Back to School With Cymbeline

- - posted in teaching

On Tuesday, as part of Faculty Bulldog Days, I walked into Cathy Nicholson’s ENGL 200, “Shakespeare’s Comedies and Romances”. It was the first time in my six years at Yale that I’ve set foot in an undergraduate classroom that wasn’t my own. I quietly chose a desk off to the side, gave Cathy a quick hello wave, and settled in for 50 minutes of learning.

The topic of the day was “Cymbeline”–one of Shakespeare’s later plays where I would argue he jumps the shark. I should have read the play beforehand, but A) I couldn’t justify spending the time and B) Shakespeare has always been a foreign language to me. Instead, I read the Wikipedia page on Cymbeline, and I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one in the room who did so.

The lecture could not have been more different from my own lectures. She stood at the podium, referred to her notes often, had relatively few slides, and didn’t interact with her students at all. On the surface, that sounds awful, but it was actually pretty great. The structure of the class, her ideas, and the words she used to express them were all carefully chosen and evocative. Her slides were excellent supplements to her message, not highlights of what she was saying or reminders to her of what to say.

The way she spoke was a revelation. She was animated, she made eye contact, and she was obviously invested in what she was saying. But here’s the craziest thing, and it happened several times: She would put passages from the play up on the screen. I would read them to myself and have no idea what Shakespeare was talking about. The words made no sense to me–It was like they were chosen by monkeys from a really old dictionary. Then Cathy would introduce (but definitely not paraphrase) the passage and read it. And it would make perfect sense. She imbued the words with so much extra meaning that English was a suddenly a tonal language.

Before class I was worried she would use terms or introduce theories I didn’t know. Indeed she did, but she explained them in plain understandable language. For example, I couldn’t remember what synecdoche was, but when she explained it (with copious examples) it made a lot of sense. Later that day I read this passage about Duke’s coach hounding the officials during the NCAA championship game:

If [Krzyzewski had] gotten any closer to them, they’d all have been picking out china patterns. (source: Grantland)

The synecdoche just jumped out at me! A great class changes how you see the world, and this one clearly did.

After class Cathy and I had coffee and spent an hour just talking about Shakespeare and sharing our teaching experiences. How do you teach seminars? How do you manage your discussion sections? How could you incorporate some interactivity into lectures? Why would you want to do that? I learned a lot watching her in the classroom, but so much of teaching happens outside the classroom. Over coffee we could talk about that part too. How do you prepare? What assignments do you give your students? How do you provide feedback? How do you assess your students? To be honest, it would have made a perfect episode of the Teach Better Podcast.

I talk with folks around campus about teaching all the time, but I’m kind of a weirdo in that way–Most faculty want to talk about their research, current events, their lives, or maybe share a little department or discipline gossip. My favorite thing about Faculty Bulldog Days is that it gets more people talking about teaching.