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May 13 2015

Ovid's Metamorphoses Now Deemed Too "Triggering" for Students at Columbia

Charlotte Allen

Multicultural advocates at Columbia University are now demanding "trigger warnings" for studying...classical mythology.

Yes, those myths about Persephone and Daphne are now deemed too rapey for the delicate female flowers planted in Columbia's core "Literature Humanities" course--so let's not read Ovid's Metamorphoses anymore. How about a soothing ramble through Eat, Pray, Love instead?

Here's what four members of Columbia's Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board wrote for the Columbia Spectator:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

Those darned Greek gods are so white! Also rich, what with those lavish banquets they're always having on Mt. Olympus. No wonder low-income students don't feel "safe" in a classroom with Ovid on the syllabus.

Lost on those multicultural mavens--all of whom are on the Columbia payroll, by the way--seemed to be the notion that Ovid might have actually been criticizing the unlimited divine power that allowed the gods to unleash their lusts upon lesser beings, with tragic but inexorable results. The central figure in the Roman poet's tale of Persephone, seized and carried off to Hades by the god Pluto, is her mourning mother, Ceres, who roams both the earth and the underworld searching for her lost daughter. Daphne must turn herself into a laurel tree--for good--to avoid the advances of a lust-driven Apollo.

But in the world of multicultural advocacy, there's no such thing as literary nuance:

Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities. The MAAB has been meeting with administration and faculty in the Center for the Core Curriculum to determine how to create such a space. The Board has recommended three measures: First, we proposed that the center issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students. Next, we noted that there should be a mechanism for students to communicate their concerns to professors anonymously, as well as a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based disagreements with professors. Finally, the center should create a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.

I'm waiting for the trigger warning for King Lear. Shakespeare was obviously glorifying white male hegemony when he made those two older daughters into nasty, lying ingrates, when they were actually strong women asserting their identities against their ultra-patriarchal father. Shakespeare professors obviously need a "training program" before being allowed to teach the Bard.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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