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Blog Post

Making the Covert Public

By Elizabeth Tavares
June 15, 2021
Making the Covert Public

Mrs Behn,” George Scharf sketchbook 19, 21 May 1873, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

In the spring of 2021, the US continued to suffer from the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic and the doors remained shut on my two primary places of play: the classroom and the theatre. As a scholar and teacher of early English performance, the classroom challenges were greater than facilitating digital annotation of readings or proctoring exams by way of the university’s content management system. When so much of the teaching of theatre is about how to read the blueprint that is the playtext—interpreting the narrative’s journey as a “map and not a tracing,” to borrow Liz Tomlin’s phrase—having bodies move in and reshape a room to suit the warrants of dialogue and stage direction is not only best, but best practice. Pivoting to a synchronous online environment meant that, in order to cultivate any sense of space or embodiment, inevitably in the cards would be a request of students to relinquish a privacy they owed to no one—a request with the potential to unwittingly reveal privileges of class, ability, gender, and race. I had not appreciated until now the extent to which the basic technology of the shared classroom neutralized some problematic gulfs of privilege.

Unwilling to make the decision for students whether to sacrifice that privacy, I was still faced with the question of how students were to play with seventeenth-century texts and each other in my synchronous online classroom. Having long been animated by what Shawn M. Bullock and Andrea J. Sator call “maker pedagogy,” I was also unwilling to ask students to create something that had no bearing on the kinds of work they would be asked to do in their professional lives; college is the “real world.” This maker approach emphasizes establishing a final course goal that mirrors those deliverables typically asked of experts in the relevant profession; the steps of design and execution of that deliverable are these assessed tasks of the course. (A bibliography of pedagogy resources and teaching instruments used were published alongside the podcast.)

What evolved was an advanced undergraduate literature course focused on bringing an early playwright’s work to a public through another kind of research-based performance: a podcast. Rather than a traditional deliverable such as an article-length research essay, students were asked to make a podcast about the seventeenth-century English poet Aphra Behn. Author, spy, political propagandist, Behn (1640–1689) was one of the first English women to earn a living by her pen. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the English Civil Wars, expanding transatlantic slave trade, and settler colonialism in the Americas, Behn’s work engages with frankness and complexity a range of topics, from gender identity to political power. Using as its occasion the 350th anniversary of the first performance of the first public performance of a work by Behn, each of the seven podcast episodes survey major trends across translations of romances and scientific texts, timely plays, erotic poetry, and an anti-slavery novella. Researched, written, and produced by University of Alabama undergraduates, this limited series provides the non-academic public with a primer to one of the most influential writers in English you’ve never heard of.

As Devori Kimbro, Michael Noschka, and Geoffrey Way contend, podcasting “is a vibrant poetic medium” in the Greek sense of poeisis, “to make,” due to its capacity to facilitate the analytical muscles of curation. This was a way of leaning into the opportunities afforded by a synchronous online learning environment, rather than trying to fit the square peg of Zoom into the round hole of performance instruction, or disregarding questions of privacy and equity. Podcast pedagogy is by no means a new approach. Recently Marissa Greenberg outlined not only its virtues for instructional but also equity, where “the choice of activities, like the amplification of diverse voices, works to authorize students’ as co-creators of knowledge.” Another pedagogical potential of student-produced podcasts is the ability to facilitate the curatorial skills necessary for public-facing humanities work, including research, storytelling, and how to frame a scalable question, as well as considering the limitations digital dissemination poses to accessibility. The research and analytical skills that students honed in making their episodes were just the same as those for a research paper, suggesting the podcast medium is well-suited to facilitate a suite of curatorial skills, including the crucial selecting, arranging, and synthesizing specialized archives and knowledge for non-specialized auditors.

Students worked in teams to create not just another podcast series, but one that addressed a gap or need in the market of public-facing podcasts so oversaturated with William Shakespeare that one would be forgiven for thinking no other early dramatic works survive, let alone those by women. (The first in a multivolume new edition of the Cambridge Complete Works of Behn has in fact just come into print.) In first conducting assessments of a wide array of excellent podcasts, radio shows, vlogs, and other pop content on Behn, the students were quick to identify both a trend and possible intervention. They observed one of the limitations to the public-facing materials about the poet already out there was the recurring primacy given to critical biography: that her living was in part provided by the sale of plays, poems, and translations among other printed works; and that she worked for a time in espionage for the crown, although perhaps never financially remunerated for that work. In so doing, the existing available public content focusing on Behn’s biography emphasized history and society at the expense of the central questions, craft techniques, and possible implications of her artistic contributions to that cultural moment.

From this collective act of analysis arose the limited series, Aphra Behn: The Podcast, which consists of seven episodes focused on identifying and exploring just those literary features that wend through and across the genres she employed rather than summarizing the post-English Civil Wars context (as so brilliantly done by the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Stuarts Online ). Students undertook original primary and secondary source research behind paywalls in order to survey the state of the field for popular audiences in front of them, creating a bridge by focusing on the work rather than biography. Each includes a unique “merit badge,” ranging from interviews with world-class scholars to their own staged readings of relevant scenes. Others include curated collections of relevant images from the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum’s archives, the most expansive in the world for Restoration and eighteenth century English theatre. (The V&A just confirmed plans to cut its curatorial teams by fifteen percent, including merging the Theatre and Performance collection with the department of Furniture, Fashion and Textiles.) Each episode was researched, written, recorded, and edited in production teams, beginning with group-work agreements, developing through pitch and research meetings, and supported by partners at the University of Alabama’s library and Samford Media Center in the research and recording process, using only free and open-source tools. In this way the end result was made by a public institution, with publicly available software, for a non-expert public.

Ultimately, the maker process revealed to students how the kinds of knowledge they so often, like the general public, find covert is not only findable, but can be made public without having to sacrifice the privacy and privilege of a room of one’s own.

Dr. Elizabeth E. Tavares is an assistant professor with the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at the University of Alabama, where she teaches early modern English drama and leads the Alabama Shakespeare Project.

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