Profs talk new ways to teach ‘The Bard’

by Owen Shepcaro | 10/19/14 3:56pm

Called “The Swan of Avon,” “The Bard of Avon” or simply “The Bard,” William Shakespeare and his plays and poems remain a staple in English literary education. Dartmouth marked the 400th anniversary of the poet’s death with a symposium on Friday and Saturday in the Haldeman Center that focused on how to teach his works today.

The symposium, “Teaching Shakespeare,” featured lectures by Dartmouth and visiting faculty and an address by Provost Carolyn Dever. Dartmouth students and community members led and participated in group discussions as well.

Organized by English professor Jonathan Crewe, the symposium aimed to prompt educators and students to reevaluate how they teach or have been taught Shakespeare, Crewe said. Though the texts have remained the same over the centuries, instruction can better take into account learners’ contemporary biases and assumptions when approaching the works, he said.

“In reality, nothing remains unchanged,” Crewe said. “There are various circumstances, such as the arrival of digital methods of teaching, the loss of energy in the humanities and the academic shift toward the modern and contemporary that made me think it desirable to rethink the practice of teaching Shakespeare and the assumptions we have about it.”

English professor emeritus Peter Saccio kicked off the symposium on Friday afternoon with a lecture called “Shakespeare for a Shadow Audience,” and Dever welcomed attendees and introduced Harvard University English professor Marjorie Garber, the event’s keynote speaker, in the evening. Garber has written about Shakespeare’s connection to modern culture and has applied contemporary theories of dreaming to analysis of Shakespeare plays, among other topics.

Many attendees at the conference were interested in how their peers were integrating technology into their teaching, though they disagreed about its merits. English professor Thomas Luxon said he believed technology could be an asset if it reduced the need for physical copies of books and provided access to resources like voice recordings or performance videos of key passages.

University of California at Davis English professor Gina Bloom, however, said she does not commonly use technology to augment her teaching of Shakespeare.

“When I teach Shakespeare, I want the class time to belong entirely to my class and I,” she said. “I think that in class discussion is more conducive to an understanding of Shakespeare than blankly watching a performance.”

On Saturday, symposium attendees visited a morning panel where English professors from Stanford University, U.C. Davis and Barnard College spoke about the relevance of Sigmund Freud, video games and African-American heritage to teaching Shakespeare today.

In the afternoon, symposium attendees listened to two more panels, the first titled “Teaching Shakespeare, Here and Now,” chaired by English professor George Edmondson, and the second titled “Performance and/as Pedagogy,” chaired by theater professor Laura Edmondson. The second panel focused on teaching Shakespeare for the stage and featured English professor Brett Gamboa as a participant.

The symposium concluded with a group discussion chaired by Luxon and facilitated by English and comparative literature librarian Laura Braunstein, special collections librarian Morgan Swan, English major Jasmine Sachar ’16 and former Hanover High School English teacher John Galton.

Regardless of how his works are taught, Johns Hopkins English professor Andrew Davis said “The Bard” remains critical to the canon of English literature.

“The works of Shakespeare poignantly reflect many basic conditions of being alive,” he said. “They are reflections of life and death, parents and children and so many other things — though these illustrations are rooted in their particular moments, they are portable and have the capability of influencing our lives.”

Crewe said it was appropriate for Dartmouth to host the event. Not only does the English department boast several Shakespeare experts, but Rauner Special Collections Library is home to a first edition folio of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623.

Sachar is a member of The Dartmouth senior staff.