This paper seeks to open a discussion about how to teach a literary theory survey class as part of an undergraduate classics curriculum. With reference to a syllabus that in some form has been taught for two decades, it will explore the justifications and benefits of such a class, as well as the problems it must overcome, under four headings:
- Why teach a full unit on theory? The goal of the class is to help students develop the facility with the language, concepts and even syntax of literary theory that they need to engage with theoretically informed Classical scholarship on its own terms, and not feel like outsiders looking in. Developing such a competence requires concentrated study of the larger field, this paper will argue, and cannot be achieved by addressing models as and when they surface in literature classes.
- How can such a class be made accessible to students who lack a background in theory? Four strategies have proved helpful. First, starting with American New Criticism. This is an approach most students recognize in some form, though they have rarely encountered its theorization; engaging with the complex body of scholarship behind the theory both gives the approach substance and reveals the relevance of theory. Second, mixing together readings from ‘high’ and ‘low’ theory, Classicists and non-Classicists, pure and applied theory. Third, testing the theories must be central to their critical appraisal; students should consider theories especially in terms of their deployment, in articles or practical exercises. Fourth, stressing that theory is not a pawn in an academic game, but making a personal decision about how the world works and what is important.
- How can such a class be fitted into the curriculum? Students must be enabled by the syllabus and encouraged by the faculty to bring what they have studied into other classes, but the theory can also be matched to the curriculum. The syllabus can focus on the more dominant theories in Classical scholarship; how different movements treat language provides an obvious point of contact and interest to Classicists. In fact, the study of theory brings new dimensions to the study of syntax and word choice, so that it can help bridge the often awkward gap between language and literature classes.
- Finally, why make theory a central part of an undergraduate curriculum at all? Theory is part of Classics, and undergraduates make excellent theory students— engaged, energetic, eager to work together. Further, such seminars enable Classics students to join, or even shape the larger conversation with their humanities peers. Most of all, however, theory makes students more reflective about their Classics work and the larger shape of their studies, and such self-consciousness is surely central to a liberal arts training.