Classically Inclined

January 21, 2014

The classical pedagogy of trigger warnings

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 8:03 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

So, I was putting together my syllabus for Roman Literature of the Empire recently, which is the half-unit course I’m currently teaching to the first year students. It is going to be awesome - we have Livy, Ovid, Lucan, Petronius and Seneca, so I get to spend some time with my favourite boys talking about my favourite things. However. I had decided that for Ovid, if I was going to get the students to read some of his love poetry, I needed to have a lecture titled Why Ovid Is Problematic.

Why? Because it’s not pedagogically responsible to set students loose on the Amores and the Ars Amatoria without explicitly talking about sexual violence and rape. There is a darker side to our witty, playful poet that does need to be talked about, and students need to be given the tools for thinking about these difficult issues. This is, in part, what my article handling teaching the Metamorphoses in the classroom addresses. I had to think quite carefully about how I structured that lecture and what I do with it – I want to talk about the romanticisation of rape in terms of the Sabine women, the abuse of power as it appears in the two Cypassis poems, the violence against the female body as it appears in the two poems about Corinna’s abortion, and the problems of consent and its absence that some of the Amores pose, which feels like a well-structured progression through the issues posed by this sort of writing with some concrete examples.

I have, of course, yet to face the issues involved in actually preparing the lecture. My problem when I was constructing the syllabus was how to make it clear that the content of this session could be disturbing for survivors of rape. What is the pedagogy of the trigger warning on the syllabus?

When I googled, the best thing I found was this post from rebel grrrl discussing her experience in a Media Literacy class concerning a possible suicide trigger. She poses what seems to me to be an important question – “when do we cross the line from a “feminist ethic of care” to paternalism?” That is, when do we begin to control our students’ experiences to a point where the didactic experience of discomfort and pushing over one’s boundaries is totally excluded?

My course is not rebel grrrl’s course; she discusses students bringing in their own film clips and how to monitor those for problematic content, whereas I’m setting students reading that I know in advance is problematic (which is precisely why I’m setting it). She talks about the inadequacy of verbal trigger warnings, which give students the opportunity to leave the classroom but also thus expose them to scrutiny as People Who Have These Triggers; I wanted to give a written warning on the syllabus to alert students to the issue. I’m also focusing on the particular trigger of sexual violence rather than getting into the tricky territory of ‘what counts as a trigger?’.

The biggest disjunction between rebel grrrl’s course and mine is, of course, the material we are teaching. I think that teaching ancient texts adds an extra element to my pedagogical responsibility for including some kind of warning on my syllabus. Classics has for many years been the privilege of the elite in this country and elsewhere, or used as a mechanism of educational discipline, particularly in the colonies. Access to ancient literature was a sign of privilege and authority,  a massive social division that still appears every time someone accuses Latin of being elitist. That barrier is now coming down (see the brilliant work of the East Oxford Community Classics Centre, supported by the Iris Project, for example, or the new Classics and Class research project). However, that means that content which handles difficult topics and was seen as the reserve of those educated enough not to be corrupted by it (bits of Latin left untranslated in the Loeb, anyone?) are now up for grabs.

I have a pedagogical duty to frame those texts in ways which do not diminish them, do not side-line them or pretend they are not there. Ignoring the uncomfortable bits is not only lazy – it’s also potentially dangerous, because it does not challenge narratives which a feminist pedagogy should. It does not challenge students to read this material with a critical eye, to see what is actually going on in them – which is a skill we would expect them to demonstrate when reading any other text. Incidentally, it does also not require us to judge the ancient texts anachronistically. We are not asking the Romans to share our standards. What I am asking is that my students appreciate just how different these texts are from what we would see as socially acceptable, and to read them with that in mind.

Because Cypassis deserves better.

So, to what I’ve actually done. I’ve decided to call it a ‘content warning’ rather than a ‘trigger warning’, as my Google search for ideas brought up a lot of unhelpful kick-back against the idea of ‘triggers’ in general, and whatever I may feel about that sort of thing, it’s an obstacle that’s easily avoided without compromising what I want to say. My standard syllabus has a segment for each lecture that gives students preparatory work, a brief blurb about what the lecture will cover, and some key issues in bullet points. For this lecture, between the preparatory work and the blurb, I have inserted the following:

Content Warning: this lecture will contain extensive discussion of abortion, rape and domestic violence. If you would like to discuss the issues raised by this lecture in confidence, please contact me.

So. Students now have a clear warning about what content the lecture will cover and the issues that it will address. They have the implicit information that I recognise that there may be students in the room who are affected by the issues around sexual violence (which, given the stats, is more or less inevitable), and that I take it seriously. They also have a course of action they can follow if they wish to talk about this more. They don’t have carte blanche to miss the lecture – but they have the reading assigned in advance, so can review it and see if they feel comfortable with it or not, and act accordingly. I hope it points out that we’re going to enter potentially uncomfortable territory, but gives sufficient warning for students to make their own choices without dictating their response.

I’m sure I could do this better. But for now, it’s the best that I can come up.

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8 Comments »

  1. Reblogged this on Meny Snoweballes and commented:
    Great post by Liz Gloyn about how to responsibly teach problematic themes.

    Comment by menysnoweballes — January 21, 2014 @ 2:10 pm | Reply

  2. Great continuation of your article in CW, Liz.

    Comment by Phin — January 21, 2014 @ 6:22 pm | Reply

  3. I think this is an excellent warning. You’ve not called it a Trigger Warning, which is cool – it’s framed as potentially upsetting content for anyone, doesn’t single out trauma survivors or people with any particular condition for special treatment. You’ve not spoken of a need or desire to protect people, or suggested how potentially-affected students should feel or behave (except that your door is open to them). I have a lot of problems with trigger warnings and am really impressed how spot-on you’ve got this. Well done, and thank you.

    Comment by The Goldfish — January 22, 2014 @ 1:18 pm | Reply

    • Thank you very much for this comment. I’ve been wondering how this would go over with people who think about this more than I do, and indeed with people for whom it might be relevant, and I’m very glad to know that I’m going in the right direction.

      I was tempted to add a line saying ‘attendance will not be taken at this lecture’… and then decided that a) it opened a door for anyone to skip the lecture, which wasn’t the point, and b) that it was implicitly suggesting I knew how survivors would react. Neither of which, actually, were what I wanted to say, so I went for short and simple instead. That seems to be a valuable lesson in general about these things – the more words I tried to put in, the more I found myself saying or implying what I didn’t mean to.

      Comment by lizgloyn — January 25, 2014 @ 10:24 am | Reply

  4. […] wrote recently about my thought process behind putting a content warning on my Literature of the Roman Empire syllabus for a particular lecture on Ovid. This post seems to have struck a nerve, and I’ve had a […]

    Pingback by The Problematic Ovid lecture | Classically Inclined — February 21, 2014 @ 11:57 am | Reply

  5. […] workshop on tragedy, and came across Liz Gloyn’s insightful post. She writes about how she deals with teaching rape narratives in Classical Literature to classes which, as she points out, are statistically almost certain to contain rape survivors. […]

    Pingback by How we explain misogyny in fiction: Malory’s Morte Darthur and Game of Thrones | Jeanne de Montbaston — April 16, 2014 @ 8:49 am | Reply

  6. […] Gloyn worries how to teach the rapey bits of Classics — especially given that, statistically, it’s likely that some of her students will have […]

    Pingback by » Teaching Ovid, rape and all Dan O'Huiginn — May 18, 2014 @ 4:38 pm | Reply


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