300 Words


Notes from a Davidson classroom

A group exercise room off a hallway beside Belk Arena seems an unlikely venue in which to find the Socratic method deployed in a Latin class.

Or not.

One Wednesday morning in October, spoken Latin flowed freely there among 18 students of Associate Professor and Chair of Classics Keyne Cheshire’s Latin 101.

The room choice was necessitated by one of Cheshire’s pedagogical conditions: freedom from chair-desks lined up in a row, in order that the Socratic spirit have room to move and breathe, as under shade trees of old.

One student entered on crutches, an ankle injury. “Dolet! She’s hurt!” Cheshire exclaimed.

Each pupil picked up a 12 x 18-inch whiteboard, then circled up. “Write down a noun!” Cheshire stood in the middle, whirling and calling and pointing for declensions: nominative… genitive… dative… accusative… ablative…

An ablative came back singular, should have been plural. Cheshire prodded in English: “We’re going to throw all the books out of all the windows!” Ah, fenestris

On to verb conjugations, same drill. At one point, an attempt at the passive voice for an intransitive verb rendered the translation “he/she/it is cried”—an instructive grammatical discrepancy that led Cheshire to a brief digression in comparative linguistics: “English can do all sorts of heinous things that Latin won’t let us do. In English, you can sleep a sleep, live a life…”

Finally came an unstructured “Tower of Babel” exercise to get everyone’s linguae loosened up for this morning’s installment of a sketch with a recurring cast of dramatis personae.

Hodie, equus est,” Cheshire declared, as a student pulled from a bag of props a small stuffed animal. It looked nothing like an equus. Imagination was clearly part of the Socratic method, hodie, today.

And henceforth for these students, perhaps every day.


About Author

John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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