June 24, 2017

Shakespeare Celebration: A Town-Gown Collaboration | Peer to Peer Review

Student docent Amy Strassner in action at Missouri's Kansas City Public Library First Folio exhibit

Student docent Amy Strassner in action at Missouri’s Kansas City Public Library First Folio exhibit

The idea began in November 2015. The Kansas City Public Library (KCPL), had the honor of being selected as the lone site in the state of Missouri to host a rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, on exhibit from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in June 2016. Library staffers had put together a solid line-up of programming to accompany the nearly 400-year-old book containing 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, but something was missing: interpreters who could help visitors truly understand what they were seeing. Together, the library and the local university came up with a unique solution and an experience no other Folio venue nationwide was offering: a for-credit course to prepare students to serve as docents.

Credit where credit is due

KCPL Exhibit Director Anne Ducey sent an inquiry to Joan Fitzpatrick Dean, head of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC)  English Department. It read “Do you think any UMKC students would be willing to act as volunteer docents when the Folio is here? Not sure what that would entail. Maybe for extra credit or something?” The Library had worked with the department on dozens of programs over the past decade, but nothing this involved. Dean knew right away that this would be a fantastic opportunity.

“Everyone that I contacted, our chair, all of them said ‘yes yes yes!’ This is something that’s worth pursuing,” she said. She also knew the students would need some sort of formal training. The ideal solution would be to create a course that prepared them to discuss not only Shakespeare, but also the First Folio, itself and why it was important. Time was running out, however, as it was already November 20, and UMKC was fast approaching winter break. Dean got things in motion quickly. “We were able to meet once before Thanksgiving and once before Christmas break, and we got the course up and invited the students,” she said. Then it was off to the races.” The entire planning process took less than two months from the initial proposal to the first day of classes January 20.

Studying Shakespeare

The class was called “Shakespeare and The First Folio” and was open to both graduate and undergraduate students.  It started with 15 students and ended with 12. The makeup of the class was key. “We picked the best students from our courses in either Renaissance, British Lit, or Shakespeare,” Dean said. The class would be worth one credit hour but because it was put together so quickly, it would meet online only. “There was no classroom time,” said Dean. Instructors would meet face to face with individual students about twice a month.

The syllabus listed among its objectives demonstrating “an ability to read closely and think critically about biographies of Shakespeare and histories of the First Folio” and writing a paper “that clearly and convincingly conveys the importance of Shakespeare’s First Folio to a range of potential library visitors.” Each student was required to read four core books and an additional book of their choosing. The mandatory titles were Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age:  A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare; Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage; Paul Collins’ The Book of William:  How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World; and Andrea Mays’ story of the founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library, The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio. Dean explained that each of these books offered a good primer on the Bard, himself, and also the Folio. They were accessible to a person who was looking for a good jumping-off point to learn more about Shakespeare. “Most of these folks were undergraduates, and most hadn’t waded very deeply into Shakespearean scholarship,” Dean said.

Preparing for the public

Before digging into the subject-specific works, however, each student had to read excerpts from Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage. Dean says that book helped them learn something that no Shakespeare biography or theatrical criticism could teach: the way in which history is communicated by someone like a docent. “[Tilden’s] basic point is there are many different ways in which history can be understood, interpreted, and presented,” Dean said. “And you have to realize that you’re engaging in an interpretive act that reflects your own background.”

The students brought diverse backgrounds to the program. Junior Danica Otten knew a lot about the Bard’s plays. “However, in acting as a docent,” she says, “I was exposed to such a large breadth of Shakespeare scholarship that I had not previously considered. The First Folio was an entirely new topic for me.” Engaging people one on one was not. Otten says her past experience as a tutor was an asset. “In tutoring, you engage each person individually, aiming to increase their level of understanding and enjoyment of the subject matter,” she said. “It requires…a lot of listening on my part. The Folio was very similar. I tried to meet each individual person at their own interest and go from there.”

Junior Amy Strassner’s experience was a bit different. She wasn’t accustomed to engaging with the public in this way. “It was a little nerve-racking because I did not know what to expect. I also get a little nervous when speaking in front of groups,” she said. But those nerves were one reason she felt the course was a success. “That made this experience all the more exciting,” Strassner said, “when I realized that I loved it and was succeeding at doing something a little out of my comfort zone.”

Otten, Strassner, and the other docents prepared for those public interactions through the course’s final project. Each had to submit an interpretive paper that depicted interactions with three potential visitors:  an adolescent with no interest in Shakespeare and no real understanding of what the First Folio is; someone who had a lifelong interest in Shakespeare and knew about his plays, his life, and his legacy; and someone who was just mildly interested. Dean said it was important that the docents anticipate the wide variety of responses to the Folio they would encounter. “Some people might be in awe. Some people might be underwhelmed. Some people might have no idea what they were looking at,” she said.

Service learning

With the docents engaging hundreds of members of the public daily, Dean says the program was an ideal example of service learning. “The students undertook a course of pretty rigorous instruction so they could have the background adequate to interact with the public,” she said. “Not to serve as experts on Shakespeare or the First Folio, but to give them a sense of where they could find additional information.”

Otten experienced the impact of service learning firsthand during an encounter that she said she won’t forget.

“Early one morning, a woman came in to view the Folio having seen the promotional banner outside the library,” she said. “I greeted her and tried to gauge her knowledge of Shakespeare and the First Folio. Her response to my greeting was, ‘Now who is this Shakespeare fellow?’ I mentioned the plays she would’ve inevitably encountered, and her eyes and body language lit up when she heard that Shakespeare was the playwright who gave us Romeo and Juliet. She told me tales of her high school self, and talked about how she claimed a corner of her school’s library to read the play again and again and again. ‘This is that Shakespeare?’ she squealed!

“This, for me, was a perfect connection to the First Folio we had on display. I told her how a university in England had a copy of the Folio that is particularly worn around the Romeo and Juliet pages, hinting that people just like her would escape to the library to read the same play decades and decades before her. When she heard that the Folio contained numerous plays, she resolutely committed to reading more of the playwright she had once loved so dearly in high school.”

Beyond the First Folio

More than 10,000 visitors attended the exhibit from June 6–28. Visitors gave the docents overwhelmingly positive reviews, noting how knowledgeable and prepared they were. Dean and her colleagues were also impressed. The for-credit course was such a hit that she wants to offer it again. But Dean also says she and others would need more time to put the course together. The students are supportive and suggested giving the course actual classroom time instead of keeping it online “I think this is what I liked the least about the class,” said Strassner. “We still had great discussions; however, it would have been really nice to discuss Shakespeare in person, and also meet and talk about the process of being docents throughout the semester.”

Dean says the larger goal is to take the course back into the community, using the docent model again. “There are a lot of opportunities in Kansas City, not only with the Kansas City Public Library but with the Linda Hall Library, the Toy and Miniature Museum, possibly even with the Truman Library in Independence,” she said. “This is something where we move away from just classroom learning and engaging with the text, to seeing the way in which you can know a lot about something and share that knowledge with a very wide array of the public.”

Courtney Lewis is Media Relations Coordinator for the Kansas City Public Library, MO

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