Favorite Commentaries: William Turpin

What is your favorite classical commentary?  What place did it have in your intellectual development? Recently I asked the members of the DCC editorial board to write for the blog about these questions. Here is the response of William Turpin, Professor of Classics at Swarthmore College, and author of the DCC edition of Ovid’s Amores, Book 1:

In practice the most important commentaries are simply those that help me with the language. Daniel Garrison’s editions of Catullus and Horace, for instance, explain the things that he believes students will usually find mysterious, and that frees up my mind to concentrate on everything else. If I can’t understand a passage after checking the commentary, at least I know that it’s my fault.

The transformative commentaries in my own life have been those of T. E. Page, on Vergil. The small red volumes of text and commentary published by Macmillan were as iconic for classicists of my generation as OCTs and Loebs, and not just because they are so wonderfully portable. Their authors are deeply learned, insightful, and stimulating, though even relatively modern editions were probably unrealistic in what they expected of their readers; Kenneth Quinn, in 1970, could expect students of Catullus 51 to profit from his quoting Sappho 31 in the original Greek, with no translation.

Thomas Ethelbert Page (1850-1936), spent 37 years as a master at Charterhouse, one of the great English “public schools” (or we would say “private boys’ schools”). He remained at Charterhouse despite offers of headships of other public schools, and even the chair of Latin at Cambridge. He is also the subject of a short biography by the distinguished Latinist Niall Rudd, (T. E. Page: Schoolmaster Extraordinary, 1981), which I have not seen, and there is apparently a portrait of him at St. Johns College, Cambridge.


T.E. Page

In his 1929 autobiography, Good-bye to All That (which is mostly about his experiences as an infantry officer in the First World War), the poet Robert Graves mentions the profound influence Page’s teaching had on him. English poetry, in those days, was rarely taught in schools, which concentrated on Latin and Greek, but Page’s love of poetry and poetic language had a profound effect on Graves, no doubt on hundreds of other boys, and on readers of his commentaries.

A good example of what I mean is offered by Page’s comments on the first two lines of Eclogue I:

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arva:
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas. 

Perhaps I might have found these lines appealing without Page’s help; they are, after all, some of the most important lines in western literature. But Page can pull the language apart in a way that I have never found easy: he comments on “the marked antithesis between tu and nos repeated in inverse order, and the pathetic repetition of patriae and patriam.” And Page enriches our connection with Musam meditaris by quoting Milton in Lycidas: “and strictly meditate the thankless Muse.”

All of this is the standard stuff of commentaries, and Page is by no means a comprehensive guide to what we would now call the “reception” of Vergil. Moreover his taste in “modern” poetry would now be considered downright reactionary; I remember him as referring above all to Milton, to the Psalms, and I think also Shelley. But he was the first classicist I encountered in print who gave me a sense of what made Latin poetry, and English poetry, worth reading.

William Turpin

image source: Michael Gilleland (no known copyright restrictions)

Latin Palindromes

One of my students asked me the other day if there were any Latin palindromes. I said I didn’t know any, but I knew where to look. I went straight to the wonderful book of Latin word games, Bella Bulla: Lateinische Sprachspielereien, by Hans Weis (Bonn: Ferd. Dümmlers Verlag, 1985). Below are my personal favorites:

Aziz Inan / Univ. of Portland

AURES SERUA (“safeguard your ears”), good advice for all aspiring rock musicians

SOL ATTIGIT TALOS (“the sun touched your ankles”), perhaps a compliment for a lady in a very long dress?

SIGNA TE! SIGNA! TEMERE ME TANGIS ET ANGIS. (“Signify yourself! Signify! You are rashly touching and distressing me”) All sorts of applications for this one in everyday life.

MITIS ERO, RETINE LENITER ORE SITIM (“I will be kindly, gently restrain the thirst in my mouth”). Perhaps best spoken to a bottle of beer.

Postdoctoral Fellowship in Digital Humanities at Dickinson

Please spread the word about this job opportunity! Application review begins March 15, 2013.

With generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Dickinson College invites applications for a postdoctoral fellowship in Digital Humanities in the academic year 2013-14, with the potential for an additional year of support. The Fellow will work as a catalyst for faculty innovation by planning, promoting, and implementing strategies to encourage faculty discourse about pedagogy, e-learning tools, and the integration of digital media into teaching and scholarship. The postdoctoral fellowship is an academic appointment reporting to the Dean of the College through the faculty chair of the Digital Humanities Advisory Committee, but the Fellow will be housed alongside the Academic Technology staff in the Library and Information Services division. The Fellow will a) teach one or two courses each year within his or her area of academic specialty; b) guide and participate in workshops for arts, humanities, and humanistic social science faculty regarding disciplinary use of digital tools for curricular and research purposes; and c) work with LIS staff to train students to use digital tools and technologies in order to prepare them for significant student-faculty research collaborations. The Fellow will be eligible for internal grants for pedagogical innovation, as well as standard faculty support for travel and professional development. The salary will be $50,000 plus benefits. Dickinson College is a private, highly selective, liberal arts college located within two hours of major research institutions and metropolitan areas.

The Fellow must normally have received the PhD by July 1, 2013, and within the last three years, and not have held a tenure-track position. Candidates should be conducting research that requires demonstrated expertise in the use of Digital Humanities in their scholarly field.

For further information and to apply, please visit the Dickinson HR website and click on “Faculty.”

For more about digital humanities at Dickinson, please visit: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/digitalhumanties/



Vocabulary Dots

I am running all of my ongoing intermediate Latin and Greek classes on the basis of sight reading, rather than the traditional prepared translation method, and using elements of the flipped class concept with video content made with the ShowMe app. The concept is described in an APA paper I gave this year, and some of the nuts and bolts of the system, such as it is, are described in an earlier post. So how is it going, you ask? I’m doing a lot of grading (and avoiding it right now), but I am just thrilled at the change in the classroom dynamics and ethos.

Probably the best day was the day we worked on the basics of Latin scansion and metrics in the Catullus class (4th semester). They watched my little videos about the basics, material I used to do as lecture, but is now available in video form. Then in class we scanned Catullus 1 together: after the briefest of reviews (2 mins. at most) I let them loose on a big photocopy of Cat. 1 with lots of space between the lines, and off they went in pairs. A few had fully absorbed the difference between a long vowel and a long syllable, the concept of elision, and so forth, but many had not. I was able to hover around and give tips and little mini explanations using the examples at hand in a way that had everybody on the boat by the end of 30 minutes. I then projected the poem on to the blackboard and scanned it with them, just to check that everybody had it right. Class over, skill acquired, one hour, and they seemed to actually enjoy it. This is something I never was able to teach properly, and burned hours of class time tying futilely to explain in the abstract. This is a perfect application to Latin of the flipped class concept, lecture material outside of class, project-based collaboration inside. Bingo.

When it come to translation, things are a bit more complicated. I’m relying on them to absorb a vocabulary list for the day’s passage, then we translate together. Sometimes I call on individuals, sometimes I ask for volunteers. This is actually working quite well for the most part. The level of attention and focus on endings and word order is completely new, a total change from what we are all familiar with in the traditional method, where endings are seen as an annoying afterthought, word order as a kind of puzzle, Latin as mixed-up English. We go through word by word first, analyzing the endings (this often leads to mini-reviews on the board of, say, the reflexive pronoun). A second pass yields more or less decent English. We tend to re-translate the passage the next day as review, something necessary when sight-reading in my view.

The rub comes when they say “I don’t know what that word means,” though they were supposed to have learned the list the night before. Not that this is a crippling problem so far, but it brings up the perennial quandary of how to get students to efficiently absorb vocabulary.

My new inspiration for vocabulary work (this being in place of the usually unsuccessful attempt to translate at home, which is characteristic of the traditional method), is something I call vocabulary dots. Given a list of 20-30 lemmas, students choose three activities that simultaneously get them to use the words on the list and help them gain active command of key grammatical structures we will see in the texts themselves. Here are the dots. Let me know if you have any thoughts or comments! I have nicer formatting, with little sphinx emblems (these are the “dots,” but it’s not coming through in WordPress. The not terribly logical term “dots,” by the way, has caught right on, and all the students use it as an easy shorthand for loathsome term “activities,” which I suppose is more accurate. In the syllabus I just say “vocab. dots for Catullus 5 and 6” and they get the picture.

Latin Vocabulary Activities

For a new list of words, choose three activities. They should take about twenty minutes each.

I’d Have To Agree:Create fifteen noun-adjective pairs (e.g. manūs dextrae, right hands, fem. nom. pl.). Use all numbers, cases, and genders once. Translate the resulting combinations. MiniSynopsis:Pick 6 verbs and give either a) all 6 tenses of the indicative in one person and number, b) all 4 tenses of the subjunctive in one person and number, c) all four participles, or d) all five infinitives. Make sure to use all options at least once, and a mix of active and passive voice. If there are fewer than six verbs, re-use. Absolutely Ablative:Create ten ablative absolutes (including participle and noun), using a combination of as many words as possible. Make five passive and five active, and translate the results.
The Word Next Door:Write out 15 words with an etymologically related Latin word in the dictionary. Give full dictionary form and short definitions for each. E.g.: manus -ūs f. hand, band; manualis -e (adj.) for the hand. Meet the Relatives:Write five short sentences using the given vocabulary words, including a relative clause in each. Make sure the relative pronoun is in the right gender, number, and case. Use five different combinations of gender, number, and case. Translate the results.  Acting Up: Write five short sentences including transitive verbs in the active voice, with a direct object. Reverse them so that the verb is passive, and the direct object the new subject. Make sure to change the endings accordingly, and translate both versions. 

Greek Vocabulary Activities

For a new list of words, choose three activities. They should take about twenty minutes each.

I’d Have To Agree:Create five article-adjective-noun sets (e.g. τοῖς καλοῖς ἀνδράσι, for the handsome men, m. pl. dat.). Use as many different words as possible, and different combinations of number, case, and gender each time. Translate the resulting combinations. 


MiniSynopsis:Pick six verbs and give one conjugated form for each principal part listed in Pharr’s lexicon. Use all combinations of person and number once. Daring Do: Create five combinations of participle and finite verb (e.g.  εἰπών ἕζετο, “having spoken he sat down”). Use as many different verbs as possible. Use a variety of tenses, genders, and numbers, and make sure that the participle (which will always be in the nominative) agrees with the verb in number. 



The Word Next Door: write out 15 words words with an etymologically related Greek word in the dictionary. Give full dictionary form and short definitions for each. E.g.: ἥλιος -ου, ὁ sun; ἡλιόομαι be exposed to the sun). You may want to use LSJ for this. Make sure the words are in fact etymologically related, and not just spelled similarly  Meet the Relatives: write five short sentences using the given vocabulary words, including a relative clause in each. Make sure the relative pronoun is in the right gender, number, and case. Use five different combinations of gender, number, and case. Translate the results. In That Case:Take ten nouns, pair them with ten different prepositions, and translate the result. Make sure that the noun is in an appropriate case for that preposition, and if the preposition can take more than one case make sure it is translated according to the case you use.

–Chris Francese