Tag: social justice

The Importance of Historiography

The Importance of Historiography

According to Bond, the Greeks and Romans of antiquity did not classify people as “white,” and many of the classical marble sculptures, sarcophagi, and steles from the Mediterranean were originally painted—frequently in gold, red, green, black, white, and brown. As the pigments deteriorated over time, art historians, including Johann Joachim Winckelmann—an eighteenth-century scholar considered by many to be the father of the art historical discipline—perpetuated the idea that the white marble statues of ancient peoples represent an ideal beauty, a notion that still fuels white supremacists today.

These thoughts (summarized here from Sarah Bond’s Hyperallergic article here) elicited death threats from members of the alt-right. This is a very troubling result of something very smart: an attempt to show how Classics may be unintentionally complicit in perpetrating racial thinking, how we can alter this complicity, and how this problem developed in the primordial soup of our discipline.

We need to be aware of the history of our field and, depending on the level of our students and courses, present this historiography to our students. It shows us why we approach certain questions and issues in certain ways. Here are some of the things we can do with this knowledge:

  • Show why a certain approach is beneficial. Certain materials are best approached from certain angles, or they can only tell us certain things. Over decades and centuries of research, scholars have determined some of these limitations and best approaches. Students can learn them too.Childe Historiography.png
  • Show why certain approaches, methods of presentation, or interpretations are, perhaps, wrong or troubling. Painted sculpture is a good example here. I presented another good example in my ancient history course: the idea of diffusion. Historically, it developed alongside ideas about Social Darwinism, and the large-scale diffusionist theory of V. Gordon Childe was contradicted by new data from C14 dating. This example allows us to talk about reasons for rejecting theories (i.e. it doesn’t fit the evidence) and for being cautious or worried about theories (i.e. it implies that some humans or cultural phenomena are more valuable or dignified than other humans or cultural traits). This is not to say that diffusion never happened, just that we need to be careful not to assume that “good” traits will spread to other cultures because they are inherently good. We need to explain that diffusion and its mechanism in a more sophisticated way that explains why the receiving culture would want to adopt that trait, practice, or object–in other words, in a way that affirms the dignity of all humans, past and present.
  • Frames these methodological issues in an academic, instead of a political, context. In these times of great political polarization when scholars receive death threats for explaining why we need to say ancient statues were painted, ethically sound statements that affirm the dignity of our students and people in antiquity could be construed as political statements (which could cause our students to shut down). However, if we thoroughly explain the connection between white statues and white supremacy or the connection between diffusion theories and Social Darwinism, the importance of methodological wariness and behavioral change is more apparent than if we make a simple statement to the effect of “But be careful about that interpretation or statement because it has racial undercurrents.”
  • Shows how scholars are a product of their times. For example, diffusion and Social Darwinism developed alongside each other, and research interests in sex, gender, and sexuality developed as feminism and the LGBT rights movement grew. It may help students understand why some scholars seem sexist, and it may encourage them to explore ideas that they care about because of today’s issues.
  • Shows why we, as teacher-scholars, approach questions in a way that may not be as interesting or comprehensible to our students as it is to us. For example, many scholars focus less on wars and the salacious stories in Suetonius’s de vita Caesarum than many of our students might like. However, by recognizing this, we can break out of this habit and explore things in a new way or in a way that engages our students more effectively.
  • Shows students why we know more about Egypt, Greece and Rome than about, say, the Hittite Empire. The dates for excavations and decipherments of languages are a huge factor here. As are the number of scholars working on each culture.
  • Shows students that there is more work to be done. All the answers don’t exist yet, and there are questions that can still be asked, perhaps by them.
  • Shows students how that work can be done. As we talk through different approaches and their benefits, the lesson is also a methodological lesson.

From the Inbox

Politics in the Classroom

In the midst of some intense political happenings in Washington, DC, it seems appropriate to ask: how does a teacher responsibly and ethically handle, or remember regarding, politics in the classroom?

Here is the fruit of my research:

  • Recognize your own positions. We all develop beliefs in response to our perceptions, feelings, interpretations of the past, interpretations of our own lives, and what we hear from family, friends, colleagues, the media, social media, our culture, etc. We must know our own positions and values, the evidence and causes behind them, and be conscious of how these positions and values affect our teaching and presentation of material.
  • Remember and acknowledge how our values affect our course design and lesson planning.  If we talk about slaves, we are influenced by a Marxist approach to history that encourages discussion of the subaltern. Depending on how we structure the lesson or where the conversation goes, issues of race and economics will be involved.
  • There is an uneven power dynamic between students and teachers. Most teachers develop the assignments for the students. Teachers evaluate and grade students. Ethical teachers cannot give points to students with whom they agree politically.
  • There is a difference between “settled issues” and “open issues.” Franke Wilmer uses the example as the Holocaust as a settled issue. It happened; it’s very sad a historical fact. Diane Hess uses the example of climate change. It is a settled issue that the climate is changing, but the appropriate response to climate change is the open question. Similarly, regarding an issue we might encounter in a Latin or Classics class, it is a settled issue that rape is bad, but the punishment for the rapist seems to be at the core of the debate raging today. It is important to differentiate between these for ourselves, and for our students. It may foster more constructive dialogue and it help us recognize that we are more similar to one another than our current polarization implies. Wilmer, though, acknowledges that drawing the line between “settled” and “open” can be difficult.
  • Focus on issues, not events. Often, we do not have enough knowledge of specific, very recent events, such as a police officer shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, to discuss them adequately or fairly; but we do have sufficient knowledge to focus on issues, such as racial inequality, the militarization of the police, police wearing body cameras, etc. This will also help students see the historical context and systemic issues behind current events.
  • There is a difference between “public”/”civic” values and “private” values. To quote Tom Huddleston, “The kind of values that characterise a pluralist democracy, such as ours [referring to the UK, but the same applies to the USA], include: social justice; political equality; tolerance; human rights; respect for the rule of law; and a commitment to negotiation and debate as the ideal way of resolving public conflict. This difference [between public and private values] allows a distinction to be made between the values that may be legitimately taught in schools–indeed, which schools have a duty to teach–and those that are more properly the province of the home, particular interest groups and religious or political parties. Thus, … [teachers] may quite legitimately condemn and prohibit injustices which contravene our community values, such as racism and human rights abuse – wherever they take place.”
  • Provide all points of view regarding an issue, and present them in a neutral manner. You can play ‘devil’s advocate’ to challenge what seems like an early emerging one-sided consensus, or encourage students to share and explain their own thoughts. You can invite a variety of community members into the classroom (especially if they are parents who are worried about you indoctrinating their children).
  • Do not establish yourself as the sole authority on a subject. This will demonstrate your open mind and the value of other opinions, and it will help students see that there are a variety of opinions.
  • Ask students to actively engage in a discussion of the issues. To quote Tom Huddleston again, “If children become accustomed to discussing their differences in a rational way in the primary years, they are more likely to accept it as normal in their adolescence. Citizenship education helps equip young people to deal with situations of conflict and controversy knowledgeably and tolerantly. It helps to equip them to understand the consequences of their actions, and those adults around them. Pupils learn how to recognize bias, evaluate argument, weigh evidence, look for alternative interpretations, viewpoints and sources of evidence; above all to give good reasons for the things they say or do, and to expect good reasons to be given by others.” In other words, do not just teach the issues, but teach the skills of being a good citizen.
  • Have rules for discussion. Students should be respectful and attentive, and they should approach the discussion with open minds. Opposing opinions should not be dismissed but respectfully interrogated so that they are better understood. The discussion should be based on fact-checked evidence, and arguments should be critiqued on their merits (not on whether or not the teacher agrees). Teaching students these rules for less controversial, political issues will establish a safe, respectful environment for discussing more hot button issues.
  • We must model approaching issues with an open mind. Do not reveal your own preferences unconsciously through facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, choice of respondents during a discussion, etc. Do not make sarcastic comments or jokes that are political or partisan in nature–that polarizes students.
  • If you share your opinion, make it clear that it is your opinion. State that it is “in my opinion.” Step out from behind a podium. State that students must make up their own minds.
  • Do not focus on cynicism and fear. Find upbeat messages and the good side of what may seem like crazy times, and share them with your students.
  • Are students initiating the discussion because they want to talk about it? or are you? There are differing levels of comfort that come with each cause.
  • To what extent are your students, their families, and their communities personally affected by an issue? Emotional levels will run high or low depending on your answer, or you may need to devote more or less time to issues that directly affect students before their learning can take place.
  • Should students be allowed to opt out of the discussion if it is particularly hard for them due to their religious background or personal past? Considerations similar to those for trigger warnings apply, on the one hand. On the other hand, Paula McAvoy mentions that we don’t let students opt out of tests, democratic discussion allows participants to walk away, and democracies rely on participants overcoming their discomfort regarding discussing their opinions.
  • Is the issue something all students ought to know about, regardless of whether it is in the curriculum?
  • We are a very politically polarized country at the moment. Current political polarization may mean that some comments are interpreted as political even though both sides agree on the idea (despite caricatures on the media or social media) or even though you did not mean them to be political, and it may mean that emotions will run high during discussions. However, respectful discussion is what is missing in our national discourse, so it may be beneficial to encourage it in our schools–to teach students how to be good citizens.
  • Remember there are difficult balances to maintain here, and success will not be immediate with every group of students. Don’t give up trying. It is important and engaging to connect Classics to the modern world, and to acknowledge the modern world’s effects on our perceptions of the ancient world. These attempts show why Classics matters. But the questions of whether and how political to be–that’s up to you, your students, and your administration.

Sources

Ancient Slavery, a lesson plan

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).

Grading English Language Learners’ Writing

This semester, I’m teaching more international students than I have in the past. Since some of them do not always have the best English, it raises a question: how do I grade their writing? How much do I focus on their ideas and how much do I focus on their ability to communicate their ideas and arguments? While this problem is not unique to international students, it is particularly important when the students seem to only have been studying English for a year or two rather than a decade or two with native speakers.

Personally, I find it ethically problematic to significantly punish students because they cannot communicate their ideas because they do not know our language. But how do I know what aspects of their paper are unclear due to a language barrier and what is off due to confusion, bad ideas, or problematic interpretations?  This semester, most of my international students with poor English are from China, so I was particularly happy to stumble across this explanation of Chinese language while preparing a class about ancient China:

Chinese is almost the opposite [of Japanese]. The word order is closer to English, with the verb coming before the object (e.g., “I read [a] book”). The Chinese language is also completely uninflected, having no tenses or plurals or any grammatical modification of word endings whatsoever. Honorifics, for the most part, are absent: Chinese is not a respect language. Chinese is also monosyllabic, at least to the extent that every Chinese character (written symbol), without exception, is pronounced as a single syllable and is a discrete unit of meaning. (Chris Holcombe, A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century, 1st edition, 2011, p. 16)

From this, I think that, when grading the writing of students whose first language is Chinese and who are still learning English, we can be a bit more lenient about tenses and the inflection of plurals. Spelling, too, may also be a problem while adjusting to the Latin alphabet.  Additionally, many sentences are likely going to be pretty short and simple–just as our Latin sentences rarely approach Cicero’s in length or complexity. With these cautious allowances, I think we could be fairer to our students as they struggle with learning a complex language. Of course, they may require us to do more work to decode our students’ papers–and in some ways our Latin learning and teaching experiences have helped prepare us very well for that task–and that provides other grading dilemmas regarding what is their idea and what is our [creative?] reading of their paper (It’s worth noting that we also face the problem of decoding some native English students’ papers).

I’m not saying we shouldn’t gently encourage them to improve their English–I think we should. I think we should also encourage them, along with all other students, to seek out the help of an on-campus writing center, learning center, or a peer editor. I just think we shouldn’t excessively punish them because they aren’t a skilled native speaker.  So how much is fair to deduct from their scores due to grammatical and syntactical problems? Perhaps a few points, just like you would with a native English speaker. After all, their papers will probably already suffer if a language barrier diminishes their ability to understand their sources, so avoiding double jeopardy seems fair.

Essentially, I suggest that we should not treat them worse than you would a native English speaker. Provide them with similar advice, resources, and guidance about writing. Deduct similar, reasonable amounts of points for grammar mistakes, but put more effort into trying to understand their writing and ideas by understanding how English and Chinese differ. That may help us see through some of the fog that clouds our vision of their ideas and help us arrive at a more authentic and appropriate grade.

Towards ethical social justice education

Last Tuesday’s election and its aftermath encouraged me to look into something that I had been considering for a while now: how do I ethically encourage students to act in a more socially just way?

There is a fair amount of literature on social justice education, and I present here my findings from an initial bit of research into this question.  First, it seems that a lot of social justice literature is focused on structural or systemic issues relating to making sure that all students have equitable and fair access to a high quality education.  Everson and Bussy succinctly describe the issue:

Lack of knowledge about social justice does not excuse leaders [or teachers] from responsibility for it. Leaders [or teachers] who are unaware or uninformed about equity and fairness issues, which they face every day, still live with the moral imperative that is embedded in their jobs. (p. 178)

To learn more about equity and fairness issues, and to improve my own understanding of marginalized groups, I have begun reading several books on these lists:

But what about my behavior in the classroom? What can I do in the classroom in order to encourage social justice and give my students an equitable, fair education that also teaches them to respect their fellow classmates for all their diversities?

I worry about these questions because I do not want to indoctrinate unquestioning students or be accused of presenting a liberal bias, and I do not want make students who may need to hear these messages shut down to this message or for the entire course.  A useful framework for thinking about social justice education is proposed by Kathy Hytten, improved by Rebecca Taylor, and summarized here.

Everything we do as teachers–the texts and assignments we assign, the lessons and activities we lead, the relationships we cultivate, the way we respond to student questions, the atmosphere in our classroom, and the messages we send implicitly and explicitly–send a message that either reinforces or undermines normative behavior.  Therefore, social justice educators consider all of these factors to promote socially just and democratic values: concern for the common good, for minority rights, and for minority dignity; responsibility towards others; faith in the ability to solve problems; and belief in the importance of critical reflection, open flow of ideas, and assessing information. To encourage these values, teachers ask students to analyze and take positions on issues, and they challenge racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, etc. While challenging students to consider important issues or reconsider their normative behavior, teachers make students uncomfortable.

In response to the discomfort, and even suffering, that some students (especially those from dominant cultural positions) experience in social justice classes, Boler (2004a) and Conklin (2008) argued that we need to replace their felt sense of loss with compassion and with critical hope. Here they are gesturing toward an ethics of social justice teaching, one that at least initially honors the perspectives, however flawed, that students bring to their own learning and that validates them as multidimensional, complex, unfinished, and potentially thoughtful people. Moreover, such an ethic entails pedagogical relationships and practices of openness, careful attention, observation, dialogue, caring, and humility. It requires that teachers provide alternative ways of seeing and being that students can productively adopt, without feeling mired in guilt and blame. There is no doubt that responding to the challenge of resistant students is an important part of an ethics for activist teaching, and that this is never an easy task. This is especially true when it consumes an inordinate amount of teacher emotional labor and when allowing significant space for resistant students can (however inadvertently) actively harm marginalized students who may be silenced in the very same classrooms where teachers are attending to these privileged students. However, there is more that social justice teachers need to think about in terms of teacher ethics than navigating discomfort and engaging resistance. (Hytten, p. 4)

Hytten and Taylor suggest that teachers consider and adopt certain virtues of socially just teachers:

  • Reflective humility. This trait requires us to critically self-reflect on our own experiences: when are we frustrated or defensive? Then examine these situations from multiple perspectives so that we can better understand what is happening and challenge our own convictions. A similar and related virtue is:
  • Open-mindedness. This is an attitude that requires us to listen to multiple perspectives, new facts, and new explanations. A key component of this virtue is the recognition that our own ideas and beliefs might be wrong, so we should be on the look-out for better beliefs and ideas. As an ethical social justice teacher, then, you would share that your beliefs may be wrong and you are examining your own practices along with the students, and you would make sure that you discuss a variety of perspectives, as well as their pros and their cons, in class.
  • Sympathetic attentiveness. A sympathetically attentive person tries to understand someone else’s ideas and where they come from, even/especially if we disagree with them. From there, we could offer compelling alternatives, how limited the ideas may be, or see how it is actually a better idea than our own.  If we try to understand our students, we are much more likely for them to be open to us and to new ideas.

Related to these is the virtue of empathy, which takes it beyond a purely academic mindset and into an emotional one too. Additional virtues may be general calmness (except when outrage needs to be expressed), patience, trustworthiness, integrity, sincerity, and self-knowledge. Taylor offers a useful way to determine if these virtues are actually beneficial virtues to exhibit as a social justice teacher and try to teach to our students:

  1. What is the virtue? Virtues are intellectual or moral, and they are something that is pursued because of their intrinsic value. In this system, it is important to understand what exactly a person who exhibits this virtue would do.
  2. How does it relate to the idea of social justice? Does it encourage social justice or not?
  3. What are the internal or external conditions for its success? She highlights the idea that virtues may have external barriers (i.e. school and systemic barriers) and internal barriers (i.e. within the teachers). For example, with open-mindedness, a teacher may be too arrogant and think that, because he reached a certain conclusion the first time he considered an issue, it must be true.  Alternatively, the teacher may be too cowardly and not want to examine his own assumptions so he avoids reconsidering them. Essentially, this step is asking you to continuously reconsider how to exhibit and practically teach this virtue, including overcoming internal obstacles to it.

Like with other ethical guidelines, these do not necessarily tell you how to behave in every situation, but they are ways to guide your thoughts about how to act. In a way, this lack of prescription is nice because ethics are something you need to think about deeply and develop for yourself, just like social justice teachers ask their students to do.

Works Cited