Letter from President Farah Karim-Cooper, December 2021
Today I woke up to the incredibly sad news that the pioneering black feminist and activist bell hooks passed away at the age of 69. It made me reflect on her influence and the trajectory of her career. She didn’t necessarily imagine she’d be a teacher; her calling was to be a writer and to shape ideas rather than young minds. But this is the very impulse that made her the extraordinary teacher she was and we are all her students. In her 1994 manifesto, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, she reminds us that, the ‘classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy’ (p. 12). This was true in 1994 and even more so in 2022. Over the last two years, many of us have spent little time in actual classrooms, finding ourselves grasping for the possibilities for connection with our students that lie in the spaces between the questions asked and the activation of the mute button. COVID-19 and the conditions imposed have amplified the undercurrent of anxiety and anguish in our students. But even before the pandemic we had been witnessing their desire to assert and define their identities and to be bold advocates for equality and justice, and this has many teachers either bewildered that their methods no longer apply, or excited at the opportunity to grow in their pedagogical practice to meet their students where they are. The racial and climate reckoning that has bubbled underneath for decades, and which erupted finally during the global pandemic, has shaped the way our students gather in a classroom and what they expect from their universities. In our field, we are witnessing many of our students grappling with Shakespeare’s role in their lives or with the question of whether or not he should even have one. Dare I ask how many of you might be grappling with the exact same question?
bell hooks made it clear that to teach inclusively, we have to step outside the box; ‘respect and honor the social reality and experiences of groups in this society who are nonwhite’, and if we don’t, our students will continue to learn through a process that insists upon ‘a single norm of thought and experience, which we were encouraged to believe was universal’ (p. 35). Most of us were raised on this kind of learning, which doesn’t take into account the way our bodies contribute to meaning. It takes no notice of what lived experience brings to the interpretation of a line of poetry, a soliloquy, a tragic fall or a comedic exchange culminating in amity between two opposite souls.
As we move into 2022, the SAA’s 50th anniversary year, new challenges will continue to test the resilience of our students and our ability to enable the study and performance of Shakespeare to endure. How will Shakespeare studies thrive in an age in which universality and monolithic canonicity are increasingly deemed not only outdated but also unethical values to espouse in the radical, transgressive classroom? So much ground-breaking work has been done (and is forthcoming) on teaching Shakespeare inclusively; generous scholars have laid out multidisciplinary strategies, tools and methods that aid students and scholars in making significant interventions into Shakespeare’s texts, a by-product of which just might be the continued sustainability of the playwright we have all dedicated our lives and careers to teaching, researching and, for some among us, performing (see the resources listed below).
What enquiry will determine your approach to this year? I have too many to list here, but as far as my teaching goes, I want to explore how to transgress the boundaries of traditional pedagogy in the post-2020 classroom. What will my students need from me and what will I need from them? What work do I need to do to understand what I can draw upon in my bag of tools that is meaningful and useful in this moment? What do I need to discard? The question I put to you, our ever-changing but ever-constant community of members, is what can SAA do, provide, cultivate in order to support you on your own pedagogical journeys in the coming year? What you need from us offers a compass for the organisation’s direction.
As I leave the honoured office of the presidency, I will call upon the SAA to produce a vision for the next 50 years that will champion the transparent articulation and regular re-
examination of its values as an organisation, to deepen its commitment to intolerance for exclusionary behaviour and harmful practices, and to continue providing opportunities for us to gather and share the love we have for our work, for our students and for each other.
President, Shakespeare Association of America 2021-2022