Something rotten? The play’s not the thing.

Happy New Year, one and all!

I just came across this link through Twitter– Ralph E. Shaffer, emeritus professor of History at Cal Poly Pomona, recently wrote about Shakespeare and education in the Chicago Tribune:

In it, he states clearly that he is “not a fan” of Shakespeare’s work, calls his language “outdated,” and concludes “If today’s secondary students don’t read Shakespeare they won’t be much worse off than my generation.”

I’m all in favor of everyone having an opinion, and frequently encounter students who are “not fans” of Shakespeare when they take my required-for-all-English-majors courses. Nor am I in the business of ‘converting’ anyone to any kind of Bardolatry.

But what such blithe dismissals miss is the possibility that students might end up a great deal better than they already are after working with Shakespeare’s texts. Often, in fact, those students who claimed to loathe Shakespeare at the outset of the course end up with both changed opinions and a new way of looking at the world by term’s end. I make a bargain with them, as I do with all my students: you don’t like Shakespeare? That’s fine– all I ask is that you give his works a genuine try by bringing some curiosity to the table.

When they do, and we start asking questions together, suddenly all kinds of light bulbs go off. Just what is iambic pentameter for, anyway? What happens when he doesn’t use it? Are there really that many dirty jokes in the plays? (Answer: yes, actually. I suggest to the class that if something looks like a dirty joke in what they read, it probably is– and it’s probably far filthier than they’ve imagined. I’ve seen jaws literally drop as I explain some common early-modern phallic references.)

As we go on, some naysayers find themselves, knowingly or not, having fun– which leads to even more discoveries, including a realization that here is an incredibly rich language they can use to articulate circumstances in their own lives. They’ve found ways to discuss the impossible effects of fame via Antony and Cleopatra, the impact of financial implosion through Timon of Athens, and I, for one, will never forget what I was teaching on September 11, 2001: Titus Andronicus in one class and Henry IV Part 1 in the other. The plays gave my students and I the means to talk about vengeance and war (and their complexities) at a time when those very matters filled the air we all breathed.

Professor Shaffer writes that he “never saw a Shakespeare play,” and perhaps there’s the rub– as an actor, I admit I’m biased toward performance, and teach all of my classes with performance firmly in mind. Seeing, and more importantly, hearing Shakespeare’s words brought to life engages even the most hardcore haters in my classes most of the time. Shaffer might be surprised at just how much he enjoys the “outdated language” (a curious objection for a historian, that) if he were to experience it in the theatre rather than on the state-required page.

I freely admit that not everyone in my classes ends up liking Shakespeare at the end of each course– and that’s fine. But they do leave having had an encounter with a wide set of circumstances from the past and a different way of thinking about the world around them, a way they can accept or reject, as they choose. And isn’t that one of the purposes of classroom work, to enable students to make informed decisions?

Shaffer is perfectly entitled to say that something’s rotten– but it’s his own (mandated, unperformed, and evidently unengaging) experience of Shakespeare that stinks, rather than the original texts themselves. If Shakespeare remains a closed book to him, fair enough: I’m delighted that he eventually found material he loved. But I have seen these plays open worlds for hundreds of others– students who may well have been “no worse” if they’d not read them, but who end up better in innumerable ways for having done so.

Rest days.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

(John Steinbeck, East of Eden)

In every training plan, no matter what the race distance, at least one day is usually set aside as a rest day. That means no training of any kind– no ‘easy’ spins on the bike, no ‘slow’ jogs: nothing but allowing the body to recuperate from the week’s work. It is at such moments that the body gets stronger, interestingly enough: in what might seem an allowance to weakness, making time for rest actually allows for strength to increase.

So it is mentally, I believe.

Thus, in despite of the ostensible ‘rules’ of NaPoWriMo– to post something every day– I decided last week to take some much-needed rest rather than type inanities for the sake of putting something onto the screen. Such posts are the mental equivalent of “junk miles”: mere spending of energy, rather than effort undertaken for a specific end.

At the same time, I was dealing with the kinds of busy-ness inherent in this time of term: lots of papers to mark, students to meet with, and yes, yet more plagiarists. To be perfectly honest, I was not only exhausted but demoralized by the combination. I’ve posted before about the pitfalls of plagiarism– now imagine that it’s late in the term, and the writers in question are advanced students: ergo, those who by any lights should know better.

Apply head forcibly to brick wall. Repeatedly.

Demoralization isn’t exactly a fashionable attribute to admit to among faculty: after all, we’re here to educate! To inspire! To enjoy the efforts of our students! Etc.! But when some of said students don’t seem to put forth as much of their own effort as is required, well, it’s very hard not to hit a downside of the educational emotion slope.

So I take some comfort in Steinbeck’s words at moments like these: no, I’m not someone who delights in every moment of every day of the education business– I’m a human being, with ups and downs like everyone else. Once I can set the image of an “ideal educator” aside, then I can get down to the real task at hand: being very good at what I do.

Because what I do (reaching audiences and getting them to look at the world and themselves in new ways) matters to me. I hope it matters to them as well.

Best part of the day:

Monologue Day in class today. Yes, there was real theatre– some wonderful moments in both classes. But the best moment of all was when one of my Shakespeare students put up her hand at the end of class and asked, “Can we do another one of these?” as a number of her classmates chorused their approval.

This from the students who originally moaned, groaned, and grumbled at the prospect of having to do a monologue at all.

*does professorial happy dance*

I’ll freely admit that some days are tough in the classroom, but today I win.

In the words of Gloria Estefan,

“Get on your feet!”

(Cue 1980’s dance sequence. Go ahead– I’ll wait.)

This time of year, when everyone’s drained, classrooms can easily become swirling vortexes (or vortices) of exhaustion, and my students appear to have been replaced by a collection of open-mouthed dead fish…I take Gloria’s advice, and get everyone on their feet.

(Yes, they’re mostly English majors. No, they’re mostly not actors. Don’t care. Up everyone gets.)

All my undergrads have to do oral performances each semester, where they have to get up (in a random order determined by my literally drawing their names out of a hat) and give a memorized rendition of any segment of any play we’re discussing in class. So that certainly gets them up on their feet– and before we even begin, I make everyone stand up and we do a few stretches and silly moves to warm and wake everyone up (what else is the hokey pokey for, I ask you?). When the light comes back to their eyes and the energy in the room rises exponentially, we’re ready.

Then theatre– as an action, not just a subject of discussion– can happen. Everyone learns far more that day than they expect to, in ways they often don’t anticipate.

Performance day is tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a good day.

Smartest Thing I’ve Heard All Day

From a student after I’d explained to her and her group-mates why some aspects of their recent presentation were problematic:

“So, in the paper we have to write about this, is it okay if I write about what I learned because I got things wrong here?”

I answered that it absolutely was. And gave her a high-five. And may well have uttered the word “booyah.”

Somehow it’s so very easy to lose sight of this fact, but this really is what we all do, ideally: we try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them. Repeat ad infinitum

Exactly the same practices apply to theatre: when I trained at the School at Steppenwolf a few summers ago, I ran smack-bang into the wall of my long-ingrained perfectionism. Repeatedly. But after enough repetition and my own messy meltdowns in Meisner class and hearing the improv mantra “If you’re gonna fuck up, fuck up big!” day after day, it finally sank in: perfection is boring. It’s stagnant. People don’t go to the theatre to see perfect creatures– they go to watch human beings be fully human (including screwing up) in all kinds of ways. Oddly enough, the “messier” and more imperfect I became, the better my acting seemed to get.

Moral Of The Story: “Getting it right” is only useful if you learn something along the way, and how can you do that if you don’t realize what doesn’t work? So make those mistakes: show us what you got! Doesn’t work? Try something else!

The one ingredient…

…that no performance, paper, or race can do without?


All the technique in the world won’t mean a blasted thing without that energy animating the action. Precision is wonderful, but if the actor, writer, or athlete doesn’t care about what they’re doing, nobody else will.

(Why yes, it’s late-term-paper season. And fall-show season. And end-of-race season around here.)

I do my damnedest to come up with potentially interesting essay topics for my students to work with, but at times I could absolutely weep at the dry-as-dust formulaic responses I get in return.

I suppose it’s a useful reminder of the limitations of teaching: I can model reading skills, work on writing technique, and show my classes just how passionate I am about what I teach, but that’s it. Ultimately, I have to let go and see what they bring to the process. Sometimes that will be less than I’d hoped. (Sigh.) But sometimes, the result will be far beyond what I might have guessed– I guess that’s the hope that keeps the process going, even when we’re all tired at this time of year.

(Lo, NaPoWriMo continueth apace amid the dreaded Mountains O’ Grading. More about passion anon.)

EXPOSED! The real reason I love to teach…

It’s really very simple: I love to teach because I love to learn.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a great deal of fun to be had in introducing other people to the stuff I already know I love and happen to know a fair amount about. Watching the light bulbs go off above students’ heads is one of the great joy-inducers of educational life. (Insert Professorial Happy Dance* here.)

But if there’s one thing I love more than watching someone understand something, it’s realizing that I now understand something I didn’t before: mind-expansion and new ideas are the sources of sheer delight. Wow, I never knew that before– the whole world just reorganized itself a little bit and now I can see everything differently…whoa. And hey, what about that thing over there? What’s going on there? Really? No way! Daaaammnn… Cool! Can I have some more, please?

No wonder I so enjoy helping others reach that gleeful state.

*There are several, in fact, including the Lightbulb Dance, the You Just Introduced Me To A New Idea Dance, the That Class Totally Rocked Dance, and the ever-so-popular Got My Grading Done Dance, among others. Faculty Sock Hops are fascinating, trust me.