New English faculty member Hamlet examines equity and inclusion in award-winning doctoral dissertation
Originating as a tiny seed in 2014 before ultimately blossoming into a powerful argument for equity and inclusion, Dr. Jess Hamlet, Assistant Professor of English, did not anticipate winning a competition in which she would face 100 other candidates from 30 different programs. Hamlet has been awarded the University of Alabama’s 2021 Outstanding Dissertation Award at both the English Department level and College of Arts and Sciences level for her doctoral dissertation, “Shakespeare, Race, and Adaptation in Times of Unrest, 1601-1888.”
The dissertation, which examines nearly half of Shakespeare’s plays and some of his sonnets, also serves as the foundation of her upcoming book, Shakespeare as Paratext to Power. It examines how Shakespeare has been and continues to be used as a weapon to create racial and class boundaries that keep poor, un- and under-educated, and non-White individuals out of spaces controlled by and intended for White people. “Shakespeare’s role in white supremacy and white supremacist causes has been acknowledged, but not fully reckoned with,” Hamlet explained.
The continued use of Shakespeare’s works by white supremacists is why Hamlet’s research is so crucial to the conversations we have today about race and equality. “Recent racially-motivated incidents are why it’s so important to think about Shakespeare even when there’s other, more important stuff happening. People say, ‘who cares about a dead white guy,’ yet this dead white guy is part and parcel of all the systemic racial, diversity, and equality issues we’re dealing with right now,” Hamlet reflected.
Consequently, Hamlet is committed to teaching her students about race and equity in her classroom through Shakespeare. Hamlet explains that the best way for her to teach students about race and equity is by modeling productive discomfort: “My students who identify as white are reticent to engage with conversations about whiteness, race, and privilege in large part because they don’t have the tools or the vocabulary. Rather than take a risk and say something that might be harmful, they would rather not say anything. I have found that when I show them how I talk about it and deal with my own personal discomfort, it lets them know that it’s okay to not know and it’s okay to try.”
Her goal is to show her students that when they get something wrong, it’s ok to acknowledge it, correct it, and move forward. In Hamlet’s eyes, one of the most important things we can teach students is that we can always try to be better and work for a more just, inclusive, and equitable society. “I am very excited about the work Dr. Hamlet is doing in the classroom and beyond. She is deconstructing racial hierarchies by analyzing sources that have so often been used to expand and entrench racist views,” said Dr. Darryl Mace, Vice President for Mission, Diversity and Inclusion. “It really is an innovative approach to teaching literature, and she is reclaiming part of the so-called ‘great works.’ Most importantly, she creates safe spaces in her classroom where students can grapple with issues of diversity and inclusion.”
This semester Hamlet is teaching a class on Shakespeare and race, and she’s off to a running start with one of Shakespeare’s most iconic tragedies, Othello. According to Hamlet, her students are engaging with the play and doing excellent work. “I was initially scared to enroll in the class and discuss race and diversity. Being in a predominately white institution, I didn’t know how these topics were going to be approached. But after the first week, I felt so comfortable. I love hearing the opinions of others, sharing what I think, and coming to a mutual understanding. Dr. Hamlet does her best to understand what we are going through as college students and tries to relate to us. I love the respect that is given to each of our differences,” said Early Childhood Education student Jonny Martinez.
Martinez’s classmate Sarah Mies, Communication and English major, echoed similar sentiment: “Dr. Jess’s classes are interesting and engaging, and her teaching skills are unique but successful. I would absolutely recommend my fellow students take a class or two with Dr. Jess no matter what their major is.”
Hamlet is excited to continue instructing her Shakespeare courses next fall. “I love Alvernia so much. I feel extraordinarily lucky that not only did I get a job straight out of the Ph.D. fire, but that I also got this job” Hamlet said. “Alvernia is full of professors who are so intelligent, collegial, and supportive. Our students are absolutely amazing. I couldn’t be happier!”