Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Colloquy XVII: Teaching Shakespeare as an Integrated Process

Heidi Snow of Principia College chaired the colloquy session on pedagogy which included presenters Chrissy Calkins Steele, also with Principia College, and Alicia Huber, an independent scholar.  Three Principia students, Anna, Kelsey and Nathalie would be presenting their papers, Professor Snow informed her session participants, and she also announced her  intention to open up the floor to expand the conversation to encompass everyone in the room.

Mary Baldwin College Shakespeare & Performance alumna Alica Huber was the first to present after the Chair’s introduction, discussing how pedagogy relates to a subject she teaches to undergraduates, Theater History.  She told the session’s group that she meets many faculty members at the university where she is an Adjunct Professor who are skeptical of the need to teach Theater History.  She then projected a slide which read, “Theater History: We can Do Better.  Let’s science on pedagogy.”  She related a personal anecdote of a student show she directed which, although a modern play, incorporated elements of classical Greek Tragedy.  She expressed her student actors’ antipathy towards the subject she teaches even though, she noted, they enjoyed performing in the play.  She researched through Rosetta Stone the subject of adult pedagogy, the science of how adults learn.  She recommended three books, the first of which was Ken Bain’s, “What the Best College Teachers Do.”  Daniel Willingham is the author of the second book she recommended, “Why Students Don’t Like School?”  The third book Huber named was,  “The Absorbent Mind” by Maria Montessori.  “We teach Theater History via the traditional “Sage on the Stage” model,” or, fact dissemination, which is largely ineffective and is not engaging, she contended.

“The process is what’s interesting,” Huber continued: “Pull back the curtain on the process.”  How do Theater History teachers and educators find engaging and thought-provoking questions to begin with? she asked.  The student, she explained, may not know much history, theater history or in general, but they usually know something about theater itself.  She begins teaching her course by asking her students, “What is theater?”  Huber then read a paper from one of her students she had taught who expressed in her answer that in thinking about her definition of theater, as she wrote her paper, the student began to ask herself deeper questions, and ultimately confessed that the more she thought about it, the less and less sure she knew what theater was.

Textbooks, Huber explained, contain “received expertise.”  She projected then a slide reading, “We must empower our student to become experts.”  How do we know what we know? she asked.  Much of our understanding of Early Modern Theater is from the attempted reconstruction based on what little evidence still exists today.  She then recommended, “Let’s not learn history, let’s learn to be historians.”  Evidence comes first.  She teaches history with such evidence including texts, physical evidence which she presents to her class in the form of photos of Hellenic Theater at Epidaurus, and she also utilizes movie clips to help frame her textbook chapter readings.  She encourages her students to challenge what they read in the textbook after she has presented them with historical evidence in the classroom.

People learn by doing, Huber continued. Students learn to become critics in her class.  She stated she is committed to learning in a studio space: How can teachers create an environment in which the students themselves can make discoveries?  “Discovery is the best teacher,” she explained.  Huber comes from a background rooted in laboratory research, referring to her work with Rosetta Stone while she completed her M.Litt degree. She conducts experiments in her class with masks.  She informed the members of the session, that Chinese Theater Works, NYC, and The Greek Theater at Randolph College, in addition to The Blackfriars Playhouse, also incorporate original practices.  We must remember that Theater History is a narrative because people love stories, she stated in conclusion.

The Chair next proceeded to discuss the study abroad program she and her colleague Chrissy lead, “Shakespeare’s England”  The course includes seven-and-a-half weeks of students engaging in research at the Globe Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, and also with the Lake District.  The course proceeds with another seven-and-a-half weeks on campus where students put on a full play.  The campus course students take are, Cultural Studies, Acting Shakespeare, Shakespeare in England, History of English Drama, and Voice for the Actor.  Students create artistic journals.  Professor Snow called upon her student Anna to display her artwork which she produced in class.  Her student Anna also displayed the theater program she worked on.  Professor Snow stated she uses Wordsworth Trust for teaching primary source material.  She said that she has her students conduct research at the British Museum as well, including making use of the Museum’s Rare Book Room.  Two weeks at the Globe follow this research, and there students learn movement, work with the text, and learn about costumes.  And of course, Snow, informed the group. students also view Globe productions.  Her students then design what they are going to teach as schoolteachers to their pupils.

Anna next presented her paper, “How to Handle Old Books and Papers,” providing the student perspective.  She wrote an in-depth dramaturgical paper on jailers in “The Winter’s Tale” which she researched at the British Museum.  Her paper addressed the question, “How does the jailer’s depiction in Shakespeare’s play vary from what we know from recorded evidence about how jailers behaved in real life?”

Next to present her paper was Kelsey, a Senior at Principia, who played Paulina in the student production of “The Winter’s Tale”  She read what she’d written about her experience at The Globe and of the Birthplace Trust.  The latter resource is the recipient of the Royal Shakespeare Company archives.  “There isn’t one answer,” she said she learned.  Shakespeare’s Globe Education Center Director Michael Gold immerse the students in Shakespeare’s language.  “Why the play’s character might be off-balance, she explained, “iambic study reveals clues to such characters.”

Nathalie, also a Principia student who went through the same Shakespeare course with her fellow actors Anna and Kelsey, read her paper on her course experience.  All three students then performed a scene from “The Winter’s Tale,” demonstrating for session attendees how much they had learned in the study abroad course.

The Chair then concluded the session by opening up the floor for questions.

Bill Leavy