On messing up

It’s been a long week. On Tuesday, things went sideways in my Performance Beyond Theatres seminar; on Thursday, I had a rushed, not very good class with my 20th Century Drama students. I’ve not screwed up quite this impressively in a while; luckily, Friday came, and I had some time to think about what went wrong and how to recover.

The Tuesday mess was sort of my fault, and sort of not: our week by week schedule (which I prepared as part of my course outline) indicated a reading by Victor Turner, the famed anthropologist and one of the grandfather figures for Performance Studies. It included title and page numbers from the text we are using, but apparently the page numbers were wrong: the book ordered for my students was a different edition from the book I own, and I used the latter to create the schedule. My bad, as I should have double checked the ordered edition – that’s teacherly due diligence. But the students who read the wrong essay (and that was only a portion of them) also bear a bit of responsibility: the author and title were, after all, clearly listed on the schedule.

Never mind: the larger problem was that even those who had read the assigned paper didn’t really understand it – something I hadn’t accounted for. I’ve never taught this particular essay, and I made a rookie mistake in assuming too much about the students’ capacity to connect the dots and manage the essay’s abstractions. As a result, about half way through the class I realised my prep was suddenly useless. The questions I wanted us to explore required that first we deal with another, more basic question: what the heck is going on? So I threw the prep out, and flew blind.

What else could I do? We needed to make sense of the reading. So we turned to our assigned cultural text for the week (the wedding of Katharine Middleton and Prince William; yes, really, I’m that cool) to help us out. But I was making exercises and questions up on the wing, hoping we could, by class’s end, at least come to some basic understanding of the concepts Turner explores in his essay.

Thursday was much more my fault. It was another classic error: I got super excited about the DVD I was going to show in class (a couple of clips from an avant-garde, recent production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House), and I over-prepped. We would do a “pocket lecture” on naturalist theatre; then my awesome TA, Madison, would offer some thoughts on the “angel in the house” in relation to Ibsen’s character Nora, and then we would watch and discuss the video. That’s a lot for 50 minutes – I know better – but I decided to pretend I had enough time and ignore the likelihood of being rushed. And that did me in.

We got to the clips 15 minutes later than I’d hoped, and by that time the students had been mostly listening to lecture material for the better part of half an hour – a recipe for dulled senses. I played the first clip and posed a basic question (“what do you see?”) and it backfired on me. The first student to raise his hand – a smart and theatre-savvy guy who I knew was challenging himself to speak up in class more often – sidetracked me by expressing resistance to the production’s modern dress and “contemporary cool” approach to the text. His point was a good one – is this a legit interpretation of the text? – and in a different moment in time (without the clock hot on my heels) I could easily have turned it into a truly valuable teachable moment. Instead, I did something I haven’t done in the classroom in about a million years: I got defensive. I insisted we needed to explore the question I had posed – what (literally) did you see? What might the clip be trying to say? – rather than go off-piste right away. The student was gracious about it, but I felt like crap shutting him down.

Thanks to the glories of Friday (a bit of house cleaning; some cycling; some banana bread; some time spent on pleasurable work tasks), I’ve now had a chance to reflect on my week’s hot messes. And I’ve come to this conclusion: Tuesday’s momentary catastrophe (we read the wrong thing! And it TOTALLY makes no sense anyway!) got turned around, and turned into a solid, happy Thursday class, only because I was willing to abandon the prep, go sideways with the class, and start again from where they were starting from. Meanwhile, Thursday in 20th Century Drama went sideways and ultimately (for me, anyway) off the rails because I insisted on remaining tethered to my prep. The fetish I made of My Plan For The Day meant I couldn’t accept my contrarian student’s offering. I left the class feeling annoyed with myself and sad about what might have been.

What’s the lesson? An old one, one I’ve known for a while. We don’t prep to deliver the prep as is – does that ever actually happen? Rather, we prep to prepare ourselves. For whatever might happen. I can’t abandon the plan without solid prep under my feet, but neither can I do what I need to do – inspire students, and let them inspire me – if I let the prep be the boss. Then we’re all just hired hands: not in control of our own paths, our own learning.

This is a lesson I didn’t learn until I was well into my teaching career (and it’s a lesson I’ve discussed before on this blog, in two different contexts) but it’s a lesson I really want to pass on to the grad students reading. Prep is important – but it’s important because it provides confidence and security for you. To give the students your very best, and to reflect their best back to them, you need to let it drop away.




5 thoughts on “On messing up

  1. Prep is a funny thing that way. I normally teach the same class to three different sections in any given week. It is amazing how differently the very same lesson can turn out depending on the variables — time of day, size and tenor of class, and, I’m afraid, how many times I’ve already taught the lesson. You’d think the third class would be the best because I’ve got the timing down and flaws ironed out, but I find the third class is the hardest because it is so hard to keep my enthusiasm for the lesson that long.

  2. Man, is that ever true, Karen. I have found exactly the same thing – the last one of a succession is always a drag, possibly because of fatigue but also, for me anyway, because expectations about “what will happen, probably” have built up and when they do not materialise things go awry. If anything, this is a salient reminder of how much control students, as audience members (passive or active!), have over the “performance” that is teaching – the script cannot determine what will finally happen, ever. That’s up to how they interact with me/how I interact with them in the moment, and how much responsibility we are all willing to bear for the end results.

    Hilariously, this is exactly what we’re talking about in one of my classes this week!

    (Hey, gang in TS2202, are you reading this? What would Carlson say? Who assumes responsibility for the social performance that happens in the classroom? Hint: Look at pages 37-8…)

  3. Hello from QMUL, Kim – I’ve only just discovered that you are no longer here with us; our loss. On the theme of messing up, I am entirely with you re preparing ourselves not just our materials or script, and re the power of interaction in the moment. It strikes me though that the end results are often judged too quickly and that something that could be seen as – or just is – a mess in at the time is often fruitful in retrospect in ways that we don’t expect. So, some mess up consolation and empathy from London.

    • Agreed, Kelly: time to reflect helps in every way. This is one of the things I love about Fridays! And about the blog: it means I can keep thinking about this, and I can watch my reaction evolve as others react. Yesterday in my office hours I shared the blog with a student and she was surprised I’d thought the class was a mess-up; she hadn’t noticed any of the things I had. (Of course.) hearing her perspective was really useful.
      Now, I’m going to follow you on Twitter!
      Best and warmest,

  4. Pingback: Fret less, teach better – and feel better (is it really that easy?) | The Activist Classroom

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