In a recent post, I commented on a difference between ancient slavery and the modern, American antebellum slavery: racism. Race was not a major factor in ancient slavery. But, how do we convince students of that?
This semester, in Roman history, I spent an entire day on Roman slavery and the growth of slavery during the Late Republic, so that they could understand the (perceived) economic problems confronted by the Gracchi. Since I wanted students to learn about many aspects of ancient slavery, and since the best way to understanding another culture’s ideology and thoughts is their writings, I developed several stations with various primary sources (Slavery Primary Sources): Cato’s De Agricultura on how to run a farm, Varro on which slaves to buy to be herdsmen, Livy and Strabo on how Romans obtained slaves from war and pirates, Horace about a slave auction, legal sources about fugitive slaves, and the plan of a first century BCE slave villa. The students spent about 5 minutes looking at each document and attempting to complete the Slavery Stations Worksheet before they looked at the next document. For each document, in addition to document-specific questions, students needed to make two decisions: (1) if the author’s thoughts about slavery were motivated by economic profit, and (2) if the author’s thoughts were motivated by racism or ideas about ethnicity.
In a very brief, rushed moment at the end of the class, to bring everything together and drive home points about slavery, economic profit, and racism, I asked if Roman slavery was motivated by racism to which my entire class provided a resounding “No!” When asked if it was motivated by economic profit, they shouted a resounding “Yes!” (Cf. The Half has Never Been Told on American slavery and capitalism). The following class, we went into a little more depth, reviewing the documents to discuss the conditions of ancient slaves (Had the class period been longer, this would have followed the two debriefing questions). Overall, this was a very good, thorough introduction to Roman slavery and practice of historical methods–and much better than if we had discussed an article or I lectured to them about it.
- Side Note: As noted above, this lesson plan was motivated by a desire to show the historical reality: that Roman slavery did not involve racial thinking. In addition to the academic responsibility of making this point, I was also motivated by a concern for modern social justice (and thoughts on sensitive topics): to show that racism is man-made, it is not natural, and it is not inherently connected to slavery. In this regard, I think this lesson was successful. I do not think it was necessarily (or is inherently) successful at helping students identify or eliminate any racial thinking they might have, nor do I think this lesson was necessarily (or is inherently) successful at helping students understand the social and economic status of black people in the United States today. To get close to accomplishing that goal, I still think that something about Roman freedmen would need to be included, but that is a problem I am still contemplating (See an earlier attempt and a reflection on its inability to fully help students understand instances of police violence against black people).
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.