A philosophy from the trenches - University of Nottingham Ningbo
Plato once remarked that the origins of education were in the activity of play. As a theatre and drama specialist I have endeavored not to lose sight of that axiom. Throughout forty-five years of teaching, I have never known a student to praise me for following the syllabus. Instead, I treat the syllabus as a clock to run against. I drag my students to any detour deemed more important than the pre-conceived path. I also force my students to stay with a difficult piece of literature, because the joy of discovery is what I believe lies at the core of true education.
I have constantly straddled the worlds of art and education and I have found these ruminations to be especially relevant to my teaching experience in China and with Chinese university students; although, they could just as easily be applied to any setting or population. However, in China there is a need to remind students that you, the teacher, are a living human being. Very often, I have found myself in a class that has me competing with laptops, cell phones, iPads and electronic dictionaries. This has occasioned me to blurt out such non-sequiturs as “Two guys walk into a bar…” The Chinese students then have the following reactions: (a) Do I take notes? (b) Do I download this and, if so, what is the link? (c) Bar? Did two men hit their heads? (d) Who are you and where is the teacher? Technology has threatened all professors who make their livings by being animated human beings; and, China has moved farther down the not-so-golden-avatar brick road. Therefore, may these axioms serve as possible palliatives to the above dilemma and, as a primer as to what I do as a teacher.
1. Get out from behind the desk.
You are on stage whether you like it or not. Students want to see the whole of your corporeal essence when you start to teach, not some disembodied head that constantly looks down at your dog-eared copy of the text that you read from, quoting your pearls of wisdom from the margins. Unless you are Stephen Hawking, this is a losing strategy; and, by the way, he is not shy at showing himself in full view so what’s your excuse?
2. If students could, they would steal your book and then you would become irrelevant.
You are not Moses reading from some elevated tome that has all the answers that students think they need, because all you do is read to them from it. Use the text as jumping off point; spin that verse, explore that image, wrestle that metaphor to the ground and be happy to get your fingers burned whenever an incendiary idea or concept reveals itself in the writing. If you do your students’ work for them they will treat you to this version of a singing waiter: “I could read the menu, but I will just let this guy drone on and decide for me in the hope that he shuts up.”
3. When you do read, make it dramatic.
You don’t have to stand on the desk (although that might help) but put some life into it! If professors were judged on how intriguing, beguiling, riveting, motivated and passionate they were about the given subject matter, and its delivery, then we might have a more accurate determinant as to their ‘mastery of the material’. It certainly would become a challenging approach to what now passes for erudition, which is only that same misguided notion that has ruined Shakespeare, Beowulf, Milton, Dante (the list is long), for countless students who have had to endure only an anemic rendering of the words. Just because many of these authors are dead doesn’t mean you have to be. Make them read with you; let them be a character who is in opposition to your character; and, if you are doing a play, cast your students in as many roles as possible. You will be surprised to discover some latent thespians just waiting to take center stage.
4. The unexamined student is not worth your living with them for the period of the class.
I always tell my students that they might not always understand me or agree with me but, they will never be bored. The classroom in the Bunsen burner to set fire to the cobwebs of sloppy logic, to the lazy-boy-recliner of easily spouted prejudices and to the presumed flame retardant natures of religious, social and political propaganda. If all you are is a parrot then students might as well buy the real aviary version of the creature. You were hired to be a gadfly whether the institution knows it or not and even if it never lists that as a learning objective.
5. Strive for humor, not some academic version of Draco.
It was Horace who said it best: “…drama is the form of forms: there is no power to equal the dramatist’s art for moving the mind and mirroring the magical vision of art.” For me, this is a summation of my belief in the efficacy of my approach to use drama and theatre as a teaching tool; and, to treat education as an opportunity to create drama and theatre. This is where the classroom changes from a room to a stage and a stage into a platform for ideas. However, the challenges of teaching in China put to the test all of these prescriptions. This is due to the complexities of language and the lack of familiarity with critical thinking. There is still an extreme learning curve for students to comprehend that to be critical is not akin to heresy; nor is it disrespectful to believe that teachers are not infallible. Finally, these adages have been submitted, as well, to inject some reality into the rhetoric of cross-cultural learning that so many of our intuitions of higher learning traffic in whenever they are proposing joint Sino-Western educational ventures.
James Mirrione is a Visiting Professor of Theatre at the University of Nottingham Ningbo (James-P.Mirrione@nottingham.edu.cn)