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Teaching Problematic Texts

How to teach especially troubling works of literature or art while respecting students’ sensitivities.

March 29, 2022
 
 

You’ve heard the jokes: you know you’re getting old when …

  • You look for your glasses and they were on your head the whole time.
  • You have more patience, but it is actually because you don’t care anymore.
  • You wonder how you could be over the hill when you don’t even remember being on top of it.

More seriously, I know that I’ve gotten older when my initial knee-jerk reaction to change is invariably negative.

But while we shouldn’t ignore our gut feelings or initial impressions, we always need to subject those responses to serious reflection and reconsideration.

Let me offer an example.

Several years ago, Columbia removed a particularly problematic classic text from its great books curriculum. Ovid’s Metamorphosis is an especially troublesome literary work and quite rightly controversial. Among the reasons: rapes and the violent silencing of women pervade the text, and for rape survivors and victims of sexual assault and those who know them, the text can trigger terrible memories and emotions and even retraumatize.

Ovid’s epic poem, a compendium of 250 myths tied together by the themes of transformation and flux, occupies a central space in the history of art and literature. Boccaccio, Chaucer and Dante, Titian and Velázquez, Handel and Mozart created works inspired by Ovid. Shakespeare drew upon Metamorphosis in Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Cymbeline.

Metamorphosis is, at once, a parody of earlier epics, including The Iliad and The Odyssey, a reflection on the ironies and cruelties of fate, and a critique of the notion that anything in the world is eternal and unchanging. In other words, it is a work that very much speaks to our ever-changing world in which “all that is solid melts into air.”

Among our most comprehensive collections of classical mythology, this work served as the inspiration for many Renaissance era artists and writers precisely because of the challenges it posed to Christian virtues.

Ovid’s gods aren’t just; they are generally unsympathetic figures who exercise their power and passions amorally and violently.

Ovid treats love not in terms of affection, adoration, tenderness or devotion, but as unbridled lust, a source of danger and a force that overwhelms reason and morality and threatens society’s stability.

The poem’s treatment of women is anything but sentimental. Some, to be sure, are portrayed as victims or virginal innocents, but others, including goddesses, are depicted as vengeful, jealous and malicious.

But it is the epic’s recurrent sexual violence, including over 50 incidents of forcible or attempted rape, that makes Metamorphosis such an explosive and disquieting text.

It’s impossible to read the epic today without an acute awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence in our own society and the various ways that our society has historically responded to gender exploitation. In Metamorphosis, this violence at times occurs under various euphemisms, such as “seductions” or “amours.” But often it is treated in terms of unprovoked predation, for example, when a woman is asleep. Such violence is often motivated by lust, envy and rage.

So how should we treat the canceling of Metamorphosis? Is this an act of literary censorship, or, in one journalist’s words, “literary fascism”? A missed opportunity to confront “the societal sickness of rape,” sexual violence and female subordination?

Is its ejection from the core canon a wholly reasonable and appropriate accommodation? Or should we regard the decision to include or exclude this particular text as simply one of many choices that faculty must make in assembling a reading list?

One problem in evaluating Metamorphosis is that Ovid’s stance toward sexual and gendered violence is extremely ambiguous. Many of tales treat violent rape and the subsequent transformations as little more than an afterthought. Literary critics draw attention to the elements of voyeurism within the text. As the classicist Olivia Wells has asked, does the use of rape as a literary device by male authors detract from its horror?

And yet, it would be hard to think of another canonical text that does more to examine the interconnections between power and violence toward women.

I raise the issue of Ovid not only because Metamorphosis presents us with an especially problematic text, but because it poses a question that many humanists must confront. How should we handle thorny, ambiguous or questionable texts like Lolita, films like Birth of a Nation or The Jazz Singer, artists like Gauguin, or poets like Ezra Pound? Are contextualization and trigger warnings or teaching the controversy sufficient? Or would we do better to reserve such controversies for more specialized upper-division classes?

Here’s my advice:

  1. Don’t make decisions about such works unilaterally. Bring students into the discussion from the very beginning. Lay out the issues, as you understand them, and ask for their input.
  2. Prepare your students in advance. A true trigger warning must go well beyond the kinds of cautions that typically precede television violence. You know what I mean: “The following work contains incidents of sexual violence and abuse that some may find disturbing or uncomfortable.” Don’t ignore the controversies that surround the text, the work of art or the film.
  3. Contextualize controversial works, but don’t ignore their potential impact. After I screened Birth of a Nation in a film history course decades ago, I met with a number of students of color who told me that they were less offended by the film’s content than by some of their classmates’ reactions. Be clear and forthright about the purpose for including a problematic work in your course. Place the work in its proper historical, literary, artistic or cinematic context, and discuss at some length how others have responded to the work. In short, problematize the problematic.
  4. Consider half measures. It’s not always necessary to require students to experience a work in full. At times, a single story or a film clip is sufficient to convey the points that you feel are most significant.
  5. Consider innovative ways to organize a class session dealing with a problematic text. You might ask for student volunteers to introduce the class or lead the discussion. This is a way to empower students and to share responsibility for ensuring that the work is treated with the sensitivity that it demands.
  6. Don’t miss the opportunity to confront really difficult issues out of misguided fears. I fear that outside of courses that focus front and center on gender, race or sexuality, we too often avoid discussing issues like sexual violence or gender- or race-based inequalities that need to cut across the curriculum. While understandable—after all, who is eager to handle potentially explosive topics?—it is, in my judgment, a big mistake. If we truly want our students to grow across multiple dimensions, ethically as well as cognitively and emotionally, we shouldn’t evade the tough topics.

If you do decide to include a problematic work like Ovid’s Metamorphosis in your course, remember: what’s at stake is not academic freedom or professorial prerogatives, or the defense of the canon. It’s about finding ways to examine truly difficult issues, including issues of sexual violence and gendered power, while respecting our students’ feelings, sensitivities and past experiences.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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