Friday, September 9, 2011

All the World's a Stage: Alexa Huang at GW

There was a tempest of sorts happening outside as I rushed over puddles and clumps of wet leaves to catch one of newly-arrived Alexa Huang's courses entitled "Global Shakespeare." The course title could easily be describing Alexa herself, a native of Taiwan, who first encountered a performance of the Bard's work in Germany--coincidentally, it was a performance of The Tempest--while an exchange student. Even her name is cross-cultural (much of his scholarship focuses on this subject).

Alexa brings to GW years of experience as a Shakespeare scholar, and numerous accolades, including the prestigious MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for her book Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural ExchangeWith her bona fides and experience—she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and a Joint Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies in humanities from Stanford University—why choose Washington, D.C. over, say, London or New York?

“Because the English Department is a smart and collegial community and GW is at a very exciting moment of development under the leadership of the president and provost," says Alexa. "And there is so much going on in Washington, D.C., around Shakespeare." She offers the presence of the Folger Shakespeare Library (with which she has closely collaborated in the past) and three Shakespeare companies as examples. Alexa was also very excited to work with colleagues in the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute.

Along with the Ford Foundation Professor of Humanities Peter Donaldson at MIT, Alexa was the driving force behind Global Shakespeares, a video archive--it is more accurate to call it the video archive--of worldwide Shakespeare performances that scholars, students, and anyone else can use to access Shakespeare around the globe.

“I think of (Global Shakespeare) as a YouTube for Shakespeare lovers,” she says.

I arrive at her class a little late, spilling coffee in the process, but she is too engrossed in a lecture on Julius Caesar to take much notice. She is very tech-saavy, as evidenced by her usage of multimedia in the classroom.


"(Multimedia) is the only way to get the job done when the goal is to teach performance and film analysis and critical thinking," says Alexa. "The paradox of the age of YouTube is that despite the level of creativity and range of possibilities for teaching and learning, when videos and films are used in class, students slip back into the passive mode of viewing. I use multimedia in ways that compel students to engage with the materials in-depth and foster students' writing skills."

One of the ways she accomplishes this is by using VITAL (Video Interaction for Teaching and Learning), a program developed at Columbia and modified at MIT, that allows students to make their own multimedia content by splicing together clips from Global Shakespeare with their own writing about the work. The finished product can then be shown to the class to create a learning community.

A screenshot of VITAL
"On the surface, (VITAL) may look like a variation of such course management websites as Blackboard, or YouTube on steroids, but it is neither," says Alexa. "VITAL offers a video-centric learning experience that fosters excellence in writing. Students get hooked after making their very first clip."


Gabriela Cruz, one of her students, agrees. "(Alexa) has made Shakespeare a little more interesting than usual," she says. "She has made Shakespeare not only clearer but has expanded Shakespeare globally."


Alexa is offering two courses this semester: one is the aforementioned "Global Shakespeare: Shakespeare in Transnational Contexts" and "Shakespeare Today: Shakespeare alive on 21st century stage and screen."

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