Reflection on Pedagogy

Using New Social History to Teach Culture in High School Latin

By Evan Dutmer

Most language education programs have adopted the aim to teach culture in addition to language proficiency (hence, departments of “World Languages and Cultures” proliferate while departments of “Foreign Languages” have diminished). The move has been widespread, but has resulted in numerous challenges in implementation.

One of the most common issues is that language educators tend to teach what is generally called “surface” or “shallow” culture (e.g., types of clothing, food, fairytales, music, art—essentially the ‘facts’ of a culture) rather than teaching the “deep” culture of a studied group (e.g., perspectives, values, history, narratives, ideas, beliefs, and background practices that attend the ‘shallow’ practices and cultural products).

The relationship between these two aspects of culture, which have been helpfully differentiated by Luis Fernando Gómez Rodríguez, is dynamic—deep culture can influence surface culture and vice versa. But deep culture presents possibilities for students to gain a richer intercultural understanding and recognition of their own, perhaps underexamined, culture, and possibilities for teachers to learn a new pedagogy (from resources like University of Minnesota CARLA Institute’s bibliography on intercultural education). Many Latin educators face this problem: excited to introduce genuine Roman cultural practice into their classrooms, some teachers focus more on the what and how of Roman culture rather than the why and who. Recreated celebrations of ancient Roman holidays in today’s classrooms lack “deep” culture depth (though they may show an impressive degree of accuracy). Students may still wonder: Why did the Romans conduct their holiday ceremonies in the way they did? Who participated? Who didn’t?

Incorporating contemporary social history into classics, I contend, can help students and teachers access deep culture in the context of Ancient Mediterranean peoples. By thinking about and reflecting on how class, gender, race, ethnicity, and, broadly, identity functioned in the daily lives of the peoples of the classical world, students are able to i) gain a much richer understanding of their own culture—or, more precisely, cultures—and ii) better and more accurately examine Ancient Mediterranean cultural practice and knowledge. Happily, recent social history scholarship in Classical Studies can help our students achieve these aims and enhance their intercultural proficiency (see NCSSFL and ACTFL 2017). For example, I’ve incorporated selections from Andrew Johnston’s The Sons of Remus: Identity in Roman Gaul and Spaininto discussions of Caesar’s campaigns into Gaul in Latin 2, taking seriously the aim to teach outside the perspectives of dominant Roman culture. I not only included Caesar’s ethnocentric accounts of the native Celtic peoples in the De Bello Gallico, but also worked to amplify the local constructions of indigenous identity in future Roman Gallia and Hispania developed by the tribes of those lands.

Johnston’s book analyzes the intricate, complicated cultural narratives of these colonized peoples and what he calls their “creative misappropriations” of Greco-Roman myth to connect themselves to the Roman world while subverting some of its claims at domination. In a particularly memorable example, the Northern Gallic tribe of the Remi (from modern-day Rheims) considered themselves not “grandsons of Romulus” (as Catullus 49.1 contends is the Roman national identity) but rather lost descendants of Remus, the murdered brother of Romulus. Johnston continues: “…[W]hat would seem on the surface to be the most quintessentially ‘imperial’ iconographies, symbols, or cultural forms—[for example] a triumphal arch depicting Romulus and Remus [erected in Rheims]—were actually expressions of robust local identities” (3). Paired with tiered, accessible Latin versions of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico in class, Johnston’s powerful portrayal of a conquered Gallic tribe’s recasting of history provides an opportunity for deep intercultural analysis for my Latin 2 students.

My Latin 1 students have read multiple versions of the Romulus and Remus myth in Latin. I ask them: Why do the Remi see themselves as descendants of Remus? Why would a conquered people take on the history of its conquerors? What would Romans at the imperial center think of this story? What stories do we have at “our” founding? What counts as a “misappropriation” of that story? Building on these questions, I’ve also had success incorporating secondary readings from Erik Jensen’s Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, especially “The Invention of Gaul and Germany,” for discussions on the imperial and local constructions of a “Gallic” identity, pairing this reading with Johnston’s retelling of the Remi origin story.

The 3P Model, a pedagogical framework to deepen engagement with a cultural product in classroom teaching, is a powerful tool for developing this sort of deep cultural analysis in the secondary classroom and for adapting individual classroom activities into more robust opportunities for intercultural learning. It asks that we make explicit the cultural product, practice, and perspective (the 3P’s). I recently applied this framework to teach the Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Saturnalia celebrations are a common December tradition in many secondary Latin classrooms and in youth classical organizations around the world. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was regarded as the finest and happiest holiday (optimo dierum, “the best of days”, in Catullus 14.15). Festive recreations often revolve around studying the Roman god Saturn and his typical divine attributes, decorating the Latin classroom leading up to a winter break, learning the customary Saturnalia greeting—“Io! Saturnalia!”—and gift-giving and dressing-up. Some instructors incorporate more of ancient Roman cultural practice; others focus on its possible ties to modern Christian rituals in the lead-up to the Christmas holiday.

Comparatively less focus, however, is paid to Saturnalia’s complicated relationship to the institution of Greco-Roman chattel slavery. The December holiday was associated with a sort of topsy-turvy “role reversal” of masters and enslaved persons, with a number of accounts detailing a banquet provided to slaves by their masters. Enslaved persons may have also been invited to games, gambling, and poetry competitions, activities from which they were generally forbidden. This seasonal qualified freedom is encapsulated in Horace’s memorable description of Saturnalia as the libertas Decembri, “December freedom,” in Satires 2.7.4, an early rich collection of everyday philosophical musings and imagined conversations from Augustan Rome’s preeminent lyric poet. Importantly, this season of ‘good tidings’ was explicitly and brutally temporary; the return to the rigid hierarchy of master-slave returned every year by the end of Saturnalia, as memorably described by the formerly enslaved Epictetus in Discourses 4.1.58.

Horace’s Satires 2.7 contains a powerful speech delivered by Davus, a supposed slave of Horace, who uses the license granted to him on the holiday to challenge Horace’s dominion and supposed freedom. He outlines ways in which Horace is in fact servile to his aesthetic tastes and desire for money and riches:

tu, mihi qui imperitas, aliis servis miser atque

duceris ut nervis alienis mobile lignum.

quisnam igitur liber? sapiens sibi qui imperiosus,

quem neque pauperies neque mors neque vincula terrent,

responsare cupidinibus, contemnere honores

fortis, et in se ipso totus…

You who command me are a subject to other things, and are led around like a puppet movable by others’ strings. Who then is free? The wise man who is in command of himself, whom neither poverty nor death nor chains frighten; courageous in checking his desires and in looking down on honors, and perfect in himself…

(Horace, Satires 2.7.80-85, my translation)

Using the 3P model, I’ve crafted a lesson plan around both the Satires text (another Latin text describing Saturnalia could be used) and a piece of secondary academic literature, in this case, Fanny Dolansky’s “Celebrating the Saturnalia: Religious Ritual and Roman Domestic Life” in A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Dolansky’s piece contains an excellent, thorough, and accessible introduction to the domestic and family dynamics of the Saturnalia festival (familia in the Roman sense included the complex interplay between free and enslaved persons living in the same familial property).

In this lesson plan (found here), I chart the product, practice, and perspectives of Saturnalia through Horace’s Satires 2.7. The ‘product’ in this case is Satires 2.7; the ‘practice’ is the ‘free speech’ or ‘December liberty’ (libertas Decembri) wherein enslaved persons acted out masters’ roles in planned banquets and ceremonies; the ‘perspectives’ are views surrounding the practice as enumerated in masters’ and enslaved persons’ opinions found in Satires 2.7 and Epictetus’s Discourses. I build on this model with potential classroom activities, language support, and scaffolding and connect the lesson with broader conversations surrounding the function of holidays within a slave-owning society.

For example, an important extension of this lesson includes discussion of the similar function of the Christmas holidays in antebellum US South as a form of “social conduction.” In the referenced lesson, I compare Davus’s speech in Horace’s Satires 2.7 with Frederick Douglass’s powerful reflections on the intended social control effected on enslaved people through the celebration of Christmas of New Year’s at the end of the calendar year. He writes:

The days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased…

From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. Were the slaveholders at once to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity. But for these, the slave would be forced up to the wildest desperation; and woe betide the slaveholder, the day he ventures to remove or hinder the operation of those conductors! I warn him that, in such an event, a spirit will go forth in their midst, more to be dreaded than the most appalling earthquake.The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it…

(Douglass 114-116)

Douglass’s reflections make for a powerful tool of comparison in my classroom. The text helps students consider what first-person reflections of enslaved persons would have been during the “December liberty” and question who the festival was really for. It also provides us an opportunity to have rich conversations about the similarities and differences between the chattel slavery practiced by Ancient Mediterranean peoples and by modern European peoples. As one obvious point of contrast, we discuss the Transatlantic slave trade’s basis in race, absent in antiquity, while acknowledging the brutal features of the ancient system.

Consequently, at the end of the Saturnalia sequence in my courses (in this case, Latin 2), students are well-prepared to demonstrate intermediate intercultural proficiency in their spoken and written reflections on the Roman holiday. In fact, if we take a look at the official wording of the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do statements for the intermediate proficiency, we’ll see that students who have been exposed to the 3P framework are well on their way to demonstrating intermediate intercultural proficiency:

INVESTIGATE In my own and other cultures I can identify and compare the values expressed by the ways people celebrate holidays or festivals.

INTERACT I can adjust the way I dress to make it appropriate for a celebration or event.

(NCSSFL and ACTFL 2017)

In the case of Saturnalia, my students are able to identify and compare the values expressed by Roman celebration of Saturnalia (and Christmas in the antebellum South, besides), and, in fact, have gained a better appreciation for why they ought not to celebrate Saturnalia through the donning of traditional Roman master-slave-freedmen garments or re-enact “slaves’ banquets” and “status inversions.”

Beyond the Saturnalia case, I’ve also drawn from Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s Sacred Britannia: The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain, which offers pioneering research into the indigenous religious life of Roman Britain to illustrate religious diversity at the empire’s fringes, Jean Manco’s Blood of the Celts: The New Ancestral Storyto introduce Celtic migration before the arrival of Caesar’s armies, Edith Hall and Henry Stead’s A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939 to discuss the invention of Classics as a discipline and its subsequent relation to socio-economic class, and lastly, adapted sections from Jörg Rüpke’s Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religionto acquaint students with the explicitly political dimensions of the Roman priesthood. Any of these titles (and many more currently being published) can serve to enrich and enhance the secondary Latin curriculum with judicious, learner-centered adaptation and scaffolding.

Evan Dutmer is an Instructor in Latin, Ancient Mediterranean Cultures, and Ethics at the Culver Academies, a boarding school in Northern Indiana. He holds a PhD in Ancient Philosophy from Northwestern University. He is the recipient of the 2020 Indiana Classical Conference Teacher of the Year (Rising Star) Award.

Featured Image: Depiction of the month of December from the lost Chronography of 354 (which survived in a 17th century Vatican copy; Vatican Library, cod. Barberini lat. 2154). Dice and a hanging oscilla (a ceremonial mask) feature prominently, connecting it with Saturnalia traditions (and showing the durability of the holiday into Late Antiquity). Photograph via

Reflection on Pedagogy

Progressivism, Then and Now: Teaching Identity, Difference, and Americanism in 2020

By Abigail Modaff

This essay introduces our forum that collects three undergraduate book reviews that address the themes of the Identity Before Identity Politics seminar at Harvard University in the spring of 2020, which was taught by Abigail Modaff. You can find those reviews here.

The three essays in this forum are book reviews written by students in History 12b: Identity Before Identity Politics: America in the Progressive Era, which I taught at Harvard this past spring. I created the course because I believed that students would find much about the Progressive Era familiar. “Division and difference were the watchwords of the era,” I told the class on our first day. Immigration was a constant debate; modern ideas of race were being built; new generations were remaking gender and sexuality. Those from all segments of society blamed others for poisoning the national well, and the future felt utterly unknowable. “Change seemed both inevitable and like it would never come,” I said to the students on January 30th. If only I had known what the view would be from July.

I built the course around the resonances that I felt between past and present: questions of what it means to be American, how we define ourselves, and what it really means to overcome the divisions between us. Even so, the class was predominantly a history course, working its way through primary sources on the Progressive Era and capped by a lengthy research paper. But the final week of class discussion focused on readings from the past 30 years, and on a short assignment—the one that generated this forum—that asked students to review these texts in light of what we had learned about the past. The discussion was excellent—substantive, productive, and wide-ranging—and yet the next time I teach the course, I suspect that the present-day readings will be entirely different. There were some relatively obvious choices, like Hillbilly Elegy, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal. But others appeared only because I felt that they fit the course and its themes, in a way that I would be hard pressed to explain. (This led to some almost random outcomes: one student wrote that a text I’d selected was “one of the most prominent and influential” on her topic, and I had to tell her that, in fact, it only appeared because I’d received an email advertisement for it.) Even less extreme examples than this still raised a question that was new for me as a history instructor: if the goal of an assignment is to connect past and present, how can this “connection” be defined with both pedagogical and historical integrity?

When the threat of COVID-19 pushed us all off campus in March, the stakes of this question were heightened. I found myself hesitating to demand anything of my students that I did not genuinely believe would benefit them as people, even in the midst of this tumultuous and frightening world. In reaching for this impossibly high standard, I found myself on the most solid ground when I was constructing the assignment for the book review, which I chose to keep in place while relaxing other aspects of the syllabus. In writing the assignment up for the students, I described it as the chance for “you the scholar… to talk directly to you the citizen, based on the knowledge you have as a scholar and the priorities you have as a citizen.” I wanted to give my students the opportunity to fit their education to their own values: to make it relevant and real, on whatever terms were organic to their experience, even as the world seemed to be spinning out of control.

A four-page book review is a small thing in the face of a world-changing event, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of innovative pedagogy. Yet as my students’ end-of-year evaluations made clear, it represents a kind of pedagogy that is still quite rare in the history classroom. The assignment’s goal, rather than its specifics, was most crucial: my students were enthusiastic about having the chance to explicitly puncture the wall between coursework and what we nebulously call “life.” This was especially the case amid the pandemic, but it took hold of their and my deeper intuitions about education more generally. If the point of a class is that it changes the way you think, then why not formalize that transformation? Why make that the one thing students have to do on their own? Why not bring it instead into the space of the class itself, so it can be shared, spurred, strengthened?

The danger with such assignments is that they can become either reductive or patronizing. Although I made my pitch to students about the parallels between the early twentieth century and today, teaching only the similarities between then and now would distort the facts. A one-to-one definition of “relevance” is inimical to good historical practice. Nor did I want to pander to students by promising that I knew what mattered to them, and to insult both their intelligence and my colleagues’ by insisting that my class contained more “real life,” whatever that means, than those down the hall. I settled on an assignment that formalized the process, rather than the outcome, of connecting past and present. In the book review and the class discussion that accompanied it, I encouraged students to start from their own transformations: what did you notice about this book that you wouldn’t have noticed before taking this course? I scaffolded further questions upward from there: how might considering Progressive-Era perspectives have changed this modern-day argument? Does this book show that the history of the Progressive Era is still crucial for understanding our world, or does it show just how far we’ve come beyond those old debates? While we worked together on brainstorming and crafting a strong argument, students had to build the bridge between then and now themselves. Rather than hunting for similarities or influences, I wanted them to embrace the contrasts between past and present, the gaps and gulfs in our inheritance, the possibilities trampled and the questions unanswered, the messiness and incomparability of the past.

It is possible, and perhaps even imperative, for intellectual history classes to give students this kind of support and structure as they step forward from the class into the rest of their lives, whatever those lives happen to hold. We can extend the analysis we normally use in the classroom to the present day without reducing the complexity of either; these “presentist” assignments can be as inventive, collaborative, careful, well-reasoned, and profound as the rest of the scholarship we teach. My small book review assignment built on principles and practices from Harvard and beyond—from the examples of specific instructors, the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship, the Democratic Knowledge Project, and the countless discussions I’ve had about pedagogy with other graduate students. But I wanted to adapt those practices specifically to intellectual history, and thus to insist on the relevance and civic value that I see in the subdiscipline that can sometimes seem to be the most esoteric.

To do this, I focused on the subdiscipline’s bread and butter: the analysis of text in context. For the book review, I encouraged my students to analyze the key words of their present-day texts in light of what we’d read in class: who is the imagined “we” of the text? If the book talks about “progress,” toward what is that progress directed, and what does it hope to leave behind? Would anyone we read in class have productively disagreed with what the modern-day text argues? Does it matter that one text talks about “universality,” and another about “unity”? More profoundly, I wanted them to take this textual analysis a step further and turn it back upon themselves: to articulate the way that the course’s purely historical portion had changed the way they saw their current world. I wanted them to engage in that miracle of realizing that the texts they’d read from the past had expanded their minds—a miracle that the subjects presented in intellectual history are, I believe, especially good at provoking. Old pieces of writing gave my students new concepts to think with, alternatives to seemingly settled questions, and fresh angles on old debates: tools that they could use to scrutinize something written yesterday just as much as something written in 1906. “Studying the past lets us defy what’s given,” I told them in January. I wanted them to practice that liberation, so that if it was something they valued, they’d have the muscle memory to keep doing it.

The resulting eleven essays were as diverse and thoughtful as I hoped, and the three of them that follow here are a rich sample. While the reviews speak for themselves, I’ll note one overarching takeaway: a majority of students agreed with their texts’ diagnosis of the problem, but scarcely any had faith in their book’s proposed solution. Though we hadn’t read his work since February, which by late April seemed like another lifetime, several students returned to Walter Lippmann’s Drift and Mastery: to his lyrical, compelling yearning for communion, followed by a hollow-seeming defense of science as universal language. For my students, Lippmann’s search continues. From Lippmann, to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, to the self-satisfied philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, to W. E. B. Du Bois’s art above the veil, and even to the revolutionary unionism of Eugene Debs, they distrusted utopias past and present, and they confronted the difficulty of defining exactly what it is that we are searching for. Few of them lost the chance to take a swipe at Theodore Roosevelt’s rigid Americanism. But while they sought an identity—a “higher allegiance,” as one student put it—that celebrated difference rather than crushing it, none seemed to feel that they’d found it. In their final assessment, despite flashes of inspiration, both past and present came up wanting. They agree that we are divided; they aren’t yet sure what comes next.

Abigail Modaff is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Harvard University. Her dissertation is titled, To Meet Life Face to Face: Communication and American Social Reform from Haymarket to the Harlem Renaissance. Her larger research interests include intellectual and cultural history, in the United States and around the globe.

Featured Image: Make the Fourth of July Americanization Day: Many Peoples—But One Nation. New York: National Americanization Day Committee (1915–1919). Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.