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Tools for Teaching a Diverse Pre-Modern Western History

While the history of Roman and medieval Europe might seem distant from contemporary political unrest, events in 2017 showed otherwise. A Roman art historian received death threats for describing the polychromatic nature of Roman statuary; crusader imagery was adopted by white supremacists at Charlottesville and elsewhere; and an argument among medieval historians about race in the Middle Ages ended up on Breitbart. Within the academy, rifts opened on how (and whether) to address these issues.

For the history faculty of the ACM colleges specializing in pre-modern Europe, these debates raise important ethical and pedagogical questions: how do we present the complex nature of western history to our students? Within the limited time of a semester (or quarter, or block), how do we choose our content? Finally, how do we ensure that our students — regardless of their political affiliation — leave our classes with a critical awareness of how the past is distorted for the sake of contemporary agendas?

This project will bring colleagues together to seek pragmatic solutions in a weekend-long workshop, followed by the creation of an online repository of syllabi, texts, and assignments that will serve as resources for current and future ACM faculty.

Note: Adapted from original project proposal.

Recent events have thrown into relief the need for faculty to reconsider how we teach the pre-modern West. This immediate concern feeds into long-standing discussions among educators regarding the issue of canon: there are figures and texts that we learned as students and still include in our courses, but we are also aware of the importance of representing other voices.

In recent decades, we have adapted our syllabi to reflect deepening scholarly understanding of the lives of women, Christian dissenters, and those outside the socio-economic elite. Now, individuals from minority religious traditions, races, and sexual orientations have come to the fore.

How to balance the inclusion of those voices with a continuing need (and desire) to present the subjects and figures classically taught—the Augustuses, Charlemagnes, and Abelards? When a given subject is added, one must usually be removed. How to make those judgments to create the most pedagogically sound courses?

All professors wrestle with this problem of canon, but it is even more pressing for faculty at institutions such as ours. Working at small colleges, we are often the only historians of pre-modern Europe on our campus (or one of a very small number) and so our students are not exposed to a variety of perspectives on our period. Cooperation with colleagues in similar situations would thus be particularly valuable as we work to respond in responsible ways to these challenges.


The project centers around a collaborative weekend workshop at Lake Forest College, which will produce an online repository of pedagogical resources.

We plan a working weekend in the fall semester of 2018. We have identified nine faculty (including ourselves) who teach aspects of European history from Rome through the late Middle Ages; most of them have expressed a firm commitment to attend. Our scholarship covers a wide range of topics over more than a millennium, but all of us are affected by our students’ and colleagues’ misperception that we teach about an era that contributes little to campus-wide conversations about tolerance and diversity. We hope that a few more historians from related fields (such as Classics, or Early Modern Europe) or neighboring geographical areas (Eastern Europe or the Middle East) will join us and bring their ideas to the table.

During the workshop, we will share syllabi and assignments and discuss different possible approaches to Roman or medieval history survey courses, as well as the more specialized or thematic courses that can complicate students’ understanding of the European past. While we will, without doubt, discuss broad methodological and philosophical issues, the goal for this weekend is to remain grounded in practical solutions — we aim to walk away with concrete ideas, assignments, and changes to our syllabi that can be put into immediate effect.

Following our weekend meeting, we will set up a website, available to all ACM faculty

We believe that cooperation across campuses, as we are planning in this project, will allow each of us to expand our knowledge of texts, approaches, and assignments. This, in turn, will allow each of us to vary and enrich our offerings as much as possible and thus improve student learning.


The project team will organize the weekend workshop and then create and maintain the website with resources for faculty. Anna Jones will have primary responsibility for organizing the events at Lake Forest. Participants will arrive for a welcome dinner on Friday. The full day on Saturday will be devoted to sessions on courses, syllabi, and assignments. These sessions will take place at Glen Rowan House, Lake Forest’s conference facility, and will be followed by dinner. Finally, on Sunday we will have a morning meeting at Glen Rowan in order to review our findings and plan for the future. Anna will oversee planning for accommodation and restaurants as well as conference space and food.

Michelle and Ellen will assist with planning the sessions themselves. We will gather examples of sample texts and scholarship suitable for the kinds of classes we imagine and will also compile a selection of recent blog posts and articles that define the problem with diversity that we are facing in our field. Professor Dorothy Kim (Vassar College) has written frequently about these issues (“Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy”) and the “Public Medievalist” blog is hosting a series on “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages.” Such materials will provide a starting point for our conversations.

All of us will plan how to organize the website to be created in the wake of the weekend gathering, and Ellen Joyce has offered to ensure that it is kept up to date in the future.

Dissemination Strategies

Participants will return with resources in hand and will be able to consult our website in future. We envision a simple format for the website: a collection of assignments, texts, and syllabi shared by colleagues, highlighting the courses and assignments that work best in the liberal arts context. It can be organized thematically, chronologically, and by the types of resource represented, since medieval historians tend to integrate works of literature, art, and music into their classes.

We will share the website with history colleagues on all the ACM campuses and with colleagues in other departments (scholars of literature and art, for example), who may already incorporate sections on medieval topics in their own teaching and may want to keep up with recent efforts to make our field more inclusive. We will ask these colleagues to share any resources they wish to add to the website.

In addition to the website, which can be updated frequently in the future, we will submit the initial materials we develop to the “Project Outcomes” page that the ACM maintains. This will provide another point of access for interested teachers and will direct them to the more dynamic and up-to-date website.

Outcomes and Significance

In their mission statements and elsewhere, all our campuses express the values of critical thinking, embracing diversity, and fostering global citizens. As scholars of history, we believe that thinking critically about the past provides students with essential tools for making sense of the present. As medievalists, we are seeing members of our field push back against common portrayals of Western Europe as historically “white.” Furthermore, many of our students first encounter the Middle Ages through fantasy literature that portrays heroes as white and people with dark skin as the enemy “other” (recent blog posts on this topic include: https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-in-asoif/).

The more we challenge such misconceptions by presenting the racial and cultural diversity that actually existed in the medieval period, the more we invite our students to re-examine their assumptions about diversity in our own society. We hope that understanding the ways that people of different religious and racial heritages coexisted in the past will make them critical of the distortion and misappropriation of medieval culture as exclusively white and Christian that is emerging in far-right political circles that are currently perpetuating intolerance in American civil discourse. We especially hope that our re-imagined courses will prove more inviting to students of color. Ensuring that students of different ethnicities and social status are integrated into all aspects of our curriculum is a shared goal of all of our institutions.

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