A Conversation with Dr. LaFleur

Posted on April 6, 2012 by


Interview Questions for Dr. Richard LaFleur, Spring 2012

The Classicist: For those who may be new to the field of teaching Latin and Classics in GA, tell us about your career in classics.

Dr. LaFleur: First let me joyfully proclaim that I’m one of those fortunate folks who ended up in exactly the right profession—which I expect holds true for most readers of the Georgia Classicist as well. Even in elementary school I loved poetry, and words, and when the chance came to take Latin in junior high, I jumped at it; I’d heard it was HARD, and that sounded like a challenge, and I was fascinated by what I’d already learned of the Romans. When I find something I like, I never give it up—(slightly?) obsessive, Type A personality, I think—and so I kept on with Latin straight through high school and into college, and when one of my Latin professors at the University of Virginia suggested majoring, I didn’t hesitate (even though I’d previously considered English, psychology, and even math). After giving some brief thought to law school, I stayed on at UVa for the M.A., moved to Duke for my Ph.D., had a coupla job offers and thankfully accepted the one from the University of Georgia. I spent my entire 40-year career at UGA, retiring last June—though I’m back this spring teaching a freshman seminar (a mini-introduction to Latin) and continue to offer my online courses in beginning Latin and Latin teaching methods.

A pivotal moment came very early in my career, when then department head Jimmy Alexander encouraged me to get involved with the Georgia JCL, helping out with the academic exams for spring convention; I ended up serving as state contest chairman for 37 or 38 years, working with—and learning so much from—the state’s JCL chapter sponsors, and ultimately getting much involved with K-12 educators, starting up the Georgia Classicist to improve school-college communication and collaboration, working with school and university colleagues to establish the Georgia Classical Association, and later serving, for 25 years, as editor of The Classical Outlook and, during the mid-1980s, as president of the American Classical League.

As head of UGA’s Classics Department for 21years, I took the greatest pride in advancing our commitment to K-12 Latin teaching through a variety of outreach activities and the establishment of our Georgia Classics Summer Institute, which continues strong and has attracted hundreds of teachers from across the nation aiming to enrich their mastery of Latin and Classics, obtain or renew certification, or earn the M.A. in Latin on a summers-only basis. This extensive work with my teacher friends and colleagues resulted in a heightened awareness on my part of the realities of high-school teaching and of the sorts of textbooks and other classroom materials needed to better enrich their students’ experience with what I ever affectionately call “The Mother Tongue.” So, while my research and publications during the first third of my career were focused on what one might call more traditional scholarship (particularly on Roman satire), my publishing efforts since then have involved authoring or editing a number of textbooks, a methods text, and a variety of other ancillaries for Latin teaching.

The Classicist: What interests you about Vergil and his writings?

Dr. LaFleur: Well, gosh—I’ve been studying Latin since I was 12 years old and had my first encounter with Vergil’s wonderful poem five decades ago. In high school I think it was the epic adventure story that first captured my interest—just as the movies BEN HUR and SPARTACUS had done. But even then I loved poetry and word-play and the limitless power of language, and perhaps I already sensed what a master Vergil was in those arenas. Later of course I came to more fully realize the universality of the Aeneid and that the poem was truly about everything that our lives are about: war and peace, tears and laughter too, love and hate, hope and fear, defeat and victory, and Everyman’s constant struggle between living rationally and humanely or foolishly and brutishly, and between dying well or poorly. As I mention in the Preface to A Song of War, much of my and my brilliant co-author Alexander McKay’s work on the book’s final phases was completed during the aftermath of the terrible national tragedy of September 11, 2001; many of the thoughts infused in the book’s discussions, and notes, and comprehension questions were formed and informed by that catastrophe and its consequences.

The Classicist: Tell us about the new edition of your book, A Song of War. Again, for those who may not have used it yet, what is its focus? What features of the book are you most pleased with, over all and in its newest edition?

Dr. LaFleur: Well, to quote from the book’s Preface, our aim was “to produce a vibrant and occasionally provocative introduction to this monumental poem via an array of exploratory and critical essays, explanatory notes, and detailed discussion questions, all informed by the best scholarship of recent decades (which is abundantly catalogued in the bibliography and other materials included in our Teacher’s Guide and on the book’s student and teacher Companion Web Sites.” The updated version contains all the readings on the new AP exam and—for sight-translation practice, essential in AP classes, as well as for teachers of general Vergil courses—there are additional selections from Books One, Four, Six, Ten, Twelve as well as Book Two in its entirety, along with brief discussion of all 12 books–with whose general content AP students are expected to be familiar.

As in the previous edition, the Latin text includes macrons and is set in a highly legible font. Facing notes include glosses for unfamiliar vocabulary, difficult grammar, and problematic word order, as well as interpretive remarks and comments on figures of speech, meter, sound effects, and other poetic devices. Accompanying and complementing the notes are discussion questions on theme, structure, figurative language, metrical effects, and other topics with which intermediate and advanced students are expected to be familiar. The notes and questions are complementary and progressive: early in the book, there are more notes and fewer questions; later there are fewer notes and more, and more probing, questions. The general introduction provides an overview of Vergil’s life and works, a discussion of his style and meter, a detailed explanation of scansion, and a glossary of figures of speech and other poetic and rhetorical devices (in particular all those found on the AP syllabus), with references to examples found in the text. Also included are introductions to the individual books, nearly 100 illustrations (many of them new to this edition) and maps, an end vocabulary, frequency lists for the most common vocabulary, and grammatical appendices.

The new Teacher’s Guide provides extensive discussion and teaching tips on classroom presentation of all the selections, guidance on the AP exam, literal translations of all passages, and a complete vocabulary frequency list in descending order. Completely new, and both accessed at http://www.PHSchool.com, are a Student Companion Web Site, featuring links that connect students to more information and resources for the Aeneid, and a Teacher’s Companion Web Site, providing an extensive and continuously updated bibliography, text enlargements, and links to other online materials to enhance teaching AP Latin and Vergil’s Aeneid.

The Classicist: By many measures within the work of classics, Vergil’s Aeneid is THE measure of epic poetry and perhaps even all poetry. Pretend for a moment that that was not a commonly shared view, and tell us what we should be excited about in working with The Aeneid and our students. Does an epic written over 2000 years ago for a Roman audience really have anything to say to modern American teenagers and young adults?

Dr. LaFleur: My response to this is largely imbedded in my answers to your earlier questions. This is an epic about Everyman, and about the fundamental challenges to living well that we will encounter all along the way—often unexpectedly. In a very real sense it is “teenagers and young adults” who have the most abundant opportunity both to avoid the human failures this poem so poignantly presents and to reap the benefits—for themselves, their families, for society, and even the global community—of the moral successes the poem either portrays or implies. Tell the kids who will be in your AP class next fall to get themselves a good translation (Robert Fagles’ is one of the newest and best, and it’s available on audio-CD) and to make the Aeneid their beach-read this summer, urging them not to study it but to go at it like a novel, reading for the story; pose a questions for them to consider—should Aeneas have abandoned Dido? why or why not? is he, in the poem’s closing scene, winner or loser? Not all your kids, but some of them, will “get it”—and you and they will get off to a powerful start in the fall.

The Classicist: Those who have been using your book know that you identify through introductory essays various themes that run through the Aeneid and through particular books of The Aeneid. Which themes of The Aeneid are your personal favorites? Which do you think are most essential to the meaning of the work?

Dr. LaFleur: Well, as I suggested above (too expansively perhaps?), I think ALL OF LIFE’S THEMES are contained within the heart of this poem—ALL of them, as in virtually every great classic. But I suppose those that touch me most as I think about it just now are those of love and war—of opportunities lost, opportunities taken, both in one’s personal life—Aeneas’ with Creusa, with Dido—and in one’s public and political life, Aeneas’ as prince and military commander and as individual warrior on the bloody field of battle. The interpersonal relationships dramatized so poignantly in the poem, and the intertribal, international relationships—in all of which individuals have the power to act either rationally and compassionately, or with ira and saevitia. There are lessons here for each of us, life’s most important lessons, both within our own personal spheres and as players either for peace or for conflict in this increasingly tiny global village we all so precariously inhabit.

The Classicist: As you know, beginning this fall, high school students taking AP Latin will be reading excerpts both from Vergil’s Aeneid and from Caesar’s Gallic Wars. What is the most important connection you can draw between those two authors and their works? Give us something to be excited about.

Dr. LaFleur: My immediate reaction (shared by many other teachers, I know) when I first heard that the new AP syllabus would impose Commander-in-Chief Caesar upon our cherished Vergil was a vocal, O ME MISERUM! I might have wished for a bit of Livy, particularly his accounts of Rome’s foundation and other early legends, or even some judiciously selected Cicero. But QUOT HOMINES TOT SENTENTIAE, and I’ve actually backed off of my initially negative response. The points of convergence between Caesar and Vergil are multiple and can be artfully exploited by teachers and exam-writers alike: the lives of the two intersected historically in that fateful last century of the Roman Republic; imperialism, international conflict, civil war were in the forefront of the minds of both men, inescapably. The divergent perspectives of these two vastly different, vastly brilliant, vastly articulate men can only illuminate our and our students’ understanding of events of first-century Rome and of the ineluctable reality of human conflict. Caesar and the Aeneas of Vergil’s poetic imagination are two of the western world’s most intimately known invaders; what a rich opportunity for teachers and their students to explore the differences and the likenesses between Caesar’s perspective on his third-person self, his actions and motivations in his assault on Gaul, and Vergil’s perspective (and Aeneas’ own, within Vergil’s drama) on the Trojans’ invasion of Italy. Ha: now how I wish I had the chance to teach this syllabus!

The Classicist: Finally, what have I not asked you that you want us to know about your new edition, about the study of The Aeneid, and/or about this new direction that the AP exam is taking?

Dr. LaFleur: Well, not to end on a sad note, but laboring alone on the revisions to the book presented a sorrowful reminder of the passing of my colleague and co-author for the first edition, Alexander McKay, whose death August 31, 2007, was mourned by countless family members, friends, and indeed readers of Vergil throughout the world. Many Georgia teachers are familiar with Sandy’s work, and some studied with him at the Villa Virgiliana; he knew more both about teaching Vergil and about Vergil teachers than anyone I have known. The endurance of our modest text, to which Sandy McKay contributed so very much, is but one of myriad testimonia to his far-reaching and monumental contributions to the study of Rome’s greatest poet: Georgia’s AP students and their teachers, I hope, will be the rich beneficiaries.