Jo-Marie Claassen: an appreciation.
Johanna Maria Latsky was born in Cape Town in 1940 into a bilingual household. Her father was a Dutch Reformed parson with a penchant for languages, her mother a teacher of English and Latin. As a child she assumed that one spoke Afrikaans to men and English to women. After gaining seventh place in the then Cape Provincial matriculation examination, she spent three happy years at Stellenbosch University, during which time she met her future husband Piet. She graduated cum laude in 1960 with a BA in Latin and English (with as minors Zulu, Sotho, Sociology and Anthropology) and, in the following year, did the course in teacher training at the University of Cape Town, obtaining a Senior Teacher's Certificate with distinction. She then embarked on marriage and a chequered teaching career, first teaching Afrikaans ('second language') to English-speakers in Port Elizabeth and in the next year teaching English (also 'second language') to Afrikaans-speakers in Kimberley. Such were the career options for a railway engineer's wife in the early sixties of the previous century.
Matters improved when the young couple moved to Stellenbosch and Piet eventually joined the University. Next, however, followed the full 'mommy-track' for Jo-Marie: their daughter was born in 1964 and their son in 1968. She managed to temper the stresses of motherhood by studying for the BA Honours (Latin) in the year her son was born and obtaining an MA in the year both children had measles. Next she compressed her reading for Greek 1, 2 and 3 into two calendar years. By this time she had also become an institution at the then Latin Department at Stellenbosch University, serving as the part-time, temporary filler-in of various academic posts. For the next decade she acted as substitute lecturer in as many as four different short-term positions per year, when members of the faculty went on leave. This was wonderful training in academic versatility and earned Jo-Marie the soubriquet (from the late Professor Smuts) of 'Juvenal's Greekling': prepared to fly, if told to do so. These years of academic flight included teaching Beginners' Latin (Latin Intensive), most of the major Latin authors in the original Latin, Greek philosophy and Greek and Roman rhetoric, Greek and Roman art and architecture, the method of Latin teaching, Greek and Roman history, mythology, Greek and Latin literature in translation, especially genres such as pastoral poetry, epic and lyrical poetry and their respective Nachlebungen in English and Afrikaans literature.
In the days of statutory Latin for Law and compulsory Greek for theological students, Jo-Marie enjoyed the challenge of making the apparently most 'irrelevant' aspects of these subjects, Roman history for aspirant lawyers and Greek history and literature for future parsons, interesting and relevant for the respective students. Her mixture of admonition and encouragement (through an appeal to their sense of emulation) of future young pastors earned her a new nickname, 'Liewe Heksie' (Dear Little Witch), after a very popular Afrikaans radio programme for toddlers which was later also televised.
By the early seventies she had already discovered her bent for academic writing and started publishing a variety of articles, mostly in Akroterion, the CASA journal centred at Stellenbosch. Her first publication outside of Stellenbosch was an article on Robert Frost's 'Build Soil', a poem based on Vergil's Eclogue 1, in the Pietermaritzburg-based Theoria (1985). The exigencies of teaching particular courses informed her academic output, and vice versa. In particular, after her tenured appointment (at last!) to a fulltime tenured junior lectureship in 1979, she introduced various courses or revamped extant Classical Culture courses. From then on Jo-Marie was able to follow the normal course of an academic cursus honorum, over time being promoted to lecturer, senior lecturer and finally, in 1994, associate professor, in which position she remained until her retirement in 2001. During the final years before her retirement, she pioneered a course on women in antiquity and another on exile in the ancient world.
Educational innovation has been an abiding interest. During the 1980s Jo-Marie pioneered the use of computer-aided Latin learning at Stellenbosch, reading and writing articles about the underlying didactic theories involved, and testing the programmes devised under her guidance on the large numbers of students in the compulsory Latin for Law courses at the university. She complains that the system had just about been perfected and her research (published in 1994) had clearly shown the considerable advantage students derived from the Stellenbosch learning packages when the statutory requirement of Latin for Law was withdrawn and the raison-d'etre of computer-aided language laboratory work evaporated. The new challenge was to draw students toward voluntary study of Latin. At this stage she devised, together with Christoff Zietsman (now Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of the Free State), what became a very popular and useful course in Roman legal culture for aspirant lawyers. However, computer-aided instruction in its old format was no longer feasible.
Students' welfare was always of paramount importance for her. She realised early on that, if a lecturer wished students to work hard, she herself had to exceed them in industry. Hence, students were given frequent written assignments. Grading papers became Jo-Marie's consistent 'leisure-time' occupation. An unfortunate inability to remember faces sometimes rendered interaction with students in large undergraduate classes difficult for her, but she avers that she still tried to treat each student as 'an only child'. Often students with academic, social or psychological problems would gravitate to her office and she made frequent calls to the student counselling division. Jo-Marie was sometimes asked to solve more bizarre problems, from looking after a student's dog with its litter of puppies over the holidays (and finding homes for the pups), to helping a student to find an undertaker for the funeral of his sister's deceased boyfriend or, more routinely, offering bed and breakfast to a student normally commuting from a neighbouring town who regularly missed the last train back after a test. From 1998 until her retirement in 2001 she served on the Arts Faculty's Committee for academic development (acting as its Chair in 1999). In this time she developed the principles of, and laid the groundwork for, academic initiation of at-risk students, which seems now to have become the norm for the academic introduction of all first-year students within the Arts Faculty at Stellenbosch.
Teaching of Latin, also at school level, was an abiding interest. In 1978, when her husband (by then an urban planner on the Faculty of the University) was appointed Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, Jo-Marie was awarded a Harry Crossly bursary and applied, as private scholar, for a similar position at Princeton, in order to research innovations in Latin teaching in the USA. Her ensuing publications and conference presentations on the use of Latin in inner-city American elementary schools served to spark the interest of Corrie Schumann-Bosman, leading to Corrie's institution of the successful Schola Scripta correspondence school at Pretoria University.
Jo-Marie was moderator for Matriculation Latin from 1987, first for the Western Cape Education Department, and subsequently also for the apartheid-era segregated 'House of Representatives' Education Department. With characteristic foresight she worked to reconcile the disparate Latin syllabi of these two departments in order to achieve a complete and seamless amalgamation of the two streams of Latin teaching at the long-awaited end of educational segregation after 1994. Since 1996 she has been national moderator for Latin. Latin has been increasingly under siege and the number of examining bodies offering Latin has dwindled from seven to one, in spite of all concerned Classicists' continued efforts at promoting the subject. Jo-Marie's own efforts have been many and varied, from finding a sponsor for placing Latin-language Asterix books in local primary school libraries, to working on various provincial and national task teams dealing with matters educational. At present she seems to be presiding over the obsequies of Latin at high school level, but says she is grateful that Latin seems to be 'taking an unconscionable time a-dying'.
During her various stints as a committee member of the Western Cape Branch of the Classical Association of South Africa (from 1976 onward), Jo-Marie was responsible for either arranging or speaking at several workshops for Latin teachers (1983-92), for poetry and unseen translation workshops for schools (1987-97) and for running the annual Dies Romanus at Stellenbosch University (2003-7). During 1988-89 she initiated the first (local) Latin Olympiad for high school students and went on to organise three more such biennial Olympiads at national level for CASA. Through this, she says, she discovered in herself a hitherto untapped ability to find businesses willing to sponsor valuable prizes (such as computers, free overnight hotel accommodation for prize-winners and free transport). When such sponsorship became increasingly arduous to find and the educational climate had progressively turned against the retention of Latin at High School level, CASA decided, in 1995, to drop the Olympiad as an educational endeavour. Jo-Marie served as national executive member of CASA from 1987 to 1991, organising two conferences for the Association, one at Stellenbosch in 1987 and another in Grahamstown in 1989. She was Chair of CASA-WP for three years after her retirement in 2001.
Besides educational research, literary studies have been Jo-Marie's abiding interest. During her first salaried sabbatical (in 1985) she read for her doctorate, as Visiting Scholar, first at the University of Texas at Austin under Professor Peter Green, and subsequently at Hughes Hall, Cambridge. She was awarded a DLitt by Stellenbosch University in 1986 for a dissertation entitled Poeta, Exsul, Vates: A Stylistic and Literary Analysis of Ovid's Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. Parts of the dissertation formed the basis of a number of articles on Ovid's exile, in both national and international journals. Jo-Marie's interest in the phenomenon of displacement and literary reactions to such banishment led to further research on a variety of ancient and modern exiles, which resulted in the publication of Displaced Persons: the Literature of Exile: From Cicero to Boethius (London & Madison, 1999). Her various articles on Ovid were collected and published in 2008 as Ovid Revisited: The Poet in Exile (London: Duckworths). During various short overseas visits she conducted further research on a variety of topics and has published extensively on different aspects of ancient society. She has read papers at many conferences, both in South Africa and abroad.
At present she enjoys her retirement, but wonders how she ever had time to work since her various activities, that neatly combine the interests listed above, keep her busier than ever. She recently completed a verse translation of the drama Germanicus by the Afrikaans poet N.P. van Wyk Louw, contributed a chapter on the Tristia to the Blackwell Companion to Ovid (edited by Peter Knox, 2009) and also a chapter on DDT Jabavu, Professor of Latin at Fort Hare, for Grant Parker's Azanian Muse (forthcoming). Besides ongoing research on matters Ovidian, she teaches needlework to Xhosa-speakers in a local township, chairs the bursary fund run by her church, that aids indigent Black students, edits the church's parish magazine, and helps to run a social club at a nearby retirement home.
Jo-Marie considers a rich and happy family life the crowning achievement of her curriculum vitae, although she confesses that she was touched and pleased to have been elected an Honorary President of the Classical Association of South Africa at the recent CASA conference that was held in Grahamstown--an apt accolade for her long years of service to the Classics in South Africa.
University of the Free State
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
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