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At Intersections: Teaching about Power and Powerlessness in the Ancient World

Elina Salminen

University of Michigan

My paper will detail the design, teaching, and outcomes of a class on inequality in Classical Greece. The course is currently being taught (Winter 2017) in a small learning community inside a major public university. The course includes a substantial comparative element, with the goal of moving beyond off-handed comparisons to truly testing how we can use the past as a tool to think with about modern-day US and, conversely, seeing whether the theory of intersectionality can be fruitfully applied to the ancient world. The course includes collaboration with off-campus organizations working for social justice as well as a service-learning component with a local non-profit.

The course has been advertised as follows: “This class will introduce you to the silent majority of Classical Greece: women, slaves, and non-Greeks. We will look at archaeological, iconographic and textual evidence in search of the voices that have been silent for centuries. The focus will be on the ways in which the voices were silenced and oppressed, but we will also look at examples of resistance and self-empowerment. In addition, we will look at modern-day inequality to see if and how it can help us study inequality in antiquity, and vice versa. The course includes a community-based component consisting of discussions with visiting speakers from organizations promoting social justice and two visits to an after-school program. This component will have you discussing the course content with experts from different organizations, learning about social justice regarding women, ethnic minorities, and other underprivileged groups, and deepening your understanding of the material by teaching it to others.”

The paper will detail the process of course-design and institutional support and challenges from the point of view of a junior, non-tenure-track instructor. The course was only possible due to the instructor’s extensive pedagogical training and through the support of an autonomous university unit promoting courses that include social-justice and service-learning components. Syllabus development was a lengthier process than usual, and the paper will discuss the different ideas on pedagogy and content held by colleagues in Classics and colleagues outside of the discipline, especially in units doing work driven by community outreach.

In addition, the paper will outline the experience of actually teaching the course. It is already clear to the instructor that the students taking the class do not fit her presumptions: they are ethnically diverse (on a mostly white campus), unfamiliar with Classics or other disciplines related to the course topic, and, most surprisingly, not particularly experienced in or interested in social justice or issues of inequality. Needless to say, the latter two pose challenges, but also make the experience rewarding as there is an opportunity to teach about both Classics and social justice to people who would not otherwise be exposed to either. On a further positive note, the students have also responded well to the weaving together of the ancient and modern worlds, showing more engagement than is usual in the Classics classroom based on the instructor’s experience.

Finally, the paper will discuss learning outcomes, both for the students and for the instructor. Reflections, mid-term evaluations by a pedagogical center, and course evaluations will provide the materials. Service-learning and activism-based learning are often credited with transformative results, and I will compare my students’ experiences with those outlined in pedagogical scholarship on the topic.

Session/Panel Title:

Classics and Social Justice

Session/Paper Number

1.1

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