At the Latin/Greek Institute, It’s ‘A Miracle Every Summer’ as Students Absorb Four Semesters of Language in 10 Weeks

Students in The Graduate Center's Latin/Greek Institute dig into their Latin during lunch.  

In June, the students learned the Greek alphabet, writing and pronouncing the letters for the first time.
Six weeks later, they are translating Plato.
Each summer, several dozen students from around the world immerse themselves in the extraordinarily intensive language learning experience known as The Graduate Center’s Latin/Greek Institute. There is no comparable program in the world. Over the course of 10 weeks, students who had no experience in an ancient language emerge being able to translate either Latin or Greek proficiently.
“It’s like a miracle every summer,” says Professor Katherine Lu Hsu (GC/Brooklyn, Classics), the director of institute, which was founded in 1973 as a collaborative effort between Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center.

From Morning Till Night
A miracle of hard work, that is: Students tackle a week’s worth of college material every day. Each day begins at 8:30 a.m., with an optional drop-in question hour with a faculty member. At 9:30 a.m. sharp, there’s a quiz, followed by two hours of drills and practice: identifying verbs, analyzing syntax, and transforming a sentence into natural, spoken English. After a lunch break — during which two optional classes are offered: a grammar review, and sight reading of a previously unseen text — there is a two-hour grammar lecture and more vocabulary practice. It’s all part of the institute’s active learning method, Hsu explains. “You have to be able to produce the information out loud,” she says. “That’s how you really know you know it.”
At the end of the day, students often work together in The Graduate Center’s Dining Commons or in study rooms. “It’s been everything I expected and more,” says Damon Hatheway, who typically spends four or five hours studying with classmates every day after Latin class. “Somehow the more work you get, the more enjoyable it becomes.”
On a recent day, a student was translating Plato’s Ion. Seated around a large table — armed with thermoses and water bottles, their heads bent low over their books — her 11 classmates followed along as the teacher gently questioned whether a verb was correctly translated as “has fastened” or “had fastened” or “has been fastened.” The teacher then called on a different student to give the principal parts of a verb. After another student mashed together two possible answers about syntax, producing the nonsensical “aorist tense for progressive/repeated aspect,” her classmates broke into sympathetic laughter. They’ve all been there. In the end, a sentence, or part of one, is produced: “sometimes a very long chain of iron rings has been fastened from one another” — a description of magnetism that serves as an analogy, Hsu explained later, for the connection between a rhapsode (a reciter of poetry) and the audience.

Students in the institute's Latin program practice reading and translating with their instructor before class. 
Meanwhile, across the hall, a dozen students were translating Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae, indicating which suffixes make words “intensified” or “very intensified!” and correctly identifying the “present subjunctive of the active periphrastic” — as you, too, might, after six weeks at the institute.

Enthusiasts From Around the World 
It’s no wonder that students apply from Egypt and Lebanon, Germany and France, China and Canada. Some are still in high school, and often there’s a retiree or two. But most are doctoral students and undergraduates who need to master an ancient language. Some hope to become classics scholars, while others — who might major in philosophy, religion, political science, or even English — simply need to do research with texts and artifacts from the ancient world. “I studied Latin a little over 10 years ago, but I’d forgotten so much that I needed a period of intense study to do my research for my doctoral program,” says Father Dominic Verner, a Dominican friar and second-year Ph.D. student in moral theology at the University of Notre Dame. “This program is unique in that it’s extremely immersive and well planned, so that each instructional hour is immensely beneficial.”
In selecting candidates, the institute looks for students with experience learning a language in the classroom and general academic achievement. “The institute remains one of my favorite academic experiences,” says current Graduate Center student Mary Jean McNamara (Classics), who completed the Greek course in 2001 and is preparing to write her dissertation on the assimilation of non-Athenians into the citizenry of Athens. “I loved the grind and challenge of pulling off what seemed impossible, and relished the chance to see how much I could learn in 24 hours. I also enjoyed the camaraderie and gallows humor that went along with memorizing a huge amount of new material every night.”
Hsu was a student at the institute herself, back when she was an undergraduate at Princeton. She always wanted to return and teach, and got the chance during three consecutive summers while she was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. She became the director of the institute after graduation and has led it ever since.

Faculty On Call 24/7
For the institute’s team of 10 faculty members, the yearly preparation is as intense as the students’ experience. The faculty prepare by teaching each hour of the course to each other, a process that begins in February. They reach a consensus on the answers they will accept, discuss potential challenges, and come up with solutions for common sources of confusion. The idea is to create an identical experience for all students; the faculty members, Hsu says, are essentially interchangeable.
And, apparently, tireless. For the duration of the course, all are on call 24/7 to address any questions that might come up about the latest assignment. Hsu says she’s never gotten a call past 12:30 a.m., and that often, what panicked students really need is someone to tell them “it will be okay; you need to get some sleep.”
For Hsu, the institute provides the satisfaction of teaching at a very high level. “It’s gratifying to see students progress so quickly,” she says. “In the summer, it’s a pleasure to focus on doing one thing really well.”
It’s an appreciation her students share. “The strong sense of community, the excitement and joy involved in the process of learning make the institute more than just intellectually rewarding,” says Yingxue Wang, who is starting her Ph.D. in history of art and architecture at Harvard University this fall. “In many ways, it is a holistic and magical learning experience.”

Photos credit: Alex Irklievski

Submitted on: AUG 13, 2019

Category: General GC News | Latin-Greek Institute