I 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 number of people asking how the lecture went. I’ve now delivered the lecture, so I thought I’d let you know my thoughts on it, both as a reflective exercise for me and as a way to share good practice.
A couple of contextual observations. Firstly, this isn’t the first time I’ve taught difficult texts, particularly those which deal with sexual violence. I’ve thought about them as part of a conversation that started in the Women’s Classical Caucus and has been slowly moving outwards – I recently published an article on a test-case lesson that formed part of a gender and sexuality course I ran in the US aimed at a diverse range of students, and you can download a post-print of that article here if you don’t have access to Classical World, where it first appeared. This lesson was an opportunity to try out some of the strategies I developed in that context with UK students specialising in the subject, and also to see how they worked with a different group of texts – that class focused on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this lecture looked at selections of the Amores and the Ars Amatoria.
Second, this lecture formed part of a Literature of the Roman Empire course where, frankly, my goal is to make my first year students realise that there is more to the world of the Romans than A-levels let on. Some of them have looked at Ovid as part of a Latin AS level, but the selection of the Amores chosen is the most insipid and uninteresting four poems in the whole corpus (at least to my mind) – it’s doing Ovid without doing Ovid, which is profoundly cross-making. Mind you, here is one of the reasons I teach at university level, to be able to teach the sorts of texts you can’t teach to the under-eighteens without getting angry letters in the press. However, for a lot of students this will be their first exposure to Ovid in a systematic way, let alone to the world of Roman literature as a whole, so I’m really laying the foundations for how they think about and approach texts, as well as widening their horizons. In that sense, a lecture saying ‘so, this is difficult, what do we do with that?’ is a necessary question to ask at this stage of their undergraduate careers, because this sort of stuff happens all over classical texts. As one colleague said to me, “at least you’re not trying to teach comedy”.
I’d structured the lecture around a series of poems with the aim of beginning with poems where Ovid self-consciously problematizes his material, and then moving to poems where questions of interpretation become more ambiguous. I wanted to show how Ovid himself is aware of difficult questions, which gives us as readers the chance to ask how aware he is of the other difficult questions he raises – starting with the poet’s own awareness stops the resistance move of ‘but that’s not how Ovid thinks’ because he clearly does. Of course, not all of the passages were straightforwardly problematic, but starting with deliberate contrasts makes the move to more subtle analysis smoother.
I titled the lecture “Why Ovid is problematic”, so I began with a definition of problematic, why it matters, how we can read this material responsibly but not anachronistically, and a strong reminder about my policy that my classroom should be a safer space. I then started textual analysis with the retelling of the rape of the Sabine women in Ars Amatoria 1, because it dovetailed with things I had said in previous lectures about issues with Augustus (who envisioned himself as a second Romulus) as well as the sexual violence theme. This passage illustrates the romanticisation of violence, as well as allowing a quick discussion of ancient rape/raptus versus modern rape. Next, we moved on to Amores 2.7 and 2.8, the paired poems about Cypassis, whom the poet denies he is having an affair with and then coerces into giving sexual favours because he hasn’t ratted her out. There are many conflicting power dynamics here, not least that of free man versus slave woman, so the pair demonstrates a conscious awareness of the possibility of abusing power for sexual ends, and the physical consequences for Cypassis if she doesn’t submit to the poet’s desires.
I then looked at Amores 2.13 and 2.14, which represent a different kind of violence towards the female body, that of abortion. The striking thing about these poems is that in 2.13 the poet is sympathetic and caring about Corinna following her experience, whereas in 2.14 he lambasts her for her heartlessness and general wickedness. What I hadn’t noticed before was that in poem 2.13, the poet takes potential responsibility for fathering the illegitimate baby, but in 2.14 there’s absolutely no sense of male agency – it’s as if Corinna has spontaneously conceived. This question about male involvement and responsibility combined with misogynist invective gave a good opportunity to think about the consequences of Ovid’s elegiac world and the way in which different perspectives might shape responses to them.
I closed the lecture with Amores 1.4, 1.5 and 1.7, all of which are problematic in different ways. 1.4 closes by asking the poet’s girlfriend to only have sex with her husband grudgingly, and hoping that she doesn’t enjoy it even if her husband does, which raises troubling questions about consent; 1.5 may or may not represent Corinna resisting the act of being stripped by the poet; and in 1.7, the poet bewails the fact he has beaten his girlfriend up without actually addressing why this has happened or how he will stop it happening again. All of these are less clear-cut than the paired poems, but have troubling content which needs to be examined and explored as part of an honest appraisal of Ovid’s work.
After the end of the lecture, I realised that I was incredibly pleased with how my students had done. I’d given them two opportunities for small group discussion in the lecture, and while the first feedback session was quite subdued (despite a lot of conversation in the room beforehand), the second was more engaged and confident – I’m hoping that represents an increasing confidence in handling difficult topics. The quality of questions and observations raised in those conversations were also very high. So were the questions and comments that I back in the one minute papers – there was a lot of interest in where to find more social history background, but also some questions that got to the heart of the ‘how are we meant to interpret this stuff?’ debate. Of course, the answer to that is ‘there is no fixed answer’. But asking the question shows that first year students are starting to grapple with the troubling fact that interpretations can go all over the place, but that they need to be grounded in the text.
Overall, I think that went extremely well. I can only hope that my students found it interesting, challenging, and a useful model of how to approach texts which talk about things we find difficult.