Associate Professor Liam Semler

“It’s apparent to me that the way we teach literature at high school is different to the way we teach literature at university,” says Associate Professor Liam Semler from the Department of English. “When first year students arrive to study at uni their brains not only have to figure out the new content, but also the new systems of learning.”

In order to investigate this more deeply, Semler co-created Shakespeare Reloaded with Shauna Colnan, a secondary school teacher from Barker College in Sydney. Beginning in 2008, it was initially a linkage project co-funded by the Australian Research Council and Barker College with “the aim to get teachers and academics talking to each other” about their methods and the ways in which students learn.

“We wanted to imagine what it might be like for the student,” says Semler. The project, used Shakespeare’s body of work as a lens to examine different teaching methods. “Students are nurtured in the high school system. The HSC is
about reproducing knowledge. When they arrive at university, these students are uneasy about open
parameters, such as creating a thesis or having authority in their own voice”.

Semler believes Shakespeare Reloaded has helped bridge this gap. The project ran until 2010, when it was replaced by a sequel project called Better Strangers, which continues the conversation between the University of Sydney and Barker
College to this day. The name Better Strangers is not just lifted from a Shakespeare quote. It also aptly describes the workings of the project, where teachers and academics become more acquainted with one another.

“Academics are not familiar with the high school system,” Semler states, “So by engaging in conversation with each other we begin to understand the different methods of teaching and learning.”

Using Shakespeare’s plays for the projects made sense for Semler on two levels. One of his key research areas is William Shakespeare, and more specifically the way his work is taught
and comprehended. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s prevalence in both the school and the university systems made for easier comparisons.

“Shakespeare just permeates the culture,” says Semler, “It really is a global phenomenon. Shakespeare deals with universal themes that go above and beyond the specific concerns of his time.”

Perhaps this explains why Semler’s research has achieved international attention. In 2012 he co-ran a conference in the UK called Unlearning Shakespeare. Semler asserts that the lack of cohesion and communication between high school and university systems is similar across the world.

This year is also proving to be fruitful for Semler in his area of research. The Better Strangers team is due to host The Shakespeare Imaginarium, a four-week short course on Shakespeare and innovative pedagogy for high school teachers
that is already booked out. Semler will also publish his book Teaching Shakespeare and Marlowe:
Learning Versus The System
, which explores the increasingly standardised ways of learning at school and university.

“The thing that preoccupies me is systems of learning in opposition to creativity,” says Semler of the book. “What [high school] students think learning is isn’t what we [university academics] think learning is.”

Since arriving at the University of Sydney over a decade ago, Semler has found that the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences encourages creativity and broad thinking through its multidisciplinary approach. “The Faculty extends the way you think,” he says. He also believes the Department of English is thriving as well. “Across Australia, English departments are shrinking, but here it is still a great size. It’s a dynamic climate to be in.”