I just completed my first leg of what I am referring to as “Latin bootcamp”. Named the Conventiculum Dickinsoniense, it is an extension of an idea spawned by Dr. Terence Tunberg back in 1996 at the University of Kentucky, known as the Conventiculum Lexintoniense. It started out as a crazy idea – a full immersion event for Latin practitioners whereby the participants would speak nothing but Latin for the duration of the event. It began with a small circle of people but has since grown into a very large operation with representatives from all over the world.
As noted above, there are two operations that Dr. Tunberg now manages; the original program he launched at UK and the “expansion” which is here at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
I first learned about this opportunity while attending the Living Latin in NYC convention this past February. I was able to meet with Dr. Tunberg and ask him a few questions after one of his talks. He graciously entertained my questions and even followed up with me via email. We corresponded; he passed along the event information and I was able to get approval from my school’s professional development resources. What transpired was an amazing exploration of an unseen world that I hadn’t realized existed.
My practice as a teacher of Latin has been gradually evolving. This site documents that process (for anyone who has cared to read about it). Coming from an average American background, I was the first of my household to attend college and even get a MA, let alone a BA. I have followed my intellectual interests in this pursuit and have always felt a little “uncouth” in this quest. I only learned about the opportunity to study Latin in my advanced undergraduate years; this fed my drive to learn ancient Greek as well. I shifted my focus from my BA in Art History towards an MA in Classics. In fact, it was Dr. Hans Friedrich Mueller, who gave me great advice when I followed him into grad school at FSU. Enthusiastically, I shared with him my desire to become a professor some day – I am sure he had heard that a million times from other eager students before. He advised me that if I wanted to continue working in this field, I needed to learn Latin and Greek so that I can always teach it.
So I did. Probably not as well as I, nor my other professors, had hoped. I obtained a significant level of fluency in both Latin and Greek – but I always felt like a fraud. Sure, I could translate things at sight, but I always felt frustrated about having to translate everything into English in order to understand it. It wasn’t natural and I struggled with this.
I eventually gave up on a pursuit of my Ph.D. not because I wasn’t willing or able, but because I wasn’t sure if there would be much payoff. After prolonging my studies, what would await me? I would be in the back of the line for a job at a university of college, and then that would lead to potentially many years of financial struggles ahead before I could even get a sniff of tenure. I dragged myself into the secondary world to see if I even liked teaching after all – since my previous experience was only in grad school as a teaching assistant. Time to start paying bills and, God willing, start a family.
I belabor these points to give more context to my evolution as a teacher of Latin. It is a rather traditional one. The point is, as I was moving along in my academic career, I would peer out the window from time to time to see the lay of the land quickly moving by. I heard about these legendary meetings under a tree in the Roman summer sun where students would learn Latin from an enigmatic and eccentric AmericanCatholic priest working in the Vatican. Reginald Foster was the name whispered in our hallways as we headed off in the summer to excavate. Some of us were looking to upgrade our Latin skill set and perhaps studying with him would do the trick. It never happened for me but it gave my imagination hope that there was a better way to learn – which later became an inspiration for my own teaching style.
I stumbled upon Hans Orberg’s miracle text, Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata some years later during my early teaching career. I couldn’t put the book down. It was amazing to see Latin, without English, and to be able to read it and understand it without reliance on translation. This became a cornerstone of my teaching practice – but all of it was the result of foraging off the reservation on my own. Needless to say, that is never an efficient way of doing things – but it is a way.
The past couple of years I have even further evolved my practice. I came across the concept of TPR (total physical response) which then led me to TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) which finally dropped me at the feet of the CI (comprehensible input) community. I grappled with the terminology and the concepts about SLA (second language acquisition). Here I found a mirror, something I had been searching for, that contained a framework and a philosophy that I had subscribed to in my own mind. I found people who could explain things much more effectively than I could cobble together and I was hooked. It was like latching onto a jet plane from a skate board – I was yanked in its direction fast, but there was some significant whiplash.
This eventually led me to discover a community of Latin teachers and enthusiasts who were comprised of everyone from traditionally educated to autodidacts figuring it out. Justin Slocum Bailey popped up in my searches as did Lance Piantaggini. My world expanded all the while trying to hold down a solid gig teaching Latin in the backdrop of Florida – which has virtually little to no tradition for Classical education in the secondary circles (which is why I have been a slow pot to boil over the years I suppose). Again, more context to help other readers who may find themselves in the same predicament. There is hope. There is a community. A hidden nation, if you will, that is starting to expand its reach from beyond a small circle of people into a larger community.
That is precisely the point I am trying to make. What Dr. Tunberg has done, since 1996, is expand the reach of Latin and directly affect the way it is being learned and taught. It has been happening for some time now (since I graduated from high school, ironically) in the background. I cannot speak to the demographics of the conventicula over the years, but I saw a mix of people at this event – from students in high school and college (salvēte, Draco, Miles, et Nicholas) to graduate students, and teachers.
Not just new teachers but veteran teachers who have been teaching much longer than I have and they were the sharpest speakers of Latin among us. Apparently, they have been coming for years! This astounds me because from my network and vantage point, I thought I was the radical; pushing to use Orberg and trying to teach Latin Latinē and trying out CI in my classes. Turns out, I am just a neophyte in this thing after all! Which is both encouraging and humbling.
As I’ve gotten older, I have gotten wiser in the sense that my ego – aflame from my youth perhaps – has cooled and I’ve since realized that collaboration is the key to mastery. You need perspective. Your own thoughts and ideas trap you into an echo chamber where you are your own cheerleader, great for motivation (and delusions of grandeur), but you also don’t face your own flaws because you can’t see them. There are so many other people from all walks of life who have as much passion for studying Latin that I have (and maybe even more, if that is possible!) but they are also better at it. Or more efficient at it. Not sure, but the results are what are measurable in language: either you can effectively communicate or not – and they speak for themselves.
So, into the conventiculum I dropped myself. It was 6 days of speaking nothing but Latin to the other participants and we were sufficiently isolated on campus. We all were in the same dorm and our walk to our sessionēs was not too far and provided us with constant contact with one another. You could choose to interact with others as much as you’d like – after the day was done there was always dinner to catch or perhaps stay in and just process.
I’ll get more into the meat of the conventiculum in a future post but I did want to layout my own personal evolution to provide context. It is important to note that there is a growing community of Latin practitioners who believe Latin can and should be spoken in order to properly experience the language and the ideas that flow from it. Language is not just a collection of sounds but provides a cultural glue. Seeing it in living color just made this manifest. Knowing that you could carry on a full conversation, with the whole range of human emotions and experiences available, is beyond helpful; it is inspiring. It has helped me drastically rethink my goals as a teacher of this ancient language – one that has been continuously spoken since the days of the Caesars. In fact, even longer and that in itself is pretty remarkable.
I am going to remain for a few more days and attend another workshop where we are reading a 16th century text, written by a Portuguese sailor and explorer, about his travels around the world within the expansive Portuguese naval empire. Here is someone who is from Portugal writing about his expeditions into Japan, China, Africa, and even Brazil. He did so in Latin. Gaining this ability to communicate in Latin can do nothing but expand our worlds beyond the mere frames of time and space we find ourselves confined within.
What’s my main takeaway? If you can find yourself the opportunity to attend Dr. Tunberg’s conventicula (either one), do it. He is probably one of the top 5 Latinists in the world. If you want to get better, find someone who is killing it and learn from them. In a conventiculum, you will find many people who are doing just that and you can build a network to help you do the same. Perhaps your journey will bring you to that final destination – that hidden nation of Latin speakers that provide a direct path back to a greater human legacy.