February 15, 2019 | 51° F

English class revives Shakespeare with interactive learning

Photo by MaxPixel |

Though fewer universities now push their English students to read Shakespeare, Emily Bartels, a professor in the Department of English, feels that the material is still relevant and resonates with everyday life. 

The University's Department of English resurrects Shakespeare through lectures that show students how 16th-century literature applies to the 21st century.

Emily Bartels, a professor in the Department of English, specializes in Shakespeare, early modern drama and the Renaissance, and creates a hands-on environment in her courses at Rutgers — requiring her students to engage with the text through acting. 

“I teach directly what I am interested in. I like texts that are flexible and dynamic and involve performance and sort of demand a kind of viewer participation,” she said. 

The plays she teaches are “three-dimensional texts," Bartels said. She brings professional actors to her classes to talk about performance, so students can gain a better grasp of how to communicate with text and make it come alive. 

She said acting out a play is an important aspect of the class and necessary for students to understand the voice and multiple interpretations.

"It's a great way to engage with the text if you’re on your feet ... to sort of take on the voices that are in the text and see how they feel, see how they sound, see what they do to you when you suddenly occupy this fiction,” Bartels said.

Only 4 of the 52 universities ranked highest by U.S. News and World Report require that English students study Shakespeare as part of their curriculum, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). 

But Bartels said that Shakespeare is very much important and relevant today. 

“I think it’s important students understand that even when they are studying something as canonical, maybe foreboding as Shakespeare, that these are texts that exist in the present moment and do work in the present moment," she said. "These texts are not just something that I know about or Shakespearean scholars for years and years have known about ... It’s important to understand that these texts are theirs and these texts talk in the 21st century.” 

She said that when students interact with the text, she understands them more and they get to understand more about themselves. 

“Engagement is everything," she said. 

Bartels said that as a faculty member, she also learns from students. The collaborative-classroom environment creates a space where everyone can talk about the text and what it means. The more students take ownership of the material, the more the connection between what they are learning and who they are in the world develops, she said.

She said she thinks her style of teaching and class structure is unique and beneficial to students.

“You’re learning different ways of style, you’re learning how to bring creativity into writing, you’re learning what your voice is and I don’t think traditional paper assignments can get any of us where we want to be,” she said.

The unique, diverse environment at Rutgers helps Bartels teach literature and share her love for these texts, she said.

“I love the diversity of any class I walk into. The diversity of perspective, backgrounds and talents. I think Rutgers is unique in that score. I’ve enjoyed that exchange where students are bringing into the classroom resources that I may not know about. We’re working with each other to have a collective conversation. The more diversity in the breadth of perspective, the better, and I do think that is unique at Rutgers,” Bartels said. 

Erica D'Costa

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