Teaching Shakespeare digitally

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at a symposium at the University of Birmingham on Shakespeare and education ‘in the age of digital humanities’. Sponsored by the British Shakespeare Association, it featured talks from Sarah Olive on the representation of Shakespeare and education on British television, Catherine Alexander on Shakespeare as a marker of cultural literacy, Abigail Rokison in conversation with Anthony Banks of the National Theatre’s learning department, Thea Buckley and Laura Nicklin (the organizers) on active approaches to teaching that they’ve learned about through recent workshops with Folger education and the like, and also a session with me on teaching and learning in the blended classroom.

My talk came from an essay I’ve written for the very recently published Shakespeare and the Digital World: Redefining Scholarship and Practice, edited by the wonderful Christie Carson and Pete Kirwan. The book looks at how digital technologies are shaping research, teaching, publication, and performance in Shakespeare studies. My chapter in the teaching section offers a critical reflection on distance learning education, looking specifically at how it works at the Shakespeare Institute. In lieu of an abstract, I thought I’d share the introduction to the essay below. The entire book is available both in paperback and as an ebook, so unlike many academic books it is actually affordable. And well worth a read I’d say.

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The Shakespeare Institute today.
Internal and External Shakespeare: Constructing the 21st-Century Classroom

In 1951 Allardyce Nichol and the University of Birmingham established the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, taking hold of a building called Mason Croft that had once belonged to a popular romance novelist named Marie Corelli and later served as an outpost for the British Council. Originally intended as an academic think tank for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre – later to become the Royal Shakespeare Company – the newly established Shakespeare Institute soon made its presence known, hiring three founding Fellows (Reginald Foakes, Ernst Honigmann, and John Russell Brown), starting up Shakespeare Survey and the International Shakespeare Conference, acquiring the full microfilm collection of the English Short Title Catalogue, and opening its doors to postgraduate students wishing to study Shakespeare. More than sixty years later, despite major changes in the UK higher education, much about the original vision for the Shakespeare Institute has remained the same, not least its commitment to cultivating new generations of Shakespeare scholars, teachers, and practitioners through postgraduate teaching and research supervision. It remains an extremely tight-knit community, with students and academics travelling from all over the world to seek out a particular kind of intellectual and social experience that permeates the lecture hall, seminar rooms, library, and even gardens of Mason Croft. While the building hasn’t been used as a private residence since 1941, it still very much feels like a home.

Back when it was Marie Corelli’s house.

Given the fact that the Shakespeare Institute experience is so strongly rooted in the atmosphere and history of a particular physical place, it may perhaps seem like an unlikely candidate for expansion into digital learning and distance education. Some of the best things about our community are decidedly analogue – impromptu research conversations in the garden, weekly play readings of lesser-known Renaissance plays, and seminars on Shakespeare’s life and works that draw directly on the heritage and theatrical life of Stratford-upon-Avon. And yet, like all centres of learning, the Shakespeare Institute has developed with its times, not least in the area of responding to changing student needs. Stratford is a small town that can at times be difficult to get to, particularly for students hoping to combine their prospective studies with existing work commitments and family demands. In an effort to open up our community to this broader spectrum of students, we have since 2002 offered part-time, flexible master’s degrees in Shakespeare and Theatre, and then Shakespeare and Education, both of which have offered at least a partial distance learning pathway since 2004. While in the early years of these programmes most part-time students were taught on-site at Mason Croft through intensive study weekends and summer schools, and thus at different times than our ‘traditional’ students, the growth of our distance learning pathway over the past five years has, perhaps paradoxically, brought our on-site and off-site students into greater temporal alignment. ‘Internal’ and ‘external’ students enrolled in a course have the same readings, assignments, deadlines, and tutors; they study the material over the same period of time and their work is marked together, meaning that no intellectual or administrative distinction is made between them. In some instances distance students may attend some of the face-to-face seminars for a course that they are otherwise taking entirely online, and likewise on-site students may share ideas and readings in the course’s online classroom space, resulting in a truly blended mode of study.

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Welcome to class.

This chapter reflects on the measures the Shakespeare Institute has taken to achieve this integration of internal and external learning, focusing in particular on the pedagogical principle of constructive alignment in the blended classroom. It argues that although many of the tools for on-site and virtual teaching may be different, the intellectual and pedagogical starting point should be the same: thoughtful consideration of what we want students to be able to ‘do’ with Shakespeare by the end of the course, and the steps we as instructors must take to facilitate this achievement. In this way, we welcome Leon Wieseltier’s recent defense of humanistic learning, and his associated plea to thinkers and educators to ‘[u]se new technologies for the old purposes.’[1] Of course, this isn’t to say that we don’t also value innovation in the classroom, but rather to suggest that the power of innovation, digital or otherwise, always emerges from a clear commitment to what learning means, not only practically but also philosophically. In the essay that follows I consider the principle of constructive alignment that underpins both our internal and external teaching, the teaching measures we have taken to achieve such aims in our blended classrooms, and the way in which such philosophical and practical approaches help lessen the ‘transactional’ divide in internal and external teaching and learning, even as our geographical spread increases.

[1] Leon Wieseltier, ‘Perhaps Culture is now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities’, New Republic, 28 May 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113299/leon-wieseltier-commencement-speech-brandeis-university-2013?utm_campaign=tnr-daily-newsletter&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=8840083# [19 June 2013].

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If you’re interested in finding out more about studying by DL at the Shakespeare Institute, have a look at the two videos below, which give further information from an instructor point of view as well as a student one.

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