Sarah Rose Cavanagh

Associate Professor of Psychology at Assumption College

All the Classroom’s a Stage

Full vitae classroom stage

Image: Hernán Piñera, Creative Commons

One crisp fall evening during my freshman year of college, I gathered up my courage and struck out across the campus to audition for my university’s amateur theater season. In performance after performance, I could tell I was pretty flat, and I could read an answering flatness in the eyes of the judges.

After a series of frustrating flops, a young woman popped out of one of the audition rooms and summoned three of us in. She announced that — rather than reading lines from a play — we would be doing improv.

Any form of acting involves vulnerability — of taking something earnest inside yourself and laying it bare in bright light, risking ridicule and rejection. But a script allows you some protection, at least. You didn’t generate the ideas, you only delivered them. In improv, however, it’s all you. Given only the sheerest of prompts, you share something of yourself with no chance to consider, prepare, or rehearse.

The director explained that she would give us one word and we’d act it out with whatever came to mind — words, movement, song. I took a deep, nervous breath.

"Hymen," she said.

I froze. I felt exposed, my face hot. But I also really, really wanted this part. So I closed my eyes. I summoned all of my deep, conflicted emotions and surrendered to them, without judgment or sense of propriety or shame. I became my feelings. And then I acted them out.

It was the only callback I received that day.

Teaching is acting. If you teach, you are acting. Like acting, your best performance will stem from tapping into your true emotions and connecting with your audience on an authentic level. But you are still crafting an act using speech, movement, and props — and laying it before a critical audience. Your highest hope isn’t that your students will approve, necessarily, but that they’ll be moved, or somehow changed intellectually and emotionally.

If you ask your students to participate in class activities or discussions, they, too, are acting. They are pulling ideas and words out of themselves, choosing different tones or stances, and putting all of that on display for your approval.

I was already intrigued by the intersections of teaching and acting when I ran across a recommendation by the psychologist Tom Stafford that all teachers read Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, a 1979 tome about teaching improv by the acting coach Keith Johnstone. Little did I know the book would forever change not only how I teach but also how I think about human interaction in general.

Lessons on status and vulnerability. Early on in Impro, Johnstone makes the claim that nearly every human interaction involves manipulating one’s status with reference to someone else — making yourself or the person you’re interacting with bigger or smaller, more or less important.

In the weeks after I read his book I saw people manipulating their status everywhere I looked. An older couple on the train squabbling over whose aches and pains were worse were jostling for status. In battles with my 10-year-old, I now saw an innately high-status creature eternally frustrated by the low status awarded her by virtue of childhood. Most heartbreakingly to me, a passing female undergraduate in the hall scoffed to a male one: "I have no idea how I got that A. Probably just lucky guessing."

Teachers, especially college professors, come with high status preinstalled. We sweep into the room with our Ph.D.s, our jargon, our mysterious notes to shuffle, and, of course, our ability to cast judgment on students in ways that could open or close doors to their desired futures.

Then we demand that they stretch out their tender necks and hazard guesses that might betray their ignorance or (worse) their shallowness or strangeness of thought. "The student hesitates not because he doesn’t have an idea," Johnstone says, "but to conceal the inappropriate ones that arrive uninvited."

We ask students to risk all of that, not just in front of us, but also before their peers, who wield a different sort of status — the power to giggle or roll their eyes. "Laughter is a whip that keeps us in line," observes Johnstone.

Such pressures are present for every student. But just imagine how much heavier the burden for students who walk in already under a big spotlight due to their ethnicity, gender identity, or disability status. No wonder so many students risk getting docked a few participation points rather than lay their unadorned thoughts on the table to be scrutinized. To participate is to risk a lowering of one’s status.

What can professors do about that state of affairs? Johnstone suggests we intentionally lower our own status — make ourselves vulnerable. In his own classroom, he tells his theater students that if they fail, he is to blame, not them. It frees students from worrying about losing status if they do something wrong, and allows them to take risks.

A colleague of mine, Esteban Loustaunau, an associate professor of Spanish, adopted a similar tactic in his courses. Students often are leery of talking in the classroom, he says, because they believe they start the class with an A and anything they share could lower their grade. Cleverly, on the first day of class he tells them, "Right now, you are all failing this class." That simple reframe illustrates that what they say from that point on will not endanger their status but elevate it.

In Impro, Johnstone argues that it’s critically important for teachers to model self-disclosure in the classroom. Especially when you’re asking students to take creative risks, it does no good to simply reassure them that they aren’t going to be dinged for the content of those risks. A student needs "a teacher who is living proof that the monsters are not real, and that the imagination will not destroy you," Johnstone writes. "Otherwise the student will have to go on pretending to be dull."

The most dangerous phase — and how to avoid it. This past spring was one of the worst teaching semesters of my life. I was unable to get students to volunteer for critical class roles. They seemed resentful of assignments, and held me at an emotional remove. That experience, so different from most semesters, has honestly flummoxed me, particularly since it occurred during a semester in which I had a reduced teaching schedule (thanks to a grant) and thus more time to prepare and plan.

I stumbled onto a potential explanation in a work by Paul Kassel, an actor, a professor, and dean of the College of Visual & Performing Arts at Northern Illinois University. In his 2006 book, Acting: An Introduction to the Art and Craft of Playing, Kassel warns of the dangers of increasing competency. In delivering a highly polished presentation, you may have lost a critical energy — both your own vitality and your capacity to evoke an answering liveliness in your students.

When you have taught a class on a given topic 1,000 times before, all the decisions have been made, all the turning points smoothed over into polished curves. That’s a problem because it is just that moment of decision — what to do, what to say — that snags interest, that creates energy, that keeps the audience on the edge of their seat: "Once a decision is made the audience need not attend as closely, for decisions have inevitable consequences. Once someone jumps up, we all know they will come down. It is the deciding to jump that creates the suspense."

Having everything preplanned and running smoothly in the classroom also means you are high status again — you alone know what is coming next and how it will go.

It is scary to begin teaching a course that is completely untested, that is loosely prepared, and that is flexible to student input or to your own decision-making in the moment. But as Kevin Gannon, a professor of history and head of the teaching center at Grand View University, says in his teaching manifesto, "If I want my students to take risks and not be afraid to fail, then I need to take risks and not be afraid to fail."

Taking risks and trying new things also allows you to approach your teaching from a playful, lively perspective. I had forgotten the lesson I learned in my improv audition — that the best performances, the most moving and effective ones, stem from the raw, authentic energy you summon in the act of creating.

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