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A Skull, a Screen, and a Quarantine: Teaching Shakespeare during the Pandemic

by Dr. Nichole DeWall

Dr. Nichole DeWall
In more than a decade of teaching Romeo and Juliet at my small liberal arts college, I’d never had a student walk through class wearing only a towel. Then again, I’d never taught Shakespeare during a pandemic before.

Like many first-time remote instructors, I prepped my fall semester by researching best practices in synchronous online education, fretting about bandwidth and Zoom fatigue. But while my colleagues agonized over being so far away from our students, I worried about the opposite: that Zoom teaching brought us too close.

For all its usefulness, we’ve learned that Zoom is very bad at keeping secrets, and that concerned me. I was neither interested in my students’ secrets nor particularly keen to share mine. I knew my students would Zoom in from spaces that in pre-pandemic times they’d kept private: dorms, cars, locker rooms, and family homes. I was planning to teach from my bedroom while my two young children attended virtual school from makeshift workspaces in our house. Without the more neutral space of the classroom, it all felt way too personal.

You see, I’ve never been the kind of professor who knows much about her students’ personal lives. While I enthusiastically support their public endeavors—concerts, athletic events, thesis presentations—I don’t often know who they’re dating, what they post on social media, or what they do after hours. My students and I tend to form lasting connections by reading great literature together.

Likewise, I don’t share much about my private life beyond the occasional anecdote. My ability to be discrete, of course, is a marker of privilege: I don’t have a visible disability that divulges itself to the world without my consent, and the luxury of steady childcare ensures that my kids never accompany me to work. During my two pregnancies, I resented my swelling body for broadcasting my private business to my classes. When my students organized a baby shower for me, I was touched by the gesture; inwardly, though, I cringed.

As an assistant professor—newly minted, young, and female—I was advised against becoming too chummy with my students: “Don’t try to be their friends,” a colleague warned, “you’ll lose all authority.” Perhaps I inherited a certain stoicism from my Scandinavian ancestors, or as a Gen-Xer I’ll never understand my students’ generational embrace of self-revelation.

In truth, I am envious of my colleagues’ more casual relationships with our students and their seemingly effortless abilities to move fluidly between their professional and private selves. They pepper their lectures with personal stories of loss, persistence, and joy. My colleagues adorn their offices with family photos and their kids’ artwork; my well-worn facsimile of the First Folio is the most personal object on display in mine.

It’s no wonder, then, that the idea of Zoom teaching felt so uncomfortable: it threatened to rupture my careful seal between work and home. “I feel like teaching from home will humanize me,” a colleague said. I nodded, and wondered what I was missing. What I did miss was the liminal stillness of my commute through the rural Illinois countryside. I missed feeling the quiet morning calm of campus give way to the scuttle and rush of students. I longed for the small rituals of the classroom: a backpack unzipping, a pencil poised, a book spine splaying. Above all, I missed the cathedral-like hush that descended upon us when we read out Shakespeare’s words.

I attempted to make new rituals. I commandeered a corner of our bedroom and staged it with bookshelves and a few select objects: Yorick’s skull, the Droeshout portrait. If my space looked enough like my campus office, my students wouldn’t sense the basket of dirty laundry or unmade bed just a few feet away. In a few weeks, I thought, I would forget how unnatural this all feels.

Teaching is performative; as a Shakespearean, I am undismayed by the notion that we are all actors on the world’s stage. As my students tentatively filtered into our Zoom classroom on the first day, I was determined to play the role of The Before Times Professor: rigorous, professional, and competent.

But it became clear after the first week that my students needed something different from me. They were at sea. They needed connections, not complications. They needed a professor who was more open, more vulnerable: a Falstaff, not a Henry IV.

And so I adapted. I forced myself to get personal. I shared my fears about the rising coronavirus cases in our area. I asked students to introduce me to their pets, children, and roommates. They lounged around on their beds, Zoomed in from their (parked) cars, and attended sessions during their breaks at McDonald’s. “I put up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign for our writing conference,” a student revealed one afternoon, sheepishly, “but . . . well . . .” His voice trailed off. It was clear from his roommates’ game of Grand Theft Auto in the background that his request had gone unheeded. “No biggie,” I said, and reminded him of our newly adopted class mottos: “Come as you are” and “Embrace the weirdness.” My students were doing their best, and their efforts were commendable.

Before COVID-19, I dismissed get-to-know-you games as wastes of time; now I scoured the internet for virtual icebreakers. I let my students choose which pair of Shakespeare-themed socks I wore and polled them about their favorite Thanksgiving foods. One morning, I asked my 10-year-old son to recite Puck’s epilogue for the class. When my seven-year-old misplaced the password to one of her many e-learning apps, I stepped away briefly; my students understood. I exhaled.

The pandemic, of course, had a way of making everything personal. As the virus stalked closer to our small Midwestern town, my students and I braced for impact. My students’ parents, siblings, and grandparents lost their jobs or got sick. Together, we bore witness to the horrors of human frailty. The morning that preliminary vaccine efficacy data were released, we cheered in celebration.

The virus didn’t care about my students’ precious college experiences. Despite my university’s best efforts, some of my students became sick and quarantined during the semester. Most of them made full recoveries, but one infected student confessed that she’d lost vision in her left eye. My heart sank. “I’m so sorry that this is happening to you,” I said, and instinctively placed my hand on my screen. She smiled back anxiously.

After that first week, I made a conscious decision to adopt a new teaching persona, one who turned away from complicating Shakespeare and leaned into my students’ connections to the plays. Instead of focusing on A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s allegorical references to Queen Elizabeth, my students were drawn to Titania’s plague-infested forest and its altered seasons. This upside-down world resonated with them like never before.

When we reached Hamlet’s churchyard scene, I held my plastic skull up to the camera. While students peered into Yorick’s hollow sockets, we talked of our pandemic’s memento mori: refrigerated morgue trucks, intubators, and N95 masks. Even so, we managed a few laughs. Prince Hal’s conflict between the Boar’s Head Tavern and his father’s court was my students’ conflict too: “He just wants to go out and have a beer with his buddies,” one student remarked, sighing, “I can totally relate.” When Friar John is quarantined in Romeo and Juliet, a student exclaimed, “No wonder the play feels apocalyptic! They’re in the middle of a pandemic, too!” “Excellent point,” I affirmed. “I guess Romeo and Juliet forgot about that whole social distancing thing, huh?,” another student quipped. Pandemic humor.

I worried that my students’ experiences in my class were not as robust or rigorous as their pre-pandemic peers’. But perhaps this semester had revealed the immense generosity of Shakespeare’s work. The plays expanded, contracted, and accommodated. They were always just what we needed them to be.

I harbor no illusions that one semester of pandemic teaching will radically change who I am as a professor or as a person. I will probably never decorate my campus office with family pictures or connect with students on social media. Going forward, though, I will try to better understand my students’ needs, even if doing so feels uncomfortable at first. It took a once-in-a-century pandemic to show me just how full my students’ lives are, and I won’t soon forget that lesson.

During our last class, I intended to deliver inspirational remarks about the persistence of the human spirit and the power of the humanities; instead, I simply told my students what an honor it was to be their teacher. They each waved goodbye from their little gray box, and I took a moment to capture this final pandemic tableau in my mind’s eye. Then I logged off.

Nichole DeWall, Ph.D., is a professor of English at McKendree University. She teaches medieval and early modern literature as well as drama and composition courses. Her research focuses on teaching Shakespeare and representations of disease in early modern drama.

This article originally appeared in The Teaching Professor on March 15, 2021.