Emily Sloan-Pace: On Empathy and Teaching Shakespeare to Engineers

December 03, 2018

Emily Sloan-Pace at her Zoho office in Pleasanton, CA

This is the third installment of Beyond the Forest: David Gleason's Humanities Alumni Profiles.


Can a Shakespearean scholar transform the user experience for a global software company? University of California, Santa Cruz alumna Emily Sloan-Pace (Ph.D. Literature, 2012) found out. What she has accomplished could serve well as a model to help businesses discover the value of hiring those who study the humanities.

From the serenity of the UC Santa Cruz campus, to the grim cement walls of San Quentin State Prison north of San Francisco, and the bustling technology centers of Chennai, India, Sloan-Pace has carried her passion for Shakespeare to some of the unlikeliest venues, and along the way has discovered audiences hungry to learn what Shakespeare’s plays still have to teach us today.

In August, Sarah Caldwell, UC Santa Cruz Humanities Division Assistant Director of Development, and I met with Emily at her workplace in Pleasanton, CA, where she is Professor in Residence at Zoho, a cloud-based technology company headquartered in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

We wanted to learn how Emily brought her deep knowledge of Shakespeare to the high-tech world of software development. In the course of our 2-hour conversation, Emily’s journey unfolded, and the logic of her position at Zoho became clear to us. It’s a journey that holds a positive message for anyone wondering how a love for the humanities can lead to a meaningful and rewarding career.

Teaching Shakespeare in Prison

In 2010, Emily was like any graduate student, working to complete her coursework and Ph.D. thesis on gender roles in Shakespeare’s English history plays. At some point she got a bit stuck, and took two years off from writing. She kept reading and teaching, but the break from writing gave her some free time, which she chose to use in a remarkably relevant way.

She explains, “One thing that I started during that period was a lot of volunteer work. I was looking for other ways, interesting ways to use Shakespeare that weren’t necessarily academic. I volunteered for the Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival as a dramaturg.”

Emily continues, “And I also volunteered at San Quentin State Prison, working with prisoners to put on productions of Shakespeare.” She laughs, and says, “I was really looking for other things to do rather than write my dissertation, basically, because that’s painful. It motivated me and gave me the kind of creative energy I needed to finish. There’s nothing like going into a prison every week to make you feel really grateful about your own life.”

She shakes her head, perhaps a bit amazed at the challenge she accepted: “I went every other week for about 2 years. It’s a long commute from Santa Cruz; every other Friday I’d go up to San Quentin. We’d spend about three-and-a-half hours in the space with them. It takes about half an hour to get into the prison and half an hour to get out.” The experience, and effort, must have been emotionally draining, but also rewarding.

She says, “In terms of just learning gratitude, every time I left, I cried, because it was overwhelming and so emotionally hard to go into that space, to be vulnerable and make art with people.”

Perhaps most remarkable is how her Shakespeare training was received among the inmates at the maximum security correctional facility. Emily says, “We did Hamlet the first year and Merchant of Venice the second year. Merchant is all about justice and mercy, and they were really in tune with that.”

Emily recalls, “The guy who was playing our Hamlet — who was just breathtakingly amazing — he was in prison for second-degree murder. Listening to someone who has been in prison for 26 years reflecting on what it means to kill, when they had to internalize it… it’s just mind blowing. It’s just profound.”

She adds, “For a lot of these guys, it’s the first play they have ever seen. We performed it one time, and only one time, for the guys in the prison, for an audience of about 300 inmates. For some, it’s the only Shakespeare they have ever seen. And they get it — it resonates with them.”

To get a sense of their rendition of Hamlet, you can view a 30-minute video by David Wayne Wright, Shakespeare in Blue, that introduces the dramaturges, the inmates, and the stories of their personal experiences, as well as segments of the play performed on site.

The San Quentin teaching and other Shakespeare volunteer work, combined with her years of academic studies, writing and teaching, gave Sloan-Pace a deep and ingrained understanding of the wisdom and insight we can gain from great literature and art. This would come back to reward her in ways that she could not possibly have imagined.

A Career in Academia Does Not Materialize

The volunteer teaching experience did help Emily refocus on her thesis, and she then, “went back to it, and chugged through it.” Having completed her doctorate, she now felt it was surely time to find a faculty position at a college or university. But that’s not how things worked out.


Emily as successful Ph.D. graduate on the University of California, Santa Cruz campus


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