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"To be or not to be," Communicating our Humanities

By Paul Budra

July 30, 2015

There is a virtually identical conversation that I’ve had with a tuk-tuk driver in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a tailor in Hoi An, Vietnam, and a hardware clerk in Chandigarh, India. In each case it started with the person asking me what I do for a living. I replied that I’m an English Professor. They reacted with a blank stare. I then said “Shakespeare,” and my newfound friend smiled and said, “Ah! To be or not to be.”

It seems that not many people know what an English professor does, but everyone knows William Shakespeare. The latter fact is understandable. The British Empire exported Shakespeare around the world. The former is lamentable and, I think, to a large degree, it’s our fault.

In my experience English professors, and perhaps professors in the humanities in general, are not always good at explaining what it is they do. When asked by students, concerned parents, or (worst of all) politicians, they tend to become huffy and mutter darkly about philistines. I think this is a profound mistake, for two reasons. First of all, in Canada almost all of us work in publically funded institutions. The average taxpayers, who pay our salaries and fund our research, have every right to ask where their money is going.

Second, we believe what we do is significant; otherwise we would not have dedicated our lives to it. Surely we – people who are supposed to be experts in language – can articulate the importance of our work in a jargon-free manner that the average person can understand. If not, either we’re not as good with language as we’d like to believe, which means we’re not good at our jobs, or, worse, there’s nothing to articulate. I don’t believe the latter.

And so I rarely turn down an opportunity to speak to the public. I’ve given talks in seniors’ homes; I’ve led seminars of high school students; I’ve been the lunchtime entertainment for a society of electrical engineers. I’ve spoken to the Vancouver Probus –that’s the Pro-Business (yes, business) – Club three times. I’ve never had a bad experience.

In fact, I’ve discovered that the public is actually interested in what we have to offer. Several years ago I was asked by Rafe Mair, at that time the top talk-radio host in Vancouver, to come on his show and speak briefly about Shakespeare. We had nice on-air chat and then, on a whim, he opened the phone lines to see if anyone might want to ask me a question. We were both surprised when the lines lit up. People were eager to talk about Shakespeare, to talk about literature. I became a regular on Rafe’s show and he would later write that the Shakespeare segments were the most popular feature he ever did on the radio.

Through Rafe, I met Christopher Gaze, the artistic director of the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival. He invited me to give a pre-Bard-season talk on Shakespeare. Some 300 people showed up. We were flabbergasted. The event was so successful I now give a lecture on each of the plays being presented at Bard every year. People actually pay money to come hear a talk about Shakespeare on a Monday night in Vancouver in the summer.

Now, as my adventures in exotic locales imply, Shakespeare may be an exception. He’s a world icon in a way that few other authors are. But my experiences also suggest that people are interested in literature, in world authors, in language, stories, and the ideas they convey. They are interested in what we, as literary critics, do, and in what we can tell them about texts they love. We just have to be open to the conversation.

Paul Budra teaches Shakespeare and early modern literature and has published articles on Renaissance literature and contemporary popular culture. He is the author of A Mirror for Magistrates and the de casibus Tradition and co-editor of the essay collections Part Two: Reflections on the Sequel, Soldier Talk: Oral Narratives of the Vietnam War, and From Text to Txting: New Media in the Classroom. He is a past president of the Pacific Northwest Renaissance Society, former Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and winner of the SFU Excellence in Teaching Award for 2004.