How a Brandeis professor is bringing Shakespeare’s greatest works to Rwanda

Ramie Targoff in the classroom in Rwanda, at a podeum, and with a colleague

Top left: Rwandan students gather in the classroom. Bottom left: Professor Ramie Targoff leads a lecture. Right: Professor Ramie Targoff poses with Anthony Kiuna, the university librarian that distributed "Macbeth."

In pursuit of her passion for teaching literature,Jehuda Reinharz Professor in the Humanities Ramie Targoff found herself in an unexpected location last fall - across the world, teaching William Shakespeare to medical students in Rwanda at the University of Global Health Equity.

Partners in Health, a global organization dedicated to bringing state-of-the-art medical care to communities in need, had recently established a medical school in Rwanda. Local students can enroll, free of charge, with the agreement that they will serve the country for 6 years after graduating medical school. In addition to receiving medical training, the school provides every student with a seven-month liberal arts education. That’s where Targoff came in.

“The medical school wanted to make sure each student had the composition, writing, and communication tools for success,” said Targoff. “This would really set the foundation for their program.”

Targoff, who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on Renaissance literature at Brandeis, was asked to join the team responsible for leading the initiative in 2022.

She began teaching online lectures in the spring and continued with the new class of students this fall. In addition to her virtual lectures, she traveled to Rwanda for a few days to connect with her students in-person last fall.

She wanted her Rwandan students to get the full opportunity to explore their interests outside their chosen field, similar to the opportunities Brandeis students have.

“For most of the world, you select your area of study and that’s all you do. You become an architect, a doctor, etcetera,” she said. “In the U.S, and at Brandeis in particular, we have a very different approach: We allow our students to explore different fields and pursue their intellectual curiosity.”

When she began to design the course, Targoff she knew she wanted to focus on a play by Shakespeare, but she opened it up to the students to choose which text to read. After the students selected “Macbeth,” Targoff reached out to her connections to get the students' books.

“I connected with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C, which holds the world’s largest collection of printed Shakespeare, to see if they’d donate 50 copies of ‘Macbeth,’” said Targoff. “Many of these students don’t own many books of literature. They were excited just to have a physical copy all to themselves.”

Upon arriving in Rwanda, Targoff toured the new medical facilities and the nearby regional hospital. As she made her way around the campus she discovered students engrossed in reading Shakespeare.

“I noticed six young women sitting on the grass, reading ‘Macbeth’ aloud to each other,” said Targoff. “It was moving to see how excited they were to be engaging with Shakespeare’s play.”

Through classroom conversations with her students, Targoff came to see “Macbeth” from an entirely new angle. As they spent their time together reading and analyzing different moments and scenes in the play,  Targoff found her students focusing both on the witches and themes around mental health.

“In parts of rural Rwanda, the students explained that many villagers still rely on traditional healers, so it’s challenging to get people to trust western doctors when they need antibiotics or serious medical attention,” she said. “The students were interested in discussing local healers in relation to the power the witches had in ‘Macbeth.’ They were curious to see how the witches’ might affect the plot both positively and negatively.”

The students also discussed Lady Macbeth’s struggles with her mental health. The doctor visits Lady Macbeth, but struggles to diagnose her.  She can’t be diagnosed because the doctor can’t find the illness in her body.

“There were no psychiatrists during the Renaissance period. Anatomy labs were just being established. The question is then, ‘where in the body does insanity sit?’” said Targoff. “These are conversations I’ll bring with me the next time I teach this material at Brandeis.”

Targoff will continue to teach Shakespeare to the next class of medical students in 2023. She also plans to establish a book club connecting her Rwandan and Brandeis students, linking both classes across the globe through the same reading material.

She hopes her students, both in Rwanda and at Brandeis, see the importance of grounding their education in the liberal arts.

“These students in Rwanda will be among the next healthcare leaders in our world. It would be an enormous gift if I can help them see the connections between the humanities and sciences.”

Categories: Arts, General, Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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