- Reading Rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:A Test-Case Lesson*
My decision to teach a test-case lesson on how best to handle issues surrounding rape was inspired by the roundtable discussion “Teaching Rape Texts in Classical Literature” at the 2009 APA annual meeting. My participation in the dialogue turned out to be well timed; I was in the middle of preparing a course on gender and sexuality in the ancient world for the upcoming spring semester. As I was teaching a course that was concerned with relevant subject matter, I decided that rather than ignore the question of rape, I would dedicate a lesson slot to discussing it. This would give me an opportunity to implement some of the suggestions made at the roundtable, as well as to explore my own ideas about how to approach the issue. Like many classicists, I was not able to structure my course to accommodate a substantial project or unit specifically dealing with rape. Indeed, it is often not appropriate for us to do so; for instance, while a four-week unit may make sense in a class on women and war in the ancient world, it feels out of place in Mythology 101. That does not mean, however, that we cannot make space for explicit discussion in the classroom. This paper describes the way I approached this situation, and my students’ reactions to the lesson I taught; I hope it will provide some suggestions of how, even in a single lesson, we can help our students engage with a controversial and sensitive topic.
Several considerations informed my lesson planning. As my class was taught out of the history department at Rutgers-Newark, I would not be teaching classics students; most of my students had little or no background knowledge about the ancient world. They could also come from any year and any major, as there was no prerequisite for the class. This was a teaching challenge in itself, and meant I had to be very selective with my material and goals. I also had to consider the diverse student classroom I would be facing. Rutgers-Newark was declared the most diverse national university in the United States for the twelfth consecutive year in U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges 2009”; my students would bring a wide range of different racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds to whatever text I gave them. I also had to be prepared for the possibility that a survivor of rape might participate in the lesson. I wanted the lesson to be scheduled at a point in the term when the class had become comfortable as a group, and when they were not concerned about term papers or other major assessments. [End Page 676]
I decided that the most efficient way to focus a discussion would be through translations of two episodes from Ovid which would catch the students’ imagination: the story of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus, and the account of the rape of Proserpina.1 I scheduled the lesson immediately after students had read excerpts of Ovid from the Amores and Ars Amatoria, so they had some familiarity with him as an author. Since the session was the twenty-first out of twenty-eight in the course, the students had become accustomed to each other and had created a cooperative and respectful classroom environment. In preparation for the class, I read widely through pedagogical literature dealing with questions both of how to teach difficult texts successfully and how to educate students effectively about rape; a short list of articles and books that I found helpful is footnoted at the end of this article.2
To prepare students for this class, at the end of the previous class I announced that we would be discussing sensitive material, and that I expected them to behave like adults. The class topic was also clearly marked on the course schedule as “Rape in Latin Poetry,” so students were aware from the start of term that the course would cover these issues. For each set of primary readings, students were required to answer questions posted on the course Blackboard website and respond to another student’s...