Counting Matters: The National Latin Exam and the Politics of Record Keeping

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in a Virginia public school. She has published several collections of Latin mottoes online and has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on Twitter.

2019 has been the year of the Equity and Diversity Statement in Classics. The American Classical League released two statements this year. The March statement affirmed, “We embrace ‘all people who have an interest in the ancient world from all levels of instruction, stages of life, and backgrounds.’ Then, in May, after criticism of problematic promotional materials, the American Classical League released a statement condemning racist and white supremacist ideas and listing proposed actions to make “Classics for Everyone” a reality.

In April, also in response to criticism that exam questions sanitize slavery and sexual violence, the National Latin Exam Committee also released a statement promising to create “exams with inclusive, affirming questions and passages,” and added, “We are grateful for those who have raised concerns about diversity, inclusion, and equity and welcome future dialogue regarding ways the NLE can support these values.”

Statements must be the starting point for meaningful action, not just reactive public relations moments in response to public criticism. The first meaningful action should be answering a simple question: Who takes Latin? Without this information, it is impossible to implement and measure the effectiveness of solutions for making our field more inclusive and diverse. 

Unfortunately, the only information we have on the demographics of our field at the secondary level is the College Board data on Advanced Placement program participation. In 2018, only 6,409 students took the AP Latin exam; in 2019, only 6,117. We know from this data that only 3.5% of students who take the AP Latin exam are black. We also know that this percentage has not changed since 1999. While these data confirms what many of us know to be true about under-representation in Latin, they only tell us who is taking AP Latin. We do not have information about who is taking Latin outside of AP Latin programs. 

There is a better source for data. In 2018, 143,952 students of all levels registered for the National Latin Exam. If NLE collected information about race and ethnicity, we would have a much clearer picture of the current state of Latin. The NLE already collects information about the types of schools participating in their exam. Including a separate question for teachers about racial/ethnic enrollment at the school could also provide information about under-representation in the field. Instead, despite statements about diversity, the ACL-sponsored NLE is not including any questions related to race and ethnicity on their 2020 exam. 

As professional organizations and Classics programs at post-secondary institutions look towards the Future of Classics, the NLE would provide a valuable service to the field by collecting and publicizing this information. In response to my most recent request, I was told that the NLE Committee is concerned that answering a question about demographics would cause students of color to do poorly on the exam. This phenomenon is called a stereotype threat, and I agree that this is a problem in Classics. According to research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, stereotype threat is a condition of “being at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s social group.”  

As a practical solution to this concern, the question could be moved to a pre-registration day or to the end of the exam. Moving the exam question to the end, or refusing to ask the question altogether, does not eliminate stereotype threat in the context of the exam or the field as a whole. Which scenario would trigger more anxiety about prejudice and stereotypes: Answering a question about one’s identity or surveying the testing room as the only person of color in a nearly all-white space? Steele and Aronson affirm that the stress of being the “sole representative of a social category” can inhibit memory during academic tasks. 

There are many ways to mitigate and even eliminate stereotype threat that do not involve a ban on questions related to race and ethnicity on exams. For example, according to 2014 research from Toni Schmader and William Hall, increasing diversity can reduce stereotype threat. They wrote, “The impact of broader representation in educational and organizational environments is that group-based stereotypes begin to break down.” Ideally, a Latin student should be able to indicate a minority race or ethnicity on an NLE demographic question and feel pride instead of anxiety. Data will not make this scenario a reality, but it will make it possible to set goals with measurable outcomes. 

The NLE’s refusal to collect data in the name of marginalized students does not protect these students; rather, it perpetuates systemic injustice by hiding under-representation in the field. Who benefits from not collecting data? Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project of UCLA explained in a book chapter on the importance of data, “Those in power may fear the consequences of data and probably are not prepared to take action to alleviate group problems because data and tools for the assessment of progress are essential parts of serious reform strategies… Denial of problems and refusal to collect or publish data on sensitive issues are typical responses of those wanting to preserve the status quo.” Not collecting data is a deliberate, political decision to maintain the status quo. 

As long as the composition of the field is a secret, field-level conversations about diversity and will be theoretical at best and opportunistic at worst. With data, genuine commitment to equity and diversity can become measurable results.

Calls to Action: 

  1. The NLE should collect demographic data on the 2020 exam, and publicize that data in its 2020 report. If the answer sheet has been set, these data can be collected on a supplemental sheet for paper test-takers and can be added to the computer-based exam for other test-takers.
  2. As a sponsor of the NLE, the ACL should encourage the NLE to collect and release this data as a service to the field.
  3. The ACL should also continue their own efforts to “gather information about the demographics of Latin and Greek students nationwide,” as they wrote in their May 2019 statement.
  4. Professional associations that seek to foster classical studies throughout the country and through the collegiate level (e.g. SCS, CAMWS) should encourage and support the efforts of the NLE and use their data to help support diversity, equity, and inclusion in education, outreach, and publication.
  5. Teachers should collect data on their own programs and take steps to make their classrooms more inclusive if they do not mirror the demographics of their schools. 

 

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US Census 1820, from census.gov

Is Being a Student Like Being a Stan?

Dio Chrysostom, On Homer and Socrates 4-6

“If he was a fan, he could also be a student. For whoever is really interested in someone certainly knows what kind of a person he is and in imitating his works and words tries to make himself seem as much like him as possible. This is the very thing which a student seems to do: in imitating and watching the teacher he tries to acquire that art. But observing and associating with someone is not the same as learning.

For many people watch musicians and spend time with them or listen to them every day, but they would not be able to play an instrument unless they spend time attending to the musicians for the purpose of their art. But if you are reluctant to call Socrates a student of Homer and would just like to call him a fan, it makes no difference to me.”

Εἴπερ οὖν ζηλωτής, καὶ μαθητὴς εἴη ἄν. ὁ γὰρ ζηλῶν τινα ὀρθῶς ἐπίσταται δήπου ἐκεῖνον ὁποῖος ἦν καὶ μιμούμενος τὰ ἔργα καὶ τοὺς λόγους ὡς οἷόν τε ἐπιχειρεῖ ὅμοιον αὑτὸν ἀποφαίνειν. ταὐτὸ δὲ τοῦτο καὶ ὁ μαθητὴς ποιεῖν ἔοικε· μιμούμενος τὸν διδάσκαλον καὶ προσέχων ἀναλαμβάνει τὴν τέχνην. τὸ δὲ ὁρᾶν καὶ ξυνεῖναι οὐδέν ἐστι πρὸς τὸ μανθάνειν· πολλοὶ γὰρ καὶ ὁρῶσι τοὺς αὐλητὰς καὶ ξύνεισι καὶ ἀκούουσιν ὁσημέραι, καὶ οὐδ᾿ ἂν ἐμφυσῆσαι τοῖς αὐλοῖς δύναιντο, οἳ ἂν μὴ ἐπὶ τέχνῃ μηδὲ προσέχοντες ξυνῶσιν. ἀλλ᾿ εἴ γε δυσωπῇ μαθητὴν Ὁμήρου τὸν Σωκράτην καλεῖν, ζηλωτὴν δὲ μόνον, οὐδέν μοι διοίσει.

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Yale Manuscript 229, Folio 272v. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale

For Recommendation Season, A Letter of Reference from Fronto

Fronto, Letters to Friends 1.4 (Ambr. 308):

“Greetings to Aegrilius,

If you trust me at all, I comment to you Julius Aquilinus, a man most learned, most articulate, fantastically trained by the disciplines of philosophy for the best arts, and shaped by the study of eloquence to a peerless ability to speak. It is right that so very serious and wise a man should receive from you, a man as learned and serious, not only protection but promotion and respect.

Aquilinus is also—if you trust my opinion—a man of the kind of character that he must be considered an ornament to you no less than he has been to me. You will not doubt that what I say is true once you take the time to hear him speak about Platonic doctrine.

Thanks to your wisdom and intelligence, you will see that he is not inequal to his impressive fame, thanks to his immense wealth in the finest words and the great flood of his thoughts. Once you have understood that this is true, be warned that there is more to this man’s character still since his honesty and his modesty are so great. The greatest crowds of people came together to hear him at Rome on many occasions.”

Aegrilio Plariano salutem.

Iulium Aquilinum virum, si quid mihi credis doctis|simum facundissimum, philosophiae disciplinis ad optimas artes, eloquentiae studiis ad egregiam facundiam eximie eruditum, commendo tibi quam possum studiosissime. Decet a te gravissimo et sapientissimo viro tam doctum tamque elegantem virum non modo protegi sed etiam provehi et illustrari. Est etiam, si quid mihi credis, Aquilinus eiusmodi vir ut in tui ornamentis aeque ac nostri merito numerandus sit. Non dubitabis ita esse ut dico, si eum audire disputantem de Platonicis disciplinis dignatus fueris. Perspicies pro tua prudentia intellegentiaque summa <non> minorem fama, lucu lentissimum verborum adparatu, maxima frequentia sententiarum. Quom haec ita esse deprehenderis, scito amplius esse in hominis moribus, tanta probitate est et verecundia: maximi concursus ad audiendum eum Romae saepe facti sunt.

Royal Library. Ms. 4, 2o f. 183v

Teaching–“the most rigorous form of learning”

Solon, fr. 18

“I grow old, always learning many things.”

γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·

Kim Stanley Robinson The Years of Rice and Salt (2003: 758)

“Over time, Bao came to understand that teaching too was a kind of reincarnation, in that years passed and students came and went, new young people all the time, but always the same age, taking the same class; the class under the oak trees, reincarnated. He began to enjoy that aspect of it. He would start the first class by saying, “Look, here we are again.” They never knew what to make of it; same response, every time.

He learned, among other things, that teaching was the most rigorous form of learning. He learned to learn more from his students than they did from him; like so many other things, it was the reverse from what it seemed to be, and colleges existed to bring together groups of young people to teach some chosen few of their elders the things that they knew about life, that the old teachers had been in danger of forgetting.”

Kim Stanley Robinson is great-souled. This book is beyond simple description. Try it.

Thinking about aging today? Here is another great reflection on aging, teaching, and changing roles in life by Stephanie McCarter.

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For the New Semester: Augustine on His Students

Confessions 5.12

“I then started to pursue the work for which I traveled there, to teach the art of Rhetoric at Rome. Soon, certain men gathered at my home among whom and through whom I became well known. But look: I learned that some things happened in Rome which I would not have endured in Africa. For, in truth, the destruction caused by wasted youths which I saw there would not have happened in Africa. They said to me: “Suddenly, in order not to pay their teacher, many young men will conspire and move on to another—they abandon their promises: because of their love of money, justice is cheap.” My heart hated those bastards, but not with a complete hatred: surely, I hated more what I would suffer because of them than the wrongs they committed against others.”

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sedulo ergo agere coeperam, propter quod veneram, ut docerem Romae artem rhetoricam, et prius domi congregare aliquos quibus et per quos innotescere coeperam. et ecce cognosco alia Romae fieri, quae non patiebar in Africa. nam re vera illas eversiones a perditis adulescentibus ibi non fieri manifestatum est mihi: ‘sed subito,’ inquiunt, ‘ne mercedem magistro reddant, conspirant multi adulescentes et transferunt se ad alium, desertores fidei et quibus prae pecuniae caritate iustitia vilis est.’ oderat etiam istos cor meum, quamvis non perfecto odio. quod enim ab eis passurus eram magis oderam fortasse quam eo quod cuilibet inlicita faciebant.

Returning to School? Advice for Listening to Lectures

Mark Pattison’s humility and anxiety mentioned in an earlier post is certainly familiar to many of us who have been overmatched in the classroom. Fortunately (or not), Plutarch has some reflection and advice on this (De recta ratione audendi 47d)

“Perhaps philosophy contains something, certain matters, difficult for inexperienced and young students to understand in the beginning. But, without a doubt, they fall into most difficulty on their own thanks to unclear thought or ignorance—those who misunderstand the same thing do it for opposite reasons. For some hesitate to ask questions because of shame or to spare the speaker and therefore fail to establish the argument firmly in their minds all while nodding their heads as if they understand. Others, because of an untimely ambition or silly rivalry with their peers to make a show of their perceptiveness and their ability to learn, assert that they understand something before they do and, as a result, do not understand it at all. Then, it turns out that those who are humble and silent, when they leave the lecture, trouble themselves and feel at a loss until finally, and now compelled by necessity with greater shame, they encumber the lecturers by asking questions and making up for what should have been said before. The result for the ambitious and bold young men is that they are always trying to work around and cover up their cultivated ignorance.”

῎Ισως μὲν οὖν ἔχει τι καὶ τὰ πράγματα τοῖς ἀπείροις καὶ νέοις ἐν ἀρχῇ δυσκατανόητον• οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ τῇ γε πλείστῃ περιπίπτουσιν ἀσαφείᾳ καὶ ἀγνοίᾳ δι’ αὑτούς, ἀπ’ ἐναντίων φύσεων ταὐτὸν ἁμαρτάνοντες. οἱ μὲν γὰρ αἰσχύνῃ τινὶ καὶ φειδοῖ τοῦ λέγοντος ὀκνοῦντες ἀνερέσθαι καὶ βεβαιώσασθαι τὸν λόγον, ὡς ἔχοντες ἐν νῷ συνεπινεύουσιν, οἱ δ’ ὑπὸ φιλοτιμίας ἀώρου καὶ κενῆς πρὸς ἑτέρους ἁμίλλης ὀξύτητα καὶ δύναμιν εὐμαθείας ἐπιδεικνύμενοι, πρὶν ἢ λαβεῖν ἔχειν ὁμολογοῦντες, οὐ λαμβάνουσιν. εἶτα συμβαίνει τοῖς μὲν αἰδήμοσι καὶ σιωπηλοῖς ἐκείνοις, ὅταν ἀπέλθωσι, λυπεῖν αὑτοὺς καὶ ἀπορεῖσθαι, καὶ τέλος αὖθις ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης ἐλαυνομένους σὺν αἰσχύνῃ μείζονι τοῖς εἰποῦσιν ἐνοχλεῖν ἀναπυνθανομένους καὶ μεταθέοντας, τοῖς δὲ φιλοτίμοις καὶ θρασέσιν ἀεὶ περιστέλλειν καὶ ἀποκρύπτειν συνοικοῦσαν τὴν ἀμαθίαν.

“Be The Best”: Wonderful, Terrible Advice

This year I taught my last class at my first institution and soon I will teach my first at a very different school. Although I am happy to start anew, there will be many people to miss and among them stand many of the students who have impacted my life. This time of year teachers are mostly worn down—it is often hard to see the good we do in the midst of it. Indeed, as I tell my students, we are conditioned to see our failures (of which there are many without a doubt) and to minimize our successes.

I tried to downplay my departure—my department held a small gathering to mark it and a few students were invited. One of the students brought a card from a student who graduated several years ago:

Be the best.jpg

The bit about “be the best” is a truth that makes me shudder a bit because it can be terrible advice to set someone up for disappointment. I remember the conversation distinctly—the student had finished a senior thesis and was ready to go to law school but the process had been frustrating for us both. After letting the student know she had done just fine, I told her law school was going to be harder and she had a choice of doing well (which she would) or doing great. Then I quoted the Iliad.

Il. 6.206-208

“Hippolochus fathered me—I claim him as my father.
He sent me to Troy and gave me much advice,
To always be the best and to be better than the rest.”

῾Ιππόλοχος δέ μ’ ἔτικτε, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ φημι γενέσθαι·
πέμπε δέ μ’ ἐς Τροίην, καί μοι μάλα πόλλ’ ἐπέτελλεν
αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων…

And also:

11.783-789

“Old Peleus advised his son Achilles
To always be the best and be better than the rest.
And to you in turn your father Menoitios, Aktor’s son, advised:
‘My child, Achilles is superior to you by birth,
But you are older. And he is much stronger than you.
But you must do well to speak and give him a close word,
And to advise him. He will obey you to a good end.”

Πηλεὺς μὲν ᾧ παιδὶ γέρων ἐπέτελλ’ ᾿Αχιλῆϊ
αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων·
σοὶ δ’ αὖθ’ ὧδ’ ἐπέτελλε Μενοίτιος ῎Ακτορος υἱός·
τέκνον ἐμὸν γενεῇ μὲν ὑπέρτερός ἐστιν ᾿Αχιλλεύς,
πρεσβύτερος δὲ σύ ἐσσι· βίῃ δ’ ὅ γε πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
ἀλλ’ εὖ οἱ φάσθαι πυκινὸν ἔπος ἠδ’ ὑποθέσθαι
καί οἱ σημαίνειν· ὃ δὲ πείσεται εἰς ἀγαθόν περ.

In the first passage, Glaukos is telling Diomedes who he is and they ‘bond’ over their shared background (really, I think Glaukos comes out on top—though he exchanges gold armor for bronze, he lives to fight another day). In the second, Nestor is attempting to persuade Patroklos that he too is responsible for Achilles’ behavior because of their fathers’ injunctions.

Most of us who teach are more like Nestor than Patroklos, but we have Patroklos’ ability to advice, apply a convincing word here and there and hope (sometimes against all logic) that what we say will have some “good” outcome. While we watch hundreds (if not thousands) of students pass through our classrooms over the years, we remember mostly those we don’t seem to move, the good we seem not to have accomplished.

But every once in a while, we are lucky enough to hear that what we do makes a real difference. And it is often not in the exam we set, the lecture we give, or the grades we dole out. We make impacts in those human interactions between the scripted moments. Don’t get me wrong—everything else is important too: the scripted moments allow us to “be the best” in one way, to offer that “close-kept word”. But our unassessed, unquantified, and unmandated contributions help to take our work from the classroom to the world our students (and we) inhabit.

In nearly a decade at my first job I was honored to have many students like the one who sent me this thank-you note—bright young people who will go on to make their lives better and improve the lives of those around them. I am thankful to have had this opportunity and humbled that I too have been able to make a difference.