This semester, many of my Roman archaeology students latched on to a tidbit from the textbook: that the bare feet of the Augustus of Prima Porta indicate that the is a hero or even a god. I am intrigued by this phenomenon because I’m not 100% convinced of this tidbit so I did not mention it in class–it had to come from their reading–and because it was something that had remarkable staying power among so many of my students.
I think I know why. It was something concrete to latch onto. It fit the “In Roman culture, X means Y.” It is tangible and easily recognizable. It was also in English (They didn’t latch onto the idea that “In Roman culture, when a statue’s arm is raised with an open hand, it is the adlocutio pose and this pose means that he is addressing a group of people.” … maybe because adlocutio is a funny Latin word they don’t know?).
Instead of just purely speculating about this one instance, I think it’s representative of something else. All too often, while the textbook and I tried to balance our amount of description with how much we talk about the meaning and significance of an artifact or structure, we erred on the side of discussing the significance and meaning. After all, there are only so many pages and minutes we can describe things without boring our students completely to death.
But this last sentence is a little off the mark. When we talk about the Augustus of Prima Porta, or any other artifact and structure, we are constructing an argument about it. In order to be a good model for our students and to teach students how to read ancient images, we need to construct this argument by providing evidence: detailed, specific descriptions. These should be more than that the Laocoön provokes an emotional response from his pained look, but what about this pained look elicits this response? and what is this response?
When I have described objects in more detail, not only have I felt better about the quality of argument that I present my students, but I have also felt better about their level of comprehension because I have read their faces and moods. As we balance description with significance, we need to offer more nuggets like “bare feet = god and/or hero” and be careful that the forest not get lost through the trees.
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By the way, I have found PRS questions are another very helpful way to develop students’ visual literacy. In addition to forcing students to take a position and giving them a chance to do the analysis, the questions are particularly valuable for correcting mistakes. If you see that a lot of students did not answer a question correctly, you can describe or explain the object in more detail or in another way in order to explain the answer more effectively. Or better yet, have students who got it right describe the object and explain their own answers.