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Struggling with Latin? APSU professor says give Taylor Swift a try

Taylor Swift, former high school Latin student

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Virgil, the lyrical genius behind such hits as “The Georgics” and “The Aeneid,” hasn’t released a new poem in more than 2,000 years, so he isn’t packing amphitheaters like in his glory days in Ancient Rome. Dr. Stephen Kershner, Austin Peay State University assistant professor of Classics, realized the poet’s popularity was waning after a class assignment in 2016. That fall, he had the students in his Latin Prose Composition class translate some of Virgil’s poetry.

“Let’s just say it didn’t go well,” Kershner said.

The students, looking a little deflated, tried to avoid eye contact with their professor. They needed to get their confidence back, while also boosting the morale of the room. That’s when someone offered a suggestion.

“One student said, ‘I want to translate Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” into Latin,’” Kershner said. “I looked up the lyrics and then we spent the class working through the translation. It was fun, and in the next class, they asked, ‘Can we do that for our final project?’”

Kershner agreed – with some ground rules. For the final, the students had to pick a popular song they knew well and put it into Latin, and then write a stylistic analysis. The students did much better with pop music – turning in translations of songs by Adele and Art Garfunkel – than with Virgil.

“Writing good Latin is really no longer needed outside the Vatican anymore, so this makes it more accessible,” he said.

And without the students realizing it, he got them into the practice of analyzing literature – especially ancient poetry. The experiment worked so well – reinvigorating his students’ interest in Latin – that Kershner wrote an article, “What can Taylor Swift do for your Latin Prose Composition students?” which was published in the journal, Teaching Classical Languages.

Kershner continued using this teaching strategy for the next few years, not thinking much about his academic paper until a former student contacted him earlier this month. The Guardian, one of Great Britain’s main daily newspapers, had just published an article, “Teachers encouraged to use Taylor Swift lyrics to make Latin accessible.” The article included a link to Kershner’s paper, and later the BBC ran a story about Latin Swifties.

“My academia.edu page exploded after this happened,” Kershner said. “It kind of really got me excited again.”

And if Virgil is upset about being left out, Kershner might respond with, “Quod, care, nunc malum sanguinem habemus,” or, in the more common Taylor Swift language, “‘Cause baby, now we’ve got bad blood.”

For information on APSU’s Latin concentration, visit the program’s website.

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