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The Online Shakespeare Classroom, Corporations, and Lessons Learned During the COVID-19 Crisis

Thomas G. Olsen
The State University of New York, New Paltz

One of my early thoughts was “I’ll call it ‘The Decameron Project’ and invite authors to submit flash-fiction to a new website. Each day we’ll post a new short story to entertain and distract shut-in readers.” The parallels between Boccaccio’s fictional flight from plague-ravaged Florence and the world’s impending self-quarantine seemed obvious, not least because my wife’s Lombard family were already in strict lock-down while death gripped her native city Brescia, eventually claiming her cousin, among thousands of others. I had an uneasy feeling that we could easily hit 100 stories and eventually out-Boccaccio Boccaccio.

That was just before my own campus made the decision to shift the rest of our semester online. My colleagues and I were given two weeks to reimagine our courses, all acutely aware that internet speeds, levels of home support, and even the possession of a computer were key but unknowable variables in this new equation. So, of course, were the threats of illness or worse. The reality of entirely restructuring my courses and scrambling to prepare for self-quarantine became all-consuming, however, so although it stayed with me as a notion, and still does, “The Decameron Project” never got off the ground—or rather, never took to the hills. Instead, I spent two feverish weeks rebuilding two very different Shakespeare courses, attending emergency in-person workshops (in those early days face-to-face meetings still seemed like a good idea), logging into webinars, test-driving video-conferencing programs, and reaching into the recesses of our campus’s online learning platform for technologies that might help me salvage the semester.1 Always a skeptic of online learning, I found myself, along with so many others, an online instructor.

As I gathered my breath, conferred with my wife and other colleagues, and got down to the business of redesigning a course, I settled on two principles, the second much more emphatically than the first: I was going to keep an open mind about online teaching, and I was going to make sure that I gave my students a good learning experience, C-19 or no C-19.2

Despite quite a lot of well-intentioned advice from some campus administrators, I opted not to teach asynchronously. Many years of classroom experience told me that my students would need and want structure and human contact in their suddenly disrupted lives. I guessed, rightly I now think, that the fears of intruding on students’ weekly commitments then circulating in campus email discussions might be exaggerated, but I also knew I had to build in flexibility for cases of real need. My campus is about seventy-five miles from New York City and even closer to the first East Coast hot spot in nearby Westchester County. The ravages of the virus were real and deep in our immediate area, even worse for our many students from the New York metro area: sick boyfriends, husbands, aunts, uncles, and parents; an aunt who narrowly survived; two deceased grandparents (that I learned of, there may well have been others). A host of tensions and mental health issues brought on by the stressors of part-time job loss, suddenly living back home, or couch-surfing somewhere other than home also took their toll on my students. But in the end, attendance was at least as strong as it would have been in a normal semester and in many cases, participation was richer.

Lessons Learned

I learned three important lessons. The first one was this: though I always knew it in some abstract way, I was reminded even more tangibly that community and engagement are everything in a classroom. By coincidence, that semester I was also working on an essay analyzing King Lear and the modern corporation, so I was thinking not only practically but also theoretically about issues around community and corporate life, especially how Shakespeare’s age understood the corporation as an imagined body, a persona ficta, united in some common purpose, usually one that ennobles or improves human lives. At the center of my plan for the disrupted semester were two synchronous events: a live video lecture each Monday, interlaced with questions and discussion, followed by small-group video meetings of six to eight students spread over the rest of the week. Attendance in my lower-division general-education course was solid enough, but it was excellent in my upper-division course for majors, where real communities emerged. True, a few assigned online discussion threads and several streaming video clips helped to give shape or detail to our discussions, but it was having the discussions live and in small groups that formed the communities that created the understanding.

Lesson two was a practical one and may be my most lasting take-away for future semesters, even seated ones. In addition to the lectures and small-group sessions, in my upper-level course I experimented for the first time in my career with oral exams, conducted as one-on-one video conferences. Students signed up online for a time slot within the last two weeks of the semester, then logged into our course platform at the agreed-upon time: no notes, no books, just a conversation with me.

The results across the class were breathtakingly good. A semester spent studying a single author should produce opportunities for synthesis, and that’s precisely what happened in a way I rarely see in final exam papers churned out at a desk, under time pressure, in the last days or hours of a long semester. Over ten to fifteen minutes, I posed each student four to five questions, both discrete and thematic, drawn from a standing roster of questions I had prepared beforehand but not revealed to my students. I did not use a formal rubric, but I did write out my questions on a half sheet of paper in advance of the exam. As students spoke, I ranked their answers and took brief notes, and after we wrapped up the exam, I went through each answer and commented on my rankings. I think my students appreciated the sincere, immediate, direct evaluation of their answers; I enjoyed the immediacy of holding a marked-up paper very close to my webcam and saying, sincerely, “you got an A! super work on all questions,” or “you earned a solid B+, with your best points at the beginning of the exam. Well done.” With each student I had the chance to say some variation on “Nice having you in class this spring. I hope you have a great summer, despite the pandemic. Be careful out there.”

With thirty-one students in the class, it took quite a long time to prepare and conduct all the oral exams—between ten and twelve hours, I would guess—but I think that the time I spent is in the range of the time it takes to write, administer, and mark a similarly sized batch of conventionally seated exams. But there was a significant difference: the oral exams were energizing for both my students and for me. Because the medium of conversation is more fluid and more in the moment than academic writing under pressure, the oral exams revealed more about what they really learned and valued in the course, from the plays, and about Shakespeare. I learned that whereas it is easy to fudge, generalize, or BS one’s way through a written exam, it’s hard to do much of that when your teacher’s face fills the frame of the computer screen in front of you. My expressions and body language must have helped keep them on track, while my spontaneous, unscripted follow-on questions prompted them to offer better evidence, a deeper analysis, or additional examples.

Students answered my questions directly, and usually quite well, but their own experiences and connections almost always drove them to draw their own connections, to ponder meanings in their own ways, and to do all the things we earnestly hope they can after deep immersion in an author’s imagined universe. This semester they did all that—all of them. Liberated from the pressures of timed writing and the peculiar confines of academic discourse, they talked with me, one on one, meaningfully and personally about Shakespeare and his works, about the big ideas of the course: the competing demands of political life, the power of illusion and self-deception, the stability or instability of identity, the place of women in his—and our—world, justice, just wars, and so on. I do not think I ever realized how much my students actually know by the end of a semester or how deep and personal their knowledge can be, perhaps because I was using an institutionally imposed and ill-suited instrument to measure it.

Frankly, it never occurred to me at the time to investigate the scholarship around oral examination as a teaching and assessment praxis; I was too busy developing two new syllabi, preparing myself for unfamiliar teaching modalities, and just keeping up with what I created. But I later did conduct some research, discovering that oral examination presents a range of practical and ethical questions in foreign language instruction and in the field of ESL/EFL, where instructors must deal in sensitive ways with both individual shyness about speaking a second language and cultural norms against speaking out or being assertive with authority figures, like teachers, in sensitive ways. In other fields like business, science, and mathematics the emphasis of the scholarship seemed in tune with what I discovered: opportunities for students to synthesize their knowledge in authentic ways and occasions for instructors to help students stitch together the disparate elements of a semester’s work.3 It also later occurred to me, not without pleasure, that oral exams also took my interactions with students back to a style of pedagogy common in the early modern period, before cheap print and wider distribution of books created the cultural conditions for written texts and written examinations to become the dominant forms of learning and evaluation.

Lesson three is this: digital is our friend, not our foe. But that lesson’s corollary is this: digital is the medium, not the message. What I came up with turned out to be a very demanding kind of pedagogy, perhaps not even sustainable in the long run, but I think I got it mostly right by putting community-creation and personal contact, not the allures of various learning and communication platforms, at the center of things. Personal contact extended to course management, too. I knew I would need to be particularly flexible with extensions and incompletes because job loss, illness, death, anxiety, explosive home situations, and even the low-level depression that comes from dislocation or discomfort were all real and very much in the mix. But in the end, out of almost seventy students, I think only one, perhaps two, exploited my efforts to help them cope with the C-19 emergency. That is probably no worse and perhaps an even better percentage than in most seated semesters. And maybe a sub-lesson lurks here, too: students’ lives really are very complex and anxiety ridden; maybe in future courses a little extra flexibility on my part will give them something very precious that costs me very little.

In the confusion and many anxieties of mid-March 2020, I initially supposed the C-19 emergency was going to be a crisis solved by technology. In some foundational ways it was, of course: without the mediations of online platforms and home internet connections provided by modern corporations we would have had no communal experience. But for me the real lesson learned was that human incorporation, a coming together of minds and responses that felt like the seminars and office hour visits I enjoyed as a graduate student, was the active ingredient that made the formula work. And that is the formula I am relying on this summer to prepare for an autumn semester that feels anything but certain.

Thomas G. Olsen is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Shakespeare, early modern literature, British literature, and other subjects. His research focuses on the sources and afterlives Shakespeare’s works. A new anthology of seven source stories titled Tales for Shakespeare: Stories That Inspired the Plays was just released by Cambridge Scholars Publishers and a book on the figure of “Queen Lear” from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the present is in preparation.

1 I had only two courses this particular semester: a general education course with thirty-eight students called “Shakespeare, Our Contemporary,” consisting of mostly first- and second-year non-English majors, and an especially lively group of thirty-one in an advanced course for majors called “Shakespeare II.”

2 I have typed COVID-19 so many times in the last months that I now often use this shorthand, perhaps trying to assert some measure of control over it by making it familiar.

3 See, for example, Adnan Oflaz, “The Foreign Language Anxiety in Learning German and the Effects of Total Physical Response Method on Students’ Speaking Skill,” Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies 15, no. 1 (2019): 70–82; Janita Rawls et al., “Are You Talking to Me? On the Use of Oral Examinations in Undergraduate Business Courses,” Journal of the Academy of Business Education 16 (Spring 2015): 22–33; Eleanor C. Sayre, “Oral Exams as a Tool for Teaching and Assessment,” Teaching Science 60, no. 2 (June 2014): 29–33; and Ralph Boedigheimer et al., “Individual Oral Exams in Mathematics Courses: 10 Years of Experience at the Air Force Academy,” PRIMUS 25, no. 2 (2015): 99–120.

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