Photo credit: Reagan Smith
For me, teaching is a profoundly creative collaborative activity requiring inspiration, commitment, energy, and time. Teaching is exhilarating. Teaching is also exhausting. The work is difficult and intricate, and inconsistently rewarding. The commitment can come from a point of passion unalterable by the influence of circumstances, but the energy needs to be fed. Time is the luxury item here, and sabbatical leave is the venue where those of us fortunate enough to be in positions that offer sabbatical can cultivate the increasingly elusive “balance” in our work, our lives.
During my fall 2016 sabbatical I enjoyed the gift of time to savor the slow drift from summer to autumn to winter. While summer, fall, and early winter were busy and productive with travel, reading, research, writing, conferences, and interactions with colleagues in the wider world, I did have moments of calm and quiet to notice both the natural world of gardens and fields, forests and animals, and to be more attentive to the people who mean the most in my life. While my “official” sabbatical time was the fall semester itself, for reasons of my project work and major conference commitment, summer 2016 was the active prelude to my fall semester sabbatical.
Although I lived mostly at home in rural Petersburg, New York, I traveled to England twice during this period for extended visits in July-August and November 2016. Over decades, I have spent much time in the United Kingdom, and indeed since that fall 2016 sabbatical I have returned to the UK several times. England is the center of my scholarly work, my cultural home. During my stays, I instantly immerse myself in the familiar patterns and rhythms of life there, whether in the constant energetic buzz of London or the calmer but no less fascinating North Yorkshire, or when exploring somewhere less familiar, such as the Cornwall coast, which my husband and I visited for the first time in the summer of 2015 and now visit annually for an unplugged, art-filled week in the beach town of St. Ives.
My overall goal for the fall 2016 sabbatical leave was to refresh and renew my connection with my work, to continue that merger of new knowledge, and new thinking, with the work that has been my constant companion for decades now. My work is centered on my students. My vocation as a scholar who prioritizes teaching and mentoring undergraduates means that my chosen sabbatical activities had to have relevance and resonance with the students I teach. I chose to engage in experiences that I could bring back into the classroom, to my mentoring work with undergraduate research, and to guiding students in engaging with experiences in the wider world. The intellectual and creative adventures of eclecticism and constant study and exploration are vital to the interdisciplinary focus of my scholarly life and a teaching practice dedicated to liberal arts education. Everything is research! I have to bring the culture of earlier times to life for my students. In my work, artifacts from past centuries–whether these are literary texts or tangible objects such as portraits, or performances of plays or music, or architecture–are continually revitalized through new knowledge and new connections. I bring these complex historical and cultural interactions into my teaching at MCLA and to my work with colleagues in the wider academic world.
In August 2016 I was in London with my composer husband David Denhard, also a conference presenter, to participate in the World Shakespeare Congress (WSC) commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. “Global Shakespeare: Creating and Re-Creating Shakespeare,” sponsored by the International Shakespeare Association and hosted by academic institutions and theatre companies, was an extraordinary opportunity for interaction in a multifaceted field. It is both affirming and liberating to be in a situation in which one’s areas of passion are taken for granted as shared, relevant, and vibrant. In addition to my earlier active participation in the World Shakespeare Congress, that November I attended the closing day and final keynote presentation at the inaugural biennial “In the Light of Gloriana” conference at the Tower of London. This special interdisciplinary conference devoted to the legacy of Queen Elizabeth I offered myriad opportunities to engage with Elizabeth I historically and culturally. Since I bring aspects of the writings and legacy of Elizabeth I to students in British Literary Survey, The Arts of Medieval and Renaissance Britain travel course, and the Life-Writing Senior Seminar, I appreciate the new opportunities for scholarly engagement that the Gloriana Society presented.
The process of preparing for my participation in the summer 2016 World Shakespeare Congress began in early fall 2015. My seminar colleagues and I conducted a productive several months of long-distance communication and collaboration before we met in person for our seminar. The “Rogues, Vagabonds, and Scholars: Creative Cross-Pollination in 21st Century Approaches to Shakespeare” seminar brought teacher-scholars and assorted theatre practitioners together in conversation. My seminar contribution, “Shakespeare Studies in the Undergraduate Classroom: Performance & Context,” bridged what is often seen as a tension between performance and scholarship. In addition to attending stimulating plenary sessions and participating in a performance practices workshop with Globe Theatre education staff, numerous serendipitous spontaneous conversations of both affirmation and illumination contributed to this exciting immersion in aspects of my work I rarely share with colleagues on a daily basis at home on campus.
As important as my formal involvement with the WSC, is my ongoing dedication to current productions and trends in how the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, predecessors, as well as modern and contemporary playwrights in our own time, express the human in the compressed, miniature worlds that are plays. As I tell my students, I “collect” theatre performance experiences. I saw two major Shakespeare productions at the Globe during the WSC and on my return to England in November saw important theatre at both the Globe and the National Theatre. Globe Artistic Director Emma Rice’s 2016 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was revelatory: truly an embodiment of “global Shakespeare” and truly a production for our time. Rice integrated contemporary 21st-century gender relations in a way that worked authentically with the original text. It was stunningly effective, with contemporary set design, costuming, and music. Rice’s textual alterations are intelligent and un-intrusive “up-dating”, including a sustainable and effective substitution of a remarkable “Helenus” for Helena. Great theatre, great Shakespeare.
As I write this, my spring 2017 Shakespeare class has studied Emma Rice’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream via video made available through the Shakespeare Lives online digital festival co-curated by the BBC and the British Council, and my current Shakespeare class will benefit from the remastered video now available in DVD format. My personal experience of this production and my ability to share my own Globe experiences and even the production’s program, with its articles and information about the production, all contribute to the sort of experience that brings newness to something centuries old. I attend performances at the Globe several times each year, building upon a long relationship with this re-creation of a theatre that was destroyed by fire twice during its original time period. When I return to England with my Arts of Medieval and Renaissance Britain classes biennially and we participate in study days and see productions at this “new” Globe Theatre, I bring them into an institution merging history with the living present.
I returned to the Globe in November 2016 for a production far rarer than even something as extraordinary as the wonderful Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw earlier. (I use that word, wonderful, in its full 16th/17th sense of meaning something full of wonder and, yes, amazement.) John Milton’s Masque Performed at Ludlow Castle (1634), popularly known as “Comus,” isn’t even a play. As an example of the masque form, it is a courtly entertainment written and performed to celebrate a special occasion. Masques were private entertainments typically performed in private domestic settings, though these private settings were generally royal or noble. In November I attended two performances of this rarely-performed piece at the Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse, an architecturally-appropriate rendering of the late 16th/early 17th-century indoor theatres–more “modern” than the Globe–that were sites for the newer English plays of the early 1600s. I saw the masque twice in one day in the company of two colleagues, one British and one North American, working in fields related to mine. It was simply glorious to have time to discuss and critique director Lucy Bailey’s reimagining of this old form for a new audience largely unfamiliar with the original masque. As I teach the Age of Milton Honors course this semester, as I did in 2017, I am integrating a consciousness of this 2016 production into our work with the “Comus” masque.
Museums and exhibitions are a sometimes overlooked source of the kind of integrated content that can do important work extending and contextualizing learning for students of literary studies, theatre, and history. I am particularly dedicated to portraiture as a means of getting closer to past and present lives. Artifacts of material culture large and small, from textiles to buildings, also provide vital ways into a clearer understanding of the past. I always seek out relevant collections and exhibitions of interest to my teaching. Museums and libraries in the United Kingdom tend to do truly creative work in merging technology with tradition. Several special exhibitions stand out from my 2016 sabbatical visits to England, among them my study day at the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition, which presented 400 years of performance history in a richly researched and presented interactive multi-media format. Also of note were two exhibitions at the V & A (Victoria and Albert Museum), Curtain Up: Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York and Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, which provided a view of the creations of the highly skilled designers and artisans–both men and women–who created textile art during the Middle Ages.
While I devoted much of my sabbatical activity to medieval and Renaissance England, I also spent time focused on the First World War, gathering insights for the later period of the British Literary Survey that I teach. The “Great War” had a far more visceral impact on Britain than on the US, and is still very much present in the Britain of today, with locals from numerous places still able to point out the sites of enemy incursions by air and sea into Great Britain, often with loss of civilian lives and property. In York, North Yorkshire, I visited a new exhibition about the ambulance trains of World War I at the York Railway Museum and attended an afternoon with novelist Pat Barker devoted to her historical novel of the period, Regeneration (part one of her Regeneration trilogy), which was the final event of York’s 2016 “Big City Read,” a grand-scale city-wide annual engagement with reading and context that takes place over an entire year among a vast range of venues and institutions. The experience of participating in an event so “local” that combines literature and history was truly an opportunity to see how a community common reading can work.
In most of the literary studies classes that I teach, I work with texts that are far from contemporary to our time. History and the study of art within its cultural context are essential. While we cannot evade the fact that all recording and preserving of artifacts of the past represents choices and decisions (and that these choices and decisions should themselves be interrogated), and that random acts and accidents can also affect what does and does not remain from the past, and while we must recognize that what we do with history is all interpretation, I still believe that an approach of respecting the past as the past is vital for any real attempt at understanding distant times and people and their texts or, for that matter, for trying to understand anything from our contemporary world that is somehow “other.” I work with “old” literature and cultures in part because I believe that through understanding the past we can better understand our immediate present and help contribute to our future.
In a climate of quick, easy access to “answers” and “information,” it is important to help our students slow down, to develop and nurture careful habits of exploration and inquiry. Oversimplification and unreflective presentism distort potential understanding of the intricacies of the past. Especially when facing language that voices mysteries of this past, with all the history and culture that are conveyed through words and syntax, it’s necessary to cultivate a sense of how ideas are shaped and expressed word by word. Shortcuts and summaries are not going to help students gain much beyond a surface understanding, and surface understandings enable facile interpretations. This is labor-intensive, careful work, and it is active, not passive. Careful attention to language in context is the key to meaning.
Back in the classroom and office since spring of 2017, I am happy to report that my sabbatical time of reflection and scholarly activity continues enriching my work and leading me to new insights for my teaching practices and guidance of student research. I didn’t return necessarily feeling quite as “rested” as I might have fantasized I would, but I certainly had a productive, and at times joyous, sabbatical leave. I am grateful for this.
Rosanne Fleszar Denhard, Ph.D., is Professor of English in the English/Communications Department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, where she has taught since 1996. Her interests encompass British literature and interdisciplinary studies; literature in performance; life-writing; and early modern women. She prioritizes pedagogy and mentoring, and has served on the Undergraduate Research Council and Honors Advisory Board at MCLA. Her chapter about her Arts of Medieval and Renaissance Britain travel course is forthcoming from the Modern Language Association in 2019 in Study Abroad: Traditions, Directions, and Innovations. Her honors include the MCLA Faculty Association Senior Faculty Award for outstanding teaching and service; a Creative Project Grant for her work on a documentary on teaching Shakespeare through performance; and the Senior Class Faculty Appreciation Award for teaching and mentoring.