How to Handle Classical Reading Lists?
June 2, 2009 8:11 AM   Subscribe

I'll be starting a Ph.D. program in Classics in the fall. Protips requested---especially as regards the reading list.

I've been out of school for a year, so I'm excited to get back into the swing of things, academically speaking. For the moment, the most daunting prospects are the arm-long Greek and Latin reading lists; I've got to take one of the reading exams by the end of my first year, and the other by the end of my second.

My primary question is this: How should I handle these lists? Should I read the texts in English first so I get the gist, and then skim in the original? Should I rely on the Loebs? How do I make sure I have some grasp on as many of the selections as possible within the time allotted? What strategies have worked for you?

Secondarily, o Classics grad students, any general advice you'd offer to someone about to start in a program?
posted by Bromius to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not a classics grad student, but someone who works in the test prep and tutoring industry. Here's some potentially good adivce:

Don't go to graduate school in the humanities.

If you do choose to go, my advice is to make sure you remember why you're going, keep the end goal in mind, and don't forget to have a life.
posted by griseus at 8:24 AM on June 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

All the classics grad students I ever knew lived and died by the Loebs.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:26 AM on June 2, 2009

Generic advice from PhD student here - be really clear what you were going to do afterwards. I was not. I am now too far along to turn back, but I would find it hard to argue with griseus's link up there.

Write down now a letter to yourself as to why you want to do this, what you will gain from it, why you are going to commit to this slightly insane life. What do you see in your future? Write that all down, and put it in an envelope in a safe place. Then when you feel like this was the craziest idea you ever had, at least you will feel like you have some kind of plan.
posted by Augenblick at 8:34 AM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not a classics student, but I do some some ancient philosophy, and took my second translation exam in greek. I used Loebs primarily but always had a couple other translations lying around, to help me see why things were translated a certain way (because there are a lot of different translating styles in the loeb series, and not all of them worked for me). Lots of people I know who are more focused on greek philosophy just read the greek texts.

Reading groups with other students were very important for me. Just sitting with a group of students and yr Liddell & Scott and going over the greek text, each person translating (or reading what they translated earlier) a sentence, type thing. That's mostly to work on the language, but as you're going you clarify the meaning as well. Much slower than just reading, but effective.

What's the purpose of your program? WIll you be reading certain texts in classes? Are these just general "you should know about these" texts or what? I studied a lot of Aristotle and some Plato in class, but read the complete Plato in english on my own one summer just to have read it once. In fact I have never done the equivalent with Aristotle, but feel I know Aristotle better than Plato - my most useful experiences were the in-depth interpretations and really getting to know the original style of the writer...

So along the lines of what people above were saying, i'd figure out why you're doing this, and focus on learning what is important to you rather than just plowing through a list.
posted by mdn at 8:56 AM on June 2, 2009

There's a big and diverse community of grad students on the forums of PhD Comics. Repeating this question there will get you another slew of good answers and introduce you to some other Classics grad students.

They're quite heavy on the in-jokes, but they're a friendly bunch and will be able to give some good advice about all aspects of grad life. Even if you don't have the same sense of humour, they're a very welcoming support group for the inevitable stresses / rants that will come your way.

I can't help with the Classics, but my best piece of grad school advice is to remember that the PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. It's easy to start off at a crazy pace because there's so much to do and you're really excited. But you need to pace yourself: every now and again just take a step back and think "is this a pace I'll be able to sustain for x more years without burning out?"
posted by metaBugs at 8:56 AM on June 2, 2009

Your preferred reading language (Latin/Greek or English) should depend on your proficiency in the relevant languages. I think you have to be a virtually fluent reader to be able to read the Latin and Greek without an eye to a modern translation. Otherwise you're bound to miss key elements of the text.

Your reading method will also depend on the kind of work you're doing. If you're focusing purely on the content of the readings, I'd say it's best to work with a translation and consult the original text when you cite important passages (that is, if you cite them in a class discussion, or in a paper). If you are more concerned about the use of language itself, you'll want to keep the original Latin and Greek texts handy and rely on them a lot more. Translations give you content, but offer few insights as to how the original texts were arranged.

I can't comment on the Loeb versions, as it's not my period. I do see plenty of people walking around with them on campus, however, and as far as I know they are fine to work with.
posted by hiteleven at 9:05 AM on June 2, 2009

I am not a classicist; I am a historian who works with a lot of Latin sources (or neo-Latin sources, as purists might say) and the occasional passage in Greek. My advice would be to ignore translations entirely and learn to actually read Latin and Greek. The method I used is set out by Waldo Sweet in Latin: A Structural Approach, rev. ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966). It's called metaphrasing: the idea is to master Latin (and, mutatis mutandis, Greek) by reading a sentence in its natural order and figuring out, as you go along, what each word means (which for an inflected language, especially in poetry, often means suspending your understanding until you have acquired enough information).

You can have a grammar and a dictionary on hand, but I find it counterproductive to have a translation. It's too easy to get lazy. Besides, most Latin texts have never been translated (there's far more Latin that was written from late antiquity through the 17th century than has survived from classical antiquity). For classical texts, the Teubner and OCT editions are useful precisely because they don't have facing page translations. If you feel you need one, try the Reclam or Belles Lettres editions: you can sharpen your German or French at the same time, since you'll probably need both of those anyway.

This approach will take a lot of time and effort but it's how modern languages are learned. When I was in grad school I took Richard Saller's seminar on Roman Imperial Society and I was struck by how the classics grad students would talk about "sight reading" an unknown text, as if it were a piece of music. Students in German, French, or Italian don't talk about "sight reading"; they just read. In my opinion (and Sweet's), classics students should just read. Only consult a translation if you're really stumped, but it's better to be in a reading group as mdn suggests.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:37 PM on June 2, 2009

When I was in grad school I took Richard Saller's seminar on Roman Imperial Society and I was struck by how the classics grad students would talk about "sight reading" an unknown text, as if it were a piece of music.

Really? That's quite bad for a grad student.

Once you've finished your introductory Latin grammar, grab a copy of De Bello Gallico or De Bello Civile and start to read. Caesar is a clear and readable author and you should be able to make progress enough that the exhilaration of "sight reading" Latin should bear you through the perhaps quite repetitive subject matter. Reading Caesar is a bit like reading a tabloid newspaper from 1st Century BC. He's as easy to read and just as reliable.

Impressed by sight reading, eh? That's bad.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 1:08 PM on June 2, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice so far---and for the warnings. I'm aware of the dangers of burnout and losing focus, and I'll do my best to combat them once I start the program. Writing a letter to myself is a great idea, and I should do it while I'm still fresh and (god help me) idealistic.

That said, perhaps I should have been clearer in my original question. I already know Greek and Latin, and have studied the languages for years. I'm more concerned about the logistics of reading hundreds upon hundreds of pages of text well enough to translate excerpts in addition to the not inconsiderable required coursework. I'm used to preparing a text for class or study in a methodical and often slow way, and I realize that such a technique will be extremely difficult both given the size of the weekly assignments and the boatload of texts for the exams.

There will be sight reading on the exams, too, and while I was never very good at it I expect my facility in that particular skill to increase the more (and more) I read.
posted by Bromius at 2:06 PM on June 2, 2009

Best answer: The best way to gain fluency in reading is, well, reading. Extensively. When I did my translation exams as a grad student, I had the fortune of having read pretty much (some) of everything on the Latin reading list since I'd done a lot of coursework in Latin (started in 7th grade, did graduate level courses starting first year of college). I had no problems translating anything that was on the Latin exam even though I hadn't read all of the selections before (I don't think they were all even on the reading list, iirc). Greek, which I didn't start until my first year of college, on the other hand, I find sight reading in much more difficult, because I've read comparatively much less of it. Again, I was sight reading on the translation exam (because I sure didn't read everything on the Greek reading list!), although I found that much more stressful than the Latin one. The thing is, you're *not* going to perfectly remember every passage from the reading list to translate on the exam. You're *supposed* to just know the language/the authors' styles well enough to just *do* it. It's not quite like taking a translation quiz in an author course, with a limited amount of lines to prepare, or whatever.

What you do to prepare depends on your personality. Some people are very regimented and will simply divide the reading lists up and then read X number of pages/day between the time they start grad school and the translation exams. (I'm not that sort of person at all, but it worked well for other students in my program.) I was more a 'read things I'm interested in' sort of student, so I read things I enjoyed off the lists, mainly. I read lots of things I enjoyed that weren't on the lists (lots more Plautus, Pliny the Younger; fun things that allowed me to read extensively rather than the tedious, slow close reading you do in classes).

As I tell my high school students now, it's actually really helpful to read quickly (read-read, not translate-read) through texts that are a bit under your current reading level to just get the feeling of the language, increase vocabulary and fluency, etc. (The reading method, so called, works exactly on that principle: the Cambridge Latin Course is the best example of that type of course.) There's a lot of interesting texts out there that fall into that sort of 'easy' read: some medieval things in Latin, the New Testament in Greek, or whatever. I *love* texts with facing vocabularies for that. You'll read several hundred lines of, say, Vergil an hour that way with no difficulty. It's similar to using a Loeb, but not *as* reliant on English translation. More prose! Poetry is all well and good, but it's not meant to be read quickly. We wouldn't rush through poetry in English either, but it's easy to forget that when feeling so "slow" compared to reading in modern languages! It used to frustrate me to no end that I could read German or French without needing to stop, look up words, "find the verb," etc., until I realized I was comparing things like novels or plays to lyric poetry. Totally different types of reading. I want to look up every word in a poem by Rimbaud just like in Sappho. I can skim through one of Suetonius' Lives and not mentally "translate" any of it.

As mentioned above, reading with people is a great way to maintain motivation. It's also good for helping you work out issues that may come up as you read. That's the thing I miss most about grad school, reading with other people! Reading with high school students is, um, not the same. :P Pick a text everyone wants to do and make a schedule and stick to it. Summers are especially good for that.

In terms of preparing for generals exams, a quick glance through things in translation is helpful for general familiarity with works. I've still not read a bunch of things from the Greek list except in English (or in a Loeb, half-heartedly glancing over at the Greek). I passed all my exams just fine. YMMV! :)
posted by lysimache at 4:01 PM on June 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: lysimache, ago gratias tibi.
posted by Bromius at 7:35 PM on June 2, 2009

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