Sunday, February 22, 2015

Adaptation Studies and Active Literacy

Despite having written and published extensively in the field of adaptation studies and pedagogy (including two co-edited volumes THE PEDAGOGY OF ADAPTATION and REDEFINING ADAPTATION STUDIES (2010), as well as ADAPTATION STUDIES AND LEARNING (2013)), I have hitherto found it difficult to address the question posed by Thomas Leitch in his FILM ADAPTATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS, about how to use adaptation studies to promote “active literacy.”

For Barton Palmer, writing in Film Quarterly, this model represents a form of “Deweyesque engagement in rewriting” – which I take to mean a form of education designed to promote individual talents, as well as an ability to use such talents for the greater good.  Adaptation enables learners to experience and interact with the curriculum, as well as experiment for themselves in writing and learning.

In general terms, this is a laudable aim; but I have always wondered how this “active literacy” could be assessed.  In ADAPTATION STUDIES AND LEARNING, Tony Gurr and myself suggested that this should be done collaboratively, with learners and teachers participating in a give-and-take process of evaluation, eventually arriving at some consensus of opinion.  This might sound laudable in theory, but might be difficult to achieve in practice, especially when educators are faced with large classes at the undergraduate level.

After having read Stephen Apkon’s inspiring book THE AGE OF THE IMAGE: REDEFINING LITERACY IN A WORLD OF SCREENS (Farrar, Strous & Giroux, 2013), perhaps I am now in a better position to understand how “active literacy” might be encouraged in the classroom.  Apkon argues persuasively that, in a world that is awash in visual storytelling, we have to redefine our pedagogical approaches to take into account how storytelling works in the human brain, and on the practical value of literacy in real-world situations.

Rather than confining ourselves to written assignments, we should encourage learners to research, write, revise, edit and produce videos, using archival material as well as their own ideas.  This form of assignment teaches learners “not only how to read and write, but also how to listen and speak, in all the media that really matter” (212).  We do not need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak (by rejecting written assignments altogether), but we need to redefine our educational methods through the prism of visual communication.

Modes of assessment should encompass familiar criteria – problem-solving and group participation – but also assess performative potential: visually-oriented projects can inspire a form of creative expression that some learners have never previously discovered.  Giving them the chance to show off their work in public, as well as perform in front of the camera, can inspire the kind of self-confidence that simply does not exist with exclusively written activities.

Perhaps more significantly, Apkon argues that visually-oriented activities help to establish relations between learners across social and cultural boundaries.  The realities of problem-solving, planning and communication (all part of the experience of filmmaking) provides a catalyst for the development of critical life-skills and “the kind of social and emotional learning our schools do not provide” (217).

Apkon offers a five-point plan for measuring visual literacy.  He believes that, when they graduate at the secondary and/or the tertiary levels, all learners should be able to:-

·        Write a script for a short video segment;
·        Shoot a coherent piece of film narrative with the correct literate elements of expression;
·        Edit video out of raw material into a persuasive argument;
·        Access channels of distribution, including the Internet;
·        Critically understand and deconstruct visual media.

Such objectives mesh in with the objectives of twenty-first century learning, as defined by the National Council of Teachers of English in 2008: learners need to a) develop proficiency with the tools of technology; b) Build relationships with others to solve problems cross-culturally and collaboratively; c) Analyze and evaluate multiple streams of information; d) Evaluate multimedia texts; and e) Design and share information for global communities for a variety of purposes.

In this educational model, “adaptation studies” not only requires learners to rewrite source-texts, but they have to learn how to adapt to one another.  Likewise educators have to redefine their roles; they are no longer sources of knowledge but participants in the collaborative process, guiding learners as well as offering encouragement in their own processes of self-discovery.

Active literacy” as defined by Leitch and filtered through Akpon’s suggestions, emphasizes the importance of activity; everyone has to be involved in the process of creation, in the belief that their work is not just designed to pass exams (or obtain good grades), but represents a positive contribution towards cross-cultural understanding.  The Internet and/or social media provide an invaluable means to facilitate this process.  Adaptation studies not only involve a process of personal development but should foster the desire to share one’s insights and/or cultural products with others.  As the old saying goes, two heads are better than one.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Beyond Adaptation

I recently came across an essay "Beyond Adaptation" by Mark Fortier in a recently-published anthology OUTERSPEARES: SHAKESPEARE, INTERMEDIA AND THE LIMITS OF ADAPTATION (U. of Toronto P., 2014).  I review the entire volume elsewhere, but this piece deserves particular attention.

Fortier claims, erroneously I think, that "most scholars of reworkings of Shakespeare have adopted a more or less limited sense of adaptation" - a concept different to parody, travesty and sequel insofar as it focuses on notions of textual equivalence, a concept which for Fortier "has a bit too much of the bureaucrat and the bean counter about it" (373).  The author prefers to borrow from Derrida, who apparently conceives adaptation as not only "particular works of secondary creation" but involves "the very possibility of culture going forward" (374).

Nonetheless Fortier manages to detect three types of textual and cultural activity that might be considered "beyond adaptation" - creating completely new work, looking at work that doesn't change, and those works that have entered into oblivion.  Shakespeare's work, he believes, contains a dismissal of the new, a mainly futile longing for constancy, a fear of change, and an expectation of oblivion (381).  So long as we speak of Shakespeare, however, the oblivion has not come and we are not beyond adaptation (384).

Many of these statements seem to be problematic, suggesting an a priori acceptance of certain (western formulated) concepts that betray a resistance to the adaptive process.  Cultures not only go forward; they can develop sideways, backwards, at a tangent - whatever direction those who inhabit such cultures choose to go.  Individuals make their own decisions as to how to adapt to their communities; likewise communities are reshaped to accommodate individual wishes.  Cultures change as a result of this two-way process; but do not necessarily go forward (a particularly Enlightenment-based concept).

I must confess to being a little confused as to what "beyond adaptation" signifies.  If, as Jean Piaget has suggested, adaptation is a process fundamental to existence, then it follows that we are perpetually adapting.  We cannot escape it, even if we want to.  Through adaptation we come to embrace different views of Shakespeare: the views I adopted of Hamlet when I was eighteen (when I wrote an essay claiming that Hamlet was not the hero of the play) are not those I possess at the moment, after having written a book on the old Shakespearean actor-manager Donald Wolfit.  If that is the case, then perhaps we should set aside the term "beyond adaptation" and replace it with "within adaptation," implying that we are always in dialogue with the texts we read, watch and engage with at whatever level.  Exactly how we make sense of them is up to us.

Adaptations and Palimpsests

Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation (2006, 2nd ed. 2013) offers the term “palimpsest” to describe the way we experience adaptations.  The term usually represents a manuscript (usually written on papyrus or parchment) on which more than one text has been written with the earlier writing incompletely erased.  She identifies adaptation as a form of intertextuality, in which we experience adaptations as palimpsests through our memory of other works that resonate through repetition with variation.  A palimpsestuous adaptation is an incestuous palimpsest of the original text.

Hutcheon’s arguments have been developed by Thomas Leitch, who argues that any adaptation is haunted by traces of many other texts.  The term palimpsestuous occurs where the history of a text, although partially erased, nonetheless leaves certain traces.  Hence adaptations are repetitions, bringing together the comfort of ritual and recognition with the delight of surprise and novelty.  They are repetitions with differences, spicing up familiar ideas with new interpretations.

I wonder what both Hutcheon and Leitch would make of Rick Whittaker’s 2013 novel The Honest Ghost, comprised entirely of sentences appropriated from over five hundred books.  The author limits himself to using three hundred words per book, never taking two sentences together and never making any changes to punctuation.

The novel concerns the search of a protagonist for meaning in his (or her life).  S/he interacts with a lover called David, a lonely female (Eleanor) and a son (Joe), but can never find any sense of fulfillment.  There are certain incidents that take place; several meetings; and numerous dialogic exchanges; but we are left at the end with a sense of incompleteness.  The novel doesn’t seem to have an ending.  The technique is deliberate on Whittaker’s part, as he shows how words simply cannot sum up an individual’s emotional and physical experiences.  We may communicate with one another, but there are parts of ourselves that are perpetually unknowable: words cannot tell us anything about them.  Hence the conversations in the novel resemble a series of verbal games, in which the narrator sometimes tells us that s/he has made sense of the world, only to be frustrated a few pages later.  The conversations with the other protagonists prove equally inconclusive; no one, it seems, can enjoy a fulfilling relationship.  Perhaps the book’s most telling line occurs when one character tells the narrator to “please, please, please, please, stop talking” – suggesting that words have little or no capacity to sum up anyone’s feelings.

If such is the case, then the conventions associated with the story – the beginning, middle and end – are equally meaningless.  No one can make sense of their lives, so how can they say that their search has “ended”?

Superficially Whittaker’s technique would seem to vindicate Hutcheon’s and Leitch’s observations insofar that we are encouraged to identify the source of some (or perhaps all) of the quotes that comprise his text.  A handily provided index at the back of the volume makes this task even easier.  Looking up the quotations gives us the pleasure of familiarity, as we are introduced to a variety of sources ranging from classical texts through James Joyce and Alan Bennett.

Yet the experience of the novel is profoundly disorienting.  The text might comprise a series of familiar quotes, but Whittaker assembles them into an unfamiliar form that makes us understand two things: 1) that there is no such thing as an “original” text in any adaptation, but a variety of source-texts; and 2) that the unique quality of adaptation lies in an ability to disrupt our feelings of recognition (i.e. that we might identify the source-text) and demonstrate instead how a series of intertexts have been reshaped into a completely new literary or dramatic form.  Whittaker has created a new narrative that forces us to contemplate the shortcomings of all languages to sum up experience.  Rather we should try to look behind the words and try to contemplate what people are trying to think (even though they might not know what they are thinking themselves).

On this view, a palimpsestic text is something that challenges our tendency to look at phenomena in terms of binary oppositions (“original” vs. adapted text, for instance) and consider every text on its own terms as a new and highly suggestive piece.  Reading The Honest Ghost is not an easy experience, but one that proves highly satisfying in the end.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Presenting an Adaptation Paper

Adaptive Presentational Abilities

I am writing this piece from my hotel room at the Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque, after having listened to and been inspired by a series of presentations yesterday at the South West Texas PCA Conference.  I look forward to being equally inspired today.

I attended several sessions in the “Popular Culture and Pedagogy” strand, many of which offered well-argued case-studies as to how popular cultural texts could be used to implement learning strategies in different classrooms, ranging from K-12 to the tertiary education level.  I congratulate the presenters on their careful, well-prepared work.

On the other hand, I was a little perturbed to see that all the presenters adopted precisely the same presentational strategies.  They all came to the conference armed with PowerPoint presentations, and either read from their papers or talked directly to the audience, using the slides as an aide-mémoire.

PowerPoint is a useful mode of communication, but it should be used sparingly.  There are a few basic rules for making slides, which many of the presenters could do well to learn:

  • Slides should be not too colorful, nor contain too many images. This simply distracts the audience from the topic in hand.
  • Slides should contain a MINIMUM of written text
  • The font used in this written text should be sufficiently large, so that audiences in a large conference hall can read it
  • Images should be sharp, concise and reinforce the arguments presented

Perhaps more importantly, what I think all presenters should learn is that PowerPoint is not a substitute for the presentation, but a means of helping audiences understand what the basic arguments are.  It should not distract but reinforce the attention.

Such observations might seem clichéd, but they need to be borne in mind whenever a presentation is being prepared.

More importantly, most of the presenters need to learn how to communicate with their audiences.  They need to adapt themselves; to refine their techniques and understand that they are supposed to be entering into a dialogue.  I heard a lot yesterday about the importance of this intangible concept known as “critical thinking” – perhaps the focus of attention should be shifted instead to the more practical (and measurable) ability of “effective presentation abilities.”  These include:-

  • Look at your audience while you are speaking and try to gauge their reactions. If their attention wanders, try to recover it by looking at people and smiling;
  • Do NOT read from a paper if at all possible. Use a series of bullet-points that you can talk around. Audiences need to understand the basic framework of the argument, rather than the critical apparatus surrounding it
  • Speak SLOWLY and CLEARLY. You might be nervous about talking in front of a group, but try to overcome those nerves through deep breaths. Focus your attention on one object or person in the room, and imagine you are speaking to them in a one-to-one situation.
  • Try to MOVE about the room. Audiences will need to follow you as you speak, and this helps to sustain their attention;
  • A presentation, as opposed to an academic paper, needs to be SHORT and CONCISE. You do not need to fill it with reference after reference, but focus instead on the argument.

Most of these abilities are taught at the undergraduate level in courses such as composition, but they need to be continually reinforced.  By learning to adapt through such abilities, speakers can communicate their personalities to audiences and thereby provide the framework for further dialogue.  This can lead to further opportunities for learning, both for speakers and their interlocutors.

Sometimes I tell my learners to imagine they are about to dive off a high board into the sea, or a pool.  Either they can look down and worry about what will happen, or they can jump off and see what happens.  The latter option might seem high-risk, but provides an opportunity for mental as well as personal growth through adaptation; in other words, taking advantage of a learning experience as a way of improving oneself.

It would be nice to see more people, especially early career academics, taking this recommendation to heart.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

My Adaptation Theory can Lick Your Adaptation Theory

Many years ago, when I was doing my doctoral research, I encountered a book by Renaissance scholar Richard Levin, New Readings vs. Old Plays (1979), which wittily chronicled the ways in which critics of different generations and persuasions attacked their predecessors before putting forward new ‘radical’ interpretations of their own.  He described this process as one in which “my theory can lick your theory”; a childlike statement that clearly indicates a desire on the critic’s part to set forth “better” ideas, compared to those who have written in the past.
After a long career spent writing about various topics, it’s intriguing for me to be incorporated into that rhetorical strategy.  I read a conference abstract – to be presented in a session at the Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque on Friday 13 February (I am also scheduled to present in the same session, should American Airlines actually get me there!) – that will investigate whether those who have put forward models of adaptation studies in the humanities (like myself, or Tom Leitch), have taken into account the “rekindling of emergence theory in scientific circles.”
Inevitably we are accused of superficiality in our perspectives; we have apparently made “quick inferences between the paradigm of natural selection and the ‘determination’ of narrative structures and tropes in adapted works.”  We need to update our notions of contemporary scientific adaptation theory, especially if we intend to place these theories in discourse with cultural objects whose meanings are still emerging in popular culture.  So there you are.
The author of this abstract, Jillian St. Jacques, is obviously keen to put forward her point of view, and I shall look forward to discussing it (and writing about it in a future blog post).  At present, however, I would like to make one or two points about her abstract that might help to clarify my use of Darwin in adaptation theory.
I am certainly interested in Darwin, but I am not especially concerned with his paradigm of natural selection.  That principle is both culture-specific and subject to various socio-cultural forces as well as individual choice.  Darwin wrote in more general terms about “adaptation,” understood in this context as the process of accommodating oneself to new surroundings.  In this he prefigured the views of psychologists such as Jean Piaget.
I am not especially concerned with the relationship between Darwin and the “determination of narrative structures and tropes in adapted works.”  My principal interest is in the way individuals adapt to the world around them, and translate that process of adaptation into texts of various kinds – screenplays, essays, blog posts, or whatever.  Through this process of writing we can learn something about the social, cultural and psychological forces that shape the way they write.
I am a great believer in authorial intention.  If we consider adaptation as a process involving psychological as well as other forms of transformation, then we cannot help but take individual viewpoints into consideration.  A cinematic text, or a literary text, evolves out of collaborations between different individual viewpoints – the writer, director, editor, publisher, as well as the reader.  Studying the interaction between these viewpoints helps us understand how texts are adapted and re-adapted, just like the individual who produce these adaptations.
I do not believe that there is any distinction between “emergent” and “accepted” meanings attached to any cultural artifact.  If we accept that adaptation is an ongoing process, then meanings are perpetually shifting; to use that binary opposition implies a reluctance to accept the existence of plurality and diversity.
Likewise I make no distinction between adaptation in the arts or science.  True transdisciplinarity implies a willingness to negotiate; to take into account recent writings on emergence theory and use them to formulate a more polysemic model of adaptation, encompassing the humanities, science, psychology, the social sciences, or whatever.  On the other hand I would argue that St. Jacques has to update her notions of how other theorists have considered adaptation using Darwin as their model. 
The only person who has made “quick inferences” is St. Jacques herself, who in her desire to show that her theories can lick those of other theorists, has put forward a viewpoint that can be readily challenged.

I await her paper with interest.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Albert Szent-György, the Hungarian biochemist and 1937 Nobel Prize-winner, once said that “discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.”  This power helps develop the mind’s natural capacity for exploration, curiosity and adaptability.

It seems a terrible shame, therefore, that individuals should be prevented from exercising this power by their peers.  When I was an undergraduate student, I was always considered “above-average” – the kind of person who could be relied upon to produce safe, well-produced essays without any particular originality of insight.  Even when I did try to be “different” – in other words, discuss texts in ways that might not have already been set down in print – I was always criticized for not doing a “proper” piece of work, with each point substantiated by reference to already-established critical authorities.

It is only recently that I discovered that such judgments were characteristic of those who are “unadaptable.”  Despite their positions as professors of English in higher education institutions, their entire lives are governed by the fear of being different, of branching out in new directions, or encouraging others to do the same.  Such fears are often inspired by personal as well as professional motives; it does not look good for professors to be outshone by their learners (especially if they are trying to acquire a reputation); while the need to publish in “established,” internationally recognized journals – which often have a rigid theoretical or methodological agenda – inhibits them from producing new and innovative work.

I was reminded of how dominant such beliefs actually are, when I visited a university in Killeen, Texas earlier this week.  I talked to a group of liberal studies learners, who were specifically engaged in inter- or transdisciplinary work.  The task seemed to be arduous – far more difficult than they had anticipated – but at least it gave them the chance to try and forge new connections between apparently diverse materials in literature, politics, history and art.  I was impressed with what they were trying to achieve; but my optimism was abruptly quenched when I learned from their professor that “liberal studies” was perceived by senior members of his department as a soft option; the kind of study pursued only by those not sufficiently capable of passing Master’s courses in more established majors – history, politics, or English. 

This form of intellectual denigration inevitably affects the learners’ motivation – not only do they experience considerable self-doubt (what they are pursuing is not really valuable), but they believe that the outcomes, whatever they might be, will not be recognized.  Put more baldly, “liberal studies” just helps them to obtain their diploma (and makes the institution’s graduate program look good by improving its statistics).

As I listened to the learners, and their professor, I wondered why their peers are so reluctant to recognize a form of education that will inevitably produce something different, both intellectually as well as materially (in the form of publications).  Is it because they are unadaptable (like my professors in the early Eighties), or is it because they have been so conditioned by the ideological connotations of the term “discipline” (implying a rigorous and tightly controlled form study) that they are unable to think out of the box?  Is that what a university education has come to: a series of intellectual reinvented wheels, enabling faculty members to remain in-post while preventing their learners from making use of their natural curiosity?

If such is the case, then there is definitely a crisis in higher education – especially the humanities.  I recently read an article from 2013 published in The Atlantic, in which the scholar Heidi Tworek argued that the real reason for this crisis, especially in the United States, was that women (who once used to choose the humanities) had now deserted the humanities in favor of more practically-based subjects.  They have looked for a more “practical” degree instead.

While not wanting to disagree with this point of view, I suggest that this is only a contributory factor to the crisis.  What is perhaps more significant is that learners see no point in pursuing a humanities-based education, especially if it is in any way innovative (combining “practical” with “artistic” subjects, whatever that might mean), because their professors are more than likely to regard such programs with disdain.

When we talk about “adaptability,” we have to realize that everyone, regardless of age, experience, or status, should be willing to embrace this concept.  Otherwise the future of education, especially inter- or transdisciplinary education, looks bleak indeed.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Deep Learning

I recently came across a definition of “deep learning,” as the type of learning that not only promotes greater understanding, but might not be defined as “work” at all.  It is something that individuals like to do, and take such pleasure in that they are motivated to research into different areas.

This definition took me back over thirty years, to the time when I was finishing my undergraduate studies at Exeter University in the UK.  I remember that it was an incredibly stressful time – so much so that I used to be awake most nights with panic attacks, in the belief that I had not done “enough” to pass the exams.  My stress got so bad that I ended up going to the Accident and Emergency Department (Emergency Room) of the local hospital in the belief that I was going to lose consciousness.  I used not to sleep in my dormitory room, but moved to an armchair where I would sleep upright in the most uncomfortable position possible.

As I took my exams, I used to put embrocation on my neck in the belief that the deep heat of the cream would make me feel better.  The fact that this substance – normally used to help athletes with pulled muscles – smelled foul was irrelevant; it was the only way I thought I could get through the ordeal of taking seven exams in six days.

Matters were not helped by the fact that my nearest neighbor in the dormitory was the kind of person who appeared supremely confident in his ability to pass exams.  All his revision had been done; he had marked up his books; and for the last two or three or days before the exams took place he went out for a walk, or socialized (I can’t remember which).

In truth, this was nothing more than a façade; he was as stressed out as I am, but he concealed it under a cloak of superiority.  He believed himself to be better than anyone else at studying English Literature, and hence wanted to be the best reviser.

In no way could I be said to have achieved a state of “deep learning” – on the contrary, my understanding of literary texts was reduced to a series of facts “about” the novels, plays, and poems on the curriculum that could be shaped into a coherent essays, with a few gobbets of quotations to illustrate the points I wanted to make.  Learning them parrot-fashion was the only way I believed the exam could be successfully passed.

It was only when I got free of the ordeal of the three-hour exam, and began to read texts for pleasure as well as for my profession that I discovered three essential truths about learning:-

a)      There is no such thing as being ‘good’ at literature.  My neighbor was simply the kind of arrogant person who enjoyed the sense of superiority.  This was simply a character-trait rather than anything to do with intelligence.
b)      “Deep Learning” can only be achieved when individuals want to learn.  That means they should be given the chance to work at their own pace, without the stress of exams being placed in their way.  There needs to be alternative modes of assessment based not on skill at remembering things, but rather testing the ways in which people respond to texts
c)      Most university undergraduate English curricula at that time were not really designed to develop learners’ intelligence, but rather provided an intellectual package tour through so-called “great” texts.  If learners actually retained their love of literature through that three-year process, this was more down to luck rather than the pedagogical proficiencies of the teaching staff.  Hopefully things have changed over the next three decades.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that the experience of my undergraduate courses has shown me what not to do during my teaching career, so as to encourage learners to respond, consume, or have fun with literary texts.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Adaptational Adjustment

I recently went to a concert at the CSO (Cumhurbaşkanlığı Senfoni Orkestrası) hall in Ankara, to watch the Presidential Symphony Orchestra play a program of music for strings and woodwind under the baton of Prof. Rengin Gökmen.  As with all their concerts, the standard of playing was consistently high, helping to stimulate the imagination and keeping the audience spellbound.

The first piece they played, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, is a well-known piece – composed in 1936, it has been used on a variety of occasions.  A comprehensive list can be accessed at Wikipedia

I first heard the piece way back in 1990, when the theater director David Leveaux used it as incidental music for his production of As You Like It, that played at the Büyük Tiyatro (Grand Theater) in Ankara; and was the first Shakespearean performance I had since I moved to the Republic of Turkey a year earlier.

Listening to the piece once more evoked several memories: the privilege of being invited into rehearsals for As You Like It, and watching the way Leveaux dealt with the Turkish cast with the help of his translator Lâle Hanım (I forget her surname); talking to designer Vicky Mortimer about her set, a giant green circle representing the Forest of Arden; and above all the way in which the actors were quite happy to have the presence of a foreigner within their midst.  As that time I knew little, if no Turkish; my friend Audrey Uzmen – a designer with the State Theatre who had once worked with London’s Old Vic Company in the 1950s – was generous enough to introduce me, and obtain the cast’s permission for me to watch rehearsals.

That experience taught me a lot: although I had always been interested in theater, I had never realized just how complicated the rehearsal process actually was.  I also understood then how communication actually depends on something beyond words; even if a director and their actors do not understand the same language, they can work together quite happily.  To be honest, Leveaux wasn’t very good at this; he spent too much time using his translator as his mouthpiece and not enough time interacting with his cast.  At the time, however, I did not realize this; it was only when I became more experienced that I understood the significance of nonverbal communication.

Perhaps most importantly I understood how any communicative act, whether in the theater, the classroom or elsewhere, depends on empathy – empathy between director and cast, cast and audience, audience member to audience member and so on.  I realized this only after rehearsals had finished, when I tried to work out why the actors had been so accommodating in allowing me in.  Both they and I must have had some kind of empathy for one another. 

Whenever I work in class, or deliver lectures, or converse with anyone, I try to forge a similar empathy.  Sometimes the task can be difficult, but experience shows that listening rather than talking is a good way to start.  The experience of listening to Barber being performed in the CSO made me realize this once more; it was not only a nostalgic moment, but it had a direct bearing on the way in which I interact with others, whether personally or professionally.

If a concert can stimulate such thoughts, then it must have achieved its purpose.

I reviewed As You Like It at the following address

Friday, February 6, 2015

Bereft of the Bard

İrfan Şahinbaş, Berna Moran, Talât Halman, Engin Uzmen, Himmet Umunç – just four of the illustrious scholars whose contributions in print and in the classroom helped to establish Shakespeare as a major force in Turkey.  To this list we might add other translators and scholars from various generations including Orhan Burian, Sabahattin Eyüboğlu and more recently Bülent Bozkurt.

Of this list, only one person (Umunç) is actually teaching, while Bozkurt retired to live in İstanbul after a stint at Bilkent University.  The other illustrious academics have all passed away, leaving a legacy of translations and critical works paying testament to their invaluable contributions.

But where are their replacements from the younger generation?  I only ask this question in light of one major university’s search for a scholar to teach the Shakespeare courses in its undergraduate program in English Literature.  Perhaps the vacancy has been filled, but it seems sad to think that such a situation should even arise, given Shakespeare’s central importance in any foreign literature curriculum.

Why should this happen?  Partly the reason has to do with a lack of long-term planning by university heads of department.  In the days when the older professors regularly taught Shakespeare, it wasn’t though necessary to give their courses to younger academics.  I was perhaps an exception to the rule; when I started at Hacettepe University in 1990, I was given the second year Shakespeare course, even though Uzmen was still very much a part of the faculty.  It was down to his generosity that I had the chance to teach the Bard for the first time.  In other institutions, however, would-be scholars had to put up with language-based courses during their early days; by the time the older professors had moved away, the younger scholars had moved on to pastures new, either professionally or institutionally.

Another way of addressing the shortage has been to give Shakespeare courses to non-specialists, in the belief that practice makes perfect; the more you learn “on the job,” so to speak, the more proficient you will become.  But Shakespeare is not easy; good teaching cannot simply be acquired by grabbing a text and summarizing the speeches in modern English.  Teachers have to have an understanding of his stagecraft as well as his thematic preoccupations.  Recently I received a submission to a journal which focused on one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and managed to go through an entire argument without focusing on the main character.  From what I read, it seemed doubtful whether the writer understood the techniques Shakespeare had used to create his comedy.  I do not blame the writer, but rather feel sorry for the educational system that shaped his or her judgment.  If the quality of writing remains as poor as this submission, then the future of Shakespeare scholarship and teaching n Turkey looks bleak indeed.

While appreciating the difficulties facing heads of department in both the private and public sectors, as they try to cope with the task of allocating courses for increasing numbers of students, often with very few teachers at their disposal, I do think that there are ways in which this issue could be addressed.  Perhaps the focus of attention should move away from close textual analysis – the bread and butter of most literary study – and concentrate instead on issues of theatrical and/or cinematic presentation.  In that way teachers could draw on the expertise of other scholars in theater or film studies, as well as make more creative use of films in their pedagogy.  Rather than just showing “a film of the play,” as has been the case in the past, students might be encouraged to look at how frame compositions embody some of Shakespeare’s ideas.  Likewise, by asking students to rehearse and perform extracts from Shakespeare – in English or in Turkish – they can perhaps understand how his plays work as theatrical constructs.  Another strategy drawn from cultural studies might be to focus on the cultural construction of “Shakespeare” as a totem for Englishness, and how that construction has been redefined throughout various periods of Turkish history.  This could also mesh with more formal aspects of how his plays should be translated.

In sum, what really needs to be done is to rethink Shakespeare’s place in the humanities – not just as a subject for literary study, but rather as an object for cross-disciplinary analysis.  Not only will that help to draw on the expertise of specialists from other subject areas, but it might help relieve the pressure on already harassed literature departments, trying to allocate too many courses with too few human resources.

Whatever remedies might be adopted, it’s important to ensure that Shakespeare can be enjoyed by future generations of learners as well as theatergoers.  The responsibility, as they say, lies with today’s teachers.  I hope they manage to heed the warning signs.