Columns of Culture(s), Part IV

salvēte iterum, amīcī et sodālēs … et inimīcī iam haec verba legentēs! Welcome back, all of you. Today we continue with our series of posts about culture and Culture, with more of an emphasis on the present and the future. We’ll also begin to explore the ways that culture and Culture relate to the Tres Columnae system. If you’re wondering why I’ve titled this series Columns of Culture(s), though, you’ll have to wait till tomorrow to find out. 🙂

First, though, a point of clarification in response to a recent comment by our faithful reader Laura G. She reminds us all that Latin and Classics are not synonymous. They’re certainly overlapping fields, but there’s a lot of non-Classical Latin to read (and hear, and write, and speak, and …), and there are lots of non-Latin elements to Classics (Greek, of course, and Sanskrit and Biblical Hebrew and archaeology and papyrology and epigraphy and …). As she said,

My biggest gripe with all of this is the equation of Latin studies WITH Classics – which is not an equation that matches my own encounter with Latin, and not an equation that matches the role of Latin in Catholic education, the importance of Latin in the history of music and art, and also the history of science, too, etc.

The Tres Columnae system is a “big tent,” and it can accommodate these other elements, too.  But why is it so hard for us Classicists to acknowledge the non-Classical uses of Latin?

If you love something – and Classicists do often love Latin – I guess it’s natural to assume that everyone else who loves it, loves it just the way you do. Thanks to Laura for reminding us all that different lovers love differently! 🙂

Now back to our focus on the present and future of culture and Culture, as related to Latin and Classics. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a growing sense that the early twenty-first century is a very different time, that there’s been a shift from a modern, Enlightenment-based, rationalist worldview to a post-modern, post-Enlightenment, post-rationalist understanding. In fields from religion to business, new organizational forms emerge to reflect the new worldview. Our own culture and Culture are changing rapidly, so it only makes sense that we would reevaluate how we study the culture and Culture of other societies.

In our first post yesterday, I mentioned Jeff Howe’s book Crowdsourcing. While he traces the recent past as part of his argument, Howe is ultimately focused on the present and the future, of which he paints a rather bright picture … at least for industries that embrace “the power of the crowd,” or move “from the firm to the crowd” as an organizing principle.

For Howe, and for a lot of other writers about the changes in business, “the firm” – a hierarchical organization that keeps information under tight control and builds factories – is a relic of the Industrial Revolution. He says you obviously still need factories for things like steel, but you don’t need them for information, for entertainment, or for other areas where “the crowd” can come together and build things in a collaborative, interdependent way. Of course, with the Tres Columnae project, we’re trying to add education to the list of fields where “the crowd” or “the amateur” does a better job than “the firm” or “the professionals.”

As I mentioned yesterday, Howe traces the development of professionalism to its nineteenth-century roots. But he also notes that, on the undergraduate level and below, education today is still more about generalization than specialization. Specialists in one area often have deep interests, even passions, in other areas: that’s why there are so many people with the knowledge, the passion, and the free time to participate in projects like Wikipedia or iStockphoto or InnoCentive or the other “crowdsourcing” organizations he describes in the book.

Until recently, Howe notes, these interests and passions had to be expressed in private hobbies.  But now people can pursue their passions in “crowds” or (as Seth Godin calls them) “tribes” or (as we call them) Joyful Learning Communities.

Given the ugly history and the current realities we’ve discussed, it’s completely understandable that “the firm” and “the professionals” of Latin and Classics have pushed culture and Culture to the margins of “serious” Latin instruction. And of course there are other good reasons for us professionals to de-emphasize culture and Culture. It’s difficult to come up with simple, satisfactory answers to questions like these in a time-scarce, production-line environment like a factory-model school:

  • What time period – or periods – should be emphasized?
  • How can we know enough about culture and Culture, anyway, since the people are all dead?
  • How much detail should we include, and about what topics?
  • How can we train teachers to “deliver instruction” about all the possible topics?
  • How can we allocate scarce time and resources among the many topics that we might address if we had unlimited time?

In a factory system, it’s only natural to push aside a messy, difficult topic like culture and Culture, especially when there are clean, scientific, rational, easily-tested things like noun declensions or verb conjugations or literal translations we could spend time on instead.  Besides, we say, those things are “more rigorous,” or “more central to the discipline,” or “more necessary if you really want to know Latin” anyway.

But at Tres Columnae, by the nature of our program, these messy questions are a lot less messy. After all, Tres Columnae is not a factory-model school.  It’s not a face-to-face, time-limited, teacher-centered program; it’s an online, self-paced learning community.

And so the biggest difference is that the last question – the one about allocating scarce time and resources – simply isn’t relevant. For most of our participants, time isn’t unlimited, but it is under their control; in other words, they own their time, at least as it relates to their participation in Tres Columnae.

  • One of the primary arguments in favor of homeschooling, at least if you follow what advocates say online, is that it gives “you” (the parent and the child) freedom to “go at your own pace” and to explore your interests in depth. For a family learning Latin together, the freedom is even greater, since different family members could choose to pursue different areas of interest, then share them with each other.
  • For adult learners and re-learners, the only limitations on their time are self-imposed: “I want to be able to read this type of Latin text, this well, in this amount of time.”
  • Even for school-based learners who use Tres Columnae, while their teachers may specify a goal (“To get credit for Latin I, you must finish Cursus Primus by the end of the school year”) and perhaps a minimum amount of time (“the principal says you must document 150 hours of seat time to get an academic credit”), no one can prevent them from exceeding these requirements, or from following their personal interests along the way.

Since Tres Columnae participants own their time, they also own a big part of their culture and Culture study. We’ll start them out on their journey, giving them some essential supplies, but as they travel they may discover a passionate interest in something we never imagined – like the details of aqueduct construction, or road maintenance, or public sanitation, or book-making, or the various types of lectīcae.

When that happens, we’ll encourage them to “run with” their new interest, to build stories around it, to collect links about it, and even to create exercises or quizzes about the links. In that way, the culture and Culture side of Tres Columnae builds ownership for our participants just like the stories, the illustrations, the audio, and the videos.

quid respondētis, amīcissimī? Does this seem like a good way to study culture and Culture? Are there “core cultural concepts” that everybody needs to learn – the “essential supplies” I mentioned earlier? If so, what are they, and how – and when – should we teach them? Should we combine a limited number of “core concepts” with the exploratory play I’ve been describing?  Or should it be all core concepts, or all exploratory play?

Tune in next time for more details about exactly how the study of culture and Culture might happen – I say “might” because, in the end, it depends on the participants! In the meantime, please keep reading, and please keep those comments and emails coming.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you so much for acknowledging the specialists who have created some masterful Wikipedia articles! They are not “professionals” (most academics don’t bother with Wikipedia at all)… but gosh, they have a lot of knowledge. I love having a resource where I can find out all kinds of things about foreign languages (written by people passionate about that language), and all kinds of things about Star Trek episodes (about which I am very passionate, and Wikipedia always answers questions I have about episodes of Star Trek!).

    I’m also really fascinated by this idea that the hyper-controlled and systematic approach of so much Latin instruction is a reaction against the potentially messiness that looms all around us. Honestly, I had never seen it as a possible cause-and-effect situation, but I think you are really on to something there. As someone who is absolutely systematic in my work habits, and very messy, so to speak, in my interests, I feel those two tendencies being well integrated in my life… but I can also see how in some ways the one tendency is possibly a defensive reaction against the other! That is really interesting to ponder.

    Finally, what you say about time not being unlimited but under the learner’s control is the MANTRA of my online courses. I see that students achieve much higher levels of success in my online courses than I ever saw in the classroom exactly because students can maximize their time for learning in the online format, despite the many limitations on their available time. So you are preaching to the choir on that one! I am completely committed to asynchronous teaching and cannot imagine doing otherwise. I was doing some sessions in Evan’s Locutorium at Schola, but that synchronous model is just so alien to me now I’ve stopped for now… we’ll see what summer brings and if I feel like a synchronous venture will be worth my while or not. True confession: I don’t think it will be… summer time is the most fun of all for those of us who live asynchronously: the days are so deliciously long when the sun doesn’t go down until late late late. 🙂

    • Laura,
      In some ways Wikipedia is a model for the “Joyful Learning Community” model that’s at the heart of the Tres Columnae project. I think it’s a great resource, and a great starting point for further work, even though (or precisely because) it’s not “scholarly.” Of course I have colleagues who say it’s “completely unreliable” (without ever having looked at it, of course; they just know!) … and probably some others whose lectures come verbatim from it. 😦 But properly understood, it really is a fantastic resource, especially for subjects where there’s not a lot of controversy, and where you can form a joyful, passionate community of experts who want to share their expertise with each other. Foreign languages are a natural area for this, as are Star Trek episodes, jazz and bluegrass musicians, and obsolete, non-Microsoft-published software … to pick a few non-random examples that are interests of mine. 🙂

      I was thinking about neatness and messiness in my own life, in my children’s lives, and in the lives of some colleagues and students when I wrote this post, and I do think that balance is the key. In some areas, neatness is really important to me; in others, it’s not only <i?unimportant but actually counterproductive. But under stress, I sometimes feel a tendency to “straighten up” or to go into what an old friend called a “cleaning frenzy.” So I started to wonder if, as a field, we’ve been on a 120-year “cleaning frenzy,” and, if so, whether it might be time to stop. There was a great post just now on Latinteach in response to a thread about “teaching principal parts” – the author pointed out that only about 10% of learners do well with a “systems and paradigms” approach. So an exclusive reliance on that approach will, ipso facto, exclude something like 90% of potential learners, and … we can all do the math here, so I’ll stop! 🙂

      I thought you’d agree with me about Ownership of Time. I haven’t said a lot about my future vision for Tres Columnae, but one thing I really want it to do is to give that kind of ownership to a whole lot of people … especially learners. It’s possible in a face-to-face setting, but it’s really difficult! I’ve experienced it once, in an experimental reading program when I was in elementary school back before the Fall of the Roman Empire :-), and I’ve almost accomplished it once, with a very diverse Latin II class, many years ago, where everyone worked through an agenda, individually or in groups, at a right pace for them. But it’s easy and natural in an asynchronous environment like your setting … or like the mature Tres Columnae system.

      Thanks again for giving me so much to think about! 🙂


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