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Teaching The Tempest and Paradise Lost in the Era of COVID-19: Reflections on Displacement, Isolation, Connection, and Empathy

Author: 
David V. Urban
Institution: 
Calvin University

As was the case for countless colleagues throughout the world, my pedagogical life was turned upside down by March 2020 directives to cancel in-person classes and conduct classes online for the remainder of the semester. As a self-confessed technological dinosaur, I was particularly horrified, but I found the ensuing experience to contain a number of unexpected bright spots, particularly with regard to teaching Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Milton’s Paradise Lost, both of which I taught in their entirety after my university’s transition to online classes.

Two specific electronic pedagogical strategies proved especially valuable, particularly in terms of enhancing my now-isolated students’ diminished sense of community. First, although I recorded and posted online each of my class sessions, I encouraged students to attend the live sessions via Microsoft Teams, which like Zoom allowed students to view me as well any classmates who chose to turn on their video cameras. (Most students opted to display their icons instead of their faces.) Because I wanted these class sessions to be a place of connection between me and my students and between the students themselves, I made a point to greet students by name as their icons or faces appeared on my computer screen in the minutes preceding each class period. To my delight, I found that many students also greeted each other this way, although in retrospect I wish that I had explicitly encouraged them to greet each other also. (When it was time for class to begin, I used a cheerful voice to end socializing and focus on our class material.) These live online sessions both allowed for spoken questions and discussion and also enabled students to ask questions through Microsoft Teams’ comment sidebar, which I looked at and referred to, as appropriate, throughout each class session. These online sessions also allowed me to linger with students and answer more questions for an additional ten minutes after each class period officially ended, a benefit of not needing to vacate a physical classroom for the next class. This simple practice allowed me significantly more interaction with students after class than I normally enjoy, and it enabled more questions to be asked immediately after covering the relevant material.

Another helpful online adjustment, and one I plan to continue for future “traditional” courses, involved requiring students each to post two comments (several sentences in length) via online Moodle forums on the assigned passages for each day’s reading. Although I encouraged students to post before class if possible, I also allowed them to post after class without penalty. I required that students have at least one of their two posts specifically respond to a classmate’s comments. These forums allowed students to develop their critical voices and to vigorously engage ideas with each other. Although I intentionally let students post freely without inserting myself into their discussions, I did on occasion write a short post to clarify a point of confusion raised in the student posts. If a student made a factual error, I communicated privately with that student instead of writing a public correction for all students to read. Significantly, I regularly drew upon these forums during my own in-class coverage of the assigned passages and found that they not only tremendously improved my coverage but also gave me another important way to connect with my physically absent students. Although such written participation required additional student time, numerous student course evaluations emphasized the value of these online forums even as they also mentioned that the time commitment for these forums may have been excessive. (I should also note, however, that many students regularly chose to write posts greatly exceeding the required “few sentences.”) I graded student posts generously, giving any good post full credit, even as I informed students that outstanding posts, like outstanding class participation, could raise overall final grades. As I reevaluate my teaching methods for the 2020/21 academic year, I intend to make online forums an important component of all my future classes, but I will probably lower the number of required posts expected of students.

Related to these online techniques, I was pleased that the COVID-19 crisis afforded new opportunities to encourage students to develop a disposition toward reading early modern texts that my department has long emphasized: the importance of learning to empathize with characters whose cultural, social, and historical situations differ from our own. The remainder of this essay will discuss how the COVID-19 crisis brought with it points of connection, specifically regarding matters of displacement and isolation, that enabled students to empathize with such characters in The Tempest and Paradise Lost. As I discuss these points of connection, I must state that it can be hard to quantify how intentional I was in bringing them up in class. Some connections emerged organically during class discussion or in students’ written observations. Other points I will discuss represent missed opportunities: connections that I should have encouraged students to make but did not actually think of until after the semester ended. Nonetheless, I share them here because both our current and future students who have lived in the COVID-19 era will remember the challenges and heartache of this era long after COVID-19’s gravest threats have, we hope, concluded. Thus, in future semesters when I ask students to consider possible connections between themselves and different characters I discuss below, I will encourage students specifically to remember their own experiences of displacement and isolation amid lockdowns and school closures.

The students to whom I taught The Tempest in spring 2020 were first-year honors students, and a significant majority of them were young women. They, like most of my students throughout the years, connected much more easily with the teenage Miranda (who in the course of the play falls in love and pulls away from her father’s ubiquitous supervision) than with her loving but strikingly controlling father, the aging sorcerer Prospero. Although some students have empathized with Prospero because of his having been betrayed by his beloved brother, Antonio (who twelve years earlier had usurped Prospero’s dukedom, resulting in Prospero and Miranda’s exile upon the magical island where they reside) encouraging students to emotionally connect with Prospero has always been challenging. This time, however, students could relate to Prospero in an unexpected way: they too had been displaced against their will, removed from the lives they had established for themselves at our university.1 Responding to a short paper assignment that encouraged students to offer some kind of personal connection with the play, several students specifically wrote of relating to Prospero. They drew parallels between the loss of control they were experiencing due to their forced exit from campus and Prospero’s still-painful recollections of his displacement. This point of student connection emerged organically on the students’ part, prodded perhaps only by my brief mention of some similarity between our and Prospero’s situations. In future semesters, I plan to highlight the matter of our mutual displacement and to encourage students to discuss this matter among themselves via Moodle forums.

Unlike Prospero, his slave Caliban has generally attracted a fair degree of empathy, although students’ empathy toward him often varies widely, largely related to the degree to which students believe Prospero justly or unjustly imprisoned Caliban for, in Prospero’s words, “seek[ing] to violate / the honor of” Miranda (1.2.347–48).2 But students this past semester found their degree of connection with Caliban enhanced by the social isolation they were facing. Significantly, we may recognize that Caliban, as the lone human on the island following the death of his mother, Sycorax, explicitly rejoiced in experiencing human interaction upon Prospero and Miranda’s arrival on the island. Now imprisoned by Prospero, Caliban tells his captor, “When thou cam’st first, / ‘Thou strok’st me and made much of me; wouldst give me / Water with berries in’t” (1.2.332–34). In my future teaching of The Tempest, I plan to emphasize specifically how in this passage Caliban laments the loss of human touch and the fellowship of sharing a simple beverage with his erstwhile friends. In the era of social distancing, students miss their friends and the joys derived from such simple acts of fellowship as shared meals and spontaneous snacking. Caliban’s plight of social isolation has become a shared reality for students in the COVID-19 era. Also worth emphasizing is the fact that Caliban’s situation at the play’s end suggests that he will be left alone on the island as Prospero, Miranda, and the various characters shipwrecked at the beginning of the play return to Italy. The matter of Caliban’s likely perpetual isolation, something easily ignored amid the many significant details of the play’s final scene, merits fuller consideration as I teach future students who have lived through or perhaps continue to live during lockdowns and closures over which they have had no control.

In Paradise Lost, students encountered another displaced character: Satan, who has been cast out of his erstwhile home in Heaven. I will confess that in spring 2020 I did not do enough to emphasize displacement as a point of connection between students and Milton’s Satan. Rather, as I generally do at my Christian institution, I encouraged students to consider C. S. Lewis’s venerable assertion that “the [sinful] Satan in us” is what enables us to empathize with his character.3 But in the COVID-19 era, displaced students can connect with Milton’s displaced Satan on at least two specific levels that, depending on one’s perspective, can either (or perhaps both) complicate or illustrate Lewis’s point. In book 1, Satan expresses a kind of rhetorically overblown optimism, lauding the advantages of his present displaced situation, emphasizing that, with a proper mindset, one “Can make a Heaven of Hell” (1.255),4 perhaps somewhat analogous to students who laud the dubious advantages of hastily organized online learning even as they silently relish the convenience of not having to shower and dress for in-person classes and social interaction. But my students found the Satan of book 4 even more relatable. Although they lacked Satan’s moral culpability for having been cast out of Heaven, students sorely missing our comparatively idyllic campus could relate to his despair while he lamented his separation from the “glorious” (4.39) place from which he was expelled.

Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, students found themselves empathizing with the fallen Adam and Eve when they are told of their expulsion from Eden. Significantly, I believe that student empathy with the departing couple was markedly increased by the fact that in class I emphatically called attention to the parallels between Adam and Eve’s situation and their own. Students who had grown to love our campus especially connected with Eve’s lamenting her need to leave Eden’s “happy walks and shades” (11.270), and those who carefully made their dorm rooms into beloved homes could relate to her lamenting having to leave behind the flowers she had named and cared for and the “nuptial bow’r” she “adorned / With what to sight or smell was sweet” (11.280–81). Moreover, Adam and Eve’s actual departure at the poem’s end was particularly moving for some students, who connected deeply with the couple’s “ling’ring” and “looking back” (12.638, 641) while wishing to delay their inevitable departure. One student, writing in a Moodle forum, directly compared this scene to her own moments before her exit from campus: “I haven’t left yet, but everything is packed up and I know my time is done.”5 And one additional factor makes student empathy with the expelled Adam and Eve even more poignant: whereas Adam and Eve left Eden “hand in hand” (12.648), an image emphasizing the once-separated couple’s renewed commitment to face a fallen world and its manifold trials in physical community with each other,6 students left campus amid trauma and fear separate from each other, forbidden the simple comfort of each other’s physical expressions of compassion and reassurance even as they wondered (and continue to wonder) if they would return to campus and to each other in the fall.7

Looking ahead to teaching these same texts in 2020/21, I recognize that the degree of my spring 2020 students’ empathy with these various displaced characters was strongly related to the degree to which I did or did not emphasize in my teaching these points of connection between these characters and the students themselves. In future semesters, I will ask students to consider in advance these specific points of connection, to write about them in online forums, and to respond in class discussion to each other’s experiences of connection. I believe that both the enduring impact of the COVID-19 crisis on education and its enduring emotional impact upon students will make these connections fresh and relevant for years to come.

David V. Urban is Professor of English at Calvin University. He enjoys teaching and researching the relationship between religion and literature, including in the works of Milton and Shakespeare. His most recent books are Milton and the Parables of Jesus (2018) and the edited collection Religions in Shakespeare’s Writings (forthcoming in 2020).

1 Germane to the matter of displaced students empathizing with Prospero’s exile is Kyle J. Dielman, “Education and Exile: COVID-19 and the Early Modern Experience,” SCJ 50 (Early Modern Classroom Supplement, 29 June 2020), which examines the phenomenon of teaching about exiled early modern ecclesiastical communities to students who have been “exiled” from their campus.

2 Quotations from The Tempest are taken from William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Peter Holland (New York: Penguin, 2012). Intext references are to act, scene, and line. Jessica Slights, “Rape and the Romanticization of Shakespeare’s Miranda,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 41, no. 2 (2001): 357–79 discusses the critical controversy regarding Caliban’s physical advances toward Miranda (see 371–76). The overall complexity of Prospero’s relationships to both Miranda and Caliban are effectively addressed throughout Hiewon Shin, “Single Parenting, Homeschooling: Prospero, Caliban, Miranda,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 48, no. 2 (2008): 373–93. Another comparison between an imprisoned character and students studying during the COVID-19 era is offered by Erin Alice Cowling, “Theatre, Adaptations, and Adapting to Quarantine,” SCJ 50 (Early Modern Classroom Supplement, 24 June 2020), regarding the prisoner Segismundo in Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (see paragraph 2).

3 C. S. Lewis, A Preface to “Paradise Lost” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942), 99.

4 Quotations from Paradise Lost are taken from John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Gordon Teskey (New York: Norton, 2005). In-text references are to book and lines.

5 I thank Gabrielle Freshly both for sharing this connection with me and her classmates and for allowing me to share it in this essay.

6 I discuss the importance of Adam and Eve’s redemptive physical community at the end of Paradise Lost in David V. Urban, Milton and the Parables of Jesus: Self-Representation and the Bible in John Milton’s Writings (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2018), 172–73.

7 The continuing relevance of this student concern is punctuated by recent arguments such as Stan Yoshinobu, “The Case Against Reopening,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 66, no. 30 (29 May 2020): 8–10.

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