Antigone, Pride and Teaching

I have the class I’m teaching today, Literary Classics and Film Adaptations. I’m having several difficulties with the class. Not the students, the students are amazing – I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful, engaged, class. But, the syllabus. Haven’t had a single film adaptation, and don’t have one on the syllabus. The professor said to one of the students in my section that the only reason it has “film adaptations” in the title is to trick students into taking the class. She told me when I asked that she didn’t have any films in mind. So part of my class prep is trying to find films we can use as adaptations, but since the texts weren’t picked with that in mind, so far I’ve only managed to get one. We’re also doing a lot of “non-narrative” texts, which is difficult. Herodotus Histories, Augustine’s Confessions….these are not texts to breeze through in a week. And yet, that’s what we’re trying to do.

The syllabus also includes a number Christian texts. I’m an atheist, and already troubled by the seeming agenda in the reading selections and lecture framework. So from Exodus (and how it was presented in lecture: “the power of faith will keep you free, no matter how much oppression you experience”) to Confessions, which is what we’re doing today, we had Sophocles and The Aeneid. Why not the Oddessey, of which there are actual (great) film adaptations? Because “The Aeneid shows the glory of dying for your country.”

What’s especially troubling me today, though, is my students’ responses to Antigone, which we did the week before last and I just finished grading. Several students cited the lecture in defending Creon for “sticking to his word.” If you’re not familiar with Antigone, well, then you can’t see how absurd this is. But if you’ve read Antigone, then you know that one of Sophocles’s points was that stubborn, angry pride was Creon’s downfall, his fatal flaw if you will. That Sophocles pitted the will of the gods against the will of the state, and the gods came out triumphant. Creon “sticking to his word,” refusing to listen to the gods, the people, or his advisors and change an unjust law, is the sign of a bad leader. Bad! But of course, in lecture this was taught as a good thing, “at least he was strong and didn’t back down.” Which is terrifying to me, because apparently a few of the students who hadn’t thought so in our discussion had their interpretation changed by the lecture.

Should I mention also that our discussion on Antigone is the one the professor came to observe and that she taught Antigone after hearing our class discussion on it? That, according to the student responses, she said that this was the only understanding of the text?

So yeah, I’m going to have to try to address this again today. Any suggestions on how?

6 comments

  1. Rachel

    I will say that what you are encountering is NOT new — the classic texts are FREQUENTLY misinterpreted by the modern audience. Sophocles and Maro are the two who get it the worst, probably because they’re two of the most readable. The Aeneid isn’t about the glory of dying for your country. Good gods, people! It’s about how Octavian Caesar is the god-intended, heaven-sent, pre-destined ruler of the Roman people and that the Romans are destined for empirical dominion over all of Italy and beyond. Headdesk. And the Greek dramatists, especially, get misinterpreted because modern readers don’t get the style of the moralizing. I believe that your interpretation of the Creon episode is the correct one, that Creon’s a twit and a perfect example of what NOT to do.

    Maybe you could divide the class in to two teams, and have one defend Creon’s position and one try to point out that what Creon does makes him a bad leader? In a courtroom-style discussion, with a “jury” to pick which side made the better argument? With you leading the jury of course. Then at least you can get half the class thinking in such a way that they have to go “against the grain.” Ask for a few volunteers, then hand pick some strong students to go over to that side to give the argument a really good chance. I had an art history professor do this in an Iconoclasm vs Iconophile debate. You can imagine that no art history majors wanted to take the Iconoclasm side! But afterward I felt like it was a really good way to get us thinking outside the norm and analyzing the merits of both sides of the issue. I also had an English professor do this in the 6 American Authors class…I think the author under scrutiny was Melville, but I don’t remember which piece it was or the details of the issue. I know I was on the underdog side though! And it was tough but rewarding. We spent one class period split up to make our cases, then had the debate in the next class period. It was a MWF class so we only had 50 minutes per day for class time. If you meet for closer to an hour and a half or two hours at a time, you can probably do everything in one class period.

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  2. Yay! My reading validated by actual classics scholars! I wish I could do a debate, but we only meet once a week for an hour. And we do a text a week, so I really can only give it another 10 minutes if that, and those 10 minutes are coming out of either the Aeneid or Confessions. Probably Confessions. Next time I do Antigone though, I’m totally doing that!

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    • Rachel

      Did you know I was the Chorus in a classics club production of Oedipus Rex my freshman year? You’re best off siding with the Chorus, it knows what’s going down. It’s both a character and a semi-omniscient narrator. And sometimes it plays mean nasty tricks on the characters, like setting them up for falls by asking leading questions.

      I agree, take the time from Confessions. Better yet, scrap the Confessions and do two classes on Antigone! Whee!

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  3. Anna

    I second the debate that Rachel proposed. And I don’t think you should back down. Tell the class that the professor interprets Creon one way, but you interpret him this other way. The woman isn’t your advisor or anything. And, besides, she’s far enough out of line that I doubt the university would look kindly. It sounds to me like you can stick your neck out here. Though I’m really sorry you have to. This sounds wretched.

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