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Making Shakespeare Relevant

Shakespeare and O.J. Simpson.. .? On the surface, any connection between the Bard of Avon and the troubled former football hero might seem remote, but U of A English professor Linda Woodbridge sees numerous parallels between a Shakespearean work and the issues raised by the criminal case Simpson is battling. "I'm sure the O.J. Simpson case will come up when I'm teaching Othello next year. Stalking, wife abuse, murder, racism... It's not difficult to make Shakespeare relevant to a modern audience" says Woodbridge, a specialist in the literture of the English Renaissance.

A winner of a 1994 Rutherford Award for her demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching, Woodbridge has been making Shakespeare, and other subjects, relevant to hundreds of U of A students since 1970, when she arrived from UCLA to become an assistant professor. She became a professor in 1982, acquiring stature as a popular and motivational instructor along the way.

"What I hope to do is teach, critical reading and thinking," Woodbridge says. "I try to give students the basic skills, to develop a sense of the things that go into forming an opinion." One of her favorite techniques'involves dividing her classes into four groups and then, throughout the year, assigning positions for them to take in debates on a variety of knotty issues. Woodbridge says that at the beginning of the year the students' own opinions tend to agree with their assigned argument. By the end of the course, as the students' critical faculties are honed, that changes, she says.

Woodbridge has been active in the Academic Women's Association at the U of A. She served as its president in 1977-78 and two years ago year received its first AWArd.

The Rutherford Awardwinner notes that her own appreciation of Shakespeare has grown and changed with her personal beliefs. "He is so often used as a bastion of the old, white male guard, that people who teach Shakespeare are somewhat defensive recently." In her own case, "I came to Shakespeare before I became a feminist," says Woodbridge, who believes that new perspectives that she has brought to her studies over the years have been fruitful: "It's sometimes valuable to be troubled by your subject," she says, "because it challenges you."

Woodbridge's first book, Women and the English Renaissance, was published in 1984 and has become a landmark work in feminist studies. In fact, the book stemmed from her teaching at the U of A— a class she taught on that topic was a pioneer venture in women's studies at the University. She has published three other books on Shakespeare, examining such intriguing influences on him as rituals and rites, and magic and mysticism.

Last year, Woodbridge became the first U of A professor to head the Shakespeare Association of America. Although she has recently completed her term as president, she spent time this summer helping to organize the World Shakespeare Congress, which meets every four years and will convene this year in Los Angeles. This fall Woodbridge faces a new challenge as she leaves the U of A (she has taken a three year unpaid leave) to begin teaching at Pennsylvania State University. "I think [the U of A] is the best English department in Canada. It was a tough decision," she recalls.

The decision was made even harder because the departing professor has a daughter who will remain in the honors English program at the U of A. "I've told her so often how good this department is," Woodbridge laughs, "that now she doesn't want to leave."

Published Autumn 1994.

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