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SHAKSPER Begins Its Twenty-Fifth Year

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.001  Wednesday, 1 January 2014 

 

From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Subject:    SHAKSPER Begins Its Twenty-Fifth Year

 

Dear SHAKSPER Subscribers:

 

Happy New Year to all and welcome to Volume 25 of SHAKSPER.

 

Ken Steele, then a graduate student at the University of Toronto, founded SHAKSPER on July 26, 1990: http://shaksper.net/archive/1990/25-july/22-10001-shaksper-initial-message. Because volume numbers are associated with calendar years, SHAKSPER today enters its 25th year of serving the academic Shakespeare community. Many of you know the SHAKSPER story; a few have even been around from its inception. SHAKSPER began in a computing world far different from the one we know and use today. Being the 25th anniversary, I thought I would celebrate with a LONG posting—a really LONG posting—looking back at some key events of those years.

 

The Internet, without being too technical, can be said to have begun in 1961 when Leonard Kleinrock developed “the theory of packet switching, which was to form,” according to Walt Howe, “the basis of Internet connections.” In 1966, The Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) worked on Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) so researchers in the United States could share supercomputers. ARPANET was brought online in 1969, at first connecting four United States universities. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson invented an “email program to send messages across a distributed network”; this program became operable on ARPANET the following year. In 1973, ARPANET was connected to University College in London and the Royal Radar Establishment in Norway, creating an international network.

 

Throughout the 1970s, technical advances continued. In 1981, that “BITNET (Because It’s Time Network) connected IBM mainframes around the educational community (Howe),” which provided “electronic mail and listserv servers to distribute information, as well as file transfers” (Zakon). BITNET next became “gatewayed” (i.e., connected) to ARPANET, or the Internet as it was beginning to be called. What had been, according to Howe, long the domain of “computer experts, engineers, scientists, and librarians” was rapidly spreading across the rest of the academy. Pioneering academics started exchanging messages electronically, joining USENET newsgroups and electronic bulletin boards, and becoming members of e‐mail distribution lists as mini-computers and personal computers expanded in number and popularity. Non‐technical people progressively began using these and other developing tools: Archie, which made library catalogs accessible; WAIS (Wide Area Information Server), which indexed files into text searchable databases; gopher, which created easy to use menu systems to access files; spider, which indexed gopher menus; and a variety of others with colorful names like Veronica and Jughead.

 

In 1991, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) developed “a new protocol for information distribution . . . which became the World Wide Web in 1991. [ . . . It] was based on hypertext—a system of embedding links in text to link to other text” (Howe). Initially, hypertext text, as well as all Internet materials, was reachable from a prompt (C:\>_) after which commands were typed. The next most crucial step in the popularization of the Internet was the 1993 introduction of Mosaic, a graphical interface for the World Wide Web. The Mosaic-style interface changed computing completely; now anyone could “surf” the Internet with ease and without needing to know often-obscure commands or without necessarily having to type anything. The “point‐and‐click world” was born; and, as a result, the Internet and the world were changed forever. 

 

Many early computer enthusiasts began with personal computers and connections to university servers from offices on-campus. I bought my first personal computer in 1983, frustrated with having Wite-Out all over my fingers and typewriter. I used my first computer principally for word processing. Initially being thrilled by the spellchecker, I soon began experimenting with and then adopting other applications as equipment in my ever‐expanding electronic toolbox: a thesaurus, an outlining program, proofreading and editing software, a bibliography generator, basic text scanning and optical character recognition (OCR) software, a laptop computer (Radio Shack’s Model 100), and later a notebook computer (NEC UltraLite), all of which, in retrospect, seem crude when compared to their sophisticated, contemporary iterations. During these early years for me, two items standout: getting access to the Internet (through a VAX terminal at my university office and through an Internet service provider, ISP, at my home) and using WordCruncher, a program I continue to use today that enables me to search the Riverside Shakespeare quickly and effortlessly. Getting access to the Internet and using WordCruncher afforded me a foretaste of some electronic resources that would follow—“O, brave new world” that has such wonderful technology in it.

 

What was to become the most radical change in my computing life happened as a result of my listening to Willard McCarty present a paper, “Humanist: Lessons from a Global Electronic Seminar,” at the 1989 MLA Convention in Washington, D.C. McCarty founded HUMANIST in 1987, the prototype of the academic “electronic seminar,” as he called it. He used Listserv©, e-mail distribution software, to deliver and archive messages so as to “foster discussion of basic problems and exchange of information among humanists world-wide, thus aiding research and strengthening the community.” I immediately joined, dutifully submitting the required biography. Soon afterwards, I participated in the seminar on using computers in Shakespeare studies at the 1990 Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conference in Philadelphia. Other seminar members as were Michael Best (founder and Coordinating Editor of Internet Shakespeare Editions), James L. Harner (World Shakespeare Bibliography Online), and Ken Steele. During the Conference, Ken shared with me his thoughts about starting an electronic conference dedicated to Shakespeare following the model of HUMANIST. 

 

SHAKSPER began at the University of Toronto on an IBM mainframe connected to BITNET and using Listserv© software. About a dozen Shakespeareans including myself formed the core of founding members, with the membership quickly growing to twenty and continuing to rise. During the first year and a half, if my memory serves, all but one of SHAKSPER’s members, Vint Cerf (an Internet pioneer), were affiliated with colleges and universities. It would take another ten years before large numbers of non-academics joined SHAKSPER. Two years after its founding, almost all of SHAKSPER’s 293 members continued to be from academia. Commercial Internet Service Providers were just getting started in the early 1990s. The January 1, 1992, membership list of 223, for example, contains only eight addresses that ended in “.COM,” and none of these are from the Internet service providers with which we are now familiar. The remaining addresses, except for one with an “ORG” extension were Bitnet or Internet addresses from academic institutions. On February 21, 1992, I became SHAKSPER’s co-editor, at first being responsible for the fileserver. On March 25, I took over the editing of the daily submissions into the digests. On June 3, Ken decided to take a leave of absence from his graduate studies, and I became SHAKSPER’s owner, editor, and moderator. 

 

Over the years, SHAKSPER’s membership continued to grow: 400 in October 1993, 500 in February 1994, 700 in September 1994, 1,000 in March 1995, about 1,250 in January 1997, peaking at around 1,500 after 2000, with over 1,100 members currently. The Internet had opened up rapidly and transparently with the introduction of graphical interfaces and the subsequent proliferation of commercial Internet Service Providers and free Internet e-mail services. This opening was reflected in the growth of SHAKPER’s membership.

 

Thousands of topics have been discussed throughout SHAKSPER’s first-quarter century. Members surely will differ about the ones they consider most memorable, but I will never forget Terence Hawkes’s response to the announcement of the As You Like It Hike performed by Equity actors at various locations throughout a forest: “We may have to abandon our annual ‘King Lear’ Cakewalk. Persuading the audience to jump off the cliff was always difficult. However, guests will continue to be welcome at the Titus Andronicus Lunch (no substitutions).” I will also not soon forget the disagreements about the appropriateness of postings about Shakespeare-related pornography, the extended discussion of A Funeral Elegy, the first mentions of “Presentism,” or the question of whether Hamlet and Ophelia had sexual relations and the responses: Louis Scheeder’s “Only in the Chicago company” and Terry Hawkes’s “The theory shared by a number of MY colleagues is that Hamlet and Ophelia had textual relations.”

 

In her “President’s Letter: 1993-94” in the Shakespeare Association of America Bulletin, Phyllis Rackin, mentioned a heated discussion on SHAKSPER that followed the announcement that Sam Wanamaker had been awarded a CBE for his work on the Bankside Globe: “Outraged responses from the UK provoked a series of exchanges that exposed profound differences between the political and cultural locations occupied by ‘Shakespeare’ on the two sides of the Atlantic.” This exchange was one of my most memorable threads on SHAKSPER, exploring the political dimensions of building of the “New” Globe theatre.  

 

In the early years, another thread led me to ban discussion of the purported Authorship Question. The first authorship-related posting on SHAKSPER appeared on February 27, 1991: an announcement by Mike Ellwood of a BBC radio program that claimed that the scroll the Shakespeare figure on the statue in Westminster Abbey is holding contains a cipher that Francis Bacon was the playwright. September 20, 1991, witnessed an announcement of the competing articles in the Atlantic Monthly: one by Tom Bethell, advocating that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays, and another by Irvin Matus, defending the traditional attribution to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. More than a year later, Peter Scott announced the Frontline program that examined the possibility that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, composed the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. A year after this, Anthony Hatch asked whether anyone had attended that mock trial in Boston in which Shakespeare’s identity was debated. However, a sustained discussion of “Authorship” did not begin until after April 4, 1994, when John Cox posted an anti-Oxfordian limerick cycle that had been sent to him by David Bevington. Oxfordian Pat Buckridge charged that Bevington had “an interest in ridiculing the actually very powerful Oxford claim.” David Kathman and Steve Urkowitz rose to Bevington’s defense and the “Authorship” debate of 1994 was underway. The exchanges persisted unabated through October, November, and December. Dave Kathman and others continued with facts and grace to answer every assertion made by the avowed Oxfordians and those who simply identified themselves as anti-Stratfordians. I become fatigued by the demands that these posting were making on my time and patience. On December 27, 1994, I forbade further discussion of the topic on SHAKSPER.

 

In January 1996, SHAKSPER moved from the University of Toronto to my institution, Bowie State University, and in May I established the SHAKSPER Advisory Board. On March 15, 2001, the first SHAKSPER website, designed by long-time SHAKSPER technical advisor Eric Luhrs, became operational. In February of 2002, I moved the SHAKSPER from Bowie State University to my home and changed the domain name to shaksper.net.

 

From the beginning, SHAKSPER’s target audience was scholars, and Ken and I went out of our way to make the list “user-friendly” for those academics who, in those early days of computing, were not necessarily comfortable with technology. However, from its roots, we also encouraged diversity and inclusiveness: “No academic qualifications are required for membership in SHAKSPER, and anyone interested in English Literature, the Renaissance, or Drama is welcome to join us.” As SHAKSPER aged and grew, the number of daily submissions proliferated. There were an increasing number of chatty messages, messages responding to what one member had said about another member’s post that were of little, if any, interest to the list as a whole, “pet” theories about plays or poems, and flames, which for a long time did not seem to infect SHAKSPER as much as they had similar lists. It was starting to become clear that one consequence of the Internet Revolution was that a significant number of SHAKSPER’s members were not academics and many often had strikingly divergent concerns than those of the scholars. These conflicting concerns was the source of many difficulties that I, as the list’s moderator, encountered as I strove to maintain a scholarly focus in the discussions among what had become a highly diverse membership. 

 

1995 was the year that SHAKSPER’s membership broke the 1,000 mark; it was also the year that the first of the many what-is-this-list-for questions appeared. These “purpose” questions were raised by academics who were interrogating the direction SHAKSPER had taken been taking. However, it would not be for another four years, on April 3, 2000, that in response to the increased traffic, the domination of the discussion by a handful of members, and the decline in the quality of the posts that I suggested for the first time that members “count to ten” before hitting the reply key. Two days later, I clarified this statement by writing “what I had in mind [when I made the request to count to ten] was that members would initiate a kind of self-regulation: self-moderation if you will.” After expressing my preference for maintaining an “elevated level of discourse” without ruling out “occasional humor or just plain silliness,” I continued, “My point is that I believe that the membership has as much responsibility as I do in moderating SHAKSPER.” I issued similar pleas for self-restraint over the next eight months. In the face of a small group of people dominating the discussions, as well as the increasing amount of mail and the number of hostile, acrimonious, and downright unkind exchanges, some long-time members began unsubscribing.

 

The problem, however, was much greater than just the level of discourse; the problem, as I began to see, was that interests of non-academics were driving list discussions. Discussions of characters as if they were “real” people flourished. Pet theories, often involving Shakespeare’s possession of esoteric knowledge or his communication through hidden codes, were advanced, refuted, and self-assuredly advanced again. Interpretations of the ultimate meaning of a particular play competed with one another ad infinitum, reappearing with regularity practically anytime that particular play was mentioned. I considered these and their ilk “essentialist” and “reductive” claptrap and would “kill” these threads when I could no longer stand them. On November 15, 2005, after I called for an end to five such threads under the SUBJECT line “Dead Horses and Closing Threads,” Holger Schott Syme responded with a thoughtful “purpose-of-the-listserv” message, which offered the following: 

 

Hardy does a tremendous job organizing this list, investing an unfathomable amount of time and mental energy. And on occasion, his efforts pay off splendidly. But SHAKSPER is only as good as its contributors, and I can’t help feel that the way the list has been going it has moved further and further away from discussions in the field it is part of—that of the academic exploration of the works and culture of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. 

 

Unquestionably Hamlet is a play worthy of much critical attention, but its exegesis takes up an excessive amount of space on this listserv (and it is of course no coincidence that it’s usually the same 10-15 people driving those discussions). The list has many well-established figures as lurkers who only very occasionally participate in discussions, but that is not, I don’t think, a sign of academic snobbery or indifference; rather, the kinds of arguments that keep reappearing in slightly different guises on this list are simply irrelevant to the vast majority of scholars working in the field today. . . . Sadly, topics of great interest [to scholars] . . . don’t seem to have much traction around here anymore; typically, the more established “names” on the list make an appearance to answer bibliographical queries, but don’t stick around for extended discussions afterwards. . . .

 

I frankly don’t understand why some subjects which should be allowed to develop . . . are treated the same as issues that are clearly only of interest to an extremely self-selecting group (almost any thread on Hamlet, for instance). My main objection is that many of the latter threads incessantly go over ground covered in innumerable previous discussions, are more or less out of touch with the current state of the field, and often revolve around subjects well-treated in the existing (older) literature. On the other hand, threads such as the stage-railings one bring up issues that haven’t been discussed here before, are still considered important by at least a sub-field of early modern studies, and haven’t necessarily been treated in depth elsewhere. They may only be of limited interest to the SHAKSPER community at large, but at least they might potentially make a valuable contribution to the broader academic conversation about Shakespeare and Co. That seems to me the best we can strive for on this list, and a goal which would make Hardy’s efforts worthwhile. 

 

On Tuesday, December 13, 2005, the SPARC 10 Unix server, SHAKSPER’s physical home for approaching ten years, died. During the eight-week hiatus between the crash of the UNIX SPARC 10 and the launch of the Linux PowerEdge 1800, I was preparing a paper for the SAA. For it, I analyzed the intellectual and social dynamics of the conference’s changing from a preponderance of academics to a nearly equal mix of scholars and non-academics. What I found was that the more diverse the membership became, the more naive, non-academic posts, often expressing “pet” theories that were preposterous to the scholars on the list, began to appear. When SHAKSPER came back online in February, I resolved, in an effort to regain the academic focus of the early days of the list, to become a more active moderator and only to post messages that I believe were of interest to the academic community of Shakespeare scholars. I also came up with the Roundtable Discussions and the SBReviews (SHAKSPER Book Reviews) projects to further the scholarly emphasis of the list.

 

In early 2011, I accepted the invitation of the multitalented Ron Severdia to design and host a new SHAKSPER website. Ron is an actor, the founder of PlayShakespeare.com, the creator of a wonderful Shakespeare iPhone, iPad app, the co-author of the O’Reilly publication Using Joomla: Building Powerful and Efficient Web Sites, the accomplished, award-winning web designer, and creative director of Kontent Design. In late April of 2011, SHAKSPER’s new website became operational and I undertook a different method for my composing and distributing SHAKSPER mailings. Ron Severdia designed the new site (SHAKSPER.net) in Joomla, an open-source content management system (CMS) and application framework. 

 

Over the years, SHAKSPER members have joined from about seventy countries. These members include prominent Shakespearean academics and theater practitioners, and students and teachers from across the educational spectrum, as well as other interested participants. The SHAKSPER homepage concisely describes the conference:  

 

SHAKSPER, now in its twenty-fifth year of serving the academic community, is an edited and moderated, international, e-mail distribution list for discussion among Shakespearean scholars, researchers, instructors, students, and anyone sharing their academic interests and concerns. In addition to regular mailings to members, anyone can use the Internet to access the archives and other SHAKSPER materials from the SHAKSPER website shaksper.net. SHAKSPER strives to emphasize the scholarly by providing the opportunity for the formal exchange of ideas through queries and responses regarding literary, critical, textual, theoretical, and performative topics and issues. For readers’ convenience, these messages are edited and grouped in separate digests according to topic, and then e-mailed to subscribers in a daily compilation digest with a table of contents for ease of reading. Announcements of conferences, of calls for papers, of seminars, of lectures, of symposiums, of job openings, of the publication of books, of the availability of online and print articles, of Internet databases and resources, of journal contents, of festivals, and of academic programs of study are a regular features as are reviews of scholarly books, of past and present theatrical productions, and of Shakespeare and Shakespeare-inspired films—in addition to “popular” culture references to Shakespeare or his works. SHAKSPER also provides occasion for spontaneous informal discussion, eavesdropping, peer review, and a sense of belonging to a worldwide scholarly community. The SHAKSPER web site has a number of special features, including periodic Roundtable discussions, concentrating on significant topics derived from issues of current interest in the discipline. SBReviews, highlights book reviews of books vetted by the SHAKSPER Book Review Panel and reviewed by peers selected by the Panel. These reviews first are distributed as regular digests and then are mounted in the Scholarly Resources section of the SHAKSPER website.

 

I encourage SHAKSPER subscribers to share their highlights of SHAKSPER’s first 25 years, and I also welcome any ideas the subscribers might have for improving or changing SHAKSPER.

 

Organizations periodically require new members to re-energize themselves. If you find SHAKSPER useful, please recommend it to your colleagues, students, and friends. Information about subscribing can be found here: http://shaksper.net/contact. Further information about the list itself is here: http://shaksper.net/about/general-information.  

 

For this reflection, I have borrowed extensively from three of my papers:

 

Cook, Hardy M.  “Behind the Scenes with SHAKSPER: The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference.” College Literature 36, no. 1 (2009): 105-20. Available at Behind the Scenes with SHAKSPER.

 

---.  “Shakespeare on the Internet.” Shakespeare in the Media: From the Globe Theatre to the World Wide Web. Second Edition. Eds. Stefani Brusberg-Kiermeier and Jörg Helbig. Berlin; Bern; Bruxelles; New York; Oxford; Wien: Peter Lang, 2009. (Second Edition online at SHAKSPER.net).

 

---.  “SHAKSPER: An Academic Discussion List.” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. 2.2. Winter/Fall 2006.  <http://lachesis.english.uga.edu/cocoon/borrowers/

 

I look forward with confidence to a healthy future for SHAKSPER.

 

Best wishes for the New Year,

Hardy

 

PS: Donations to support SHAKSPER can be made through the link on every page of the SHAKSPER website: http://shaksper.net

 
 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.