A Podcasting Approach to Greek and Latin Orality

This is a talk I gave at the APA on Jan. 4, 2014, as part of a panel organized by the Society for the Oral Reading of Greek and Latin Literature. The full assignments, rubrics, and student projects are available here. The handout with a couple more links and Quintilian’s Guide to Dignified Gesturing, is below.

There are many ways to keep the sounds of Greek and Latin alive, and make them part of the classroom and the learning process. I want to share with you a podcasting assignment that helps me do this, and I hope that some aspects of or variant on it may be helpful to you as well. I use it in my fourth semester Latin and Greek classes, which are called “Introduction to Latin Poetry” and “Introduction to Greek Poetry.” The Latin course (typically 15 people) is based around Catullus and Ovid’s Amores, the Greek course (typically about 7) around the Odyssey. In addition to reading and transl
ating, the students do an assignment comparing different published translations of a particular poem or passage, to get them focused on close reading and different styles of translation. The podcast follows that, as a summative “final paper” substitute. The final product is a 6-8 minute audio recording with three parts:

  • a discussion of a poem or section of a longer piece
  • and translation written by the student
  • a reading of the piece aloud in the original language

This assignment reinforces the point that Greek and Latin poetry was performance art, meant for the ear, not just the eye. But it also helps forward my central learning goals for the class:

  • read Latin poets of moderate difficulty in Latin with appropriate assistance
  • relate the Latin poetry to its historical and literary contexts
  • identify and appreciate literary and stylistic features of Latin poetry

[See full assignments here: Latin, and Greek versions.]

Through the process of drafting the script and making the recording the students hit all these areas in ways that harness their creativity, help them fully master and “ownetize” a poem, contextualize and explain what they like about it to an audience of their peers, relating it to its historical context and its larger themes. The podcast medium, unlike a traditional research paper, is a piece of public scholarship, in which the students point out specific stylistic features, discuss its effect, and actually perform it for an audience, but without the pressure of a live audience. They attempt to explain, translate, and perform the poem as an authentic piece of verbal art.

Results vary, of course, but are often something to be proud of. Podcasts by my students are perennially at or near the top downloads on Dickinson’s iTunesU channel, and occasionally get a comment or two from the internet on the WordPress blog where I also post them. Of course, not all of them are perfect. For broadcast ideally we want not just good, correct writing, but something to grab the attention of the listener and hold it; not just competent recitation, but audible passion; not just research, but insight and application; not just accurate translation, but English that sings. In short we want not just excellence, but panache.

Now of course panache is exactly what you think about when you think about an academic research paper for a Latin class. Wait, no, it’s not. The reason I keep doing this assignment is not just because it fosters performance of Latin and Greek. It is also because of the way it transforms the writing process, wresting it from the Soviet tyranny of the five paragraph essay with its fulsome, stilted introduction, its formulaic paragraph structures and transitions, its smoke-blowing vaguery, its bottomless insincerity. The required style is more journalistic than academic. The main idea has to be up front, not languishing at the end of the first paragraph. You need to give the listener a reason to care. Since this writing has to be capable of being processed by actual human beings, not me, I am put in the position of a coach, rather than a judge and executioner. Students are thus much more willing to re-write and take advice, much less threatened when I criticize their work. The most common comments I make on the first drafts are

  • don’t use technical terms (poetae novi, Enniamn, choliambic), or else explain them so ordinary people can understand them.
  • find an angle a particular aspect of the poem that intrigues you; start with a grabber
  • Say what you think, what you like or don’t like about the piece, help the listener to appreciate it
  • Subordinate research to your own ideas.
  • Don’t translate too literally.

An in-person meeting is essential to get the recitation up to snuff. Most students are petrified about the meter and the macrons. This meeting is opportunity to make the point that there is really no such thing as reading “in meter.” Pronounce it well, read it like you understand it, sell it, perform it, that’s what counts. Here again the presence of that external audience and the project-based nature of this make the students much more willing to take instruction, less like a class and more like a music lesson.

Passing out a rubric ahead of time is also helpful

[my rubric is here]

This to me is a good example of the use of technology that, far from distracting for the core values of the humanities, enacts them, while at the same time working on public speaking skills and technological competencies that will be useful far beyond the Latin classroom. This kind of thing is really in some ways a recuperation of Roman traditions of rhetorical education and public speaking. The advent of digital humanities and of social media (which are two different things) is an opportunity to revive the ancient art of rhetoric, a point stressed by the entirely classicist-free group of authors of the 2012 book Digital Humanities:

In the era of pervasive personal broadcasting, the art of oratory must be rediscovered. This is because digital networks and media have brought orality back into the mainstream of argumentation after a half-millennium in which it was mostly cast in a supporting role vis-à-vis print. You Tube lectures, podcasts, audio books, and the ubiquity of what is sometimes referred to as “demo culture” in the Digital Humanities all contribute to the resurgence of voice, of gesture, of extemporaneous speaking, of embodied performances of argument.

Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital Humanities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), p. 11, original emphasis.

In closing, I’ll offer you some advice from that great Roman professor of rhetoric Marcus Fabius Quintilianus on how to take this podcasting approach to Greek and Latin orality one step further into the realm of video podcasting. Quintilian discusses performance and gesture at length in his treatise on the education of the orator. For your enjoyment I abstracted the key points about gesture, essential stuff as we make the move to Latin and Greek on Youtube:


Podcasting Training outline (Brenda Landis, Dickinson Media Center): http://blogs.dickinson.edu/mediacenter/2011/07/27/podcast-training-outline/


Audacity: http://lis.dickinson.edu/Technology/Training/Tutorials/other/audtut.pdf

Garageband: http://lis.dickinson.edu/Technology/Training/Tutorials/media/GB%20tutorial.pdf

iMovie: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/mediacenter/files/2010/10/imovie-09-tutorial.pdf

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