We were elated to sit down with Laura Pooley about her book Ossa Ostensa: A proven system for demystifying Latin, Book One (CUA Press, 2021), the world’s first comprehensive text on how to teach and learn the Latin language using the unique system of famed Latinist Reginald Foster.
Q: One of the most unique aspects of Ossa Ostensa is that it structures Latin instruction off the methods developed by Reginald Foster, whom you directly studied under in Rome. What was it like learning from Fr. Foster? What about his teaching system captivated you?
A: Learning from Reggie was completely transformative. I cannot overstate how good his teaching was! A road to Damascus experience, epiphanic, the veils fell from my eyes. In a way it’s like a quotation from T. S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
…in that I had been learning Latin for some time using modern-traditional methods of school text books which rely on tabulated grammar and ‘friendly’ stories of Roman families, and although I had been introduced to most of the language, I hadn’t really grasped much of it and couldn’t translate accurately. Reggie’s re-presentation of the grammar through his unique methods made everything unbelievably clear, like seeing the world for the first time. His teaching system relies on patterns, not memory, the correlations of endings or forms with their meanings in the vernacular and understanding the way the vocabulary is presented to you in the dictionary. It’s brilliant.
Q: How challenging was adapting Fr. Foster’s pedagogy into written form?
A: In some ways it was not too difficult because when I was in Rome, I took very scrupulous notes as the words fell from Reggie’s mouth. I didn’t want to miss anything, I needed it so much. I think I had only been in class a few days when I realized that this was gold! I was doing three of his experiences at once, so I have a complete record of his teaching class by class and the homework (ludi) which went with each class. My main aim in producing the workbook was to make available to others the experience which I had been privileged enough to enjoy in Rome. The biggest challenge was to keep Reggie’s voice as strong and authentic and pure as possible, whilst making something which worked for the widest possible audience in print. There is a big difference between the aural experience and reading the information—there’s a gulf between a live teaching experience and working from a printed page. I had to work to make the bridge between them as smooth as possible.
Q: How much did you take your own teaching style and experience into consideration while trying to stay true to Fr. Foster’s methods?
A: This question links to the idea of the challenge of Reggie, in that if you are a complete purist you can alienate some people, which is counter-productive. Occasionally I’ve come across students who have not understood a Reggie turn-of-phrase or have even been offended by the way a question is worded, things which I strongly believe stem from not having heard him in person. Therefore I took those perspectives into consideration when reproducing his teaching. I wanted to make the method as accessible and acceptable as possible to all. I’ve also taught a very broad range of students—all ages and capacities. Often I’ve thought of further ways of explaining things and examples which help, so of course I’ve included those, too, and I’ve amplified his reading examples and ludi so that every language item has separate classical and post-classical practice, again so every turn of mind and interest is catered for.
Q: You’ve also enjoyed an impressive career as an opera singer in addition to your Latin scholarship. What do you think is the intersection between these two passions, if any? Alternatively, how have you enjoyed their differences?
A: Alas, I find them quite polarized! The Latin is all about the mind and the singing is all about the body, and they don’t intersect much in the secular world. I’ve never come across an opera in Latin, but I do love Oratorios and Mass settings so sometimes my Latin has helped me there. I adore traditional Church music—Gregorian chants and so on—and sometimes I’m itching to get my hands on the priests and brothers and sisters who sing and give them a few pointers! I guess in that way the intersection is in the personality of teaching. Reggie was a ball of passionate energy and that is how his mastery was communicated, in its way a kind of performance.