Report for Brian Sheerin: Shakespeare In Austin (ENGL 3337)

Class Objectives in Previous Semesters

In most literature classes—but in Shakespeare classes in particular—my goals revolve around three incremental priorities. (1) First, I want to teach students how to read texts meaningfully. As opposed to simply scrolling eyes across a page or having a vague idea of plot progression, reading meaningfully involves actually comprehending sentences, passages, characters, and themes in ways that can be coherently summarized and discussed by students. (2) Second, once students can comprehend what they are reading, they should learn how to interrogate the interpretive options of the material. Nearly every moment of a dramatic text presents multiple possible perspectives, whether it be in determining word significance, finding implications of thematic imagery, or (as with drama) thinking about various enunciation and staging options at various moments of a play. (3) Third, students should discover how to apply their well-informed interpretive engagements with specific passages to the rest of the text. Figuring out how one’s particular perspective on a given textual site inflects, complements, or stands in tension with other parts of the text (or the meaning of the work as a whole) is a skill that demonstrates true maturity in literary analysis.

Hurdles with Such Objectives

Of course, progressing through the goals explained above can be a daunting task for students, who often do not even understand their own analytical immaturity upon encountering and discussing difficult texts for the first time. Students who are used to reading on-line summaries of texts alongside (or instead of) assigned texts, for instance, usually do not have essential skills of reading comprehension. Students who can understand texts meaningfully have then to make a special effort to engage those texts critically. And students who are good at asking lots of questions often have trouble thinking consistently about the implications of those questions for the rest of the work at hand. Such difficulties can negatively impact class discussion; with archaic texts especially, students often feel intimidated to participate, or find themselves interpretively off-track very quickly.

Innovation Inquiry

The starting point for innovating my class then, is asking whether a more experiential learning environment could assist students with meeting my class goals in a way that diminishes some of the hurdles associated with these goals.

Experiential Learning Plan, Part I

The first aspect of my pedagogical innovation involves encountering Shakespeare outside the classroom, in the Austin area. That is, I wish to complement the traditional reading of texts with techniques of spatial learning that encourage the interrogation and application of texts. Primarily, this will mean taking my class to see at least one live theatrical performance of a drama read for class. Austin has multiple theatrical venues, and while there is no guarantee that any of them will be performing Shakespeare in the spring semester of 2015, there is a good chance that something relevant will be available. Engaging with a medium that asks students to think in new directions and which visualizes their texts in unexpected ways will hopefully enrich subsequent reading experiences and class discussions. After all, these plays were originally intended to be seen rather than read. Second, we also have the option of encountering some of the original documents of our class in the special collections of the Harry Ransom Center. Their “First Folio” Shakespeare text, for example, is among the fascinating and valuable holdings of the University of Texas; viewing the physical idiosyncrasies of an artifact such as this can help students see just how much editorial intervention is needed to produce modern editions, and how little such editions should be taken for granted. Finally, our class could be challenged more informally to find various other “sites of intersection” in Austin where Shakespeare has a presence here: are such influences superficial or meaningful, and in what ways?

Experiential Learning Plan, Part 2

The second aspect of our experiential learning will be the inverse of what was described above. In other words, part of our class will involve bringing outside resources into our classroom. The most prominent of these resources will be theatrical directors and performers, who will be invited to direct class discussion and activity. Sheila Gordon from the St. Edward’s theater department has already offered to be a part of this effort. I am hoping that Professor Gordon and others will help our class experience dramatic texts from a more performance-oriented point of view, thinking about the multitude of steps and decisions involved in taking a play from the page to the stage. Perhaps our students could even work on miniature scene productions of their own, working in groups. Finally, I would like to try to make digital resources part of our class as well. Although I still need to research the resources available in this area, there may be valuable tools online that assist students with exploring Shakespeare texts in new and inventive ways.

Hurdles with Such Innovation

The primary challenges with my innovations boil down to a familiar refrain: time and money. Organizing events such as the ones listed above—not to mention actually attending the events with my students once they have been organized—requires a tremendous amount of time-intensive organization and coordination on my part. The time of students is also finite, and arranging a schedule that is workable for everyone may not be possible. Assuming that I am able to secure enriching activities for our class, cost immediately becomes a factor as well. Many theatrical venues in particular can be pricey. I need to prepare my students for the expenses of this class—perhaps offsetting experiential costs with less expensive texts—but I will also work with my Dean in securing possible activity funds for students. I plan to have a back-up plan for students who are simply unable to participate in a given out-of-class activity.

Conclusion

This class is an experiment, and as such I am curious to find what works and what does not. Ideally, I will find that the experiential components I am suggesting will not only improve the learning outcomes I have outlined above, but will also increase the participation and energy-level of the class in general. My wish is that students will learn how to approach their texts not as inert documents from a bygone age, but as living artifacts that demand interaction and interpretation just as much now as when they were originally disseminated.

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