Tag Archives: Bruce Smith

Shakespeare Pedagogy in the Digital Age

A question I was left pondering after part 1 of Shakespeare in the Digital World was whether or not digital research was inherently more or less social than its non-digital counterpart. Bruce Smith argued strongly that it was less social, less experiential, less time-bound–in a word, less human. But David McInnis also showed how fundamentally collaborative some digital projects are, and how this enables a form of international social and professional exchange that simply wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago.


I bring up the social here because in part 2 of this book, which focuses on TEACHING, similar questions relating to digital interaction, sharing, and sociability make up a central theme. In his introduction to the section, Peter Kirwan points out how active, up on your feet, interactive approaches to Shakespeare have dominated many pedagogical discussions in recent years. ‘The focus on physical bodies, proximity and movement tends to gloss over the integration of new technologies’, he writes, ‘except when that technology reinforces the live classroom’ (p. 59). This recent emphasis in Shakespeare studies on pedagogy as a kind of theatre is interesting and provocative in and of itself (is your classroom ensemble-led, or more the director’s theatre variety?), but in this post I will restrict myself to saying a few words on these issues specifically in terms of the digital. I will keep it to a few words though, since one of the essays in the section is in fact by me and so to a large extent I’ve already said my piece on the subject, both in the essay itself and in a previous blog post here.

Sarah Grandage and Julie Sanders, Sheila Cavanagh and Kevin Quarmby, and Peter Kirwan himself have written the other essays in the section, and together we cover experiences relating to distance learning, blended classrooms, joint teaching via video conferencing, collaborative class wikis and Twitter hashtags, and new resources for teaching performance online. As I read the essays together I found myself underlining phrases like ‘experiential creativity’, ‘digital connectors’, ‘socializing practices’, and jotting down notes such as ‘social facilitation’, ‘experience, experiment’, ‘interactivity, engagement’. I suppose this emphasis on digital pedagogy as collaborative and social shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given the fact that the Web 2.0 tools so frequently discussed in this section are essentially what we know as social media. But it is interesting, I think, to see how all of us have emphasized social liveness and communal exchange in our reflection, with the assertion very often being that not only can digital teaching be as social as its non-digital counterpart, it can sometimes be more so.

I think that’s right, but it’s an idea that is worth further consideration. In their discussion of joint teaching via Skype, Cavanagh and Quarmby explain how students recognized the authority and presence of the Skyped-in instructor as fully as they did the co-instructor that they knew in the flesh. ‘The virtual presence was, albeit unconsciously, fully integrated into the class psyche’ (p. 93). All of the essays, in one way or another, talk about habituation to the digital. That is–once we get used to using it and seeing it, it no longer becomes something that is different, or worryingly non-human. It is simply part of normal life. I am reminded, though, of Bruce Smith’s comment in part 1: ‘If I have learned anything since I started teaching in 1972, it is to distrust binaries … What is needed in every case is a third thing, a tertium quid, a synthesis that reconciles thesis and antithesis’ (p. 28). Leaving aside the question/joke of what Smith makes of binary code, I am left wondering what the third thing might be for digital sociability. It is certainly not inhuman or beyond the human–we are, after all, the agents (or subjects?) driving and making it–but neither is it a part of human experience and exchange as we’ve previously known it. What is the synthesis then that lies, unconsciously, in between?

Alongside the discussion of big questions like this one, the section offers a helpful range of practical ideas and tips that I’m sure I’ll be making use of in my own teaching. From performance resources available online, to how to create a sense of presence through the Skyped screen, to how to use a student-led wiki to fuel research, there’s lots to think about and work with here.

‘Digital Humanism’ by Oskari Niitamo



Shakespeare Research in the Digital Age


In my last post I spent some time reflecting on the introduction to Shakespeare and the Digital World by way of the Year of Shakespeare project; in this post I want to dive right into part one of Carson and Kirwan’s edited collection, which focuses on RESEARCH.

Each section in the book is fronted by a short introduction by one of the editors, and here Carson begins with a quotation from Katherine Rowe: ‘Older forms and values provide a vital intellectual framework for the way we use newer media, shaping the needs we bring to the new tools and the opportunities we find in them’ (qtd p. 10). It’s an apt start to a section that often focuses on the experience of the researcher, and especially on the experience of researchers for whom the world hasn’t always been digital. Essays from John Lavagnino, Bruce Smith, Farah Karim-Cooper, and David McInnis make up this thought-provoking opening section, and below are four big ideas I am left with after reading it.

(1) Digital research is more than what we think it is.

John Lavagnino starts us off with a snapshot of the long history of digital, electronic, and computer-assisted humanities research. Digital humanities may have come on the scene in or around 2008/9, he reminds us, but ‘”applied computing in the humanities” has been visible since the 1940s’ (p. 14). In addition to looking back, Lavagnino’s chapter also looks around and forward at digital research now, in particular its use of tools and resources created by industry rather than the academy (Google Books, YouTube, etc.), and the fact that even people who wouldn’t consider themselves digital humanities scholars are doing ‘invisibly digital research’ through their use of EEBO, Literature Online, and the like (p. 22). Bruce Smith’s subsequent chapter discusses what it feels like when that naturalized kind of digital research is made visible, primarily through its disruption. Here he reflects on the experience of locating a book in the library that eludes him online, which prompts him to consider how much and how quickly we have come to take for granted widespread access to research materials that were previously the focus of more limited, time-bound, and difficult scholarly pilgrimages.

(2) Digital research is more mediated than non-digital research– or is it?

Karim-Cooper’s chapter on iPad technology continues with a meditation on the experience of the researcher today, one who is ‘no longer able to sit for hours researching and writing in university libraries, but … [is] instead encouraged to run multiple projects simultaneously, create new partnerships and travel around speaking to the public, all while maintaining an impressive publishing profile’ (p. 37). Tools like the iPad help facilitate research in unlikely but necessary places — namely, on trains — but for Karim-Cooper they ultimately remain just that: tools. While research into haptic technologies is working on putting the sensation of touch back into the touchpad, Karim-Cooper observes how researchers ‘of the screen’ miss out on the full sensory experience of handling, and thus learning from, material books. Does this mediation of physical feeling, she wonders, also entail a parallel mediation of emotional and cognitive affect? When we use an iPad or any other screened device to read literature, ‘Will we be able to feel the effects of poetry in the same way?’ (p. 38). Smith likewise considers the embodied experience of the researcher, and the way in which digital research methods are reshaping what he calls ‘the phenomenology of knowledge’ (p. 29). For him, though, digital research is radically unmediated, in that pages from digital facsimiles appear to us online without context, without ‘sedimentation’, without history. They are simply there, and their dissociation from anything else leads Smith to suggest that digital research is a supremely ‘presentist’ way of working. What you see is what you get, but perhaps not much more.

(3) Digital research has often been about tools and resources, but maybe it needs to start being more about research questions.

Lavagnino’s opening essay suggests that the most influential digital scholarship has taken the shape of scholarly resources rather that critical or analytical innovations, and Smith and Karim-Cooper’s interest in the digital primarily as tool or approach adds to this line of thought. But David McInnis’s final chapter presents an example of how digital ways of working may also allow us to change the fundamental research questions we can ask. Although he explains that he and his colleagues did not initially think of the Lost Plays Database as an online project, they eventually realized they needed to go digital in order to allow for the international scholarly collaboration that was needed to meet the aims of their project: ‘Creating a record of this disparate and obscure information [i.e. that involved in tracing lost plays] relies on collective knowledge and the assemblage of information which has little significance on its own … encouraging new and easy ways of interacting with other scholars is essential if the sum is to be greater than its parts’ (pp. 45, 52). While we might often think of digital work as isolating, distancing, or even antisocial, McInnis shows that this certainly need not be the case. What’s more, his bibliography of the collaborative print publications that have emerged from the LPD project likewise illustrates that the divide between ‘traditional’ and digital ways of working may not always be as stark as we first think.

(4) Digital research is not necessarily easier, cheaper, more democratic, more manageable, more innovative, or faster than non-digital research.

Lavagnino starts the section with the warning that ‘a common problem has been unrealistic ambition or overestimation of what can be done in a purely computational way’ (p. 17), and McInnis finishes it with the observation that ‘the transition from print to web is often made with little planning or critical reflection’ (p. 43). That has certainly been my own experience in terms of digital projects. What’s the point of doing things digitally, if you don’t have a strong sense of how or why you’re doing them in the first place? Which is something I’ll no doubt come back to in my post on part 2 ofShakespeare and the Digital World, which focuses on teaching and pedagogy in the digital age.