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Henry Bayerle: Oxford professor connects the classics to modern life

By Cathy Wooten | Emory Report | April 25, 2013

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Henry Bayerle is an assistant professor of classical languages at Oxford College. Emory Photo/Video.

When Henry Bayerle joined Oxford College as assistant professor of classical languages in the fall of 2006, fewer than 30 students were enrolled in Greek, Latin and classical literature in English translation. Bayerle, who received his PhD in comparative literature from Harvard University, has seen enrollment in the classics more than double since his arrival, and his enthusiasm and love of teaching have a great deal to do with that increase.

Bayerle talked to Emory Report about his fascination with languages and his love of teaching them.  

You speak several modern languages other than English (Hungarian, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Hindi). Have you always been drawn to language?

Both my parents are multilingual, so growing up, I regularly heard discussions about language and more than one language spoken at home. My father, a professor of Ottoman history at Indiana University, is a native of Hungary. He and my mother, who is Finnish, met in New York, where both were in graduate school. I grew up hearing and speaking both languages, though my Hungarian is better than my Finnish. And I was born in Istanbul, where my father was doing research at the time, so from my earliest years I was exposed to multiple languages. This family tradition is continuing in my own home.  My wife is a native of India, and our daughter hears both English and Hindi.  

So what sparked your interest in the classics?

At first I was more interested in science; I entered college as an undergraduate intending to study physics. The summer after my sophomore year, though, I took an intensive introduction to Latin, and I loved it. I was drawn to the elegance of the structure of Latin grammar, which seemed to me almost mathematical, and I enjoyed tracing the etymology of words in languages I already knew. After reading works of literature and philosophy in advanced Latin and Greek courses, I was hooked. I changed my major to the classics and never turned back, although I didn't go straight for the doctoral degree.   

After earning my undergraduate degree, I lived in Europe for a while, teaching English in Finland, Hungary, and France. After a couple of years doing that, I wanted to study a modern language, so I enrolled at Indiana University and earned an MA in French. But in the end I found that I missed my first love. I went to Harvard for doctoral work in comparative literature, with an emphasis on Latin and Greek.  

Who should study the classics? Why?

I think all students can benefit from studying the classics. It makes them more aware of the syntax and semantics of their native languages; Greek and Latin help them understand English better. My students are generally already aware of this benefit when they choose to study Latin or Greek, and they're aware that the classics informed many other academic pursuits. Yet teachers need to play an active role in reminding students why the classics still matter today. For example, discussions in my literature classes about Socrates' plan to chase poets out of his ideal state in Plato's "Republic" raise questions of censorship that students can relate to. Aristotle's description in his "Poetics" of the psychological impact of witnessing the performance of an Athenian tragedy gives rise to discussions about the societal impact of violent video games and songs containing hate speech.   

Are there other ways you make the classics relevant for your students?

Oxford has an active program in theory-practice/serving learning (TPSL), in which the theory of the classroom is integrated with experience in the local community. Students in my Roman history and literature class learn about the warrior Aeneas and how he responds to his experiences during the Trojan War when they read Virgil's "Aeneid." Yet very few of our students have had any direct experience with the military or war, so this can seem fairly distant to them. Using the TPSL model, I arranged for my students to interview local military veterans; they have made connections with veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan. I want them to develop a relationship with a person to whom they can attach these stories, experiences, and emotions. They then use the information they learned from a living veteran to explore a theme or character in Virgil's poem.  I believe this makes them read the "Aeneid" better and helps them write about it better. When you really care, when you are able to relate the content of a literary work to an experience or an emotion in your own life or that of someone you know, you read and write more carefully. Maybe 10 or 20 years from now they will remember the interviews and the "Aeneid." 

Why is Oxford College a good fit for you?

Oxford cares about teaching and encourages innovative pedagogy. I enjoy being in this environment while being able at the same time to interact with the classics faculty at Emory College. I also find that Oxford College students, collectively, are different from those I've taught elsewhere. They are more actively present. Not that they aren't ambitious or thinking about long-term goals, but on a daily basis they are more engaged with the subjects and texts at hand than I have seen elsewhere. This may be a result of having only students in their first two undergraduate years, or it may be because of the relative distance from Atlanta, but in any case, I've never seen this before.    

What are your scholarly pursuits outside the classroom?

I am working on a translation of a chronicle written in medieval Latin in a northern Italian monastery during the 11th century, the "Chronicon Novaliciense," which has never been translated before into English.  This text is very valuable to scholars because it contains early versions of Germanic myths about Walter of Aquitaine, along with several other interesting stories. I have also been translating a 12th-century epic poem about Frederic Barbarossa. But most of all I am excited about sharing the results of innovative teaching strategies, such as the service learning project with the "Aeneid"and team-based learning in my language classes. I believe they have had a significant impact on student learning so I am gathering data to compare learning in the classes in which I have used these pedagogies with those in which I did not.