Q&A: Distinguished Research Master William Demastes

Demastes is an expert on modern and contemporary British and American theater and alumni professor at the LSU Department of English.


Were you always into drama?

I’ve got to watch out because my joke is that I got interested in drama because I’m a slow reader and never would have made it through a novel specialty. But that’s not true. Well—it’s partly true.

My undergraduate degree was in philosophy. One of the things I didn’t particularly care about with philosophy was the rigor, the detailed approaches that led to dead ends everywhere. You argue pro, then con. It was intellectually stimulating, but it didn’t really take you places in the final analysis. I did that at Berkeley.

Then I moved back to Georgia, my home state, and got a literature degree before I moved out to the Midwest and the University of Wisconsin. My first impulse was to become a Shakespeare scholar. That was something that never left my interest, and it’s one of the funnest things I do here at LSU. I’ve been teaching both the sophomore and upper division levels, both undergraduate, for probably 20 years. I learn new things from students all the time, and I learn new things from reading Shakespeare all the time.

William Demastes in his office

Dr. Demastes—your Shakespeare is showing. Elsa Hahne/LSU

Learning from your students, tell me more about that?

Generally, they just call me on things. If I become overly general or imprecise, they’ll raise a hand, “Excuse me!” Closer reading—we try to teach that, but the best thing is when they call you on it. Using text to defend themselves, smart activities like that.

Thanks to students, I’ve become a better writer, because I’m forced to think. What will the students say that could potentially challenge me? Backing up what I do is sort of a daily thing, and without that student input, you can become kind of sloppy as far as making arguments.

I need students to sound off of. I’m writing, but it would be more fun to be talking to them first, having them rolling their eyes or falling asleep when I’m boring the hell out of them.

As a matter of fact, I’m on sabbatical right now, and I hate it. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but I do hate it because I’m not in front of a classroom. I need students to sound off of. I’m writing, but it would be more fun to be talking to them first, having them rolling their eyes or falling asleep when I’m boring the hell out of them. They’re quick judges of what makes sense and what doesn’t. Without that right now, I’m going to town, thinking I’m probably a genius. But next fall, when I tell them what I’ve been doing, I might find out that there’s a bunch I need to cut, or rewrite, or rethink.

Teaching isn’t theater, maybe, but the virtues of whatever you’re delivering in front of an audience can be quickly revealed.

Even if they don’t respond, you can hear it yourself!

One of the reasons I rely on students more than my colleagues, is that I like the idea of writing for people who are smart, but not specialists. I don’t want to write shorthand. If I think we’re already all thinking the same thing—who knows? Have you thought about the foundations that you’re working on? With students, if you already know the answers and you ask them a question, you’re just setting them up to make a mistake, right?

Shakespeare is a fun one, because he never wrote liner notes. What does he mean when he says… this? The door is open! And that’s how you get good discussion.

I don’t want to assume.

I’m going to assume, however, that you have a favorite play?

I’ve read enough Hamlet that I’ve reached a point where I think it’s the best play ever written. It’s got the best ideas, and it’s been written in the best possible way. But in almost every class, a student will say, “Hamlet’s a bore. He’s a rotten human being, a mass murderer.” And yes, how do you relate to a person who’s killed six, seven, eight people, who is responsible for their deaths? The students will say, “Why is he such a crybaby? He’s a prince! He should be reveling in his wealth and comfort.” They don’t necessarily see him as the great renaissance man.

When someone says “Hamlet,” you’re supposed to sit up and be reverential about it, but students aren’t all that reverential about things. If it doesn’t catch them, they will let you know.

You seem to truly appreciate your students?

I like publishing and I like research, but teaching is the most important to me. Students bring me back down out of monologue mode and into discussion mode, and that’s where the fun is. They keep pulling me off my pedestal. When they challenge me, that’s the best thing that happens in a classroom. And it’s the best thing for writing.


Meet our other Distinguished Research Master, George W. Barineau III Professor and Chair of the LSU Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, Kam-biu Liu, an expert in the field of paleoenvironmental change—climate change that happened in the distant past, combining expansive perspectives of space and time with, for example, microscopic views of pollen.


Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development