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  • Teaching and Learning as Improvisational Performance in the Creative Writing Classroom
  • Shady Cosgrove (bio)

Example 1: Professional actor Dr. Fox was hired to teach at several U.S. medical facilities during a study undertaken in the 1970s. Though students gave him very high marks in teacher surveys, specifically citing his extensive medical knowledge, he had never been trained in the field, and his lectures—though exciting—contained intentionally meaningless information cobbled together from various journals (Naftulin, Ware Jr., and Donnelly, 1973).

Example 2: When I was an undergraduate, the most popular subject at my college was physics for nonmajors—which attracted students from all disciplines, even from physics. Why? The lecturer had been a successful stand-up comic before committing to academia, and his lectures were clear, informative, and hilarious. In this case, however, it was not simply his performance: the lecturer's knowledge was thorough, as was his ability to explain complex ideas.

These two illustrations highlight the element of performance necessary for strong classroom face-to-face teaching practice. In this essay, however, I will argue that the teacher-as-performer metaphor is too simplistic. Instead, I will make a case for R. Keith Sawyer's (2004) notion of the classroom as a site of improvisational performance, especially in regards to creative writing. Then I will discuss three aspects critical to the improvisational performance within this context, drawing on my own experiences in the [End Page 471] classroom: establishing workshop structures, ascertaining shared language skills, and encouraging student participation.

The Performance Metaphor and the Classroom

Notions of performance in the classroom can be highly problematic. As the Dr. Fox story highlights, students do not always correctly perceive the competence of their lecturer. They can be seduced by presentation and overlook the substance (or lack thereof) actually being presented. If one equates teaching with performance, then some expectation exists that the audience (in this case, our students) have a right to be entertained, which is problematic if extrapolated to an end where entertaining is prioritized over learning.

In addition, the performing metaphor highlights the teacher as active, performing, and students as passive, watching. In the 1970s, Paulo Freire (1994: 54) problematized this active/passive dichotomy where "the teacher teaches and the students are taught, the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing," and since then, educational research has tended to advocate student-centered pedagogies over teacher-centered ones (Freire 1994; Rubin and Herbert 1998; Edens 2000; Villaume 2000; Kain 2003; Showalter 2003). The idea of performance, where the teacher is the performer, fails to take into account the active engagement of students. For instance, how often—say, at the theater—does an actor actively solicit questions from the audience? How often are audience members encouraged to critically engage with the material being presented during the performance? It may happen, certainly in creative work that questions the limits of the stage, but it is not the norm.

Another drawback with the teacher-as-performer metaphor is that taken to an extreme, it can lead to scripting the classroom. As Keith Sawyer (2004: 12) states: "Scripted instruction is clearly performative: teachers stand 'on stage' in front of the classroom 'audience'; the lectures and student exchanges are 'scripts' for the performance; teachers should 'rehearse' their presentations; and the teacher/performer must work hard to hold the attention of the audience, with timing, stage presence, and enthusiasm." As Sawyer also acknowledges, the classroom environment is a variable and changing site for teaching and learning: "The flow of the class is unpredictable and emerges from the actions of all participants, both teachers and students," and "an unexpected student query often requires the teacher to think quickly and creatively, accessing material that may not have been studied the night before in preparation for the class" (13, 15).

All of these concerns with the teaching-as-performance metaphor [End Page 472] are valid. However, it would be unfair to overlook the performance element in the classroom. Indeed, considerable work has been dedicated to analyzing the links between teaching and performing (Lessinger and Gillis 1976; McLaren 1986; Harrison-Pepper 1991). Techniques common to performance situations can certainly affect and inform teaching practice: lecturer voice levels, eye...


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