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Yesterday, I asked
How, then, do we create a Metastory that appeals to all these different types of learners, that “says” Joyful Learning Community? What periods of Roman history would work best, and what part – or parts – of the Roman world? Can “Tres Columnae” be accessible for teachers and learners who use it as a supplement to an existing textbook?
There are obviously many possible solutions, and I seriously considered three. One was set in “the world of mythology” (specifically, in a rather Vergilian Troy and post-Trojan adventures). It has some obvious advantages: lots of attractive built-in characters, a natural connection to many texts beyond the “big three,” and an endless supply of interesting stories and interactions. But it’s culturally complicated: how much is “really” Trojan, how much is Greek, and how much is Roman? To what extent should the characters reflect the rather different values of each of these cultures? And how could we avoid offending lots of people by including Greco-Roman gods as characters? Another concern for me was it could be hard for teenagers to find themselves in such a Metastory – unless they happen to be a Greco-Roman deity themselves, of course! 🙂
Yes, I know that teenagers should be able to find themselves in universal archetypes, and to be fair, my brightest, most committed students do. For them, reading and interacting with Vergil’s characters is a continuing joy. But “Tres Columnae” is not just for the brightest, most committed students; by its nature, it’s open to everyone who might be interested in learning Latin in a Joyful Learning Community. And a lot of those potential participants can’t immediately see the relevance of such outsized characters to their own lives. We could debate endlessly about why this has happened or whether it should be true, but the fact remains – other than hardcore gamers, who do appreciate epic-scale characters, a lot of teenagers today will find epic characters an acquired taste. One goal of “Tres Columnae” is actually to help its participants acquire a taste for such characters and situations, just as parents try to help their young children acquire a taste for all kinds of healthy food. But just like that wise parent, we’ll introduce the new tastes gradually, in small doses, over time. Still, we might return to the idea of an epic Metastory if “Tres Columnae” comes to support multiple versions, Metastories, or multiple entry points, over time.
Another very attractive Metastory possibility involved late-Republican to early Augustan Rome and featured some major historical figures as peripheral characters. (One familia would be that of a fictional scribe to whom Caesar dictates portions of both the Gallic and Civil Wars.) If the technology for online collaborative writing had been around in 1995, I probably would have selected this one. Regardless of their politics (and remember, I live and work in a military community, so there are some interesting political variations among my students!), my students in those days identified with a hopefulness they saw in late-Republican and Augustan Rome. As an illustration, they generally loved Catullus for his passion, loved Ovid for the stories, were a bit puzzled by Vergil, and didn’t “get” Martial. Of course, I was also a bit younger then myself, and the optimism of early Clinton-era America resonated strongly with me. But it doesn’t really resonate with my students today – they’re not exactly jaded, but they’re more cynical about the possibility of change than their counterparts 15 years ago. On the whole, they dismiss Catullus as “too emo,” love Ovid for his satirical take on myths, enjoy the “dark side” of Vergil, and definitely “get” Martial. Given this potential audience, a Silver Age Metastory feels right for me, at least for the first version of “Tres Columnae.”
And so I think the initial “Tres Columnae” Metastory will be set in the late first century A.D. We’ll begin in Herculaneum before its destruction, extend to frontier provinces like Germania, Iudaea, Phrygia, and Bithynia, and culminate in Rome shortly after Domitian’s “triumph” over the Germans. It’s a fascinating time, with fascinating parallels to the issues that vex the U.S. and other “first-world” countries today: Romanization, governmental corruption, structural changes in society, natural disasters, the limits of religious tolerance, ethnic conflict, a sense that “the best days are behind us” – you name it, late-first-century Rome seems to have it! And so “Tres Columnae” participants will have a safe space to consider the issues of our own day as they talk about them through the lens of the Romans. Of course, such a setting also correlates nicely with the settings of two of the “big three” reading-method textbooks (quōs nōmināre nōlō) and with some of the content of the third.
More about the details of characters and settings later. For now, I want to leave you with some critical questions. First, for you teachers, is my sense of “Silver Age” students a quirk of my circumstances, or do you also find that your students are sophisticated, but somewhat jaded and world-weary? For potential participants, do you “see yourselves” in this description, or have I misread and misinterpreted you? For everyone, do you think a Silver Age Metastory is right, or would you prefer one of the others?
Tune in next time for more details about the Silver Age Metastory … and the others if there’s a call for them.