Just a few days ago, Cornell University made an interesting announcement: it was going to appoint its first-ever Professor of the Practice of Latin, Daniel Gallagher, starting Fall 2017. “Professor of the Practice” is an academic term of art for faculty appointments given to people with particular expertise in a field (Joe Biden just received a Professor of the Practice appointment at the University of Pennsylvania). What is so unusual is that Cornell had never used this type of appointment for Latin: the only kind of experience once could have in Latin, went the thought, was academia. Gallagher had been papal Latin secretary, translating encyclicals, writing letters, speeches, and inscriptions, and tweeting for the Pontiff’s three-quarters of a million Latin twitter followers. He is also the Latin translator of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. He now brings his experiences of Latin in the modern world to Cornell. Interview by Nancy Llewellyn.
NL: I’m hoping this is going to be the first interview with you about your appointment since it was announced. Will it be?
DG: The one I did with the Cornell Daily Sun is Number One in absolute terms, but this will be my first interview about it with someone in the wider Classics world outside Cornell.
NL: Remind me: how long was your Roman sojourn? Could you start by saying a bit about how you came to go to work at the Vatican? When was that, how long was it, and what did you do there?
DG: In January 2007 I was called to the Vatican to work at the Secretariat of State’s Latin Section. For a short time, under Benedict XVI, I was doing work both in English and in Latin, and then, when Reginald Foster had to come back [to the USA] for health reasons, I was transferred full-time to the Latin Section. I was there in Rome for nearly ten years. I did my work with a staff of other Latinists. The six of us were responsible for all of the pope’s correspondence, letters and papal bulls, exhortations, constitutions — anything that had to be done in Latin. It was a good experience, but after ten years of writing Latin I was missing full-time teaching more and more. And I should mention, as you know, I was also teaching Latin part-time in Rome in summer programs, but it never seemed to be enough. My passion has always been for working directly with students.
NL: That leads me to my next question: could you elaborate on that and say a bit more about how you came to make the change?
DL: I felt a desire to teach, particularly Latin but also philosophy, so I asked to be relieved of my duties in Rome to return to the United States. The question then was where to go and at what level to teach. I’ve always felt most comfortable with college students and college education; most of the students I was teaching in Rome were at that level, so that’s what I was aiming at — teaching in some larger public institution. One of the things that I found very attractive about Cornell is the faculty does a lot of cross-disciplinary teaching, and I was very interested in that, hoping to draw on my background in philosophy, theology, and medieval studies. I’m able to teach a range of things that they are interested in. That helped put me on a trajectory towards Cornell.
NL: It was Michael Fontaine who really connected you with Cornell, wasn’t it?
DG: It was! Michael Fontaine has been a great friend and colleague in Rome teaching in our [Paideia’s] Living Latin in Rome program. We’ve collaborated on Living Latin in New York City and on a couple of other projects. It was really Michael’s vision that we could work in a department here in the United States that would teach Living Latin skills in order to teach the Classics, like the ones in Lexington and Boston. This still sounds like a novel idea — not to us who have been doing this for a while — but for academia in general it’s still a novel and sometimes perplexing idea. Michael convinced his colleagues on the Cornell Classics faculty that it was worth pursuing. I owe a debt of gratitude to Michael personally for the opportunity to teach there, but, even more, for the vision of what the department there at Cornell would like to accomplish, that is, helping students develop all skills in Latin, namely, reading comprehension, speaking capacity, listening comprehension and writing. I’m sure there are others who helped pave the way for making this happen in the department, but Michael is the one whom I know personally and has the clearest view of what my role in the department will be in the years to come. He and I have many ideas in common. He is a very enthusiastic teacher, a dedicated classicist and Latinist. He puts his energies into mentoring students at all levels and creating very close bonds with them and among them. I’d like to take this opportunity also to thank the Kanders family for their support, which has been essential to me personally and to this initiative as a whole.
NL: You mentioned things that you and Michael would like to accomplish together; have you got any particular projects that you can talk about?
DG: Very broadly speaking, my role within the department will be heavily focused on teaching language skills through literature, perhaps taking some inspiration from [Fr. Reginald] Foster’s approach. I know that they are hoping that I, as “Professor of the Practice” of Latin, will draw on my unusual background — writing Latin daily and composing in Latin — to enhance pedagogy and the student experience. My assignment isn’t just teaching them how to compose in Latin, but how to read better, how to speak, and how all those skills enhance each other. I do intend to continue research and writing as far as I can, but my position is highly focused on the classroom; I’ll be helping students become as proficient as possible in Latin so that they can pursue their greater academic and career goals. I’ve also been told that the department is willing to listen to my ideas for new courses I would like to offer. I look forward to that as well.
NL: I think a lot of people in the American Latinosphere are wondering right now if they can start looking on Cornell University as a new star in the firmament, or perhaps a nova in the firmament of institutions that support the active use of Latin. Can they?
DG: I hope so! The signs are there, that Cornell wants the active approach. Many of us — you and I and others — have worked hard to convince traditional institutions of higher learning that the idea of Living Latin is worth pursuing. The hard work we’ve put in seems to be paying off. It will take a lot of open-mindedness on my part and on the part of others interested in Living Latin at the postsecondary level to navigate certain institutional structures that are quite comfortable with their established ways of doing things — I don’t mean that in any negative sense. We just have not yet reached the point where there are numerous institutions and curricula that demonstrate how a living Latin approach works, though we do have the UKY institute and the UMB program. One of the main problems is the problem of time, particularly for undergraduates. It’s hard to get the time to fulfill the requirements and achieve the outcomes that are expected. It’s frustrating for teachers; we want to spend a lot of time with our students to move them toward proficiency in the language as speedily as possible, but time is limited and they have other things they have to put into their schedules. Also, the backgrounds individual students bring to Latin and to language studies vary a lot. I rejoice that there is a willingness at Cornell to move forward even though these problems exist. I hope Cornell’s openmindedness about Living Latin in the classroom and in the curriculum will spread to other colleges and universities, but that’s going to require a few years of navigating and figuring out how to do it. And it will require a spirit of give and take. What we’re ultimately interested in is not just literary knowledge but knowledge that comes through literature: knowledge of history, philosophy, jurisprudence. And Living Latin actually expands the heart in those directions too, not just the mind — it can set the heart on fire, really — if that makes any sense…
NL: It makes total sense!
DG: I know there are people who have reservations about the Living Latin approach at the college level, and I do think it’s important to emphasize to them that we’re not merely after oral proficiency; the goal is to engage the mind, the heart, and the soul in ways that they can only be engaged when you have proficiency in language. This is about more than just the ability to communicate. It’s about how we think, how we behave and how we interact with one another on a human level. It’s about acquisition of language, culture and thought. There’s something beautiful and exciting when a student acquires an ancient language like Latin and reaches proficiency in it. I hope these ideas may calm the concerns of people who question what the point of Living Latin is. I’d like them to know that what we’re after is something much broader than simply the ability to say things fluently in Latin.
NL: Are you going to be working primarily with undergraduates or graduate students or both?
DG: I believe both, in time, but at first I’ll work with undergraduates. Cornell has been looking for someone to concentrate on teaching the language.
NL: That will be wonderful for those undergrads if they can get into the active use of the language at that time in their lives.
DG: Yes, absolutely. We sometimes underestimate how quickly and easily they can acquire language at that age. Sometimes we tend to think that if we haven’t introduced a more living approach in language classes by, say, middle school or high school, then from that point on it gets progressively more difficult. My experience has been that with good pedagogy, when it comes to an ancient language like Latin, college is the ideal phase in one’s life to begin to use it actively. Maybe that’s why I’ve so much enjoyed working with undergraduate students. I’ve already taught several Cornell students in summer programs in Rome, and they were undergrads. Their ability and enthusiasm and achievement are unquestionable after just a few weeks, and they carry these things with them when they go back to campus. Gaining proficiency in Latin will enormously enhance what they’re able to do when they’re finished and go on to graduate studies, or teaching, or anything else.
NL: It’s going to be a whole new day when those kids become college faculty themselves.
DG: That’s true! We already are seeing a new generation of future teachers coming up, with an open mind toward some kind of Living Latin experience for their students. Twenty years from now, they will have made great strides in incorporating this approach into Latin teaching. And others will get excited about it once they see what this new generation achieves.
NL: One of the people quoted in the article two days ago in the Cornell Daily Sun said that your appointment at Cornell heralds a “tectonic shift” in the way that Classics are going to be taught from here on out. Do you want to comment on that?
DG: It’s quite a bold statement, but I suppose the image is helpful. A tectonic shift has to do with plates displacing themselves and then settling. It doesn’t happen overnight, ex nihilo. The pressure has to build up over time before there’s movement. The tectonic plates here might be the world of academic Classics and the Living Latin world, which don’t always overlap. We now see these two worlds coming into increasingly close contact with each other and causing a bit of an earthquake; it will take some time to settle. If the Cornell Daily Sun is correct, then I hope the shift taking place at Cornell will cause positive aftershocks at other universities and colleges in the United States and abroad.
NL: We have to remember that tectonic pressure is what makes mountain ranges.
DG: There you are! That rounds off the image very well.
NL: Thank you so much for your time. This is the most exciting thing to happen in the Latinosphere for quite a while and it’s magnificent.
DG: I’m very excited about it. And I like that image of a mountain built from a tectonic shift. I see great promise for this “Latinosphere” that you and I and many others inhabit. I’m confident that if we spread our good news and show that the investment in active and Living Latin is worth it, great things will happen. I look forward to collaboration with organizations like SALVI and with others in the world of higher education to make it so.
In Fall 2017, Dan Gallagher will join the Classics faculty at Cornell University as the Ralph and Jeanne Kanders Associate Professor of the Practice in Latin.
Nancy Llewellyn is founder of SALVI and Associate Professor of Latin at Wyoming Catholic College.