The Latin Greek Institute at Brooklyn College draws scholars eager to take their fluency in the classical languages to the next level.

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Summer Classics

July 16, 2014

Every summer, scores of students flock to New York City to master the classic languages taught at the Brooklyn College Latin/Greek Institute. By the end of the intensive, ten week-session, they are prepared to sing praises about the program in either language.

"In only three days, we covered what I did in a whole semester," says Xiao Xinyao, a visiting Chinese student who heard about the program from Roger Olesen, a former adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College’s English Department who now teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing. A candidate for a master’s in English literature at Tsinghua, Xinyao wants to become fluent in Latin so that she can read Virgil, unassisted in the original Latin, she says.


"Students learn in one day what in a regular college semester would take a whole week," confirms Katherine Lu Hsu, who was appointed as the institute's new director last summer. "By week six or seven, they'll be able to read Cicero's First Oration Against Catiline or Plato's Ion. "It's the finest program of its kind in the college circuit," she adds.

Hsu should know. She attended the institute as a Greek student and became an alumna and instructor there before she obtained her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor in 2013. Hsu replaced former director Hardy Hansen, who joined the institute in 1978 and has now retired.

Founded nearly 43 years ago by the late Brooklyn College Provost Ethyle R. Wolfe and Brooklyn College Professor Floyd Moreland, the institute was modeled after the classic languages program at University of California, Berkeley, the oldest in the country. The program, housed in the CUNY Graduate Center since its beginnings, offers an intensive, all-day class to an average of 40 to 50 students. This summer, however, 78 students have enrolled.

"Some are repeats from previous summers," says Hsu, exhilarated that enrollment has nearly doubled from last year. This hasn't affected the quality of the teaching.

The institute's daily routine, which has remained virtually unchanged since it opened in 1973, starts with a pre-class session at 8:30 a.m. in which students can raise questions about what they learned the day before. At 9:30, they have two hours of drill sessions. During the lunch break, they can take extra sessions on grammar. After lunch they attend a three-hour lecture where they learn new material and vocabulary.

While classes end at 5 p.m., the working day isn't over for the faculty or the students. To make sure all students share the same learning experience, professors review the material discussed in class and tackle the questions raised by students.

"It's important that students get the same answers from our professors," points out Hsu, "and that we're all on the same page."

Students, on the other hand, have four to five hours of homework to do. But they can reach out to the faculty any time should they have questions. By the second half of the summer session, they are tackling composition and can translate from English into either Greek or Latin.

"We develop our own curriculum and our own textbook material," Hsu notes, pointing out that people of a variety of professions are eager to enroll. "Our students include physicians and lawyers interested in the origin of their professions, and philosophy or art history students who expect to improve their understanding of antiquity.

"While we may try new things now and then, this method has been in use for as long as the institute has been around."

But before classes began this summer, several generations of students and faculty found their way to the home of classics Professor John van Sickle for a fundraiser and a roast honoring Hardy Hansen, who joined the Brooklyn College Classics Department in 1971, and was the institute's director from 1993 to 2013.

The funds, according to Professor Hsu, will be used to establish the Hardy Hansen Award to help some of the institute's students with living expenses, since nearly 50 percent of the students come from outside New York City.

"It is an honor and a dream come true to be able to continue Hardy Hansen's legacy," Hsu says.

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