In Fall 2004, I found myself in front of an assortment of third-semester Latin students at Baylor University, none of whom I had laid eyes on before. Although those who had taken the first two semesters at Baylor had all used Wheelock’s Latin, our introductory classes comprise hundreds of students and about a dozen faculty, with disparate teaching styles. Some of the students were fresh out of high school. All had very different ideas about what reading Latin actually involved.
I believed I had a pretty clear idea of what reading Latin involved: to translate with complete accuracy and understanding, which means being able to identify the form and syntax of every word in every sentence. The key to accomplishing this feat lies in clarity of expectation and endless repetition (i.e., making them do it from week one and never letting up). But how could I convey exactly what I expected? And—more challenging still—how could I make it easier and even, occasionally, a little bit fun?
Thus was born Latina Ursorum: A Guide to Latin at Baylor University.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. During my three lustra of teaching at Harvard, the University of Texas at Arlington, and Baylor, like most Latin teachers, I had amassed a great quantity of quizzes, tests, explanatory handouts, worksheets, mnemonic jingles, and other goodies. But I had never attempted to pull them together into a systematic overview of the whole language. Part of my motivation, I confess, was to give legitimacy to some of the syntax Wheelock neglects; I get tired of trying to convince my upper-level students that potential subjunctives and subject noun clauses are not figments of my imagination. The main goal, however, was to give motivated students a comprehensive outline of the grammar that textbooks necessarily dole out piecemeal.
To make more palatable the bitter draught of syntactical rigor, as Lucretius and Julie Andrews have reminded us, a spoonful of sugar is a must. I had often counseled my students to make up silly songs or rhymes to help them memorize things—be honest, don’t you hear the Alphabet Song sometimes when you open a dictionary?—but I had never gone out of my way to do the composing for them. Yet once the idea of rendering Latin morphology and syntax in song was hatched, it became a Quest. Insomnia is an amazing thing. My fevered brain could not rest until it had fitted third-declension endings to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” past contrafactual conditionals to “On Top of Old Smokey” (= “On Top of Spaghetti”). If I leave behind no other monument, I can hope that choruses of “Hic Haec Hoc” to the tune of “Jingle Bells” will be sung throughout the ages in barbarian lands.
So did it work? The answer is, I think, a resounding “sort of.” Students who are not used to having to identify forms bristle when expected to do so. Sometimes the hardest part is simply getting them to use the thing. (This is a problem, alas, with textbooks, too; despite repeated prompting, many will never even find, let alone use, the Optional Exercises with Answers in Wheelock.) Some just don’t like to sing (though most will smile, if only in derision, when I do). But all of them, if nothing else, now know what “identify” means, what the range of possibilities is, and where to turn for a quick fix on a mystifying concept. Perhaps the students of the future will put that knowledge to even better use. One of the nicest things about teaching is that every year brings new hope.
Associate Professor of Classics
Director, Baylor University Latin Program
Latina Ursorum: A Guide to Latin at Baylor University