In a recent op-ed in the student newspaper, four Columbia University undergraduates sparked a larger debate about the role of classical literature in collegiate curriculum by suggesting that schools and instructors should implement ‘trigger warnings’ to alert students to potentially distressing material contained in such literature.1 Citing particular difficulties caused by the frequent depictions of rape and sexual assault in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the op-ed calls for instructors to be cognizant of and reflective about how the assigned material will affect certain students.
In their recent volume From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classics Classroom, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Fiona McHardy seek to provide guidance for instructors on how they are to handle situations such as this one at Columbia. Assembling a formidable cast of contributors, Rabinowitz and McHardy have created a unique and insightful collection of 15 chapters full of reflections, lessons, and suggested readings that better equip instructors both to plan proactively classes on difficult topics and to react appropriately to student concerns. In her introductory chapter, Rabinowitz identifies two objectives for the volume. First, this volume seeks to disprove the somewhat prevalent notion that the classics are elitist, irrelevant, and unworthy of serious study. To combat this, Rabinowitz argues that, on the contrary, classics is relevant due both to the multiculturalism exhibited in the Greco-Roman world and to the intense reactions generated in students by the challenging topics addressed by classical texts. In fact, the classical world presents an analog to modern society and provides students with a way to think through categories of meaning and experience, opening the possibility for transformational and personal learning that allows students to make sense of themselves and the world around them. Issues sensitive in modernity – slavery, abortion, rape, death, sexuality, and domestic violence – feature prominently in antiquity as well. This reality and the reality of confronting these issues in an academic setting lead to Rabinowitz’s second goal for the volume: to provide teaching tools for dealing with these uncomfortable topics in the classics classroom.
Chapter One, by Smith and Weaver, and Chapter Two, by Butler, start the volume by considering the most difficult and real topic of them all: death. Smith and Weaver begin the discussion by sharing their experiences in teaching death in the archaeological setting and take up the questions such as: Is archaeological excavation desecration? Is it appropriate for human remains to be on display? What can we gain from the study of ancient burial sites? (38). The act of asking such questions serves to help students gain objectivity regarding ancient burial sites and to assist students in contextualizing archaeological finds in their socio-cultural setting. According to Smith and Weaver, as students are guided through such questioning, “their strong emotional responses to death can be replaced with self-awareness and objectivity” (38). However, such self-awareness requires a level of personal investment that may become challenging for students, particularly those who have recently experienced the death of a loved one. How one handles such a situation is the topic of Butler’s chapter, a chapter that provides reflection and pedagogical suggestions based in authorial experience. The kernel of Butler’s wisdom is that instructors should take pains to create a safe space for students to discuss death by alerting them to the fact that difficult material will be discussed and by providing differentiated learning opportunities for students who are having difficulty dealing with death.
In Chapter Three, Tretin takes up the disconcerting topic of disability, both providing ancient sources for study and suggestions for how to approach the material in a classroom. Tretin begins by situating her discussion with twin observations: 1) the number of disabled students in higher education has increased dramatically over the past decade (5% of students in the UK, 6% in Canada, 9% in the US), and 2) faculty remain ill-informed and ill-equipped to handle issues concerning disability (56). As a result, nearly all instructors have taught a student with disability – whether visible or not – at some point in their career, a realization that Tretin argues can lead to some anxiety in teaching certain subjects. Tretin’s answer is not to shy away from such topics due to fear of offending someone, but instead to approach them with objectivity and to contextualize them: what does ‘normal’ mean? what makes one ‘abnormal’, ‘disabled’, or ‘deformed’?
Chapter Four, by Baker, King, and Totelin, offers advice and reflection on how to teach ancient medicine in the classics classroom. This chapter also stresses awareness on the part of the instructor, an awareness that “any group of undergraduate humanities students will have differing amounts of knowledge of their own bodies, differing amounts of opinions and beliefs . . . and medical experiences that are not written on their bodies” (72, 78). From this awareness, instructors should strive to meet students where they are and to guide them through these topics with sensitivity and objectivity. The end goal of their strategy is to engage students, challenge their assumptions about medicine and the body, and to show them the intense similarity in concerns between antiquity and today (91).
In Chapter Five, Deacy and McHardy reflect on their experiences teaching domestic violence in their classrooms and advocate for a ‘whole-university’ approach to address the problem of domestic violence on college campuses. They argue that, although it is undoubtedly a good practice for classics instructors to lead constructive discussions on domestic violence in antiquity, there also needs to be adequate support given to them for how to deal with students who confide in them. Moreover, they also point out the need for further support both for students and instructors who may be victims and for those who have been, or continue to be, perpetrators. As a whole, Deacy and McHardy do well to show how these difficult discussions need to be taken outside of the classroom setting and into university practice.
Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight, by Strolonga, Sharland, and Liveley respectively, all touch upon the discomfort created for students when analyzing sexual acts in antiquity. Strolonga’s chapter focuses on her experience teaching uncomfortable subjects in a faith-based institution, arguing that one should not shy away from these topics for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that “not all students react to uncomfortable readings the way we expect” (117). Sharland’s chapter provides an intriguing glimpse into teaching gender and sexuality in South Africa, a topic that is surprisingly more divisive than race due to the apartheid -era concept of ‘National Christian Education’. Liveley concludes this section of the volume with invaluable insight and advice for those seeking to teach pornography in the classics classroom. Again, as with the other chapters in this volume, Liveley places great emphasis on reflection, preparation, and intellectual grounding before getting involved in porno-pedagogy.
Chapters Nine and Ten, by Thakur and James respectively, deal with how one should approach the topic of rape and sexual assault. The importance of teaching sexual violence is presented by both authors with the disconcerting reality that the presence of students affected by rape in one’s classroom must be taken as a given. In his chapter, Thakur addresses the unique challenges of teaching rape and sexual violence as a male instructor and sets a foundation for pedagogical discussion. In particular, Thakur presents practical advice for preparing to teach rape, constructing transformational learning activities, and reflection upon those activities outside the classroom. James builds upon Thakur’s chapter by providing more detailed instructions as to exactly how to approach rape in the classroom, identifying particular bibliography on rape and sexual assault. More important, however, is James’ attention to how to communicate with students who are ‘triggered’ by the topic of rape and may disclose their own involvement with sexual violence. Taken together, these two chapters form a type of primer for instructors on how to get started teaching rape and sexual assault, yet at the same time encourage instructors not to pretend to be mental health professionals.
In Chapters Eleven and Twelve, DuBois and Gold consider the challenges of teaching race, ethnicity, and slavery. DuBois focuses her efforts on identifying the line between the comfortable and the uncomfortable for American students studying slavery. In her experience, students have no difficulty discussing slavery when they discuss it in another culture, such as Greece or Rome. However, where they do find discomfort is in thinking critically about the history of slavery in the United States. DuBois, therefore, sees an opportunity for cultural comparison and to expose students to multiple narratives of slavery, ones that are “often suppressed in ideology” (195). In her chapter, Gold reflects on her experiences of teaching slavery in Roman comedy, in particular, and the lessons she learned from having African-American students participate and perform scenes in the class.
The final three chapters, by Endres, Penrose, and Lewis respectively, all discuss ways to have constructive and meaningful discussions on sexuality and gender. In his chapter, Endres leads us through the manners in which he addresses the topic of same-sex relations in his classroom, providing an overview of the ‘gay tradition’ from Plato’s Symposium and Petronius’ Satyricon all the way to more modern works such as Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Taking a differing tack, Pembrose explores his experience of dealing with homophobia in the classics classroom. Starting from a startling classroom story in which a student commented “It’s faggots” to a question regarding homoeroticism, Pembrose suggests methods for helping students to deconstruct the discourse of sexuality and to recognize its nature as a social construct, tools he believes help to combat homophobia. Finally, in the last chapter of the volume Lewis presents four innovative lesson plans for teaching the gender-bending of Attis in Catullus 63: 1) problematizing gendered third-person pronouns, 2) using gender neutral pronouns such as zie, nu and hir, 3) replacing pronouns with gender symbols, and 4) deconstructing discursive assumptions about gender made by scholarship on the poem. The point of such activities is made clear in Lewis’ conclusion: “At a practical level, I have found that these strategies help my students understand the poem better . . . At an ethical level, I believe that these strategies have made my classroom a more inclusive space for intersex, transgender, and genderqueer students” (265-266).
As a whole, this volume masterfully accomplishes the two objectives it set for itself. Through the blend of reflection, preparation, awareness, and objectivity shown by the contributors in these chapters, it is clear that instructors can successfully engage students in conversation about difficult topics in the classics classroom. While stopping just short of ‘trigger warnings’ at times, this volume does highlight the pedagogical techniques one can use to navigate such challenging curriculum safely. After all, if one seeks to provide relevant, transformational learning to students, that learning by its very nature will hit close to home. Yet, in the words of Baker, King, and Totelin, “Emotional intelligence should enable the teacher to create a safe space within which individual students, bringing to their studies a range of past experiences, can allow material from the past to help them think about their own lives” (91). How can Classics be much more relevant and transformational than that?
1. Johnson, Lynch, Monroe, and Wang (2015, April 30), “Our identities matter in Core classrooms”, Columbia Spectator, April 30, 2105.