I’m often filled with self doubt.
I can hear those of you who have been reading me for a while now saying things like “Duh!” or “No, really!” or (the more vulgar) “No s*%t Sherlock!”
At least I acknowledge that I’m my own worst critic.
This negativity about myself isn’t just centered on my writing. There are times that I question every single thing I’m doing, whether it’s teaching, writing, parenting, directing, interviewing . . . Basically if its a verb I do, I criticize myself for not doing it well enough–for somehow screwing even the simplest things up.
But then there are days like today, when I realize that “I done good.”
This semester I’ve been teaching a course called Studies in Drama at Bryant University; a University that is mostly known as a business school, but has been expanding its liberal arts offerings. This is a 300 level course taught through the Literary and Cultural Studies Department that fulfills an LCS requirement that all students need to graduate.
Did you pick up on the key words there? Business students, 300 level, requirement.
Anyone who has ever taught an introductory level REQUIRED course in arts or writing will recognize that sometimes getting students involved is like beating your head against a brick wall. They come in with the attitude that “this has nothing to do with my life” or “why do I need to learn to write when I’m a _______ major?” Usually those courses are at the 100 level and filled with First Year Students who are struggling with the day-to-day reality of what it means to be a college student. I’ve had both successes and failures in those types of classes, but of course I always obsess about the failures and gloss over the successes.
Now, this particular course is kind of Intro to Theatre meets upper-division expectations. My entire class is made of up seniors, some of whom will be graduating in December; all of whom are focused (quite naturally) on getting jobs after graduating. In other words, students who put off this particular requirement for their Senior year. Students who, in some instances, had ZERO interest in theatre and ZERO contact with theatre; they just needed to fulfill their LCS requirement in some way. Several of them signed up for this course because the original instructor (whom I replaced because of a sudden medical leave) was known for his quirky teaching style and the fact that he NEVER MADE SENIORS TAKE A FINAL.
Knowing that I might have a reluctant group, I decided to try and make the course relevant to their interests as well as my own. Since I could design the course as I saw fit, I decided to focus on “theatre as a tool of cultural expression, political engagement, and social change.” (From my syllabus). The first thing I had them read was The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey, which is a somewhat controversial monologue/play that questions the ethics of Apple, Steve Jobs, and the use of Chinese workers to build Apple products. What better play to intrigue the interest of business majors?
From there, we’ve traveled great distances in the class: from learning about the theatrical techniques of Bertolt Brecht, to discussing racism in Othello. We spent time with the Federal Theatre Project and discusses how a bunch of beavers led to the downfall of a federally supported theatre. We’ve looked at the role of theatre in confronting feminist issues in plays like Trifles, A Doll House, and even Lysistrata. We discussed the role of race and gender in plays like Cloud 9 and for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf. I’ve introduced them to the techniques of Augusto Boal and today we looked at radical street theatre and the ways in which theatre can affect social change in public places.
Revolt of the Beavers
All in all, although there have been a few unenthusiastic and non-participatory students, the discussions have been excellent throughout the semester and the students have challenged me and each other with difficult questions.
Of course, there was still the issue of the final project. Since it was an LCS class I kind of felt the need (at first) to go with the traditional write a paper route. Then, after reading an article with the class about finding ways to incorporate the reality that this generation of students has grown up with technology into theatre classrooms, I opened up the possibility of some of my students finding alternative ways to present their projects beyond the traditional academic paper.
This lead to a surprising result today. As I mentioned earlier, in today’s class we talked about street theater using articles from Jan Cohen-Cruz’ anthology Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology. We talked about various forms of street theatre they have seen themselves, and I included in the discussion flash mobs which, although perhaps not as political as some other forms, have become (in my opinion) an important phenomenon in modern society. We looked at videos of groups like Improv Everywhere who have mastered the art of producing moments of theatre in public places. This is one of my favorite videos of theirs:
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a voice calls out, “Can we negotiate the final papers if we create a flash mob?”
“Um . . . let me think about that.”
The class continued until we neared the end.
“How about the flash mob idea?”
“Well. . .,” I said, not wanting to dull their enthusiasm. After all, this was a group of students who want to, suddenly, do a CREATIVE project as their final. These are the same students who refused to acknowledge themselves as creative individuals in the beginning of the class. Granted, many of them are simply trying to avoid having to write an academic paper. Still, to me this indicates that they’ve been learning that theatre does, indeed, have power.
At the same time, I don’t want their final project to be a mediocre piece of fluff. “If you want to do this, then it needs to have some meaning. It can’t be just a fun flash mob. You need to make some kind of statement. If you can, as a group, come up with a reasonable proposal by next Tuesday, we’ll see.”
“Everybody, stay for five minutes,” another student said. “Let’s brainstorm.”
I left the class in discussion and headed toward my basement office cubby.
Ten minutes later, two students walked in. “We figured it out.”
They explained their idea. (I’ll leave the details for the future). I negotiated a little to raise the expectations (there needs to be a research component and a little writing by everyone in the group). I told them I would still make the final decision next Tuesday, pending their figuring out some of those research details and a few other logistical things.
Meanwhile, all I could think was, “Wow! I think they really learned something. ‘I done good!'”
Stay tuned for the end results.