Anonymous

Anonymous PosterIn the interest of full disclosure, I should begin by saying I have not seen Anonymous. I don’t need to; its arguments are familiar to me. This blog post is not a review of the movie or even an attack. It’s more of a treatise on why we should view its historicity and arguments with a skeptical eye and why, in my opinion, English teachers should not be encouraged to introduce it into debate about Shakespeare scholarship in their class discussions, as Young Minds Inspired has created teaching materials for high school and college that the film’s producers hope English teachers will use.

First, many Shakespeare conspiracy theorists, whether they support Oxford (current contemporary favorite) or Bacon or Marlowe or any of the other candidates that have been proposed as the “real” Shakespeare, often paint those who believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare as defensive and inflexible regarding opening up the authorship question for debate. If Stratfordians, as proponents of the argument that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are called, are defensive and inflexible it is because the bulk of rational and historical evidence heavily supports their view, yet conspiracy theorists are unswayed by this rational, historical evidence. Many Stratfordians refuse to engage in the debate because the Oxfordians typically present evidence that is taken out of context, distorted, or just incorrect. People are invested in their pet conspiracy theories, and they often won’t listen to the arguments proposed against them. On the other hand, I have seen some Stratfordians engage seriously in answering the arguments Oxfordians list as evidence for the correctness of their point of view, explaining why and how the arguments fail, only to be met with ad hominem attacks on their open-mindedness and a refusal to debate the matter further (take a look at the comments in the linked post). However, that is not to say that the people who believe that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare are in any way foolish, unintelligent, uninformed, or even not perfectly serious. It must be said that they are not, however, professional Shakespeare scholars, who by and large do not question Shakespeare’s authorship.

Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro was one of the first to examine the authorship question and its history in his wonderful book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. I can’t recommend the book highly enough if you have even a passing interest in Shakespeare and especially if you teach Shakespeare. He mentions early in the book that other Shakespeare scholars tried to convince him not to take on the authorship question mainly because they felt giving the argument serious air would have the side effect of giving it legitimacy. They have a point. This movie is sure to bring up the debate in our schools as our students are often avid moviegoers. Shapiro, however, felt that the time was right for a Shakespeare scholar to explain why Shakespeare scholars believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

The chief argument that anti-Stratfordians make is that Shakespeare was born from humble means and did not have the right education in order to have been able to write the plays he wrote. However, Shakepeare’s “inferior” education at the grammar school in Stratford, which many anti-Stratfordians seem to think was akin to an average modern elementary education, included classical studies in Ovid, Cicero, Plautus, Terence, Virgil, and Erasmus—in Latin—all of which Shakespeare would have studied by the age of 13. One cannot argue he did not receive an education that could inspire the works he wrote. By the way, Ben Jonson’s father was a bricklayer, and Jonson also didn’t go to university, but no one questions the authorship of his plays or poems. Interestingly enough, Shakespeare makes some errors in his plays that one would not expect a Cambridge-educated man like Oxford to make: anachronistic references to clocks (Julius Caesar) and a description of Bohemia as a landlocked desert by the sea (A Winter’s Tale).

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), is the current favorite candidate of Shakespeare conspiracy theorists. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and his candidacy as an alternative author dates to 1920, when J. Thomas Looney published Shakespeare Identified. Looney sought to explain how he felt certain events in Shakespeare’s plays were analogies for events in Oxford’s life and that Oxford had the right education and courtly connections to have written Shakespeare’s plays. Before Oxford, other candidates such as Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe became popular alternative Shakespeares. As I’ve mentioned, Shapiro wrote an entire book examining other claims for Shakespeare, and the website Shakespeare Authorship has a comprehensive section examining the major arguments that Oxfordians make:

In addition, an essay on the site,  How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare: The Historical Facts,  by Tom Reedy and David Kathman, “summarize[s] the extensive web of evidence that identifies William Shakespeare of Stratford as the man who wrote the works of William Shakespeare.”

Another argument I see many Oxfordians make is that such intelligent luminaries as Mark Twain, Derek Jacobi, John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Sigmund Freud, and many others of equal talent all believed that someone other than Shakespeare—probably Oxford, but certainly not Shakespeare—wrote the plays attributed to him. This is a poor argument. Lots of people believe lots of things and the relative fame, talent, or intelligence of those who believe those things should not make them more or less true unless they are backed up also by evidence. Presenting this list as evidence itself is not evidence. It’s just a way of pointing out that one’s company isn’t completely made up of strange people in tinfoil hats.

What concerns me is not that people debate the issue. They can debate it if they like (although I believe it to be rather pointless in light of the evidence). My worry is that there is this notion that teachers who do not engage in this sort of debate in their English classes are perpetuating a lie or at least aren’t encouraging students to think critically and form their own opinions. From the materials produced by Young Minds Inspired:

Objectives:

  • To encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions.
  • To strengthen students’ communication skills through classroom discussion and debate.
  • To engage students in creative writing exercises.

A look at the language (emphasis mine) used in some of the activities is alarming:

PART A: WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are Shakespeare’s plays the work of a highly educated writer with firsthand experience of aristocracy? Or could they be the work of an author with exceptional creative talent and observational skills who borrowed from learned books to enhance his own writing? Divide your class into two teams, the Upstart Crows and the Reasonable Doubters, to weigh the question: Was William Shakespeare really an improbable genius, or just a front man for someone with real ability?

Here is an essay assignment in the materials:

PART B: WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
Use the information on this sheet to research the theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the author of the “Shakespeare” plays. Then write a persuasive essay supporting your position.

And later:

PART A: WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Based on this short sketch of Edward de Vere and your knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays, what are the arguments pro and con that de Vere was the true author of the plays? Compare ideas, weigh the evidence, and come to a consensus. Then imagine that de Vere really was the true author. Should he have remained anonymous? Should Shakespeare have taken credit for his plays?

These activities are not about encouraging debate about the issue. They’re about encouraging students to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare. Ron Rosenbaum lists some of the errors the Anonymous filmmakers make about Shakespeare and the times. As James Shapiro says in his New York Times op-ed in response to Anonymous, “promoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems.” He concludes that “the most troubling thing” about Anonymous  is that “the film turns great plays into propaganda,” which Shapiro argues is reductive, and I would agree. In the film, the character Oxford says that “all art is political … otherwise it is just decoration.” That is really the only reason we create art? To make a political statement? When Simon Schama weighed in on the movie, he concluded the biggest problem with it was its “fatal lack of imagination on the subject of the imagination.”

Shakespeare was a gifted genius. What these activities are really going to teach kids is that people like Shakespeare are only possible if they are born into privilege and receive an education at a prestigious institution like Oxford or Cambridge (or Harvard or Yale… you get the picture). And what is also lost in these assignments is an appreciation for Shakespeare’s writing—the words, the phrases, the stories—which is traded off for a sexier debate about whether Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare. What a crime.

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NCTE Annual Convention

My Kinda Town

Just a quick update: I will be presenting at NCTE this year in Chicago. My name does not appear in the searchable program online because NCTE has not received payment for my registration. I am not sure if it will appear in the print program. I will be presenting with Glenda Funk and Ami Szerencse. Our session is G.41: Teaching the Hero’s Journey: Understanding our Past, Creating our Future. My part of the presentation will cover creating a course based on the Hero’s Journey, in which I will describe how I designed an elective course, including backward design, book selection ideas, and handouts I’ve used. It is in Chicago Hilton/Continental Ballroom, Salon B, Lobby Level on Saturday from 9:30 A.M. to 10:45 A.M.

Looking forward to seeing you there. Who’s going to Gino’s to get some pizza with me? I have been told that is the place to go. Oh, and now I hear Garrett’s Popcorn is a must, too.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Stuck in Customs

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Better Living Through Beowulf

Better Living Through BeowulfScott McLeod sometimes shares blogs that “deserve a bigger audience.” I don’t presume to know how many people read Robin Bates’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf, but I find it consistently makes me think about the connections between everyday life and literature. Robin is an English professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. He regularly shares his insights regarding literature’s and film’s connections to such wide-ranging topics as current events, sports, and spiritual matters. I often save his posts for last when I’m catching up on RSS feeds in my feed reader because I know I will want to read them slowly and think them over. There’s nothing I don’t love about his blog, from his interesting connections and engaging commentary all the way down to his layout. I think even if you don’t teach English, you can learn something from Professor Bates’s blog.

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Banish the Whole-Class Novel?

the infernoI’ve been thinking about Pam Allyn’s article in Education Week for a couple of days. I read a few of the comments, too. While I think Allyn makes some valid points about putting the right books in the hands of students, I also think that can be accomplished through independent reading and literature circles without eliminating a whole-class novel study. More goes on in a whole-class novel study than just reading books. Critical thinking—synthesizing ideas, analysis, compare and contrast, application of one situation to another, interpretation—the list could go on. Sometimes, students actually do enjoy those books, too. I’ve seen it happen many times, even with books you wouldn’t think. I have had students not want to stop reading when class is over when we studied The Catcher in the Rye. I have had professed non-readers tell me how much they liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. One former student told me when she packed for college, she had room to take three books. One of them was Wuthering Heights, which I had introduced her to (granted, our study of the story was based on the film and I gave her the book to read when she showed interest in delving deeper).  Do all students like all books? No. I didn’t like all the books I read in school either. And sometimes I think we try to teach books that students are not ready for. I’m not sure I was ready for The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I enjoyed it when I read it in my late twenties for the first time. Same thing with The Great Gatsby. However, I have also taught students who were ready for those books in high school and enjoyed them. One student who was in my class in ninth grade blossomed in his English class when his tenth grade teacher taught The Great Gatsby—he loved it. Would these students have read The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter if we hadn’t done a whole-class study? I’m not so sure. Sometimes it does happen that a student finds a book that means a great deal to him or her through a whole-class novel study, and I and other teachers I work with have been personally thanked for introducing that student to that book. And students do enjoy whole-class novel discussion. It’s not a novel, but whole-class study of Romeo and Juliet has been a hit every year I’ve taught it.

While I think we really do want to create life-long readers, and establishing independent reading in our classrooms can go a long way toward accomplishing that goal, studying a novel as a class is not a waste of time, and we can and should incorporate more nonfiction and more books that appeal to boys as well as girls. To me, it’s about balance rather than an all or nothing approach—balancing choice reads with whole-class or literature circle selections. One commenter on the original post said, “It’s not the whole-class novel that’s the problem—it’s how we choose those novels.” I agree. The example Allyn uses to demonstrate problems with the class-novel study is of a twelve-year-old reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I read that novel in eleventh grade, and it was the perfect book for me at that time. I taught it for years as a ninth grade text until students began coming to me having studied it in middle school. Even though I see the value in re-reading a novel, I also had to contend with parents who thought I was teaching a middle school text, so I gave that one up. My personal opinion is that To Kill a Mockingbird is perfect for high school students, but there may be some middle school students who are ready for it. So what do we do in the face of pressure to include more rigorous reading in the middle school? What should all literature teachers be doing to foster a love of reading while pushing students forward as critical thinkers?

Well, the commenter I quoted previously went on to say that “[a]ll choice is no better than no choice.” We need to think about what studying a text will teach us that we can’t learn from studying any other text—the first step in backward design, by the way. When we studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I asked my students themselves to justify its place in our class. Should it even be taught? Wasn’t it racist? Couldn’t some other book do just as well without exposing students to the n-word over 200 times? They put the book on trial, and the conclusion they came to was that it was important for us to study Huck Finn because it captured a moment in our history that was important not to ignore. We should be thoughtful about why we teach anything that we teach.

Next year, I will not be teaching literature classes for the first time in my teaching career, so this is perhaps not even something I need to chew over very much because it’s not a decision I will have to make. However, I do know that any time I ever teach a literature class, I will always teach the whole-class novel as a part of my curriculum.

P.S. Unrelated, but speaking of Education Week, Katie Ash interviewed me for her article “Language Arts Educators Balance Text-Only Tactics With Multimedia Skills.” Key word: balance. Check it out!

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Robert Browning and Dramatic Monologues

Lucrezia de' Medici

Lucrezia de' Medici

Many years ago, I taught a model lesson on Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” as part of a job interview. I got the job, and I think the sample lesson was what clinched it. It didn’t hurt that the school was my alma mater and that the department chair was a beloved former teacher of my own, but she herself told me that my lesson made the difference. Essentially, students read the poem “Porphyria’s Lover,” and I asked that we put the character on trial. Is he guilty of the murder of his lover? Students had to rule that he was either guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity. They turned to the text for evidence, and it was a fairly lively discussion. Students had a healthy debate and found evidence for either argument in the text. I still teach the poem that way when I teach it.

However, it has been my experience that Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” is more frequently anthologized. The inspiration for the poem is believed to be Lucrezia de’ Medici, wife of Alfonso II d’Este, fifth Duke of Ferrara. The Duke left Lucrezia two years before she died, and a hint of poison lurks around the circumstances of her death. He later married Barbara of Austria, and one can just picture the Duke showing his prospective father-in-law this imperious portrait of his first wife.

These two poems differ from many that students have read before in that they are dramatic monologues in which Browning uses the voice of a speaker to tell a story. In fact, I often think of these particular poems when I caution students to describe the narrative voice of a poem as “the speaker” rather than the poet him/herself. Clearly neither speaker is Browning, but these poems open up possibilities to students who might not have considered the storytelling capabilities of poetry.

Many years ago, I purchased a book called Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford. On pages 183-194, the writers discuss monologue poems and use “My Last Duchess” as the centerpiece for the lesson. Their suggestions for creating dramatic monologues are fantastic, and if you don’t have the book, do yourself a favor and get it. Over the years, I have used many of its ideas. I am going to take their advice about “My Last Duchess” and memorize it.

Here are some other resources for teaching Browning and dramatic monologues:

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TPCASTT: A Method for Analyzing Poetry

magnetic poetryOne of the difficulties students tend to have with analyzing poetry is figuring out how to start. One method I’ve adopted after seeing it on Lisa Huff’s blog is TPCASTT.

TPCASTT is an acronym standing for title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude, shift, title (again), and theme.

Students begin by looking at the title of the poem to determine what they think it might be about and what it might literally mean.

Next, they read the poem and paraphrase it. What is the “story” of the poem in their own words? They should also define words they don’t know at this stage.

Examining the connotations means looking at words that might have multiple meanings and trying to determine if there is a meaning beyond the literal that lies beneath the surface of the poem. At this stage, students are truly analyzing the text.

Attitude involves determining the tone and emotions associated with the subject. What sort of attitude does the speaker take toward the subject?

Many poems involve a shift in tone. Next, students examine the poem to see if they can detect a shift, and if so, where it occurs, what kind of shift it is, and how it changes the direction and meaning of the poem.

After examining the poem, students return to the title again. Are there any new insights about the title after they have read the poem?

The final step is determining the theme. What greater message did the poet hope to convey? Why did he/she pick up the pen?

One advantage of this method is that it provides students a framework and process for analyzing poetry. Students examine subject, purpose, and audience through this analysis.

My experience has been that students enjoy this organized method of analyzing poetry, and they tend to do well with this sort of guidance. They can learn the acronym and apply it to other poems that they read. I know many AP Literature teachers use this method to teach their students poetry analysis, but I find it works with students of all levels, and particularly with lower level students who have difficulty determining what is important or how to tease out meaning and analysis in a poem. Lisa provides handouts for this method on her blog, too.

I used this method successfully today as my British literature students analyzed Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us” and my American literature students analyzed “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” It was new to my American literature students, but my British literature students were familiar with the method. It was nice to hear students saying they enjoyed the poetry we read, and I think they enjoyed it mainly because they uncovered a deeper meaning and connection to the poetry through their analysis.

I’ll try to post more poetry ideas as the month progresses. Happy National Poetry Month!

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Byronic Heroes

OK, Digital Video was the class in which I earned my lowest grade in grad school. Since I took the class, I have become a little more proficient. I made this video to teach my British literature students about the Byronic hero.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQuBgGd7boU[/youtube]

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Teaching Literature

remember to thank all the books you haven't read over the past three years

I love teaching literature. I’m not second-guessing my decision to move into technology. I really love working with technology, and I am excited that I’ll be able to do more of it. I’m also excited to be able to help my colleagues integrate technology or learn about technology. I will also still be teaching a British literature course and a writing course. However, as I teach British Romanticism, I have been thinking about how much I enjoy the material, and one thing I fear is that down the road, my school will decide not to let me teach it anymore. Frankly, I’m not sure I could let it go. I’m certainly not ready to let it go yet. I think it would be good for me to remain in the classroom, even in a diminished capacity, because it will keep me fresh for some of the ideas I want to help my colleagues implement. I am also happy at my school. I know that I can possibly team-teach some material with English teachers, but I must admit that if they remove me entirely from the English classroom, I will not know what to do with myself. At my core, I am a British literature teacher. It feeds my soul. Time will tell how it will work out, but I know I am not done teaching English.
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Shutting Down Class Discussion

Dana Huff Teaching

I know I said I would talk about tools on Wednesdays, but something came up. A student left a comment on my book blog post “Do You Hate Holden Caulfield?” It seems he had a rather negative (or I should say perceived it was negative) experience. If I understand his comment correctly, he felt silenced in the class discussion because he did not agree with his teacher’s opinion, and he had previously seen his teacher shut one of his peers down for voicing a contrary opinion.

Obviously I was not a member of the class, and I don’t know what was said. I told the student that what I thought had happened was the teacher really enjoys this book and wants students to enjoy it, too. It can be hard when students don’t love the books we love. But we shouldn’t dismiss opinions because they are different from our own. Students do not have the learning and the background with our subjects that we have, and they can make judgments based on much less information than we have. I think it’s our job to challenge students to explain why they make those judgments rather than attacking them for being “wrong.” I think they learn better from us if they feel listened to. I want to emphasize that I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but it sounded to me as if the student was describing a classroom in which he didn’t feel free to share his own conclusions. What he asked me was whether it was OK or right to hate Holden. I gave him my permission, for whatever it’s worth, and I shared my own journey with that character.

I will never forget sharing in an English Education assignment that I didn’t particularly like T.S. Eliot. I guess I hit a nerve because my professor treated me to an embarrassing public lecture on why I was wrong. I still don’t particularly like Eliot, but I understand his importance, and when he comes up in my curriculum, I teach my students to appreciate his work. But all that lecture did is make me dislike Eliot more, and it’s not poor Eliot’s fault.

So how can we share books we love with students and give them permission NOT to love them? How can we challenge them to justify their judgments? I think you should start by being honest with your students about your feelings for a book. They are surprisingly gentle (or at least, my own students have been—your mileage may vary considerably). I think the last message we want to send our students, however uninformed or incorrect we feel they may be, is that their opinions really don’t matter.

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Book Blogging

Tome Reader

First things first, a few questions. How many books do you estimate you read in a year? How do you know how many you read (do you have a system for keeping track, if so, what)? What kind of books do you like to read?

Do you blog about your reading?

Some years ago, I started a blog. It’s a bit older than this one, but it didn’t find a real focus until after this blog had already been established. The focus became books. At my book blog, I write about books and reading, I review every book I read, and I participate in reading challenges and memes. It has revolutionized the way I read.

First, I know that my blog has an audience, however small and perhaps irregular it might be, and I feel some compulsion to update with new material. I am reading more now than I ever have. The first year I blogged regularly about books, I think I read only 12 or 14 books that year. Last year, for the first time, I read 40. It might not seem like a lot to those of you who read 100+ or regularly devour over 50 books a year, but it was a milestone for me. I don’t mean to imply that it’s all about quantity instead of quality (if it were, I would read only skinny books instead of some of gigantic ones I’ve picked up over the last couple of months). However, I find that the more I read, the more quickly and more deeply I seem to read.

Reviewing each of my books gives me a record of what I read and what I thought about it right after I finished it. I can turn back and read my initial impressions on finishing each book I’ve read over the last three years or so. I am enjoying this record of my reading life.

I have also begun trying different ways to read. I have a Kindle, and began subscribing to DailyLit books some years ago (first read was Moby Dick, and I’m not sure I’d have read it otherwise, but I truly enjoyed it; my review is here). One thing I decided to try after some serious book blogging is audio books. Now I often have a book going in the car on my commutes, one in DailyLit, one paper book, and one e-book. I never used to juggle more than one book at a time, but I find that I can do so much more easily now than I used to be able to.

Another fun part of book blogging for me is the reading challenges. They vary in subject and theme. I decided to host my first reading challenge this year, and I am participating in many others. I find that they honestly remind me to try reading different things (although at the moment I’m on a huge historical fiction kick—always a favorite with me).

If Goodreads or Shelfari had existed when I started my book blog, would I have started one at all, or would I have used those networks to share reviews? I don’t know. I do have more freedom to completely customize my blog in ways that I can’t customize Shelfari or Goodreads, though I use both networks.

Ultimately, as this blog has made me more reflective of my teaching practices, my book blog has made me more reflective of my reading, which can only be a good thing—at least in my book (sorry; couldn’t resist).
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