Write-up: Classics and Social Justice roundtable at CAWMS 2018 (Albuquerque, New Mexico)

By Amy Pistone.

This is a long-overdue write-up of a roundtable that deserved more timely treatment, so let me start with that apology, as well as heartfelt thanks to Mik Larsen for taking wonderful minutes from our discussion.

Attendance was very good (15-20 all told, though people were coming in and out, as their schedules allowed) and attendees ranged from graduate students to high school teachers to non-tenure track faculty, as well as people who don’t fit into any of those categories. I should note that while our roundtable was fairly diverse by the standards of our field, this was still an overwhelmingly white group, which was one of the topics discussed at the workshop.

We began with introductions (as so many roundtables do), but I mention these introductions because we all talked about why specifically we were at the roundtable. It was very encouraging to see the range of answers to that question. People mentioned concerns about disabilities and accessibility, about serving particular racial/ethnic demographics, and about addressing field-wide problems of representation. These concerns fit into two general categories: concerns about how to promote diversity as educators (i.e., within the classroom) and concerns about how to promote diversity within the field.

What resources and tools would help teachers at all levels promote diversity better? (this is how we ended the roundtable, but I think these are the most important points to think about, going forward, so I’m leading with them)

  • A collection of visual representations that aren’t—as was raised in the CAMWS CPL (Committee for the Promotion of Latin) panel – just a bunch of pink faces. The BBC cartoon controversy was mentioned in this context.
  • Materials to promote comparative philosophy, mythology, etc. to broaden the scope of what we frame as “classics” to include the classics of other civilizations.
  • Opportunities for team teaching – as trained academics, we often feel (with good cause) uncomfortable teaching about topics and texts that are not in our academic field. Team teaching would help with this.
    • Several people noted that (in practice) this often ends up putting more work on junior faculty and needs higher-level support in order for team teaching to be a viable option. Senior people need to talk to administrators because the junior people can’t.

Teaching foreign languages:

  • How can we best teach Greek and Latin to students who are non-native English speakers? What about students who are native English speakers but have not had any rigorous grammatical education before they enter our classrooms? How can we lower the barriers to entry for languages?
  • If you are trying to acquire a new (modern or ancient) language, that experience can help cultivate empathy/sympathy and give you insight into the struggles your students may be having with language learning.
  • Recognize that non-native English speakers often have a more thorough knowledge of English grammar, since they likely learned it in school. They also have the experience of thoroughly learning a second language (which native English speakers don’t necessarily have), which can be a real strength for them in the classroom.
  • Be selective about which grammatical terminology (or jargon) we use in the class. Using accessible language when we teach can make the languages themselves seem more accessible – unless the formal terminology is useful for understanding the language, consider avoiding it (with the caveat that commentaries will expect students to know these terms, so they do need to be exposed to those terms at some point).
  • Etymology, linguistic history, and comparative grammar can all be really useful tools in the classroom. These things can help students remember vocabulary, but they can also be very helpful for non-native speakers who can see how and why English works the way it does if they understand where certain constructions come from. As one roundtable member said, English is a bastard language with chaotic layered complexity and interrelationships with other languages. We can help our students better understand English and Latin at the same time!
  • Teaching international students involves understanding the educational background that they come from, which may be radically different from the educational system(s) here.
  • English Grammar for Students of Latin

Teaching classical civilization courses:

  • How do we decenter the West in our teaching? How do we talk about why Classics matters if it’s not the foundational material of all civilization? Many students come to our classes because rhetoric about “civilization” and “The West” – can/should we as educators do about that?
  • There was a lot of discussion from people who have taught in non-western countries or who teach at institutions with a high population of non-western students. This segued into discussions of how best to teach when your students don’t have preexisting conceptions about the topic. Or if they come to your class specifically wanting to know about the narrative of The West. In some ways, this can be an easier task, because you don’t need to deconstruct any narratives – you can start from scratch and present the ancient world and the concept of “western civilization” as something that is complicated and constantly being renegotiated. Outsiders can often analyze a culture better and more objectively than the people who are immersed in it.
  • A helpful way to open up this conversation is to look at when The Western Canon and The West as concepts start to emerge, particularly as a product of the Cold War. This can segue nicely into a discussion about what “the West” and “the East” would have meant to Greeks and Romans at different times in their histories – these definitions are shifting and fluid!
  • A valuable starting point for discussions is to solicit opinions about what “the classics” are from students and encourage them to draw on their own cultural texts.
  • Using films (recent, popular ones) can be a good entry point for students who feel more confident talking about a movie than an unfamiliar text. Engaging with popular movies can also make classics seem more accessible, rather than an elite pursuit.

Bigger, structural (and field-wide) issues:

  • One attendee asked how many people have gotten the memo that some of this language is problematic. Departments still generally use this rhetoric to sell their classes and major textbooks (e.g., the books that come up when you search “Roman history” on Amazon) still use this narrative. This makes our job harder, especially for people working in high schools and middle schools.
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