- Acting Activism: “Introduction to Theatre” Confronts Student Apathy
Having previously lived in Quito, Ecuador for five years, my first two years in south Texas were a rude awakening to what I considered profound levels of ignorance and apathy as related to issues of social justice and the basic human challenges that exist in our world. Upon taking a job to start a theatre program at one of the fastest-growing community colleges in the United States, I was encouraged by the college’s progressive president to implement my vision of activist theatre. Knowing that such an opportunity is a rarity, I took advantage by utilizing a rebellious style, with “in your face” tactics that made students confront their own prejudices and limited world vision. For the first two semesters, I was surprised by the complete lack of passion among students. During the second semester, in each “Introduction to Theatre” section, I divided the class into groups according to their expressed interests; each group created a Forum Theatre piece in which the others in the class would be the “spect-actors.”1 Even though the students chose their topics, they could not actively engage their emotions, neither in the performance nor the following discussions.
I discussed the experience with several colleagues, both at my college and other institutions of higher education. Perhaps I was not being fair to my students, judging them based on unreasonable standards. After all, I was now in a relatively stable political environment, not resembling at all the volatile situation to which I had grown accustomed in much of Latin America. Yet, I heard the same remarks over and over again: “Students today simply don’t care anymore”; “Students don’t read; they do the smallest amount of work to get by, they are happy with a ‘C’”; “Something is profoundly wrong with today’s generation of college students.” The summer break allowed me time to reflect. I asked myself: “Is the real issue apathetic students or frustrated teachers?” Teachers can only teach by “who we are,” and this affects our identity at its very core. I am a teacher who is frustrated because I want my students to care, and I want to care about them. Nonetheless, it also became clear to me that the only way I could care about my students was if they demonstrated more interest. The class would have to impact my students, at least some of them, for me to overcome my frustration.
For the class to engage students, and me for that matter, I wondered whether it would be a question of altering the course’s content—or rather the methodology utilized. My instincts led me to reshape the methodology of the class, in which I maintained the basic substance and structure of previous syllabi; priority was placed on teaching methods that focused on personalizing the material, exploring it interactively, and reflecting on it via a journal. To offer an example of the changes, I structured the first day of class around a “theatre game” that immediately confronted the question of apathy. I entered the classroom, not knowing any of the students, sat at the front of the class, took out a newspaper and started to read. As time passed, students began to ask me: “Are you the teacher?” “Are we going to start class?” I replied to their questions with tedious, unemotional answers: “Yes, I am. Are you the students?” “I don’t know if we are going to start class.” After about a quarter of an hour, the students demonstrated frustration, demanding that I “do something.” I asked: “Why should I start the class? You are the ones here to ‘get something,’ so it seems logical that you would begin.” I continued reading. [End Page 131]
Eventually, the questions would lead to discussion, some of which was considerably heated. Even though the emotion was mostly directed toward me, I considered it a very healthy beginning to the class. The students raised interesting questions related to pedagogical service (Who serves whom?), to the passion to teach versus the passion to learn (Who should care first and who should care more?), and, finally, to the context of...