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Notes from the Institute

I’m feeling, intensified, some of those same things about Greek in particular, language in general, and learning in general that came, happily, last summer. I miss diagramming sentences – I’m looking forward to it; the relatively heavy morphology and light syntax we’ve had in Greek is a different sort of challenge than Latin was (during the Institute) and has been (since). I feel my nascent Greek reading abilities coming more fluidly than my Latin did, both because the languages are different and because I know how to learn a dead language now. Greek word order (in the fake Greek we’ve had) and the unambiguity of most forms has made Greek less like a puzzle and more like what will, I can feel, be a fluent reading experience at some time. Knowing morphology cold seems to have a clearer payoff in Greek than in Latin–not that it was in any way not essential in Latin, but I have a greater sense that you’ve fought more of the battle once you know what possible forms a Greek word could be in a sentence.

So far it’s not demanded as much systematic thinking of me as Latin, which I miss on the one hand, but which has a certain joy of intuition on the other. At first it drove me crazy that the Greek verbal system is much more sprawling and demanding of memorization than the thing of algorithmic and mathematical beauty that is Latin’s stem-infix-ending. Now I kind of like that about Greek–I’m starting to regain the zen feeling I got with Latin verb synopses, and I appreciate how verbs like lambanw are a mish-mash of principal parts from different verbs, since the commonest verbs often are. These irregularities that made me groan under the weight of irregular principal parts now give me a feeling for how Greek was a living language that evolved, that standardized its usage, in which different verbs once had different flavors and odd usages before coming together into one verb.

The thrill of language and the continuous feeling of stretching and miraculous competence and the restructuring of my English thought patterns are all there. Perhaps because having taught intensively this past year, I have more meta-cognition about what this program (happily) does to me. I notice more of the pedagogical moves that program instructors make, the incredible design and coordination of the whole thing, and I LOVE that. I’m trying to make my thoughts more explicit this year as I have them, about the unique combination of fast and slow reading, fluency and philology that the Institute fosters. What I loved half-wittingly last year, I understand my love for this year. This is a sort of haven for language and literature lovers, but a rigorous one, for once. Again, there are several fellow math folks among the students. I can confidently say after a day of Greek that “I know how to say something I didn’t yesterday”, which is a unique joy of language-learning for a poet and reader. How often, as a writer, do you get to feel that you’ve figured out how to say something right–an image, a word, a turn of phrase, an analogy, a reference, an anecdote–that you couldn’t yesterday?

My days when I am writing (or mathing) are marked by intense mental effort that often goes nowhere, or moments of solution and insight that mostly turn out to be false. Greek isn’t like that in this learning phase. I have the pleasure of analytical thinking like in math–but I get to say not just that I’ve learned a new technique for sparse graphs, but that with my poor grasp of Greek, I yet got to tackle the story of Prometheus or witty one-liners from Menander. How often do you get to feel like you’re making steady progress and unambiguously growing your toolbox for attacking what Anthony Storr, (following Thomas Szasz, in The Art of Psychotherapy) calls “problems of living”?

The Institute is unique in my life for its explicit encouragement of both philology and fluent reading–being able to dive down the rabbit hole, but not by default thinking of a sentence in an ancient language as a puzzle to be solved, instead of something one can aspire to read continuously. It’s perfect for someone like me who finds it hard to give up either of thinking analytically or synthetically, and it’s an amazing corrective to the turn towards contextualizing and cultural situation of texts, away from texts themselves. (It lets me keep this historicizing and contextualizing impulse, but be rigorous about the words in a poem too in a way that I partially pretend at in English.) Last year I think I was too overwhelmed by the newness of both classical languages and Institute methods to reflect much. This year, the structure I am looking at is more explicitly of the Institute itself and how it works, since I’m not too bogged down in the emotional roller coaster of learning a language this way.

Something else strange and COOL is happening in my relationship with the Institute this time around. I remember Alice getting frustrated at us one day in our Augustine elective because (probably) we were underprepared. She framed the situation in terms of our responsibility to do what the Institute asked of us, and I remember thinking it was a little grandiose. We were all there voluntarily, had paid tuition, and were going to take out of it what we would; we didn’t “have” to do any of this, even though we’d signed up for this–at least in the strong sense of moral requirement. Of course I took her framing seriously, because philosophical approaches to the sanctity and obligation of the classroom aside, she was right that we were underprepared and that was hurting the community.

I feel much more moralistic about it this time around. The sense of responsibility I feel is not because “I agreed to take part in this”, but because the Institute has to work a certain way for it to work, and I as a student have to (moral requirement, this time!) play my part fully and enthusiastically. I think I was a little more dazed and shocked by the pace of things last year, and more prone to complaining. Perhaps there were more people learning Latin for a requirement than there are learning Greek this year (medievalists in various fields, historians, etc. – there’s only a few students wonderfully crazy enough to be taking Greek the Institute way because they need it for something basically unrelated, like Koine for seminary). Either way, I find myself much more oriented towards the needs of the community and the mutual investment of all students and teachers in this crazy thing. I feel energized after a week of Greek, and I’m probably annoying some fellow students when I call this “fun”, unironically, with some frequency…and as much as I love translation and composition over drilling vocab and morphology, I can even get myself to do that with some enthusiasm, knowing, this time, around where I will be in my Greek on Day 31, 41, 51 if I do right by the program.

What this means is: what I’m not naturally inclined towards is still fun because I know in my Latin-Institute bones how helpful it is and will be. I trust more completely that Hardy, when he and Gerald Quinn put together this marvel of a textbook, and all three teachers, when they prepared for this summer, know exactly what they are doing when they tell us learning some particular thing is more essential than it might seem. I’m not so focused on the emotional impact the program has for me, this time, because I recognize–partly from last year, partly from more teaching experience of my own–the orders of magnitude harder our teachers have to work than we do. Just conceiving of how much true coordination and common preparation this level of synchronicity takes is doing wonders for how I think about everything from my board work to how to say exactly what I want to say and not a word more to the new level of thoroughness I realize can exist in preparing lessons and lectures. I’m not a little in awe of Institute teachers. (And wishing I were gonna be a classicist so there could be some sliver of hope that I’d teach here one day…)

I love what I didn’t see fully last year, too. I felt emotionally supported as well as pushed, last year, of course. I had a few breakdowns in Aaron’s office and pushed back against and finally accepted the wisdom of Akiva’s iron insistence on knowing the syntax of everything. (I have to remember to go genuflect to his teaching insights sometime soon…I’m now that person who knows the syntax of every word in a Greek sentence and not all of the vocabulary meanings, which doesn’t *only* speak to how I need to step up my vocabulary retention…). Now I see more clearly the things our teachers are doing minute by minute to strike this delicate balance of unwavering support and tough love. “No, you’re not being too slow translating, and yes, you need to get faster,” they manage to say, and make us believe. “Yes, it’s okay how this is going–and yes, we want you to progress and go at Greek differently.” That’s a series of subtle moves that I have a lot to learn from pedagogically (and as a person!) 

As much as I feel humbled by the dedication of my fellow students and the faculty, I feel some pride in how I’m handling this year too. I’ve had a few nights of being sick or utterly beat, but for the most part I’ve pulled through on my promise to myself to thoroughly prepare every sentence and prose comp for drill the next day. From my experience last year and listening this year, I feel some level of independence and competence in how I know what questions to ask myself about each sentence. I look for what is new about the sentence, what Hardy (and Quinn) are clearly reinforcing from a few units ago, all the interesting features that one could conceivably examine in this sentence. Then the same for the next. I think I’m really doing my part in drill this year in a way I didn’t last year–I don’t keep questions to myself or leave them until during drill. There hasn’t been a sentence where I say “pass on me, I don’t have this one”–which there were not many, but too many of, last year. I don’t feel complacent about how much I need to drill morphology on the weekend, really knowing how much it’ll help and how I can always do better at Greek. So much more goes into teaching at the Institute than I can imagine, but I really feel like I’m holding up my end of the implicit learning contract we have here. 

I even, blessedly, get to encourage and help along some of my fellow students with insights from last year 🙂 Not that I know anything better than last year, not at all–but I think, and certainly hope, that it might be making a difference to hear from a fellow student that the steep learning tasks the faculty are asking of us pay off. I think maybe this would be some of the joy of teaching at the Institute–I feel a thrill watching fellow students who haven’t learned languages before, or here, and having some sense of what part of the roller-coaster they’ll be on today, what the Greek learning landscape must look like to them right now, and where they’ll be with their language in a week, then two, if they keep up what they’re doing in their learning. I guess it’s weird to say this, but I feel okay saying it having done a lot of teaching myself, even though not at the Institute: I feel so proud of what my fellow students have learned about Greek and about what they are capable of learning so far. I’ve seen them grow so much already in how they approach language in particular and learning in general, and the many inspiring things I’ve heard from them about how they’re figuring out the Institute way and how to make it work for them are inspiring me in turn.

I feel so grateful and privileged to be here this summer. The Institute is beginning to occupy a special place in my life not just for making me learn my languages like gangbusters, but for the special dedication, community and pedagogy that’s grown up around it all these many years.

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