Karen Raber is Professor of English at the University of Mississippi, specializing in Renaissance literature with emphasis on ecostudies, animal studies, and posthumanist theory. She also currently serves as the Executive Director of the Shakespeare Association of America and was named the UM 2019 SEC Faculty award winner. Her publications include three monographs–Shakespeare and Posthumanist Theory (2018), Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture (2013), and Dramatic Difference: Gender, Class, and Genre in the Early Modern Closet Drama (2001)–over thirty articles and book chapters, and several edited collections. She recently sat down for an interview with our intern, Hannah.
Hannah: So you’ve been the director of the Shakespeare Association for about a year right?
Dr. Raber: Right
H: What’s it like?
R: It’s the antithesis of everything that being an academic and a professor is, because it’s like being a corporate executive, right. It’s all about organizational skills, managing, staff, negotiating contracts, handling structural issues, financial issues accounting, that kind of stuff, so it’s a complete 180 from literally everything that I have ever done or know how to do, but it’s a huge organization, and its growing, and so it’s sort of at this turning point where it kind of needs to change direction, which is exciting, because you can transform the world of Shakespeare studies through the conference that we offer and some the other stuff that the organization does, so it’s a great time, and I’m working with a great board trustees and a terrific executive committee of people that I know and have known for years and years who are also terrific and also really enthusiastic about making changes to serve the institution and the organization in the future, so it’s great. I mean it’s really interesting. It’s constantly learning new stuff. Sometimes I don’t want to learn new stuff, like I really don’t handle finances very well. I don’t have that brain.
H: Is it hard to balance the Shakespeare Association, teaching, writing, and home life?
R: So far impossible! Yeah, I did have some ongoing book projects, and I am working on those a little bit, and I had a couple of essays and articles that I have to finish up. Actually, this came at the moment when I could have started really producing another monograph, which is a single author book, plus the couple of other pieces that I’m working on, and the collection I’m working on for one of the presses on Shakespeare and animals, and I just sort of set aside some of that stuff to try and adjust. I think that the previous Executive Director did manage to do her own work, but it is very difficult, and this is mostly because you need this headspace; you need a clear desk and lots of time to read and think, and the executive director’s job is constant. There’s constant problems and constant email; constant issues to resolve or address, so it’s going take me a while to figure that out. So I imagine in a year or so I would have a different answer. Right now I’m just trying to keep all the plates spinning and not drop anything.
H: What’s been the most surprising thing about being the director so far?
R: I think both how amazing people are, and also how difficult people can be. It’s an enormous group of people that you’re dealing with. I am interacting on email and sometimes on the phone with lots of kinds of people, and so it’s a much broader group then when you’re teaching, because when you’re teaching you’re always dealing with 18-21 year olds, or if you’re doing graduate courses with maybe people in their late 20s, early 30s, and so this is a much different kind of group, and I’ve been really surprised at how energetic and cooperative and visionary a lot of our members are, and also sometimes just how odd some people’s slice of the world is. This is the same thing that happens, I think, anytime you run something, like if you’re chair of the department, you suddenly see why we can’t do XYZ, but the people who want to do XYZ don’t want to know that. It’s always funny, because I’m a person who assumes that if you explain the why of something, everybody’s just going to go “Oh yeah sure,” I’m not always very aware of the resistances that people throw up, so it’s been surprising to me, and also a little bit fun, because it’s like being a psychologist at times, like, “Why is this person reacting this way? I don’t know let me think about that.”
H: Tell me about your teaching career. Have you always wanted to teach, or did you just kind of fall into it?
R: I always knew in some ways that I would be in this field, and anytime that it seemed like people were pushing me to be in another field, it just didn’t work. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor, because those were the only two things that he really understood, and then I spent some time working in business way back after undergraduate, and I was thinking maybe I should stop out and spend some time working, and I hated every minute of it. So, yeah I think I’ve always wanted to be in the field of literary criticism and kind of an intellectual career. Teaching is actually not something that I think people always think much about when they go into that. They’re always thinking, “I’m going to write books. I’m going to study. I’m going to read interesting things in archives. I’m going to do philosophy,” and the teaching is not always addressed, I think, in some important ways, so it was interesting to find out how rewarding teaching is. It’s energizing. It’s actually lots of fun. It’s like a performance art in some ways, but also you get to really interact with people. You get to know people and hopefully see good things happen to them, because you’ve been there. I’m happy to be teaching at the college level though. I’m not sure how my skills would translate to anything earlier than that. So, yeah, I’ve loved it since the first time I ever was a teaching assistant for a big lecture in graduate school. It just was unexpected.
H: What advice you have for English undergrads?
R: So for English undergrads, my advice is: take risks, play around, be playful, remember this is not dreary and drudgery; it’s fun and exciting, and it’s an incredible privilege to be allowed to do it, and try literature that you don’t know, things that you’re not experienced with, find the pleasure in everything that you’re doing. I remember reading books when I was an undergraduate and thinking, “oh God, I just have to finish this piece of garbage,” and now I go back and realize what I missed. If I had been willing to just say, “I’m open to the pleasure reading this text,” I think I would’ve really had a different experience reading them, and I had a great experience, but still there were some things I was like, “Ugh.” Deep dark horrible secret, Faulkner was one of those. I took a Faulkner class, and I almost regretted taking it halfway through. It’s not because it was difficult, it’s just that I found it sort of drudgery in some weird ways, where I hadn’t found other classes that way, but that was me. I think that was me just going, “Who is this Faulkner person? I don’t care,” that sort of thing. So being more open and taking more experimental stuff and being risky and trying out interesting ideas in your papers. Take a risk; don’t play it safe. Shock people and shock yourself. If it blows up in your face, oh well, life is long, it’s fine, but if you never do that, you’re kind of boring yourself, and you’re boring everybody around you, and that’s not fun.
H: Last question: what is your favorite Shakespeare work?
R: Titus Andronicus. I just adore that play, which is kind of a stick thing to say, but I love that play. It’s so shocking. It doesn’t pretend to be Hamlet, because it’s a revenge tragedy, and it’s a precursor to Hamlet, but it doesn’t pretend to be Hamlet, which means, weirdly, I think it doesn’t have all of this crusted stuff that you have to deal with in the scholarship, and every time I come back to it I just enjoy teaching it. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I love it. I’m teaching it again this semester in the drama class; it’s like the only Shakespeare play we do, because it feels so not Shakespeare. It’s just so bizarre. It lets you ask crazy questions like, “So, what’s wrong with cannibalism anyway?” Why do we think that’s a terrible thing? Cannibalism is everywhere in the Western tradition. What’s the problem? Yeah, it’s a fun play.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.