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  • Articulate Bodies:Writing Instruction in a Performance-Based Curriculum
  • Margaret Werry and Stephanie Lein Walseth

The history of arts departments in US universities has produced some peculiar hybrids, embedding programs with conservatory goals and methods within colleges and degree structures with a firmly liberal arts ethos. Where some faculty prioritize artistry and embodied practice, others think in terms of critical thinking and research skills, problem-posing, analysis, and verbal-textual communication. In many cases, this history has left a familiar legacy of discord between faculty who identify primarily as scholars and those who identify as artists, while students struggle (or, more often, refuse) to conceptually bridge these two dimensions of their curriculum. This schism can create particular difficulties in the teaching of writing.

Many departments of theatre operate according to an implicit contract whereby writing—traditionally understood—is considered to be the property of scholars and of little concern to practitioners. Students are expected to come from high school with already well-honed writing skills, which they will polish in introductory composition classes and in classes in the history, literature, and criticism curriculum, leaving them free to pursue their artistic studies as a purely practical endeavor. This contract, however, has significant consequences for student learning outcomes: everything we know about writing pedagogy suggests that writing improves only with consistent practice, within disciplinary contexts in which students feel they have an ongoing stake.

At the bottom of this divide are trenchant philosophical concerns for both scholars and practitioners. Practitioners feel that they are fighting universities' undervaluation of ways of knowing grounded in nontextual forms of expression and communication, such as literacies of the body, or visual literacies. They suspect that the disciplinary protocols of form, argumentation, and especially of assessment associated with writing pedagogy at the college level inhibit rather than open up students' creative faculties. Scholars, meanwhile, fear that without thorough writing training, students will lack the critical rigor they need to bring to artistic practice, and the basic research, critical thinking, and communication skills they will need in their postgraduation lives, where few will ever make a living as artists.

No matter how entrenched such divisions between artists and scholars might seem, however, to see the two sides as at loggerheads over the role of writing in the curriculum grossly misrepresents the actual ways in which both practitioners and scholars teach and learn with writing. The use of writing is ubiquitous in theatre studio pedagogy, from character biographies, journaling, and performance-response papers, to free writing, source research documentation, and stage-management notes, to name just a few. In their professional work also, artists must move fluently between forms of performance and transcription (in directors' notes, performance documentation, grant-writing, design bids, and any number of other contexts). By the same token, performance scholars, like artists, also struggle against the formulaic, fear-bound habits of writing that students bring to the classroom. As such, they have been mulling for two decades about ways to bridge the corporeal and the textual, to honor the unique character of embodied epistemology and experience, as they translate it into writing (in theories of performative writing, choreographic writing, critical ethnography, and so on). [End Page 185]

These were the concerns that impelled our Department of Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota, when it embarked on research into writing pedagogy during the spring of 2009. The study took place as part of the Writing Enriched Curriculum (WEC) pilot project—a large-scale, university-wide, Bush-grant-supported enterprise proposed by the university's Center for Writing. The goal of the project is to enrich writing pedagogy by having individual faculties devise a consensus statement about what constitutes effective writing in their specific discipline, audit current writing instruction through gathering syllabi and assignments, and develop a strategy to infuse instruction in component writing abilities systematically into all levels and in all parts of the curriculum. 1 Key to the success of the project was the invitation for faculty—adjunct and permanent, designers and choreographers, puppeteers and voice coaches—to define writing itself in ways consonant with their professional and pedagogical practice.

In this essay, we describe the outcomes and implications of this process...


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