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Skyping Shakespeare

by Hal Jacobs

Kevin Quarmby, now an assistant professor of English at Oxford College and Sheila Cavanagh, professor of EnglishHalfway through the first class meeting of "International Shakespeare in a New Media World," students must have realized this wasn't going to be a typical English course. They had already been tipped off when they met their co-instructors: Sheila Cavanagh, professor of English, who was in the classroom located in Woodruff Library; and Kevin Quarmby, now an assistant professor of English at Oxford College, who joined them from his hotel room in Casablanca, Morocco.

Quarmby was present via Skype, the popular real-time video conferencing tool. To provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the Internet is literally strung together (transmission is through wires and cables, not by satellite as most people assume), students and instructors went on a field trip to a cable closet located a short walk away. And rather than leave Quarmby out, Cavanagh escorted him courtesy of her iPad, which she held carefully in front of her so that he could see every step of the way.

It was an unusual moment. In a library that has morphed from a book repository to a digital commons, a course on Shakespeare is moving out of the traditional classroom to explore the frontiers of the digital-global learning experience.

Wanna Skype?

As pioneers of this approach, Cavanagh and Quarmby have made considerable progress in the two years they've been collaborating. A chance remark by Quarmby started the ball rolling while they were both attending an international Shakespeare conference in Kolkata, India. Cavanagh had been teaching and lecturing in eastern India for many years, working with both major universities and remote tribal colleges. Quarmby was a longtime actor in London, appearing on stage, film, and TV for over thirty years (he was strangled by Peter O'Toole in the 1980 Old Vic production of Macbeth) before migrating to academia and becoming a Shakespeare scholar. They were saying their goodbyes at the conference, with Quarmby headed off to Skype his wife and Cavanagh to Skype her son, when Quarmby remarked, "You know, I could Skype into your classes." Cue lightbulbs in both their heads.

Cavanagh took the idea back to Emory and, with the support of Emory's Center for Interactive Teaching (ECIT), the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, and the Halle Institute for Global Learning, was soon introducing Quarmby to her "Shakespeare in Performance" class.

"I had no idea how it was going to work, what it was going to look like, or if it would be just a one-time deal," says Cavanagh.

But one Skype session turned into two, then more, as Quarmby excelled in helping students analyze different readings and stagings of Shakespeare's work, even acting out live scenes with them.

The first classes taught them some valuable lessons.  In the beginning, students sat at their desks and stared at Quarmby as if they were watching television. The first time a student read a Shakespeare scene with Quarmby, he stayed in his seat. But when they tried the scene again, Cavanagh suggested he stand up and face Quarmby on the monitor. It was only when Quarmby leaned into the camera and, gesturing with his hand, said, "Come hither," and the student took a step forward, that everyone in the class understood the real-time physical nature of the connection.

"That was a galvanizing moment in what we do because we realized how important it is to establish early on that our connection is fully interactive," says Cavanagh. Since then, they have incorporated an "on your feet" segment where students stand up in front of the Skype camera and have face-to-face interactions with Quarmby.

They've also learned that educational technologists must be brought in early—and often—to help design and deliver the class. If Cavanagh and Quarmby are pioneers, the technologists are the calvary. They hold biweekly meetings with the tech people in advance of the class, meet in a fully equipped ECIT classroom, and intentionally expose the students to the process behind the monitors and cameras so that they understand the technology behind the delivery. They believe it's important for students to see how instructors and technologists improvise solutions when connections crash—say when "large-screen Quarmby" goes away and must be replaced by "iPad Quarmby" or "instant messaging Quarmby." In the process, students are learning nearly as much about communicating in a videoconferencing environment that may one day become the norm as they are with the writings of one of the world's greatest creators of human comedy and tragedy.

By the end of the first semester it was obvious that Cavanagh and Quarmby had all the ingredients for a long-running show: a mutual passion for Shakespeare, easy-going personalities from both sides of the Atlantic that could handle the occasional bump and flat tire on the information highway, and perhaps most importantly the support and resources at Emory to pull off this high-tech balancing act. They are also committed to using their experience as a scalable model for others, proselytizing about their experiences at major academic conferences.

From that first class they have consolidated their repertoire into the World Shakespeare Project. They have ventured into cross-cultural Shakespearean dialogues in West Bengal, London and Morocco, with plans underway to collaborate with American Indian Tribal colleges. This fall they are co-teaching a class between the Emory campus and Oxford College, the first time the two campuses have been linked together in a semester-long class with instructors on both campuses teaching simultaneously.

An upcoming TV documentary called "Shakespeare Now" will feature their work in its ten-hour series. The Goizueta Business School is taking notes to see how faculty and staff might incorporate the videoconferencing process and collaboration into its curriculum. And the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE) is holding up the project as a model for all faculty. "I really hope the success of the venture will encourage other Emory faculty to consider adding a live video conferencing dimension to their courses," says CFDE director Steve Everett.

"What's most interesting about this project is the way the love of teaching and the love of learning transcend boundaries," says Rosemary Magee, Emory University Vice President and Secretary, who has followed the project since its inception. "It reconfirms the power of literature across time, place, culture, and nationality."

Shakespeare as a Delivery Device?

classroom skypingAnna Dobben 13C, a student in the "International Shakespeare in a New Media World" class, says she was struck by how people from different cultures adapted Shakespeare, "something that is so inherently English."  In one of the classes, Emory students interacted with a class from Hassan II University in Casablanca. The conversation ranged from topics such as food and superstitions (do people still believe in witches?) to friendships (do Emory students have any Muslim friends—the answer being an enthusiastic "yes.")

For Dobben's final project she interviewed several generations of a family in Argentina, then created an e-book version of "Taming of the Shrew" set in the Carnival of Argentina. "I feel like I've learned how to make international connections and I feel spurred on to read more Shakespeare plays," she says.

Both Cavanagh and Quarmby understand that today's generation of students is far more comfortable with social media than with the writings of the Bard of Avon. But they've crafted a curriculum that uses blogging, new media and written analysis to play to the strengths of both. Their ultimate goal, says Cavanagh, is to "use Shakespeare as a medium to bring the world together, not just to take Shakespeare to the world."

They also emphasize that they want to connect diverse groups of students. "Some of our international connections are urban, some rural, some with students who've never been out of their village, many whose parents are not educated at all," says Cavanagh. "Because of technology we can bring groups of students together who would never otherwise have communicated."

Quarmby cites a recent conversation with an educational technologist at Hassan II University that demonstrates the momentum that’s starting to build. The staff member was "bubbling over," he says. Since the university's initial contact with the World Shakespeare Project, Quarmby reports, "everybody was throwing money at his department for the first time ever. He was screaming at the camera, 'Thank you, thank you.'"

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