What follows was originally part of my first post of the day, then the second. Apparently I have a lot to say today! 🙂
Part of my reluctance to make a “Tres Columnae” textbook comes from a suspicion of the “textbook” genre, and of other secondary-source collections of knowledge … like encyclopedias. Remember those? I realize that this suspicion comes partly from the zeitgeist of the Web 2.0 world. Yet I was born and grew up in the late Industrial Age, when secondary sources reigned supreme, and for nine years I taught in a very Industrial-Age school – it even had carpentry, upholstery, and auto-shop classes when I started there, though they’ve since disappeared as that school tried, quite successfully, to become more “academic.” (I’m now at a rather post-industrial school, but that’s a story for another day!)
Ironically, though, a lot more deep, authentic learning went on in those shop classes than in many of the “academic” classes! I loved those shop teachers as colleagues and as personal friends, and we said the same things about learning, about our students, and about the purposes of education. (Longtime readers of the Latinteach listserv may recall the comments of DDFarms in this context.)
One of our biggest areas of agreement was that our students were “part of the family” or “part of a community” rather than “meat in the seat” (to borrow an ugly phrase from another former colleague). Maybe it was that our students came back to us, year after year, while the “academic” teachers sent their students on to others. But we also had a greater purpose beyond “covering the curriculum.” The auto-shop students worked on students’ and teachers’ cars; the carpentry class built bookshelves and display cases; the upholstery class repaired furniture for the whole community; and my Latin students eagerly taught their parents, friends, and siblings. Scholars might say that the Industrial Age zeitgeist was marked by alienation and disconnection, but these uber-Industrial-Age teachers focused on craftsmanship and community.
One important motivation for “Tres Columnae” was to build such a community, but on a larger scale. In fact, a sense of family and community is so critical to ‘Tres Columnae” that our metastory, as currently conceived, revolves around two or three Roman families in community. (I’m not using the term “metastory” in quite the way that it’s used by postmodernist or post-structuralist literary critics. For our purposes, it’s the underlying framework or narrative world in which smaller, individual stories and characters will be set.) Of course it’s important to remember that Roman definitions of familia, for example, are very different from the American idea of family, and urbs or cīvitās connoted something rather different for a Roman from what community represents to us. The “Roman zeitgeist,” if there was such a thing, was very different from ours, if there is such a thing. More on my suspicion of such abstractions in a bit.
I’ve worked with family-based reading-method Latin textbooks for 18 years, so I find the structure congenial. But the “big three” reading-method textbooks (quōs nōmināre nōlō) aren’t as satisfying to me as they were 18 years ago, and they’re not very satisfying to my current students. From my perspective, I’m troubled by the absence of strong female characters, the almost-exclusive focus on wealthy Roman men, and the lack of deep character development, as well as pedagogical issues I’ve discussed previously. Perhaps the “big three” just betray their roots in a time (the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) and place (the British Isles) that is alien to my students’ experience. In other words, maybe the zeitgeist of the textbook authors’ world is different from my students’ zeitgeist. Or maybe I’m just enamored of the word zeitgeist today! 🙂 It is fun to say and type…. zeitgeist! zeitgeist! zeitgeist! 🙂
But for many of my students, the problem is that these textbooks are textbooks. For them, textbooks are cold, sterile, dead, and un-engaging. As I reflect on this, I realize that textbook are a product of the Enlightenment – and its zeitgeist – while my students come from a post-Enlightenment world. Both Phyllis Tickle and Parker Palmer talk about how the Enlightenment conceived of an “object” or “field” of study, which is totally separate from (and unaffected by) the “experts” who study it. (By contrast, Palmer talks about a “subject” of study in the center of a community of learners!) Having derived the “principles” or “underlying meaning” from the “object,” the Enlightenment “expert” codifies these in a “systematic” way and “delivers” them, through a one-way means of transmission, to a non-“expert” audience that cannot relate to the “object” or “field” directly. It even sounds sterile and dead!
And of course it’s also wrong! Physicists now know that you can’t study an “object” without affecting it! In the 18th century, though, this view of knowledge was a huge advance. It still made sense in the 19th century, and even in the mid-to-late 20th. But in today’s world where raw knowledge is freely available on the Internet, where anyone can look at scans and photos of the Herculaneum papyri, do we really need an “expert” to “present” knowledge? Instead of helping and informing, the “expert” now seems like an arrogant intruder who blocks the learner’s view.
Now, I’m not sure how consciously my students resent their textbooks, but I know they resent “expert” teachers who don’t create their own content. I’ve talked with several students who got pretty angry because they “found the website where Mr./Ms. Such-and-So gets his/her PowerPoints!” Or they “read along in the Cliffs/Spark Notes with Mr./Ms. Such-and-So’s lecture!” (I would be angry, too!) Of course, for a busy teacher who needs to be the “source of information” (that Enlightenment zeitgeist again!), a pre-made “source” for presentations or lectures would feel like a godsend! But my students feel betrayed – especially if the teacher gets on the warpath about students’ plagiarism!
My students, and potential “Tres Columnae” participants, are content creators themselves. If you doubt that, just look around on Facebook or MySpace. So they expect their teachers to create content, too, and they want – and need – to create content when they are learning. Hence the collaborative, content-creating focus of “Tres Columnae.”
Dear readers, am I just tired, negative, and rambling at the start of a long-delayed winter break? Or am I onto something here?