At the next convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA), I will be speaking on a panel dedicated to making sense of teaching composition at the community college within this on-going pandemic–a situation that we see continuing beyond the foreseeable future and that will, in all certainty, challenge and change how we approach the teaching of writing now and in the future.
I will be speaking from my particular vantage point as a college writing professor but also specifically as one who routinely turns to the field of performance studies (and my own discipline of dance) to inform my writing pedagogy. I’ll be posing the question, “What does a pedagogy of performance offer us as we teach in a pandemic?” Furthermore, given my recent plunge into inquiries surrounding 4E cognition, which has begun to influence my thinking about the pedagogy of performance, I’ve chosen to rethink my questions, leaving me with these at the moment:
Our discipline (composition and rhetoric) is centered around the acquisition of a complex skill developed over the long term. Within the context of this global pandemic and the ensuing sub-contexts of disruption, modality shift, and planning for limitless contingencies, how do we create a stable educational experience that the acquisition of such a skill requires?
Given that writing is a performance, just like dance (see my previous writings)–a recursive practice, the development of which is dependent upon continued, reiterative, and accumulating lived experiences–what is lost (or perhaps gained) during unexpected shifts in course modality?
Given the powerful anxieties (stage fright/page fright) already stemming from the inherently communicative and social nature of writing (and dance and all performing arts, of which I find writing to be one) inextricably tied to interaction with an audience (synchronous, asynchronous, or both), what challenges and possibilities are offered by resorting, often unexpectedly, to virtual venues?
Despite the valiant and heroic efforts of institutions and support professionals, what do these sudden upheavals reveal about institutional and disciplinary biases regarding pedagogy? In essence, is there an assumption that the complex pedagogy of a complex skill such as writing can be condensed to material encased in bullet points and posted online for simple consumption? Can what we do be reduced to “material” or “content” to be “delivered?” Even such language is foreign to us in subjective but serious disciplines such as the performing arts.
These four points of inquiry can be reduced simply to this one pivotal question:
To learn to perform, one must practice performing. As Martha Graham said, “I believe that we learn by practice, whether it means we learn to dance by practicing dancing or we learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same . . . To practice means to perform.”
I don’t mean to be exclusively critical of virtual venues. And I certainly acknowledge that we are all doing the best we can to simply move forward through a difficult time, perhaps even an impossible one. Some education, even if incomplete, even if experimental, has got to be better than none. Right?
Or can anyone perform–adequately, meaningfully, productively–in an environment where some educational version of Maslow’s pyramid representing the hierarchy of needs finds itself crumbling from the bottom?