James Ker and students are helping Latin live

The professor of classical studies researches new approaches to teaching the language that reflects the 21st century.

James Ker wants to find better ways to teach Latin. “With Latin and Greek, we’re dealing with fairly unique languages with a unique history of teaching methods that are necessarily antiquated,” says the professor of classical studies. “And I’m looking to update how we teach these languages at Penn.”

Zoom screenshot clockwise from top left: Dara Sanchez, James Ker, Catherine Sorrentino, and Riley Needham.
Classical studies professor James Ker (top right) worked with CURF students Dara Sanchez (top left), Catherine Sorrentino (bottom right), and Riley Needham, to explore and expand Latin education.

His work is part of a larger movement, as classical studies itself undergoes a reconsideration of what the field is and how its scholars should relate to its history, which Ker says has been quite problematic from a social justice standpoint. He sees this as an opportunity to hear from students and audiences who have traditionally been excluded from the field. “Classical studies has an opportunity to learn what it can be from listening and observing what parts of our material are of interest to others and what parts have been neglected.”

He’s also acting locally, trying to build opportunities for the department and its students to have contact with the region’s schools. His Classical Studies in Philadelphia Schools class worked extensively with the new Boys Latin school in West Philadelphia last year.

With those goals in mind, Ker recruited a team of three undergraduates through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring (PURM) program, which provides students the opportunity to conduct 10-week research projects with Penn faculty during the summer. He asked for students with at least one year of experience learning Latin to research local connections and new ways of teaching the language.

Ker wanted more than one intern for the communal experience it would provide. The four met weekly on Zoom to discuss progress and share suggestions and ideas. He even presented some of his own work, asking the students to “test drive” teaching material he’s thinking of using for classes.

Ker offered a plethora of possibilities of study, from classical themes in the city’s Black literary societies in the 19th century to a pioneering Latin-language program in Philly elementary schools in the 1980s, but he worked with the individual students to find their interests and narrow down their topics. Each project, he says, was “one part historical description, one part field research, and one part manifesto.”

Read more at OMNIA.