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Classics thrive at Oxford

Having read about ancient war in Virgil's "Aeneid" — depicted on the left — classic literature students at Oxford College were challenged to compare and contrast the experience of war as seen through the eyes of the warrior Aeneas with the words of the U.S. war veterans they were assigned to interview. Painting by Luca Giordano.

In a time defined by the Internet, social media and constant technological change, is it possible to excite students with literature written 2,000 or more years ago in languages sometimes referred to as "dead"? At Oxford College, the answer is a resounding yes. 

The study of Latin and classical Greek is thriving on the campus where Emory began and in a building dating to 1874 — the aptly named Language Hall — where students in the 19th century also went through the rigors of Latin and Greek grammar.

Henry Bayerle, assistant professor of classics, joined Oxford in the fall of 2006, when 21 students enrolled in his classical language courses, and seven students studied classical literature in English translation. Five years later, the total numbers have more than doubled, with 42 students in classical language courses and 22 studying classical literature in English translation.

Bayerle, who received his doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard University, is essentially a classics department of one. He has a teaching repertoire of Latin, Greek and classical literature in translation, but as his program has grown, offering elementary and intermediate Latin and classical literature meant that there was no room in the schedule for Greek. In the spring of 2011, Bayerle and Peter Bing, Chair and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of the Classics at Emory College, came up with a cooperative solution: someone from the Emory College faculty would come to Oxford to teach the intermediate course in Latin, freeing Bayerle to offer elementary Greek. "It was a win-win situation," says Bing. "Expanding the study of classics at Oxford benefits all of us."

Asked what motivates students to study the classics, Bayerle says, "They take these courses for a wide variety of reasons. Part of it may be a response to popular culture — think 'Gladiator,' '300,' numerous video games. Many mention that they know that knowledge of Latin may help them with vocabulary on standardized tests such as the GRE. But they are, after all, students who have chosen a liberal-arts intensive environment at Oxford; they also know these languages are part of the liberal-arts tradition."

But why do they stay? 

"I find that many of the students who enter our courses for those first reasons eventually discover other sources of intellectual pleasure and value in the classics and return for more," says Bayerle. 

He and Bing say that many fall in love with philology and analysis of the language. For others, it is finding relevance in the writings of great ancient authors whose words have been meaningful for generations. 

In this past year, Bayerle found yet another way of helping students find relevance in the classics. Using Oxford's Theory-Practice/Service Learning (TPSL) model, he devised a TPSL plan in which students in his literature course on the Romans would visit and interview veterans of World War II, the Vietnam War and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having read about ancient war in Virgil's "Aeneid," they were challenged to compare and contrast the experience of war as seen through the eyes of the warrior Aeneas with the words of the U.S. war veterans they spoke with.

Bayerle says that the classics have much to offer students, regardless of what they choose as their major. 

"Words matter. I believe the classics teach them about rhetorical choices and make them better listeners and readers. They read timeless literature that is a conversation about what it means to be human-these words are about us."

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