This presentation discusses a model for introducing theory into graduate and undergraduate seminars on an “as needed” basis. In this model, a seminar or course is constituted around an explicitly Classical topic, and introduces particular theoretical approaches in a focused way as they pertain to that topic. This model thus presents theory in a bottom-up way, rather than top-down as one finds in a dedicated “survey of theory” seminar. The focus is on developing fine-grained techniques for working with particular approaches in relation to specific problems, rather than presenting a god’s eye overview, Eagleton-style, of the emergence and eclipse of major trends or schools. It may also instantiate a fundamentally different view of what “theory” is, and its place in Classical pedagogy, than is presupposed by a dedicated theory survey course.
I present two examples drawn from my department’s recent graduate offerings. First, a graduate seminar entitled “How to persuade an emperor.” This seminar was organized around a reading (in Latin) of Seneca’s De Clementia and Pliny’s Panegyricus, with thematic units on the following topics: speaking to power; metaphors for imperial authority; virtue language; and courts/courtly society. There exists a significant scholarly apparatus, developed by sociologists and anthropologists, around the matter of how subalterns speak to or about those who dominate them, and on the social dynamics of “courts,” i.e., the people close to a monarchic ruler. Representative readings from this material, most of which does not directly address antiquity, were assigned on a weekly basis along with “regular” Classical scholarship. The seminar’s focus was thus firmly on a Roman problem as framed by Latin texts, but that problem was illuminated via engagement with a small and focused selection of social theory.
The second example involves a seminar entitled “Roman landscapes in context,” conducted once at the graduate and once at the advanced undergraduate level. This seminar examined Roman landscape paintings together with a variety of Latin literary texts dealing with the countryside, thus juxtaposing literary and visual modes of representation. Particular theoretical perspectives informed the examination of these paintings and texts. A body of art historical theory has developed around landscape, which has been a staple of Western painting from antiquity to modernity. Paul Zanker’s Power of Images disseminated a semiotic-cum-political approach to looking at Roman art in general. These two approaches provided alternative lenses for viewing Roman paintings and for considering a range of Latin literature from a “visual” angle.
A reflection on terms seems useful. What do we mean by “theory?” Is it an object of inquiry in and of itself, to be taught and learned as such? My impression is that, when Classicists speak of “theory,” they often mean something along the lines of “a set of ambitiously generalizing interpretive frameworks, with claims to broad applicability, developed by scholars working in fields outside of Classics, some of which we may (or may not) find pertinent to our own work.” If this is a fair description, then “theory” has no unity or coherence as such: but there are as many “theories” as there are ambitious intellectual frameworks generated in other fields. To say that a Classicist uses “theory,” then, is to say nothing other than that s/he works in an interdisciplinary way, engaging and appropriating ideas generated in other fields. And if the real pedagogical issue is how teach students to work in interdisciplinary ways, then perhaps we are, indeed, ultimately dealing with a set of fine-grained practices that are best developed from the ground up.