For modern students, Classics is uncanny in its ability to feel both very familiar and very foreign. Within this space, the discipline offers a unique opportunity to engage in questions of subjectivity and difference that inform modern discourses surrounding social justice. In traditional Classical education, however, the discipline often continues to perpetuate certain racial, classist, and gendered attributes, making marginalized students feel alienated from the material. Most Latin literature, as well as the textbooks that teach the Latin language, were written by and center around elite white men. After teaching many years at the college level (to mostly white students), I transitioned to a public school setting with a predominantly African American student population. I realized that I needed to change the axis from which I presented Roman language and culture, in order to make Classical language and culture appealing for minority students, as well as demonstrating the ways in which Classical studies can interact with their pressing interest in social justice issues in the modern age. This shift does not solely benefit minority students, but is an innovative and socially conscious way to teach ancient language and culture to a diverse and complex world. With this paper, I hope to share my strategies for teaching a diverse student population that have allowed me and my students to have critical conversations about power dynamics within language and culture, race, and how groups can rise to challenge oppressive structures, in the ancient and modern worlds.
In this paper, I argue that one of the first things we need to do is in our language classrooms: open up translation to welcome alternative dialects and verbal tendencies. When teaching students with different dialects, it is important to allow them to make the Latin language their own and not force traditional grammatical constructions when they are making the language their own. My own work on African American Vernacular English and Latin translation shows that when we embrace dialectical diversity, the ability to reach nontraditional students increases. Additionally, I have found that having critical conversations about how the elite, male characters are foregrounded, with women, minorities, and slaves being reduced to stereotypes, in texts such as Cambridge Latin Course, is beneficial to students who are also trying to overcome systemic oppression. These conversations begin with small steps like diversifying visual materials, and larger ones like engaging students in research and presentation about figures and social classes that are largely ignored in the texts that are presented with. If Classics as a discipline is committed to social justice issues, and I believe that we are, then the discipline itself needs to constantly interrogate the dynamics that exist within our own pedagogical practices.
Classics and Social Justice