Rutgers Focus highlights Classics Department’s undergraduate teaching

Just spotted in the latest issue of Rutgers Focus, the university’s faculty and staff publication…


From left, Assistant Professor of Classics Serena Connolly, and majors Adam Petrosh and Etel Sverdlov. Credit: Nick Romanenko

Sona si latine loqueris (Honk if you speak Latin)
By Coleen Dee Berry

Latin? Ancient Greek? Virgil and Sophocles? That’s like sooo … 2,000 years ago, right? Not any longer. The study of classics is in the middle of a 21st-century renaissance. Latin, in particular, has staged a comeback, and now is virtually tied with German as the third most frequently taught language, after Spanish and French, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Last year more than 150,000 high school students applied to take the National Latin Exam. Only 6,000 students signed up for the test when it was first given in 1977.

Rutgers Classics Department in the School of Arts and Sciences mirrors this national trend. Since 2000, the department has doubled both its faculty – from three full-time professors to six – and its students. Last year 1,271 students enrolled to take classes, representing 45 declared classics majors.

Guiding Rutgers classics through this revival is Department Chair T. Corey Brennan, who may epitomize the new ancient scholar. Brennan’s interests include ancient sports, and he is at work on a biography of elite women of the Roman Republican era. But he is also a musician who was a guitarist and songwriter for the alternative rock band, The Lemonheads. Brennan recently received a prestigious appointment to a three-year term as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge at the American Academy in Rome, which will begin July 1.

“We’re really lucky here at Rutgers, in that we’re benefiting from the high school Latin programs of New Jersey, which both individually and collectively are among the very best in the country,” Brennan said. “But the classical languages are just about 20 percent of our offerings; in our culture and literature courses in translation, we’re trying to encourage undergraduate research into all aspects of the ancient Mediterranean experience.”

Nationally, enrollment in classics courses at the college level has shown a slow but steady growth in the past decade, according to a 2006 study by the Modern Language Association. High school students find Latin helpful in their preparation for SATs; college students in the fields of law and medicine and other sciences find a study of Latin useful.

“I took it [Latin] in high school to help me with my SAT scores and got hooked,” said Etel Sverdlov, a Rutgers junior from Lexington, Kentucky, and a classics major. “I’m more interested in the history than the actual language part of it, but it helps if you read the history in the [original] language.”

Popular culture also has aided the classics revival, with films such as Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Brad Pitt in Troy, and 300, about the famous Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae, showcasing ancient Rome and Greece.

Then the enormously popular Harry Potter series made liberal use of Latin terms. The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, published in 1997, was translated entirely into Latin in 2003 as Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis by Peter Needham, a retired Latin professor from Eton College in England. An ancient Greek translation was also produced around the same time. The translations, according to the British publisher Bloomsbury, were done as an academic exercise, to stimulate interest in the languages and provide students of those languages with modern reading texts.

This past October, when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd decided to write part of her “Are We Rome? Tu Betchus!” op-ed piece partially in Latin, she chose Rutgers–Newark associate history professor Gary Farney to help her translate for the article, which found echoes of the fall of Rome in American society.

For many years, the study of classics was Rutgers University, Brennan noted. When Rutgers began in 1766 as Queen’s College, classics was the sole course of study for the college’s first century and the only bachelor of arts major available until some years after the First World War.

Today at Rutgers, study of the classics includes not only the languages of Latin and ancient Greek but also courses on Greek and Roman sports, ancient law, medical terminology, Greek drama, and ancient warfare and diplomacy.

“It’s definitely not your parents’, or grandparents’, Latin classroom,” said Sherwin Little, president of the American Classical League, which was founded in 1919 to promote the study of classical languages.“Teachers are making their curriculum more relevant to students today by emphasizing its role in archeology, mythology, and linguistics.”

In addition, Latin is no longer just for the best and brightest at elite schools. At the Indian Hill High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Little teaches, students with learning disabilities are offered a two-year Latin sequence “When I started working with special needs kids, I was shocked that they didn’t know that Venus stood for love. I discovered they did not get that ‘enrichment,’ ” Little said. Latin’s regular structure and relatively low idiomatic content helps in teaching special needs students language, he said.

In Assistant Classics Professor Serena Connolly’s New Brunswick course, “Literature in the Republic,” students take turns reading aloud and translating the text. “Latin is a language that you learn to read, more than you learn to speak it. Few programs emphasize speaking – one of the few I know of is in Finland,” Connolly said “When you think that you’re reading something written more than 2,000 years ago, it’s kind of exciting,” said Stephanie Johnson, a history major with a Latin minor, before she plowed into a passage of Roman historian Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae.The readings in Latin tell a very modern story – of politicians grilling witnesses in the Roman Senate to root out a conspiracy in 63 B.C.

Adam Petrosh, a junior from Mays Landing and a classics major, said his high school Latin teacher got him hooked on classics and, in turn, he hopes to become a Latin teacher when he graduates, “to keep the interest going.”

Auditing Connolly’s class last semester was Tom Fodice, a retired municipal attorney for Jersey City. He said his interest in Latin was sparked by his law practice and its legal terms. “So much of our legal system originated in early Roman law,” Fodice said.

Classics, by definition, remains timeless, supporters of the discipline agree. “English has evolved so much that, if you went back to Chaucer’s time, you would not be intelligible,” Connolly said. “But you could go back to ancient Rome and speak Latin and still be understood.”


Maybe some day: a Rutgers L (for ‘Latin’) bus. But for now it’s going to Livingston Campus. Credit: T. Corey Brennan [And you can blame him for the caption too—Ed.]

One response to “Rutgers Focus highlights Classics Department’s undergraduate teaching

  1. undergraduate teaching is good

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