Students writing papers or conducting research in the humanities or social sciences often encounter a problem in the primary sources on which their textbooks are based—a problem that is not talked about much at all.
Ancient primary sources that are available to historians represent the world of the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful. The primary resources offer a one-sided view that rarely gives a voice to marginalized groups of people.
Women, the enslaved, the poor, immigrants, and children are in most instances background players, or are assigned stereotypical roles in most official documents, artifacts, and art from ancient times. And issues addressed in modern texts, such as race, gender, sexism, and socio-economic problems, are barely mentioned, if at all.
For instance, many stereotypical images of Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, drawn from Roman sources, are found in primary documents.
Julia Wilker, an assistant professor in the Department of Classical Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, teaches a course on Cleopatra. As part of the seminar, students watch and compare several representations of the queen in 20th and 21st century movies. Wilker says Cleopatra is depicted either as an over-sexed seductress or a cold-blooded, power-hungry politician.
“The students are taught to look beyond the sources to examine the narratives from the perspective of Queen Cleopatra, or an Egyptian soldier, or a maid-servant at her court,” she says. “All of a sudden, a more inclusive story unfolds. From this perspective, the study of ancient stereotypes can tell us a lot about biases in our own society.”
In Wilker’s field, Greco-Roman history, ancient accounts tend to provide a narrative of events that focus on the perspective and actions of those in power. Many of the ancient sources available to historians reflect stereotypes regarding other peoples and cultures, “the East” in general, the lower social classes, or women. She says while scholars question biased accounts about marginalized groups in ancient texts, analysis of the social structures behind the views expressed can be difficult to raise in undergraduate seminar classrooms.
Wilker, who has taught courses in Greek and Roman history at Penn for five years, recently taught a pedagogy seminar organized by the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program to discuss strategies and techniques that she uses to engage students with these issues.
The challenge is to teach students how to move past the story that the sources intend to tell. Wilker says it is easy to just follow the narrative that a certain source—be it a text, a piece of art, or a document—offers. Teaching students that the images provided in ancient sources are incomplete and highly biased is the first step.
“Once students’ awareness has been raised, they get it, and they enjoy digging deeper,” she says.