Stimulating students with medieval lit and Shakespeare

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“I try to combine analysis of texts with dramatic readings. Students love that combination,” says Alfred Thomas. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

Since 1966, the Silver Circle Award has been presented to some of UIC’s best teachers. Winners, who are honored at their college commencements, receive $500 and their names join a long list of distinguished colleagues. But what makes the award especially meaningful is its selection committee: the graduating seniors.

Alfred Thomas is a scholar of central European and Slavic literature, but his recent courses have focused on British literature from the medieval period to Shakespeare.

“Perhaps because I have to think on my feet more than a tried-and-tested Shakespearean, the result has often been that the classes are more stimulating and experimental both for me and the students,” says Thomas, a first-time Silver Circle winner and professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Students drawn to medieval literature and Shakespeare by “Game of Thrones” and the George R.R. Martin novels find there is much that modern society can learn from the past, he says.

“Take death for example. We moderns are in total denial about it, but pre-moderns had to face up to its imminence and inevitability. We can learn from medieval and early modern people that death is a reality, something we must learn to accept rather than deny.”

Thomas, a native of England whose courses include “King Arthur in the Middle Ages” and “Shakespeare in Film,” aims to impart knowledge in an accessible manner.

“I have a dramatic streak, which helps in large survey classes and in Shakespeare seminars,” he says. “I try to combine analysis of texts with dramatic readings. Students love that combination.”

Students in his courses are expected to be diligent, disciplined and open to new ideas.

“Open minds are my main goal,” he says.

“In a world dominated by facile news reporting and an obsession with celebrity, I aim to show students that these preoccupations are not only narrow but above all imposed upon us by a system that discourages independent thinking.”

Teaching and research are intertwined for Thomas, a 2010 University Scholar and author of five books. His forthcoming book, Shakespeare, Dissent, and the Cold War, originated as a seminar on religion and dissent in Shakespeare’s England.

“Almost all my books began life as seminars, and our students have frequently been an enormous source of inspiration to me as I developed my ideas.”