― Mel Michel
On the first day, we all encounter it. A sea of faces: wide-eyed or jaded. Looking out over a large section of an introductory course can be like approaching Class VI rapids for an expert kayaker. We know we have the skills to navigate the rocks, but uncharted terrain may hold the bump that turns us over. We can always right ourselves after being overturned, but it leaves us wet, uncomfortable and skittish. We prefer to stay upright.
As I look out over the sea of giggling ponytails and slumping baseball caps I ponder, “How?” How can I engage them in a class many of them got shoved into to fill a schedule or requirement and justify their full-time tuition?
The great Russian acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski said, “Do what the character does, and you will feel what the character feels.” So, at some point during the introductory class, between the course schedule and the D2L demonstration, I add this little bit of advice:
This is a theatre class. That means I expect you to act like this is your favorite class and that I am your favorite teacher. What you need to do to make that happen is sit up straight and look right at me when I’m talking. Nod your head every so often so I think you are really listening to what I am saying. You can be thinking about anything you want, but I need to think you are listening to me. Every now and then write something down so I think you are taking notes, and above all smile at me. And for goodness sake, if you hear something I say that sounds like it might be timed like a joke, laugh. Nothing is worse than telling a joke and having no one laugh, so if it sounds like it’s supposed to be funny, just laugh.
And let me give you a piece of advice. Try this in all your classes. Your professors may tell you that they don’t care about attendance, but I am telling you that they absolutely notice and care about who is looking at them and even feigning interest.
And you know what? When they act like they are paying attention, they are most likely paying attention. And students who model listening are more likely to begin listening.
I repeat these instructions throughout the semester, occasionally imitating a student who does not appear to following these instructions, then asking the class to identify what they think a person displaying those behaviors is thinking or feeling: “Bored!” “Pissed off at being here!” “Hung over!” It makes the point and generally that student will at least, momentarily, smile and sit up. More importantly, it gets students considering ideas central to my field, that even when we are quiet, our actions, facial expressions, and nonverbal behaviors speak volumes.
By the end of the semester, all I have to do is say, “Because I’m your…?” and they repeat “favorite teacher.” “And this is…?” “Our favorite class.” Maybe they are acting, maybe they don’t really care, but it makes me feel better, and I can continue to plunge ahead into the uncharted rapids with some semblance of confidence.
Mel Michel is professor of theatre at Clarion University. In addition to directing the musical theatre program, she is a yoga teacher writing a book on yoga for actors.