The Great Shakespeare Debate, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust , 6-7 February 2008: Student Mentors' ReportsAlexandra Dziegiel, University of Warwick undergraduate
I can say with absolute certainty that having the opportunity to work at the Great Shakespeare Debate has been my most rewarding experience at university so far. I was very nervous because I did not know any other mentors, and although I was confident in my knowledge of Shakespeare, I was nervous because I was the only first year student in a team of finalists and post-graduates. However, I did not feel at any disadvantage, and the excellent organisation and friendliness of the Shakespeare Centre staff gave my confidence a much needed boost. I would strongly recommend that anyone who is hesitant about volunteering to go for it, because it is such an enjoyable and beneficial experience. We all had a lot of fun and relished the chance to enjoy a common passion.
It was amazing to see students debating about Shakespeare with such passion, enthusiasm, and in many cases, an impressive knowledge of such a broad range of plays that it had us reaching for our Complete Works for comfort! The technique of debating really gets students personally involved in the subject, and the ferocity with which they defended their motion was great. I thoroughly enjoyed judging and giving questions from the floor, and I never ceased to be impressed at the confidence and eloquence of the students.
It has been a wonderful opportunity to work with academics such as Paul Edmonson and Stanley Wells, especially participating in their ‘Shakespeare Nuggets’. I will never forget Paul commenting that as Mistress Quickley I ‘laid on the sexual innuendo with a trowel’! It was inspiring to see the students take so much away from listening to them, and I know that I did too. I hope that I can one day read Shakespeare with that much passion and ease.
I learned a lot about debating, and very much enjoyed the partnership with the ESU mentors, which I thought worked very well. It has strengthened my belief that theatre and education are incredibly important to schools, and it is a path I would like to follow in the future. My knowledge of Shakespeare and the way his works are studied and presented has increased enormously, and I know that this will help me in the future, as I am looking forward to studying Shakespeare further at university. I will definitely be volunteering next year and would love to be accepted to take part again. I shall certainly stay in touch with those involved, and hope to work at the Shakespeare Centre again in the future. I am very grateful to the organisers for giving the mentors, and especially the students, such a wonderful opportunity.
Simon Nussbaum, University of Warwick undergraduateDebating, education and Shakespeare
As someone who has been both debating and studying Shakespeare for most of my secondary school and University career I am a fervent believer in its role as beneficial both to education, and its application towards Shakespeare in particular.
On a wider scale, debating can be of educative benefit because it makes us question what we would usually presume to be true, to ask why something ought to be the case (free universal healthcare, the right not to be tortured, or national sovereignty, for example), and to use logical analysis to find answers and form arguments. Debating greatly improves your confidence and, of course, your communication skills, both as a speaker and also (as debating is crucially different from public speaking as you engage with and respond to other speeches) listening.
More specific to formal education, to take on the role of the debater gives you an audience you must directly put your point of view across to. In this way debating can be seen as a form of teaching – and the ability to teach something to another has been found to be just about the most reliable way of ensuring you have a solid learning of it yourself. Debating also works on a very similar parallel to good essay-writing practice; you have a through-line of argument which acts like a thesis in an essay, and they say in a debate you should “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, tell them you’ve said it” – in effect, introduction, body, conclusion. The way in which good debating points are given is the same as the ‘Point, Evidence, Explanation’ method students are encourage to use for exams; the assertions you make in debating are best when backed up by an example or analogy, and an explanation of what that assertion’s significance is.
When it comes to Shakespeare, debating is of usefulness because it combines these educative aspects with a performative aspect not dissimilar to acting – in that you might not believe everything you are saying yourself, but you must put it across convincingly. Rhetoric is an essential tool in debating, as it is in Shakespeare’s writing. The very fact that it is so easily possible to debate so many aspects of Shakespeare and for students to find that out themselves by participation is of great help in showing Shakespeare’s plays as ones of great interpretative possibilities. Firstly, this aids with the notion of Shakespeare’s scripts being only fully realised in performance, and those performances having the potential to communicate wildly differing things to audience – as to whether the director chooses to direct his play from side proposition or opposition of a debate, as it were. Secondly, because it illuminates how much his plays’ content, characters are defined by oppositions: that there is almost invariably at least two world views, perceptions, ideologies, or at the very least thematic doublings and contrasts, being put forward in his works and responded to; exactly as in a debate where two sides exist in opposition over the same topic, and over the course of the debate interact and engage in dialogue with each other.
Adam Putz, University of Warwick postgraduateNearly a month on from the debates, the positive experience of the students remains with me. Their earnest enthusiasm during the debates was contagious, colouring the playacting and preparation we did. Needless to say, I only had the opportunity to meet the students and draw on their energy as a result of my participation in the debates.
Doing my bit to help students grapple with a position either for or against a given proposition on a given play using what they knew about Shakespeare from their schoolwork thus proved rather rewarding because extremely high-spirited. During the process of preparing for the students for their debates, they discussed with me questions concerning plays that ranged in their thematic significance from the nature of bravery as dramatised by the principal characters in Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth to the very nature of difference as dramatised by the principal characters in Othello and The Merchant of Venice. As such, I gained a great deal from engaging with the students, many of whom were engaging for the first time with Shakespeare, attempting in earnest for the first time to provide and support an opinion on the important themes of the Shakespearean text by discussing the plays offered up for debate.
I appreciated the opportunity very much, then. Looking to the Shakespearean text much as one would someone who, like them, debated these same differences of opinion, these questions, perhaps for the first time, much as they were now, really brought the significance of Shakespeare back down to earth. The debates provided me in this way with a glimpse onto the different ways in which the Shakespearean text makes all of us Shakespeares. The teachers and, significantly, the staff of the Shakespeare Centre supporting the students with the utmost care wholly matched the appreciation and encouragement of the students throughout their experience.
Emily Ruck Keene, University of Warwick undergraduate
My motivation for helping with the Debate was to add to my CV, get a taster of teaching, and as I study English I thought that it sounded ideal.
Being involved was a great opportunity to share my love of Shakespeare and my interest in teaching with others. Seeing the students develop from knowing nothing about debating to formulating a well thought through, mature argument, was so rewarding. I made some really good friends who were interested in Shakespeare as well, and found myself being challenged about plays by the students, whose ideas were refreshing and original.
I would definitely recommend taking part, and doing as many days as possible. I was only able to do a couple of days, and really felt that I had missed out on some of the development process.
I hope to become more involved with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as they put on lots of events and courses, which I would love to help out at.
Elinor Turney, University of Warwick UndergraduateThe Use of Debating in Education.
The current education system tends, in my opinion, to teach children what to think, not how to think. This is clearly a bad thing both in the short and long term. In the short term it is patronising, frustrating and crushes creative spirit. In the long term it leads to young people and undergraduates expecting to be spoon fed information. Students are arriving at universities around the country expecting to be taught how to tick the necessary boxes and leave with a degree. Independent thought is such a rarity within the SATs then GCSEs then A levels ‘conveyor belt’ of exams that is secondary -and, increasingly, primary education, that university can be a huge - and demoralising - learning curve. However, there are shining exceptions to this rather depressing rule, and the use of formal debating is a clear example.
Anything that encourages team-work, teaches working to deadlines, and requires that other opinions are taken into account is demonstrably going to mean that students are more engaged with what they are studying, are more willing to take risks and are readier to question their own opinions and preconceived ideas. Formal debating that allows a certain time frame to create a convincing, well-structured argument is an excellent way to get students to pool their ideas and then evaluate which ones best serve the argument they are trying to make. It is all too easy to be so scared of time limits and running out of things to say that one pours everything one can possibly remember into an essay or exam paper without constructing them into an argument or picking the more relevant points and expanding them. Having to convince a real live audience means that when writing later on, hopefully, the imagined reader (or audience) will take the same amount of convincing and therefore demand a well-constructed argument.
The ability to think on one’s feet and make a rebuttal of an opposing speaker’s argument is what separates a good debater from a poor one, especially if they can re-jig their argument to counter a new point made by the opposition. Not being thrown by ideas that contradict your argument, but using them as jumping-off points for new questions that an essay might answer is a very sophisticated essay technique, and however obliquely this is taken in by debating students I think that just being aware that there is a counter argument to be made at all is going to increase the quality of essays, exam answers and just general appreciation of the text being studied.
On a more basic level, the very act of standing up before a crowd of people and speaking is bound to be daunting to most people, and debating not only teaches confidence in your own views of a text but also helps with more general public speaking - giving presentations, interview technique etc. This is clearly going to help later in life and in university applications.