Shakespeare in Second Life?

This recent article from the New York Times provides further proof, if any were needed, that the Internet is not making us stupid, but I find it raises troubling questions—not about the use of the Internet in literary education so much as about the imagination of our teachers.

The three projects the article describes are well chosen in that they offer different levels of online involvement and different payoffs. The last, the transcription of novels into the Early Novels Database and of Dickens’s magazines Household Words and All the Year Round (undertaken by the Dickens Journals Online project), would seem to involve the Internet in the least essential and least creative way. After all, the students here are just transcribing, and for all that the article shows their task would not have differed if they had been transcribing onto paper. As Anna Levine, one of students, says, “I am the one doing all the grunt work.” As for her assessment of the upside—“one of the great things is as an undergraduate, it really enables me to participate in a scholarly community”—Anna, I hate to break this to you, but you’re participating in a scholarly community in roughly the way the slaves participated in the cotton economy of the antebellum South. It’s nice that you feel differently, and would be even nicer if it were true, but generations of students before you have felt that way doing grunt work for their professors and the “scholarly community” has treated them—well, like grunts. The Internet has no more magic power to dissolve the power relations of academia than it does those of the Middle East.

Jen Rajchel, the creator of Mooring Gaps: Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry, is, on the other hand, already a force to keep an eye on. The website is Rajchel’s Bryn Mawr senior thesis, presenting her analysis of three early poems of Marianne Moore in a way that couldn’t—at least not as easily—be done offline. It’s an impressive accomplishment, though I would have liked to see it even more interactive and perhaps with multimedia features (I don’t think Moore herself recorded readings of these particular poems, but there must be theater students in the Swarthmore/Bryn Mawr/Haverford axis who’d have been glad to), but this is the first of its kind and more are sure to follow. What troubles me is the assessment of Rajchel’s adviser, Jane Hedley, who wanted Rajchel “to show her that this was necessary” and who says that

the whole project is apt to have less focus, fullness and “heft” than a conventional senior thesis. Instead of a linear journey whose recursivity can generate a deep, conclusive engagement with the material, web-based presentation ramifies outward, privileging nimbleness, variety and open-endedness.

I’m not sure what that last sentence even means. As far as I can make out, Professor Headley is saying that you can reread a work when you’re writing a paper thesis, creating a “deep, conclusive”—not to say “hefty”—“engagement” with it, as if you couldn’t do that online. But of course you can do that online, assuming Google hasn’t made you an idiot, and the meat of Rajchel’s thesis is not so much its presentation as her analysis, which is never less than astute and which offers an impressive level of scholarship throughout. It may not be hefty, but face it, the last undergraduate thesis to have “heft” was Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, so it’s not as if Rajchel has anything to be ashamed of.

Rajchel could manifestly have produced an equally impressive paper thesis, so one could conclude she didn’t need to construct a website; but her use of the Internet is certainly not a gimmick. If only Professor Headley seemed to get that.

I see the same faculty timidity writ even larger in the article’s account of an experiment in virtual Shakespeare. (I have to wonder at the author’s remark that even Shakespeare is being taught using online techniques—did she not hear about “Some_Tweet_Sorrow”?—but I’ll let that pass.) The students were asked to block Titus Andronicus in a Second Life version of the Globe Theatre (using an application, Theatron3, that piggybacks on Second Life). They came up with at least one interesting suggestion—that all the mayhem should be staged in the same place on stage—but the application, and more importantly the teacher, seems not to have taken them any further. If Jennifer Cook, the student quoted, can say “Until you get Shakespeare on its feet, you’re doing it an injustice . . . . The plays are in 3-D, not 2-D,” she’s being let down. Of course the plays are in 3-D, but they are also in 2-D; they are made of language after all, language over which Shakespeare exercised an extraordinary gift (whether or not you even have a position on the inside-baseball issue whether he wrote/revised for publication as well as performance), and an introductory Shakespeare class that doesn’t at least try to convey this hyperdimensionality shortchanges its students.

To be fair to the teacher, Katherine Rowe, she surely must have worked on other aspects of Shakespeare in her class, but the article only mentions blocking—an essential part of stagecraft, certainly, but not an appropriate focus for an entire intro class. However, there’s no indication that she used online techniques to convey those other aspects, and if Ms. Cook’s quote above is any indication she wasn’t very successful in any event. Perhaps the most telling moment in the entire piece is Ms. Rowe’s observation that

There’s a very exciting generation gap in the classroom . . . Students are fluent in new media, and the faculty bring sophisticated knowledge of a subject. It’s a gap that won’t last more than a decade. In 10 years these students will be my colleagues, but now it presents unusual learning opportunities.

Again, I’m not entirely sure what this means ( for example, what exactly are the “unusual learning opportunities,” and who are they opportunities for?), but this is the first time I’ve heard a generation gap called “exciting.” My trouble is that Ms. Rowe seems to be waiting for her future colleagues to close the gap rather than taking steps right now to do so herself. Playing around with the Second Life Globe Theatre is all well and good and may actually teach the students about stagecraft, but it doesn’t help them to see the 2-D aspect of the plays. And since few of them are likely to become stage professionals, it’s through reading and viewing, if at all, that Shakespeare is going to be part of their minds and lives. So far from making us stupid, the Internet can surely bring us Shakespeare in 2-D in entirely new ways and thereby bring his multidimensionality into truer focus for the twenty-first century, but on the evidence of the article we’re a long way off yet. I hope we don’t have to wait for Jen Rajchel to get tenure.

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