Thursday, January 10, 2008

all Shakespeare, all the time

So, in two days' time, I will be teaching my first Shakespeare course. For some reason, this makes me feel like I have officially Arrived as a faculty member, even though I have been teaching Shakespeare in survey courses since 2003. Actually, I felt the same way when I registered for my first semester of college as a bitty little freshporpentine and discovered that I could sign up for an English class that was all Shakespeare, all the time. It sounded like magic.

And it was like magic. It was also completely insane, although I didn't realize this until about twelve years after the fact, when I thought, "Hey, wait a minute, what kind of professor puts Titus Andronicus and Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew all on the reading list for a freshman class? What in the world was he thinking?" We did read some conventional Shakespeare too -- Much Ado, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth -- but it was the weird and challenging stuff that made the biggest impression on me. It made some sort of impression on my fellow students, as well, as evinced by some of the conversations before class:

"So, I just can't figure out what happened in this play. I mean, I got that this guy meets this girl during the Trojan War, and they got married, but then she left him --"

"Wait a minute. Where does it say they got married?"

"Well ... they had sex, didn't they?"

"Believe it or not, that was known to happen back then."

"But this is Shakespeare!"

Ah, the fun of state colleges in the South. I'm pretty sure our professor intended to slaughter sacred cows right and left when he compiled that syllabus, because he likes doing that with those kinds of cows, but that didn't occur to me at the time. All I knew was that this was the first time that anybody had suggested to me that maybe Shakespeare didn't believe in the Divine Right of Kings or the Great Chain of Being, and it was liberating.

I wonder if I'll ever be able to pull off that sort of teaching. Probably not in exactly the same way; I tend to think of it as the old-white-guy-with-a-beard style of teaching, where you can wander in five minutes late, looking as if you had suddenly taken it into your head to teach a class that day, ramble a bit about current events or the books you bought over the weekend, and have it suddenly build to a complex and provocative point. It takes a certain classroom persona, and more importantly, scattered thoughts that are actually interesting; it doesn't always work, even for the old white guys with beards, but I loved it when my undergrad profs could pull it off.

I wonder how this class will go. I probably shouldn't be thinking about my own Shakespeare classes right now at all (two undergrad, two grad, all with very different and very fabulous professors), because it makes me aware of how many shoes there are in the world that I can't possibly fill. But I like remembering the rush of excitement I got in all of those classes, and as scary as Monday is, I'm excited now.

I wonder.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations, you! What a grand adventure.

Me? I'm in the midst of a mad dash to the end of a misbegotten mess of a paper on Measure for Measure, and simultaneously looking up a long, long hill of a course and a half of Shakespeare this coming term (as a student, natch), and thinking "Please, no, please no, please never Shakespeare ever again." Much to my astonishment, it must be said. But honestly!

Shakespeare is for the theatre, or for me, by myself, in my own heart, on my own private time. Shakespeare is not for work.

I therefore admire your gusto. Go get 'em!

Fretful Porpentine said...


Bardiac said...

What fun for you! Congrats!

What fun plays are you teaching? I love teaching Titus first off: just when you think it can't get any worse, it does! And unlike Hamlet, you can see the strings and stuffs.

Have a fantastic time, and your students probably will, too. The guy's a pretty darned good playwright, you know? There's a reason they steal his stuff again and again for movies.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Well, the syllabus is a bit more greatest-hitsish than I'd like, but I do get to indulge myself by teaching The Merry Wives of Windsor at the end.

Anonymous said...

Great posting IMO.

Most of all I liked your remarks on the "liberating" nature of your Shakespeare classes back then: that you didn't feel just shocked and annoyed due to having had to learn "that maybe Shakespeare didn't believe in the Divine Right of Kings or the Great Chain of Being", but liberated.

On the other side: for various reasons (didn't want to clutter your blog with them: for a list of some of them see W4RF) I did feel a bit uneasy about your praise of the "old-white-guy-with-a-beard style of teaching". But it was/is certainly thought provoking.

I'm dreaming of some sort of a conference (virtual or face to face) on styles and methods of teaching in renaissance studies with input from both students and teachers from various fields. Not only, but not the least because I find the "old-white-guy-with-a-beard style of teaching" both very charming and extremely irritating (but not in the way teaching should irritate), and because after teaching for (what for me feels like) ages I still wonder how to make my classes as "liberating" as possible.
And I wonder if you think such a conference might be a good idea. And in case you should do so: whether you have any ideas on how to make it happen in reality (virtual or "traditional")?

Lots of thanks again for your posting!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Interesting post, hck. Actually, I did have one professor in undergrad who drove me straight up the wall with the same kind of teaching, so I think it's got a great deal to do with how well individual personalities mesh or don't mesh. (Also, Professor #2 regarded undergraduates, not precisely as empty vessels, but rather as vessels filled with wrongheaded ideas that had to be tipped over and filled with the correct ones. This was not an attitude that endeared him to me.)

And that does sound like an interesting idea for a conference -- certainly more useful than the usual way of talking about teaching as a set of "best practices." (I don't really believe in best practices -- there are practices that work well with the peculiar alchemy of a particular teacher and a particular class, and ones that don't, and if you're teaching two sections of the same class, the same teaching method can be glorious in one and disastrous in the other.)

Anonymous said...

I completely with your statements on pratices.

I'll send you an email (to "fretfulp at yahoo dot com") today or tomorrow concerning my conference related dreams and thoughts.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I'm afraid I may not be able to answer any e-mails tomorrow, since I have a campus interview and assorted other craziness coming up, but I promise I'll get to it eventually.

Anonymous said...

No problem. Take your time and do the more important things first!

Lots of thanks again for your kind answer, and thanks in advance for reading the email (once I have written it and you have received it ...).

Anonymous said...

PS: I started writing that mail. And I found out that it will be longish. I won't finish it today anyway. And as I won't be fast: I'll certainly not expect you to be fast. Especially not as I am hoping for input from you (and not vice versa). And if I'm slow in posing my questions and venturing my ideas: Your reply (if any) can be slow too.

Best wishes for tomorrow anyway.

Anonymous said...

I sent the email. Thanks in advance for reading it and perhaps even replying to ith (whenever!).

Once again: best wishes.