Faculty spotlight: Katherine Williams

The office setting slowly melted away as Professor Katherine Williams — a new addition to NYU Abu Dhabi’s expanding literature department — explained ...

Sep 14, 2013

The office setting slowly melted away as Professor Katherine Williams — a new addition to NYU Abu Dhabi’s expanding literature department — explained her take on Shakespeare, catapulting her listeners onto the stage of the Globe Theater. Between reflecting on Hamlet and Richard the III, Williams’ smile widened: she has transported her love for the English playwright to Abu Dhabi with a fresh perspective.
Her love for the written word flourished when she was an undergraduate at Arizona State University, where she majored in English literature and minored in piano performance. In a class on the 17th century English author John Milton, Williams studied his poem Paradise Lost, an epic poem comprised of 12 volumes, which ultimately convinced her to embrace the literary world.
“[Milton] has incredible lines where he talks about a book being like a vial that conserves the intellectual — the potency, the life-blood of man,” Williams said. “He has such deep respect for the human intellect and for the possibilities of thought and this idea that books can transmit human experience to future generations.”
This semester, Williams is teaching Global Shakespeare, where she encourages her students to consider the playwright as a global-minded individual, one who dared to conceptualize the cultural discoveries and ambitions of his time.
For some students, like freshman Annalisa Galgano, Williams’ passion in the classroom is infectious.
“I've never seen anyone get so happy to be discussing structural characters in Hamlet, and that makes all of us really excited about it too,” Galgano said.
Yet Williams’ area of research extends beyond 16th and 17th century English drama, pairing Shakespeare with disabilities theory, history of medicine and performance theory. She grounds her studies in the social model of disability, which rejects the long-time idea that disabled individuals have a problem with a medical solution.
Instead, Williams said, this new model regards “a wheelchair user [as] someone who’s not disabled until they come to a building that doesn’t have a ramp. So you’re making a distinction between the body that requires support and a world that’s not structured to accommodate that kind of body.”
Williams uses the social model to analyze the drama of the English Renaissance. In 2009, at a Shakespeare Association of America conference, she was part of the first-ever seminar on disability and Shakespeare. Currently, she is working on a book project that adds to this budding field, of which she is one of few scholars.
Back in Williams’ classroom, analyzing Shakespearean text is its own journey. Her students explore the ways in which different productions and adaptations reinterpret the text.
“[Williams is] open to multiple interpretations of a text […] and various mediums,” said sophomore Veronica Houk.
Between the curious students and the collaboration amongst departments, Williams’ abounding love for Shakespeare has found an exciting, promising home at NYUAD. The university is hoping to become the principal academic center of Global Shakespeare studies, starting with a conference in November. Williams is also eager to launch projects directly involving Disabilities Studies.
First up on the to-do list, however, is re-reading Moby Dick. Williams has retained a lesson learned as an undergraduate from a professor: a text — much like life — is to be read for the “wow” and the “huh.” The wow moments are those in which one pauses to wonder at the magic happening on the page. On the other hand, the huh parts are complexities in the language, where the author challenges the readers to understand the commentary entrenched in the words.
“Part of the joy of reading is in the beauty, the wow! moments,” Williams said. “But part of the joy … is in puzzling over the difficult moments in the texts, until you understand what they mean and see things completely differently – because that knowledge takes you to a new place.”
Costanza Maio is a contributing writer. Email her at 
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