Sunday, August 21, 2016

There will be no "Roman women" unit.

I’m pretty much constantly planning my curriculum and replanning it. I am trying to consciously integrate culture more this upcoming year, so I’ve been thinking about what units I might do. Right now, my list of units for Latin I looks something like this:

Roman names; Places & Time; Housing; Food & Clothing; Family; Slavery; Freedom; Entertainment; Death & the afterlife; Love & Marriage; The Olympian Gods; Origins & Transformations; Greek Heroes I & II; Roman Heroes I & II; What have the Romans ever done for us?

The order will almost certainly change and I may not get to everything. These are mostly drawn from the NLE syllabus. Each unit will only be two weeks or so and mostly in translation. I’m not going to be doing too much in-depth textual work with anything in particular except where the novellas align.

What’s missing is a unit on Roman women. Well, and on the military, but that’s not what this is about. Given Cloelia, you might find it surprising that I'm not focusing on women at any particular point in my curriculum. I’m not doing a unit on Roman women because as soon as you put women into a unit, you’re taking them out of the whole.*

The reason I’m not doing a unit on Roman women is pretty simple. Women are not a unit. We are, give or take, 50% of the population. That hasn’t really changed much over time. Women probably died younger, so the population of older people was probably more male. Women were more often enslaved, so the slavery population was probably more female. But, give or take, women were 50% of the Roman population overall. That means this:

Roman names: 50% of Romans with names were women.

Places & Time: 50% of people experiencing these were women.

Housing: 50% of people living in Roman housing were women.

etc. I went more into depth for the other categories. Click here if you want to read a full version.

As soon as you decide women need to be put into their own unit, you’re implying that they do not play a part in the other units.

Women lived in every house, in every street, in every corner of the Roman empire. All the time. They have a role in every unit. Ideally, they'd have at least a 50% share of every unit... except those who recorded "history" and most of our curriculum frameworks still focus on traditionally male-dominated realms. Because our society privileges history of war and politics over social history, and because women historically have been excluded from those spheres, our "history" is male-dominated. That doesn't mean we weren't there and didn't play important roles.

We are not something you can box into a “unit” and then talk about wealthy white men for the rest of the curriculum. But that’s exactly what we do when we make “units” on groups of people. I understand that the intentions behind "units" on women or minorities are positive. I understand that even having these units and the resources to run them is a huge step forward.

But one step is not enough. We have to keep moving. We have to keep taking steps until we no longer need “units” on “minorities” because our “contributions” are acknowledged not as incidental additions to real history and progress, but as inherently part of that history and progress. 

(For some excellent work & resources on inclusion for Latin teachers, check out Bethanie Sawyer's work.)

* (As I write this, I’m realizing slavery shouldn’t be a “unit” either, since it is so thoroughly part of the Roman world. I’m going to take it out and deliberately talk about enslaved people throughout my curriculum. I was intending to do that anyway, but I think removing the unit on it will be a good thing. I will keep the unit on freedom, however.)

POSTSCRIPT: I'm editing this to add a note. I am not arguing that "women's history" or "African-American history" shouldn't be things. They should be things and they NEED to be things so that people actually learn about women and minorities so that people can then take that knowledge and bring it with them to their general picture of history. We've got millennia of neglected historical work to do. As an elementary Latin teacher though, I'm barely scratching the surface of Roman culture. What little I can do on history is necessarily going to be a broad overview. The point is that I won't allow it to be a broad overview that only looks at a small proportion of the population (wealthy men). I want to make sure my broad overview actually includes poorer people, enslaved people, and you know, female people. The goal is to teach Roman culture in a way that includes all the kinds of people who made it up, not just those who wrote about it. Within each unit I am going to make a conscious effort to highlight issues of gender and ethnicity and freedom and get my students thinking about how different types of people played different roles. I'm just going to do it THROUGHOUT, instead of cramming "women's life" into one two week period.

POSTPOSTSCRIPT, a few hours later: Two things:
1) I had some sections where I talked about minorities as well, but I felt really icky about them because I don't think I as a white person with basically no experience working with "minority" populations have any business talking about how "their" history should be addressed. So I deleted those comments.

2) I'm not doing a "unit" on Roman women because I plan to include women throughout, but to be clear, I am not against focused units on traditionally ignored populations so long as those populations are represented throughout the curriculum as well. Women's History Month is a great thing, but not if every other month is Men's History Month. My problem with is "units" underprivileged groups instead of inclusive curricula overall.


  1. This is such an important post! Personally, having worked (and lived) for many years in a majority-minority school district, I would advocate for a both - and approach. Definitely work the marginalized voices into every unit of the course, and do so in a thoughtful, meaningful way ... AND also, during the Month Of Emphasis, find a way to emphasize that marginalized group in a thoughtful, meaningful way.

    Of course that is easier to say than to do!

  2. My gut reaction to the fourth paragraph was to feel upset. I have made a point of focusing on people of colour (in particular) in the Roman empire for a while now and it is the focus of my research in the academic world. My desire to spend so much time on them in the classroom, and my research, is not to "take them out of the whole", but the highlight them, and show just how much part of the whole they are.

    My second reaction, in light of what I've just said above, is that I agree. We SHOULD be highlighting this throughout and, if I think about my own teaching, I do. Even though we will spend January-mid March talking mostly/solely about people of colour in the Roman Republic (mostly, some empire included), I do talk about people of colour all the time. We talk about it when we talk about slavery, military, colours in Latin, pretty much everything... but, I still highlight them. Partly due to my own passion in resesarch, and partly due to the make up of my students and my (and their) desire to use material that looks like them. We talk about Alexander and India, Caesar and the Gauls, Druids, and Egyptians (and we talk about how the Gauls and Druids were considered "other" by the Romans and what stereotypes they were lumped into.) We talk about Pliny and Ethiopia (in particular) and how different parts of Africa responded to Rome. We talk about Hannibal and Dido and how even Aeneas wasn't white. But... I still choose to, in addition to this, highlight them.
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  3. part 2 of 2

    My consideration of this, and insistence that I do highlight people of colour on their own (and I realise you are talking about women in your piece, but my focus has been people of colour and, since they were and are both marginalised groups, I am speaking from this place), is that here, in the US, people of colour are STILL very much marginalised and so many people DON'T talk about in a unit, much less on a daily basis.

    I remember last year... In October, my African American students already started asking me what we were going to talk about for Black History Month, partly because I've worked hard to foster an open dialogue about what they want to study and read and talk about. I told them I wanted to do something and was giving it some thought. In the past, I've done modern American History stories in Latin... this last year, we focused on Dido, Cleopatra (who, while Greek, still holds significance in this case), and Ethiopia. This year, we'll be focusing on Hannibal (with other things mixed in that I haven't settled on). In February, when we started what would end up being the curriculum for the rest of the semester, I got a little push back from some students who were upset that there wasn't a white history month, but that was quickly dealt with when I asked them if they knew who various important African American figures were and, when they didn't, they considered another perspective. What was most important was the feedback I got from students who were part of this group of people who are so often marginalised.... They told me that they appreciated how much effort I put in to this special unit because no one else did. Not one of their other teachers even mentioned Black History Month, or Women's history month (another reason I chose to focus on Dido and Cleopatra) in March. Not one. I was so saddened by this and it reiterated to me how important it is, until women, people of colour, people with disabilities, etc. are REALLY part of the whole... I must make time in my own classroom to discuss this, as its own issue.

    All that being said, I want to reiterate that I don't necessarily disagree with your thoughts, but I think there is another step needed before we get to a place where we can do what you've suggested. I look for ways to learn more about marginalised groups every day because I was raised that way and I've made it central to my life and research... most people aren't. Until I know that these groups are being mentioned in science, history, LA, math, etc. I will continue to do both -- special units, and daily.

  4. I want to offer another perspective. I am in full agreement with your argument that women were always there and should always be a part of the story.

    But they weren't.

    As teachers we have incredible power in several venues not the least of which is which units we shall teach. FL teachers have more of that power than their colleagues who have been shackled by Common Core and other programs created by people who think they know better than we do.

    Let me take current issues as an example before I go to the Roman situation. We'd like to think that Black people are included in all aspects of American life. Legally and ethically they should be. They are not. Black Lives Matter. We have to focus on the lives that are routinely left out of the conversation IN ORDER TO return them to the conversation.

    The same applies so significantly to women in ancient Rome. While they SHOULD be involved in every day's conversation, they are not in the ancient authors. And this is the irony of the current trend of calling for "authentic materials." If we use nothing but classical materials as such women will NEVER be in the conversation. But, remember, teachers have power. We have the power of designing units which not only focus on the ancient but which weave in modern insights as well.

    In my opinion, a unit focusing on Roman women is just as appropriate as declaring that Black lives matter. Those who don't understand the one will not understand the other. Teachers have the kind of power that makes that difference.

    1. "In my opinion, a unit focusing on Roman women is just as appropriate as declaring that Black lives matter." This in particular is a really compelling point. Thank you.