Sarah was visibly excited when her time came to present. In addition to the plays we were reading together for my Introduction to Drama course, I had assigned a secondary list from which each student was to pick a play to read individually and present to the class. A local community theatre group was producing David Mamet’s Oleanna, the posters for which set off a vibrant discussion in our English Department listserv between passionate Mamet critics. After getting permission from the faculty involved, I shared a summary of this argument with my students and suggested that someone should see the local production and report back to us. Sarah -- a freshman with an undeclared major -- took me up on the challenge. For her presentation, she contextualized the play by showing clips from the Anita Hill hearings (which had inspired Mamet), passed around a copy of the infamously difficult-to-read script, and talked about her own impressions from reading the text versus watching the play performed. At the end of her presentation the class erupted in discussion as students parsed out the nuances of sexual harassment and the politics of producing a play that seemed so troublesome. Inspired by Sarah’s excitement, students used the controversy surrounding Oleanna to interpret Mamet’s work and assess their own roles in our post-#metoo society.
I had other items on the agenda that day -- other texts for us to discuss, an introduction to the next play we would be reading -- but I recognized that my students were making important connections here so I took a step back. As James Lang notes in Small Teaching, experiencing enthusiasm in class is one of the ways through which students develop a self-transcendent sense of purpose (174). As humanities instructors, it is especially incumbent upon us to foster this sense of purpose whenever we can. I see flexibility, then, as key to good instruction. If we are to make explicit the skills engendered by literary study we must give students the time and space to explore these connections between the text and real life.
Flexibility plays a role in my course design as well. As an instructor I recognize that each class I teach is comprised of different individuals and that my syllabus, therefore, must necessarily be tailored to the particular group I have. When I sensed that the students in my American Literature to 1880 course were growing tired of discussing Uncle Tom’s Cabin for multiple class meetings, for example, I switched gears and assigned them to watch a section of the film adaptation and assess it utilizing elements from Linda Hutcheon’s Theory of Adaptation. This allowed us to continue interacting with the material as they worked their way through the novel and reinvigorated our class discussions. Along these lines, I like to leave elements open for the class to decide on once we assemble for the first time. For instance, in my Introduction to Drama class I knew I wanted to cover a Shakespeare play and an Arthur Miller play. Since I didn’t have time for more than one from each writer and I didn’t know what my students had already read, I polled the class on the first day so we could make those choices together. This way, I didn’t have to guess at their previous experiences and my students were given a measure of control over the class.
A good instructor is one who can think on their feet and pivot when the class is bored or stay with a topic when the class is excited. Even though Oleanna was not on the syllabus as a class reading, many students chose to write about in their final exams. These are the kinds of connections that a liberal arts education can inspire, the kind that transcend the course in which they are taught and reach out into the real world. In our wealth- and technology-driven culture, the humanities have been pushed further and further away as students are pressured to garner concrete, practical skills that translate directly into their chosen careers. Our Oleanna discussion made explicit the kind of critical thinking which literary study can foster. It is difficult to abandon one’s plans for the class session, one’s perfectly crafted syllabus, but as an instructor I recognize that strong learning can come from these decisions and I strive to take advantage of these opportunities.