25 Faces 25 Years: Christopher Nielson
By Mary Caparosa, ’16
Photo by Andrew Pellegrino ’18
February 09, 2017
Somewhere in the ridges of Pennsylvania on the Appalachian Trail, a young Christopher Nielson decided that science was no longer his true passion.
As he wandered, he thought of the overcrowded chemistry labs he frequented that never quite felt like home. He didn’t miss them. Instead, throughout his whole trip, whenever he had free time, all he really wanted to do was read Shakespeare.
When he got back to school, he changed his major to English and he hasn’t looked back since.
“I truly consider myself blessed because I’m paid to walk into a classroom and talk about Shakespeare. I would do it anyway,” says Nielson. “How many other people can say that their hobby is also their profession?”
Nielson is currently completing his 37th year as a professor and wrapping up a 10-week Shakespeare and comedy class at Hedgerow Theatre, where he’s been volunteering for nearly 20 years.
His students at Hedgerow immerse themselves in the material, acting out scenes and poring through lines for hidden meaning. The same teaching method finds its way into his classroom at Drexel: “I try to put my students in the role of the director and ask them, ‘What are you going to tell this actor? How are you going to stage that? Why is this happening?’”
He hopes this encourages them to be unafraid of deconstructing and interpreting the text in their own way.
“Shakespeare is tough, but if you invest your time, it’s worth it,” he says. “I don’t show movies in the classroom because, for whatever reason, as soon as it’s on the screen, intellectual inquiry shuts down. There are different ways to interpret and present the text, but when students see it in a movie, they stop interpreting for themselves.”
Nielson’s love of language and technical analysis isn’t the only reason he reveres the illustrious author.
“Shakespeare — and all great writers — exposes you to a full range of human emotions and perspectives, and you’re better after reading them because you now have these perspectives. You read “Macbeth,” and you not only see that Macbeth is inside you, but also you see Lady Macbeth, the porter and Duncan — they’re all in here,” he says, gesturing to his chest.
“That’s a valuable experience,” Nielson says, “to be exposed to the range of human thought and emotion.”
This article originally appeared in the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine feature story, "25 Faces, 25 Years." For more Ask stories, visit askmagazine.org.