whom exhibit a more studious attitude and are more diligent in reading the text. I compared the way the credit students (excluding myself) and the audit students pronounced the words and further observed the fluency of their reading. From what I have gathered it seems that there is some difference in the circumspect attitude toward the class between the audits and the credits.

Other than the effort difference between the inner-circle and the audits, the only key distinction that I observed was the difference in the divergent degrees of understanding that was held within the different groups. Although the credit students seem less motivated to speak Latin with fluent enunciation, they are definitely more attentive to the understanding of the text. The reason for this inverse proportion between credit students and audit students offers in itself a reflection on a common ritual of college students, here, the attempt to do well in a class. Surely no student desires to perform poorly in their studies, and in order to prevent this, students are willing to study the work they need to pass. That is to say, students often study the information they need to get a good grade more diligently than the other knowledge included in the course. Audit students, on the other hand, can pick up and set down the work at their leisure. Since they do not have to take tests, they can include themselves more with the aesthetic qualities of Latin and the philosophy involved in the selections of literature we read in class. Here I see the only aspect of the class one may call a conflict. For the Inner Circle, the tension of being able to translate aloud in class is dwarfed by that angst of striving for a good grade. The credit student must make the choice as to how much effort he puts into a class. He must decide whether to adhere to the norm and pass the class by memorizing the information on the tests, or make an honest attempt at advancing the knowledge he already attains.

Latin 201 requires only that its students attend the class, participate, and pass the tests. The tests are comprised of passages from the literature we read in class. A credit student can (as I have caught myself many times) easily pass tests simply by memorizing the translations of the literature, disregarding the actual thoughts, themes, and motives of its author. I do not believe that credit students are arrogantly disregarding these things, instead they seem preoccupied with receiving high marks. Perhaps they are paralyzed by the predominant concept that most college students have toward credit classes: as long as you pass the class, you get the credit, it does not really matter what you know. And it is this concept that allows those slacker-thoughts to resurface. The audit students can care more about what they know because they are taking the class for the sake of learning, not advancing to the next undergraduate status.

To recapitulate, this study offers insight into considering the acquisition of a collegiate education. From what I have observed, it is evident the size of the class, and the teaching style of the professor are indeed significant, if not crucial factors in the process of learning. The fact that there are only five students in a class benefits the students as well as the professor. Students have a more intimate relationship with their professor, allowing them to ask whatever questions they need to and receive thorough answers. Furthermore, the students have more opportunity to observe their progress. There are no posted grades, and they must perform the work during each class period. The professor can work with each of his students individually, and he is not forced to tighten his course structure by objectifying tests to be sure that the students are learning; he sees their progress, or lack thereof each day. In seeing their progress the professor can meticulously evaluate his teaching style, and change it to better suit the students. The result of the confluence of these factors is a class structure where learning can thrive. Nevertheless, the key determinant in electing to learn is the individual, regardless of the inviting class size. The students must decide for themselves if they want to graduate from their university with a true understanding of what they have learned, or just graduate.


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