Literature Profile: Peter Donaldson

Peter S. Donaldson: Education … an unfolding experiment

Professor Peter S. Donaldson

Professor Peter S. Donaldson

“One reason I came to MIT,” said Peter Donaldson, Ford International Professor of Humanities, Director of the Global Shakespeare Video and Performance Archive, and former Head of Literature, “was that merit and hard work matter here, perhaps more than at any other top university. Everyone has a chance. ”

For the son of a mailman growing up in Levittown, NY, in the post-Sputnik era, that chance seemed to glow most brightly in the sciences. In high school Donaldson won placement in a national Science Honors Program at Columbia University, where he studied Thermodynamics and did laboratory work in chemical engineering in the summer.  The problem sets were daunting for most of the participants, but they came out of the experience understanding the theories, and “the chance to work in a real laboratory was amazing:  we did experiments on corrosion in a lab directed by the leading scientist in that area.”

Donaldson has been experimenting ever since. An early reader, he had been part of a family of readers and writers; the mailman father wrote novels and poems, and his parents discussed authors endlessly. As an undergraduate at Columbia he started in the sciences but switched to literature, and won Columbia’s prestigious Kellett Fellowship for two years of study at Cambridge University before returning to finish a Ph.D in English.  His graduate research in European Literature and politics led to a book, Machiavelli and Mystery of State (1988), but he had already begun to work on what would be his major interest, which he calls “Shakespeare across media.”

His next book, Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors (1990, 2013) moved the field to new ways of thinking about adaptations, and he soon developed a plan (“a dream, really, at first”) for a multimedia environment in which Shakespeare page images, illustrations, and performances on video could be linked to lines of text, and students could excerpt material from any media in this “expanded book” for inclusion in their own discussions and essays.   Combining print, film, and multimedia in this way creates, Donaldson says, a “living variorum,” showing vividly the long arc of growth and change in Shakespeare’s plays.  “A work of art is dialogic,” he says, “a matrix” of meanings growing out of different cultures reading, performing, and discussing the plays throughout history.  Having a vast area in which to “move through” the text, to read across media, space, and time, “does something to the brain.  You learn how works of art live in the world. That’s what motivates me.”

pete-gs-piechart“When I studied Shakespeare in college,” Donaldson says, “the text was a big, ‘authoritative’ edition, and the mode of teaching was usually a large lecture experience with little room for dialogue with students.  But in fact the text of most of Shakespeare’s plays is unstable and variant, and the plays exist not only in printed form, but in their vast afterlife in performance, and in the ways individuals have made Shakespeare their own through their own ideas, experiences and affection—and this vastly expanded ‘text’ is global in scope, and crosses all media and most languages.”

Large parts of this vision have now been embodied in the interactive tools and websites Donaldson’s research has produced, most recently in the Global Shakespeares Video and Performance Archive and in cross-media modules he has developed with fellow MIT Shakespeareans Diana Henderson and Shankar Raman.  “MIT is a big lab,” he says, “and we are all coming to recognize that education itself is often an unfolding experiment in which students participate, rather than a transmission of what is already known.”

As Section Head in Literature, Donaldson oversaw a period of great change. He hired the two people who succeeded him as Head (James M. Buzard and Mary C. Fuller). He labored tirelessly to promote a generation of younger scholars, often reading a bookshelf of titles in order to present a tenure candidate’s work fully. He developed five-year plans for curriculum, programming, and research in the Section. He imagined clusters of scholarly interest around themes like New Media, Cultural Contact and Exchange, Early Modern. “It was not just about excellence,” he says. “It was about achieving intellectual goals, changing the world and the profession, finding new directions. How can we innovate as a group? How can we make a difference? How do we create community and move forward?”

For Donaldson, who calls himself primarily a teacher, the classroom is a democratic arena, giving access to culture, and thus reshaping culture, by testing its boundaries. “It is a place to experiment. To change lives.”

Indeed, for Donaldson, something happens in a classroom somewhat like what takes place in a corrosion experiment. You observe the application and passage of heat, the breaking down of barriers, the freeing of energy. And then you graph what you saw. Peter S. Donaldson’s work takes place in a thermodynamic system of great beauty and wonder.


Interviewer: Wyn Kelley