Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Study of Shakespeare Must Evolve

Creative Commons licensed by Vaun Raymond
That's right: the study of Shakespeare must evolve. This is the theme that I have set for my current Shakespeare courses. On this blog I will be documenting how I am changing my approach to teaching Shakespeare on the college level, and here I will also coach my students in doing the same. It is my contention that Shakespeare can be experienced more meaningfully if students are invited to let go of some traditional approaches and to try other ways newly available due to the wide accessibility of media and new communication tools.

Click through to read my description of how teaching and learning about Shakespeare in the digital age compares with a more traditional approach.

Traditional Approach
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by Claude Brew
As traditionally taught by English faculty in college, Shakespeare is approached much as other famous literary works: students are assigned texts to read, and this is followed by a combination of lecture and discussion within a classroom, which in turn is followed by some kind of academic writing and/or research. Increasingly, Shakespeare courses have included viewing film adaptations, and where feasible, students are asked to attend stage performances as well. Some instructors will have students perform a speech or a scene from one of the plays, or memorize and recite a sonnet.

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by Julian on Flickr
The study of Shakespeare, really, has been the epitome of traditional literary studies as these have become institutionalized since the 1940s. The literary text is examined according to its form (close readings of language, poetical features, rhetorical devices, plot, character, setting, genre, etc.); and according to various literary theories that yield psychological, political, philosophical, and cultural insights. In other words, Shakespeare is fodder for classroom discussions and academic papers that deal with interpreting the oh-so-interpretable text.

So, what's the problem with all of that? Actually, so far as it goes this is a very workable model -- provided one is working within the traditional institutional paradigms for higher education and literary studies. But those paradigms are losing traction, and so the study of Shakespeare must be reconfigured and retooled to be in sync with the digital age.

Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age
Being in sync with the digital age does not translate into simply learning and applying a set of tools like Google Documents, blogs, or social media. Those are important to know and use, but the more important thing is to recognize the new ways of learning that these and other tools have made possible and desirable. It's not about tech; it's about teaching and learning in better ways. It's not about computers; it's about collaboration and building upon others' work.

It turns out that learning about Shakespeare (or any other subject) goes better when it is more social and also more personal. Learning goes better also if the processes of learning are treated as having as much value as formal academic products. Teaching and learning are more authentic if connected to others outside of one's classroom or school and to current concerns. Students become life-long learners as they practice connecting in various ways to many audiences besides classmates or the instructor.

And here is where we can see the paradigms for higher ed and literary studies losing traction: the old ways depend upon private learning and upon formal knowledge products and assessments. But we are finding that social learning is superior to isolated study, and informal knowledge processes are as vital as formal writing or examinations. There is also a deadening homogeneity to traditional literary study. Not everyone engages this literature most meaningfully through either in-class discussion or formal academic writing.

Traditional studies are very slowly paced. One goes hours or days before interacting with others regarding what one is reading. And what one produces in response to literature -- academic papers -- is read by only one person, who is unlikely to respond to those thoughts within a day or even a week. By the time you get your paper back, whatever fire was there has cooled. The academic products of the old way are extremely "academic" and artificial: one writes to an imagined audience, but in reality the paper has an audience of one. Why on earth would one write things to a pretend audience when real audiences, and very responsive ones, are immediately at hand?

Tradition, that's why. As well as institutional authority. Those who could be helping their students take advantage of these improved ways of learning don't bother to do so because it means moving out of their personal comfort zone, and the new tools and methods appear to threaten the authority of the teacher, the curriculum or the school.

Over the generations schools have created an elaborate and highly entrenched system of authorizing knowledge, and this has resulted in tightly guarded specialties with gate keepers who control proxies for learning (grades and degrees). Over time students have also been conditioned to pursue grades and credentials rather than bonafide knowledge or skills. The faults of this system are well known, but have been tolerated as a necessary evil.

But now, a rather new landscape for learning changes the rules. No longer are experts the exclusive or even primary gateways to knowledge, nor is learning held hostage within expensive or inaccessible books or degree programs. Anyone who can get online can have instant access to more texts and more experts than a thousand libraries of Congress or Harvards. And what's worse for the traditionalists, the leverage that they have exerted (providing or withholding certification of knowledge) is losing ground. Not only are new ways of certifying emerging, but learners turn out to have more motives for learning than just getting certified in something. And since it is now so easy and possible for anyone connected to the world wide web to produce content and get responses to their work, students are finding the time to create blogs, post photos, and generate other media and content which results in validation that is mostly informal but increasingly consequential for things like job opportunities.

There is an Amazon of interest and creativity being applied to both leisure and serious pursuits, fueled by the new media tools and the ability to interact broadly, immediately, and ubiquitously. It is both electric and electrifying. And why wouldn't teachers of Shakespeare (or anything else) not want to plug into that energy or ride that wave?

Because it is easier to pretend that the traditional approaches to teaching and learning are more serious or consequential than it is to dive into the melee of new media.

For my students, it will be sink or swim. I won't permit the traditional approach to teaching and learning. I insist that students be self-directed learners, exploring available resources and linking these to  things of both personal and public interest. They must, in part, construct their own sets of readings. They must engage their topic creatively as well as critically, and they must share what they do, while they do it, with their peers and the general public, long before it is in some finished, formal state. 

So, my students do blog, they do use social and creative media, and they both contribute and receive feedback from within and beyond the classroom.

My recent students have exemplified the ways that Shakespeare studies must evolve. Our recent showcase, "Engaging Shakespeare" represents more finished and formal projects that resulted from following this newer model of teaching and learning. I will discuss those projects, as well as student work that preceded those final projects, in subsequent blog posts to better illustrate the principles that I have introduced here.

For now, suffice it to say that Shakespeare has indeed been made more enjoyable, more applicable, and more meaningful to my students and their social groups than this subject has been when I have taught more traditionally. And that is why I will continue the experiment.

From January - April, 2012, these are my focus:

Experiment #1: Teleconferencing. I have already written a blog post that describes the way that one of my sections of Shakespeare this semester (English 232, Shakespeare for non-English majors) will be broadcast through Vidyo teleconferencing to a distant location.

Experiment #2: Testing Shakespeare's Texts. For my English 382 course (Shakespeare for English majors), I plan to have my students investigate and make arguments regarding the objects of study in a Shakespeare class: what is "the text," optimally, in a Shakespeare course in the digital age?

Both of my Shakespeare classes will be blogging, documenting their reading, performing, discovering, and interacting with one another and with the new media and tools now at their disposal.


Bryan said...

Dr. Burton, I appreciate your pointed examination of the aspect of the audience in mind in the learning process. In my time as an English undergraduate I cannot count the number of times a professor has implored students to keep the audience in mind, and after considering your observation it appears that this statement really lacks authenticity. I can see this lack of authenticity leading to a slew of problems in understanding an English major (if we are to provide a better understanding of the human condition how can we claim this when our process are founded on a perpetuation of fictitious prompts out of touch with the realities of our times. This is counter humanisitic.) Thank you for giving me this food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, this all seems a bit intimidating. I never felt so old as I did in your class yesterday! Although I am only 24, I have successfully avoided some of the mediums you mentioned.

However, as I read I was reminded of a documentary I watched recently about the short comings of the US public education system, "Waiting for Superman." While I recognize that the system is complex and EVERYONE has an opinion on the problems of education, the types of mediums we are exploring in our class must be worth reviewing at more than a collegiate level. Certainly the tech babies NEED to be able to use the tools that they already master in their homes. If our system does not rise to the level of our technology young students will be increasingly less interested in "learning" as it stands. I'm looking forward to the near future, when inevitably, elementary students are able to use blogging, podcasts, and facebook to interact and learn from students globally.

Taylor said...

I think I can appreciate your goal of opening up a whole new world for discussion on literature. Opening up my ideas to an audience has always been a challenge for me, partially out of an insecurity that they will be received in a positive way. But I like to challenge myself, and will certainly be willing to join the experiment in order to expedite my learning with the help of idea sharing through new media. This sounds like the perfect opportunity for learning and growing in an online environment, and I especially love the idea of the final project, giving us the opportunity to market our ideas. I hope I can swim!

Taylor said...

*NOT be received positively...

Kaleigh Jean Spooner said...

Isn't it funny that historically speaking the learning process, specifically with literature, was a very social concept? There used to be social gatherings where people would debate the latest piece of literature, bouncing ideas off of one another. But, as institutionalized learning took off, that method for communication and learning disappeared significantly. It's so nice to see new approaches to learning and I believe that this method of education is so much more effective and memorable in many cases. It allows, not only for the student to use their own personal methods of learning but it also allows for the individuals in a class to come together and enhance one another's learning. No one will know everything there is to know about a subject and by observing the differences in how each student comprehends things allows for a greater ability to truly be educated.

Tara PiƱa said...

I read this after I posted my "history" post, but I definitely have the same feelings and briefly touched on them. As an English teaching major, this idea of education in general needing to be updated tolls me everyday. The thing that I worry about on the college level at least is that sometimes it feels like professors don't care to update the teaching styles to be more beneficial to students whether it be because of lazy-ness, busy-ness, or tradition. So that makes me wonder if college approach will really truly change whether it is needed or not? I do however feel that on the secondary level teachers and students are taking advantage of this "digital age" and the study is evolving.

Carlie said...

All the talk about how to teach catches my interest. For future reference I try to keep a stock pile of teaching methods, so as I read this I would stop and think how would I teach this concept to seniors? Sophomores? Sixth graders?! In my opinion, traditional teaching of Shakespeare would fail in a sixth grade class, but reading the comic book format might have a chance. All of this got me thinking of how Shakespeare is still being taught in schools today, and I intend to find out!

Mallory Paige said...

Alright, I'm all for following the latest technological trends and for ditching the traditional methods for many of the reasons that you have stated. As English Majors, it is crucial for us to understand the new mediums of learning that are available and to be on the front line of every innovation. However, a research paper I wrote a few semesters back leaves me feeling hypocritical. I embrace these changes, the technological movement and the abandonment of traditional methods but do so hesitantly as I worry about the way information is processed when read off a screen rather than from a page. You can be expecting a blog post about this, but in the meantime I must explain that I have always been intrigued by how technology not only has the potential to better us as a society but additionally has the capacity to alter and even hinder our thought processes. Maybe I'm stuck in too traditional of a mindset but something happens when you go from having a book in hand to a click pad at your finger tips. The way the brain processes information it sees on a screen tends to be scattered and without focus. Email, Facebook, Blogging, Pinterest, online shopping, Youtube. All of these web-mediums teach us to click, process, and continue. The brain functions in short, 5-second spurts rather than developing long term focus. We click through pictures, blog posts, emails, and give each of them minimal attention. Where we once had the ability to sit and read for hours, many of us now struggle to make it through a single blog post without fighting the impulse to skim through it and move on to whatever is next.

In short, I'm all for moving away from traditional methods, but I think we have to be aware that it is not a simple change and that it will take a conscious effort to effectively register and internalize what we once saw on a page and now see on a screen.

jennyjones said...

I agree with Carlie in that the teaching methods of Shakespeare should vary with different age groups. I'm sure many of us can recall the first time reading one of Shakespeare's plays early on in high school, and having a very different experience with it reading it a few years later, perhaps in a college class. I think that happens with most literature - our experience with it changes as we grow and change and learn. I don't think we should necessarily throw traditional teaching methods out, but I do believe the teaching methods should grow and change just as the students who are being taught are growing and gaining new insights and perspectives of themselves and the world around them. Also, I agree with Dr. Burton's philosophy that his students should be self-directed learners. It will be an interesting change to have a professor expect that out of his students, rather than just dictate what they should learn.

Hercules said...

It is interesting how technology has evolved our way of studying. Already our libraries are becoming more and more electronic, consequentially less and less materialistic.

I agree with Prof Burton that it is beneficial to engage other mediums and sources to facilitate learning. I especially think that we should be taking advantage of our resources at a college level. However, I think there is great value in being able to personally engage with a text. As a future high school teacher, I want my students to be able to review a text, personally form a solid opinion, and then develop the personal reasoning to back it up. I fear that if we introduce electronic mediums too early then instead of new, personal interpretations of texts teachers will only see regurgitated opinions.
As a student, I myself, have done some research papers without an opinion. I simply allowed others' opinions and the most accessible research swoon me, shaping my thesis and opinion. I was never personally invested or interested in the topic and therefore developed nothing new.

I believe that using resources available through technology and outside interactions can be very valuable as long as students have a solid, personal foundation to create their own opinion. Like all good things, we must be careful not too overuse or abuse technology and the easy access to other's opinions.

jaycub2 said...

I just wrote three very lengthy paragraphs in response to the article then hit "preview" and somehow lost all of it. It's too late and I'm too tired to re-write all of it. Hopefully we will have a chance to discuss this in class because I am excited about this approach to studying Shakespeare but do have issues with some of the claims you make while disregarding the traditional approach.

Josh Cutler said...

I am excited to experience this new approach and I do realize that the amount that I am able to gain from this depends largely on the work that I put into it. I am worried that as the semester progresses and the work picks up that some of the new approaches will become newer forms of 'busy work'. I realize that I can control that by the way I approach the assignments but I know that I will need your help to make this approach the most enriching that it can be because of my relative inexperience with blogging and other forms of media in relation to academics.

J.B. said...

I'll admit that when I first saw that we'd be blogging for class, I groaned. I've had to use both blogs and Facebook for classes before, but absolutely hated it because it did absolutely nothing for my learning. However, after reading through this, I'm cautiously hopeful that this time, assigned blogging will be a better experience for me. The other classes had me using Facebook and blogs as a dropbox. I'm excited to write about whatever I want, whenever I want, instead of being told my topic, word length, due date, etc..

Ashley said...

Having read your blog post on my iTouch while walking up to campus this morning, the limits on a student to only learn in a classroom or from a physical book are disappearing. One of my favorite aspects of your last class was our focus on e-Learning, the ability to learn more efficiently through various sources of technology. As I talked about in my first post, using these different methods are sure ways to better engage readers with the Shakespearean texts they are reading by allowing them to see the text through multiple lenses.

Mikhaela said...

This is why I chose to take another class from you, Professor Burton. I learn so much more by engaging the text and exploring than I do just by reading. I seem to engage more receptors in my brain and store the information in more easily reached places. I am excited for this semester.

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