On 18 May I’ll be leading a workshop on ‘Understanding reception in a digital age’ as part of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Below is a description of the event and the schedule for the day. If you’re a researcher at UoB or an artist in the Midlands region and are interested in attending, please get in touch!
Digital connectivity is radically reshaping how we engage with culture in the 21st century. Whether it’s the books we read, the music we listen to, the theatre we see, or the people with whom we interact, new technologies are remapping the way we access, consume, create, and share cultural experience. This one-day workshop will explore the impact such changes are having on the study of reception across the humanities and social sciences.
Since Stuart Hall’s ground-breaking work in field in the 1970s, the University of Birmingham has been at the forefront of debates about how people interact with culture and the meaning they derive from it. This workshop will build on this long history of interdisciplinary, grassroots thinking by investigating how digital technology is changing both the methods and the objects of reception-oriented research. It will consider how audiences are becoming increasingly active co-producers or ‘pro-sumers’ of artistic works through collaborative digital media, how the data produced through digital encounters might be used to generate new creative projects and formulate new research agendas, and how environment and materiality still shape cultural experience in the supposedly de-localised and disembodied world of online interaction. It will ask how we can best study audience, reader, listener, and user experience in a digital age, making the most of the new methods available to us and the new ways in which people are interacting with and creating culture.
The workshop aims to bring together expertise in reception studies and the digital humanities from across the University, and also to strengthen partnerships with artists and cultural programmers conducting practice-based work in the field. It will showcase the findings of several externally funded projects based at the University, and it will build upon strategic developments in digital research. Each panel will feature three brief presentations from academics and artists, leaving 20-30 minutes per session for further discussion among all the workshop participants. The day will conclude with a one-hour, guided roundtable session, which will result in a list of key questions for the field, identify possibilities for follow-on projects and funding, and outline next steps for digital culture and reception research at UoB.
10.30-10.40 Introduction and aims for the day – Erin Sullivan (Shakespeare Institute)
10.40-11.30 Data – Michaela Mahlberg (Language and Linguistics), Rowanne Fleck (Computer Science), Di Wiltshire (visual/performance artist)
11.50-12.40 Co-production – Caroline Chapain (Business School), Helen Abbott (Modern Languages), Annie Mahtani (Music/composer and curator)
1.40-2.30 Space – Patricia Noxolo (Geography), Matt Hayler (Literature), Katie Day (theatre director)
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.
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.
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.
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.’ 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.
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.
The British Milton Seminar meets twice yearly to discuss papers on subjects relating to John Milton's life, work and times, together with his legacy and influence. The seminar is open to academic and academic-related staff and to postgraduate students.