Musings about Metastories

gratias maximas omnibus lectoribus et scriptoribus! Words can’t express how much I appreciate your comments, whether you submit them by email or on the blog itself. Please keep them coming!

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.

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Published in: on December 22, 2009 at 9:48 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. True confession, Justin – I’m one of those Latin folks with little/no interest in classical Rome. I know that puts me in what is probably a minority (although I do know from my own experience that there are not a few students who are as ambivalent about history as I am, or even more so…) – so would you be willing to entertain sometihng a bit more wild, that could INCLUDE the Silver Age, but also other ages….? I’ve found that my students are fascinated by reincarnation, and are very curious to discover the passage about Pythagoras in Ovid about Pythagoras and his many lives: would you be willing to consider a frametale that involves a reincarnated hero and heroine who can appear in different times and places? Just speaking for myself, I would find the Silver Age very limiting… but maybe a reincarnation twist would allow you to open up the field to those of us who think a bit more wildly, as well as giving a solid Silver Age ground for people who do prefer to operate in strictly classical limits…? Anyway, here’s the passage from Ovid with Pythagoras and his lives: I find it so tantalizing! If Ovid can have Pythagoras claiming that he played a part in the Trojan War – maybe reincarnation could broaden out your metastory so that you are not locked in to just a single time…?

    morte carent animae semperque priore relicta
    sede novis domibus vivunt habitantque receptae:
    ipse ego (nam memini) Troiani tempore belli
    Panthoides Euphorbus eram, cui pectore quondam
    haesit in adverso gravis hasta minoris Atridae;
    cognovi clipeum, laevae gestamina nostrae,
    nuper Abanteis templo Iunonis in Argis!
    omnia mutantur, nihil interit: errat et illinc
    huc venit, hinc illuc, et quoslibet occupat artus
    spiritus eque feris humana in corpora transit
    inque feras noster, nec tempore deperit ullo,
    utque novis facilis signatur cera figuris
    nec manet ut fuerat nec formam servat eandem,
    sed tamen ipsa eadem est, animam sic semper eandem
    esse, sed in varias doceo migrare figuras.

    Tony Kline’s translation: Souls are free from death, and always, when they have left their previous being, they live in new dwelling-places, and inhabit what received them. I myself (for I remember) was Euphorbus, son of Panthoüs, at the time of the Trojan War, in whose chest was pinned the heavy spear of the lesser Atrides, Menelaüs. I recognised the shield I used to carry on my left arm, recently, in the temple of Juno at Argos, city of Abas! Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms.

    • Laura,
      Thanks for a very interesting perspective! I think, in the end, it’s up to the community of “Tres Columnae” participants. If they want some magical realism (which might include time-traveling characters as well as reincarnated ones), I think that would be great! I don’t personally “do” online collaborative fiction sites, but a lot of my students do, and I’ve gathered that they do sometimes develop new characters. How important those characters are in the overall plot is, of course, up to the community of creators. So I certainly wouldn’t rule out some time-shifting if the community would like to have it. Of course, there could also be dreams, visions, memories, and such as a way to include other ages…. 🙂

  2. Just wanted to say, love what you’re doing here and will be eagerly reading along and chiming in with any thoughts I might have.

    • Seumas,
      Gratias maximas tibi! I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts any time!


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