Write-up: Race and Ethnicity Syllabus Workshop at CAAS 2018 (Philadelphia)

By David Wright (@rmavirumquecano).

At the 2018 meeting of CAAS in Philadelphia, CSJ and MRECC hosted a race and ethnicity syllabus workshop. It was a great success! The panel had about 20-25 attendees who were a mix of high school and college teachers. It quite appropriately preceded and complemented a panel on Afro-Greeks in honor of Emily Greenwood.

The topic of race and ethnicity in the Classics classroom has long been an important point of discussion. Recent political events have brought the issue to the fore to the point where it is impossible for any classicist to ignore.

This panel focused not only on the topic of race and ethnicity in the college classroom, but in high school classes as well. The panel gathered several speakers who have experience teaching the topics of race, ethnicity, and slavery.

Maggie Beeler (Temple University) discussed her experiences teaching “Race in the Ancient Mediterranean” GenEd course, which she first taught right after Charlottesville. She uses three main texts: Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World source book (eds. R.F. Kennedy, C.S. Roy, and M.L. Goldman), Race: Antiquity and its Legacy (D. McCoskey), and various articles from Eidolon. She makes of use of anonymous live polls using PollEverywhere in order to have students explore notions of identity. Maggie grounds the discussion of the ancient texts with discussions of contemporary issues related to race in America.

Dani Bostick (John Handley High School) shared ways high school Latin teachers can approach these topics. She spoke of her own experience with Latin’s role in the segregation of her high school: the majority of students in her Latin class were white in spite of the fact that she taught at a school that had a majority of students from underrepresented backgrounds. She strives to make her class accessible to all students, regardless of background. She frequently incorporates discussions of race, ethnicity, slavery, and migration in her Latin classes. In particular, she stresses the similarities between American antebellum slavery and slavery in the ancient world as opposed to the differences and has students critically examine the ways Latin textbooks treat the subject of slavery.

Denise Eileen McCoskey (Miami University of Ohio) has taught a course on race and ethnicity in the ancient world for approximately two decades.  She makes the point that institutional support is critical, and that she is fortunate to be in an academic environment that values this type of curriculum.  She stresses the importance of using Critical Race Theory in the course. Her course asks three main questions: 1) what are “race” and “ethnicity”?; 2) how should we apply these concepts to study of the classical past? (McCoskey emphasizes to her students her preference for the terminology of “race” 3) how have perceptions of race and ethnicity in antiquity shaped modern conceptions of identity and difference? Overall, she aims to equip students with the methods to be “historians of race” who can critically address constructions of race in any time period or context.  Finally, she highlighted the use of two case-studies she has found effective: the study of Alexander the Great’s racial “policies” (often idealized today in perceptions of his striving for “One World”) and Cicero’s pro Fonteio, which raises powerful questions about who should be believed and why in Roman legal contexts.

Kassandra Miller (Union College) teaches the course, “The Ancient Other.” She brings in experts in diversity and inclusion to help ground discussions of race and ethnicity into her classes of (mostly) white students. She also uses theater projects to engage students. One project involves students imagining that they are putting on a production of the Medea. Students consider questions such as: whose story are you telling? Who do you want to represent? Who do you want your audience to be? How do you actually put on the production? Kassandra also invited her campus’ Dean of Diversity and Inclusion to team-teach a class session. Together, they helped students translate lessons learned in the course of their study of race and ethnicity in antiquity into concrete actions which will promote diversity and inclusion in their daily lives.

Jackie Murray (University of Kentucky) is currently designing a course on the Medea that examines Medea both in the ancient and modern world. The first half of the course explores the myth in Classical texts in order to foster discussions of ethnicity in antiquity. In the modern world, she focuses on the reception of Medea among black authors who represent the heroine as a woman of color. The final segment of the course will involve an assignment that has students translate the Medea into a modern Kentucky dialect.

Elina Salminen’s (University of Michigan) talk looks at teaching race and ethnicity in conjunction with community-based learning. Elina has students engage with local communities so that the students can directly apply what they learn in class to the world around them — particularly from an intersectional perspective.  Elina has three suggestions for community-based learning: 1) collaborate with experts on particular topics; 2) keep it local; 3) take time for comparisons and analysis (e.g., comparing ancient slavery with contemporary sex trafficking). Elina brings up the important point about teaching topics of race and ethnicity from a point of privilege. How can the oppressors teach about oppression?

David Wright (Fordham University) brings up the issue that not every department can have an entire course devoted to race and ethnicity. He offers examples of texts that could easily be incorporated into civilization courses. Euripides’ Ion in particular is useful – it can be used in a literature or history-focused class. David is currently using the text in both his Athenian Democracy and Greek Drama class. The play is a great way for students to analyze the social constructions of race and autochthony.

Jackie, Kassandra, and David all talked about how titles of courses can attract or discourage certain types of students. A course like “Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians” tends to draw in white males who might not expect to be critically questioning conceptions of race and the Other in a class like this. On the one hand, it might be a way to “trick” students into having discussions about race and ethnicity who might not normally encounter the subject. David spoke of using the class Ancient Athletics to get students thinking about race as a construct since a focal point of the course examines the constantly changing idea of “Greekness.” At the same time, a title like “Greeks, Romans, Barbarians” might be alienating to students of color. Jackie shared her experience changing the class title from “Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians” to “Is Classics for White People Only?” – the result was a much more diverse group of students.

Audience feedback was particularly helpful. It is clear that there is a strong imperative for classicists to engage with these issues. White teachers should not shy away from this despite the anxiety it might cause. One especially important comment came up regarding the duty of many teachers to acknowledge and own their own privileged identity. We also identified that this issue is twofold: to increase our discussion of race and ethnicity in the classroom and to diversify our field. These two ideas intersect.

Thanks are in order for Rebecca Kennedy for her support with the abstract for this workshop and Nancy Rabinowitz, whose suggestion was the first spark that caused this workshop to come together. We are also extremely grateful to Vicky Austin-Perry for live tweeting the whole panel.

All workshop materials can be found here. For more resources on race and ethnicity in the Classical world, please see Rebecca Kennedy’s website.


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