It used to be that university students studied literature by time period — Renaissance drama say, or romantic poetry.
A newer approach is to take a theme and pursue it through texts of different periods and even different cultures. You’ll see this approach in these two online course offerings:
Literature of Crisis — iTunes – Marsh McCall and Martin Evans, Stanford University
This course looks at defining crises in people’s lives and their reflection in literature, starting with Socrates in ancient Greece and ending with Voltaire’s Candide in the 18th century. The two professors who team teaches this class are full of enthusiasm for their subject and impart lots of interesting historical background.
Worlds in Conflict — iTunes — Monash University
(Update Nov. 6, 2008: This course is no longer available.)
When cultures collide — as in the age of European colonization — the literature of the day reflects the ensuing conflicts. This course looks at texts like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Coetzee’s Foe and examines issues like the proper exercise of power and the difference between the concepts “civilized” and “primitive.”
The lecturer (if you know his name please let me know) presents the historical and social background to these works of literature, and introduces the main themes in an organized and interesting way.
However, he sometimes takes a morally superior attitude to the “ridiculous” ideas of previous eras, and this can be offputting. For example, he notes that “as ridiculous as this may seem to us,” many people in early 17th century England believed that it was God’s will that they attempt to settle the New World.