Columns of Culture(s), Part I

salvēte iterum, amīcī. As promised, today we’ll begin a series of posts about “culture and Culture.”  We’ll

  • define the differences;
  • look at how “both things” have traditionally been taught, both in Latin courses and in the wider spectrum of foreign-language education
  • look at a sample Tres Columnae story through “cultural eyes”;
  • discuss ways that the Paideia and Trivium models enrich the teaching of “both things”; and
  • develop some exercises that both build and assess cultural knowledge, cultural skill, and cultural understanding.

First, though, let’s address this important question: Are “culture” and “Culture” really two different things?   What difference does the capitalization make?  But we won’t address the question of how a Roman would react to this distinction; they’d need two different words, since Latin orthography did not distinguish “capital” and “lowercase” letters until well after the Roman period.

Over at http://language-and-culture.neddanison.com/culture.html ,the author defines the difference this way:

Writers in cross-cultural studies often distinguish between two uses of the word culture as: 1) the total way of life of a group of people, and 2) a refinement or sophistication within a society. The first use has been called “little c culture,” and the second, “big C culture.”

Little c culture includes the routine aspects of life, such as how common people greet one another, what they wear, what they eat, and their myriad daily habits. This is what I mean by “culture.” Little c culture encompasses everything as a total way of life, so big C culture is necessarily part of little c culture. Big C culture is very often the refinement of little c activities. For instance, little c food becomes big C cuisine; little c meals become big C formal banquets and all of the etiquette and ritual that goes with them. Little c clothing becomes big C fashion. A cultured (big C) person knows the finer points of manners and customs, and can distinguish between the common and the refined.

In the U.S., the National Standards for Classical Language Learning and their model, the ACTFL National Standards for Foreign Language Learning, both emphasize culture (with and without the capitalization) as one of five major curricular strands. (The others, if you don’t know, are Communication, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.) Both sets of Standards distinguish three aspects of culture and Culture:

  • productsphysical items from literary texts and artwork to food, utensils, and other aspects of what archaeologists sometimes call “material culture”;
  • practices – the ways people act in a wide range of situations; and
  • perspectives – the underlying attitudes, ideas, and values that both influence and are influenced by the products and practices of a culture.

At Tres Columnae, we plan to incorporate the full spectrum of both big-C and little-c Roman culture (and, as we develop the program, post-Roman, Latin-speaking cultures) seamlessly into the stories, illustrations, audio, and video clips of the project, and we also plan to explore both big-C and little-c issues separately. How exactly will we do this? That’s the topic of this week’s posts.

First, though, we need to be clear about the ways that Classicists have approached both culture and Culture over the last several decades, and about how these approaches relate to the treatment of culture and Culture by language educators in general.  First, let’s look at  the wider world.  The authors of this site (who identify themselves as a group of professors, instructors, and graduate students in the field of language education at several well-known institutions) say:

  1. Grammar translation method (GTM) : The main goal of GTM is to learn how to understand foreign language literature. The focus is not on oral production but rather on perfect written translation and reading comprehension. It was the oldest and most common learning method used until the 1960s. The exposure students had to culture was very limited being that their main tool for learning it was through reading books.
  2. Audiolingual method (ALM) : This method, which was very popular in 1960s, focuses on gramatically correct speech. The teacher is the main stimulus/facilitator of language production. ALM was a breakthrough from the traditional Grammar Translation Method: speaking finally became more important than only reading and translating. The main exposure students had to the culture of the target language was through controlled interaction with native speakers in the classroom.
  3. Communicative approach : Language & culture are more naturally integrated in this approach. Culture instruction is connected to grammar instruction. Its main goal is to teach students how to use the target language when communicating in a cultural context.

They also note some other sadly-common forms of culture described by Alice Omaggio-Hadley in her book Teaching Language in Context like

  1. The Frankenstein Approach: A taco from here, a flamenco dancer from there, a gaucho from here, a bullfight from there.
  2. The 4-F Approach: Folk dances, festivals, fairs and food.
  3. The Tour Guide Approach: The identification of monuments, rivers and cities.
  4. The “By-the-Way” Approach: Sporadic lectures or bits of behavior selected indiscriminately to emphasize sharp differences.

Of course, if you know anything about the history of language education before the nineteenth century, you know that grammar-translation is not really “the oldest … learning method.” But it was the “most common learning method used until the 1960s,” and it is still a common method for teaching Latin, Greek, and other ancient languages. And it’s certainly the case, as these authors say, that “[t]he exposure students had to culture was very limited” with most grammar-translation textbooks.

In recent years and editions, the “old warhorses” of grammar-translation textbooks, quōs nōmināre nōlō, have certainly gained “culture lessons” or “culture essays” – complete with color photographs, illustrations, maps, and diagrams. But these “culture lessons” and “culture essays” are often completely unrelated to the content of the readings. For example, one of the “old warhorses” includes a lovely description of Roman housing in Chapter 1, where the reading selection (or “translation passage”) is about … the Trojan War.  How many Roman houses were involved in the Trojan War? 🙂

[Side question: what does it say about my beloved profession that so many high-school teachers refer to Latin reading passages in their textbooks – or for that matter, Latin reading passages in general – as “translations“?  That’s a topic for another day, I think.  But, seriously, what messages are implied in that seemingly-innocuous little term?]

No wonder so many language teachers over the years have resorted to “Culture Day” on Fridays! And no, I don’t mean the Japanese national holiday on November 3! 🙂 I’m sure these have run the spectrum from a thoughtful, carefully planned, continuing exposition to … “Frankenstein” or “By-the-Way” as described above.

By contrast, the Big Three reading-method textbooks do a much better job of connecting the “culture lesson” or “background essay” with the cultural elements implicit in the reading selections. For example, if the “background essay” is about travel, at least one character usually does some traveling; if the topic is chariot racing, characters go to a chariot race. It seems so logical – but when the Big Three were new, this was a revolutionary development!

In the mature versions of Tres Columnae, we plan to build on the success of existing integrated models like communicative teaching (in the wider profession of language teaching) and reading-method textbooks (in our own world of classical languages). But even in those cases, it’s possible for cultural learning to be shallow and superficial – to fall victim to David Perkins’ elementitis or aboutitis as I’ve described them in previous posts. So we aim to go deeper, to build not only knowledge of culture, but also skills of cultural interpretation and deeper inter-cultural understanding. How will we do this? You’ll have to tune in next time for some of the details … and to help with some critical decisions.

quid putātis, amīcī et sodālēs? What’s the proper role (or what are some proper roles) for cultural instruction in the Tres Columnae approach? How can we avoid the poor models of cultural instruction that have characterized our wider profession over the years, while still keeping the central focus on learning the language? Or is it really even possible to separate language from culture? And is there a via media or Third Alternative possible here?

Tune in next time, and for the rest of the week, for some preliminary answers.

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Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 8:20 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. Hi Justin, I think it is in culture issues that I have reached a pinnacle of laissez-faire (or nadir, as some might see it) in my teaching: I just follow whatever lead the students might set, and run with them in whatever cultural exploration they want to embark on. Sometimes, if it is a topic I already know well, I can give them really excellent guidance and suggestions for online resources without doing any research at all… so that’s great; they can rely on my confidence as they being their own explorations as beginners. Yet I am also delighted, really delighted, when they propose a topic that is virtually new to me (this happens frequently in my Myth-Folklore class), so that I quickly do a lot of preliminary research, identify some really promising resources online, and learn side by side together with the students. Admittedly, my current classes are not a language class – but I cannot imagine that I would approach anything different in a Latin class – I would come up with a HUGE list of possible topics for cultural projects (all the kinds of topics you have nodded at here – for my Myth-Folklore class, here is the starting list of topics I offer, for example: LINK), and then encourage students to think BEYOND the list… and then help the students to follow their passion, wherever it might lead, accumulating a giant archive of student projects online to provide yet more inspiration to future students.

    I’ve reached this point of pure process and no content after realizing that my own learning life has no cultural center: I am voracious and omnivorous in my cultural consumption, with no sense of center or core. Most people would probably consider the things I study to be marginal – well, since I don’t acknowledge a center, I wouldn’t agree that my fables and proverbs are marginal at all, of course, ha ha. I spent three years collecting every known reference to weasels in Greek and Roman culture – that might seem narrow, but through the vantage point of weasels, I learned the most amazing range of things about the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Having weasels as an organizing principle led me to all kinds of happy discoveries!

    I know that a lot of people are very committed to core standards, cultural literacy, etc…. but for my own teaching, I’ve gone in the completely opposite and never regretted it for a minute. The students learn, I learn… and the “aimlessness” of that learning is something I have no quarrel with. We always end up getting SOMEWHERE even if we are making up the itinerary as we go along. 🙂

    • Hi again Laura,
      I think you’ll enjoy where Tres Columnae will be going with cultural issues … it’s very similar in some ways to your laissez-faire approach! 🙂 In essence (and without giving away too much of Thursday and Friday’s posts), we’ll provide a whole bunch of interesting jumping-off points in the stories and encourage our learners to explore the ones that seem interesting to them … with a view to sharing the results of their explorations with the whole community. In fairness to those learners who want or are required to study “core elements of culture,” we’ll make it clear what those are typically defined to be; for example, if you want or “have” to take the National Latin Exam during Cursus Primus, we’ll provide you with a link to their syllabus of cultural topics. But I tend to agree with you: any topic, from weasels to water-supply systems, pursued with passion, can lead to amazing discoveries and connections with all sorts of unlikely aspects of the ancient (and modern) world. 🙂

  2. I have been reading (and re-reading) this blog since the beginning of the year and I am fascinated by its content. Justin, I’ve appreciated your work since I saw your present at an AP Conference in Orlando (I believe?) and find myself on the same page with so many of the ideas you posit here. A much respected colleague (former student) of mine criticized me for not commenting on the blogs that I follow because I was “sucking the marrow from them” (his words) without enriching the discussion. Therefore, here I am.

    Vis-a-vis culture, I espouse the notion that language is as much a cultural artifact as any material culture might be. In learning Latin that is offered in textbooks, however, we aspire to Cultural understanding that the elite or privileged members of Roman society enjoyed. Although I often use various forms of epigraphy (especially from the CIL), we compare these with the presentation of the stories in the text I use. We often ask ourselves, “How/why is the language of this graffito different from the language employed in the text?”

    I would really enjoy understanding how the Latin language reveals the Roman identity in its vocabulary, syntax, narratives, inter alia.

    Any ideas?

    • Randy,
      It’s great to hear from you! Yes, I remember you from that session at APAC in Orlando in … 2006, I think? Thanks for joining the conversation and not just “sucking the marrow!”

      I agree with you that language is a cultural expression, and that textbook Latin tends to be Cultural. I love the idea of exploring how Roman Latin reveals the Roman identity, and how post-Roman Latin reveals the very different cultural identities of the people who produced it. I don’t have any firm ideas, except that we should probably begin by looking at places where Latin is most “unusual” in its vocabulary, morphology, syntax, etc. More on that later! Actually, I may have a lot to say about this issue next week, when the focus will be on Connections and Comparisons.


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