On Teaching . . .

I recently had the good fortune to be selected as a new member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers at the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach. I was inducted into the Academy on September 21st; I’d like to share the remarks I made at the dinner:

Thank you so much for this honor. As a theatre professor, and someone who was herself once a performer, I know many people who dream of standing up to say thank you to the Academy. We dream of being in front of millions of television viewers, clutching in our trembling hands a statuette that’s evidence of our value as artists.

I long ago gave up the dream of receiving an Oscar, which never seemed real to me anyway because, truth be told, I was always a better critic than I was a performer. But I think all of us yearn at some point for public recognition from our peers and our community. It’s to our collective chagrin, I think, that teaching remains a mostly private, unrecognized activity.

Lots of people presume to know what and how we teach. Some of those people insist that we’re not teaching enough, or not teaching the proper subjects, or not producing measurable outcomes (as though what students experience when they learn can ever, finally, be measured). We’re often excoriated by those who drive the agenda of education without ever giving us the basic resources for good teaching and good learning. And these folks, of course, would never tell us we’ve done our jobs well.

So we look within for our rewards, and happily, find them frequent and rich. The hours I spend in the classroom always require the best of me—that’s when my mind and my wit needs to be sharpest, when I feel (just like I do at the theatre), that what’s happening in the present of our meeting is the only thing that matters.

In class, I continually take my own measure, as I respond to students’ questions, suggestions, and challenges. In class, I develop my ethical commitments, which often hinge on an instantaneous decision about how to redirect a comment or resolve an incident. I never sweat as much as I do in class, whether the session is going well or poorly, because I’m working so hard mentally and physically and emotionally to weave the threads of anecdote and theory, of experience and knowledge into a fabric strong enough to bounce us into the future.

My last book was about utopia in performance. In it, I argue that our willingness to join friends and strangers in a live, present moment to watch vulnerable actors perform before us creates a rare, precious moment of community. We note a feeling of belonging together, of feeling ourselves lifted temporarily above the present into a hopeful sense of what a better future might be like.

I’m thrilled when I feel that same fleeting utopia in the classroom. I mark when my students and I think so hard together that we hear what musicians sometimes call the “phantom note.” It rises above the chorus of our thoughts as something both apart from us and of us; it creates a common vibration in an often bare, windowless, hardly utopic room.

My students and I are artists, scholars, and citizens all, people with the unbelievable good fortune to think about the magic of the performance we create or study, and how it matters to the rest of our worlds. My students and I are people who desire to see ourselves not just as we are, but as we might be, through the crucible performance provides.

So although I’m not receiving an Oscar today, I’m glad to thank the Academy. I’m more than glad, because I know that teaching lasts longer than performance. Teaching generates those fleeting moments of utopian possibility on a regular basis, semester after semester, year after year. They linger as generative pieces of collective memory.

I’m delighted to join the Academy, and look forward to working with all of you in what I know is our mutual desire for ever-better worlds. Why would any of us teach otherwise?

Thank you.

And thank you all for reading,
The Feminist Spectator

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One thought on “On Teaching . . .

  1. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read your book (yet), but I’m wondering if you;re familiar with the concept of the TAZ, or Temporary Autonomous Zone? The idea of the state as a TAZ is a really fascinating one, though I’d be hard-pressed to imagine which artists actually manage to creat one… Augusto Boal, maybe, or Joint Stock during rehearsal, or Radiohole…

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