In this occasional series, we ask instructors to discuss how they engage students in the great questions of our time.
Q. In a nutshell, what is this class about?
A. We study classical mythology and examine how it developed in the works of later writers, including a few fairly recent ones. The broader goal is to think about the ways that the literature we inherit is alive. Why—and how—do some stories get re-told? Why and how are they changed?
The course begins with Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” which we read in their entirety in English. In the second half of the semester, we then study how those myths are re-used in works ranging from Dante’s “Inferno” to Rick Riordan’s “The Lightning Thief” (a 2005 fantasy/adventure novel).
Q. What are some goals you set for your students?
A. As in all my classes, I want to help students become more critical readers and thinkers—to understand a text, whether a book or a movie or a graphic novel, as a series of choices that can and should be questioned and analyzed.
So in this class, when we are studying “Paradise Lost,” why might the author have wanted to depict Satan as a classical hero like Aeneas or Achilles? Or, when we are discussing the graphic novel “Wonder Woman” by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, what does the depiction of the god of war as an old, tired, and shoeless man imply?
I also want students in this class to think about the motives and challenges of myth-making, and to analyze the elements that might make some myths more successful and long-lasting than others.
Q. Which aspects of your class do you think your students find most interesting?
A. Students are usually surprised by how contemporary and progressive classical literature can feel. They don’t expect to encounter stories in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” about characters with fluid gender identities or stories focusing on same-sex attraction. Ovid and Virgil speak to our current cultural moment even as they offer a revealing window into the writers’ own lives and times.
Other stories that we discuss from antiquity deal with the difficulty of balancing your personal goals and desires with other people’s expectations for you. Or, in the case of “Aeneid,” how do you balance civic responsibility with your personal happiness? How much control does each of us ultimately have over our own lives? Do we believe in fate? Free will? Chance? The stories that we are studying pose important questions that often resonate for students once they recognize that these works are not time-bound.
Q. How did you become interested in teaching this subject?
A. This course grew out of my own scholarship. Most of my research focuses on early modern British literature, and the works from that period are steeped in classical literature and learning. Some writers use myth as a poetic shorthand, as a way of quickly conveying a complex idea to their readers. They compare a boy to Narcissus or introduce a character by alluding to Dido, and immediately their readers had a clear set of associations and expectations for those figures.
I started noticing how classical allusions and stories were still showing up in our contemporary art, whether in the Marvel movies, pop songs like Lady Gaga’s “Venus,” or video games and commercials.
Q. What’s the most unique — or challenging — assignment that you give to students in this class?
A. For one of the assignments, students have to re-write a story from antiquity but set it in the twenty-first century. The assignment challenges students to think about the work that myths do. Why re-tell a specific story?
So a student might choose the story of Icarus, who failed to heed his father’s advice and who did not show moderation. He flew too close to the sun, and when the wax that held on his wings melted, he fell into the ocean and drowned. The student must decide how they will adapt that story for readers today: maybe they will tell a story of a boy named Ike who didn’t show moderation in a different way.
The story that the student writes should demonstrate both an understanding of the original myth’s meaning and their own creativity in re-making the myth for a new generation of readers.