Students in the "Making Shakespeare" class review materials in Special Collections of the UD Library.

Making Shakespeare

Award-winning honors colloquium explores playwright's rise to prominence


8:44 a.m., Dec. 2, 2015--Ask people how Shakespeare became known and loved as the greatest writer in the English language, and many replies might be something like: He was the best. It was obvious to everyone.

But that won’t be the answer given by the 22 University of Delaware freshmen who are taking a first-year honors colloquium this semester titled “Making Shakespeare.” 

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The course, which recently won a prestigious national award for its innovative design, engages students in tracing the many paths that brought Shakespeare to such prominence in the English literary tradition.

“We’re looking at the period from about 1660-1760, and in the beginning of that period, Shakespeare was one among many well-known playwrights,” said Matthew Kinservik, who co-developed and team-teaches the class with Jane Wessel. “By the end of that time, he was, to use his words, ‘the be-all and the end-all’ among writers. The course asks why that happened.”

Students in the course explore the cultural, political and economic factors that led to Shakespeare’s renown. They are reading plays written by him, adaptations of those plays, early biographies and theatre reviews and are learning to conduct archival research using such resources as library databases, digital image collections and Special Collections in the UD Library.

Kinservik, who is vice provost for faculty affairs and a professor of English, said he wanted to teach an undergraduate course this semester, but he worried that his sometimes unpredictable schedule as vice provost might make it difficult to attend every class session. 

He and Wessel, a doctoral student in English who has been teaching literature, drama and honors writing classes, decided that teaching a class together would solve any scheduling problems, and they spent the summer designing a novel kind of curriculum.

“We start the class with what the students think they know about studying Shakespeare through literary analysis, but then we move beyond discussing a play itself into discussing how Shakespeare became the writer we know today,” Wessel said. “I think what makes this course so interesting is that, through a series of multimedia projects, the students become part of the cultural process of determining what matters about Shakespeare’s legacy.”

Students in the class are all in the University Honors Program, and none is majoring in English. Many are engineering students, Kinservik said.

“We’re taking material they’re unfamiliar with and really making them responsible for their own learning,” he said. “These are skills that transfer well to all academic disciplines.”

Students are reading only two plays, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth, but they also study adaptations and view video clips that demonstrate how different readers and performers have interpreted a particular Shakespearean scene in many different ways. They learn to think critically about how text and meaning can change, Kinservik and Wessel said.

The class received the competitive Innovative Course Design Award from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, a major humanities association. 

The society’s selection committee called the course’s approach “imaginative and energetic” and said it “demonstrates the highest level of teaching excellence by engaging students with an impressive range of challenging materials.”

“Wessel and Kinservik approach their course content with theoretical sophistication, and they provide a hands-on research experience to first-year students who gain a fresh and deep perspective on Shakespeare’s history while learning crucial 21st century skills,” the committee said.

As their final project for the course, students are creating and curating an exhibit in Morris Library about the growth of Shakespeare’s reputation in the 18th century. The students, working in small groups, will research texts and objects from Special Collections and select which to include in the exhibit. They also will write and design a print brochure to accompany the exhibit.

Kinservik noted that staff from Special Collections, Reference and Instructional Services and the library’s Student Multimedia Design Center have provided key assistance to the students.

“This has been such a collaborative effort,” he said. “You couldn’t do this kind of class and project without the resources we have at the University of Delaware.”

Collaboration has been central to the entire course, he and Wessel said: Students collaborate with one another and their teachers, and during class sessions they see the two scholars discuss and sometimes disagree about literature. 

In addition, the course has enabled a doctoral student and a professor to collaborate in a novel approach to teaching.

In March, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Wessel and Kinservik will give a presentation about the course to faculty from other institutions who might want to take a similar approach in some of their own classes.

Article by Ann Manser

Photos courtesy of Matthew Kinservik

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