When work gets in work’s way (on the tyranny of administration)

I love summer. Most academics do: it’s when the pressure valve opens just a bit, when the daily grind of the term gives way to open space – to take a proper deep breath, to dive into the pile of books that has been growing steadily up one side of the desk, to get out the research and writing to-do list and begin the new project that has been waiting patiently for term’s end. Contrary to popular lore, most of us do not spend our summers in one long, blissful holiday; if we work at research-intensive institutions we are expected to maximise our summer time to get the writing of articles, books, and other research contributions done. Also contrary to popular lore, we don’t all eagerly await summer because we hate teaching or are bad at it: most of us quite like teaching, many of us are very good at it, and all of us, if pressed, will explain how much we learn from our students each year, how much they teach us in particular about who we are or want to be as teachers and scholars.

The real reason I love summer – and I suspect I’m not alone here – is because so much of my time during the teaching term is taken up with non-teaching, non-research related tasks that are frequently unnecessary make-work projects – in other words, administrative crap. Now, I’ll say straight away that not all administrative tasks are classifiable as “admin crap” – many have important roles to play in the management of students’ academic progress, the shaping of new programs of study, and the fair, safe running of the university for all of its employees. Still others are geared toward ensuring that teaching and learning practices and goals are generally consistent within a department or school. Many of us know when we are engaged in a valuable administrative task because it feels like a task worth doing: pleasure is gained from the job well done, and I return home at day’s end knowing that, for better or worse, the labour of the day was significant and meaningful.


A lot of university administrative work is not like this, however. More and more, the make-work tasks are taking over our days, and they are getting in the way of important tasks that truly need our energy, attention, and emotional investment – whether those tasks are teaching, research, or indeed admin-related. Here in the UK, the problem is acute: many days during term time I have rushed into lessons at the last minute trailing hastily-written notes because my prep time was taken over by: counting student absences and sending out warning emails; or attending a meeting that ran overtime and at which my contribution amounted to about five minutes of speaking; or talking a colleague through the process of completing an online form hidden cleverly from those who most need access to it. You get the idea: stuff that only sort of seems necessary, and that, the more you think about it, begins to take on the air of the Kafkaesque.

And that’s just the banal day-to-day; more significant everywhere now is the admin crap generated by the urgent need for university administrators to account, constantly, to government funding bodies, anxiously assuring those bodies again and again that we do indeed know how to do our jobs, and that we are indeed teaching our students things they need and want to know. Again, let me stress that accountability is important, and that the people who pay for public universities – IE: all of us – need to be given clear opportunities to understand the work we do, how we do it, and why it matters. I do not know a single colleague who would dispute this. But in so many places, the measuring of a thing’s putative “value” now risks overtaking the doing of the thing as priority #1, and the results, for all of us who absolutely believe in the value of the things we do at universities, are profoundly disquieting.

The UK government’s REF (a huge research measurement exercise), about which I wrote a while back in a post on the language of “impact”, is a perfect example of how the elevation of measurement over achievement is actually threatening the quality of research and teaching across the nation’s universities – not to mention the emotional wellbeing of tens of thousands of staff. The REF required each member of academic staff at UK universities to submit four “outputs” – bureaucratic code for books, articles, and practice-based research documentation – created in the last five years for evaluation; that doesn’t seem like much, until you realise that not all “outputs” are considered equally worthy or valuable, and that a shocking amount of time and energy is spent, during REF preparation exercises, deciding which four “outputs” staff should submit, which have the best chance of getting an “A” for international significance, and which tell the right kind of “narrative” about the staff member and the department as a whole. Failure to produce four “good” outputs for the REF could result in a staff member not being submitted for measurement/judgement in the final exercise – with generally unclear consequences, though the dark possibility remains that some such staff members might yet lose their jobs.

As a result of this set-up, fear, anxiety, and rage ruled the months leading up to the REF’s late 2013 submission deadline for many colleagues around me. A lot of tears were shed, some privately, some in small groups. Livelihoods were on the line. And for what? We aren’t talking about people who were doing their jobs badly; we are talking about people, mostly very hard working staff members and often very good teachers, who were terrified of failing an arbitrary measurement exercise, feeling shame and worthlessness, and possibly even being fired as a result. And, even more ironically, we have little evidence the REF encouraged better research in any case: mostly, it just encouraged an excessive, hasty amount of it. If my own experience (as a reader of books and book reviews, a book review editor for a major scholarly journal, and a peer reviewer of manuscripts for various presses) during the most recent REF period is any indication, the raw numbers of academic books and articles produced in the UK in 2012-13 increased dramatically as quite a lot of work that was not really ready got published anyway, simply in order to meet the deadline. The government wanted books to count and boxes to tick; what it got was a crush of exhausted, frightened researchers doing far less than their best work for all the wrong reasons. And, of course, many of us were not just drained in the office – we were also a mess at home, and not exactly at our best in the classroom.

The REF is an exceptional example that, for me, proves an upsetting new rule: everywhere my colleagues work, from Canada and the US to the UK, Asia and Australia, the narrative we hear again and again from both government and the media – that universities need to be better at training students for “good jobs,” and need to prove they are worth the money everyone is spending on them – goes hand in hand with an increasing refusal to trust that the work we do is of intrinsic value, and that such value may not always be easily measurable or marketable. The pervasive contemporary cultural anxiety that universities are decadent bastions of useless critical thinking, and that they need to be measured up in order to be dressed down according to the new “realities” of the global economy, breeds soul-destroying make-work tasks for academics who would otherwise be spending more time and effort thinking about teaching, or working on new and innovative research. And it breeds the measures that trap us in those tasks, despite our dread, our fatigue, and occasionally our half-hearted protest.

Thinking about this now, it strikes me as no surprise: the neoliberal capitalism that has taken such firm hold in Anglo-America fears free thinking more than any other thing in the world, because free thinkers tend to endanger profiteers. And universities are not just the places where we train free thinkers – they are also places, perhaps one of the only places left now, where we insist that free thinking is a social good, of real and proper value, something that every citizen of every nation needs now more than ever to know how to do. Weighing us down with the pressure to account for our actions at every step, and in language bureaucrats can understand, seems on reflection a superb way to shut us up.

Every summer, when I dig out from under some (most) of the admin crap that weighs me down, when I breathe, look around, and see my research and writing, my lesson planning for the year ahead, the work I love doing and that feels, to me, like the kind of work that has real, human, social worth, I feel grateful for the job I have. But it’s a brief respite. If more of us had more time and space to breathe, to be curious, to plan creatively for work yet to come, imagine how much more – how much better – we could achieve, and how much of that we could share with our students, future thinkers and global citizens. What a world we might make then.

Just a smidgen lighter,



On “Red Forest” by Belarus Free Theatre

Belarus Free Theatre is an extraordinary company. Political dissidents working in exile, making performance that fights oppression and dictatorship in their home state, many of the members of the company have suffered at best job loss and at worst arrest, detainment, and threat simply as a result of their choice to use theatre as the public platform for free and open speech against injustice that it always ought to be. Their two earlier shows in London, Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker and Trash Cuisine, were critical and popular smash hits, and established BFT’s reputation as a company with both a political heart and a lyrical soul.

So I jumped at the chance to book a ticket to Red Forest, their offering at the 2014 LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre). And I was enormously surprised not to be impressed; in fact, I was shocked at my tremendous disappointment in the show.

Red Forest tells the (apparently) interconnected stories of human suffering and environmental degradation in a number of different communities across the globe. Starting in North America/Turtle Island, with a voice-over monologue delivered by Jeremy Proulx, a First Nations performer from Ontario, the story travels through Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India, and beyond. Its touchstones are Proulx – whose role appears to be that of a kind of mythical ancestor to all of the show’s sufferers and (rather perplexingly) combines Anishnaabe (also known as Ojibway) and Lakhota identities – and Aisha, a young, pregnant African woman on the run from civil unrest, played by Michal Keyamo. Aside from Keyamo (who is black) and Proulx, the roles of all the other “global” sufferers in the show are played by White members of the company, from Belarus, England, and Italy.

Red Forest is a devised work; that means it’s not based on a pre-existing script, but rather on the shared creation labour of the whole company. Devising is a fairly trendy contemporary mode of theatre-making, and at its best produces powerful, passionate, often unexpected material based as much or more on gesture and soundscape as on words or text. It is collaborative and democratic (again, at its best), and thus embodies the spirit of theatre as public, social practice. But it can also, just as easily, create work that looks amazing yet lacks nuance: shows can be aesthetically glorious and incredibly visually compelling, impressing with the committed and passionate work of the company, while also leaving audience members confused, uncertain, even angry about those issues, ideas, and underlying assumptions not paid proper attention during the devising process. How much you care about these kinds of loose ends, relative to the pleasure of the aesthetic spectacle, has everything to do with how much you’ll love or hate a devised show that falls into this kind of trap.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not interested in writing “bad” performance reviews for their own sake; I love to celebrate good work (as I did recently here, and here, for example). But a show like Red Forest isn’t just not especially accomplished, despite the proper acclaim of BFT; in the story it has devised it also elides identities, communities, and experiences of globalisation-driven hardship in ways that are not politically helpful. These elisions in turn risk generating overly simplistic messages about non-Westerners for Western audiences – which on the night I attended included a very large contingent of secondary school and university-aged students, many of whom seemed happy to be seduced by the production’s lovely visuals, gorgeous singing, and attendant sentimentalising of the hybridised “other peoples” on offer. Given the risk of this result, I feel compelled to speak publicly about why I did not like this show, and about why its choices need to be interrogated.

My surprise at not liking my first ever live Belarus Free Theatre show was followed closely by my surprise at not being alone: I posted my unhappiness to my Facebook page and was quickly supported by colleagues from the UK and beyond. Further, when I investigated reviews of the show online, I discovered that mainstream critics were also not on board. Lyn Gardner’s piece in the Guardian sums up the mood well:

…too often this show looks and sounds beautiful in a poetic way yet fails to create context. … The danger is that the show becomes so much aesthetic hand-wringing rather than a call to action. The design and use of voice exacerbate the sense that we are watching a travelogue with a focus on suffering. Two shallow pools of water and a strip of sand provide a playing space where the actors are reduced to adding illustration to the voiceovers and projections that offer up soft-focus images of refugee camps with barbed wire or sunsets and sunrises. There are times when it feels as if you have switched on the National Geographic channel by mistake.

Like Gardner (along with Jane Shilling in the Telegraph, and Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard), I found the overarching problem with Red Forest to be a lack of clear context for each of its interlinked stories, which is another way to say that the show didn’t really bother to detail, or even pause to think much about, the specific material circumstances of each of the communities represented in the show – what makes these communities different from rather than simply similar to one another. It chose instead to sweep bathetically from one person, community, and experience to the next as though all of the characters and contexts it presented were on some level the same, and thus deserved the same sorrow/admiration (but perhaps not much more, as Gardner points out).

I should note here that BFT devised this show after collecting a substantial number of stories told first-hand to company members in communities all over the world; there is a lot of documentary-style research behind Red Forest, which is a tremendous strength. But how this research has finally been theatricalized frames the problem here: rather than recognising the words of their interlocutors as a starting point for further thick research and detailed creation (or even further collaboration with those interlocutors), the company seems to have felt that the words they gathered alone – along with their obvious compassion for the speakers’ plights – was enough to drive 80+ minutes of theatre. The result is a show mostly based on the BFT company members’ experience of what they have been told by the “others” they met, and their troubling alignment of that telling with their own experience as political dissidents not welcome in their own nation. It’s as if they’ve swallowed the words whole, rather than, perhaps, properly listened to them.

On the surface it might seem like there’s nothing wrong with this kind of alignment, like it’s a gesture toward solidarity. And it can be – don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to suggest that finding ways to empathise with others in not-dissimilar situations does a disservice to BFT or their audiences. But there are risks associated with this kind of empathy, especially as a starting point for theatre-making: as tempting as it is to say, “hey! Your pain is just like our pain!”, in reality pain is never that simple, especially when it’s driven by a complex mix of political, economic, and cultural factors that are often unique not just to individual nations but to specific towns and villages within those nations. To say that what BFT’s members have gone through to make their work in the last few years is analogous to what, for example, a fisherman in coastal Brazil goes through as his community adapts to the twin effects of climate change and resource mining is, simply, disingenuous. Further, and most important, this kind of casual elision diminishes our ability to generate credible, specific, political resistance in both cases.

This problem of “experience elision” is especially troubling to me, as a Canadian scholar who has worked directly with Indigenous performance creators, in the case of Proulx and Keyamo’s roles in the show. As I noted above, these two are the only racially “marked” performers in Red Forest; that means that Proulx is charged with standing in for all Indigenous communities everywhere, while Keyamo becomes all black women (indeed, all black persons) everywhere. The piece makes no bones about this larger elision: it’s clear from the way the story is constructed (and from the way his appearances are paced and framed, as he turns up to dance spookily around different sufferers at key moments) that Proulx’s character “Jeremy” is some kind of mythical Indigenous ancestor to all the characters in the show. (This, incidentally, is a not especially sophisticated rendering of the familiar “noble savage” trope that we can trace from the writings of Enlightenment France all the way up to Dances With Wolves and beyond. Ask an Indigenous person what s/he thinks about the noble sufferings of super-natural pow-wow dancing people and watch him/her spontaneously combust.) Aisha in turn is tasked with moving through nearly every scene as she tries to scratch survival out of the unforgiving desert, inserting her black maternal body into the stories told of Chernobyl, China, Morocco, etc. She becomes an earth-mother figure, conveniently “birthed” (like archaeology’s mythical first human) by the sub-Saharan community portrayed at the top of the show. To top it all off, in the penultimate scene she is violently raped, in a moment that made me anxious I was witnessing the show’s final and most upsetting elision: of all black women, everywhere, with inevitable violence and victimhood.

So neither Jeremy – despite his claim during his opening voice-over that he is not the “stereotype” of the “Indian” we might be expecting – nor Aisha get to be individuals; their stories always have to stand in for other stories of hardship, longing, pain, and (every so often) celebration. And, of course, those other stories in turn stand in for the story of Belarus Free Theatre: in the end, I could not shake the feeling that this entire work was constructed by BFT as a metaphor for their own company and personal experiences. (I was only sort of surprised to find that, on the BFT website, the “Red Forest Campaign” link takes you to a petition that asks you to “Stand with Belarusian campaigners facing intimidation and arrest!”, not with, say, Brazilian fishermen facing ecological disaster.)

As a company BFT have a specific, urgent story to tell about Belarus: its many, diverse communities and those communities’ lack of freedom right now, in a moment when visual spectacles like the recent uprisings in Ukraine determine whose stories get told in the media, whose stories attract political attention, and whose go unspoken. They do not need to see their mandate as a burden to tell others’ stories in broad, pretty brush strokes; they do not need to pretend their suffering is the equivalent of someone else’s suffering. It does not need to be in order to be worthy of our attention. Hopefully, next time they encounter others’ provocative stories, BFT will consider collaborating with some of the outstanding artists and companies doing not-dissimilar anti-colonialist work to their own; from my own small experience I’d direct them immediately to Canada’s outstanding Native Earth Performing Arts; to its former Artistic Director, actor and playwright Tara Beagan; and to the longtime performance maker and feminist Indigenous activist Monique Mojica. The results, I suspect, would be more honest, more provocative, and more politically effective.

Until next time, then, BFT –



(Weesageechak looks forward to a call from Belarus. Image: www.nativeearth.ca.)

Guest Post: In Search of “It” in the Performance of Teaching

By Emerie Whitman-Allen

As I worked towards my Master’s Degree in Education, I was repeatedly observed teaching lessons with various groups of students – demo lessons with undergrads, mini-lessons with suburban ninth graders, and student-teaching units with urban juniors and seniors. Through this process, I was honing my abilities to design effective lessons that identified meaningful content standards and assessed tangible skills, all while learning how to control classroom dynamics and keep my students “on task” despite my youth and timidity as an authoritarian. There were resources to help me improve in these areas whenever instinct didn’t preemptively lead the way. One thing I never had to question, though, was my ability to engage students through my presence at the front of the room. Professors and mentors alike would comment, “Those kids are engaged with you and hanging on what you have to say – which is great, because we can’t teach that.” Another common accolade: “You’ve got ‘it,’ thank goodness, so you don’t have to worry there!” When my lesson assessment was misaligned to my objectives, or when I gave unclear instructions, a resource was seamlessly doled out with the reassurance that if I “read this and keep reflecting, all that stuff will fall into place with practice.”

On the contrary, a peer in my Master’s cohort was told, “Your lessons are solid and your assessments are right-on. But there’s something you need to work on in terms of engagement-factor. The kids just aren’t there with you – it’s a little forced… or awkward… or… something.” Deflated, she would ask, “What did I do? What did I say?”, at which our professors would stall with pained expression and reply, “It’s hard to describe. It’s just… off.” For her, there were no teacher-self-help books or recommended strategies to attempt. Despite her natural ability (beyond my own) to plan and implement a structurally solid lesson, there seemed to be a set of teacher-skills that were un-definable and nebulous that my peer could not grasp. What is the “it” that I supposedly already had, and where did it come from?

I think it’s important to note that none of my professors equated this “it” to my personality type – indeed, the peer I mentioned has a very similar, extroverted personality to my own. So how do we, as teachers and teacher-trainers, account for “it”?

This year, I asked my students (7th graders) at the end of the final semester what teacher skills they felt are my strongest, and which need the most improvement. In their written, anonymous surveys, they identified my weakest skill as the same I’ve struggled with since becoming a teacher four years ago. Without a word bank or example answers provided, they recognized that I struggle to discipline students who are breaking the rules. (Every year I work on this, and will continue to attempt new strategies to improve in this area.) My strongest areas, in their own words, are that I’m “really good at ‘connecting’ with students,” at “being convincing and open minded because [I put] a lot of enthusiasm into what [I say],” and, perhaps most succinctly, that I’m “a very engaging person.”

Just like those professors years ago, my students seem to be able to name this thing “engagement” or “connection” without needing to define or quantify it. While I’m glad that I’m good at it, I wonder about my colleagues who might be described similarly to my Master’s cohort peer – those who aren’t automatically lauded for their “engagement” and who are, thus, always on the hunt for it or resigned to their lack of it. Aspects of engagement have been described and dissected by education researchers into multiple dimensions and characteristics – some researchers cite cognitive, behavioral, and emotional engagement as separate characteristics, while other researchers in the recent past have attempted to break engagement down into more sub-categories so that an additional “academic” aspect may be explored. It is evident immediately upon examining contemporary research on the subject that much of the defining and redefining of these terms is unclear, highly inferential, and impossible to fully segregate (see Fredericks).

Continuing to redefine and measure engagement in these conflicting and confusing terms is both redundant and counter-productive. Just as finding new ways to test students through standardized national exams does not result in our students actually learning more, finding new ways to test and measure engagement does not result in students becoming more engaged. Quite frankly, we won’t make progress in this area if we continue to obsess over what student engagement is in this broad sense of the word while neglecting its origins and reasons for its specific occurrences. Instead of rejoicing that we’ve found schools where students are typically more engaged, or communities where school engagement is nurtured from home, it’s time we focus on what specific things happen in the classroom that prompt and sustain that engagement so that learning can happen. We need to separate overall school engagement from more specific classroom engagements so that we can be sure we are doing whatever it takes on a daily, even hourly basis to encourage attentive, reflective learning that “connects” our students to the instruction (as my students’ comments bring to light).

The most direct route to examining how engagement is affected in students is to look at the teachers themselves; strangely, however, the research on engagement has so far not focused much on teachers, preferring instead to think about instructional styles or learning models. Whereas students in a particular classroom can come from a variety of family backgrounds, cultural identities, and skill levels, the common denominator is always the teacher. Due to the nature of my school, which draws its population from a broad, regional demographic, the student body reflects a variety of socio-economic, cultural, and educational backgrounds; it is thus conceivable that my presence in the classroom is the only controlled variable, the only thing that unifies the experiences in the room – aside from the school’s culture itself. We already know that a student’s positive interaction with his teacher supports more learning, but we don’t seem to know what type of student-teacher relationships do this best (Ryan; Wentzel). We also don’t seem to know the degree to which students are engaged within the current engagement-measurement scales while interacting with those teachers, and what specific tasks or teaching activities are prompting these various levels of engagement (Fredericks). Pursuing answers to these questions would provide a more specifically focused framework that could practically impact teacher training and practice.

It’s true that some researchers have attempted to isolate particular teaching activities in order to analyse their engagement, but teacher behavior isn’t usually discussed in connection to these activities’ success (Hunzicker). This makes the lesson itself, as opposed to its implementation and delivery, the focus of study, leaving the teacher’s specific actions and interactions (along with people like my Master’s peer) by the wayside. This in turn reinforces a problematic assumption, as I see it, that engaging instruction comes solely from instructional design as opposed to instructional delivery. In other words: the current trends in the research suppose that a prescribed classroom activity has an inherent engagement value that is separate from the lesson’s implementation (which might take into account the teacher’s style and psychological impact of her particular delivery choices). I don’t think most practicing teachers would agree that their delivery has no impact at all on student engagement, no matter how “solid” the lesson plan reads on paper. It’s as if the research has resisted naming any of the teacher’s behaviors as “engaging” and is instead focused only on describing instructional designs that are “engaging” – perhaps in an effort to seem egalitarian. Yet, as my peer’s experience demonstrated, the end result of such a focus is actually both exclusive (you don’t have “it”), and hopelessly depressing.

Let me be clear: I do not disagree with the many observations we’ve come to accept as fact regarding instructional design practices. Literature has stated conclusively and repeatedly that student-centered learning, for example, is a more ideal classroom arrangement than teacher-centered learning activities (Valentine). However, because student-centered learning activities are not always possible and not always the best method for delivering particular types of instruction, teachers should be given more tools and strategies to succeed in engaging students through teacher-centered activities as well. Even a fully student-centered activity often requires a teacher’s introduction or facilitation of a wrap-up discussion of sorts. If our students are capable of making meaningful, strong connections to their learning during student-centered activities, it seems such a waste to dismiss any possibility of harnessing that engagement at other times as well. However, the harnesser, in this case, is the teacher – which means we will have to accept that there is something (“it,” perhaps) that a teacher must practice in order to perform effectively in that role.

We’ll never know what “it” is if we are not willing to break down a teacher’s actions, voice, manner, “connectivity,” perhaps their very soulfulness, in the classroom. We will need to focus on the teacher in ways that may be uncomfortable at first – it might feel very teacher-centered of us to analyze these behaviors with such a close lens. However, teacher-training programs already acknowledge that a skilled teacher is, among other things, a controlled force that is able to tap into students’ engagement-potential effectively. Our willingness to break these “engaging” features down (whatever they are) – comparing and contrasting them with the features of other “less-engaging” teachers – may result in some meaningful discoveries that impact how we train teachers in the future.

The question must be asked, then: where do we begin describing instructional delivery without talking about instructional design, and how do we avoid falling into a trap of just asking students whether or not they “like” their teachers, which could very easily result in us equating “engaging teachers” with particular personality types (Fredericks)? There must be a middle ground that can illustrate teaching in a way that is not only specific and empirically sound, but also grounded in literature that is qualitative and descriptive. Could those descriptors translate into skills that are actually trainable – or were my professors correct in asserting that “it” can’t be taught?

I have a suggestion of how to do this – because the 7th grader I quoted above did not say that I am good at engaging her, she said that I’m “an engaging person.” Is this sort of like saying that I’m an engaged person? Might we then shift the academic conversation from student engagement to teacher engagement, and attempt to describe those “connectivity” pieces in the same ways we have attempted to describe our students in the research thus far? I’m probably not alone in thinking that teachers should be cognitively and emotionally engaged in their practice, which should reveal visible behavioral engagement. Those behaviors, I suspect, would reflect passion, trust, empathy, and vulnerability, among other things perhaps, all of which are emotional qualities already valued in teachers according to the research (Skinner). To further illustrate and define those nebulous skills that a teacher employs, we could even build upon these frameworks with mechanisms grounded in neurology, psychology, and sociology. All of these pieces contribute to a teacher’s affectation, voice, and connectivity with her students – which have not been synthesized into a solidly defined, measured indicator on any teacher-rubric I’ve seen.

We might also productively look at performance studies to help explain what passionate/empathetic/vulnerable/social –“soulful”– qualities we see in teachers who are connected to their students. I’ve thought a lot about how the performance of an “excellent actor” can stir emotional investment and sincere feelings of connection in an audience, just as we’d like to see amongst our students during a lesson. When students feel connected to what they’re learning, and even emotionally touched or accessed by the instruction (whether in a lecture or student-centered activity), they are going to hear it at a deeper level and learn more from it. Good actors know how to do this because they are trained to expose their own souls on stage on cue (this seems to be that same soulfulness coming up again that I mentioned earlier). Audience members who attend a performance are often willing to submit to that experience – willing to “go there” and suspend their disbeliefs, inciting an emotional commitment to what’s happening.

Of course, positioning students as audience members may result in us characterizing them as the passive receivers of knowledge – just as the negative image of teacher-centered learning often conjures. But I don’t think this is actually an accurate representation of a student “audience”. More than spectators, engaged students might best be likened to Augusto Boal’s spect-actors.

Who is more engaged than the audience with what the actor is saying or doing during a performance? The other actors sharing the stage – who must, by their very job description, be present, listening, and connecting soul-to-soul with their colleague in that moment of storytelling. Just as researchers have agreed that students are most “engaged” when active in their learning, perhaps we should visualize the student as being on stage with the teacher, as a co-performer. Actors who are deemed “excellent” are usually described in terms of their presence on stage – their perceived ability to listen and respond to their fellow actors in a way that reveals a feeling of true connection. A good actor isn’t just… there, reciting lines into a vacuum. Soulful connection requires emotional investment in what’s going on, active processing of what’s said and done, and a visible reflection of hearing, seeing, thinking, and feeling.

Few of us interact in real, day-to-day life with the same conscious, outwardly shining presence and interactive response that we see on stage between a group of “excellent actors” who are exposing their souls in an effort to seek and perform their true connection in the moment. But imagine if we did!

Imagine if we were able to measure and train that visible soulfulness, so that we, as teachers, were able to get a little closer to that experience with our students during a lesson. A teacher-centered lesson will never replace one that is student-centered, but a teacher-centered lesson that can push students “on stage” in the way I’ve described above, through soulful teaching, may be the next-best thing. Imagine how instruction would be different if a teacher-centered activity could more closely elicit a student-centered experience in response. This imagining may, if explored critically, help us to close the engagement gap between teacher-centered and student-centered learning activities, and open up new possibilities for teacher-centered instruction in the future.

If we, as teachers, know how to engage our students as co-performers, as if they are on stage with us, perhaps we will be able to both alleviate our concerns about teacher-centered activities and also characterize better what the teacher is doing to effectively play the part and soulfully engage with students during instruction. I want all of my students to feel involved in learning even when they are not the physical center of each activity, but that means that I must know how to pull them up on stage, so to speak, in my lessons – and it also means that they must be primed for this experience. At the beginning of the year, I tell my students that they are responsible for their learning because all I can do is teach them – that is, they are the ones who have to do the learning. But I’m sure there is more I can do to promote this idea that we are all actors building the scene together. After all, in a classroom, shouldn’t the teacher be learning from her students, too?

If we can explicitly structure that expectation in our classrooms so that students are given the trust to help guide the scene’s creation, and teachers are given the training to support that process, whether the activity is structurally teacher-centered or student-centered, perhaps we will connect more and better, soul-to-soul, on the classroom stage and promote deeper, more engaged learning for teachers and students alike.


Emerie Whitman-Allen is a teacher of communication, meta-cognition, and media at the Dayton Regional STEM School in Ohio. She has presented at conferences and led workshops with teachers and administrators about project-based learning, as well as the Six Thinking Hats critique method and STEM Foundations curriculum, both of which she has developed during her career at the STEM School. Before working there, she taught pre-primary and elementary art education at Discovery Montessori in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and high school English conversation in Seoul, South Korea. She earned a BA in Communication (Radio, Television & Film) and Master of Science in Education and Social Policy from Northwestern University. Her current research interests focus on instructional delivery as it relates to theatrical performance, and the elusive cultivation of positive classroom culture.


(Visit Emerie online here.)