Unless you were a student in the last decade, you probably don’t know Joshua Calhoun. But one of his courses will likely sound familiar. Calhoun teaches English 162: Why Shakespeare, which is the Shakespeare lecture class. Of the couple of hundred students who sign up each time the class is presented, only a few are English majors. The rest come from across the UW to meet a humanities requirement or to get familiar with one of the great writers or to put all their iambs into pentameter. During the pandemic, Calhoun has learned that virtual classes can be difficult — but that they also have surprising benefits. This conversation took place in October 2020.
What’s a typical day like for you this semester?
There’s a lot of atypicality in every day as things change, but the most typical is just the creep of work, the number of hours. I’m at my desk at 7 a.m. and going until late. Some nights it’s nice. I’m the president of the Friends of the UW–Madison Libraries, so we sponsored a talk by Nikki Giovanni. The interviewer was Kiese Laymon. The two together were just amazing. It was brilliant. The recording of it was terrific.
Are you on campus often?
I work primarily from the house. I go in maybe every couple of weeks, if there’s something I need to do. I’ll need to go in this week to do some scanning.
What are your courses like?
I’ve got extremes. I’ve got a large, lecture course, which rules. I call it Why Shakespeare, with the idea being, why are we still reading and studying Shakespeare? Why, after all, is there one course at the university that’s pretty consistently enrolled a couple hundred students every semester about this guy? It has a lot to do with the ways we use Shakespeare to signal culture. It’s a good class. I love teaching Shakespeare. I think it teaches really well. It tends to be non-majors. Maybe out of a couple hundred students, there’ll be five English majors.
Are there benefits to doing a lecture virtually?
One thing that’s been really productive in the classroom is the chat bar. In a lecture with a couple hundred students sitting in the audience, I could say, “Is there a good character in this play? Is there somebody who’s really, truly, unquestionably good?” I’d have a few people volunteer and answer. I can say, “You don’t have to raise your hand, just call it out.” Then I’d have 10 or 15 volunteer to answer. If I ask that question in this virtual format, I’ll watch the chat bar just go crazy. Just simultaneously, they’ll jump in there, and there’ll be 50 answers. I thought about setting up polls, and I don’t even need to. It’s just so generative, so I can lead off. It allows a kind of play.
Does the chat help in small classes, too?
I’m also teaching a grad class [English 804: Cool and Collected], in which there’s 10 students. In that class, the chat has a lot of longer, more detailed discussions. Once, with one student, an idea came into her head and she had it and she held it. She jumped in and she said what she wanted to say, but it didn’t come out the way she wanted it to. She sort of acknowledged, “That sounded better in my head.” But 10 minutes later, she just typed and posted, “I think what I meant was … ,” and it was just perfect, like this perfect kernel of an idea. What was so great is that it didn’t interrupt. It didn’t stop the conversation at all. She didn’t have to say, “Oh, oh, I have it. Can we come back to me now? I know our conversation moved forward, but I want to come back to this.” It just kind of dropped it back in and moved it along. I just thought there is no way I could replicate this in a physical classroom.
What do you use to teach?
I use Zoom.
Can you still interact with students outside the classroom?
I do sort of a potluck-style office hours. In Zoom, I can do the same thing. Students can just pop in. I don’t like it better, but it’s face-to-face. I think that’s really important. It’s face time with someone else and a chance to just talk. It’s an opportunity to talk about ideas with somebody who’s enthusiastic. There are times that you have students who come in, and they’re a mechanical engineering major who’s reading Shakespeare for the first time, and perhaps English is not their heart language. They ask a question that they preface by saying, “This is probably really stupid, but … ,” and then it kind of blows you away. It’s always the fun of having those conversations.