Front and backstage teaching

Front and backstage teaching

There has always been a theatrical, stagey element to lecturing. That is sometimes literally apparent. We teach in lecture theatres. In the gone before I regularly lectured from a stage. Teaching is a role and a performance. Those facts are rarely made use of explicitly. Some time ago I had the great pleasure of working with a theatre company who made use of academic research to improvise short pieces. The academic would speak for 5 minutes on their work and then the company would create short character driven sketches based around it. Mine was on ‘drugs and thugs’ and the company made some hilarious and astute observations about the online drug market and the combination of geekery and a would-be gangster stance that some of its players attempted. What they produced was quite predictive of the future direction of digital drug markets which shifted from the libertarian or anarchic geekery of the early days – often a pose in any case – to a commodity driven, big money model.

What I saw in the performance was how the members of the company supported each other. They began with a backstage ritual where they psych themselves into their roles, they continue throughout with subtle cues and interjections that give each other the material and inspiration to continue. Afterwards they debrief and discuss. Those rituals prep them but they also prep the audience as to what to expect and how to appreciate and enjoy it. Lecturing works best when this is done. Students and lecturer are sometimes dropped in cold and given little sense of how the lecture is to work as a social encounter rather than tuning into a broadcast from planet elbow patch. That is why lecturers often spend some time at the start explaining why they are saying what what they are saying, before saying it.  Some courses have done this very effectively, particularly those informed by feminism which takes it as read that teachers and students are part of a common enterprise. To help myself I developed my own pre-teaching rituals – stretching, breathing, reciting my purpose in giving this class in particular. I should tell students also to do this.

The challenge with teaching and learning during the pandemic is the lack of a backstage. There is nowhere to en-role and de-role after. Whatever else is encumbering you, emotionally, practically, there is nowhere to leave it before joining the screen encounter. That has always been the case for many of us. Having a caring role often means that there is no separation, or it can only be achieved at emotional and practical cost. Few of us if any are really unencumbered in how we approach the learning space. So from now one I’m going to give students pre-flight tasks to begin with before the camera is switched on.

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