You don’t need to buy a computer and a modem to participate in distance
learning programs. We all use a more common, and less costly,
educational vehicle every day . . . the telephone.
As discussed in last issue, Professor Michael Platt teaches a
Shakespeare class for the University of Wyoming. The class “meets” once
a week through the telephone, in a format similar to a party-line or
conference call. Here’s how it works.
Although the phone connections are sometimes difficult—interruptions,
screeches, volume control, fuzziness—once the right equipment is
provided, the connections are steady and reliable.
On average, such a class has 10 students per section, but up to 20
students could join easily.
All written assignments and exams are submitted through the mail. The
students are required to submit journals on each new reading of
Shakespeare each week. In these journals, the students record any ideas,
reactions to readings, and questions they might have. Dr. Platt reviews
the journal entries, uses them to bring up discussion topics and draw
students in the conversation, and returns them with comments, but no
Paper topics often emerge from the journal. These can be discussed over
the phone with Dr. Platt, and, when completed, can be submitted by mail.
Dr. Platt is more lenient with papers than journals, saying that they
should be done at leisure, around the student’s schedule.
The midterm and final exams are either sent to the students to be
completed on the honor system (“When you have three hours to sit down,
then do it and send it back”) or sent to a school nearby each student to
be administered by a volunteer faculty member. The exams consist of
“comprehensive questions that ask you to review, survey, and gather
together all your reading of Shakespeare.”
Dr. Platt also requires the memorization of 100 lines of Shakespearean
text. The student recites the lines to a volunteer faculty member at a
local college who “grades” the memorization and sends the results to Dr.
Platt. “One hundred lines is what my students have done for 25 years. If
this were the 19th century, it would probably be 500 or 600 lines. Which
lines you pick is entirely up to you. Pick ones that you would later
enjoy bringing out at a party or whatever situation you might think
Student submissions are also sent back by mail. Students can then review
Dr. Platt’s comments and ask any questions in the next telephone
Generally, the class meetings start with administrative questions and
answers, clearing up any confusion with scheduling or assignments. Some
obvious disorder is caused by the distance.
After the initial question and answer session, class progresses to
reading discussion. Dr. Platt begins either with questions about
specific themes, or with a scene. Instead of lecturing, Dr. Platt stirs,
nudges, and leads the students to discover insights of their own, on
Students can ask or answer questions at any time. Because the class is
conducted over the phone, Dr. Platt’s questions are often answered with
silence. The students find it easy to ignore or bypass questions. Dr.
Platt will eventually call on someone (he has a student list) or will
answer the question himself and move on. “If the silence is filled with
thought, there is no reason for anyone to be embarrassed,” he says.
Key scenes of the play are sometimes acted out. The students are
assigned parts and read aloud to the rest of the class. This is followed
by discussion of the scene.
As promised, we have transcribed a portion of one of Dr. Platt’s typical
teleconference sessions. Class began with Dr. Platt taking questions
from the students and clearing up some administrative issues before
getting into the day’s discussion:
Platt: I’d like you to write up your journals before you go see the
movie [Henry V] and then, if you wish to add whatever reflections the
movie prompts in you, that will be our assignment for next week.
Meanwhile I’m going to write up some questions, partly from what you
sent, and send them back out with the journals on Monday. These would be
due with ample time. Again, journals are to be done religiously before
the reading of the play and the sharing of any ideas, but on the papers
we can be a little more lenient and fit around your schedules.
Now, let’s then turn to the second part of Henry IV. We were saying last
time that if the timing of young Hal, the redemption that he speaks of
in his first soliloquy, were right, there probably wouldn’t be a second
part to Henry IV. Hal would have let his father be killed by Douglas,
and he would have instantly become the king. This would have completed
his managed reformation. But, it doesn’t happen this way. Obviously,
there are some things in history plays that cannot be changed.
Shakespeare can’t have, after Henry I, the introduction of King Jerome
I. He also can’t have Henry IV not taking over from Richard II. But on
another level, one wonders if Shakespeare could have represented Henry
IV reigning fairly gloriously, without the trouble of rebellion. One
wonders if Shakespeare couldn’t have chosen to have skipped part two
With that introduction, let me ask you, what does Henry IV Part II add
to our understanding of kingship, of the growth or plans of Hal?
Student: I saw this as a coming of age of the prince [Hal]. He was
looking at eventually gaining the crown. With that crown comes a lot of
torment and responsibility which has been laid out by his father. I
think that’s what the whole play talks about.
Platt: So, you don’t feel the same feelings of responsibility in the
Student: I found a lot more feeling from the king in this play. A lot of
reflection of his past.
Platt: I can mention, can I not, that in your journal you reaffirmed
your allegiance to Richard II, yet you said that you had more sympathy
for Henry IV now that you see him burdened and sad.
Student: That’s how I felt. I got to thinking a lot about kings, the
responsibility of being king, and the sadness of Henry IV.
Platt: So, one might have thought at the end of Richard II, ‘Hey, it’s
pretty neat to be the King.’ But now, that’s less true. Would you all
agree that Part II makes the burdens of kingship seem more weighty and
therefore less desirable?
Student: Well, I thought the attainment of kingship leads to ease, and
ease weakens people.
Platt: I was just talking to a fellow worker about the disappearance
of farmers in America. He, knowing that I’d recently been reading Little
House in the Big Woods, pointed to the episode where Pa gets the
thresher. Not everybody’s keen on this new machine, but Pa says he is at
the end. Something can succeed so well, and give us such luxury and ease
that we succumb to it. That seems to be a general truth.
But, I wonder how much ease we see so far from Henry IV. It might be
much more deleterious to be a king’s son that a king. That is, you might
grow up at greater ease. Your dad has the responsibility, you have the
ease. One day you will have the responsibility. Your dad will give it to
you, but he cannot pass on the hard path that may have disciplined him
on the way to the crown. It is natural for parents to want to make
things easier for their children, but it is seldom good for them.
In Part One, we saw Prince Hal spending his college years with Professor
Falstaff, the original Doctor of Secular Humanism. Once again, in Part
Two, we see Hal at ease with Falstaff. How does the ease that Hal shares
with Falstaff differ from the ease he felt in Part One?
Student: I don’t think Hal enjoys it as much. When he wants to see
Falstaff he hides and watches him rather than be with him.
Platt: Is there additional evidence?
Student: Yes. He is getting tired of all the old people around him. He’s
coming to the place in his life where he wants his own opinions, and he
wants to be rid of these old ideas.
Platt: So you sense a restlessness in him. Of course, his father can
sense this restlessness in him. But, let’s ask the question another way.
Is Falstaff the same in this play?
Student: Is anybody the same or different at any time? Aren’t we always
Platt: Yes. So we have to distinguish or discriminate. You’re right to
bring up the example of ourselves. We can look at a picture of ourselves
in the forth grade and think, “That’s me.” Yet, we know all sorts of
things that have changed. So, in what ways has Falstaff changed or what
are the differences?
Student: He talks about how at this point in his life he doesn’t need
people watching over him. He needs rewards. Maybe he feels his mortality
Platt: That’s my thought, yes. In Part One, there was a fullness and
pleasure in his actions. And now he feels much more mortal. Is that
sense increased by any new or additional characters?
Student: The Chief Justice irritates him, makes him feel like he is
constantly being judged and that his time is short.
Platt: Right. The Chief Justice comes in and he is judging. And it’s
but a short step to say, is it not, that the Chief Justice’s presence,
judging him, reminds Falstaff of the judgment soon to follow his
mortality? What other new characters add to the flavor of things?
Student: Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet give Falstaff a reason to
settle down. Not that he really wants to, but he already has the Chief
Justice breathing down his neck. Maybe he thinks that once Hal becomes
king he can retire.
Platt: Right. Of course, we learn more about his entanglements with
these characters throughout the play. The filthy shirts and other things
he gets off them, so to speak. Off Mistress Quickly he gets something
humorously, for ignorance of word meanings turns one of her statements
into an hilarious declaration, an innocent declaration of guilt. Are
there any other characters who add to the mixture?
Student: Poins does. He says things to Falstaff all the time that point
to his age.
Platt: Right. Suddenly Falstaff has white whiskers. So Poins talks
about beards, black beards. That’s another good example. It’s with him
that we get one of the greatest lines from Shakespeare, “I am not only
witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.”
But back to mortality. Everybody seems to be winding down, going slower,
less capable. In pursuing this theme of the mix of things, are there
important people that have been subtracted to change the mix? . . .
So before we all rush to sign up with the virtual classroom and e-mail,
let’s hear it for that great 20th-century invention, the telephone!
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