Teaching Shakespeare in the Screen Age

Shakespeare is hard

Reading Shakespeare is hard, especially if it’s your first time. It’s hard because Shakespeare writes plays and poems in unfamiliar language, making unfamiliar cultural references – and because his meanings are buried beneath two layers, of historical distance and of poetic style. So readers in 2016 need to excavate Shakespeare’s meaning from beneath his idiom and his syntax.

But reading Shakespeare in 2016 is hard for a third reason: because reading anything in print in 2016 is hard. It’s hard even for seasoned academics, but it’s particularly hard for each new generation of our students. I mean the difficulty of focusing on one thing in the era of distraction, of concentrating our mental resources to read books in the era of screens.

This is the paper I delivered on Monday June 30th at Congress 2016, so there are references to the particularities of that conference. It describes some of the design principles behind “Shakespeare and the Screen,” a course that I’m teaching.

A conference like Congress is a shift away from the media-consumption habits outside these walls, a welcome reversion to medieval traditions of lectures and disputations. But like our classrooms, Congress is not an alternate reality; our papers need to compel attention just as our teaching does. (That’s one reason why papers are capped at 20 minutes – the same time-span that most experts say we can expect students to pay attention to a lecture, before we break it up with activities.)

2016-05-29 ACCUTE paper.003

The Economics of Attention

But we’ve come a long way since the middle ages. The technological change of networked information and online videos and Buzzfeed and Facebook notifications, and Gawker and TMZ, – all of these distractions happen in what the rhetorician Richard Lanham calls the attention economy.

Our attention is for sale – and every app is constantly bidding for it. The purveyors of information are working assiduously to make it easier and faster than ever to see their material, and their ads. (Try instead to be bored and brilliant. You can start by disabling your notifications.)

So what’s in it for us? We’re not mere consumers of information; now anyone can be a producer. We can all post to social media, and start our own blogs. There is a superabundance of texts, of YouTube stars, of platforms for expression. (Even for academic conference papers: I’ll post this paper to my blog, and it began its life as a series of posts.)

Screens for Literary Criticism

How does that impact on how we might teach difficult texts today?

My thesis is that we readers and teachers of Shakespeare need to co-opt the media in which we read and teach him. We need to see Shakespeare as an alternative to screens, but we should also teach him in ways that capture what screens can uniquely do. Screens are not mere distractions, but also platforms for (film + theatre + radio) performances; and they are ideal for teaching, for making explicit the stages of literary criticism.

In short, our students have many other options, and need to learn the benefits and advantages of reading him as acts of resistance, of mindful and deliberate departure, from those other options. Our task is to teach those benefits and advantages: to remember that what we take for granted (the virtue of difficulty), our students must learn.

Again – what implications does all this self-awareness of the media landscape have to do with our teaching? How should it impact our learning outcomes, our teaching practices?

We can, as I used to do, enforce stern warnings against distractions in the classroom; we can police attention, and demand it of our students. We can expect it, as we have expected it of previous generations. We can even ban laptops from our classrooms.

And there’s a strong argument there for the classroom, as for the university, as an alternate space, for what John Milton called “the quiet and still air of delightful study.”

But to ban distractions altogether is to commit two mistakes, I think.

  1. To lose the advantages of them as methods for intellectual capture, of the thinking and critical process. I once used Twitter in an assignment to ask students to tweet questions about Shakespeare, because the medium is not the message.
  2. The other mistake is to hold back the waters, to think of all potential distractions as evil. We are living in an age of plenitude, of access to performances and commentary on Shakespeare. The mature relationship we must have is the same as we have with sugary foods: good in moderation, but bad as our main diet.

In other words, we ought to teach Shakespeare in a manner that recognizes that his texts and our teaching practices exist in a world of potential other texts and media, and other reading and viewing practices/habits. We ought to empower students to allocate their limited attention mindfully.

2016-05-29 ACCUTE paper.004

That’s what I’m doing in my English 311 this term, which I’m teaching in the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. The course is Shakespeare and the Screen, and ‘screen’ means two things: the film adaptations we watch, from Laurence Olivier to Baz Luhrman; and the screens that are in every pocket and every backpack.

I’ve changed my laptop policy to include those tools more explicitly, to make them part of the engagement process. To capture ideas as they emerge.

As you can see in this image, I teach in a room full of screens. The large, main screen at the front of the room is the main attraction, where we watch films together. You can also see the Solstice displays, the movable screens around the room.

What you can’t see are the students, with their screens: their laptops and tablets and smartphones. Those are the screens where students record their impressions and share their questions and their preliminary research. These are the stations for critical processes that we all initiate as we go through a text, when we encounter a performance.

There’s also a station for recording impressions, both digitally (Genius annotation plugin) and on paper (in books).

The point is that we all stop every 20 minutes to talk about what we’re learned and thoughts as we proceed through the film. This is mindful pedagogy, to teach and share the methods of criticism: capture, research, annotation, inquiry, notes, gathering ideas and formulating them. We talk about turning information into knowledge, or first impressions into second thoughts, or notes into prose.

Too often, in our principled resistance to digital distractions, we tend to forget that these devices are also platforms for students’ progress from novices to experts. Students are noticing details, wondering about them, annotating texts, asking questions, and beginning to formulate some answers.

Reading Shakespeare in the age of digital distractions, amid multiple screens competing for our attention, empowers students to deliberately allocate their attention. We talk about how we gather evidence, what kinds of things we write down. We talk about the need for focus in an age of distraction.

This is the classroom as community of inquiry, where we are transparent about our methods of engaging with these media. This is Shakespeare as we read and teach him in 2016.

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