A Shakespearean, medievalist, educator, and ultimate frisbee fan, Katherine Rowe from the college of William and Mary is a frequent collaborator with the ASC. President of Shakespeare Association of America and of the College of William and Mary, she is excited by tasks that are seen as impossible and unfeasible. She sees herself as an advocate for students and professors and she uses the tools she cultivated as a Shakespeare scholar in order to optimize her advocacy.

She started her talk by recommending a book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. This book shows, among other things, that when humanists and artists engage in work collaboratively, our individual, conceptual classification schemes can scaffold together to make knowledge more accessible and applicable.

Rowe was attracted to Early Modern studies because of the stage, and more specifically, the stage in time. The Early Modern period was a moment of immense change for society, with the collaborative work of theatre becoming the collaborative work of print. That shift is encapsulated in this conference with the page and the stage feeding each other in a cycle of ever evolving, collaborative scholarship.

There is also an important and necessary skill that we can learn from the Early Modern evolution of print technology; comfort with the impurity of our media systems. There is no such thing as a pure media system, however that should not deter us from embracing them. The printers and compositors of the Early Modern period were imperfect but they made use of them anyway, with their operators learning from their mistakes. Fear of failure is the main roadblock in creating new tools of our own to improve our artistic and scholastic processes. Enlist and adapt old text tools in the creation of new skills and techniques. Partner with students who may be more fluent with technology changes but who lack the experience and nuance that their teachers have acquired over their lives. However, doing this requires a specific mindset.*

This mindset, which Rowe developed through English and Theater studies, allows us to:

Embrace ambiguity

Apply knowledge

Look for patterns

To illustrate the progression of this mindset Rowe used the metaphor of close reading a text. The act of close reading actually delays us in reaching a conclusion, this allows us to become comfortable with ambiguity. It also allows us to gather as much information as possible while delaying that conclusion, which gives us more knowledge to apply in contextualizing the eventual answer. That excess of knowledge then gives us ample room to search for and identify patterns.

The most simple distillation of this mindset can be found in the key rule of improv, “Yes, and…” As in, “Yes, I love your bike and I can’t wait to ride it to the zoo so let’s go!” It acknowledges what your scene partner has introduced and builds off of it. This is the most powerful thing we can bring to all of our respective communities, a mindset that is not only open and accepting but ready to collaborate and build on new, unexpected ideas. This mindset can open the door to a world of helpful, important questions that we, as scholars, artists, educators, administrators, people, should be asking regularly, such as:

How might we test and collaborate on finding an answer that is better than the ones we already have?

How might we enlist other who have the skills we lack?

How might we do it better?

The most important question to Rowe seems to be what can we learn from other disciplines? This is an excellent question to ask here since the Blackfriars’ Conference specifically (along with the American shakespeare Center in general) is an excellent, even ideal place to connect with people of different areas of study and specialty.

How might we develop and deploy these new collaborations across scholarship, performance, business, technology, educations, leadership, and areas not yet discovered or explored?

How do we learn to handle change as an actor adjusts to a redirect, a neutral and nonjudgmental reaction to change?

And from all of this, how do we learn to fail wisely?

Failing wisely is an apt description for productive rehearsals. We don’t know where we are going, all we can do is test each new idea, determine if it is sound, and keep practicing; always searching for how we might improve with the conviction that we can. In the strategic planning aspect of her many roles, Rowe’s goal above all was to encourage others to ask how might they improve and provide them with the support as they explore the various paths they discover and to help them find ways to learn equally from failures and successes; much like how a director strives to create a rehearsal room where actors feel safe enough to explore, risk, fail, learn, and risk again. Embrace the artistic and scholastic history of risky ventures; no risk, no reward.


Rowe then opened up the floor to questions. What follows is the general gist of the questions and Rowe’s answers but nothing is a direct quote, just a vain attempt to capture all of the information at once.


Q: Parents today want the “perfect” education for their students, a good return on investment. How can educators take risks without incurring the ire of parents, students, even administrators; all of whom who could easily see the use of experimental methods or technology as a waste of educational resources?

A: Modeling experimentation and adaptation in the classroom is vital. Every single student we educate will need to learn how to fail wisely and by taking risks as an educator you teach your students how to asses risks, weigh the rewards, and keep an open mind. These skills will serve your students in the future, no matter where they end up. Working with something new teaches unique skills in development, feedback, and adjustment.


Q: How can humanities departments connect better to the business world, especially when so many (employers and students) see humanities degrees like English as unhireable?

A: It has never been easier to make a case for an English major. English, and liberal arts in general, teaches open, conceptual thinking that is highly suitable to our evolving professional space. A recent study (1) was published on the importance of a first job and how that can determine future success. So we need to ensure we are doing our best at helping our students market their skills, like writing. Writing is not a soft skill. It is a craft that takes time and patience to develop. Instead of changing the students, funneling them into “hireable” majors, we need to be raising the awareness of how necessary and applicable the skills learned in the humanities are.


Q: How can we better market our students and their skills?

A: It’s funny how a group of people who are so focused on storytelling are terrible at effectively telling their own.

The power of a well-told, evidence-based story can be seen throughout history. In order to do this we need to expand our knowledge outside of ourselves. Rowe does this by reading other disciplines (politics, economics, business, technology, etc). By doing that we can learn their vocabularies and use their tropes to tell our story in a familiar and understandable way. We need to heighten our “audience awareness” when speaking to other disciplines.


Q: In the face of the increasing trend to treat individuals as disposable (like adjunctification, as an example that would be familiar to the majority of our conference attendees), can we do with our anger?

A: Make anger the whetstone of your focus. What injustices that you can change, change; but you have to use the anger, not be used by it.


On that note, so ends the fourth keynote. Rowe certainly gave me much to think about, and I will see you at 2pm for the next paper session.

1 – I believe the study Rowe mentions here is a 2018 study by the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and Burning Glass Technologies that included parsing through 4 million resumes in an attempt to understand the modern career track/trajectory for college graduates. It found that “underemployment,” graduates working in jobs that they are overqualified for, plagues 43% of first-time employees after graduation, with two-thirds of those individuals remaining underemployed five years later and 74% of that two-thirds still underemployed ten years after graduation. This study indicates that if you start out behind, you stay there.

(Kristen Bahler, “This Common First Job Mistake Can Cost You $10,000 A Year for Life” www.money.com/money/5287552/first-job-underemployed-statistics/, published May 23, 2018, online)


*The author of this live-blog would like to take a brief footnote to recommend a second book, Mindset by Carol Dweck. It is highly popular in the ASC Education department and speaks to themes touched on by Rowe.