Academic journal article English Journal

Putting Research Center Stage: Performance-Driven Student Inquiry

Academic journal article English Journal

Putting Research Center Stage: Performance-Driven Student Inquiry

Article excerpt

One day last year, a sophomore student lay on the floor of my classroom, head under a desk, computer on the floor before her. Several scattered articles, sheets of notes, and a copy of Shakespeare's Othello created a nest around her. Occasionally, a pip of excitement or a groan of frustration burst from her. I crouched down to see if I could help. She was deep in the throes of research, trying to refine a question that advanced, shape-shifting, in front of her as she struggled to connect her interpretation with those of various sources all targeting her character of interest: Iago. Intrigued by the question of Iago's potential homosexual motivations-an atypical but not unsupported interpretation of the antagonist-she also found deeply disturbing the assumptions reviewers and scholars seemed to make about homosexuality and its association with villainy or stereotypical behaviors in performances of the play.

As I listened to her ideas, I felt the excitement of her discovery and the frustration of her quandary. I wanted to provide her with an answer but knew she needed to formulate it for herself. This moment captures the importance of a research task that presents to students a surmountable but real challenge that is driven by their own curiosity, that forces them out of the comfort zone of facts into the more nebulous arena of argument, and that limits the scope of their inquiry to sources more accessible to their developing reading skills. These considerations led me, several years before that student lay absorbed in her research on my classroom floor, to create the project that I describe in this article.

Director's Notes: Seeking an Opportunity for Authentic research

It seems a natural and well-founded move to progress from simply teaching Shakespeare through reading to teaching it through performance. Countless teachers, articles, and books have promoted the use of performance in making Shakespeare accessible to students and in developing their curiosity about the plays. When I began teaching Othello to sophomores who needed more practice with research skills, I wondered how I could use performance to enliven their engagement not just with the text but also with a genuine research process that requires them to support their claims through analysis and synthesis of other writers' arguments. I eventually developed the idea of a three-part assignment that asks students to research, write, and finally stage an argument about how to resolve a performance dilemma from the play. By performance dilemma, I mean any aspect of a character that presents several interpretative possibilities and that cannot be resolved by a cursory reading of the play; it must be resolved through close analysis of the text along with an examination of previous performance choices.

The difficulty with teaching genuine research to high school students is finding opportunities for them to put their voices in conversation with primary and secondary sources to create an original argument. The length and reading level of most scholarly work makes it difficult for younger students to tackle and use appropriately in their papers. In one solution, the teacher may vet and excerpt longer, more complex works to provide students with more digestible chunks to read and analyze; this option, however, eliminates the natural fun and frustration of the hunt. So, for my students, I wanted to find a way to provide the thrill of searching for important arguments that relate to their questions without bogging them down in the jargon and complexity of scholarly work.

Luckily, by focusing on performance as the interpretative lens, I can direct my students to a wealth of sources regarding productions of Othello, from reviews of contemporary versions like the National Theatre's recent production in London, to drawings of costumed 19th-century performers housed in the Folger Library's digital archive. Play reviews and other performance-related sources- unlike complex scholarly articles-are often visual or written in more accessible language. …

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