Scott Newstok

Scott Newstok

Scott Newstok (ΦBK, Grinnell College) is an author, an award-winning professor of English at Rhodes College, and the Founding Director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment.


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When forced to answer this question in primary school, I remember carelessly blurting out “Marine Biologist!” But because my paternal grandfather taught in a one-room schoolhouse before becoming superintendent of his rural county’s district; and because my maternal grandfather was named Minnesota’s first teacher of the year in 1964; and because my dad won multiple teaching awards as a university professor; and because aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, classmates, friends, and neighbors have all devoted their lives to being forges for thought—well, I was probably destined to become an educator. I’m currently the Shakespeare scholar in our English department at Rhodes College. But since we’re a small college, where we all teach widely, I’ve also enjoyed the liberty of working in filmrhetoricraceMilton, and lyric poetry. Happily, these fields coincide in my new book How to Think Like Shakespeare, which I’d like to think of as a kind of primer for liberal education.

What was the best advice you were ever given, and who gave it to you?

I recall asking Jeff Masten (ΦBK, Denison University) for advice at the outset of graduate study. He encouraged me to learn from a range of thinkers, even if I wasn’t planning to follow in their paths. It’s important to experience different minds at play, he suggested. To this day, I still share this wise counsel with my own advisees. 

You’re the founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment. What is your favorite part about what you do? 

While I never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Iris Annette Pearce, her bequest has enriched conversations for thousands of Memphians, myself most of all. We’ve partnered with national organizations like the Folger Shakespeare Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as local cultural institutions. So my favorite part is this Shakespearean spirit of collaboration.  

For instance, for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we hosted a symposium on the year 1616, with a keynote address by Thomas Christensen about 1616: The World in Motion; the premiere of a show based on the last days of Shakespeare’s life, by UK artist Gareth Somers; and lectures by scholars ranging across the liberal arts and sciences. As part of the symposium, Barret Library displayed 1616-related items from our special collections, in an exhibit curated by our students. Co-sponsorship by over a dozen Rhodes programs made all of this possible. A similarly exciting symposium on Law & Literature is coming up this April 23-24, 2020.

Of the courses you have taught over the years, are there any that stand out as favorites?

I once taught a first-year writing seminar on urban parks, with nearby Overton Park as our “lab” for exploring the history of public spaces, zoological gardens, and cultural institutions. Every week we hosted a guest speaker to share why the park matters (and, just as crucially, why writing matters). Among many highlights, Charles Newman (ΦBK, Yale University) related how he fought all the way to the Supreme Court to protect the park from being destroyed by a proposed interstate highway. 

A few years later, Opera Memphis was staging Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” in conjunction with Rhodes’ Mike Curb Institute for Music. Paired with a production of Marlowe’s Dido: Queene of Carthage, the opera festival made an ideal platform for an interdisciplinary seminar, which I called “Dido’s Tears.” Scholars and artists generously gave of their time to visit. My sharp students wrote everything from scholarly research papers to twitter-length factoids, which were projected above the opera stage during intermission. 

You’re also the former President of Rhodes College’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded liberal arts & sciences education are important in today’s society? What has motivated you to stay involved with ΦBK? 

As W. E. B. Du Bois challenged us: is the end of study to earn meat? or to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes? I’m worried we’ve tilted too much toward the utilitarian end—study as the means to other ends, not for the enlargement of human capacities. The spirit of the times seems instead to be caught up in a joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.

We know education has to be useful, to have utility. The problem is that in general and popular usage, “utility” has come to have a truncated sense; even we teachers have acquiesced in this diminished meaning of only quick and direct returns. The speed with which a student gets a first job, the entry-level pay; the quarterly, at best yearly, return on investment. Long-term utility cannot come from fixating upon short-term utility. Love of wisdom, the guide of lifeI’m grateful that Phi Beta Kappa guides us to converse beyond these short-term pressures.

What book are you reading right now? 

I’ve just submitted final grades as well as final proofs for two books, so I’ve mainly been reading the backs of my eyelids! But on my to-be-read shelf are the recent essay collections by Lydia Davis and Zadie Smith, both enviable stylists who, as Coleridge said of Shakespeare, make the reader think.