Begin with the End in Mind

The first in a series of posts on designing and delivering an introduction-to-Shakespeare course for 160 undergraduates, starting in January 2015. 

Course design is a rare pleasure and prerogative: the chance to set learning outcomes, align them with an assessment blueprint, and plan for various pathways to engage students. Know what I’m saying?

Okay, maybe that makes it sound pretty abstruse. That’s because I’ve utterly changed my course-design habits since becoming an Associate Dean. I take — even lead — workshops on how to align your goals with your grades, so I’ve reversed my process. Instead of browsing my shelves for texts I’d like to teach, I start by writing learning outcomes (which means this, or this). Then I work backwards to decide which texts will meet those outcomes.

Here’s an example. Outcome #3 is lifted straight from my course outline:

Shakespearean drama uses five genres (tragedy, comedy, history, romance, and problem play) and a range of modes (pastoral, elegiac, lyric). His non-dramatic poetry (sonnets and narrative poems) should be read alongside his drama.

You can already see how this would guide my choices: one comedy, one romance, and so on.

But which comedy? There’s where I’ll admit high-minded principle gives way to preference. I’ve been meaning to teach Twelfth Night ever since rediscovering Trevor Nunn’s 1995 movie, which my 6-year-old daughter used to watch repeatedly. (A good way to get past the language barrier, whatever your age.) And because I taught As You Like It the past few times in a row. So, Twelfth Night it is.

2014-10-21 16.39.44And so on: Troilus and Cressida because it’s great for source-study (Outcome #5) and because I’ve still not recovered from reading it as an undergraduate myself; it’s got love and war and betrayal and debates and it even calls attention to its own lowly status in the Shakespeare canon:

…value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer:

And The Winter’s Tale because Anthony Sher’s 1999 Leontes was unforgettable — and Outcome #3 demands some pastoral scenes, if you take As You Like It away. It’s all a game of 3-dimensional chess.

And The Rape of Lucrece” alongside the sonnets because I need some non-dramatic poetry to read alongside the drama (to quote chapter and verse, again), and our other tragedy is a play, King Lear.

So where’s Lear in this photo? It’s not because I forgot it, but because I’m trying something new. Outcome #4 starts like this:

When we read Shakespeare’s plays on the page, must see and imagine them in performance. Then we can understand them as stories that unfold through time, and that depend on the variable motives and knowledge of discrete characters.

This means that sometimes we have to encounter plays only in performance, even if we’ve read them before. We need to see them as performed scenarios between people who don’t know they’re in a play, who are making it up as they go along, who are unaware of the playwright’s design or the reader’s all-seeing eye.

And because Ian McKellen’s Lear from 2007 is on film, and we’re going to watch it together. “McKellen reminds you how much Lear’s life is made up of questions,” wrote one reviewer. Which beautifully addresses Outcome #6, where I’ll make an end:

Ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. Asking the right questions lets us begin to ask new and more complex questions.


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