Tag Archives: University of Birmingham

Shakespeare’s Emotions, Lost and Found

On Friday, November 17th, more than 60 Shakespeare students, scholars, theatre practitioners, and enthusiasts gathered at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Other Place Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to discuss emotion in Shakespeare’s plays. This educational event, called ‘Shakespeare’s Emotions, Lost and Found’, was aimed at A-level students and university undergraduates and formed part of the nationwide Being Human Festival, which ran from 17-25 November and showcased research in the humanities in more than 45 UK cities and towns. In Stratford, ‘Shakespeare’s Emotions’ was organized and supported by the collaboration between the RSC and the University of Birmingham, with further support from the British Shakespeare Association.

Gina Print © RSC

The event began with a half-hour panel chaired by Dr Daisy Murray and featuring academics associated with the University of Birmingham and theatre practitioners and audience analysts from the RSC. Dr Erin Sullivan and Dr Kerry Cooke spoke about understandings of emotion in Shakespeare’s time, as well as the ways in which performing the plays on stage creates a complex emotional relationship between performers, characters, audiences, and text. Matt Dann and Esh Alladi, both part of the RSC’s current production of Twelfth Night, in turn reflected on the role of emotion in the rehearsal room and the kinds of emotional journeys actors experience as they acquaint themselves with a new role. Becky Loftus, Head of Audience Insight at the RSC, finished things off by speaking about a study that the theatre conducted into audiences’ emotional responses to live theatre, cinema broadcasts of theatre, and 360° VR theatre (more on that study available here).

Thinking about the differences and similarities between ideas about emotion in the past and present proved especially interesting for many participants, with one university undergraduate commenting that she ‘enjoyed hearing about the historical context, which created another way of looking at Shakespeare’. Likewise, a university postgraduate noted that ‘the panel’s discussion of the perception of emotion in the early modern period [was] very interesting. I spend a good deal of time reading the modern scientific papers on emotion in voice and visual communication, so to compare those ideas with the idea of the four humors was intriguing.’

Gina Print © RSC

In the second half-hour, the audience broke into small groups and looked at a selection of emotional passages from Shakespeare chosen by each member of the panel. Each group was led by a PhD student in Shakespeare studies who served as a discussion facilitator, inviting participants to talk through the emotional experiences, ideas, metaphors, and scenarios depicted in their passage. For many audience members, the chance to become actively involved in small-group discussion was a particular highlight: ‘working in small groups to further discuss emotions as well as listening to other people’s ideas’ was especially enriching, one A-level student commented, while an undergraduate reflected on how the ‘opportunity to read an extract in group work before and after our analytical discussion’ encouraged him to think more deeply about ‘how dialogue changed with added knowledge of its context’.

Attendees at the event weren’t the only ones who found the small-group discussions beneficial. The five PhD facilitators, whose involvement was made possible by a British Shakespeare Association small event award, spoke afterwards how the event helped them develop new ideas and skills: ‘Participating in the “Shakespeare’s Emotions: Lost and Found” event gave me practical and valuable experience in a teaching setting’; ‘It showed me that preparation is invaluable, and it was lovely working with a young group of students who had very creative and intelligent responses to the text’; ‘I was very pleased by the group’s happy surprise that our quite challenging passage had, in the course of the discussion, suddenly become not only intelligible but even emotionally resonant’; ‘Several students even stopped me on the way out to ask further questions and share more ideas’. The event offered these early career scholars the chance to develop their teaching and public engagement skills and to work with Shakespeare enthusiasts from a range of different backgrounds.

Gina Print © RSC

In the final half-hour of the session, representatives from each of the small groups and the opening panellists finished with short presentations and whole-group discussion about the varied role of emotion in Shakespeare. Students highlighted key ideas discussed in relation to their passages, including the way specific words and images help shape emotion, the way performance turns emotion into a very social and at times tense event, and how historical differences in ideas about emotion can give us new insights into how culture shapes human experience. As the event came to a close, many participants hurried off to grab a quick dinner and then to take their seat for the RSC’s evening performance of Twelfth Night – no doubt resulting in even more emotional experiences and ideas after an already very passionate afternoon!

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Audiences, Readers, Listeners, Users – Understanding reception in a digital age

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!

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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.

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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)

11.30-11.50         Tea/coffee

11.50-12.40         Co-production – Caroline Chapain (Business School), Helen Abbott (Modern Languages), Annie Mahtani (Music/composer and curator)

12.40-1.40           Lunch

1.40-2.30             Space – Patricia Noxolo (Geography), Matt Hayler (Literature), Katie Day (theatre director)

2.30-3.20             Roundtable discussion with tea/coffee – Danielle Fuller (American Studies/Literature), Peta Murphy-Burke (Arts Council)

3.20-3.30             Next steps – Erin Sullivan

For further details or to register to attend this workshop please contact Lauren Rawlins at l.rawlins@bham.ac.uk. For more about UoB’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) see http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/ias/index.aspx.

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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.