first off: the basics
This is not a course in drama production. It is, rather, a course which aims to help people deepen or extend their understanding of what theatre is and how it works for audiences, and the ways in which knowing about a play and its textual context (the page) can affect the audience's experience of a production and its social context (the stage). The central aim of this course is to give each student these opportunities:
It is also, therefore, a course organized in a very different way from most. It is important to understand the concrete differences at the outset.
An important way in which it is different is that it has some basic, categorical requirements, which must be fulfilled in order to get credit for the course. These are not optional. Furthermore, most tasks, being hooked to events in the outside world (that is, play productions), have deadlines which are not flexible. To get credit for the course, each student must, for five of the plays which appear on the course list of plays, do the following (further, at least five other members of the class must participate in the same process for the play):
This description is intended to be as thorough as I can make it, and at the beginning of the course I'll give everyone lots of opportunity to read, think about, and discuss it, because it's a very unconventional course and I would like to make it as clear as I possibly can just what will be involved -- so that, if it's not your cup of tea, you can find an alternative as soon as possible.
Probably the most immediately important thing you need to know is this: this course will attempt to provide you with rich, varied experiences -- of reading scripts, discussing them, attending theatre performances, doing research on drama and theatre, and writing about and discussing all of that. Your job will be to work at learning in the situation I try to provide. The course will expect you to engage with the experiences, and be open to learning from them. I will not lecture about theatre and reading, although I will occasionally, usually in response to questions, talk about my own views and knowledge of those matters. Your writing will not be produced for a professor who evaluates and marks it; it will exist to inform, persuade, engage or amuse other readers. I will not provide "feedback" on your work except in very specific ways (for example, in editing the final copies of Playgoer's Companions). I attempt to provide a structure in which you can learn: the learning is something you have to do. It's not about learning from me; it's about learning with my help. I often say that learning is not something that happens to you; it's something you do.
It's also important to bear in mind that this course, unlike most courses in English, is focused on a process -- not on a list of set texts, or on a particular literary form, period or person. What we'll be concerned with is the way in which a script is changed or reshaped as it moves from the reader's experience (the page) to the audience's (the stage), or vice versa, and the ways in which the readers' and the audience's experiences of it are different. Another way to say this is to say we're concerned with how the situation a text is encountered in -- whether you read it in your room or see it in a theatre, what you know and expect in advance, how others you know, or know about, feel about it -- can shape, or reshape, the way you understand, think and feel about, and respond to it. As part of the process, you'll have opportunities to shape the situations in which you and others encounter texts and performances.
To make it possible to organize this, it should be clear, pretty much everything about the course needs to be rather different from a conventional course; it will be much more like a research and production studio or small enterprise. Class meetings will not be lectures, or even, usually, discussions: they'll either be working sessions or the venue for presentations by a task force of their research about a play. We are scheduled to meet every Monday and Wednesday afternoon from 2:30 to 3:45, but we may well not always meet for the entire time; or we may not meet at all if our time would be better spent elsewhere. Some considerations that follow from this:
Each of the headings below takes up a different aspect of the course.
In this course we will focus not on a pre-determined set of texts, but on a question: what's the experience of theatre, how does it arise from and relate to texts, and how can that experience be influenced by knowledge, experience and understanding? I begin creating a situation in which to explore these questions by assembling a list of theatre productions planned for the local area -- or within a reasonable distance -- and choosing those that involve scripts and authors that it will be possible for us to find out about through library and Internet research. The plays on that list constitute the course's focal texts.
The central method of this course is what I call "collaborative investigation." This means that what actually happens in class meetings is quite different from what happens in many courses. There are no formal lectures. There is a minimal amount of full class discussion, and I do an equally minimal amount of explanation of background (as far as possible, I do this only in answer to questions). The primary activities during the course are individual and group investigation of the course's focal issues or questions. That means that members of the class read widely, do library and other research, interpret, describe and comment on their reading, read and learn from the work of others, and share what they learn in writing -- in large part through the medium of computer networks -- with the rest of the class. We learn, that is, from and with each other.
As I've said, during the term we will focus on plays actually being produced in the local area or within reasonable travelling distance. For most, probably all, of the appropriate plays, the following will happen, more or less in this order:
Much of the work of the course occurs in the library or at a computer, at the theatre, or reading and writing independently, or organizing wiki sites, presentations, or Playgoer's Companions during the scheduled class time. Class time may occasionally be used for work in the library or the computer lab rather than in the classroom, for group organization of research and presentations, and for presentations by task forces. We will use classroom time when it's most useful; when other ways of working are more useful we'll use them. You should plan, however, on being in the classroom every Monday and Friday afternoon unless an alternative is announced in advance.
One way to characterize the "collaborative investigation" approach is to say that it is a course in how to use a library and other resources, such as the Internet, to find out about things -- how, that is, to learn independently. It is also, in effect, a course in writing in various forms and media, for various audiences, and for various purposes.
There are at least two ways in which this method is "collaborative." First, members of the class learn from, and teach, each other through research, discussion and writing; and, second, many of the actual tasks are undertaken and completed by groups rather than individuals. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that in many cases it's more efficient to spread a task among a number of people. Another is that doing things with others can promote conscious reflection on what you're doing, and why. And finally, it helps to learn how to organize and work in and through groups of people, This is often a difficult task; it's worth it.
At the end of the course you should be more comfortable and engaged when reading playscripts and attending theatre performances than you probably are now; and you should have a deepened understanding of the ways in which texts relate to performance, and of the ways in which context (knowledge, experience, and immediate situation) affects understanding and response. Perhaps equally important, you should have a clearer idea of what it means to learn about texts -- what research and publication is all about, in other words -- and you should be a more confident and more skilled learner, and a more confident and fluent writer. You should, that is, have enriched your store of the skills and knowledge necessary to begin learning about any new area of interest, not just this one.
computers, networks and the Web:
This course is computer-based, in that everyone will be required to circulate work to others in the class via computer networks -- email, Web-based discussion forums, wiki spaces, a personal blog or learning journal. Much of this work will be conducted through the university's course management system, Moodle. You will need to send and read email regularly, to enter, edit, and save text in a specified format to a designated location, to register and post on an online discussion form, and to use the library's physical and electronic resources, as well as the Internet, for research. You'll need regular access to the Internet.
The question of evaluation is probably one you're already thinking about. People often ask, "In a course organized like this, how can I have any idea what mark I'm likely to get? I need to get some minimum mark to stay in school (or maybe to keep my scholarship, to get a job, etc.). In the usual class, I know what I can expect and I know pretty well what I need to do to be pretty sure of getting that mark: here, so much is new that I feel very vulnerable."
My primary concern in evaluating a student's work in this course is that the process be fair and open, that it be directly related to what the course is actually about, and that it not poison the learning process by focusing everybody's attention on marks. I believe people learn better when their attention is on the subject, on learning, and on teaching what they've learned to others, rather than on demonstrating their knowledge and ability to some authority. Members of the class should be able to feel confident that they will get a mark that makes sense to them, that they won't be surprised at the end of the course, and should be able to forget their anxiety about marks and get on with the work of learning.
One way in which I try to achieve this is simply by making the consistency and depth of each student's engagement in the course an important factor in determining her mark. One reason for this is that the course is founded on the assumption that to be involved actively in such a process is the best way to learn. If someone is genuinely, consistently and actively involved, and still doesn't learn, I think that's a problem with the course design, rather than with the student.
Yes, you're probably asking, but in practice how do I really get a mark in this class? In short, you can establish a minimum mark simply be completing all the tasks the course requires; you can establish another minimum by writing a final learning reflection; you will get the higher of the two marks. For a full explanation of the evaluation process, see the appended document on "how evaluation works in this course" or, if you're reading this on line, click here.
term papers, examinations, etc.:
It should be clear by this point that there is no "term paper" or final exam in this course. It's important to make it even clearer, however, that there's not therefore less writing or less work. Writing is used to explore subjects, as a tool for thinking, and to share information, ideas, feelings and learning, rather than as a way to demonstrate and measure knowledge. Students in this course, consequently, do a great deal more writing than usual.
This writing, though, is quite different in style and in content from that done in more conventional courses. It regularly describes or reports rather than analyzes or interprets, and it always has as its audience other members of the class who do not already know what the piece of writing has to say, and who need to know in order to continue their own work, or members of the public interested in finding out more about a play. Unlike most conventional classes, writing is not written to or for an instructor who, it is presumed, already knows what the writer has to say and whose aim is to evaluate it. Much of the writing in the course is circulated in "first draft" form; also, however, everyone spends significant time editing their own and other people's writing for "final publication" in Playgoer's Companions or on the course Web pages.
what others have thought
If you want to see what other students who've taken this course thought about it, you are invited to have a look at the result of the survey people responded to at the end of this course last year. It's here. It's worth reading through it, at least in part because the comments of other students may help you see more about how this all works in practice.
who I am and how you can reach me
I'm Russ Hunt (I much prefer to be called Russ. If you're uncomfortable with that, avoid "Professor" or "Doctor." Those terms make me uncomfortable. Use "Your Excellency.") You can reach me by email at email@example.com (much the best way), or by stopping by Casey Hall 308 (I'm there Wednesday and Friday after my 9:00 class, and MW afternoons before class), or by calling extension 424 (if you're off campus, 452-0424).
a final note
It probably will not be clear from this rather exhaustive description that the course is supposed to be fun -- but, according to many students who've taken this course in the past, it can be. At least it can if you think hard, meaningful work and fun can be compatible. Learning, talking, performing and writing are all, in the most fundamental possible way, social activities, activities that put people in touch with each other and with their world, making them part of an increasingly wide and rich social fabric. This course is designed to make those activities as social, as fruitful, and as enjoyable as possible. I hope you'll find them so.