Response from Ellie Rycroft

The following is an annotated bibliography of three articles from the special issue of Shakespeare, which I use as a springboard to discuss some of my own engagements and experiences with new media in teaching and research.

Shakespeare, Vol. 4, No.3  (September, 2008):  ‘Reinventing Shakespeare in the digital humanities’

Introduction, Alan Galey and Ray Siemens, pp.201-207

Alan Galey and Ray Siemens provide potted history of the ‘digital humanities’ as it stands in 2008, a phrase whose former term they argue will become redundant as ‘digital’ becomes no longer the exception but the norm (p203).  They define the field as the “disciplinary interactions that look to digital culture and technology to prompt new modes of humanities scholarship – and, in turn, to reassert the humanities’ value in those traditionally science- and business-dominated domains” (p204).   Since 1939, interactions between new technologies and Shakespeare have been a growing aspect of pedagogy, ever since Orson Welles’ exhortation to use phonographical recordings of performances in the classroom (p201).  It strikes me that such technological interpolations into Shakespeare seminars and lectures don’t just enrich students’ experience by exposing them to experts ‘doing ‘ Shakespeare, they provide the sort of variety that makes our teaching materials more amenable to the learning styles outlined by Kolb.  It also widens out the possibilities for conveying abstract ideas to students.  Discovering an excellent Youtube clip with which to demonstrate or substantiate a point I am making in a lecture is always accompanied by a ‘eureka’ feeling.   Similarly, google images has proved invaluable in terms of diversifying how I deliver theoretical concepts, historic moments, and even portraits of the authors under consideration each week.  Galey and Siemens identify how digital Shakespeares have broken down traditional boundaries of “theatre versus classroom; archive versus computer; museum versus corporate office”, further arguing that, “the ubiquity of computing in all our professional engagements is productively matched by the diversity people who identify as “Shakespearean”” (p202).

Of course, translating and transcribing the ‘original’ Shakespeare in a digital age is never easy, because there is indeed no origin to anchor such work.  Galey and Siemens present a dizzying array of factors to take into consideration when editing or approaching Shakespeare in order to re-present his work:

Any attempt to trace the life of a Shakespearean play from early modern material culture to present performances, editions and adaptations runs up against a tangle of mediation: multiple versions;  scribal and compositorial interventions; documents such as playhouse promptbooks, actors’ parts, foul papers, fair copy, and printed quartos marked up for performances; […] theatrical adaptations; printed versions that Shakespeare may or may not have intended to publish; editions based on specific performances; editions with modernized spelling and emendations; even phonograph (and graphophone!) recordings.

(p203)

Which of these phases in the journey of a Shakespearean text do we recognise? Which do we eschew?

The authors see the critical and methodological approach of the digital humanities as being governed by “thinking through making” (p204) – a definition which seems to have a deep affiliation to practice-based research in general.  Indeed, Galey and Siemens acknowledge this similarity between the two fields, writing “the strongest analogy for this ethos in the Shakespeare world may be performance; just as practitioners model Shakespeare’s plays by staging them, so do digital humanities stage their knowledge representations like productions of plays” (p204).  The practice-based ‘Staging the Henrician Court’ project I worked on between 2008 and 2010 sought to combine both performance research and knowledge representation by uploading a film of our performance of John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather on the open-access project website.  (See www.stagingthehenriciancourt.org).

The notion of open-access is perhaps something to consider during the iShakespeare workshop as I feel it comes with clear advantages and disadvantages.  Knowledge should not be the exclusive reserve of the scholars who seek to represent it digitally, especially not with projects supported by public funding.  Ian Lancashire’s call for accessibility of early modern texts is mentioned on p.205 – and indeed his Representative Poetry Online database, and the Internet Shakespeare Editions (in addition to Luminarium, Shakespeare Quartos Archive, and numerous other websites) have been of inestimable use both for my own research and pedagogical practice.  However, some aspects of openly accessible scholarship are troubling, particularly for an emerging scholar.  I was somewhat dismayed to see my first ever published chapter contribution on google books. Without an established name, the publication of original research left me feeling, rightly or wrongly, vulnerable.  Is there a tension between academic hermetism, the need for transparency, and (for want of a better phrase) intellectual property?  Is there, or should there be, a difference between the open accessibility of texts, and of scholarship?

‘eShakespeare and performance’, Christie Carson, pp. 254-270

Christie Carson’s article speaks directly to my interests as a practice-based researcher, and she draws a fruitful analogy between the theatre and digital media, specifically Web 2.0 which, like the theatre is “a performative, creative collaborative environment” (p255).  She delineates the three stages of academic engagement with Web 1.0, 1.5 and 2.0 over the period of the evolution of the Web, and suggests the breakdown in single-authored traditional scholarship instantiated by each new development (p257).   However in other ways the new frontier of the internet has “[steadily re-established] traditional hierarchies and prejudices”, and suggests that “the ability to publish information that is of specialist interest…reinforce[s] the fact that the interest in specialized” (259).  Carson’s contentions are certainly borne out by the ‘Staging the Henrician Court’ website, which was structured as a open forum for critical discussion during the life of the project, but with interest primarily being registered from Tudor re-enactments societies, albeit internationally.

Carson’s article serves as a necessary warning about the changes that digital media has brought about to traditional scholarly structures such as the fact it is “possible to access and use academic materials entirely outside of their intended context [and] increasingly we must teach our students…the purpose of developing structured approaches to knowledge in the first place” (260).  In addition, websites and search engines that privilege “popularity rather than quality or originality” are infiltrating how academic worth is measured too (261).

Moreover, the Web has not proved the de-centralising force it was imagined as becoming during the early days of Web 1.0.  Using the example of online resources available at the RSC website, Carson demonstrates that “increasing participation in the online world had resulted in the emergence of ever larger centralized authorities” such as Wikipedia and Youtube (263). This online shift towards particular Web ‘lions’ is mirrored in the UK by the pressure on academics to enter into Knowledge Transfer Partnerships with businesses, companies and charities with no critical reflection upon the issues  of “authority and participation” that these entail (264).  On the other hand, the changes instigated by the digital world and the commercial world’s increasing interest in utilizing the skills of scholars – particularly those performance scholars skilled in “creating interactive educational dialogues” (ibid.) – elevates performing arts scholars from a position of questioned legitimacy to a potentially more powerful status than ever.

And this relationship works both ways.  Carson discusses strategies used by companies such as the Globe and the RSC that aim to enhance the inclusiveness of the events they stage: audience interaction and £5 tickets at the local level, and broader participation through the net and the creation of “an online dialogue that seeks to entertain and educate” beyond staged performances; strategies of inclusion and playfulness that scholars should mimic (266).

The balance between constructing online resources that are both useful pedagogical tools but don’t exclude the “interested browser” (265) was one that the team behind ‘Staging the Henrician Court’ tried to strike when developing the project website (www.stagingthehenriciancourt.org).  Alongside a film of each of the ten scenes of The Play of the Weather recorded during a performance of August, 2009 there are links to a ‘Key Research Topic’ – a short piece of scholarship which aims to contextualise what the viewer sees – and another to ‘Historic Context’ – an intertext that aims to illuminate either the matter being discussed onstage or its speaker and to direct where the website user might go next.  In the Resources section of the website, there are also interviews with actors, the director, recorded conversations between the research team, photos, film stills, further workshop performances, and filmed symposium papers delivered during a project research event in March 2010.  While some prior knowledge is presupposed by some areas of the website, resources such as the interviews and the film of the production itself highlight process and performance in a way that is aimed to be open and accessible to users of the internet. The website also documented the development of the project including the two rehearsal periods between 2008 and 2010 with blogs and posts by the research team, in the hope of being both transparent and interactive; to use the web as a “public distribution channel” and so as “productive use of digital technology” (267).

Jeremy Ehrlich ‘Back to Basics: Electronic pedagogy from the (virtual) ground up’. 271-283

Ehrlich’s article is full of useful pointers for the pedagogical possibilities of electronic Shakespeares as well as helpful concepts, like the notion that most teachers are probably “digital immigrants” but we are teaching “digital natives” with a much better grasp of the technology that we attempt to deploy in our classrooms (p272).  Ehrlich’s is a largely utopian view of the positive ways in which internet resources and web 2.0 can enhance pedagogical practice.  He discusses the use of online teaching tools such as ‘Blackboard’ which are, in some manifestation, valuable if not crucial for most university  teaching nowadays.  At Lancaster the software is known as LUVLE, and is put to particularly good effect by the early modern team.  Whoever is responsible for the week’s lecture posts a document with a list of questions, critical excerpts and quotes to direct the students’ reading that week.  The cohort respond very well to this technique as it provides focus for their reading and primes them for how we expect them to think about the text(s) (rather than the purely retrospective seminar method).   It also lessens the teaching preparation load markedly.

Ehrlich considers the various advantages and disadvantages of a range of Web tools including wikis, blogs, online texts, concordances, and performance media.  As a practitioner, I was especially drawn to what Ehrlich had to say about the potential for expanded forums for teaching through performance via online methods, for instance the posting of performances on Youtube for students to watch and comment upon; something of a ‘safe haven’ for those students uncomfortable with seminar room performances (p280).  I think Ehrlich is being overly positive in view of Youtube as a place of safety, however, as viewer comments are notoriously vitriolic on this website (although material could of course be password protected).

The wiki, Ehrlich suggests, is a particularly appropriate tool for collaborative work between students, but that there is also an element of “anarchy” involved “where a single divisive member can make life very difficult for the others” (p275).  I managed a wiki as part of the ‘Staging the Henrician Court’ project as a tool for research.  Following our production of The Play of the Weather in the Great Hall of Hampton Court in 2009 I posted a series of questions on the project wiki on the themes of space, audience, character, costume, etc, for consideration by the scholars who had come to see the performance.  The principle was that if they had been invited they should contribute to the ongoing research after the event.  Some did, but the vast majority didn’t and I had to send round an email of vague reproach to ask them to respond to the questions.  Some scholars did then engage with the wiki, but it was interesting in the sense of that it didn’t seem to come as second nature to them and rather undermined the whole point of the ease of online research – it might have been more effective to hand round a feedback sheet at the time.  In defence of some scholars’ unwillingness to engage with the online research community, the somewhat complicated business of passwords and usernames conflicted with the notion of the ease of collaborative research online.  Some good discussions were eventually established, but it all seemed rather forced and didn’t quite work as we’d envisioned it would.  If this had been research for a specific project in which all of the scholars were involved, however, I think the outcome would have been different, as Ehrlich suggests: “Shakespeare editors working collaboratively might adopt the wiki model in the future to ease the task of collaboration on such a substantial project” (p275).

While Ehrlich opposes “the use of technology for its own sake” (p271) in the pedagogical scenario, and problematizes the use of the internet as a teaching resource because of the “lack of ability to choose the most important information, [the] tendency to get side-tracked [and] the privileging of virtual communities over face-to-face interaction”, he also challenges the view of Web tools in Shakespeare teaching as evidence of a “commodity driven culture” that he attributes to Christie Carson (p273).  Ehrlich rather misrepresents what Carson is referring to here, which are specific governmental pressures on academia in the UK that impose methodologies more appropriate for business upon teaching and research cultures in the humanities.  Nevertheless this is still an interesting debate.  I absolutely agree with Carson that there is a danger of a “passive and televisual” approach from internet users; for students this is partly due to the sheer volume of material relating to Shakespeare on the internet.  I am frequently irritated by my own tutees’ failure to consider the reliability of the web sources they adduce in essays.  “If it doesn’t end in .ac or .edu, then don’t use it” has become a mantra with which I start every new course or module.  However, I also agree with Ehrlich that the use of new media has to be driven by a specific pedagogical outcome in order to make is meaningful (273-4).

In preparation for the SAA conference, I established a twitter account as a teacher (EarlyModernista@twitter.com) which I have advertised at the beginnings of lectures and seminars, and asked both my own and others’ students to follow since September, although I had to also make it clear that they were under no obligation to follow me either.  Some students have – and most haven’t.  I told them that the purpose of the twitter identity was to create another ‘space’ where they could engage both with me and with the course material beyond the lecture theatre and the seminar room.  Each week I posted up a part of the play or text or poem which particularly appealed to me; sometimes providing context, sometimes commenting on the language, sometimes making a joke. I also post up links to relevant blogs, free ebooks, local productions – anything I think might have ‘meta’ interest beyond the course.  Despite my repeated encouragement that they should feel free to respond to anything I say, not one student has replied or added to a tweet or sent me a message as yet.  In this sense, the twitter account corroborates Carson’s fears; if my students are absorbing what I’m saying, then it is certainly in a very passive way.

Part of the problem though is what Ehrlich identifies  – there is no specific outcome associated with the account.  Students are not being assessed on their involvement so it holds little interest of imperative for them; only those developing a particular interest in the period might follow what I have to say.  Another issue is that I team teach.  If I was running a module single-handed then I could be more dogmatic about student engagement with the technology; as it is I don’t want to make demands on my students not reflected in other seminar teaching groups.  However I also agree with Ehrlich that “we do not need to have answers to [what “electronic Shakespeares will mean to us in another 20 years] before we can start to incorporate electronic Shakespeares into our work as teachers” (p281).  I concur that there is “no loss as long as we have used that tool for appropriate pedagogic ends” (ibid.).  The experiment might not have been successful and my students might not have taken to the use of new media on this occasion, but that doesn’t negate that the intention directed towards an enhanced student experience.

Indeed, shortly after writing this piece I received the following email from the Digital Marketing Manager at Lancaster University:

We’re planning to create a new ‘Our People’ list within the main @LancasterUni Twitter account shortly which will group together Lancaster University academic and research staff. Twitter lists allow users to be grouped together around particular interests or themes – users can then follow lists to see tweets from all members, instead of having to follow each user individually. Further information about Twitter lists can be found on the Twitter Support Website.
Feedback from both prospective and current students has shown that there is a desire to be able to connect with our academics via social channels – this can be evidenced by the increased search traffic that we are seeing through Google where students are searching for specific academics. This Twitter development should help to boost interaction and engagement and make it easier for students to connect with academic staff.

You’re receiving this email because your Twitter account has been earmarked for inclusion on this list, as you publicly state your connection with Lancaster University within your Twitter bio.

 

So there’s a discrepancy between the feedback received from students and my own cohort’s engagement with the social media offered.  At the end of the course, I shall canvass their opinions regarding the experiment and the ways in which a teacher twitter account might be adapted and made more useful in the future to bring along to the SAA workshop in April.

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