Being a Teaching Assistant has led to a few realisations in the last few months. One particularly noteworthy point occurred last week. A colleague and I were covering a two hour lecture in the Introduction to Roman archaeology course for first year undergraduates. The course itself is core for the Classical Archaeology students, and optional for everyone else. This year we have a variety of students including more than a handful of psychology students.
As a result, the teaching is actually quite challenging. You can’t make quite the assumptions you would normally make. You can’t assume that the students are doing the core modules in archaeological theory, and you can’t assume that they know anything about the Roman period.
The lecture topic was Diversity of Identity. I took the first hour in what I have to admit was a pretty dry run-through of ‘legal identities’ – citizen, slave, freedman, decurion, senator, equestrian etc., and the legal rights of women and children. The material was not massively inspiring, but I think very necessary to actually understanding the lives and experiences of Roman people. I will definitely focus on making it more engaging if I teach it again, but that’s for another time.
The second half of the lecture was taken by my erstwhile TA’ing colleague. She gave a far more engaging lecture on gender in the Roman period, discussing not just ‘men’ and ‘women’ and ideas of masculinity and femininity, but going on to discuss ‘non-procreating’ genders and ‘being and doing’ gender. It was a really good lecture and got the class thinking and talking – she was even thanked for it afterwards by one of the students who has decided to do ‘gender’ as her essay topic.
However one thing occurred during the lecture that I was completely unprepared for. When we showed a quote discussing the emperor Elagabalus, which happened to mention his desire for a sex change, one or perhaps two of the students giggled.
Perhaps I was niave, but I didn’t expect adults to giggle at this concept. Perhaps I’m just so blinkered by my own cultural norms that I don’t see anything weird about wanting a sex change. Or perhaps it just never occurred that anyone would actually laugh out loud at the idea.
Needless to say, I applied a stern look and the giggle died out. But I knew immediately that this behaviour had the real potential to be hurtful to members of the class. I realise now we should probably have laid down ground rules before discussion gender, and in fact trying to discuss gender without sexuality is just trying to avoid the tricky bits.
Perhaps I should have tackled it straight-on, and simply confronted him in front of the class about the laughter. I know some people who might have done so. But that seems a little confrontational, and what if the student were laughing out of nervousness simply to cover his own uncomfortable emotional reaction to the topic?
I have to admit that I never thought that any teaching I did would bring up subjects awkward enough to make students uncomfortable, or even to offend. But I think gender and sexuality have the real potential to put students in vulnerable positions. The last thing I want, particularly when trying to teach gender archaeology in an enlightened way, is to reinforce sexual or gender norms.
Thinking back, I’m probably lucky that none of the students spoke up from religious standpoints. Normally you wouldn’t expect an archaeology, whatever their personal religious beliefs, to apply those to past cultures. But the class were students, not archaeologists.
The discussion could have become extremely challenging if any of the students had voiced judgemental or homophobic view points.I have to admit I really wouldn’t have been ready for it. I wouldn’t have tolerated unacceptable language, but the act of repressing a student’s views is detrimental to the learning environment.
How to deal with these problems? If I took this class again I think I would make it very clear that I have absolutely no tolerance for thoughtless behavior when talking about gender and sexuality. This is difficult, because usually I like to make the class laugh – and had done so in the previous hour when mentioning Augustus’ rather failed attempts to control the sexual behaviour of the Roman elite. How do you make it okay to laugh, but not okay to laugh at people just because they’re different?
Perhaps the emphasis has to be on making it clear that I expect the students to put aside their own cultural frameworks and to attempt an objective analysis of the topic, and that personal opinions on gender and sexuality should not impinge on the discussion.
Although I didn’t teach the subject badly, looking back on it I didn’t ensure the kind of safe and unthreatening environment necessary for the students to feel able to discuss gender without limitations or fear. Creating that kind of environment is difficult, and I’m not sure how to do it, but if I teach this topic again I’m definitely going to try.