How to pimp your Classics & Ancient History syllabus: 10 back-to-school tips

How to pimp your Classics & Ancient History syllabus: 10 back-to-school tips

by Katherine Blouin

Over the summer, a Ph.D. student told me that she and her fellow graduate students in Classics here at the UofT would very much appreciate to get some tips on how they can better diversify and “decolonize” (and I use this term mindfully, being aware that it is not a metaphor) their teaching in a way that is all at once more reflective of the complexities of the ancient world, mindful of Classics’ and ancient history’s complicated and ongoing ties to imperialism, and engaging to our often (and in Toronto, incredibly) diverse student body. Since we’re all either in the midst of or about to start writing our Fall syllabi, I thought the time was ripe to put together a list of the 10 main cues I’ve been following these past years. In my experience, these can be applied in a variety of ways to both undergraduate and graduate courses at all levels. That being said, this is by no means meant to be a set list, and I am certainly aware that MUCH remains to be done, so please see this list as a start.  And should you have other tips to share, please do!

1. Diversify the voices featured in your syllabus

Are all the readings assigned in your syllabus written by white male scholars? From the anglo-saxon scholarly tradition? Who are senior? If the answer is yes, consider making your reading list more representative of the world around you (or, if you look around and only see white man, of the world beyond your bubble). Likewise, foster a critical approach to texts considered to be authoritative in the field. Some may say: That’s a great idea in theory, but the fact is, some fields are more “white”, “male”, and “Anglo-Saxons” than others. My answer to that would be: Really? Please try again. And for real, this time.

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2. Don’t fetishize narcissistic military leaders

I teach intro to Roman history and culture every year so I know this too well: It’s very hard when we teach a survey course to stray away from the chronological and geopolitical narrative path. Still, it’s not an excuse to spend the whole term focusing exclusively on a bunch of rich, in great part corrupt, and narcissistic ancient men who fought between each other, led civil wars, and committed genocides (yes, Julius Caesar, you did just that, and I’m looking at all of you too, politicians of the Late Republic!). First, let’s face it, it gets depressing, and heavy, after a while. Second, there is WAY more to the ancient world than that, and I’m sure you too hope that those students who study science and are about to take their first and only course of ancient history as an elective will end the term thinking the same.

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So what I’ve been trying to do is to balance the mostly political narrative of my lectures with “case study” segments that feature “voices” or topics pertaining to other aspects of the ancient world. For instance, last year, I spent a bit more time discussing three foundational stories of early Rome that revolve around rape/abduction of female bodies and how they were interpreted by modern art: The rape of Rhea Silvia; the “rape” of the Sabines; the rape of Lucretia.

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Image from the 1962 movie The Rape of the Sabines

Given the climate of the time (#MeToo), I found that it was both necessary and powerful to critically and mindfully (for we must also be aware that some of the most graphic and violent material we teach can me traumatic or painful for (some) students & adjust our teaching methods accordingly) discuss these myths more than I had in the past. Given the students’ responses both in and outside of class, it seems like it was a good idea pedagogically-speaking.

3. Don’t be a “Classical” literature monomaniac = diversify your pool of primary evidence

The ancient world was a multilingual (and multiscript) one. Unlike today, most people in Antiquity were illiterate. Just like today though, loads of them spoke more than one language, and they produced, read, or listened to all sorts of texts. Literary texts are thus only a small portion of what remains from Antiquity. Making a point to feature that diversity and complexity, be it in translation in the case of texts, does better justice to what the past was truly about than enclosing oneself in the old-school Greek and Latin lit. canon. Likewise, if teaching languages and literary material, be mindful of how representative of the full diversity of authors/genres/topics/periods your (or your department’s) curriculum is. Everyone loves their “Classics”, but there is fun to be had beyond the obvious as well (who doesn’t like to translate or discuss a sallacious monk story once in a while?). Be like Lonely Planet in the old days: Go off the beaten track.

4. Give voices – and due credits – to the “other”, the “conquered”, the “barbarians”, and the “enemies”

Ask yourself: Who do I present as the “Other” in my syllabus? Why? How? Can this be a problem for some students and colleagues? Similarly, who am I not teaching about? I’m still flabergasted by the fact that most of the new graduate students I’ve taught over the years have never been taught anything about the Persian Empire/world beyond the Helleno- (that is, essentially Atheno-) centric narrative. Likewise, I’ve taught groups of graduate students who had never been shown a Fayyum portrait, or who had no idea at all that the Carthaginians had a literature of their own (which is now, sadly, mostly lost; Google “Mago” just for fun).

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Fayyum portrait, now at the ROM

It’s not the students’ fault, but that of the too-often myopic nature of many “Classics” programs. It’s a fact that our literary evidence on the Phoenicians, Persians, Carthaginians, Gauls, etc. is one-sided. But this is no legitimate reason to completely ignore all the other material that does come from outside of the traditional Greek and Latin canon. Likewise, if you teach a survey course on the “ancient world” and dedicate 2/3 of the term to the “Greco-Roman world” and the rest to everything spanning from Mesopotamia to early Islam, you might want to either balance your syllabus better or change the title and scope of your course altogether.

 5. Feature cases of cultural interactions and connectivity

“Greek”, “Roman”, “Greco-Roman”: From a cultural perspective, these words are often misnomers in that they don’t do justice to the fundamentally interconnected, diverse, and fluctuating socio-cultural fabric of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Peoples, goods, ideas have been moving since human beings exist and, accordingly, the “Greco-Roman” world owes a great, great deal to the peoples and cultures it interacted with over the course of its history. Ancient relationships to/constructs of “race”, “ethnicity”, and “identity” did exist, but in ways that ought to be defined and contextualized in the context of the time (Rebecca Futo Kennedy has put together a great list of pedagogical resources on those topics). This might seem like simple, obvious facts to many of us scholars, but given current attempts at reframing the “Classical” world as the root of white supremacy, there is still much education work to be done on that front.

Bonus tip: Try Anything that has to do with the Indian Ocean/Silk Route trade. It’s a guaranteed success.

6. Address the relationship between Classics/Ancient history & imperialism

Making students aware of the history of our disciplines and of their links to imperialism and (settler) colonialism can only benefit their critical investment in it, and their wider positionings in the world. Depending on the topic of the course and on its level/format, such discussions can take the shape of anything from a short segment to an entire class to a semester-long course.

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Arthur Evans (left) and two members of his team in Knossos

7. Don’t normalize words like “barbarians”, “pagans”, “civilization“, “the West”, “the East”, “Fall” or “decline“. If you do use them, make a point to explain to students where they come from and what’s their ‘baggage’

Because, to paraphrase Justin Trudeau, it’s 2018.

8. Don’t assume that students all come to a topic with similar sets of general knowledge and from the same entry point

For instance, don’t teach as if everyone in the classroom comes from a Judaeo-Christian background and is fully aware of the connections and differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Cause I know from experience that they don’t. But it would be really handy if, thanks to you, they finally do. Likewise, don’t assume polytheism is less sophisticated or “evolved”. Or completely different from monotheism. Cause it’s not. At all. However, the Virgin breastfeeding Jesus IS a Christian version of Isis breastfeeding Horus. And that is some essential info to carry with oneself through life or to casually flash out at a cocktail party.

9. Love, and use, pop culture, reception, and the news

Don’t be a culture snob. Instead, use pop culture as a conversation opener in the classroom. Thus, whether you think Beyoncé is a narcissist is beyond the point: The way she and Jay-Z have recently been resorting to Pharaonic imagery and Greek sculptures at Coachella, in the Apeshit video, and on social media powerfully highlights how ancient and modern history are embedded.

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Image from The Carters’ Apeshit video, with the Vénus de Milo in the brackground

And, as such, it is certainly worth a 10-min discussion at the start or at the end of class, whereby some historical records can also be set straight. Likewise, that vintage Pepsi ad set in a Roman coliseum that came out when most of your students’ entered JK is still a winner (yes, I’m an Associate Professor in Classics and a fan of Beyoncé all at once).

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So are the news with their endless stream of Antiquity-related information: That petition for the Alexandrian “mummy juice” to be transformed into a beverage? Classroom gold.

10. Love public-facing scholarship too

I’m thinking podcasts, blog posts, magazine articles, Eidolon, and documentaries/videos. These offer accessible, timely complements to textbooks and traditional scholarly publications, and they often happen to be written/ feature a more diversified pool of scholars. Don’t deny yourself and your students this two-for-one pleasure.

Have fun!

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