Literary Studies in the 21st Century

On Friday 25 May the Early Modern Literature and Culture research group (EMLAC) hosted a panel of papers dedicated to unpacking and exploring the contemporary challenges and potentialities facing literary studies today. This blog post is a brief overview of the major topics explored in each fifteen-minute paper. The papers were delivered by Prof. Liam Semler (University of Sydney), Dr Claire Hansen (James Cook University), Prof. Hugh Craig (Director of the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing and The Centre for 21st Century Humanities, University of Newcastle) and myself (Lauren Weber, University of Sydney).

            The session began with a paper by Liam Semler titled ‘To Gamify or Not to Gamify (Literary Education)’. Semler opened with a tantalising and disturbing claim regarding the contemporary educational systems we learn and work under:

A trio of complex ‘destinies’ is bearing down on teachers of English and Literary Studies at school and university. These ‘destinies’ – which I will call Weird Sisters -- are named SysEd, Presentism and Absent Reading and the realities they partially unveil are ambiguous and inescapable. Like Macbeth’s witches, these three destinies have punctured normalcy and will reshape it entirely. They at once salute us and plunge us into uncertainty because their ‘supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good’ (Macbeth 1.3.132-33). (Semler 1)

Like the Witches in Macbeth, Semler figures these three destinies as problematic realities of the way we teach and are taught today. For Semler, SysEd is a time filler stuffed full of ‘mandated administrative activities that are more onerous and ominous than what once may have been called mere administrative churn’ (Semler, 1-2). How much time do you think you spend sitting behind your computer, churning out data-driven content when you could be in the classroom? For Semler, SysEd is inescapable, and isn’t going away. But perhaps more importantly, he suggests that it is also influencing the way we teach and learn. SysEd might be Hecate, slowly but strongly boiling her brew. Importantly, as any successful operational shift, SysEd is ‘justified in some way or other via the rhetoric of improved learning which is seen as the sector’s key deliverable in a fiercely competitive market economy’ (Semler 2). The second witch to enter is ‘Presentism’ which Semler defined as:

A signifying group of impulses that are re-centering the discipline of Literary Studies around the present, the self and the marketplace – with a necessary decline in emphasis on historical literatures and more arcane scholarly studies. (Semler 3)

Think student priorities – phones, selfies, Netflix, YouTube. Semler suggests that contemporary culture and its influence on new generations is having an effect on the way we value text. As he stated in his lecture in the voice of Presentism:

Honestly, if you want to read books and talk about them, prove to me how this is relevant to the present day, how it fulfils my desires, and how it contributes to the flourishing of our economy. (Semler 3)

Finally, enter ‘Absent Reading’, the last witch who embodies the way ‘our world is made of short pieces of undemanding text’, and the market that knows this, and uses it (Semler 3-4).  In closing, Semler drew in a new antagonist, one who might even have the potential to morph into our hero: gamified learning. He suggests that ‘as surely as everything will be digitized, so it has also been observed that just about everything will be gamified’ (Semler 5). For Semler, gamified learning is a symptom of the spillage of the Witches’ intoxicating brew. This is where Shakespeare Reloaded/Better Strangers enters. The Shakespeed activity is an example of this gamification. In closing, Semler asked how this implicates him in the witches’ maelstrom. He identified his conflicting feelings about the use and advocacy of such a successful mode of learning, and in this he suggested that while this might be the future of education it has an important question to answer: ‘is it Literary Studies?’ (Semler 5).

            Claire Hansen’s paper took up a different challenge and opportunity for the study of Shakespeare at University. Her talk titled ‘From Scotland to the Strand: Teaching Shakespeare in the tropics’ focused on her initial experiences of teaching English at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland. In response to her awareness of her ‘teaching and research as occurring within a specific place’ (Hansen 1), Hansen’s paper was rooted in its place-based context. Her physical proximity to the Great Barrier Reef is informed by her ‘own interests in ecocriticism’ (Hansen 1) which has become a popular mode of reading in Shakespeare criticism. She also noticed something crucial about education’s relationship to the environment in Townsville:

The study of Shakespeare in Townsville high schools and at James Cook University appears from a cursory glance to be far removed from the physical, geographical spaces in which that teaching takes place. (Hansen 1)

In order to remedy this disconnect, Hansen presented us with something that ties in education, the environment, and Shakespeare: ‘place-based learning’ (Hansen 1). This concept of ‘place-based learning’ or ‘PBL’ is also suggestive of a remedy to the terrors of Semler’s ‘Three Witches’. Hansen suggested that PBL might offer something in response to the encroaching institutional control of education in Queensland, as drawing students and teachers out of the classroom and into the spaces they inhabit, particularly environmental spaces, has the potential to reorganise classroom crackdowns (Hansen 2). Hansen also suggested PBL has the potential for social justice, especially when it ties itself to ecocriticism (Hansen 3). She then asked:

How do we connect the places of Macbeth with the places our students inhabit? How does this look in practice? What does PBL look like? What are the specifics of the places in which we teach which need to be recognised or can be utilised to enrich teaching? (Hansen 3)

In response to these questions, Hansen delved into the specifics of her experience teaching Shakespeare in Townsville. She found that most students had never been to some of the city’s famous natural attractions like ‘The Strand’, even though these places are easily accessible (Hansen 3). As Hansen pointed out, this makes the student experience ‘hyper-local in terms of their familiarity solely with their direct, immediate locations (their bus route, their bedroom, their school)’ (Hansen 3). She also found that only ‘3% of the 44 students’ in her first year English class ‘had never studied Shakespeare before’ with Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet coming out as the major texts studied (Hansen 3). In a fascinating correlational observation, Hansen found that like the students’ ‘hyper-local’ knowledge, their knowledge of Shakespeare text was also limited. In response to the majority of students having difficulty with the play text as a simultaneous stage text, she asked: ‘But if the students aren’t familiar with the Strand – which is down the road from them, how can I expect them to become familiar with the Scotland of Macbeth or the stages of early modern England?’ (Hansen 3-4). Integrating PBL into the classroom alongside students and Macbeth posed some challenges. Hansen pointed out that students must have some kind of connection to place in order to use it effectively, and that students may even feel ‘excluded or oppressed by their perceived sense of ‘place’ – making it in fact problematic to use place as a means to connect with Macbeth’ (Hansen 4). However, she went on to point out the fact that place in Macbeth has an ecological aspect, which can even ‘help us to think more deeply about spaces like the ocean’, and other themes involving fluidity, the environment, and shipwrecks (Hansen 4). This is both convenient and exciting for PBL in Townsville, as Hansen pointed out the fact that there are local shipwrecks with their own history available for exploration (Hansen 4-5). In particular, she cited the Yongala, a wreck famous for its extraordinary marine life, and the Pandora – a wreck with excavations currently on display at the Museum of Tropical Queensland (Hansen 5-6). Hansen finished her talk with an example of the productive possibility of utilising PBL to teach Shakespeare in Townsville through exploring local shipwrecks. Two different kinds of history converge here for her, and so this question becomes central: ‘might shipwrecks offer one fertile imaginary site in which we (and our students) can meet to understand Shakespeare’s Macbeth, our histories, and our place in deeper ways? (Hansen 7).

            The work of Professor Hugh Craig approaches similar questions raised by Semler and Hansen, but from a different angle: a digital one. Craig led his talk with a controversial claim: ‘In the next period of literary studies, one component should be quantitative. I don’t say digital because literary studies already is’ (Craig 1). He pointed out the fact that ‘most Shakespeare now comes from the Canadian site Internet Shakespeare with untold daily downloads’, and the importance of digital spaces as roundtables for literary discussion both by the public, and academics (Craig 1). Craig’s work is well known in the world of Shakespeare scholarship, particularly in relationship to authorship attribution. This talk highlighted that work by challenging Stephen Greenblatt’s claim that Shakespeare had an ‘astonishing vocabulary of some 25,000 words’ (Greenblatt ‘General Introduction, cited in Craig 1). For Craig, the myth of Shakespeare’s linguistic mastery can be debunked by stylometry, a branch of quantitative studies. He points out that through the work of stylometry:

If you take half a dozen plays by Shakespeare, and half a dozen by Ben Jonson or John Marston or John Fletcher they use around the same number of different words, some more, some fewer. This frees students of Shakespeare’s language to explore other reasons for the extraordinary power of his works. Researchers and anyone studying Shakespeare no longer need to go down that rabbit hole. (Craig 1)

You might be asking what stylometry is. In response to that, I direct you to this video, made in collaboration with the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing, where Craig is the Centre Director. He pointed out the fact that doing qualitative work in literary studies also reveals other interesting things about text, including the way style changes over time for authors, and how this affects translation studies (Craig 1). However, literary studies is not the only place where quantitative work is shining through. In particular, the work of the Centre for the 21st Century Humanities where Craig is also the Director, blends humanities research with digital innovation in order to unearth new discoveries involving traditional disciplinary concerns. Perhaps the most powerful example of this kind of research is the ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres’ website, which is a crucial online record of the reality of colonial violence in Australia. The site received international attention and reach, sparking conversations abroad about the history of violence in the name of colonisation. The Centre is also co-responsible for The New Oxford Shakespeare which illuminates the collaborative efforts of Christopher Marlowe and other playwrights of the period with the work of The Bard. However, Craig pointed out the fact that there are many scholars in the field who are afraid of the way the digital is encroaching on the academic landscape, especially in the humanities. He delivered an anecdote involving a question asked following a talk he gave at the University of Passau in Germany. A woman in the audience expressed her fear of numbers and their incredible authority in the digital age (Craig 2). She fretted that her inexperience with the kind of quantitative work done by Craig would soon push her out of her scholarly post. In response to this, Craig addressed us with his vision of the future for literary studies:

Stylometry is only ever going to be one strand in the discipline, the way textual studies, for instance is. We need a textual scholar who knows about compositors and proof copies to tell us which version of a text to study and help us not to be misled by the corrupt version. Similarly, there are some questions that can only be answered in quantitative fashion. I like to think, and I tried to persuade this distraught audience member in Passau, that stylometry can give things to literary study, not close things down. (Craig 2) 

However, Craig sees larger things for quantitative analysis in literary studies. He closed his talk with a playful yet controversial claim for the modality and aims involving the kind of work stylometry can do. He suggested we should think about this kind of work as a ‘wager’:

You bet that speeches in plays are markedly shorter in the period following 1600, I bet that they aren’t. We agree beforehand what results will satisfy us (what plays? how do we know when a speech stops? how big a difference is “marked”?) and then we run the trial and one of us pays up. Then it is open season on what if anything this might all mean for the larger literary history of period. (Craig 2)

So, reader - what will you bet on?

            My talk comes out of my ongoing PhD research project. I titled the paper ‘Visualising Empathic Pedagogy’ and set out to think through some of the questions I am facing in my research. A big one for me is: what is empathy? I spent a lot of time outlining the many definitions we have in the research: the ability to read the minds of others, the ability to feel and experience the emotions of other people, and the question of whether or not these experiences can make us better human beings for ourselves and our society. When we think of empathy in our everyday usage, it is often associated with altruism. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, but one of the major reasons why I see this as an issue is because it detracts from the complexity of empathy. I argued in my paper that there are many different kinds of empathy, some good, some bad, and that part of being human is experiencing all of these different forms of feeling, mind reading, and judgment (Weber 3). Scholars like Suzanne Keen, Lisa Zunshine, and Megan Boler are central to my work. I also noted the work of philosophers Derek Matravers and Karsten R. Stueber who look at empathy through the lens of contemporary philosophy in order to theorize the ways human beings ascribe mental states to others. Highlighting the distinction between sympathy and empathy is also something I felt it was important to point out. Suzanne Keen separates them helpfully in her classification: ‘Empathy = I feel what you feel / I feel your pain’ where ‘Sympathy = I feel a supportive emotion about your feelings / I feel pity for your pain’ (Keen 209, cited in Weber 4). My work is also interested in neuroscientific and psychological measurements of empathy available to humanities scholars in the 21st century, which I glossed over. If you are curious about your own empathic accuracy, you can take the RMET test here. This test was invented by Simon Baron-Cohen a pioneer in the study of empathy, and a controversial figure I wrestle with because of his work on autism. My paper then moved into the way we can include literary studies in the lively conversations about empathy taking place in contemporary scholarship. I argue, like Suzanne Keen and Lisa Zunshine, that books can teach us about empathy in a particularly crucial way. However, important to my research and to my paper, was the contemporary educational climate. I argued that Semler’s ‘SysEd’ has dangerous consequences for the possibility of teaching and learning empathy in the literary classroom, as it erases the time and attention required to experience and unpack our empathetic responses to literary text (Weber 6). I finished my talk with a close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnett 31 as an example of the way close reading as a methodology and tool is essential to the teaching and learning of empathy, as well as the way different genres and texts can teach us different things about empathy. While my research is still in its larval stage, I know one thing: empathy matters, and books can teach us how and why.

            I hope you enjoyed this outline of the four different approaches to teaching and learning Literary Studies in the 21st century and would love to hear your thoughts about the diverse ways we are tackling questions facing the educational institution of English today. What do you have to say about the way we teach and learn in our English classrooms? Do you think these approaches are helpful? I would love for you to answer a very important question: where does the teacher sit in all of this? Let us know!