Sunday, October 26, 2014

Back & better than ever

This semester, for the first time in a number of years, I put Merchant of Venice back on the syllabus for my Shakespeare class. Now, I love the play, but I'd taken it out for a bunch of pedagogical reasons that boiled down to my feeling I didn't have enough time to deal with all the issues it raised.

This time I moved it later in the syllabus and I decided I was going to give it three class periods instead of two. Those were both excellent ideas: for the first time, I can say my classes on that play rocked: there was close to 100% student involvement and I overheard a few students excitedly agreeing that this was their favorite play so far.

But as important as my course-design improvements surely were, I also think that I brought some new thing to the class myself.

First is simply freshness.

I almost literally cannot re-read every play every year (even beyond the fact that I often don't have the time to do so): my eye skips down the page; my mind disengages; I know the words so well I can't absorb what they mean. So I don't re-read every play every time I teach it, and I don't feel bad about that. Still, it's undeniable that reading something for the first time in a while means I usually teach it better. At a minimum, the time away means I'm more excited by the text. Usually, it also means I've had a few new thoughts about it.

Second is the fact that in the intervening years I've written an article on the play.

I've long since gotten over any sense of fraudulence as a teacher of Shakespeare: I know the period well; I've taught Shakespeare every semester for nine years; I've been attending to Shakespearean scholarship for nearly as long. But even though my teaching frequently draws upon books I've read or conference papers I've heard, there's a difference when the material is something I'm grappling with, too, or about which I have intellectual investments.

And since my research touched on exactly the things my students most wanted to know, the anxieties, discomforts, and presumptions they brought to the play didn't sideline the text. Not only do I now know rather a lot about Jews in early modern Europe, the various contradictory fantasies about Jews held by Renaissance Christians, and how scholars over the past 30 years have used that information to interpret the play--but I can distill that information efficiently so it fuels a real discussion about what Shakespeare wrote.


And that, my friends, is why research isn't inimical to teaching. And why everyone needs a damn sabbatical now and again.


What Now? said...

I too am teaching Merchant of Venice again, although in my case it's been over a dozen years since I last taught it. I'm going to go look up your article as part of my preparation!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I'm teaching Merchant right now, too -- though to freshmen writing students. Long story. Anyway, it's been a while since I taught it, too, and I'm really enjoying it. Next week, I start teaching As You Like It to my Senior Seninar. I have only taught that once, maybe 8 years ago. I'm looking forward to that. And then I'll also start Two Gentlemen of Verona with Humanities the following week. I've mever taught TGoV. So that will be interesting.

I agree that scholarship on a piece makes a huge difference. I teach the histories better than anything else, I think. But I also think there's an advantage to having Shakespeare every semester. Yes, you might get numbed to the words, but at least you have the time period in front of you at all times. I get to teach Shakespeare once every two years. It's so depressing, and is the opposite extreme of your situation. Everything is fresh because I've had to let go of it, and I have to reread everything every time. It's a huge amount of work. Good work, great work, even, but it upsets me that I have to rediscover my field constantly and/or find ways to slip Shakespeare into the Gen Ed curriculum. It's like a set up for failure.

Bardiac said...

I love that Shakespeare wrote enough plays that you can mix them up, teach plays you really know, and then something you've not taught for ages. We're damned lucky.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Huh, I think THIS is the real reason why I like teaching Early Shakespeare better than Late Shakespeare. Because you can rotate, whereas in the Late Shakespeare class, the Hamlet-Othello-Lear-Macbeth quadrifecta is pretty much obligatory, The Tempest is almost as obligatory, and I won't have a good reason to rotate away from WT until somebody produces a decent film version of Cymbeline or Pericles. It just gets boring.

Susan said...

Nothing significant to add here, but this should be required reading for all those who think we should do nothing but teach.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

When we read Shakespeare in high school, my favorite was Richard III. Some of my friends and I would spark a fattie and then read aloud. I always wanted to read Richard's part.

Flavia said...


Not yet in print--but happy to send you an MS copy if you like. Given your own religious journey, it might be right up your alley!

Bardiac & Fretful:

Yes, agreed. And since we teach by genre rather than early/late, there are plenty of opportunities for swapping things in and out.


Sure, that's worse. No question.


And it's mutually informing, too--I wouldn't have written on MV if I didn't know it so well from teaching it. Virtuous cycle!


Of course you did.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Hahahahaha. Inorite? Your post inspired me to start reading Richard III again, for the first time in about 30 years!