Should we teach sensitive topics?

Last week, one of my friends used a Latin reading with the story of Nisus and Euryalus so that he could talk about the quotation of a Vergil line on the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, and about quotation and intertextuality.  Since the class was on September 11, 2015, it was perfect timing; but he was also aware he could be opening up several cans of worms: politics about 9/11 and its repercussions, Islamophobia, sexuality, etc.  He was fine with talking about these sensitive subjects in order to achieve his larger goal; but not every teacher is willing to engage in these topics.

While I discussed this lesson plan with him and afterwards, it is clear that there were several factors to consider for talking about sensitive subjects in a classroom:

  • Are you comfortable with it?  Students will not respond well if you are clearly uncomfortable talking about the topic.
  • What is the age group of your class? Is this topic something they should be thinking about at their age?
  • How much are you going out of the way to talk about this? Some topics, like sexuality and sexual violence (Earlier blog posts Part 1 and Part 2), are almost unavoidable in Latin and Classics courses; but others, like racism (Earlier bog posts Part 1 and Part 2) require a bit more effort to address in a Latin or Classics classroom.  Do you have the time to do justice to these issues if you are going out of your way? I don’t think my experimental class on racism was as successful as it could have been because I didn’t put in enough extra work.
  • Is a trigger warning appropriate?
  • Is it best to confront it head on or to wait for students to raise the issue?  In my opening example, my friend wanted to focus on the 9/11 memorial because of the significance of the day, but what about sexuality? It isn’t what he wanted to focus on but it is a large part of the Nisus and Euryalus story, so he chose to deal with the sexuality aspect quickly if students mentioned it.  Does this work in every case?  Can we quickly discuss the topic and move on or does it require a class of its own so that you can address it more thoroughly, thoughtfully, and considerately?
  • Are you prepared for students’ potentially emotional reactions to a sensitive topic? or their indifference?
  • Is it something students will even find to be a sensitive issue? Again, with my opening example, many current college students would have been very young on September 11, 2001 and probably don’t remember watching the terrorist attacks on the news or the 24-hour news coverage for the next few days.  They are only aware of the aftermath and the narrative of the day.  Will a class about the 9/11 memorial quotation resonate with them? How can you make it resonate more?
  • Do you have a personal story related to this topic? and are you willing to share it?
  • Will students pay attention more because it is a sensitive topic?
  • Is this a black-and-white issue or is it an area with grey areas?  For us, rape is always bad; for ancient Greeks and Romans, rape was not necessarily bad.  We need to be able to carefully communicate the idea of cultural relativity, but at the same time acknowledge our modern [students’] perspectives.
  • How much discussion and how much lecture is appropriate?  This will depend on the age level of your students, but it is often good to get students talking about the issues.
  • What do you believe is the goal of education? Some people view education as a place for students to learn skills; others view it as a place for students to develop ideas and a personal philosophy.  These different outlooks on education affect how you and how your students will approach the subject and accompanying discussion.  If you think education is about skills, what skills will a class on a sensitive topic address?  If you believe education is about developing one’s ideas and thought processes, then more discussion among students would be a good idea.

Like I said, some topics–like sexuality and rape–are unavoidable and you will have to address them.  Other topics may be optional, and you may not even realize how sensitive some topics could be until a student responds to them.  So you should at least be aware that you may need to discuss things quickly, calmly, and off the cuff.

In that spirit, I hope to suggest ways to address more sensitive topics in the future.  Please let me know if you have suggestions for topics to discuss, or if you have had particular success teaching a specific topic and would like to share your insights.

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