Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Day Job: Teaching Shakespeare

I'm incorporating the occasional non-sports post into this blog. If you're only interested in reading sports takes at this blog, of course you're free to skip these posts. They will usually start with "Day Job" in the title, and obviously this is one of those posts.

I'm a reader-response theorist, meaning in part that when I teach literature courses, I try to focus on student responses to the works. I believe students will learn more from literature by sharing ideas with each other than by listening to the teacher talk. Literature classes are best run as discussions, not lectures.

This can be a problem when teaching Shakespeare. What good does it do to focus on discussing student ideas when I have my doubts that the students understand the plot, the characters, and most importantly, the language? How are we supposed to get to the higher ideas Shakespeare is exploring if we simply discuss the ideas of people who admittedly struggle to understand the literal meaning?

This is not cynical snobbery--I generally respect the intelligence of students, but they have frequently confirmed, implicitly and explicitly, their difficulties reading Shakespeare. And yet I think it is important to teach Shakespeare; it is worth the efforts of the teachers and students. When teaching Shakespeare, I feel the most important concepts to focus on are the ideas and the language--even if these are the very concepts students find most difficult in his plays

Despite my reader-response, discussing-based tendencies, when I teach Shakespeare, I end up lecturing. I feel that if students do not understand the language nor the ideas, they are not well-served to sit around discussing their lack of understanding. They will learn more, will appreciate more, will understand more, by listening intently to somebody who does understand the language and ideas.

I used to teach Hamlet; I could do it in my sleep. I'm so familiar with the play, and have such enthusiasm for the play, that it was actually little effort to prepare to talk about it: bring up some of the big issues and themes, explicate a few of the famous passages, show a few excerpts from some film versions (with drama, it's important to note performance). Despite good intentions to get student responses, I always ended up lecturing. For various reasons, this year I switched to King Lear. As I read this seemingly nihilistic exploration of "nature," the cosmos and man, I struggled mightily to try and find a way to prompt useful student responses. Finally I decided to just read some important passages together (about 14-20) and use explication of these passages to explore the bigger ideas of the play. So for the first class period on Lear, I spent about an hour and twenty minutes talking, only occasionally getting students to raise their hands and share ideas. Normally, I would be disappointed in such a class period; I would have failed at my goals of encouraging students to share their own ideas with each other. But for King Lear, I actually think the class period was a success. I hope and think that my explication and exploration brought out the greater meaning of the play and allowed students to understand and appreciate the language of the greatest writer in the history of the English language.

Shakespeare is different; his work is something else altogether. For most of the literature I teach, I find ways to get students to interpret the works themselves and share and discuss their ideas. For Shakespeare, they are of course encouraged to read, interpret, and think about the play themselves; however, they might be better served in class listening to the teacher talk.

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