This year I’ve decided to reflect on the highlights of the 2015 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) rather than merely post my intended schedule as last year. The three big things I walked away with this year was a sense of the balancing act of seminars and the way they do and don’t forecast moves in the field, the importance and idiosyncrasy of the conference paper genre, and what it feels like to actually be productively networking before a fall on the job market.
At the graduate student breakfast, some of the association’s trustees surprised us by sharing a table with us. I spent a lot of time at this conference with friends from a Mellon fellowship last summer in Rome and Oxford, so we were sharing a table together when Ayanna Thompson sat down. We all had a really interesting conversation about how the association balances seminars. I noted that the identity politics categories seemed quite sparse this year, with really only one seminar on class, and one or two on race despite the really great Latinidad #NextGenPlen talk given the day before. Apparently the association is changing its rules about time between organizing seminars so this unevenness from year to year—where one year seems all about theory and the next all about culture studies and identity politics, and so on—might be ameliorated. For me going to SAA is often about getting a sense of the most current research intersections, the topics around which groups seem to be coalescing. One example from this year was the seminar on Landscape, Place and Space, which ended up being broken into three seminars due to the interest. It was interesting to hear about how the framework of the conference does and does not enable this kind of telescoping of the field.
Another thing we all learned from Ayanna was that the plenary is regarded as the keynote of the conference. (I had never thought twice about the term.) Technically this year there were two plenaries, one featuring new scholars (#NextGenPlen), and the other featuring giants in the field. The #NextGenPlen was a hit on Twitter and looks to be a new staple; in face-to-face conversation the reviews were mixed. The plenary proper, Shakespeare and the Cut, was interesting because it featured three older white men talking about elisions of varrying kinds in Shakespeare. (A similar problem of gender disparity arose the preceding week at the 2015 Renaissance Society of America meeting.) For the first time, I was actually very familiar with books by all three speakers: Bruce Smith, Michael Dobson, Thomas Cartelli. Of the three however, Dobson nailed the format of a plenary talk, with lots of signposting, well-targeted jokes, and clear organization of his argument with compelling visual examples. He also started off, blessedly, by acknowledging his relative exoticism on the panel as the only Brit on the white, male, American, tenured table. I started off a list of great plenary talks I had seen at SAAs past (Marjorie Garber, Paul Menser) and would add Dobson’s “Becoming Uncut: Enlightenment Hamlets and the Ontology of Performance” to it. As I noted in a recent post, I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently on academic writing. Certainly this plenary was proof that the genre of the read conference paper might be the one we are least competent at the moment, sorely in need of a revitalization and an awareness of a listening audience.
Unlike previous years (especially 2012 in Boston), where I was at SAA for the education and the seminar auditing, this year was far more about networking. As I mentioned, I was doing a lot of events with two different groups: five women from a summer fellowship program last summer, and a cohort of Illinois faculty and recent graduate students now in TT jobs. Through lunches, dinners, and side conversation I was able to do a lot of networking with surprisingly major scholars in the field, glancingly meeting people like Katherine Maus, for example. At several dinners we brought along friends from our home departments, crafting more webs of connected scholarship that was especially productive to me. You would think this would be best fostered in the seminars, but because of the organization, I find this not often true. For example, I’ve only been on the theatre history seminar (my sub field) once, primarily because the names who participate are huge, nearly all emeritus, and because of their length of time in the field, have access to very specialized and hard-to-reach archives. They are a feisty group, and I am always guaranteed to watch my favorite critic, Roslyn Knutson, at work, pushing back with the questions I am usually thinking too. It is a feisty seminar, and Eva Griffiths even brought a bunch of color-coded maps. But their conversation inevitably turned to the problems of playgoers (being addressed simultaneously at two other seminars on audience and popularity) without once turning to their own audience of auditors for questions. I feel like this subfield is primed for major change, I just wonder when it will happen.
And finally, based on recommendations from two fellow graduate students, I participated in a workshop this year for the first time. On Saturday morning there was a three-hour pedagogy workshop on how to use original practices in the teaching of Shakespeare: “Unpacking Shakespeare’s Toolbox: Wordcraft and Stagecraft for the Classroom.” And it was amazing! Led first by Mary Hartman, Director of Education for Canada’s Bard on the Beach, we did a number of breathing and body activities to think about characterization and movement. Then Ralph Cohen‘s crew from the American Shakespeare Center took over and my mind was blown. They demonstrated a number of techniques and activities to teach students how to read Shakespeare by thinking about how players would have done Shakespeare. They have gone all in on a few of Tiffany Stern‘s theories, especially keeping all the lights on to keep playgoers in the game, cue theory (of which I am a bit skeptical still), using the repertory system in its purest sense (a different play every day on a rotating schedule with the same stable of actors, 51 weeks a year), and becoming very familiar with the language system of rhetorical devices as a memorization technique. His premise was that the Tudor education system ensured students knew 200 different literary devices; in his grad program at Mary Baldwin the students memorize 40 and the actors 18. Being able to recognize these forms and knowing how they work semantically was a really powerful tool I am excited to use at some point before this semester is over. What made this event all the cooler was that of the 90 or so people in the room, more than half were high school teachers from the region—and they were amazing participants! You can hear more on Cohen’s approach to teaching Shakespeare in his TED talk I’ve posted below. After that, I really can’t wait for #ShakeAss16 in New Orleans!
Here is the schedule of what I ended up accomplishing in Vancouver, although there were many seminars, especially the ones on audience, popularity, and entertainments I wish I could have made but were doubled up across the schedule. You can see my tweets (@ElizETavares) on the conference (#ShakeAss15) online. (Relatedly, there is a GoogleDoc circulating about best practices for conference live tweeting.) For me, this was a productive year on networking as much if not more than getting a lay of the critical landscape of the moment.