The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.001 Sunday, 1 January 2012
Date: Sunday, January 1, 2012
Subject: New Year’s Greetings
2011 marked a milestone for SHAKSPER and provides a good excuse for me to recount some of the conference’s history and, to use a lyric from one of my favorite bands, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Volume numbers for SHAKSPER digests follow the convention of beginning with the New Year, so 2012 (Volume SHK 23) designates twenty-third year of SHAKSPER’s service to the academic Shakespeare community. SHAKSPER and I are both getting old, but I would like to believe we continue to be vital.
On July 16, 1990, Ken Steele, then a graduate student at the University of Toronto, founded SHAKSPER with about a dozen original members, including myself, many of whom had met at the 1990 Annual Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in Philadelphia and some of whom continue to be members, including Ken. The first official SHAKSPER digest, “Current Contents of the SHAKSPER Fileserver,” was distributed on July 26, 1990, ten days after its activation. [Ken is now co-founder and Senior Vice-President of Academica Group Inc., with offices in London Ontario, Toronto, and Boston. Ken consults on institutional brand strategy and recruitment marketing. <http://www.academicagroup.com/about-us/our-team/ken-steele>]
I would like, however, to begin my SHAKSPER story a little earlier. The tale I am about to relate is in part explored in two of my essays that are available on the SHAKSPER web site under the About tab of the General Information section at the bottom of the page: Some Essays about SHAKSPER by the Editor
1. College English Essay: “Behind the Scenes with SHAKSPER”
2. Borrowers and Lenders Essay: “SHAKSPER Academic List”
Other information for this history can be found in the long version of the paper I wrote about the second SHAKSPER Roundtable in collaboration with Style (44.3): http://shaksper.net/documents/doc_download/39-long-version-of-cooks-essay-for-style. I also relied upon information in the SHAKSPER archive: http://shaksper.net/archive.
In an essay for the 1990 SAA Meeting, “A Shakespearean in the Electronic Study,” I began,
I clearly recall the last paper I wrote on a typewriter: I remember especially the sheer physical effort of typing those thirty-eight pages from my hand-written, cut and pasted draft and the Wite-Out all over my fingers and typewriter. I would type for forty-five minutes to an hour at a time until I became exhausted; then I would visit computer stores, muttering under my breath, “Never again.” Indeed, my writing methods have changed significantly since 1983 when I purchased my first personal computer. . . . In this paper, however, I am concerned with ways that I have incorporated computer applications into my work as a Shakespearean. <http://shaksper.net/documents/doc_download/53-electronic-study >
Until 2011, SHAKSPER was an e-mail distribution list using L-Soft’s Listserv software to deliver, archive, and manage its daily digests. I first became interested in the potential of academic listservs when I attended a panel at the December 1989 MLA convention in Washington, D.C., and heard Willard McCarty deliver his paper “Humanist: Lessons from a Global Electronic Seminar,” prompting me immediately to sign up for Humanist and to begin to explore this brave new world (Computers and the Humanities, 26.3). A few months later in April 1990 at the SAA Annual Meeting, I met Ken Steele.
Willard McCarty, then of the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at the University of Toronto, founded HUMANIST on May 14, 1987, as an “electronic mail network for people who support computing in the humanities” to “foster discussion of basic problems and exchange of information among humanists world-wide, thus aiding research and strengthening the community.” HUMANIST was the prototype for all academic e-mail distribution lists and continues to this day. Ken Steele as a graduate student at the University of Toronto, inspired by HUMANIST, decided to establish a similar list dedicated to Shakespeare. The name he chose was SHAKSPER, for technical reasons list names could be no longer than eight characters.
Within two years of SHAKSPER’s founding (February 1992), I was assisting Ken Steele as a co-editor, at first being responsible for the file server. On March 25, I took over the editing of the daily submissions into the digests, and in June 1992 I became SHAKSPER’s owner, editor, and moderator when Ken took a leave of absence from academia for the commercial world of Internet start-ups.
Over the years, thousands of different topics have appeared on SHAKSPER. Members surely will differ about which 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 an actual 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 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, cited 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 to appear on SHAKSPER.
On August 11, 1993, Australian Robert O’Connor asked if anyone knew the mailing address of The International Shakespeare Globe Centre (ISGC). The next day, Kenneth Rothwell, after providing it, added “His friends will be interested and pleased to learn that the Director, Sam Wanamaker, has recently been honored by the Queen with the designation of ‘Honorary Commander of the British Empire (CBE).’” A few days later, John Drakakis remarked,
I understand that there has been some transatlantic genuflecting in response to the apparent fact that Sam Wanamaker has been given an honorary CBE. Far be it from me to dampen the enthusiasm of some of my more naive Shakespearean colleagues. I’m left wondering what one has to DO to get an honorary CBE (Commander of the British Empire!) Aside from helping to oust a few roadsweepers from their depot in Southwark, and contributing to the further impoverishment of still one of the poorest boroughs in England, I guess it must have something to do with the National Bard! It also, if my memory serves me right, has something to do with Harry and Leona Helmsley among others!
The lines in the discussion were readily drawn and what followed were fascinating discussions of the politics of the Globe project and of the institutionalization of Shakespeare. Terry Hawkes pointed out that the project had a political dimension that went “well beyond the material issues raised on the South Bank site. What does he [Michael Mullin] think the function of these phony links with a past ‘Golden Age’ really is? Why has the British government recently legislated that the study of Shakespeare shall become compulsory at every level of the education system? Why has Prince Charles, this summer, instigated his own Shakespeare summer school at Stratford? Has it got absolutely nothing to do with our imminent absorption into Europe? With Ireland? With the declining fortunes of the House of Windsor?” The debate went on: Was Shakespeare a radical or a conservative?; Can we know? Are his works radical and politicized?; What are the ways that Shakespeare’s texts have been used as icons in British culture?; and so on. On Sunday, December 18, 1993, Kenneth Rothwell announced Sam Wanamaker’s death, and in the summer of 1994, construction of the “New” Globe building began. I found the 1993 debate enlightening, instructive, and unforgettable.
In the early years, another thread led me to ban discussion of the so-called 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 author. 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 if 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. This debate went back and forth several times before William Proctor Williams suggested “it would be a very good idea if the Oxfordians started their own list.” 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 Saturday, December 17, in one of the longest digests I had up to that point compiled for SHAKSPER, I made the following proposal:
I admit that I shall NEVER be convinced by any anti-Stratfordian argument–I am too reasonable a person to fall for another conspiracy theory. Similarly, I assume that the arguments of Dave Kathman and others will never convince an Oxfordian to become a Stratfordian. Thus, I see no point in continuing this discussion. To cut it off would not be censorship; it would instead be blow for reason and would return a semblance of respectability to this academic conference. However, I do not propose, at this point, to cut off discussion–not yet. I have another idea.
SHAKSPER (pronounced Shakespeare) comes to more than 850 members in 23 countries because of me. Because it is moderated (and I would have it no other way), someone (read ME) has to edit and format the digests. This work takes time–lots of time. I simply do not see why I should be spending an extra hour a day granting an air of respectability to a position I feel is academically untenable.
So my proposal. Why not have this discussion migrate to the Oxford list to give me a break? Anyone wishing to continue the discussion can do so there. Further, there would be added benefits of potential new members for the Oxford list
Now, I know that every time I step into a discussion I create a meta-discussion: Go, Hardy! Boo, Hardy!!! Remember the Maine. I do NOT want another such meta-discussion to occur.
So if those few members involved in this topic agree to move it to the Oxford list, then I’ll announce such a move and we can go about the business of this conference.
My proposal was rejected, and on December 27, I ended discussion of the topic.
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 to advise me on matters of policy affecting the entire conference, on resolving complaints, and on determining the appropriateness of certain posting, most of the original members still serve: http://shaksper.net/about/advisory-board.
To prepare for my 1996 SAA seminar paper, “The Politics of an Academic Discussion Group,” I wrote,
In terms of “academic currency,” I know that many have used SHAKSPER discussions in teaching, in planning performances, and in scholarly papers. At last year’s World Congress, the session on Characters was in some part inspired by SHAKSPER discussions and our discussions have also led many of us to recognize our critical diversity, especially our differing cross-Atlantic orientations. However, I would like to learn more by posing four questions and encouraging members to respond either through the list or personally to me (if you wish your response to be personal, please indicate so).
What part if any has SHAKSPER had in any of your scholarly publications?
What part if any has SHAKSPER had in your teaching?
What part if any has SHAKSPER had in other areas of your professional life?
What other parts has SHAKSPER played?
These questions that are still pertinent today and may stimulate in initial discussion in 2012.
On March 15, 2001, the first SHAKSPER web site, designed by long-time SHAKSPER technical advisor Eric Luhrs, became operational. In February of 2002, I moved the SHAKSPER list from Bowie State University to my home and changed the domain name to shaksper.net. On Tuesday, December 13, 2005, the SPARC 10 Unix server that had been SHAKSPER’s physical home for almost ten years died. About eight weeks later, on Wednesday, February 8, 2006, we were back online with a powerful new server running Listserv under RedHat Enterprise Linux. That eight-week hiatus between the crash of the old server and the launch of the new one was the longest interruption in SHAKSPER’s history. During this time, I was preparing an essay for the upcoming Shakespeare Association of America meeting and was writing about SHAKSPER. In that interim, I did a lot of thinking about SHAKSPER’s past and future.
When I took over SHAKSPER, the list had grown from its original dozen members to a membership of 293, virtually all of whom were from academia. Over the years, membership continued to grow: 400 in October 1993, 500 in February 1994, 700 in September 1994, 1,000 in March 1995, approximately 1,250 in January 1997, peaking at around 1,500 after 2000 and being just under 1,100 currently. The Internet had opened up rapidly and transparently with the introduction of graphical interfaces and the subsequent proliferation of commercial Internet Service Providers (IPOs) like AOL (America Online), CompuServe, EARTHLINK, COMCAST, ATT, and MINDSPRING and free Internet e-mail services like HOTMAIL, YAHOO, MSN, GMAIL, and NETSCAPE. This opening was reflected in the growth of SHAKPER membership.
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 the Internet and personal computers became ubiquitous the membership of SHAKSPER changed, as did the nature of some of the discourse that took place on the list. Beginning in the mid-1990s, with the growth from a preponderance of academics to an equal mix of scholars and non-academics, meta-discussions began to appear concerning SHAKSPER’s purpose prompted by such questions as Jonathan Sawday’s “What, exactly, does this list think it is for?”; Michael Saenger’s “It occurred to me that we really have a problem. I realize this is a sensitive issue, but the proliferation of junk is making it hard to take the list seriously at times. Many valuable contributors have tuned out after reading careless and incorrect postings. The basic idea of this list is a noble one—a truly democratic forum for ideas, a way of weaving anyone with a modem into the academic community. And it is not naive questions that bring the list down so much as selfish and lazy ranting. So what's the solution?”; and Gabriel Egan’s “Are we really still a viable conversing community?”
During the eight-week hiatus, resulting from the server crash I investigated the changes that had occurred as SHAKSPER evolved from its academic roots. When SHAKSPER came back online in February, in an effort to regain the academic focus of the early days of the list, I resolved to become a more active moderator and only to post messages that I believe were of interest to the Shakespeare academic community. By adopting this new policy and direction to the posting messages only of interest to the academic community, I was not proposing to restrict the membership of SHAKSPER or to eliminate significant questions and comments from actors, directors, or any member of SHAKSPER. The source of the post was not the issue; the issue was its relevance to the broad scope of academic interests in Shakespeare studies.
In the spirit of reasserting SHAKSPER discursive role in the scholarly community, I initiated new feature on SHAKSPER: The SHAKSPER Roundtable (January 2007), the SBReviews: SHAKSPER Book Reviews (January 2009) with its independent panel of scholars for vetting books to be reviewed, reviewers, and submitted reviews, and Cook’s Tour of Internet Resources for Students and Scholars of the Early Modern Period (June 2009).
In late April of 2011, SHAKSPER’s newly designed web site became operational and a new method for my composing and distributing SHAKSPER mailing became the norm. Ron Severdia designed the new site in Joomla, an open-source content management system (CMS) and application framework. Ron and I worked together on the new site: I provided the taxonomy and Ron implemented it. Ron has many talents: he is an actor <http://rontheactor.com>, the founder of PlayShakespeare.com <http://www.playshakespeare.com/news/3636-founder-ron-severdia-talks-about-playshakespeare-on-cnn>, the creator of the very best Shakespeare iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad app, the co-author of the O'Reilly publication Using Joomla: Building Powerful and Efficient Web Sites. Ron is an accomplished, award-winning web designer, and the Creative Director at kontent design in the San Francisco Bay Area: <http://kontentdesign.com/our-team/ron>. He has directed interactive branding projects from websites and brand identities to interactive campaigns for clients such as HP, Verizon, Electronic Arts, Yahoo!, Visa, Walmart.com, and Apple.
After eight months, I have become comfortable with the new platform and look forward to further discussions, Roundtables, SHAKSPER book reviews, Cook’s Tours, and any other significant ideas that I come up with in the year to come.
Best wishes to all for the New Year,
Hardy M. Cook
Editor of SHAKSPER <shaksper.net>