Thursday, July 3, 2014

Undrowning the Reader

There is an odd sense of time here in Shakespeareland. Even though we spent a portion of the morning looking over these intensely interesting forgeries made by an early modern con man, it feels like weeks ago. There is so much to learn, see, and do at the Folger, the brain has to expand time to make sense of all that we learn in one day.

The forgeries were part of an opening lecture by one of our scholars-in-residence. As we are looking at Twelfth Night first, this talk was on the notion of shipwrecks as loss that, despite the apparent irretrievable nature of the loss, will often lead to weird resurrections. In the case of the play, Sebastian and Viola are resurrected, one for the other, in the final scene of the play. What the sea has torn asunder, the earth has restored. There were a number of other plays in which undrowning occurred, but it was a common enough motif to pattern and preoccupation, a somewhat obsession with the notion of restoration. This idea even shows up in the sonnets.

What was most interesting to me was what it made me think of in terms of how we, as high school teachers of Shakespeare, have the most important task when it comes to undrowning the works of Shakespeare: keeping our students comfortably afloat on the sea of his language. This task become especially problematic when your students are not gifted or highly motivated; often for these kids, reading Shakespeare is akin to being drenched in a foreign language that seems to be a frustrating cognate of the language they speak, but defies (or denies) translation.

I have had colleagues in the past who flee in the face of teaching Shakespeare to a standard class. The lines fly thick and fast: "They just don't get it";"It is too hard for them";"They cannot handle that"; fill in from here. The litany of excuses leads to one of two conclusions: either the people using them are power hungry or they do not understand the text. Neither of these options are particularly appealing.

If the first is true, if we are power hungry, then I ask what right do we have to withhold knowledge from any student? The question is legitimate and completely free of sarcasm. Teaching is about walking down new pathways with students, leading them to knowledge they will need and showing them how to understand it. If we believe this to be true, what we teach to our students should be about leading them into places they cannot access themselves. Every student, as we know from experience, struggles with accessing Shakespeare: the difference is how deeply they can access the text. A student who has difficulty reading does not need to be able to intellectualize the multiple meanings of a specific mythological allusion, but simply to enjoy the plots, characters, and linguistic fun of the play. The intellectualization can come after they allow themselves into the work. But, in providing adapted texts or merely barring the way altogether, we unconsciously deny students access to these great works that, if we think about it, were written for every citizen from groundling to queen. We submerge the texts in the sea of high culture that excludes many students, particularly those at risk of poor academic performance.

However, if the second is true, it is certainly more excusable. We all had to discuss who taught us how to teach Shakespeare, and for the most part the answer was really ourselves. When we are learning on the job from colleagues, we are applying those lessons to our own style of teaching, synthesizing a new, untested method. Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to impugn anyone's Shakespeare professor. The ugly truth is that knowing a text and understanding it well enough to teach it are very different provinces in the mind. If I am uncomfortable with a text, I am either going to skip it or teach it fairly poorly. My inexperience, though not my fault, leads to a poorly developed educational experience for my students, drowning them in my own confusion.

To dive on this wreck, we must understand more about how we learn. The thing that makes the Folger's method so effective is something cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham emphasizes in the video below.


The blending of modalities plays to the various strengths and weaknesses in our brains, but also helps us focus on meaning and not merely the visual, auditory, or kinesthetic quality of a topic. The Folger's philosophy blends multiple modalities in the interpretation of these plays that, frankly, were intended to exploit multiple modalities in its audience. We hear dialogue, see movements, and experience emotional connection with characters and events playing out in front of us.

After the talk and seminar in the morning, we had great performance session where our group was given a series of really great maxims that are well-worth sharing.
  • This scene is your whole play: this further reinforces the Folger philosophy that close reading on one's feet does not require the teaching of a whole play; focus on what the scene shows us about the people in it, etc.
  • All plays are contemporary: despite the original context of the play, students bring their own cultural contexts and personal contexts to the plays they are reading; validating those contexts validates the student and builds confidence
  • Characters are defined by what they do, not what they say: helping students focus on action eases some of the anxiety with the foreign quality of the language
  • Words can convey many meanings: What do you mean when you say it?: this one reminds students that they have choice and ownership over their readings of the text while validating that there is no one way to play it
  • What does the script tell us, NOT what would we like it to tell us?: this one reminds students that everything they need to know is on this page; there is no secret code to reading Shakespeare
  • Dialogue is action-oriented: all utterances have a goal behind them, even if that goal is to be left alone; understanding these helps link performance movement choice to how the line is read
  • Good plays are about human behavior: this one links to the previous one; how do people behave when they are in specific contexts attempting to gain specific desires
  • You cannot play themes or literary tropes: these things are great for the world of literary analysis, but alien to the world of the actor; people don't consider themes when they are trying to bed lovers or destroy rivals; themes arise from our reflection on those events
The highlight of the day followed the performance sessions and tea time. Barbara Mowat came to speak to us about how she and her co-editor edit the Folger Shakespeare Editions. I could not hope to explain the process or what we did in this medium, but I do want to share what one of our fabulous master teachers asked. As the final question of our session, one of the master teachers asked Barbara Mowat what she had learned about Shakespeare the man after spending so many years intimately involved with the text of the plays. Her response moved the room. What I am typing here is paraphrase; if you are not moved, it is most definitely my fault. First, she said, Shakespeare loved language; second, he believed in compassion, and compassion that came from unusual places. Finally, she defended Shakespeare against those who say he is just a plagiarist, explaining that Shakespeare was adapting well-known stories, much like people do now with screen adaptations of classic novels. His genius is in the portrayal, not the plot.

These responses resonated so with us for, I believe, two reasons. First, that English teachers are a fairly compassionate bunch who want to teach that virtue to their students. I would argue that this compassion is what make Shakespeare such a rich and valuable text in our minds. Second, we have a concrete example upon which we have focused this week: the mistreatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night that so unsettles us at the end. The fact that we can feel sympathy at all for such an intransigent man is remarkable because it makes us feel a way that we would not traditionally feel. The challenge to compassion is something I had not considered and am grateful for learning.

Later in the evening, we watched Henry IV, Part 2 live from Stratford-upon-Avon. This fact is not specific to TSI, but being in a room full of people you know who also love Shakespeare enhances the experience. We laughed together, sighed together, sympathized together. We learned more about being human together and, as a result, undrowned our often saturated hearts and minds. Isn't that why we teach and love the humanities?

1 comment:

Stefanie Jochman said...

FANTASTIC post! You capture quite eloquently the themes of the week and how powerful Wednesday's afternoon and evening events were!