There’s a thing many teachers do, myself included. They ask a misleading question or lead into an activity counting on the class to give a specific answer, one that is not the “right” answer. Used at its best, this tactic can give the students an eye-opening and inspiring experience, such as John Keating (played by Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society) when he had the young men walk around the courtyard and they quickly fell into step. He pointed out that they can each walk differently, in their own path. The young men in his class grew during his time with them, forging their own way and becoming the better for it. (With one notable exception but that’s a spoiler for the entire movie.)
Used at its worst, this can be a condescending put-down where an insecure teacher just wants to make themselves look smart and rob the students of the same privilege. Fortunately, I don’t have any examples of this, but it does happen.
Next time I teach, I think I’ll alter the tactic if I find myself using it. During the summer, history classes in Immigration and on Cemeteries both brought up “The common thought at the time was _____.” Instead of asking the class “Were non-whites desirable as citizens and neighbors?” the professors pointed out that people, in general, in that time and place, generally had certain attitudes that affected their culture and laws. If I were to ask a group of intelligent, compassionate students a question, I shouldn’t expect to trip them into giving an answer I plan to swiftly contradict. Instead, I could ask “What are some of the prevailing attitudes regarding ____?” Like in Family Feud, where they polled a bunch of people and the contestants, instead of giving their OWN answers and opinions, try to guess what “most people” would say.
I had my first Improv class yesterday and it was wonderful. I am really going to enjoy this! (I also have a sore knee because I stupidly took a prat fall and came down harder than expected, but that’s a story for another day.) We did an exercise where the class formed a circle, then one at a time we left the circle and filled the space inside the circle. When instructions were given, I visualized John Keaton’s class in the courtyard. Our professor had said we could enter “however we wanted” and the examples were of people with moderately understated entrances moving around the space and then, in a few moments, finding a spot to stop. One by one we entered, each of us coming up with something slightly different, whether stomping, dancing Vaudeville-style, or floating like a winged creature. At the end, we were all inside the space, but the group was very concentrated to the center. We didn’t “fill” it.
The teacher pointed this out, without seeming exactly critical. I think he’s done this many times and it’s probably the common thing that most first-time theater students do. He also pointed out that, although the goal was “fill the space,” most of us also chose to amuse our fellow students while doing so. Unlike John Keaton, instead of emphasizing how original or outrageous we could be, our prof taught us that the goal was for the group to work as a cohesive unit toward the goal of filling the space. Being too absurd was actually counter-productive to this goal.
Part of school, and work, and relationships, and life in general is figuring out what the expectations are. At the beginning of the improv exercise, I knew there would be some kind of expectation, and we wouldn’t know what it was until after we’d done the exercise. The expectation could have been “You should have all shown some originality! All you did was step inside and spread out.” Since the first couple of people did something interesting to enter, the rest of the class followed suit. Following another’s example could also be either a desirable thing or an embarrassment. After the fact, the teacher may say “Well, I see you all made the same mistake.” Or, as in a class where we are supposed to be actively and spontaneously interacting with and responding to each other, following a classmate’s lead would supposedly be a good thing.
It’s the beginning of a new semester. I’m meeting most of my teachers for the first time. I’m learning their expectations, both stated and subtle. It’s a nervous time, but I’ve been through it many times before and I’m okay with it. I’m not as prepared as I’d like to be…financial issues mean I don’t have my books or other necessities yet, but I have forced myself to accept this and work with the circumstances instead of panicking.
Today’s my work day.
Let’s see what I can get done.