The Great Shakespeare Debate, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust , 26-8 February 2007: Student Mentors' Reports
Matt Armstrong, University of Warwick.
I think that the GSD was one of the most exciting and enabling things that I have done during my time at University. It brought together those who are experts in the fields of Shakespeare studies, those that might aspire (one day) to be experts and those that are only just starting-out on their enjoyment of Shakespeare.
Personally, I got an awful lot from the event. Being able to see sixth-form/GCSE students enjoy discussing Shakespeare, and perhaps getting-over the stigma that comes with his plays was amazing. Such passion – whether genuine or not – was invigorating for me but also made me realise how far I have come since sixth-form and how far I still want to go. It was a ‘Shakespeare-affirming experience’, so to speak/write.
Helping Nick, Paul and Stanley with their ‘Shakespeare nuggets’ sessions was wonderful. Having the chance to read sections of Coriolanus to a man who still remembers seeing Olivier in the 1950s was tremendous. .... The passion of these academics was palpable, and one day I hope to be able to quote Shakespeare with the ease that Paul Edmondson manages.
I am a third-year English and Theatre student, and have just completed an application for an MA in English Lit: Shakespeare and the British Dramatic Tradition. It was great to be in the SBT, and made me realise that I would love to work in that environment. Also, I hope that I might be able to do some kind of Education/Research work there whilst doing my MA. The experienced confirmed my desire to work in drama-in-education, somehow trying to combine theatre practice with academia at a higher level. Being able to give ‘feedback’ to genuinely interested students, some of whom may go on to study Shakespeare more in-depth, after the debates was fantastic.
I certainly learnt a lot more about how debates work, and how a person can argue their opinion. It also drew to my attention the obvious binaries in Shakespeare that so proliferate at A-level level, as well as flawed ideas of the ‘tragic flaw’ (etc.) that are drilled into kids at school. It made me want to throw away my copy of Othello with my A-level notes in. The guys at the ESU were brilliant, and I hope to stay in contact with some of them. I would also very much like to help/work for them, and was asked on the last day of the GSD if I would go to one of the schools that participated and give a debating master-class. I think I may need ESU’s help…
Finally, I would like to stress how thankful I am to the incredibly hard-working organisers, how much I enjoyed the event and how much I would love to do it next year. I would also love to volunteer for any future events at the SBT or the Institute, from admin assisting to workshops to research assisting. Also, I will certainly stay in contact with those involved and would love to work with them (in any capacity) in the future. I feel those bonds made may be the start of solid friendships. So, in the style of Paul Edmondson, I will finish on a quotation:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.
Benjamin Fowler, University of Warwick.
Participating in the Great Shakespeare Debate, at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford in February 2007, was not only jolly good fun, but also stimulating and enriching. As a third year student at Warwick University, currently studying three Shakespeare modules, the opportunity to meet like minded scholars from a range of institutions, including the Shakespeare Institute, and the ESU, allowed the formation of friendships and contacts made over the three days will hopefully be maintained and re-visited in later months and years.
The passion and skill of the student debaters I encountered was stimulating and refreshing. Analysing their use of knowledge and argument in their debates personally exercised my academic muscles, and opened my eyes to the differences between knowledge and rhetoric, using facts and being persuasive. Arguing something that one doesn’t necessary believe in is a rhetorical skill that permeates Shakespeare’s multi-perspective plays. I quickly learned that arguments tended to be easily picked apart when they were based on opinion instead of evidence.
In addition, being partnered with an ESU mentor with specific debating skills was a learning opportunity that I relished. Having not really encountered debating, I moved from a position of ignorance to a debating adjudicator within the space of a few hours, and enjoyed watching and learning the skill of this dynamic activity. This not only informs methods of arguing in academic writing, of highlighting all contradictory viewpoints and then coming to a summary conclusion based on the gathered evidence, but also the handling of rhetoric on a performance level, and watching and selecting the most dramatic delivery award linked debating to the performance realm in an enlightening and interesting way.
As well as stimulating debate motions, which made me sit there and continually switch positions as in interrogated them in my own head, the event afforded the opportunity of listening to Stanley Wells inspirational talk on Laurence Olivier’s Coriolanus. Participating in ‘Shakespeare nuggets’ sessions, I got to listen to interesting perspectives on Shakespeare from a variety of valuable speakers, as well as the opportunity to deliver some Shakespeare onstage to an audience – hurrah! Any lectures we missed out on over the two days were more than made up for in hearing these speakers give fresh perspectives on both Coriolanus (which happened to be our set text that week anyway) and generic aspects of Shakespeare such as comedy / tragedy.
However, most invaluable was the social aspect of our residential visit. Being immersed in Stratford and Shakespeare, with good food and drink and interesting company led to stimulating discussions and both creative and professional points of contact. I will hopefully now go and see some World standard debates, pop in to see Paul when I’m at the centre, have a couch to stay on at Oxford, and Becky has a ticket to see a concert with Andrew!
Hannah Pidsley, University of Warwick.
I was honoured to be asked to mentor for The Great Shakespeare Debate, but I have to be honest – I didn’t have a clue what it would entail. I’d heard numerous reports of what we would be doing, but none were close to the truth, and I panicked when we arrived and were told that we would be judging the debates; what did I know about debating, and how was I possibly qualified to be a “Shakespeare mentor”. However, as with all situations in which I originally panic, it turned out to be wonderful, rewarding and a great confidence booster.
As I didn’t know anyone at all, I was nervous, but everyone was so friendly, so helpful, and also so professional that that soon disappeared. The workshops were fun, and listening to the Debating Mentors brief the children on debating rules was very helpful! By the time it came round to my first debate, my nerves had gone and I was excited. I loved the judging in every way; watching the children compete, marvelling at how intelligent and confident they all were, taking part in the “floor debate”, and finally coming to a decision with my co-judge, and feeling that they valued what I had to say.
Indeed, for me I think this was one of the most important things that I got from the experience; I was treated by the organisers of the event and my fellow judges with great respect and felt that they truly valued what I had to say. This experience gave me so much confidence in my academic capabilities, and has dramatically changed how I see myself in my work, and where I see myself in the years to come after my degree at Warwick has ended.
This experience will be so useful for my academic future – not only has it informed my knowledge of Shakespeare’s texts, and enabled me to be confident that I know what I am talking about, which will be a great help in my final exams on Shakespeare at the end of the year, but it has also shown me how much I love studying (for I have always, since I was a little girl!) Shakespeare, and has inspired me to apply for the Shakespeare Studies MA course at the Shakespeare Institute. If it hadn’t been for this debate, I do not think I would have come to this realisation, and I therefore owe a whole lot to the experience offered to me! I was sad when the debates ended, and it was a shame to see the children tire so much towards the end, but the Grand Final was well waiting for!
Paul Edmondson asked after the event, that we write at report, and that it “came form the heart”. I am aware that there is little I have to say that is bad about the experience (the one thing I found awkward was the presence of the teachers in the judging, although I understand the reasons for this), and perhaps it appears false. But know that for me this truly was a life-changing experience, in so many ways. I look forward to next year, and I know that if it is even half as good next year, it will still be an event to remember! Thank you, so much.
Rebecca Allen, University of Warwick.
I would like to start by saying how much fun I had over the two days I was working with both the coordinators and the students of ‘The Great Shakespeare Debate’. The time spent together both during and outside debating sessions was full of exciting discussions and enthusiasm for the whole project. Principally, therefore, I think that what I gained most from the experience was a reaffirmation of the importance and continual relevance of thinking and talking about Shakespeare. It took ideas which have previously been mused over privately, either in the library or in my bedroom, and gave me the chance to ‘air them’ in a vibrant public space. This happened as much with the students who came to debate as it did with the senior academic and postgraduate staff. However, it is worth pointing out how much I enjoyed meeting and speaking to the staff from the centre, particularly Prof. Stanley Wells, and having the privilege to chat to Sir. Donald Sinden. The whole thing became increasingly surreal, as names which are familiar in an abstract way began to appear in the flesh. It was tremendously exciting and exhilarating to be involved in the same project as these people, and it was always made clear that we were all ‘in it together’; no-one overshadowed or undermined the work of anyone else on the team.
In terms of my own studies, this experience has allowed me to realise just how much I want to continue working at Warwick to a postgraduate level, specialising in Shakespeare and British dramatists. It bought home how lucky we are to be so near to Stratford, and has definitely boosted my speculations about what I might do in the future (work for the RSC, of course…). It also, crucially, allowed me an insight into the world of debating, which is something I have never witnessed before. It allowed me to think about the brilliance of really well thought-out arguing, and how difficult this can be. It has also led to wide spread discussions amongst all of us who visited from Warwick about the possibility of joining the team, which is something we may well have eschewed before. The representatives from the ESU were friendly, organised and always willing to explain the rules to the ‘Shakespearians’. Thirdly, I think it really brought proved how exciting it can be to speak to sixth-form students about their ideas and opinions, which are massively diverse and many cases really interesting. Although I’m not considering a career in teaching, it did make me pause to consider how exciting and rewarding it can be. All told, I had a really invigorating and interesting days, met some wonderful people, and very much want to be asked back next year!
Andrew Marshall, ESU Mentor, University of Oxford
It seems a bit incongruous, but I didn't really know what to expect from the Great Shakespeare Debate - yet it far exceeded any vague expectations I'd had.
In many ways, it had all of the elements of a standard debating workshop that I invariably enjoy: watching students improve their public speaking skills and confidence in leaps and bounds over a very short period of time, engaging in critical analysis in an environment of their peers both competitive and supportive. But the focus on Shakespeare gave it a life that I've not experienced at any other training session - the students approached their subjects with a passion and involvement that rarely arise even when debating the hot current affairs issues that the newspapers love.
Judging and coaching alongside the Shakespeare mentors was a real treat - it was fantastic to see the mutual respect that we shared, and I could feel my own interest in the works being debated growing as I learned to go beneath the superficial analysis a normal debater might apply to them. Having watched and discussed three preliminary rounds and then the grand final with a different Shakespeare mentor each time made me appreciate the different perspective that they brought to the judging panel and I know I'll be a better (and more collaborative) coach in the future because of it.
Over the course of the two days, it was terrific to see students developing two distinct but complementary skills that should help them to become valuable members of the community: a proficiency in public speaking and a keen interest in and knowledge of some of the best literature ever written. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Great Shakespeare Debate, and having spoken of it in glowing terms to my friends and colleagues ever since returning home, I'd be delighted to participate in it again.
Joshua McEvilla, The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham
I am a second year PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Throughout the Great Shakespeare Debate, I acted as a Shakespeare Mentor, assisting with classroom instruction and with the judging of debates. By helping the students learn rhetoric, I gleaned the complex art of reading Shakespeare’s works aloud for metrical precision. By assisting with the debating process, I developed a symbiotic relationship with the debate judges, teaching them about Shakespeare as I learned their practical knowledge of judging fast-paced rhetorical exchanges. Because I took part in the Great Shakespeare debate, I developed friendships with likeminded scholars that will help me advance my own research.
Katharine Liu, The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham
What you got from the event?
I had a fantastic time at the Great Shakespeare Debate. After a semester of graduate-level Shakespeare, it was great to work with high school students again. Admittedly, part of the pleasure was playing “Shakespeare expert” for two days before going back to the sense of “I know nothing” that being taught by real experts can engender J. But the kids were great, and their Shakespearean insights were refreshing. They were sharp, clear, and really fearless about stating their views about the plays’ relevance to their lives, a contrast to academia where statements about Shakespeare are always in danger of veering towards the cautious and detached. The amount of skills and information they managed to assimilate and use in two days was truly impressive, and watching them renewed my interest in working with high school students. In addition, I’d never seen a debate before, and it turned out to be a theatrical and often hysterically funny activity - dozens of students will join debate teams over one perfectly-timed rebuff in the sample debate. Lastly, working with the Warwick and ESU guys was so much fun – it was a great bunch of people. We even started a Facebook group called “The Great Shakespeare Debate” to keep in touch.
How it might help you where you are in your studies?
Scholarship relies on factual truth, and the debates introduced me to a whole difference type of truth, that of persuasion. As a judge and English student, it was really difficult to hear incorrect “facts” about Shakespeare without jumping out of my chair to object. To make a good argument, you have to ignore the minutiae and figure your fundamental beliefs on an issue, and whether they stand up to critical scrutiny. You have to think hard, fast, and straight to the point, because there’s so little time to prepare. There’s also little time to present your thoughts, so the structure of the argument needs to be communicated quickly and clearly. The debate mentors explained that a fact that sounds right stands until the opposing side questions it. So not only do debaters need to consider their own arguments, but to think critically and rigorously about the opposing side’s viewpoint, too. All of these skills are useful to consider when writing a paper that’s lively as well as scholarly.
What skills it helped you to enhance?
As mentioned above, participating in the debate helped enhance my critical thinking skills. But I think more than anything the Debate gave me confidence. Teaching is an intimidating activity, but the rhetoric workshop Harold and I ran went quite well. When I came home on Tuesday a roommate and I talked about how we’re intimidated by argumentation, and we’re going to check out some debate workshops soon. Paul also suggested a mini Shakespeare debate between Warwick and Institute students, which we’re working to organize now. Hopefully it’s also improved my powers of persuasion, although I’m less confident on that account.
J.Van-Praag, University of Exeter, undergraduate student mentor
The Great Shakespeare debate was not only thoroughly enjoyable but it allowed me to meet some of the best debaters in the world. As such, there was lots of chances to see where I can improve my own debating and my confidence. As for the students that I was judging and mentoring, it was an opportunity to pass on the love and passion that I have for both debating and studying Shakespeare.
The analytical skills used in drawing out Shakespearean knowledge from vast texts and resources will assist in my studies of Philosophy and Sociology. The ability to present and work with students enhances my presentation abilities in explaining core texts during my University seminars.
Finally, it was fun, and seeing Shakespeare performed by the RSC was an amazing opportunity that was too good to miss.