Classes you dread, but shouldn’t

Just the name – Shakespeare – can send students into a tizzy, let alone the thought of having to take a whole three-credit course on his work.

ENGL 350, Drama of Shakespeare, is currently the only specific literature class that English majors at Gannon University have to take, and pass, in order to graduate. In other words, Shakespeare is the only specific author that English students must study in order to earn their degrees.

Shakespeare’s work has been considered the epitome of good literature around the world for as long as anyone can remember. But many students, and perhaps teachers alike, may ask why it’s so important that this guy gets as much attention as he does.

Dr. Douglas King, an associate professor in Gannon’s English department, said he has been teaching Drama of Shakespeare since his first semester at the university in 2001. Although Shakespeare’s work is some of the most important literature ever written, in his class he encourages students not to put the playwright on a pedestal.

King said the key for Shakespeare, at least in his class, is comprehension. Once that’s been achieved students can move toward an overall appreciation of Shakespeare’s work, regardless of whether they like it or not. The goal then, according to King, is to give students a positive experience in the class. “You can find students at whatever level,” he said, “and try to give them a fresh look.”

Katie Swaney, a junior English major at Gannon, took King’s Drama of Shakespeare class in Spring 2011. She said she both was and wasn’t nervous about Shakespeare at the college level. She said she wasn’t nervous because, having previously taken another of King’s classes, she knew that he would help if she got stuck. At the same time, though, she said she was anxious because literature from the 16th and 17th centuries can be daunting.

“I didn’t think I was going to be able to understand it,” she said, “but for the most part I could.”

King said the apprehension in students often comes from their past experience with Shakespeare. What happens, he said, is that oftentimes teachers (mostly at the high school level)  teach Shakespeare because they have to, not because they enjoy it. When that happens, King said, the students are far less likely to have a positive experience because the teacher isn’t.

King also warned about another aspect of Shakespeare pertaining to comprehension: additional study materials. He said that students need to get it out of their heads that these materials – film versions, cliff notes, summaries, etc. – are not “cheating,” as many students would assume. When they’re used as additional resources to the text, he said they can be quite helpful.

King said the only downside to the class is that it’s not long enough. “There’s never adequate time to do everything,” he said. In his class, he often jokes that he’s submitting a request to the dean to have the course extended to Christmas Eve.

Swaney, likewise, didn’t express any downsides to the content of the course. She said it was nice because King exposes the students to all the different genres – comedy, tragedy, history and romance – throughout the semester, so they get a little taste of everything.

She said she also liked the class because they were able to do a lot of group work, which allowed the students to find the meaning of the passages on their own instead of having the professor explain what it meant.

Both King and Swaney would encourage  students – not just English majors – to take the class. They both said that many drama students have taken and enjoyed it, but it can be enjoyed by virtually anyone. Whether taken as an elective or as an English requirement, Shakespeare has something for everyone.


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