As teachers, we sometimes get tired of hearing our own voices. That’s why we show movies, bring in guest speakers, and encourage discussion. Plus, we want to bring in other views in order to provide alternative perspectives. Otherwise, we’re just recreating ourselves in our students. Worse than that, a lack of diverse voices in the classroom can lead to boredom and indifference — so let’s have some fun, and maybe even some inspiration.
That was my theory. So I put it to the test — by adding a theatrical element to the English courses I taught at Truman State University. After all, as Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel note in their April 9, 2012 Hybrid Pedagogy article “On Pedagogical Manipulation,” “When we enter a classroom, we’re stepping onto a stage . . . we all play roles: the teacher, the student, the devil’s advocate, the reporter, the questioner, the dictator, the grader, the teacher’s pet. It’s in the careful modulation of these roles that we can actively control a learning environment.”
Donning an old man hat and some Groucho glasses with thick eyebrows, bulbous nose and absurd mustache, I affixed a twisted sneer to my face and marched into my sophomore-level American lit class. The next thing I knew, I was snapping at all those “whippersnappers” and “hooligans” to “zip their lips” and open up Leaves of Grass. I told them that Professor Spitzer wasn’t here today and that “Crabby Old Man” was substituting. They laughed, of course, and didn’t take me seriously―until, that is, I started ripping into Walt Whitman, attacking his politics, his stance on civil rights, and his “obscene” appreciation of the human body. “So what?” I asked. “Who cares?” I added, scrunching my face like a hater.
To my surprise, the students shot back with sophisticated answers. They were playing along, actually defending a 150-year-old text. Not only that, they were into it, sometimes adding comments like “Whitman was espousing equality, something you can’t even comprehend because you’re too old school to get it, ya geezer!” Or “Whitman loved the ‘body electric!’ Male, female, whatever — he respected it as a vehicle for the Transcendental spirit, you old coot!”
In other words, those students were totally getting it, and they were totally getting what I was doing. So every time they shot me down, I’d respond with a cranky moan in which I’d lament the insolence of their generation, or how their parents should’ve paddled them more. The main thing, though, was that they were the ones raising the points. Therefore, they were the teachers. And since they were invested in their studies, they weren’t about to let some ancient relic from a less enlightened era undermine their turf.
With a reaction like that, how could I not employ this technique in more college courses? So I did. I made it a point to use Crabby Old Man at least once per semester to rile up the students, who actually had glints in their eyes as they rushed to barrage a grumpy curmudgeon with arguments based on what they’d read. Even students who usually remained silent jumped onto the anti-Crabby Old Man bandwagon.
That’s when it hit me: I’d struck a nerve. Because young adults, they’re looking for excuses to lash out against outdated schools of thought. In public forums, however, there’s usually a risk involved in talking back. But in this setting, the stakes were different. There was nothing to lose, and the constant laughing made things alright.
Then, when I went to the University of Central Arkansas to teach creative writing exclusively, I came up with another persona: Big Dummy. His costume was simply crooked plastic teeth, but his shtick was even simpler. Basically, Big Dummy just sat there saying “Duh” a lot, while asking students to explain stuff he couldn’t comprehend — like plot points, character motivations, and use of symbols and metaphors. Big Dummy was also good for getting students to examine technical concerns in prose writing — like use of tag lines (i.e. he said, she said, etc.), which I’m always trying to get my students to embrace to clarify who’s speaking. When I lecture in class that taglines are your friends and you shouldn’t be afraid to use them, it sometimes feels like I’m talking to a bunch of zombies. But when melodramatically exasperated students explain to Big Dummy how taglines can help ground a reader, then I know my advice is getting through. And when students add that taglines are best used near the beginning of a character’s dialogue so we immediately know who is talking (which is my advice that they repeat), then I know I wasn’t just speaking to air.
I’ve used Big Dummy in all sorts of classes. In fiction workshops, he’s questioned how T.C. Boyle’s various forms of narration affect empathy, and in creative nonfiction he’s helped make sense of how Lester Bangs’ unconventional use of run-on sentences creates momentum. Big Dummy has also appeared in my forms of poetry class in which approaches to confessional poetry by Diane Wakoski are analyzed in simple terms that he can understand. The value in breaking things down for Big Dummy being: students create simple algebraic equations to use as models on how to handle their own creative work. For example, if students can explain how Frank O’Hara’s theory of “personism” is actually just a bunch of fancy talk for writing a poem that directly addresses someone, then they see the process as easy and accessible — except for people like Big Dummy.
Then there’s Cool Dude, who I use in my upper-level poetry workshops. Basically, I pass out copies of his poem entitled “I Am So Cool,” then put a baseball cap on backwards and sport some cool shades. I announce to the class, “Now I’m one of you,” they snicker and roll their eyeballs, and then Cool Dude reads his poem out loud. The mock workshop has begun, with me jumping in every once in a while by removing and replacing my disguise in order to guide the conversation. This flashing back and forth can get a bit schizophrenic, but for the most part the students do the talking and keep things level-headed. Meanwhile, Cool Dude gives a thumbs up whenever students compliment his work, and he waves their suggestions away whenever they offer criticism — because Cool Dude is just too cool.
My oldest and most often used personality, though, makes regular appearances in my intro to creative writing course to introduce the workshop procedure. I tell students that the Dean called me into his office the other day and explained that a new student would be joining our class. I also tell them how the Dean told me that this student has been kicked around from school to school, and how he’s been in trouble with the law. I then let them know how I told the Dean that I’d let this student into our class under one condition: that he pioneer the workshopping phase of the poetry component. I add that after we workshop this student, it will be up to them as to whether he can stay or not.
The students look around with WTF-expressions on their faces, wondering where this new kid is, and then I explain that he’ll be here soon. In the meantime, I hand out copies of his poem, entitled “Loving to Love” by Tiger Nooodles. “Tiger Nooodles?” somebody inevitably shouts. “What kind of name is that?”
I then break out Tiger Nooodles, who is an eight-inch-tall stuffed tiger that I found on the streets of Baton Rouge following an LSU football game. Anyway, the groans arise, and then we get down to business. Tiger reads his poem out loud (me speaking in a squeaky voice) and then we do some basic workshopping. The standard method has already been explained, so students know that the poet is supposed to sit there silently and absorb the conversation. We start off with positive feedback, to which Tiger replies with some sort of chatter. That’s when I pick him up and smack his head against the table. “I told you not to talk!” I scold him.
Predictably, gasps fill the air, and someone always pipes out, “Is that what you’re going to do to us if we talk during our workshops?” But I just laugh and continue. The students offer more feedback, Tiger nods his head, and then we get into constructive criticism. Suddenly, the students aren’t speaking to me; they’re speaking to Tiger―who tends to act out, sometimes shaking his fist at the class.
After Tiger is thoroughly workshopped, I offer him a chance to reply. The students always have questions for him about his poem and his life, and they’re eager to engage in conversation. This has never happened before in any of their other classes, so nobody is dozing off or checking their cell phones. In the end I say, “Okay, let’s play catch,” and throw him out to the class. Tiger gets tossed around like a rag doll and eventually ends up on the floor, with everyone laughing and bonding and debating whether or not he should be allowed to join the class.
Ultimately, and unconsciously, this exercise in multiple personality pedagogy works to build anticipation. Students are enthusiastic to view workshopping as an event to look forward to rather than as a “dissing session” in which judgmental peers slam each others’ work. Similarly, students are excited to confront Crabby Old Man and Cool Dude and condescend to Big Dummy. But here’s the thing: what all these instances have in common is that they provide occasions for applying dialectical methods that stimulate inquiry and debate in order to foster critical thinking.
The advantage of this mode of inquiry over others is that when students volunteer to engage in dramatic discourse, they’re investing themselves in a highly active investigation, rather than just sitting there absorbing info like a sponge. And if one student takes a position, this increases the stakes for all the students in the class, no matter their degree of participation. As an audience that’s savvy enough to recognize ridiculousness, a discourse community can’t help but feel aligned when an other challenges their reason for being in that room — which, in essence, is to not end up like intellectually stagnant stereotypes. If anything, this team bonding experience prompts a subconscious commitment to seriously evaluate the subtext under discussion; because if they don’t, then they don’t have a position — which would, in effect, make them “losers.” In a sense, these subtle manipulations steer students to respond in the texts they create to the naysaying of Crabby Old Man and the ignorance of Big Dummy. And when students advise Cool Dude and Tiger Nooodles to “show not tell,” or avoid switching tenses, they’re prone to apply such aesthetics to their own creative processes. The result being: the uniqueness and quality of their work increases in direct proportion to how strongly they practice what they preach — or simply agree with.
Of course, pretending to be somebody else is nothing new in pedagogy, but it is something different for modern students, who expect the same dull talking heads to drone on and on for an entire semester without attempting to make things entertaining. Thus, it’s the unexpected variation in voice that provides dimension to the classroom experience and allows for the presentation of information in more involved ways. Or, as Rorabaugh and Stommel suggest, “encouraging them to recreate us even as they recreate themselves . . . is essential to understanding our hybridity.” And the way I see it, “multiple personality pedagogy” is an effective type of hybridity which recognizes that as teachers we literally owe it to our students and our selves to reinvent the character (and characters) of all our different disciplines.
[Photo by marfis75]