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Librarians help students study diversity in Shakespeare by using technology

Monday, May 1, 2017

On April 22, undergraduate students from across the state of Arizona gathered at Mesa Community College to present projects on Shakespeare. The collaboration crossed disciplinary boundaries and included scholars from English, theater, history, digital humanities, cultural studies, science and linguistics. The one commonality of the projects: using technology to explore diversity in Shakespeare.

The conference, titled “Diversifying Shakespeare: Engaging Students Beyond Boundaries,” was funded by an NEH-sponsored grant from the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library. University of Arizona English Professors David Sterling Brown, Meg Lota Brown and Kyle DiRoberto applied for the grant after the UA displayed Shakespeare’s First Folio last spring.

The grant includes the opportunity for UA students to contribute their projects to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s online suite of shared teaching tools and digital assignments, which will be freely available on the Folger website for other college teachers worldwide.

The new UA undergraduate course “ENGL-310: Diversifying Shakespeare: Engaging Students Beyond Boundaries" – which was supported by a UA 100% Engagement Initiative grant – was offered this spring in preparation for the conference. In a semester-length project, students collaborated with one another to develop digital teaching tools.

Professors David Sterling Brown, Meg Lota Brown and Kyle DiRoberto have been leading the course with UA librarians Jennifer Nichols, Anthony Sanchez and Niamh Wallace.

Students in the course read Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and “The Merchant of Venice,” drawing on concepts articulated in W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s “Borderlands/La Frontera.”

“We wanted students to engage with a variety of texts and a variety of historical periods, including our own, to analyze the social construction of identity,” said Meg Lota Brown, who is a professor of English and director of the UA Graduate Center.

By helping the students develop critical thinking related to the challenges and advantages of diversity, DiRoberto, who is program director of English at UA South, also hopes the students will become more actively engaged with these issues in the community.

Double-consciousness was one theory examined in the class. “Double-consciousness is this two-ness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others,” said David Sterling Brown, an assistant professor of early modern English literature who often teaches Shakespeare alongside African-American literature. “In Du Bois’ book, he discusses the African American experience and the challenge of trying to reconcile two distinct identities – American and Negro.”

The class was taught in a “traditional classroom space” in the Integrated Learning Center early in the semester and then moved to the iSpace, a collaborative makerspace in the Science-Engineering Library.

Jennifer Nichols, a digital scholarship librarian who co-directs the iSpace with Anthony Sanchez, said, “Our role is to support faculty research and instruction around digital scholarship and digital humanities. This is a classic opportunity to work with faulty who have not done digital humanities projects.”

Through a program called TouchCast, the students learned to imbed multiple digital tools – textual analysis, family trees, maps, websites, social media, virtual reality – into videos to create an interactive experience.

“As a computer science major, I appreciate that there is a class that bridges technology and literature and brings us both worlds,” said Maxwell Faridian. “We have students from all different kinds of majors in this class and it is nice to have those interactions.”

Allison McNally said she has never taken a Shakespeare class before. “The opportunity to explore the plays through digital humanities is really cool. My group is focusing on the different borders the characters in the play face, including economic, gender and race.”

The linguistic analysis tools have been particularly useful for a group looking at representations of social violence, misrepresentation and silencing, DiRoberto said.

Assistant librarian Niamh Wallace explained text mining as similar to distance reading. “You are looking at a larger body of text with an analytical and critical lens.” The activity allows the researcher to look at themes and the relationship between characters.

Having studied Shakespeare since his freshman year, Yori Johnson said he has enjoyed getting creative with the material in this class. His team created a chess game based on the play “Titus Andronicus” and also set up social media pages where they add quotes and textual analysis.

David Sterling Brown explains that the chess game illuminates the racial and class elements of the play by showing the conflict between the Roman and Goth characters as well as one “outlier character” of Moorish descent. The team represents the two factions through the different colored chess pieces and had to figure out an alternative way to represent Aaron, the Moor.

“Their conclusion was that Aaron [the black character] is in the wrong game, so to speak, so we have to figure out how to incorporate him,” said David Sterling Brown.  “That is what Shakespeare does in very interesting ways to challenge and affirm stereotypes of black figures.”

Meg Lota Brown adds that the game is a clever way to “display the limited options available to people who are subject to various constructions of identity. If the rules of the game – the unspoken rules that we are dealt relating to identity – limit those moves, the game will manifest that fact.”

The three instructors are uniform in their delight at working with the UA librarians in this class.

“I think the librarians are awesome. They pushed me out of my comfort zone,” said David Sterling Brown, before joking. “In previous classes, I thought I was being technologically savvy by showing a film clip.”

DiRoberto adds, “We had some trepidation about this class becoming something less meaningful, more infotainment, but the technology reaffirmed the content that we wanted to teach.”

“The librarians have been equal partners in the learning that is taking place here,” Meg Lota Brown said. “I have learned from them myself.”