August 2013 Features

The Digital Bard

English Professor Katherine Rowe introduces Shakespeare into the brave new world of mobile technology.

By Susan Cousins Breen

For too many of us, the plays of Shakespeare are experienced primarily as words in a book. But throughout history, people have enjoyed his works in a variety of contexts and formats—whether the raucous, bare-bones performances at the Globe Theatre during Shakespeare’s own time or lush cinematic adaptations by contemporary directors such as Baz Luhrmann. Now, Bryn Mawr Professor of English Katherine Rowe and

Katherine Rowe, Professor of English, is co-creator of “The Tempest for iPad,” an app designed for social reading, authoring, and collaboration. Photo by Flynn Larsen.

Katherine Rowe, Professor of English, is co-creator of “The Tempest for iPad,” an app designed for social reading, authoring, and collaboration. Photo by Flynn Larsen.

University of Notre Dame Associate Professor of English Elliott Visconsi have discovered an entirely new way to engage with the Bard’s masterpieces—through the cutting-edge technology of mobile software.

In April 2012, Rowe, a Shakespeare scholar, and Visconsi debuted “The Tempest for iPad.” The app, Rowe says, “allows readers to get their hands into the text and puts them in close contact with experts in ways that make the text more pleasurable and accessible.”

Using the platform’s social media and content creation tools, readers can customize their experience and connect instantly (or not at all) with friends, classmates, and colleagues worldwide. Images, videos, interviews, podcasts, and teaching materials from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., are part of the package, as is audio of a full, professional reading synchronized with the text. Alternative performances of key passages are also included to demonstrate the flexibility of Shakespeare’s language.

Rowe says the goal of the app is “to invite all readers of Shakespeare—students, teachers, scholars, fans—to gather around this magnificent play,” but it also has features that are especially beneficial to students. Via the app, students can email passages to themselves for use as quotes in papers or take notes and share them on social media, and teachers can have virtual conversations with their students about the text. In addition, embedded expert commentaries from the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars open up different ways of thinking about a scene, phrase, or character.

Thanks to the app’s listening function, Rowe has found that her students are better at recognizing characters’ names and have a more complete comprehension of the play because they hear the names spoken and the characters interacting. She also uses the authoring tool in some of her classes. Students learn from their peers by recording their versions of a scene, which they then edit, upload, and share with each other.

Based on the success of the app, the Folger Shakespeare Library recently chose Luminary Digital Media, the mobile software company founded by Rowe and Visconsi, to develop apps for each of Shakespeare’s plays. Apple’s iOS apps for Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are forthcoming this fall, and Android versions will be available by 2014. Rowe will direct Macbeth and serve as general director for the other plays.

Rowe says she and Visconsi were inspired to found Luminary after meeting at a 2011 conference because they “couldn’t wait any longer for publishers to catch up to the fact that 2015 tablet sales worldwide are predicted to surpass laptop and desktop sales combined.” They got to know each other by playing Words with Friends, brainstormed ideas by phone and did most of their collaborative work via social media.

Rowe’s commitment to designing ways of reading, writing, and understanding the new digital forms of the book extends to many of her scholarly activities. She has been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education for her work in digital humanities, and she is a founder and director of the Tri-Co

Digital Humanities Initiative, a joint effort of Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore colleges.

“Using digital media in the classroom,” Rowe says, “is essential to preparing students to be citizens in a digital world.”

“The Tempest for iPad” is available through iTunes.


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