Women and Shakespeare

S1:E1: Sarah Olive on Shakespeare in Education

November 23, 2021 Dr Varsha Panjwani Season 3 Episode 1
Women and Shakespeare
S1:E1: Sarah Olive on Shakespeare in Education
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we discuss Shakespeare in Education in the UK and South East Asia with Dr Sarah Olive.

This episode is in collaboration with the British Shakespeare Association (BSA) https://www.britishshakespeare.ws/

For a complete episode transcript, check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com 

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani
Producer: Mr Zeke Tweedie
Guest: Dr Sarah Olive
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Hello, and welcome to 'Women & Shakespeare' podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani and I am so excited that this little podcast has made it to season 3! Obviously, I had to open this season with someone special and I could not be happier that it is Dr Sarah Olive. This episode close to my heart in all sorts of ways. First, because my guest Dr Sarah Olive is phenomenal – those of you who know her work will know that she is passionate about Shakespeare in education both from a research and practical perspective. It is no exaggeration to say that I feel that she is sort of my favourite teacher because I have learnt so many things from her as a colleague while having so much fun that I wasn’t even aware that I was learning so much. To give a more formal account of her achievements, she is a Senior Lecturer at Bangor University with research expertise on Shakespeare in education, in and beyond the UK. She has published a co-authored book Shakespeare in East Asian Education in 2021 and a monograph, Shakespeare Valued, in 2015 amongst numerous wide ranging articles including ones on Lady Gaga and vampire Romeo and Juliet. For 10 years, she was the Founding Editor of the British Shakespeare Association's Teaching Shakespeare, a cross-sector magazine for Shakespeare educators internationally and she is now the Lead Editor of Jeunesse: young people, texts, cultures .

Apart from my awesome guest, I am also thrilled that this series is being inaugurated with an episode that discusses teaching – the very reason that I am in this profession even though ironically it gets side-lined at academic conferences and in journals. So, I loved this opportunity to engage with this topic with Sarah who as usual inspired me with a lot of ideas about educational policy, content, and assessments so this is one episode where you really need your pens and notebooks handy if you still take handwritten notes but I won’t judge you if you want to directly type notes on your laptop! No, really, get ready…

Varsha:

Hello, Sarah. It's so lovely to have you on the podcast. I am really looking forward to this one. It's the first one about education. Also because I learn so much from you all the time. I'm really looking forward to it. Welcome to Women and Shakespeare.

Sarah:

Well, thank you so much for having me on here, Varsha. I couldn't believe all the times that we sat around in York having coffees that this is where we'd be.

Varsha:

I'm going to begin by asking something that I ask everyone on this show. When did you first encounter Shakespeare? And what was the nature of that encounter?

Sarah:

I feel like I'm going to answer with a play that so many other people have mentioned in answer to this question. It's Romeo and Juliet, and it's being taken by my mom to see a performance of it at a run down slightly stately home in Derbyshire. Not one of those pristine National Trust or Chatsworth or anything like that, but it was a property I think, owned by the local county council. It was where we'd go and play cricket. We would go and have walks in the evening, play hide and seek, and to go back to it at night time, as the sun was setting in the summer and see this production and see somebody you know really well transformed. The balcony becoming, for example, the balcony in Romeo and Juliet was totally magical. One of the selling points of the production, I think it was just a local amateur or semi amateur group.

Sarah:

They cast a 14 year old school girl as Juliet. The age that the character of Juliet should be or thereabouts, and that was kind of the age I was. Maybe a couple of years younger. I was totally fascinated to know that you could be my age and already be an amazing actor and have a lead part. I wanted to know, how is she going to cope with this? Is she going to be okay? Will she forget the lines? But of course, nothing like that happened. It was tremendous. I think the production was probably in debt to Zeffirelli, but I had nothing to compare it to as a 13 year old. While all the goers might've thought this is a little derivative to me, it was completely original and completely wonderful.

Varsha:

Oh how sweet. I mean, yes many guests have mentioned Romeo and Juliet, but it's quite a refreshing that your entry point or your fascination was Juliet.

Sarah:

Absolutely. You know I can't even remember Romeo. I think that's really revealing in many ways. It could be because perhaps he was an adult actor, perhaps, I don't remember them talking about having cast both roles with this kind of age appropriate casting. Maybe it was just the publicity, but no, I think it was for me being able to think, could I do this? I think I've since proven through student drama that the answer is no.

Varsha:

Well, I'm team Juliet all the way. This is lovely to hear. I now want to talk about your wonderful book, Shakespeare Valued and talking about value in Shakespeare, you write how declarations such as Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language or the greatest playwright of all time are not often questioned. On the first day of all my Shakespeare courses, I ask students what they associate with Shakespeare and these statements are very commonplace, the greatest writer, universal, things like that. Could you tell our listeners a bit about why it might be dangerous not to examine these statements further?

Sarah:

Okay. I'm going to start by saying Shakespeare is an amazing writer, his achievements across a range of forms, cross genres are phenomenal, but it really interests me that I feel I have to include this caveat before I get accused of being a Shakesphobe. It's something that's born out of experience of how quick people can be to jump to Shakespeare's defense if you imply that other good authors are available, whether they're early modern playwrights or contemporary writers. I think there is such a thing as Shakespearian fragility. It probably shares some of the same breeding ground as male fragility and white fragility. I'm going to suggest this like a Venn diagram there. The statements, my problem with them is they're presented as incontestable fact, rather than opinions. They're opinions. It is possible to challenge them if you wish. People from Tolstoy, the great Russian writer to the school kid next door have done this.

Sarah:

And stating that they're incontestable facts it tends to obscure the criteria on which these plaudits are based and the mechanisms for conferring them. These assertions erase the ways in which Shakespeare is created as this greatest and this considerable labor that goes into these constructions. Besides chewing over the innately great qualities his writing has, or its cognitive effects on readers, audiences, artists, I think it's imperative to consider Ronald Carter's socio-cultural model of literariness in relation to Shakespeare's status.

Sarah:

What Carter is saying is that the ways we construct and perpetuate Shakespeare's greatness include making him the only compulsory author on the national curriculum, giving funding to events or organizations based around Shakespeare in his works more willingly or to a greater extent than others or this imperialist education means that Shakespeare is quoted across south Asia, but few white British people could name a poem by, I don't know, Rabindranath Tagore, myself included. If my students wrote such sweeping claims about any person or any topic, I would ask them to provide evidence and a citation, or I'd say to them, you've got to acknowledge a counter perspective. I think as Shakespeareans, we need to practice what we preach.

Varsha:

There's so much at stake here, including the labor, all the labor involved, or, and as you say, all the mechanisms involved in maintaining that sort of assertion if we don't acknowledge that, yes, he's great, but not the greatest. I want to come back to your point about Shakespeare being such a fixture in national curriculums, and we will. But I first want to ask you that in your book, you examine both that Shakespeare is taught in schools, but also how theatrical institutions such as Royal Shakespeare Company RSC or Shakespeare's Globe have their own education and outreach programs as well. Between these kind of two different entities, do you think there are antagonistic approaches or are these mutually generative models?

Sarah:

That's such a good question. It gets right to the heart of a lot of things I've written about. Such theater departments, they often focus on active methods for Shakespeare. These are also known as drama methods or practical methods is another way of terming it. I'll just use active methods because it's what I've gotten used to talking about. It makes sense theater departments to promote these. Playing Shakespeare is what they do best. I think it's less the situation that teachers and theaters might clash around the approaches to Shakespeare. That's not to say that some teachers don't find active methods daunting or uncomfortable or demanding in terms of time and resource. I think it's more that there's an antagonism between the methods and what's being asked of students in the high stakes assessments specifically for subject English. I suppose I am thinking about a UK context here, but I know from my own experience that it applies very broadly in Australia, for example, too. I think it depends slightly on the assessment that you're doing.

Sarah:

They're rather different for drama or theater studies and the difference between qualifications. There might be differences in the high stakes assessments between A-level international baccalaureate in the UK, the BTech for example. If theaters and teachers can guide students to apply what they've learned about the text through active methods, through getting up and putting it on its feet in a classroom to an exam or to a piece of coursework. That's brilliant. I think the antagonism is dissolved. Otherwise, I think teachers and theater education departments could campaign together to change the way that students are assessed. To lobby policy makers, so that they're not forced to boil down their rich experiences of active methods, playing with Shakespeare in order to bet a test of a narrower set of skills.

Varsha:

I agree. It seems like there are different models in operations simultaneously. The expectation is that in classroom, you're doing these amazing active methods and learning a lot. Then you're let down by the assessment what seems to be based on a more traditional approach. Yes, policymakers take note, let us campaign for diversifying assessments.

Sarah:

Teachers take heart because there are resources and writers. People like Rex Gibson who ran the Shakespeare in schools project, and many people will know him through his Cambridge school Shakespeare series really does engage with how can you bridge this gap? How can you take the activities that you were doing, the kind of rehearsal room techniques or hot seating and turn that into a written analysis. But then some people might want to take issue that you should have to do that at all. There's a couple of ways to tackle this.

Varsha:

Absolutely. But something definitely worth thinking about a little bit more than we do. A related question, which I said, I will come back to, Shakespeare does enjoy a very central position in education at all levels. Certainly in the UK and the US and many places globally, as you just mentioned. However, in recent years with calls for, and very rightly so for anti-racist decolonized curriculums, there's a sort of embarrassment, I think maybe I'm wrong about including Shakespeare, a dead white male writer who wrote plays for an all male company into the curriculum. This has led to some passionate debates and some misguided, at least in my opinion, misguided decisions. What do you think about the issue?

Sarah:

Varsha, I never thought I was going to disagree with you, but I'm going to say there is no embarrassment about including Shakespeare in the national curriculum for English. I cannot spot an iota of embarrassments about that. I think since 1989, when the national curriculum came into place in England and for over two decades, the amount of Shakespeare that students are required to study during compulsory education has been continually ratcheted up.

Sarah:

I think when I was at secondary school, the requirement was phrased in terms of some Shakespeare, and that could have been a sliver in an anthology. Then people started arguing about, well, should you only do a sliver don't you have to do one whole play. The last time I looked, which is admittedly half a decade ago now, it had gotten to something like four plays. I think, including Shakespeare and making him the only compulsory author of very different things. I personally wouldn't question including him. I very much question plastering him wall to wall across the curriculum. As a counter to that, I'd say where I see also very little embarrassment is in junking the requirements for students to study world literature that's literature written in English from places beyond the UK and the US or translated into English in order to make room proportionately, if not actually for more dead white male writers or to be more specific yet to make room for just more Shakespeare.

Sarah:

This reflects a creeping nationalism. I think if we think about, for example, Michael Gove's, Our Island Story and his curricular based on that, actually a rampant nationalism that from policymakers under the conservative government or under the conservative coalition in the UK, really represents a u-turn away from multiculturalism and pluralism. I wouldn't want to stress embarrassment about teaching him as much of a problem as a lack of embarrassment or reflexivity about his position is. I'd just chip in, it's not unproblematic, but there are many ways to teach Shakespeare that de-center and queer him. It's not just who you teach, it's how you teach it. Use productions and resources with your students from other countries in other languages. I'm using the globe to globe Isango Ensemble's, Venus, and Adonis at the moment with my students, which is in six languages, found in South Africa, and we're having a totally fascinating time with it, as far as I can tell, maybe my students will write back to you.

Sarah:

Use diverse forms and aesthetics, use paired texts and comparative approaches, sneak some world literature back into the curriculum whilst carrying on the fight to get it back there explicitly. I think you can teach what's queer in Shakespeare's life and works. You can use radical critics. I teach my first years using a book chapter by Elena Levy-Navarro on fat phobia in Venus and particularly literary criticism of Venus and Adonis. But more than that, I think you can empower diverse students to voice their thoughts and their questions about Shakespeare. Don't silence them because you're uncomfortable with dissent from about what you're saying or because they don't like the critic that you set for that week. Hire diverse staff to teach Shakespeare. I think this is really something that students and staff in the decolonizing education collective in my department have taught me. I didn't realize the extent to which decolonizing is about so much more than what texts you put on your syllabus. In some ways that might be the less important question than who you're paying to teach it.

Varsha:

Thank you for putting me right. But in fact, isn't enough embarrassment where there should be a little bit, but you are absolutely right. I'm very much with you on the fact that it is about how you teach or methodology. But even a way of thinking which can be decolonized and de-centered rather than just the text that you're teaching and absolutely embrace all of it that you've said: teach Shakespeare by all means but I think sneak in and then campaign for critical race theory and Shakespeare, or something I use a lot is of course, intersectional feminism and Shakespeare. There are productive approaches here. As you mentioned, these things decolonizing the curriculum is a philosophy, it's a habit rather than, or a habit of teaching rather than just simply changing the texts and being done with it.

Sarah:

Absolutely.

Varsha:

You are the founding editor of the freely available Teaching Shakespeare, which I'm a huge fan of. Why did you decide to take up the editorship of teaching Shakespeare and why did you opt for a magazine format for this publication?

Sarah:

It was a matter very close to my heart, obviously, issue 20. I can't believe that we're at 20 issues. It's currently with a fantastic graphic designer, Becky Chilcott .She's been with us from the start and probably has a far greater impact on whether anyone reads it or not rather than me because she has these incredibly brightly colored designs and graphics, color combinations, and just a fantastic eye for the images that we include as well. Why edit it? Well, the very short answer is that I was asked by Stuart Hampton Reeves, who was then the president of the British Shakespeare Association, along with James Stredder, who was chairing the education committee at the time to think about how we could reach out to the teacher membership of the British Shakespeare Association. I know I'm biased, but I'm going to say it does a better job than many Shakespeare associations of reaching out to high school teachers.

Sarah:

It's just something about the way it's evolved over time. Then there were the practicalities of what next after my PhD. I'd been spending time talking about what next with my wonderful feminist supervisor or mentor professor Kate McLuskie, who was the first female director of the Shakespeare Institute, the author of The Patriarchal Bard, which I'm sure many of your listeners will be well-versed in. I joked about being the next Rex Gibson, which I'm totally unqualified to be. I have no teacher training qualification. I've never been a high school teacher of English.

Sarah:

However, I did have the desire to acknowledge and build on Gibson's work, his Shakespeare in schools, this hugely influential project. Countless teachers, they still come up to me and say like, oh, I love using his editions in the classroom. Or I have just bought my first copy of Teaching Shakespeare - there's a great debt to the magazine in terms of Rex Gibson's title for his book - which we kind of pinched. I wanted to do some things he wasn't able to do with the Shakespeare in schools newsletter that he started and which did become a bit of a magazine. I wanted to be more international. I wanted to use the better technologies that we have by the 2000s and the wider networks that we had supported by universities' internationalization drives in order to include more English as an additional language voices and to better represent teachers and students who are people of color.

Varsha:

The magazine format does so much to make it much more accessible and open and international, as you've said. It's fantastic and talking about technologies and using them in the purpose of access and so on. This is a purely self interested question for you. Do you think that like films or YouTube videos, podcasts will become popular in classrooms? Could you suggest some interesting ways of using them in the classroom?

Sarah:

Absolutely. I've just subjected my first years to some interesting ways of using podcasts in the classroom, in that I gave them your list of questions. This morning when I was teaching them, asked them to take turns firing the questions at me so that I was to practice for this podcast today. What else have I done with them? For example, I ask them to listen to the introduction to this entire series and then to choose one of the other episodes to choose it on the basis of who they want to hear from. Is it a celebrity like Janet Suzman? Do they want to hear Kathryn Pogson speak about Richard III because perhaps they studied that at year 10. The reason I do this is I want them to have not just my voice and my perspective, but because your podcast also has so many fantastic women of color actors, writers, directors speaking, and it is working really well with the agendas around decolonizing that we have at the moment. In terms of, even for example, my non English specialist third years, they're not taking literature at all necessarily.

Sarah:

I've asked them to engage with the podcast in order to see ways that you can host and introduce and chair a speaker that you can tailor questions towards them. It is my aim that they will develop the incredible skills that you have Varsha in this for themselves and for their future careers.

Varsha:

I love your idea of actually getting students to fire interview questions at their lecturers. I think this is a great format.

Sarah:

Some other ways I would like to go forward in the future will be to do things like getting students to curate and introduce a podcast playlist on a given topic like Shakespeare or female characters in Shakespeare or directing Shakespeare. I'd like to get them to design their own imaginary podcast, who knows. They have the technology to make it become true and to do things like write reviews of podcasts and publish them, whether that's in a blog or just on a virtual learning environment or for Teaching Shakespeare.

Sarah:

I love to draw things back towards that. Just as an aside, I'm kind of thinking when you asked, is it becoming popular to use podcasting in classrooms and in lecture halls and so on, or just Zoom lectures we're having at the moment. It made me think about the way that newspapers, for example, have taken podcasts to their heart and review them and publish on them in their culture sections, perhaps primarily in the weekend papers. I'm going to throw out a challenge to the academic journals if they haven't taken them up already. But my feeling is that we should be including podcasts, such as Women and Shakespeare, among the review sections of things like Year's Work in English Studies, those sorts of things. I'd like to see us getting away from that print and performance bound review content that dominates a lot of journals still in the 21st century.

Varsha:

I've been spending some time writing emails to journal editors saying that they might want to review digital resources on Shakespeare, more generally as well. But I have to say that your idea of encouraging students to come up with their own podcast series is a very good one. Because this is how Women and Shakespeare was born. We work shopped with my core team of students, what we want to do, what format we want it on. We decided that actually we did not have enough resources. We did not have enough diversity in women as contributors to Shakespeare. Then we decided that we want podcasts for it because they were just very tired of reading and also very tired of just sitting in one place and listening.

Varsha:

Great. A very different topic now, because you have also, co-authored a book and written extensively about Shakespeare in East Asian education. One thing that I'm endlessly fascinated by due to my own dual heritage and polylingualism is that students in countries such as Korea and Japan, they encounter Shakespeare both in English and in their native languages. How does this experience or first encounter with Shakespeare shape their attitude to the texts, do you think?

Sarah:

This is such a great question. First of all, these students and their encounters with Shakespeare, they're hugely heterogeneous. Some of the students I met when researching, for example, in Korea, had studied abroad. Some have dual heritage that bilingual or poly lingual. Some met Shakespeare in high school, or maybe only just that term in university, they may know about his life or times because he's often taught as a historical figure with maybe a potted biography among other great icons of Western culture. But they may know the contents of his works in less detail. I hear similar things to my own students that learning to read Shakespeare is like learning another language. In this case, it could be second, third, fourth, fifth language. However, beyond this common sentiment, I think it shows in these students' attention to language. It doesn't have to be fond attention. It can be, "this is too hard.

Sarah:

I hate this language". But it can also be a curiosity about obscure words or grammar, the thrill of recognizing a phrase that's still used so maybe "all that glistens is not gold". It might be recognizing a phrase that's taught in a textbook without an attribution, or being able to spot linguistic allusions in popular culture, whether that's local or imported popular culture. It could be surprise at what language Shakespeare chooses to use. Toilet humor, explicitly sexual jokes, because that can clash with cultural expectations of what topics or what tones a great writer uses. I think these students have a better opportunity in encountering his works than monolingual Anglophone students, for example, to think about Shakespeare as a construct, to think about the processes by which his texts are made, travel and are consumed including translation or localizing into forms like anime and Manga if we take Japan for an example.

Varsha:

I agree. In English speaking countries, we don't actually really pay attention to how difficult the language is. Students are just sort of supposed to, because it's English, get it. Well, you're right. I think our students struggle as much with the language as well, but it's also interesting, actually, I think we can do a better job as well of introducing, as you were suggesting Shakespeare in many different languages so that our students also have this opportunity to see what our say bilingual students in other countries are able to grasp immediately.

Sarah:

Isn't that a great idea? That maybe the way... I guess what I'm suggesting is that there's a kind of de-familiarization around language that students approaching Shakespeare in English, but with English as an additional language kind of react to and respond to. Maybe we can do that for monoglot students by popping Shakespeare up from the Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive, or I don't know, a Kurosawa movie or whatever else it might be that, that suddenly might draw attention a little further to what does this mean? Oh, I didn't realize that wherefore isn't about where Juliet is located. Those sorts of things that we maybe get to take for granted a little bit.

Varsha:

Final question to you. This is around ethics because it's a big issue. You do work extensively with East Asian educational practices and also institutions. What are some of the ethical questions involved in a research such as this? Can you suggest some mutually collaborative ways to approach this kind of research?

Sarah:

Yeah, absolutely. Some of the ethical questions I think are around whether outsiders to a country, to a language, to an education system can be good. That is high quality credible researchers of, or in those places. I think you have to consider honestly, what the pros and cons are of being an outsider. There are research methods, experts who talk about sometimes the benefits of coming from an outside position. You can also do the same for insiders, so there might be blind spots in your research because of overfamiliarity. Translators of Shakespeare beyond English, I think I noticed this in Korea have mentioned that they pick up on things in a text that their native English speaking colleagues may not. I particularly love something by Sonya Corbin Dwyer and Jennifer Buckle. They have an idea about researcher positionality or subjectivity, perhaps that I find really useful.

Sarah:

They posit research identity as an outsider inside a continuum that we're all on rather than a binary. For example, when I'm researching in Japan or Korea, I'm an outsider in the sense that I have not lived in that country continuously in terms of my ethnicity, in terms of being pretty much a monoglot Anglophone speaker. But I do have some kind of insider scoop as well. Like many of the people I'm researching with or who are my participants, I've been a student of Shakespeare. I've been a teacher of Shakespeare. I've done amateur drama with Shakespeare. There are some common grounds that we have as well, but what Corbin Dwyer and Buckle argue is the most important thing is not to identify a particular point on this continuum as superior, but to instead be very Frank about where you're sitting on the continuum, acknowledge your subjectivity as a researcher, think about the strengths and weaknesses of that, ameliorate your weaknesses.

Sarah:

Incorporate fellow researchers or authors who occupy a different spot on that continuum and who have different sets of strengths and weaknesses. I have a few principles that I use to guide me. I'm not claiming that these are necessarily perfect and I'm definitely not going to fix them in stone because we know how well that worked for Ed Miliband in a UK context. I try not to research and publish on an area of East Asian Shakespeare that's already, well-established in English, by writers from East Asia. There are reams and reams of the most fantastic works and resources on translation, performance, film, in terms of education there weren't that many people writing critical work on it in English. Maybe a decade or so ago, but that's changed. I'm kind of hoping to make myself obsolete. There's more Shakespearians working within Asia research and publish on the phenomenon of Shakespeare in education in East Asia.

Sarah:

This means that I'm reaching a point where I can decline invited contributions. I'm doing things like pulling back from being invited to speak at a conference or to contribute an article to a collection. If you can recommend a colleague who's got more to contribute than you do, who will gain more from the experience. But I do recognize that that involves having a certain amount of privilege and reaching a certain stage in your career when you're able to make that change. I think when I visited institutions in Asia, giving generously of your time or resources, give a talk, get involved in ongoing mentoring of their staff and students, give out your email address, offer reading and resource lists, talk about study abroad opportunities, offer to join one of their language lounges to engage in some conversation practice with students, review student productions that are happening in Asia to give them some visibility and publicity, offer to help with funding bids with publications, because cracking into journals, including Shakespeare studies journals as an English as an additional language author, particularly when you're not based in a major UK or US institution can be really, really tough.

Sarah:

I think about some of the excoriating reviews I've had that comment on my writing style. The hurdles are just incredible and the need to be better systems in place to truly include diverse voices in those journals. So, in short, if you can forge an ongoing connection with the institutions and with the people that you visit, don't make it a smash and grab, don't make it a one way street, because that really is neocolonialism.

Varsha:

Thank you for very frankly, naming it as well as such. But I love the idea you shared. I wasn't aware of this work about being absolutely aware of where you are on the outsider insider spectrum, and also how you can forge an ongoing collaborative relationship. Thank you. I think that is a great note to end on so we can start thinking about it and thank you so much, Sarah, for being on the show.

Sarah:

Oh, thank you so much for having me.

That was Dr Sarah Olive talking about Shakespeare in Education in UK and in South East Asia.

Next month, we will be welcoming the ultra-cool writer Chloe Gong whose novelist adaptations of Romeo and Juliet set in Shanghai have captured cultural zeitgeist along with the heart of the majority of my students. So dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to 'Women& Shakespeare' streaming at Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen to the podcast with full transcripts, head over to our website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then keep smashing the patriarchy.