This paper discusses team-taught courses as one venue in which to introduce theory to students. I draw from experiences in a recent undergraduate course on “Political Rhetoric” to address the role that theory has in the curriculum. The aims of the paper are twofold: first, to outline the ways in which team-teaching across fields makes it necessary to address the theoretical assumptions which foster and constrain the disciplines (cf. Heath (2003) and Garber (2001)); second, to make the case that Classics, because of its unique historical and cultural perspectives, must be part of larger conversations about contemporary theory.
“Political Rhetoric” enrolled about 50 undergraduates at different stages in their tuition, and was taught in conjunction with a colleague in Political Science. Readings included prize rhetorical texts of Greco-Roman antiquity, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Tacitus, etc., as well as the reception and re-conceptualization of these authors by modern thinkers such as Hume, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Dewey. The course closely examined how the modern era’s emphasis on verifiable truth values influenced political agency. The philosophical underpinnings of this doctrine arise from the belief that certain descriptions can thoroughly capture human nature, “man’s glassy essence”, as Rorty (1979) put it. The ancient rhetoricians competing—but not necessarily incompatible—obligations to truth and to plausibility provided a way to think around the modern preference for truth over pragmatic results as categories of evaluation.
The course yielded two interrelated insights. First, while the historical specificity of rhetorical culture in Greco-Roman society invaluably illuminates the modern dilemma, it was not because Classics simply “provides a background” for the recent developments. Instead, what emerged in explaining the differences is how a genealogical framework, outlined by Nietzsche and developed by Foucault, still figures among the most powerful reasons for the necessity of Classics as a field both within modern curricula and across the liberal arts (cf. Foucault (2001) for its application to rhetoric rather than sexuality; Pollock (2009) on “future philology”). The assimilative tendency in Classics—the belief that we ought to smooth out the differences in order to maintain our relevance to the pressures of the present—should give way to a recognition that the irresolvable differences are productive (cf. recently Greenblatt (2011)).
Second, while theory is an essential and inevitable part of our curriculum, this need not mean that theory itself should be tacked on like an appendage to traditional historical or genre-based surveys and emphases. “Applied Theory” has justifiably attracted criticism. The existence of literary theory outside of texts is predicated upon appeals to verifiable external criteria. That model is ultimately reflected in, though not necessarily endorsed by, the modern handbooks (e.g. Culler (1975), de Jong and Sullivan (1994), Schmitz (2007)). Nearly three decades ago Michaels and Knapp challenged the totalizing explanatory bent of “Theory with a capital T” (in Mitchell (1985)). The result is an observation made by different critics across time and discipline: theory works best when it is “the beginning of criticism, not the end” (Feeney (2008); cf. Cavell (1969)). The opportunities and no less the limitations of the theoretical enterprise require us to find new avenues, such as team-teaching, in which to combine our theories and our texts.