When Rhiannon Knol ’11 and Eric Struble ’11 took Latin 201, they were disappointed in the assigned text.
They felt that the Latin letters and annotations, which help students learn more about the language, were too narrowly focused. “We’re intermediate students, and we know what intermediate students need,” said Knol. “We kept talking about it and making jokes about how we could do it better ourselves.”
With the support of their professor, the pair decided to write their own textbook.
The classics majors embarked on the ambitious project during the 2009 Summer Research Program. Eight weeks of intense work culminated in a Latin reader titled Epistulae Aliorum: Other People’s Mail, which they edited with Susan Stevens, professor of classics and the Catherine E. and William E. Thoresen Chair in the Humanities. Their text was used in Latin 201 last fall.
Knol, recipient of the Robert Lloyd Scholarship, developed an interest in antiquity and classics early. As a preschooler, she was enthralled by a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. That interest persisted: she is a student of both Latin and Greek and has taken advantage of the College’s crossdisciplinary approach to learning.
“One of the best classes I’ve taken is a class with Gordon Steffey on the historic Jesus,” she said, noting that his course, along with Stevens’ archeological work in northern Africa and her own interest in the letters of Augustine and Jerome, inspired her interest in early Christian and medieval studies.
Struble, a Gottwald Scholar, residence hall director, and outside midfielder on the men’s soccer team, intended to major in biology. His study of Latin in high school and interest in the Roman Empire led him to take classics courses that, in turn, reawakened a childhood interest in archeology.
Struble’s personal research interest during the compilation and editing of Other People’s Mail was the Vindolanda Letters, which were written by barely literate Roman soldiers stationed at Vindolanda, an outpost on the border between England and Scotland. “The letters include a birthday invitation,” said Struble. “Nothing really changes in terms of what people write about.
It’s what we write about today, even in e-mail.”
Knol and Struble selected letters for their textbook based on their research interests and input from Stevens. They developed notes commenting on the historical, societal, and syntactical contexts of the letters and applied macra, or long marks, to help readers understand pronunciation and usage.
“Most texts don’t include long marks because it is a very involved process,” said Struble. “You have to check every word, you have to understand the patterns that govern when long marks should appear, and often you have to look up every word in the dictionary.”
Other People’s Mail covers a period from the last century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. and a diverse, inclusive cross-section of letters by age, gender, and social class. The preface reads: “We tried to select letters that would be most interesting to intermediate Latin students, resulting in a collection of generally funny, dramatic, candid, poignant, and even prurient correspondence.”
The delivery methods have changed, but the topics in our letters and messages are very much the same as the ancients. That is part of what makes classics so relevant and real for Knol, Struble, and their colleagues.
“Classics give you a foundation to study anything,” said Knol. “If you are interested in a topic or theme, you can find it in antiquity.”