Affect and discovery: Transformative moments of confrontation in performative pedagogies
Mary-Rose McLaren and Scott Welsh
The authors of this chapter believe that for deep learning to take place—the sort of learning that transforms lives by changing perceptions of self and the world— students must in some way embody that learning. We align our thinking with that of Anne Hickey-Moody (2013), when she states that corporeal affect leads to affecting change in thought. When we support students to enact questions about themselves and their world, we generate shared affect in the classroom. Such affect is a pathway to discovery that emerges from within, and colours the student’s view of their relationship with learning. It is the impetus to take a risk, and shapes belief in their own creative capacity.
In 2016 we asked ourselves: how do we foster higher education classrooms that spark with invention and imagination in the context of the content being taught? In response, we decided to consciously teach differently, drawing explicitly on arts-based and affective pedagogy for units that were not traditionally ‘artistic.’ As we enacted this shift, the emphasis in teaching and learning moved from content to discovery. This chapter explores the use of drama as pedagogy in a unit entitled Academic and Professional Learning. It is the first unit taught in the Diploma of Education Studies, and so acts as an introduction to university. Many of these students have previously had poor educational experiences or disrupted formal education. They are often from low socio-economic communities, the first in their family to be at university, and frequently represent marginalised groups (Gilmore et al., 2019). The Diploma is their first step on an alternative pathway to becoming teachers. Our aim, clearly articulated to the students in their first class, was to teach the unit through Drama. Our purpose in choosing Drama was to engage affect to challenge the students’ preconceived ideas of what education is, and the images they held of themselves as learners. We sought to create a framework through which they could develop both confidence and agency.
In writing this chapter, we drew on the experiences and reflections of our students, and ourselves as their teachers, to unpack what affect in the classroom looks and feels like. The story we tell here is sampled from data collected from five cohorts of students (approximately 600 students in total) over three years. In this unit the students were asked to develop an ethnodrama with the prompt questions: Why me? Why here? Why now? In doing so, we purposefully invited our students to experience affect in the classroom.
Watkins (2016) discusses the nebulous meaning of this word, ‘affect’, noting that affect is heightened when we register happenings as significant, when events demand our attention. When we write of ‘affect’ in this chapter, we mean the ways that feelings, both sensor)' and emotional, shift our thinking and extend or deepen our understanding. As theatre practitioners, and educators, we work with the body of the student, the educator, and the institution, in a constant state of construction and reconstruction. We engage in Deleuze’s notion of ‘an ethical enterprise’ (Hickey-Moody, 2013, p. 83) when we build knowledge in this space. Our bodies, and the spaces within which they move, exist in the contested and transformational space of academic learning.
We know that shared experiences in theatre can generate feelings of belonging (Nicholson, 2002); as teachers we hoped that the classes our students worked in would become spaces of belonging for them, in which they felt safe to explore ideas and take intellectual and theatrical risks. The students were introduced to drama games (Boal, 2002), embodied learning (Nguyen & Larson, 2015), and symbolism (Brook, 1990), before being asked to explore improvisation (Spolin, 1999) and physical theatre (Caller)-, 2001). Ideas generated in these classes became the skeleton on which the performance was built. Where necessary, we suggested strategies for distancing so that students could express their sometimes- intense feelings in manageable ways (Nook et al., 2019). We were keen to see them develop an understanding of nuance, the capacity to listen, the ability to step back and look, and the ability to validate their own story and the stories of others. Our own framework of understanding, as teachers, was constructed primarily from the work of Freire (2000) and Boal (1985, 1995). As the students were required to devise a performance, it is appropriate in this chapter that we present our growing understanding of the power of affect in transformational learning in the form of a play.
Act One: Opening the door to Narnia Scene V
[Desks are in rows. It is day one: evey thing is clean and in order. The space is full of electricity. As the teacher enters they observe a number of students on their phones. An air of anxiety fils the room. Their phones provide a place to escape to. The teacher does an eyeroll: contemporary students ought to come with labels, ‘I am not here. ’ The students are not in the classroom. Thy are elsewhere. The only way to bring these students into the classroom is to ensure thy, the teacher, are there loo. The teacher thinks: step one—confrontation of self in the classroom. This unit is aimed at provoking and exploring; it demands that the body performs, that every student and every teacher dances and absorbs the knowledge that arts-based, affective pedagogy has to offer.]
TEACHER: Welcome to university; welcome to this unit. This will be fun and it will be challenging. And I promise you—you will not learn anything in this classroom that you can google.
[The students are waiting at the door. The teacher unlocks the door and enters with the students streaming after, as if thy are following the Pied Piper. It is a dance studio, not a classroom. The teacher does an ye roll as thy enter. Clearly the university can’t organise itself who puts Academic and Professional Learning in a dance studio?]
TEACHER: Well, make yourselves comfortable. I’ll just see if I can find a white board ...
STUDENT 1: Where are the tables and chairs?
TEACHER: Umm, just um, sit on the floor.
[In afar comer the teacher sees a gym curtain. Thy are drawn to it. They don’t know why. Thy let the class go, leave them behind, like thy are not even there. It’s day one and already this teacher has forgotten about the class. Behind the gym curtain is a dusty, black theatre curtain. The teacher is very familiar with this kind of fabric. Thy touch it; it brings some comfort. Thy have forgotten thy are looking for a white board. The teacher drags the dusty, black curtain toward them. Emerging from the darkness thy see a Blackbox theatre with curtains and places to hang lights, like so many other little theatres they have performed in over the course of their adult life.
The class murmurs complaints and sits. Phones come out. Thy begin to escape into their virtual lives. But the teacher’s performance life flashes before their yes: Shakespearean fools, fresh-faced young gentlenrerr, street rats, dirty old theatres, criminals, dirty old theatres, murderers, hobos, dirty old theatres, film extras, performance art. Thy look back to their dumbfounded students. Thy can see what the students are thinking: ‘What the Hell is going on here?’ The teacher closes the heavy curtain and returns to the dance studio, which is meant to be a classroom, where the students are gathered. But the teacher knows it’s there now, that amazing tiny bhcldtox theatre, hidden like Narnia in the bowels of a dilapidating university building.]
STUDENT 1: Where are the tables and chairs?
TEACHER: What tables and chairs?
STUDENT 1: The ones to sit on.
TEACHER: I don’t understand.
STUDENT 1: You don’t understand what? How are we supposed to write notes if there are no tables and chairs?
TEACHER: Perhaps you’re not supposed to write notes. Perhaps you are in a dance studio because you are supposed to dance.
STUDENT 1: Supposed to what? You have got to be kidding.
TEACHER: (remember the teacher didn’t plan this room. The teacher was as surprised as the students to walk into a dance studio. 7he teacher is making this up as they go along— improvising]: We don’t need tables and chairs. The reason we’re in a dance studio to study Academic and Professional Learning is because we are going to dance. Do you see what a wonderful learning space this is?
STUDENT 1: But there are no tables and chairs.
OTHER STUDENTS: What do you want us to do?
TEACHER: [hesitating for just a moment—will they agree?]'. I want us to go together into Narnia.
TEACHER: Trust me.
Act One dramaturgical notes
We experience the affects of the place (Watkins, 2016). This can work in our favour, as in the case of a theatre, redolent with stories of change; or against us, as in the case of a classroom, holding a different and more repressive set of tales. Narnia is the antithesis of 'order’; it requires imagination, and an openness to chaos, that is necessary to make art (Hickey-Moody, 2013). The idea of Narnia in our classroom is important, of reimagining the potential contained within our surroundings, of not being constrained by the limits of our understanding, environment, or perceptions. This is at the heart of the learning process with which we engage our students, and is true to Freire’s notion of education as an emancipatory force. Indeed, recent work on the critical pedagogy' of Freire and Ranciere suggests that education should be about creating the conditions in which the ‘emancipatory moment’ of learning can occur (Y’lieghe, 2018). Our work involves a freedom that is attained through imagining and reimagining the nature and conditions of our surroundings.
Like Narnia, others tend not to see our emancipatory space, and are often antagonistic to it. Noise complaints and questions around the nature of our unit are commonplace. Perhaps because of the apparently chaotic or random nature of our learning activities when seen by outsiders, the interruptions from the accounting exam from downstairs, or the science experiment above us, are frequent. They come in the form of other teachers knocking on the door, as we slip in and out of the magical world we create around the tables in rows that have been disrupted in our dreaming, the chairs upturned in an attempt to set ourselves free from the everyday constraints of Higher Education. Or they come over coffee in the staff room when other teachers say, ‘I don’t think it’s my job to entertain students.’
‘Scott! Scott! Scott! What do you want us to do?’ the students cry.
‘Miss! Miss! Are we allowed to ...?’
It is our job to open the door to Narnia, to walk with the students through the forest and the snow on a journey of discovery.
Act Two: The Classroom as a Dream Scene 1
TEACHER: Let’s start by playing a game. We are going to play lots of games in this unit—and every game has a purpose. We will need to begin by moving all the tables and chairs back.
STUDENT A: But what will we sit on?
TEACHER: You don’t need to sit right now.
STUDENT A: But how will we write notes?
TEACHER: You don’t need to write notes right now. We’re going to play a game, get to know each other a little, talk about the purpose of the unit. Come on, let’s get these tables moved.
[Students shrug, raise their eyebrows to each other, give awkward sniiles, and begin to move the
furniture. There is still not enough room to play active games. Backpacks and jackets litter the
floor. Students shuffle and wait]
TEACHER: Unfortunately, we are in a small room. What we need to do is transform the space. It needs to become a space where we can experiment and grow, not a place for writing notes. Does anyone have a solution?
STUDENT B: We can move all the tables and chairs into the hallway.
STUDENT C: We can stack stuff up higher.
STUDENT D: This might sound a little crazy, but...we can think about it differently.
TEACHER: Yes! [and then containing their obvious preference for the last of these option.t] Which of those shall we try first?
[Students mutter. Then—•]
STUDENT B: Let’s put the tables and chairs outside.
TEACHER: Okay. Let’s try that.
TEACHER: Follow me.
STUDENTS: huh? Are we allowed to do this?
TEACHER: Allowed to have an adventure? I sure hope so! [the teacher pulls hack the curtain and reveals the black box and the students fde through the gap in the curtains into the performance space].
STUDENTS: Wow. This is really amazing. Is this ours? Can we use this?
STUDENT 1: But there are still no tables and chairs
STUDENT 2: There are chairs, see? The seats where the audience sit—we can sit there.
STUDENT l: But there are no tables.
STUDENT 2: We don’t need tables. I reckon we don’t need anything but ourselves. This is awesome!
[The teacher is smiling, a plethora of possibilities in their mind. But front and centre is a memory: their first experience of the classroom as a teacher and the overwhelming sense of the surreal. It is a state of heightened sensitivity, perhaps due to nerves or the strangeness of the expectations inherent in the situation between teacher and students. The teacher has this same feeling now. It is a feeling of enormous potential. That potential shivers in the airi
Act Two dramaturgical notes
The architecture of our surroundings speaks to us. Watkins (2016) notes that affect influences space, and the flow of relations within that space. Carl Jung (Farah, 2014) dreams of a house. For each of these teachers, there was also a dreamlike experience of the surroundings. For Teacher One it was like a nightmare—a small room cluttered with tables and chairs to which students immediately gravitated. Teacher Two recognised his ‘house’ and yet was unfamiliar with it. Both ‘houses’ offered windows to another world. Teacher One wanted to draw back the curtains and show this other world to their students. They invited them to explore it; they waited while they found the map they could follow—while they experimented with slacking tables and emptying the room. All this will help—but the real ‘other world’ is not only represented by the removal of the things. It is the transformation of the space to work in, and the transformation in the minds of the students and teacher, that truly opens the door to this Narnia.
Teacher Two saw the window into the other world: the theatre space that lurked in the hidden, concealed space behind the two heavy curtains. Once seen, the people who they were teaching, and the self with which they were teaching, were utterly transformed. Laid out before for this teacher was a physical and architectural environment with unconscious content. This was all at once an inspiring and deeply confronting experience. It invited performance from students who did not enrol in this unit to perform. It created parallel universes for the teacher who was also, in oilier parts of their life, a performer. It made real the unsteadying experience of teaching, of leading students into new spaces, both geographic and metaphoric. This blackbox theatre, and the classroom bound with tables and chairs, both challenged their inhabitants to transform their thinking about learning. In different ways, they both offered an entrance to Narnia.
Act Three: Confronting the Self Scene I3
[Student sits alone, centre stage right, in the spot. They are unsettled, lying to find the right words for experiences they have not had before, looking for ways to articulate their experiences. We hear hesitations, uncertainties in their speech. Thy speak directly to the audience.]
STUDENT: The new trick to learn for Academic and Professional Learning, for me, became all about honesty, honesty to yourself. And it’s really hard to be honest with yourself, not sure why, maybe because you can never be without you, you learn how to drown out the bits you don’t want to believe. When they re-surface they become even more difficult to admit and deal with, than if you had just dealt with it the first time. Lack of honesty can trick you, can trick you into believing you can achieve something when you cannot, or perhaps when you are not ready to achieve it. When we put the play together, we wrote monologues. As we wrote some of our innermost feeling down on paper, we were confronted, as individuals we were allowing ourselves to become so vulnerable in front of our peers by reading these confessions aloud. Some in the class never joined in from the start. This created angst amongst those that did participate with the open discussions. Then some that were responding started to push back against the readings. For all parties involved this class became a tough environment to excel in. But hey, that’s what the hunt for honesty can do.
[Spotlight moves to second student, centre stage left. This student is less hesitant. They have a certain confidence in the way thy engage the audience, as if thy have a secret to share. Thy are a stay teller, speaking directly to the audience.]
STUDENT TWO: I have to tell you, rehearsing the class play has been a massive journey. Today we finally did a full run through and seeing it come together into one story was extremely satisfying. I feel so proud of how much my classmates are developing into confident and capable colleagues. I feel like, in comparison to my earlier thoughts of frustration around the timidness of my classmates, I now feel proud that they have achieved a sense of confidence. I believe this happened because there’s a real growth-promoting environment in the class. Our teacher, they have allowed us to openly share and reflect how we are feeling. This has given us a chance to work through things that have been brought up by being ‘put on the spot’. It allowed us to reflect on our learning in a holistic way. I will definitely take this experience with me into my own classrooms. I would like to allow the same freedom of expression and collaborative learning that we experienced during the process of writing and performing this play as a class.
[Lights up across the stage. Students are dotted around the stage. They share the following dialogue.3]
STUDENTS: Yes, I agree, it was an amazing experience.
It was scary as shit.
I feel ten feet tall now.
But it was hard, are you saying it wasn’t hard?
Honesty is always hard.
Collaborating is hard—really—getting an idea across to 27 other people. But we did it.
Yeah. We did. We did it.
I didn’t think I could, didn’t think we could.
So—we can surprise ourselves, hey?
TEACHER: what did you learn?
STUDENTS: [each stating one thing in the following list]: trust, planning, collaborating, problem-solving, listening, different ways of thinking, tolerance, endurance, spontaneity, courage, togetherness.
[Their voices fade into the silence as the list continues. Two students step out and speak over the continuing, muted list. ']
STUDENT ONE: We all became very comfortable with one another and being honest seemed effortless.
STUDENT TWO: This probably happened because we had done so many activities being out of our comfort zone throughout the semester STUDENT ONE: Yeah, so there was no boundary or awkwardness.
[Students are moving about the stage, saying lines. 7he energy level is low. Three students sit in
the audience, watching. One puts her head in her hands, then says—|
STUDENT A: Has it looked this bad all along?
STUDENT B: No. It looked worse before.
STUDENT C: They won’t follow any of our direction.
STUDENT A: They are scared of looking stupid.
STUDENT B: Well, here’s Theatre Rule Number One: the more you try to avoid looking stupid, the stupider you look.
STUDENT C: They don’t gel it.
STUDENT A: It’s more than that. Do you mind if I talk to them?
STUDENT C: Do you know anything about theatre?
STUDENT A: Not much—but I don’t think this is a theatre problem. You two have got all the scenes, you’ve put together the class’s ideas, you’ve developed a sort of narrative across the scenes, you’ve told us where to stand and what to say. All the elements are there. But it looks awful. It’s not about theatre.
STUDENT B: Go for it—we can’t make it work.
STUDENT A: (coming onto the stage and addressing the students, feeling nervous but determined]: Hey everyone, I took a few minutes out to watch and I’d like to give you some feedback.
[There is a general groan. It’s mid-morning. People are already tired.]
STUDENT A: Truthfully—it looks awful. You all look bored. You look like you don’t want to be here, like it isn’t your story'. But it is your story. More importantly, it’s our story. Our shared story. So—here’s what we all have to do: we have to stop worrying about how we look as individuals, and start thinking about how the play looks. Start thinking as a group, not a solo person. If you think of this as our group’s thing, then you don’t have to worry about how you look as an individual.
STUDENT D: Urgh. Do we have to do it again?
STUDENT A: No. Go and have a break, get some food. Then we’ll do it again as a group, okay?
[Dark, followed by lights up; students dotted around the stage. Students speak, one line each!]
STUDENTS: When we came back from our break it was like something magical happened.
I think it was the food.
It wasn’t just the food, but the food helped.
We started to think about the play, not about ourselves.
We were awesome!
It just worked.
Suddenly we understood what our directors had been trying to tell us all along.
I stopped worrying about me.
I really wanted to make it work for us.
All we had to do was take a risk.
We deserved to do a good job because as a group, we really care about each other, you know?
Yeah, so it was right that we looked that way on stage, like we cared.
Our play was fantastic.
It was, it was fantastic—it was fantastic because our group is fantastic.
I’m so pleased to belong to this group.
Act Three dramaturgical notes
Play allows us to take risks, experiment, change our mind, try another way, attempt the outrageous, and back away again. Play, beginning with theatre games, and ending in the performance of 'the play’ on stage, opens up opportunities to construct a range of narratives, to explore ideas and consequences, and to experiment with the interaction of space, place, things, self and others. If we understand affect as 'the margin of modulation effected by change in capacity’ (Hickey-Moody, 2013, p. 80), we see that a change in physical capacity effects a change in mental images. In devising the play, we harness the impact of affect in our classrooms: 'the passage from one state to another’ (Hickey-Moody, 2013, p. 81) is literally played out to be observed, critiqued and reflected upon. The dissipation of boundaries reconstructs the classroom yet again. It generates an environment of collective energy, a ‘collective fantasy’. Within this ‘fantasy’, each of us sought something within ourselves, deep within the well of our own personal experience (Romero el al., 1985), and brought that something into the group identity. Our readiness to find a new knowledge of ourselves, was central to the process of establishing and engaging with a collective unconscious, and the collective conscious. Because some of us had troubled backgrounds, unique challenges and, at times, disturbing experiences, the action of letting go and allowing the dissipation of boundaries could be a dangerous undertaking. Trust was of critical importance in exploring such dangers safely. Trust between individuals and within the class was developed through engaging in the performance process, and expressed in the doing of the performance. Dangerous ideas could be played out as dangerous actions within the performances, where they could be looked at, assessed and analysed. This trust was paramount, not only to the activity of the performance, but to the learning itself. Indeed, our experience of creating ‘the play’ involved engaging in a form of praxis learning around the Issue of trust. In 2009 sociological theorists Wilkinson and Pickett emphasised the importance of trust to the health and well-being of populations. Their research discovered a correlation between levels of trust and inequality, for example, where ‘high levels of trust are linked to low levels of inequality’ (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009, p. 53). By generating trust within the group, there was a secondary aim, clearly articulated: to encourage and support the growth of a community of learning which is de-hierarchised (Heron & Johnson, 2017), and essentially democratic (Pearl & Knight, 1999; Darder, 2015).
Tied into this attempt to de-hierarchise the classroom, is the study of ‘dialogism’ in education which has compared the choice of words and type of communication between teachers and students, depending upon age: communication between adults is compared to communication between adults and children (Overton, 2006). A key feature of the analysis is the way in which authority operates in educational conversations between teachers and students (Callander, 2013). Using drama as pedagogy, we acknowledge that Theatre has its own structure, its own authority, indeed its own language. Brechtian methods and understandings of theatre offer some useful classroom tools for the teacher. For example, stilted, non-naturalistic speech, or self-conscious and self-reflexive methods, have the potential to free students from their preconceived notions of how they should present before their peers. When the processes of theatre are introduced into a classroom of pre-service teachers, we change both the hierarchies of power within the classroom, and the language used to convey relationships.
We can extend the idea of ‘Affect as Pedagogy’ into ‘Classroom as Theatre.’ Lahey (2016) claims teaching is like ‘performance art’ and describes the ‘magic show’ of die teacher setting the tone and creating the culture of die classroom through their performance. But in a de-hierarchised classroom we must ask: are the students audience or performers? Is the teacher also a performer? Are they method actors, deeply immersed in feeling, or Brechtian actors, drawing on alienation? What form does the theatre of the classroom take—Mystery? Autobiography? Melodrama? Horror?
In a classroom where knowledge is constructed through marking affect in the making of theatre, we are motivated by a different force than that operating in a ‘normal’ classroom. The introduction of ‘the show’ brings forth a new element. It redirects the ‘gaze’ of both the student and the educator. The gaze of the teacher shifts from those students who are not engaged in the class, toward developing a collaborative process. The student gaze is initially directed at every other student, and the self in relation to them. There is a strong desire not to look stupid; not to be judged. But during the course of the rehearsal process, the student gaze shifts again, this time to the collaborative end product: what do they need to do to get to the end successfully? The shifting of the gaze of students and teachers results in a shift of focus from content transfer and summative assessments to discovery and creation as ways of learning. Students are required to be physically and emotionally present, and to participate and contribute. Our learning journeys become intertwined with one another; group activities and games lay the foundations for an environment of sensitivity, care and belonging. The nature of performance means that we cannot hide, we are on display. The theatre of the classroom, where the teacher is essentially the performer, is disrupted by the ‘real’ theatre of acting and performance. The classroom is democratised as the ideas and opinions of students, whose stories are being told through the ethnodrama, are just as vital and important as those of the academic.
Performance physicalises knowledge in an era when the physical is often neglected by teachers and students alike in favour of screens and electronic communication. Whilst information still needed to be explained to students and understood, that task was undertaken by enacting our thinking. Image theatre (Boal, 1995), forum theatre (Boal, 1995), Brecht’s epic theatre (Silberman et al, 2014); Gro- towski’s poor theatre with truth and trust at its heart (Grotowski, 1970); Brook’s empty space (Brook, 1990); Artaud’s understanding of the cruelty of experience (Artaud, 1958); and Stanislavski’s emotional memory and empathetic engagement with character (Stanislavski, 1983) were all used as ways to untangle ideas, synthesise, problem-solve and create new knowledge. In our Higher Education classrooms performance became a way of engaging mind, heart and body in developing understanding and constructing new ways of thinking.
When devising the ethnodrama the inherent risk involved in performance is where true courage and learning lakes place. This is what we understand by Hickey-Moody’s ‘critical agency of human feeling [which is] choreographed by the aesthetics of existence’ (Hickey-Moody, 2013, p. 94). It requires us to say yes to the unknown and to trust oneself and those one works with. Without trust, the step into Narnia cannot take place; without honesty, that step cannot constitute change or growth; without an understanding of the self and, in this case, a commitment to others, that step cannot be transformative.
Over four years more than 600 students have participated in this process of creating an ethnodrama as a way of studying Academic and Professional Learning. Not one of them has journaled that it was a waste of time. Although many initially questioned the purpose of the play as a major part of a unit on Academic and Professional Learning, not one, after completing the unit, questioned the value, purpose or significance of the play. It seems that it is possible to open the door to Narnia, whether the classroom is a dance studio, a blackbox theatre, or a small space filled with tables and chairs. The important thing is to find the cupboard, somewhere in the heart of each student, that offers them a way, through the distractions of the heavy hanging coats, into Narnia. As teachers our job is to bring the torch into the room, and expose the wardrobe as it emerges from the darkness. It opens when we offer students the transformational experience of embodied learning, when we invite them to consciously and unashamedly experience affect in the classroom. When they push the coats aside and leap from the wardrobe into the snow, they accept that challenge and become actors and activists, expressing their agency in the world. We all know that once we have entered Narnia there can be no going back. The things that happen there change us forever.
This work was undertaken with approval from the Victoria University High Risk Ethics committee, approval number: 0000024773. Participating students signed consent forms and were free to withdraw from the research at any time without consequence. Power imbalances were identified and managed.
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THEY CALL TEACHERS BY THEIR FIRST NAMES!'