BY CASSY COCHRUN ’10
Drury professors are legendary in how they relate to students. While some classes feel more like a conversation than a lecture, faculty members are charged with bestowing knowledge on their students, and to achieve this goal, most professors are putting on a show of some sort. As students leave the safe buildings of Drury’s campus and enter the “real world,” they begin to understand that a similar type of performance enters the rhythms of life sooner or later. A presentation in the boardroom, a pitch to an editor or a meeting with a client all require careful preparation and practice. While Drury graduates may not all be formally trained performers, the “shows” they witnessed in the classroom set the stage for their own everyday performances. In these pages, four Drury faculty members muse on what it’s like to be entrusted with performing for such an audience.
Many years ago, I attended a yearly workshop in which the education department provided information on successful teaching methods. One of the questions presented was, “What is the first step to learning?” I have presented this question to many classes and typical responses range from a desire to learn or simply show up for class.
I feel that the first step to learning is consciousness. Not only being in a physically awake state, but hearing and perceiving what the teacher is conveying. Not who’s texted, what the score of the game is or what’s happening outside the window. I’ve found that students are most conscious when they’re entertained and have good feelings about the class. I constantly scan the students’ faces for any signs that they are bordering on slipping into a droopy-eyed, unconscious state. I’ll plan a “tangent” in which we talk about something interesting or humorous. When they return, I continue the lecture.
I include magic in each class. I have been doing magic for years, so I normally carry a deck of cards in my briefcase in the event someone needs cheering up. The first semester I taught, I started losing the class during a social theories lecture. I asked them if they’d like to see a magic trick and they agreed. In the next class the students made it clear that it would be expected each time we met. Every class is a well-rehearsed performance that varies with each audience. The performance in an introduction to psychology class will differ greatly from that in a human sexuality class. And, performances within the same course will differ greatly. A performance on contraception will be much more informative and humorous than an emotion provoking lecture on the prevention of childhood sexual abuse.
Humor and entertainment are essential in teaching. For years I felt that I was adding this to the class performance for the students. While teaching in a large lecture hall at another university, I attempted a joke when a student raised his hand and asked, “Mr. Pierce, why do you tell jokes when no one laughs?” I informed him that it was very egocentric of him to assume that it was all for his benefit. I realized that some of the humor entertains me and keeps me motivated! Is behind the podium my stage? Yes. Do the audiences change? Yes. But the content, carefully placed jokes and occasional experiment stay the same because it seems to be a winning act.
When I consider the different ways I perform in my life, “musician,” “teacher,” and, most recently, “athlete” are the roles that come to mind. I laugh as I type that. Despite running in over 10 half marathons, a handful of 25K trail races, three short distance triathlons and a number of other running events, I still struggle to see myself as an athlete. Though the amount of time I’ve dedicated to that pursuit over the last four years would seem to indicate otherwise.
I’ve been performing as a musician for nearly 30 years. Though the quality of nerves and anxiety changes over time, it never goes away completely; I’ve just gotten better at managing those feelings. Nerves are linked to a fear of things outside of our control happening during performance. I might have a piece of classroom equipment malfunction, may be sick on the day of a musical performance or find myself running in unexpected weather conditions.
There are a lot of uncontrollable factors in performance, so the goal of any good performer is to master the factors within control. This might mean preparing extra lessons ahead of time in case of equipment malfunctions. Performers might practice different breath control techniques, so if they aren’t feeling their best, they can still play phrases correctly. Athletes might train in a variety of conditions to prepare for race day. Practice, relaxation, and imagining completing the performance successfully can help allay nerves. While excessive nervous energy can cause mistakes, a certain amount of nervous energy can be beneficial to performance−it will keep the performer alert and ready to deal with last minute issues during the performance.
You will learn far more about yourself and handling adversity by practicing, rehearsing and training in all sorts of conditions. Know how to react to things that come up, from broken reeds to malfunctioning stereo equipment; from safety drills during class to encountering strange wildlife on a running trail or in a triathlon swim. Sometimes performers handle these little surprises successfully and sometimes they don’t. Be willing to learn from successes and failures. Knowing the material and trusting you have practiced enough that your body will perform correctly is essential. Finally, as part of the process, never forget that others are an essential part of your journey. It’s important to remember that performance roles are time consuming activities and could cause your home and family hardship as a result of your absence. So, don’t forget to thank those that helped you get there.
Some time ago, a colleague of mine gave me a Christmas ornament as a gift. It was a hanging plaque with a simple formula: 25% preparation + 75% theatre = 100% teaching. While I may not fully agree with the proportion, I understand the innate acceptance that teaching is in itself a performance. Simply knowing the material is not enough; it is the presentation of that material that makes the difference in our students’ understanding. As a theatre artist, I immediately empathize with the similarity of performing for an audience on stage and standing in front of a class leading a discussion.
This was clearly brought home to me when I was a first-year undergraduate student. Part of the general studies program involved weekly lectures on various topics by the leading expert on the faculty. One popular lecturer had actually been a professional actor prior to teaching philosophy. We often mused about whether the beauty of his lectures was in his delivery or the brilliance of the content until one week when he was attending a conference and a colleague delivered the lecture for him. Although he wrote it out completely, the lecture fell flat. At a young age I became very aware of the performance aspect of teaching.
This becomes more apparent, and a touch ironic, when teaching theatre. We are performing in the classroom or studio delivering a lesson that is part of a curriculum intended to prepare the student to be a performer. The delivery style comes out of the discipline and the discipline comes out of this very style. This innate theatricality creates a dualism that is the heart of theatre education. Theatre students quickly become different from other students. While at a given moment they may be the audience, they are still performers. In the classroom they are performing as the audience. I may be teaching, but I am really a performer acting as a teacher. This is further reinforced by the fact that theatre faculty are also performing artists who routinely direct, design, or perhaps even act in departmental productions. The performance in the classroom can quickly lose its luster if it is not also seen in the production work. We are modeling daily what we hope and expect our students to become.
Outsiders to my work often comment after a presentation, event or class about its theatrical nature. But how else could it be? Teaching in itself is a performance; much more so when the actual performance is the topic. Theatre can be broken down to four essential elements: actors, a space, a story, and an audience. The same is true of teaching.
Thinking through how I perform in the classroom turned out to be more complicated than I thought it would be. Eventually, I realized that teaching is, essentially, performing attention.
The challenge is to see each student. Iris Murdoch, borrowing Simone Weil’s definition of love as the act of paying attention, suggests that no one focused on his or her own self can see others as they are, and one can only see others as they are through loving attention.
Attention, says Weil, asks what the other is going through. This may require some imaginative listening, even when a student is keen to share the daily comparative analyses college life demands. As Gayatri Spivak explains it, there is a sense on both sides that “something has not quite got across.” But, I’ve learned that attention isn’t a one-time notice; it perseveres, relishing the mystery, rather than trying to resolve it. Indeed, it cannot be resolved.
In literature, we practice attention with characters who reveal and withhold secrets from readers. We practice attention to wonder about the world the character lives in—the world we live in—to think about the sort of world we want to live in, and to consider our responsibility in this sort of world. Performing attention calls for a good deal of planning: work I describe as “map-making,” creating paths to encounters with characters, and creating webs of conversations that connect us to each other.
Studies show that engaging with others whose life experiences and cultural contexts are different than our own is stressful: our pupils dilate, our heartrates increase, we overheat— all the symptoms of public speaking nervousness! I feel there must be an element of intensity in the singular moment, magnified in the classroom, by my wish to be extravagant, to fling open all the doors, to give it all away; to turn my teaching-self inside out—and though some things ‘will not quite get across’—attentive students will forge paths I hadn’t imagined, allowing new mysteries to emerge.