Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told

It was a great day at the TSI!

Professor Stephen Dickey started off with an intriguing lecture about Shakespeare's use of bear and dog imagery in Richard III. We got a little miniature lesson about what bear-baiting was, and then Prof. Dickey took us right through an analysis of the motif in that play plus a couple others (most primarily Twelfth Night). What I'll remember most about the lecture, though, is what came after. In our 8-person seminar with him, someone asked him about the process of finding something like that, and then reading it through that new lens. "It must be very gratifying to figure something like that out, and then read it through that lens, isn't it?" and it struck me that what Prof. Dickey did is exactly what I ask my students to do in the IB Program. I want them to figure out patterns that they see, and then to read it through that lens. It's a hard thing to do with a text, particularly when you're reading it for the first time and don't know all the little tricks about reading literature (one reason I really like Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor text for high school students). The IB Program requires that students find an original motif and analyze it, sometimes connecting it with other texts, and it's a challenging skill to teach. We go from the tenth grade, where we tell students to pay attention to the descriptions of Janie's hair or the mentions of the horizon in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and have them mark for them when they come to them, and then analyze it all together at the end for the effect of the motif and its larger implication. But it's a challenge to find those things yourself as a reader when you're a Junior in high school.

The IB students' summer essay is to track a motif through Lahiri's The Namesake and write an essay about its effect on meaning. We'll see how they go. Today's lecture and that subsequent comment sort of made me remember just how challenging that sort of undirected, independent study type of assignment that is. It's a good thing, but I need to do those things a little bit more myself to remember what my students are going through as they blindly flail through a text. After all, it's from that blindly flailing through the text that something new is uncovered. Like Prof. Dickey found in Richard III.

And this blindly flailing through the text is also what I did a little bit for my research project. One of the requirements of the Folger TSI is a research project. I went up and down in my attitude towards this portion of the institute. On the one hand, it gave me a chance to get into the Folger's terrific rare book stacks, and hold in my hand books that are - literally - 500 years old. On the other hand, I'm just not that into research of primary sources. I was much more interested in modern texts and scholarly articles, which is what I assign my students to investigate on occasion and seems much more applicable to both my understanding of Shakespeare and my classroom practice (although I assign the reading of scholarly articles about texts, it's not something I've done since college).

Still, I turned out to be pretty happy with my research, and today we presented on them. I decided to investigate the 16th century attitude towards aging, with King Lear and a bit of Much Ado About Nothing as jumping off points where older characters were treated badly. My research was strongly influenced by Dr. Gail Kern Paster's lecture about the humours in the body, a medical theory that middle English folks had; when a person aged, his/her levels of melancholy (not today's definition of it), or black bile, became higher, and he or she became dry. I got to thinking that perhaps Lear going into the rainstorm was important for this reason, and his constant complaining about being cold was also telling of this. Later, I became very interested in the idea of beards as a symbol of age and wisdom, a symbol that Lear seems to scoff at. I'm not done yet, but I became pretty interested in my topic. I've got to write the paper tomorrow night, so wish me luck finishing up my last few thoughts about it. I do, however, love doing ungraded work. I feel no pressure to BS anything.

Anyhow, today we did our presentations about our research, and I really enjoyed them. They kept us on a 5-minute time limit, which was great, because they seemed to zip by.

The highlight of the day, however, was seeing a teaser of a film that the Folger is producing - perhaps for PBS, perhaps for Showtime - that (a) features a filmed stage performance of their much-lauded Macbeth from spring of 2008; and (b) is also a documentary of the production of the play. The play was partially a big deal because Teller, from Penn and Teller, was the co-director of the play, and he's seen in the 20-minute teaser sayign that Shakespeare wrote a bloody play, and they made a bloody play. It also features some magic tricks and optical illusions, the likes of which are not ever done with Shakespeare plays. He argues that this is the sort of bloody story that could be a late-night horror movie, except that the writing is so beautiful.

The play looked amazing - we see what Lady Macbeth sees during her sleepwalking scene, and she becomes covered in blood; the dagger really appears in front of Macbeth - as an optical illusion that looks real - before he kills Duncan; the killing of the Macduff family is more brutal than the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

They showed us the teaser because the film is eventually going to be marketed to teachers, and they wanted to know what kind of features we would like, and how we would use it in the classroom. However, it also looks like it's going to be a feature film of some sort for the general public, and it. looks. amazing. I can hardly wait for it to come out to see more of it. There was a collective "wow" as the credits rolled from everyone - albeit we were all sort of Shakespeare dorks going in, but still. It looked awesome. I think the kids would be totally into it, as well. Usually filmed plays look to bad onscreen, but this one didn't. It's filmed in High-Definition with a live audience.

After that all, we had an acting workshop, where I acted in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play I've neither read nor seen (except for a post-eye surgery viewing in 2003, when I was shushing kids and nearly blind). The instructor put all of us who had never studied the play before in the same group, and it was a strange experience. Still, I acted! I can't wait to see what it's like with something I know more about. I wished I knew more about it, but she told us not to look up anything in the days prior to the performance because she wanted us to get the experience our students have.

Lastly, we watched Richard III with Ian McKellen. Just as good as I remembered. I love how he spends the whole movie grinning and winking at the camera. And seeing Maggie Smith act is always a great thing. I love old lady actresses (R.I.P. Estelle Getty).

Long day, though. Very, very tired.

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