Open Thread Wednesday: Teaching as Theater

An ancient amphetheatreA couple of weeks ago, Jason and I were getting ready to give a talk about ten things academe won’t tell you. (Yes, ProfHackers are available to come and talk at your campus. Call now, operators are standing by!) Right before we started, Jason took his jacket off, unbuttoned his cuffs, and rolled up his sleeves. My immediate response was, “You do that too?!”

You see, I often start my classes by rolling up my own sleeves. I do this in part because I find it more comfortable when I’m teaching. But it’s also done with the intention of letting my students know that I’m ready to get to work for the next 50 to 75 minutes. In fact, I like this gesture so much that I’ve been known to roll my sleeves back down after that class and then roll them up again at the start of the next. Of course, I don’t know if this gesture is something that the students notice or interpret in the way that I would like them to. But it turns out that this piece of theater helps put me in the right frame of mind as well.

Teaching is in many ways an elaborate form of theater. It’s not for nothing that the design of many classrooms echo that of amphitheaters. When teaching one has speaking parts that you’ve prepared ahead of time, whether you’re lecturing or leading a discussion. In teaching we also attempt to elicit reactions from our “audience,” although that response is more likely to be answers to questions than catharsis. But just as important for these performances can be our stage directions: those tried-and-true physical gestures we use to help us in our teaching.

In addition to my sleeve rolling, another one of my teaching / theatrical set pieces involves my ever-present water bottle. When students ask me questions that I’m not prepared for, I’ll frequently take a drink before responding to the question. This gives me a chance to think about my answer and for others to respond if they’d like. The difference between this piece of theater and the sleeves, however, is that I tell my students that this is the water bottle’s purpose. Acknowledging the theatricality of some of my actions in the classroom helps the work of the class happen with less direct intervention on my part.

I’m guessing Jason and I aren’t the only people out there with favorite theatrical moves for the classroom. Heck, friend of ProfHacker, Dan Cohen has a great post on academic theater in the context of TED. So, what gestures or behaviors do you use to perform or send signals to your class? Do you let your students know what you’re up to or keep it silent? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Leptis Theater / David Stanley / CC BY 2.0

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