Academic Wendy Lennon talks about Shakespeare, Race, and Pedagogy.
Find out more about her work here: https://www.shakeracepedagogy.com/
For a complete episode transcript, check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com
Interviewer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Wendy Lennon
Producer: Emily Pepper
Artwork: Marisa Valentino
Hello there! Thank you for tuning in and welcome to ‘Women & Shakespeare’. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani, and I'm very excited today because my book (well, it's a mini book because it's short, somewhat like me) so my book, Podcasts and Feminist Shakespeare Pedagogy is now published by the Cambridge University Press. So hint, hint, get your copies already. But as its title suggests, my book is about teaching. So for this episode, I wanted to celebrate by talking to someone who shares my passion for teaching Shakespeare and is truly inspirational in her approach as she thinks about ways to include everyone in Shakespeare Studies.
I'm talking about my guest, Wendy Lennon. She's a schoolteacher, a doctoral [00:01:00] researcher at the Shakespeare Institute, a research associate at the University of Oxford, Fellow of the English Association, and she's on the British Shakespeare Association’s and Everything to Everybody project’s education committees.
She is the founder of Shakespeare, Race & Pedagogy Initiative, which was launched with a wonderful thought-provoking and generative online event full of urgent conversations facilitated by Wendy. Attending that event was like feeling that someone was breathing a new lease of life into Shakespeare scholarship and pedagogy. So I knew that I had to talk to Wendy.
[00:01:44] Varsha: Wendy, you are really so welcome to ‘Women & Shakespeare’ podcast. I am thrilled to have you here because your work is so important and it energizes me.
[00:01:56] Wendy: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:01:58] Varsha: So let's dive [00:02:00] straight into the question that I ask everyone on this podcast. When did you first encounter Shakespeare, and what was the nature of that encounter?
[00:02:09] Wendy: When I was at school, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet was released in cinemas. That moment when Romeo kills Tybalt and realizes what he's done was so powerful. But I think that made me fall for Leonardo DiCaprio's acting more than I felt for Shakespeare. It was studying English literature during my A Levels. King Lear was the play that caught me and had a profound impact on me. That only happened because I felt that I had a personal connection to the story. I found so many resonances between my mother's fractured mind, the death of my father and his legacy, and the possessions being distributed. So the words held more weight for me. So the formation of my ideas around the importance of the reader or the audience really formed then too.
[00:02:57] Varsha: So very personal connection with Shakespeare. Were you thinking through Shakespeare?
[00:03:03] Wendy: Yes, absolutely. Definitely.
[00:03:07] Varsha: I want to now question you about your work. You work on Shakespeare and race mainly. And I have a question from one of my students, and this is a question that scholars who study Shakespeare and race, and Shakespeare and feminism, and Shakespeare and sexuality, we get asked this a lot, so you might find it very familiar. So, one of my students, Adaeze Jinadu, she asks, ‘Are we projecting modern themes onto Shakespeare's texts? In other words, is it anachronistic to study Shakespeare and race?’
Wendy: No. What I do is go to the text and the context in which it was created or performed, and explore the words that are used in the text, and then, doing the same when the play appears again in another century, I ask, ‘What are the subtle shifts in context, meaning, or reception?’. When I analyze [00:04:00] texts, I notice continuities and connections between our shared past, our shared present, and looking ahead to the future.
It's striking though that my personal experiences hundreds of years later, find traces and a connection to the words and events in King Lear. There are plays or themes that still resonate with this now. I think that provides exciting and interesting possibilities. More importantly, it can be a doorway into the text for students in our classroom as it was for me during my A Levels.
[00:04:32] Varsha: Yeah. So what you are saying is that we often don't focus on the continuities, but they are there.
So more on that. In 2021, you founded ‘Shakespeare, Race & Pedagogy, and this is according to the website, ‘an intercultural, intergenerational education initiative which seeks to share, interrogate, and reinvigorate approaches to [00:05:00] teaching and the study of Shakespeare's plays through an exploration of ‘race’ from the early modern period to the present day’. And in an article in Teaching Shakespeare, you write that this was actually ‘born out of anger. Anger and sadness and being silenced.’ Could you tell us a little bit more about this?
[00:05:22] Wendy: There is so much power in anger. The life that I've lived has taught me to always turn a negative situation into a positive and make the best of it. ‘What is this situation trying to teach me?’ I ask myself, even if…Oprah says, doesn't she, ‘even if all you have is the breath left in your body’ (and at times that's all I've had) then there is still hope. I was so angry. I'm still absolutely fuming about so many injustices in the world.
I could name names. There were so many people I could call out. Even this week, I wanted to [00:06:00] post an angry tweet in response to a disgraceful comment written by someone with huge amounts of power and who should know better, but I refuse to use my anger in that way. It isn't about remaining silent and not engaging. It's about recognizing that I have limited resources, so I need to carefully consider how I use my time and energy. I'm using my anger as a powerful, fertile energy to create something positive like another ‘Shakespeare, Race & pedagogy’ event.
You mentioned intergenerational connections and it was interesting that lots of different people (I've heard from teachers, students, school children, academics) who were able to connect with that, and I think that that's more powerful than sending an angry tweet or engaging negatively.
[00:06:51] Varsha: I agree with you. There is so much anger-making material in academia. If I tap [00:07:00] into one of the reasons for this podcast, ‘Women & Shakespeare’, it was because women were doing so much amazing work and not being cited. But you are right, there is so much that is angry making, but what is also fantastic to see is that so many women of colour especially, are taking that anger and doing something so fertile and productive with it, as you've said.
And yours really was, you launched this initiative with an exhilarating five-day online event. I have never been so excited at events and conferences before. And I think there is a real need for us to be thinking about the ways in which we organize events and organize conferences and talks as these can be very exclusionary spaces.
However, there was a real variety of speakers at your event. Could you tell us a little bit about your thinking behind choosing these [00:08:00] guests and the sessions?
[00:08:01] Wendy: Yeah, absolutely. It always begins and ends with the work. My own reading research, passion for learning and teaching led me to the work of brilliant people, so many amazing people that I had the opportunity to learn from. It is my natural instinct as a teacher to want to share all that I'm learning. I curated the event based on the premise of ‘wow, that's really interesting. I want to share that’ or ‘wow, this incredible person has taught me so much and I'd like to share their work and thank them publicly for their brilliance.
[00:08:37] Varsha: It's amazing. It's such a teacherly way, isn't it, to take something and go like, ‘Oh wow, this is a brilliant article. I must share this with my students’.
[00:08:48] Wendy: Absolutely. You just mentioned citing as well, so I think that that was a way of me citing people and sharing that.
[00:08:55] Varsha: And it was an online event and I can't help but think about [00:09:00] some great online resources on Shakespeare and race: the BBA, which is Black, British, and Asian Shakespeare performance database or TIDE (travel and transcultural and identity in England, 1550 to 1700) website or your own YouTube videos from the event.
I wonder, do you think that the digital or the turn towards Digital Humanities can help us to make Shakespeare studies more diverse?
[00:09:30] Wendy: It's, it's brilliant and wonderful to have technology and these resources make work accessible. However, there are limitations. There is nothing like being able to speak to people in person or engage with text using a highlighter and pencil. Despite the technology that I've harnessed, I'm really old-school. I love stationary, I love talking to people in person. Now that the world is opening back up and there are in-person conferences and events,[00:10:00] even if there is a facility to host a hybrid event, there is a gap between the people who can be there in person and those who can't attend.
The in-person conversations and connections that are made are really available for certain people, for people who can pay to be heard, for people who can, uh, afford to take the time to be part of that conversation and, and stop for coffee. Digital Humanities is great, but the world doesn't just exist online. More work needs to be done to make physical spaces inclusive. Yeah,
[00:10:34] Varsha: I agree with you. I think it's a symbiotic relationship. I mean, online resources are embedded in a reality. Could you then speak about the decision to put recordings of this event online for free?
I, I didn't charge anyone to attend my event, and the recordings are for free because knowledge exchange shouldn't be limited to those that can afford to pay. The work I [00:11:00] engage in isn't just about race, it's about class and accessibility for everyone.
Students who want to learn and, like me, didn't get funding, shouldn't be forced to pay for events, or people on precarious contracts, or low or no incomes shouldn't be forced to pay to speak at an event, or attend an event. It doesn't mean the work is valueless. It means that it, it's open to everyone. I will always try to ensure that those on the lowest incomes or no income are able to access my work. I think it's important to hold the door open for people who are like me or who don't have those advantages.
[00:11:41] Varsha: I cannot agree with you more. Even I would consider myself privileged when, when I see, other people, for example, PhD students who are struggling, and things are prohibitively expensive even for me as well. And again, people [00:12:00] tend to think that the work is valued less if it's for free, but that's not the case.
I, in fact, feel the work is valued and hence should be accessible. But I think that we do need different funding models. Because if we are going on the assumption that people should pay to speak at conferences, I think that's ridiculous because they're giving their labor so I think that we need to see how institutions can make a real commitment to this and put their money behind such projects.
[00:12:38] Wendy: Absolutely. I mean, to exclude somebody who might not be able to pay to share their work seems ridiculous to me as well; they're drawing upon years of experience, research, learning, so I don't think that that should be a barrier.
[00:12:55] Varsha: Could I ask on that note, did institutions help you [00:13:00] with the event in terms of finances and funding at all?
[00:13:04] Wendy: So Cambridge University Press, um, contacted me to offer their support, which I was incredibly grateful for.
However, I also used my own money, my teaching income to fund the event, to continue to pay for the platform and to continue to support it. So I do think that, um, unfortunately it does fall on women of color that if we want to do these things, we are having to put not only time and labor into this, but our own money, um, to be able to create and share this work.
[00:13:38] Varsha: Yes. And I would say the same. So the podcast's first series, the pilot series, was sponsored by NYU and if they hadn't sponsored it, I wouldn't be able to get it started. But now I use my own money for sustaining the platform because again, like you, I believe that we must [00:14:00] do this work. However, it does strike me that it has pointed to a real gap in the system where funding models really need to be revisited for people maybe who are not on one straight stream or path of funding.
Thank you so much for sharing that, that's really important. And excitingly, you are on the British Shakespeare Association’s Education Committee and on the brilliant everything to everybody project’s education steering committee So for the benefit of our listeners, what does committee work entail and also what innovations and directions are you going to champion for Shakespeare education as a part of these committees?
[00:14:42] Wendy: My work with the Everything to Everybody Project is about sharing the collection. A couple of weeks ago in, in March 2022, I created an exhibition of translations held in the collection and created activities for all ages to be involved.
The Everything to [00:15:00] Everybody Project is an initiative which has brought the Shakespeare Memorial Library at the the Library of Birmingham to Life, and given the collection back to the people of Birmingham. I was delighted to be invited to contribute to the family day, and libraries specifically are important spaces to me and formed a significant part of my early childhood.
So my work with the project focuses on sharing the collection. I felt that it was essential to display the collection’s amazing translations, and create activities for lots of different people to get involved. Birmingham is a vibrant, multicultural, multilingual city, so it was exciting to share and discuss these translations with the diverse library visitors.
But one point that kept on coming up and I think connects to your work and the Brilliant Globe talk you were part of, many visitors were asking what is lost in translation. However, the question that I [00:16:00] like to ask is, what do we gain with translations of the text. It also opens up possibilities of what we can do with Shakespeare's plays. The visitors of all ages were mesmerized by the world map that I included as part of the exhibition.
I placed dots on the map to show the countries that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to demonstrate the international heritage of Shakespeare’s characters and play locations, and that Shakespeare himself was aware of and decided to include. Obviously, this links to the wide reach of colonialism, which is an important aspect of this work too.
I also created activities that link to my research and the Rep Theater's production of Floella Benjamin’s Coming to England to consider the journeys of the Windrush generations and earlier travellers. I was also inspired by work that I've done in my own classrooms, um, by creating an activity for visitors to make poetry from extracts of the plays. Um, there was even [00:17:00] bookmarks of, uh, little ones to color in. So, huge thanks to Professor Ewan Fernie and the brilliant E2E team.
The British Shakespeare Association's education committee is also a fantastic committee to be on. I'm very grateful to work with Chris Green and the rest of the committee as well. Um, so we are trying to stimulate connections between schools and making Shakespeare accessible and diverse.
[00:17:23] Varsha: great. And it seems that you're doing really exciting work with them. So, it's quite clear pedagogy and teaching is really important to you and my students were researching you and clocked onto that. So one of my students, Caitlin Cannuscio wanted to know what for you is the most rewarding part of teaching or teaching Shakespeare?
[00:17:47] Wendy: I love going on that joint exploration with my students and no two classes see the text or respond to it in the same way. Embarking on a learning journey with students is so [00:18:00] exciting, so every lesson is always filled with new possibilities to explore. It's exciting, it's challenging, and students inspire me and students give me hope.
My favourite thing to do in either teaching or studying is analyzing language, whether it's poem, play, novel, um, getting my highlighter pen and pencil really engage in exploring the words on the page.
[00:18:25] Varsha: You're so right about the joint exploration.
I enjoy that too. Going into class and not knowing this text which I have taught for years...I don’t know how it's going to come alive today. Yes, I can see the joy in your face. So, listeners, just so you know, Wendy is right now smiling ear to ear and glowing as she's talking about teaching, so it's quite clear how much you enjoy it.
You're talking about different students and different responses Katie Gardner, was wondering, whether teaching Shakespeare to White people [00:19:00] is different to teaching Shakespeare to people of color. And are there any strategies you use to create a nurturing environment for all students?
[00:19:08] Wendy: As an educator, it's my responsibility to create a safe space for all students, regardless of their color. As I try to show through my event, everyone needs to be part of the conversation. What Ewan Fernie taught me as an undergraduate through his own brilliant teaching, um, was that when he gave me permission and the opportunity to bring my full self, my enthusiasm, my perspective, who I am to the room and I allow my students to do the same. That's freedom. That's Shakespeare for me. Two people of color may experience it differently; we're individuals. So, I create, encourage, and give space to those individual responses in my classroom. And so teaching is [00:20:00] also about listening. It's about learning.
[00:20:03] Varsha: Yes. So much that. So everybody please take note. Listen, more. We really need to listen more just as a general rule, as a society as well.
Yeah, absolutely. And you are working on a book at the moment? I think it's titled Shakespeare, Race and Pedagogy: Early Modern Colonialism to Windrush Era, and we are so excited to read it. So could you tell us a little bit more about the book?
[00:20:36] Wendy: Yes. There are two threads that run through the book, really.
The first is the role of the sea in creating cross-cultural encounters through its transportation of individuals, communities, objects. Um, I explore real-world voyages and the creative sea journeys we see in Shakespeare’s plays.
The voyage of Empire Windrush was a significant moment in the transportation of people, [00:21:00] and I am the daughter and granddaughter of women of the Windrush generation. It's important to acknowledge and consider that this wasn't the first ever migration. And having grown up on the coast, the role of the sea and creating those connections and disconnections is exciting and interesting for me.
The second thread that runs through the book is, is the pedagogical approaches to teaching Shakespeare. I'm teaching these voyages, I'm including elements from my decade in schools, projects and public engagement that I've worked on to consider ways to teach and study these texts in educational settings.
So it's kind of drawing upon lots of my life.
[00:21:43] Varsha: Fabulous. I love the idea. I also think that every academic book should come with a section on pedagogy. So that's great. I can't wait to read it. Just the final wrap up question, Wendy, the response [00:22:00] to Shakespeare, Race & Pedagogy has been absolutely phenomenal. I'm not surprised but I am also thrilled. Does that fill you with hope? And what do you hope the future holds for the study of Shakespeare and his works?
[00:22:15] Wendy: I love studying and teaching Shakespeare's work, so yes, I want Shakespeare to continue to be an important part of our curriculum. An amazing member of the Shakespeare, Race & Pedagogy community wrote to me to say, ‘Can't wait to see what you do to the field next’. That idea of what I can do to it, not what the field will do to me is exciting and opens up exciting possibilities. So yes, I feel hopeful.
[00:22:44] Varsha: And we can't wait to see what you teach us next. So Wendy, thank you so, so much for being on this podcast. It was a joy from start to finish.
[00:22:56] Wendy: Thank you for having me. It's been great to talk to you today.[00:23:00]
That was Wendy Lennon talking about Shakespeare, Race, and Pedagogy. This episode was produced by my excellent former student, Emily Pepper, and my student, Marisa Valentino, was my utterly thorough research lead. With this episode, we have come to the end of season 3, but don't worry because I can assure you there is a season 4 and it'll open with the amazing podcaster and author of both academic and popular books, Professor Emma Smith. So, dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to 'Women & Shakespeare', streaming at Apple Podcast, Spotify, and other platforms. If you want to listen to the podcast with a full transcript, head over to the website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then, keep smashing the patriarchy [00:24:00].