Variations on a Theme: An Experiment in Latin Prose Composition

Jeffrey S. Beneker

University of Wisconsin, Madison

In this paper I will describe a technique for incorporating prose composition into a college-level, first-year Latin course.  The technique involves assignments that allow each student to create an original composition over the course of a semester or a year.  The exercise is designed to encourage the students to engage directly with the complexities of Latin grammar in an individual way while at the same time developing an appreciation for Latin expressions and, as much as possible, a Latin "way of thinking."  I will describe the assignments in detail and also my experience in using this exercise in the classroom.  In setting out its pros and cons, I hope to open up a discussion that will improve the exercise and perhaps encourage others to try it with their students.

As originally conceived, the exercise is based on Wheelock's Latin.  It consists of several assignments that require students to write an original composition in English, translate it into Latin, and then rework the Latin text iteratively, making it more complex as their knowledge of Latin vocabulary, forms, and syntax grows.  For the first assignment, the students are given a list of English words based on their textbook's Latin vocabulary and a set of requirements for their original composition; for example, a minimum number of sentences, restrictions on the forms of verbs, etc.  In grading the assignment, my most frequent comments involve encouraging the students to simply their English expressions.  The second step, which requires that the compositions be rendered into Latin, is the most difficult.  Success at this stage depends on the students being prepared for composition by frequently working through exercises in the classroom.  Subsequent assignments have the students make corrections to their original translations while expanding them by the use of new verb tenses and noun cases, more prepositional phrases, and especially subordinate clauses.

As compared with the translation into Latin of the short, individual sentences offered by Wheelock, there are two important advantages to this technique.  First, by working repeatedly on the same passage, the students better understand their early missteps and are in a better position to comprehend and internalize the corrections I suggest.  As their knowledge of Latin improves, the quality and not just the complexity of their compositions also increases.  In correcting the sentences from Wheelock, I find that many students repeat the same mistakes and so, I assume, are seldom studying the comments I write on their homework.  Second, by working on an original composition and, again, doing so repeatedly, many students develop a sense of ownership of their passages and see the iterative assignments as a challenge.  Thus they are encouraged to apply themselves and can easily judge their success or failure.

There are two major drawbacks to this exercise in its current design.  One is the amount of work involved for the instructor, who must grade many original compositions.  Because of the restrictions on vocabulary and the guiding influence of Wheelock's reading exercises, most of the compositions reflect a general similarity.  Still they are each unique in some way, and the best ones are typically quite a bit different from the rest of the pack and can require a lot of attention.  The second drawback is the hurdle imposed by the daunting second assignment.  Despite assurances that the first attempt at writing in Latin would be difficult and the results imperfect, some students were overwhelmed by the task and discouraged.  I have ideas for a remedy, but I am especially interested in discussing this aspect of the exercise with the panel and audience.


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