Teaching with a Dramaturgical Eye

I read a really compelling post today about one of the American education system’s biggest, most glaring flaws. Incidentally, I found it because it was posted to Facebook by one of my favorite high school teachers (who has since moved from my high school to teach at the local Montessori middle school). He was an incredible teacher—innovative, involved, compassionate and active about helping students succeed. Unsurprisingly, some of the school’s most uninventive, traditional, and typically Southern conservative parents took issue with the way his new classes were organized.

My high school had a course called American Studies. It was a history-English combination class lead by two teachers simultaneously. Yes, as in two teachers in one classroom at one time, teaching the same group of students in tandem. Sound crazy? It was. But it worked brilliantly. Instead of a call-response teacher-student relationship, the room became an ensemble. We functioned as a group, engaging one another and our teachers in thoughtful debate about morality, politics, and the real-world consequences of the story being told on the page.

Sound something like dramaturgy? I thought so, too.

My high school was a private Episcopal preparatory school that was fairly progressive, considering its location in the very buckle of the Bible Belt: Tulsa, Oklahoma. I remember the hype that existed around the course as I prepared to enter Junior year—the Year of American Studies.

Students were so concerned about doing poorly, they clamored to get into one section or the other (rumor had it that one pair of teachers was more likely to give you a good grade than the other). The truth was, there wasn’t much room for bullshit in American Studies. You had to engage in critical thought, form opinions, and take into account the greater picture of what you were claiming—be it in a class discussion, analytical essay, or your final thesis project.

This thought had students shaking in their boots. A personal investment in your academic work??? An informed opinion developed independently and without the input of your parents?? We can’t just spew out memorized facts?? No bullshit??

The course was so out of the realm of reality for myself and my peers that we responded with fear and resistance instead of open excitement about fresh educational opportunities. The result was a functioning ensemble of students and educators, but it took a considerable amount of time before we could release into the unique circumstances of that classroom. Looking back, it was one of the most positive educational experiences I had before coming to the BFA Theatre Arts program at BU. The course had an unintentionally dramaturgical eye that taught the entire class how to keep a laser focus on large-scale goals while ensuring every small detail benefits that central goal.

One of the reasons this class worked so well was the student-teacher ratio—and it’s a similar story in the College of Fine Arts. Our professors are able to spend time with us one-on-one, because there’s a manageable amount of students and we’re given enough time in class that our teachers can afford to work with individuals.

 When students are treated as a mass and not given space to learn as unique scholars/students/artists/what have you, they lose the ability to function as free-thinking individuals. They’re more likely to fail when they’re thrust out into the independent world. The one-size-fits-all education structure is not self-sustaining. Students who learn this way will only be able to teach this way and it will result in a world of overworked, incapable robots who can’t form abstract or creative thoughts and ideas.

When educators can teach with a dramaturgical eye, they create more well-rounded students who are capable of seeing big-picture ideas. Those students will be able to go on to engage and create new and innovative ideas and creative concepts in all industries.

2 comments on “Teaching with a Dramaturgical Eye

  1. I am so glad that you saw that connection. For me (token education student in the class) one of the most compelling parts or dramaturgy is the way that it mirrors effective progressive and constructive teaching methods.

  2. I can’t stop thinking about education and theatre and how they connect. The performative nature of both, the connection with the audience–I want to start making more specific educational choices in my dramatic work. The best teachers engage and entertain their students (audiences) while educating them–I think the best theatre-makers should also be educating their audiences (students) while engaging/entertaining them.

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