Occupying Shakespeare

By James ShapiroDecember 26, 2019

Occupying Shakespeare

Shakespeare and the 99% by Sharon O’Dair

HANDWRINGING OVER the dismal job prospects for PhDs in English departments has been going on for so long that those not seeking employment themselves may be unaware of how desperate the situation has become.

Back in 1989–’90, at a time when the discipline was already buffeted and there was anguished talk of a hiring crisis, roughly 2,000 jobs in English were advertised. A quarter-century later, in 2016–’17, the Modern Language Association reported that the number of potential jobs listed for English professors had declined for the fifth year in a row, dropping that year alone by 10 percent to 851 positions, with fewer than half of these tenure track. This sharp decline, which began in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, has of late become even more severe: as I write, in mid-December 2019, the MLA has posted under 500 jobs in English — and that includes everything from creative writing and digital media to British and American literature. While there will likely be several dozen more listed in the coming months, these figures look exceedingly grim. And not all jobs that are advertised result in hires, given budgetary constraints and unconscionable cuts at the legislative level, as states like North Dakota and Alaska lead the way in gutting spending on higher education. At the same time, the overproduction of PhDs in literature has barely slackened.

While the supply of unemployed or underemployed PhDs in English remains high, the demand for them continues to diminish — and not simply because more schools are relying on miserably paid adjuncts to staff courses. The percentage of students nationally who major in English has been shrinking for some time, from 7.7 percent back in 1970 to 2.2 percent in 2015. The drop in enrollments has mirrored the decline in hiring since the 2008 financial crisis: a recent MLA commission reported that, from 2012 to 2016, bachelor’s degree completions in English fell by 20 percent. In the spring of 2018, enrollments nationally in English courses at four-year institutions dropped by 4.7 percent, followed this past spring by another drop of 4.8 percent. This trajectory is unlikely to change any time soon; the profession has not been particularly effective in arguing for the value of studying literature, and more undergraduates are turning to STEM or business majors as student debt and the cost of going to college continue to rise.

Far less remarked upon is the fate of those who earned their PhDs at elite institutions and who were fortunate enough to secure a first job, often in places that fell below their expectations. For several decades now, landing any position was a success story. Mentors would reassure PhDs leaving research universities that, with luck and diligence, they could publish their way back to such a place. For a long time, this had been true. Most of my departmental colleagues at Columbia (and peers at comparable elite institutions) taught at several places in the course of their careers, many of them having worked their way up from less prestigious institutions. I did so myself. But that career path is now effectively closed. First jobs are now last jobs. The odds of a talented assistant professor of English, even a well-published one, getting hired as an associate or full professor at a research institution are exceedingly slim today. So far this year, only 60 positions in all fields have been advertised nationally in the MLA job list for those beyond the entry level in the English departments of the 2,500 or so accredited American colleges and universities. A contributing factor is that many schools, like my own, are now committed as a matter of policy to replacing senior faculty with less expensive junior ones. Compounding the problem, the end of mandatory retirement in 1994 has meant that many professors hired in the 1970s and 1980s are not planning to make way for younger scholars any time soon (and how many would be replaced even if they did retire?).

It may seem surprising how little blowback there has been from those trained at top universities who landed jobs at non-elite institutions only to discover that their entire careers would be spent as part of a professional underclass from which they could never escape. But to anyone who has earned a PhD, competed for academic jobs and fellowships, and relied heavily on mentors to help secure these, their silence is understandable. For one thing, they were better off than their jobless peers, so complaining was unseemly. For another, their complaints risked inviting a response that confirmed their worst self-doubts: they weren’t good enough to land a better job because they weren’t all that talented to begin with. And if this weren’t enough of a deterrent, lifelong dependency on the one percent would be. As the editors of Shakespeare and the 99% put it, “professors whether young or old find it difficult to question the judgments of mentors and colleagues with superior status, since they depended on them for a job and continue to depend on them for access to publication, grants, and other requirements of professional life.”

Sharon O’Dair and Timothy Francisco’s new booka collection of essays about teaching Shakespeare to the huge majority of American college students who don’t attend highly selective schools — is, to my knowledge, the first book of its kind: one that gives voice to a seething and justified resentment of the academic elite by those teaching at non-elite institutions. Its publication signals that there is now more to be gained than lost by challenging a profession unwilling to acknowledge disparities in “income, power, and prestige.” It speaks to divisions long papered over and suggests that the myriad challenges now faced by faculty at non-elite schools are likely to be visited soon upon those who teach at research universities.

Why say this now? Because the old stories are no longer tenable — both those that English professors at elite universities have long told their doctoral students and those they tell themselves. Among the former is the fiction that accomplished PhDs will still get academic jobs; that, even if these jobs are in rural America, job mobility is still possible with enough diligence; and that their training has prepared them to teach anywhere. As for the stories they tell themselves, these include the notion that, while enrollments may be down, there’s no crisis, so no need to curtail the production of PhDs, as students are still drawn to English; also, that the discipline affords equal opportunity to all its members.

The title of the collection speaks to its confrontational message. Eight years ago, “We are the 99%” became a rallying cry of the Occupy movement. The economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote at the time that there “is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought” the privileged elite: “an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn.” Shakespeare and the 99% is committed to ensuring that the academic elite learns a comparable lesson.

The collection’s narrow focus on Shakespeare is striking, for Shakespeare classes have long remained among the most popular in the discipline, largely immune from the shrinking enrollments faced by those teaching courses on the Canterbury Tales or 800-page Victorian novels. Shakespeare’s plays are also a staple of the American high school curriculum, taught at roughly 90 percent of secondary schools across the land, so most students arrive at college having already studied his plays. But Shakespeare is no longer an automatic draw. As Elizabeth Hutcheon puts it in her contribution to this volume: “[U]ntil the last forty years or so, the answer to the question of why we teach Shakespeare was that entry to the middle class required the cultural capital that knowledge of Shakespeare signals, but the coin bearing Shakespeare’s image is not worth what it once was.”

When Sharon O’Dair arrived at the University of Alabama in the late 1980s, a class on Shakespeare was still required of English majors, and the department offered three or four sections every semester. In 1991, that Shakespeare requirement was dropped. Since then, while undergraduate enrollment at the school has more than doubled, the number of Shakespeare sections is down, which in turn has made it “easier to eliminate or reduce the presence of Shakespeare in lower-division courses.” It’s worse at Eastern Michigan University, where Craig Dionne teaches, and where a competitive “outcome-based educational model” pits those trying to attract students to their Shakespeare classes against colleagues proposing courses on “Ethics and Food” or “Harry Potter.” In this consumer-driven environment, it’s “about marketing your class so that it can fill. And this can get ugly when trying to think of new ways to attract students.” Dionne was urged by a colleague to call his summer course “Witches and Monsters in Shakespeare.” If “truth be told,” he writes, “I am considering it.”

The challenge of teaching Shakespeare to the 99 percent at a time when universities are increasingly run on a corporate model extends beyond securing adequate enrollment. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the dominant critical approach in the Shakespeare classroom was the New Criticism. It was a formalist methodology that banished biography and history. But it had enormous practical advantages, leveling the playing field between those who taught at elite and non-elite schools. Since it depended on close reading, all you needed to teach Shakespeare effectively was a decent edition of the plays and a gift for teasing out irony and ambiguity. If your college library stocked the Arden Shakespeare and a dozen titles by the likes of G. Wilson Knight, A. C. Bradley, Caroline Spurgeon, and E. K. Chambers, you were all set.

In the 1980s, the rise of New Historicism, with its emphasis on underexplored cultural contexts, changed all that. Scholars who could afford to travel regularly to major archives, or had university libraries with extensive rare book collections, had a decided advantage in producing the kind of research that could secure publication in leading journals or with university presses. The creation of EEBO (Early English Books Online) in 1999 — which ensured that, through your college or university library, you could easily access a facsimile of every book Shakespeare may have used as a source — should have righted this inequity but instead has only exacerbated it. Marisa R. Cull’s contribution, “Place and Privilege in Shakespeare Scholarship and Pedagogy,” which makes for painful reading, explains why. Cull wants to do what she was trained to do as a scholar, but she can’t easily travel to distant archives on a research budget of under $1,000 a year, nor can her college afford expensive databases like EEBO. While there are ways around this — logging on to the accounts of friends who teach at better funded universities or joining (for a small fee) professional organizations that offer access to important databases — the fundamental inequality of access to information is a given. I checked the catalog of the library where Cull teaches — at Randolph-Macon College, in Ashland, Virginia — and didn’t find Shakespeare and the 99%. Priced at over $100, it was probably deemed too costly a purchase for a small college library. I checked Columbia’s library holdings and saw that, with a click, I could download a PDF of the entire volume.

As literary scholars depend more and more on pricy databases, such inequities of access will only grow. At the same time, those teaching at non-elite schools are working in environments increasingly hostile to scholarship. Doug Eskew, in “Shakespeare, Alienation, and the Working-Class Student,” explains this double-bind:

To many of our colleagues at research universities, we are not particularly scholarly. Despite the fact that we have active intellectual lives, we rarely produce monographs and our work is not often recognized. To many of our colleagues at non-elite universities, our commitment to scholarly pursuits stands in a direct and harmful relation to our commitment to our students. As a chancellor of the Colorado State University system commented in 2014, scholarly commitment at my university is “an unproductive burden on students.”

A crucial feature of the still dominant historicist approach to Shakespeare and his world is its insistence on “alienation.” The New Historicism, Daniel Vitkus argues, “sought to reconstruct the past in ways that defined that past as radically different. So much so, that sometimes the perceived strangeness of past cultural practices functioned to disconnect that strange past from the familiar present.” This emphasis on alienation may work brilliantly in Ivy League classrooms, but, as many of the contributors to this volume — almost all of them trained in this methodology — have come to discover, “the hermeneutics of suspicion” fares less well at schools where most students come from working-class backgrounds.

The title of her contribution, “Identification, Alienation, and ‘Hating the Renaissance’,” Denise Albanese writes, “enshrines the reproach of a smart — if reactionary — student who’d told me in frustration that I’d taught him to hate the thing he’d loved, in an uncanny echo of Caliban’s retort to Prospero about having learned to curse.” Albanese teaches at George Mason, which only became a university in the 1970s, a campus, she writes, that is “too close to a wholly owned subsidiary of the Koch Foundation.” Her mostly first-generation students have worked hard to get where they are, and often bring to the classroom a “naive” predisposition — one that we all began with at some point in our reading experience: a desire to identify with literary characters, to think of them as real people. She concludes that her students are “not necessarily well-served by our insisting on disenchanting the literary object.” The battle looks a lot different when viewed from the trenches: the “time when Shakespeare could still be proposed as a form of cultural capital, and concomitantly as a site of ideological domination” has passed; at “the present moment […] such struggles over meaning seem, well, luxurious and even quaint.”

Yet abandoning alienation in favor of old-fashioned identification with Shakespeare’s characters doesn’t work that well either. Doug Askew is well aware that, when “teachers tell students that Hamlet speaks their lives,” their “students on some level, know this not at all the case. In order to get a grade, however,” they “pretend that Hamlet instructs their lives.” And that raises the question of which characters in Shakespeare working-class students can identify with. Fayaz Kabani reads Act Two, scene Four of Henry IV, Part One as a parable of the plight of the non-traditional student. In the scene, set in the Boar’s Head tavern, a slumming Prince Hal treats his server, Francis, abusively, hailing him back every time his employer, the vintner, calls for him offstage. For Kabani, Francis stands in for the work-study student at the campus pub, Hal for the condescending rich kid he serves. The moral of this story: “While for decades the average college student has been imagined as Hal, the reality is that our students are Francis, torn between their dreams of social mobility and the obligations that interrupt or defer those dreams.”

Kabani, whose biographical entry notes that he was a “first-generation student from a Ugandan refugee family” who now teaches at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, believes that increasing “access to four-year liberal arts or research colleges and universities is failing the economically disadvantaged,” so he finds less value in continuing to teach Shakespeare to working-class students. He concludes that trade and technical training are more effective ways to decrease inequality, and since the system is rigged in favor of the privileged, it “is counterproductive to expect Francis to be Hal. Francis literally cannot be Hal. He does not have the upbringing or social network to achieve such a high station.”

The dozen or so contributors to Shakespeare and the 99% are better at diagnosing the costs of inequity, as well as the difficulties facing those who now teach Shakespeare to American college students, than in formulating a unified response to these challenges. It is hard not to conclude, after finishing this book, that that the study of Shakespeare, which has long bound Americans and still allows us to speak across a growing cultural chasm, is at risk. Some would make assigning his plays mandatory, while others see decreasing value in teaching them. Some would like to arm students with a theoretical framework with which to study inequality in the plays, while others would like to see a return to formalism. Some long for more resource and power-sharing in the academy, while others despair of that ever happening.

A pair of authors — Rochelle Smith and Katherine Boutry — focus on the practical, working imaginatively with the communities in which they find themselves, and in doing so, offer extraordinarily impressive, I’d say heroic, models of what can be done by great teachers under challenging circumstances.

Smith received her doctorate from the University of Chicago, then took a teaching position in Appalachia, at Frostburg State University, located outside of Cumberland, Maryland. It’s coal country, one of the poorer cities in the United States, where only one in six of those over age 25 holds a bachelor’s degree, and where, in 2015, in an area of the country already beset by the opioid crisis, “the percentage of drug and alcohol deaths in the county was 44 percent higher than the state average.” To take her students to see Shakespeare’s plays performed, she would have to drive them to Washington, DC, five hours round-trip. Yet surprisingly, it is a community, for reasons Smith illuminates, that has long had a deep appreciation for Shakespeare. She learns that “Shakespeare’s immense power as a marker of cultural capital […] turns out to have great value for places like this that are distinctly lacking in privilege.” She also discovers that the “nostalgia for a more gloried past is almost palpable around here, and Shakespeare, who is as canonical an author as they come, somehow fits right in.” Smith recounts how Frostburg’s coal miners in the antebellum years would take turns reading Shakespeare aloud after their shifts, while before desegregation in 1959, African-American students studied Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello at the local Frederick Street School. When a repairman fixing her broken freezer saw her ungraded papers on the kitchen table and asked what she did for a living, Smith told him, and he proceeded to recite from memory Macbeth’s soliloquy, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?”

Fifteen years ago, Smith “began a small, predominantly pedagogical Shakespeare festival — a ‘cooperative project involving both our university and the area high schools from western Maryland, southwest Pennsylvania, and West Virginia’”:

I choose a scene for performance that fits each class, edit the scene, and provide scripts. The mentors spend the first two weeks with their high school group doing a careful read-through of the scene. Then for the rest of the semester, the student performers are up on their feet working on issues of staging, which, naturally, leads to questions of interpretation and more close reading. […] At the end of the semester, everyone — all 200 high school students, their teachers, my college mentors, and interested family and friends — comes up to our university’s Performing Arts Center for the Shakespeare Festival, a day of scene performances interspersed with Shakespeare-themed games and contests.

Her essay captures the excitement of the students, the pride of the parents, and the possibilities that tackling Shakespeare can mean to such communities: “Here in western Maryland, in one of the poorest school districts in the state, our kids are cheering because they get to do Shakespeare. Those of us who are not from these parts, who have preconceptions about what poor, rural students are capable of doing, might be surprised.”

On the other side of the country, Katherine Boutry teaches at West Los Angeles College, a community college where three-quarters of those enrolled are students of color. “We have over five hundred veterans,” she notes, “not all of them honorably discharged, and a significant majority of our students are the first in their families to attend college and to speak English.” Students at WLAC “are largely underprepared for college. On entering, 65 percent place below college-level in English and writing skills.” “Many,” she adds, “worry quite reasonably that Shakespeare is literally not worth their time. Who wants to bother reading Shakespeare when you are intermittently homeless and hungry, and have trouble simply making it to campus? As it turns out, they do.”

A few years ago, Boutry was asked to teach her school’s sole Shakespeare class. She had last taught his plays at Harvard — “quite literally to the 1 percent” — in a graduate section of Marjorie Garber’s popular lecture, where a student might ask her after class about which was the best edition of the plays. Office hours at WLAC were different; Boutry recalls one student who came by and “admitted with a tinge of hostility bred by shame that he had ‘No idea what these words mean. It’s like a foreign language, or something.’” Boutry adds that he “was afraid. So was I.” At first, Boutry says, she lowered her expectations, then came to regret that: she now demands of her WLAC students “the same level of comprehension and reading that I would at Harvard.”

Like many of the contributors to this volume, Boutry turned to the possibilities offered by Shakespeare in performance to inspire her students. As luck would have it, Romeo and Juliet was playing at Griffith Park’s Free Shakespeare Festival the night that her first Shakespeare class met, and she managed to get her students there by car-pooling. A student wrote afterward that “[h]earing the words spoken was magical and enchanted my soul.” Others in class said that “seeing the play performed made it much easier to understand.” Her essay, like Smith’s, is a testament to an intrepid teacher who understands her community, is convinced that studying Shakespeare can enrich the hard-pressed lives of her students, and is creative and charismatic enough to figure out a way to make that happen.

The impact of studying Shakespeare with Boutry proved indelible for at least some of her undergraduates. Five of them, from separate classes, got tattoos that read “Fear No More,” words lifted from the haunting funeral song in Cymbeline. Boutry interprets this as a sign that “they wanted to carry that talismanic reminder with them forever — to literally embody Shakespeare’s poetry,” an implicit refusal on their part to fear “Shakespeare, creativity, the unknown, and death.”


James Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia; his Shakespeare in a Divided America will be published in March.

LARB Contributor

James Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University and the author of several books, including 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), Contested Will (2010), The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015), and Shakespeare in a Divided America (forthcoming, 2020). He has been awarded Guggenheim and NEH Public Scholar fellowships, has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, serves on the Board of Directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater. Photo by Mary Cregan.


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