Educating Shakespeare

Yesterday I attended a symposium at the University of Birmingham entitled Shakespeare in Education: Innovating and Collaborating in the Age of Digital Humanities  #edshakes2014. It was an excellent event and I just wanted to share a brief snapshot or two of the day. The day kicked off, like all the best conferences, with tea and biscuits. I am a firm believer in the importance of food at any event, especially one featuring academics. I can wholeheartedly vouch for the excellent food provided at this symposium. But back to the real reason why we were gathered in Birmingham united by Shakespeare and education.

The first plenary of the day was given by Dr Sarah Olive (University of York) whose talk, ‘Televised Teaching and Learning Shakespeare’ looked at a real range of ideas. She opened with reference to Lady Macbeth, Vicky Price and Jon Snow all in a sentence (worth a Google it if you don’t know the reference) highlighting the allusions to Shakespeare almost on a daily basis in our world today. This “incidental appropriation” often involves Shakespeare being co-opted perhaps to give greater credit to a show or for many other reasons, but Shakespeare can also function as shorthand. Take Lewis, for instance, where Shakespeare can represent the early modern period and, more generally still, the humanities as a whole. She highlighted that there has been a trend in recent years to focus on reaching minorities and the challenges this may pose when Shakespeare features. This has hit the TV screens big time (featuring also a certain sense of failure of the “Shakespeare for All” initiative) and in her talk specific reference was made to shows like When Romeo Met Juliet, Off By Heart, and Jamie’s Dream Start to name a few, as she considered the way Shakespeare has seeped into our TV shows, the way his work is presented (and the effect this has), and the similarities of these shows to other TV genres. Many interesting points emerged from this talk but here are a few of my favourites:

  • Focus in TV shows often on acting methods, probably because that’s much more interesting to watch than close language analysis comprehension exercises – How does this affect our ideas on how Shakespeare is taught to kids?
  • Several elements common to other genres of TV feature in these Shakespeare centred shows including:
  1. Transformation of characters, think How to Look Good Naked meets the classroom, bra-style support and the effect this has on behaviour and attitudes is a common element to both.
  2. Experts in fields: shows bring in experts to “fix” or “solve” the “problem” so celebrities like Adrian Lester are brought in much like the doctors of Embarrassing Bodies to teach, coach, enthuse students and remove any potential problems. (The main problem with this is it by implication side lines the teacher in the set-up who, let’s face it, is an expert in the field. Gove’s favourite).
  3. Big Brother elements: straight-to-camera and diary interaction with the audience, almost like a monologue from Shakespeare. (But be careful – what has the editor left out?)
  • These programmes can shape people’s preconceptions about Shakespeare e.g. for students who may see how “hard” Shakespeare is presented to be; see that teachers are presented as perhaps unable to cope with the challenges Shakespeare presents (hence deus-ex-machina figures used on shows – Hollywood superheroes needed to provide assistance superman style) thus inducing fear in students minds that teachers may be inadequate to handle the hard bard; see Shakespeare as a “gold standard” which creates a sense of awe and fear.
  • Trend of outsourcing which sees Kim and Agie the TV cleaners being sent in to clean up the NHS, also features in these shows, is this part of a larger discourse of distrust of teachers? There is an intrinsic conflict in the government rhetoric regarding teaching. Gove focuses both on trust placed on teachers to “manage” their areas of expertise whilst also pointing to the need for importing support – this is epitomised in the positioning frequently of teachers in such programmes as almost another student – an onlooker as the master performs.


Next up was an interactive session led by the conference organisers Thea Buckley (Shakespeare Institute) and Laura Nicklin (University of York) helpfully titled ‘Shared Experiences and New Ideas’. Several activities were pioneered in this session including complimenting everyone Shakespeare style with lines such as “you dainty fairy gold esquire” using this handy hand-out.

Great for breaking the ice. Next up was the creation of a Facebook profile page for a play character, response to this was great featuring: a detailed playlist for Friar Lawrence who all agreed would have a private relationship status, visible to none but him Tybalt was also selected and we decided he would probably be a UKIP supporter with radical right wing ideas and put his relationship status as single (a sneaky cover up ploy). The idea of this activity was to consider the way in which the familiar can be used in a classroom to allow students to engage better with Shakespeare (the unfamiliar). My favourite of the lot was the post-it insult activity. And it seems I wasn’t the only one..

Presented with a heated discussion between Timon and Apemantus we were encouraged to read it in pairs and stick a post-it on our partner each time we though we were insulting them. Needless to say I ended up resembling a post-it tree, but it did really bring the text to life in a different way. There was also some discussion of Teachers TV as a resource and the magazine Teaching Shakespeare followed by a final activity of stress and unstressed (and that was just the teachers – never mind words) with jumping about required if the stress was upon you.

After lunch it was time was plenary number three with Dr Erin Sullivan (Shakespeare Institute) talking about ‘The Blended Classroom’ featuring some sneak peaks from her article in the recently published Shakespeare and the Digital World. She outlined the merits of using new technology for old purposes (in the words of Wieseltier) but also an awareness that digital tools are important but not the only thing – teaching must remain the most important thing. She told us about the way The Shakespeare Institute run distance learning classes and the central aspiration of the Institute for there to be minimal difference between the way distance and onsite students learn. The main principles were outlined as follows:

“flexible, personal and intimate, locally managed, and refreshed by regular develops in research of fellows”

We were reminded that knowledge is not a commodity but it is brought, and developed by each individual. The basic structure for a course was summarised and then the digital approach for distance and onsite learners alike was explained helped along by an example of the #shaxlegacy course and the digital elements of this. Positives and negatives of live recorded lectures, blog v. seminar discussion (text v. speech) and the alternatives available to distance learners and onsite learners to ensure personal support and guidance including Skype calls (later to feature in the final plenary) were also touched on. For after all the transactional distance is key.

“It’s not how far apart the students actually are, but how far they feel

But I’d better not say too much more, there’s a danger of too many spoilers, go and buy the book! There’s also a sneak peak here on this blog.

My favourite quote of the day popped up in the roundtable discussion after this plenary, when the question of non-native students tackling Shakespeare was posed. The response of one teacher was that “Shakespeare is a leveller” – equally easy/difficult for monolingual and bilingual students. English students are out of their comfort zone, placing them in the usual territory of multilingual students.

Plenary three of the day featured Dr Catherine Alexander (Shakespeare Institute) speaking on ‘Shakespeare and Cultural Literacy’. First up she tackled the political undertones to “culture” and the way this has changed. Culture has entered the curriculum and thus under the influence of the state. Culture is always being redefined, Shakespeare was particularly under attack when concerns of gender and race entered into the debate. He was seen then as a white racist sexist bloke, part of a cultural elite. Enter Hirsch (a hero of Gove’s) who highlighted that disadvantaged children lack cultural knowledge, this “cultural illiteracy” can become a barrier to comprehension. Now, thankfully, Shakespeare’s cultural position is less contested than the ’80’s he is now almost deified as the “figure of the millennium,” a “national poet,” and even a fashionable subject of recent academic research. Shocking though it may seem, Shakespeare is cool.

The talk then moved on to attempt to answer the following question: What knowledge is required to understand and talk about Shakespeare? Searching for markers of cultural competence. She noted that it’s easy to take such knowledge for granted. This knowledge can also be seen in parodies, allusions, and recognition of quotations or characters but not necessarily plays. She handed out a handy crib sheet featuring a list of things everyone needs to know to be able to talk Shakespeare with at least basic knowledge. It featured folk like David Tennant (it was this century specific I hasten to add), Anne Hathaway (not the actress..), the Gunpowder Plot, Masques and more. Essentially, Shakespeare: what culturally literate English people need to know.

The final plenary of the day was a very high-tech affair starring Dr Abigail Rokison (Shakespeare Institute) ‘In Conversation’ talking via. Skype to Anthony Banks (Associate Director of National Theatre) about Eternal Not, Prince of Denmark and Cesario as well as the National Theatre, education, and young people. Despite a flight delay this session proved engaging and certainly worth the wait.

All in all it was an excellent symposium, definitely worth checking out next year for teachers, lecturers, students and researchers. Educating Shakespeare not Essex or Yorkshire is the one to watch. I’m excited to catch some students unawares and get them stuck into Shakespeare armed with compliments, post-its, and a certainty that Shakespeare is cool, contrary to popular belief and maybe even despite Mr Gove!



About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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2 Responses to Educating Shakespeare

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