January 1997. Today was the start of spring semester, and I have already screwed up! What was I thinking? Completing one three-day workshop with Boal hardly makes me an expert in Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), yet I am naïve enough to offer a 3-hour class on TO?
Ok, I know the methods are powerful. I experienced that power in my workshops with him, but I didn’t realize teaching through TO would force me to change everything I thought I knew about teaching. I am so over my head!
Panicked, I opened bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (1994) and begin to read. Central to her argument is the belief that the learning process should be exciting, but that excitement about ideas alone is insufficient.
As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence. That insistence cannot be simply stated. It has to be demonstrated through pedagogical practices. To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence. There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes. (8)
hook’s builds upon Freire’s method of dialogue through what she calls “engaged pedagogy.” Like Freire, hooks discusses using dialogue as a means to create social change; however, her critical pedagogy includes an added risk for the instructor: the instructor should illuminate academic readings with personal narratives from her own life.
As I re-read Freire, Boal, and hooks, I find myself seriously questioning my practices as a teacher. Am I truly engaging in dialogue with my students? How much influence am I willing to entrust to my students to help shape the class, set goals, and contribute to the evaluation process? Can I risk my authority and power as a teacher in order to de-centralize power in my classroom?
Embracing critical pedagogy as my classroom practice is time consuming, emotionally challenging, and scary. To begin, I have to change how I view the power and status of a student/teacher relationship. To unpack the power relationship between student and teacher, my students and I will need to discuss the concept of oppression, ask ourselves as white, middle-class U.S. citizens (which we all were) if we can truly understand oppression. One of my students writes on an exam, “What if I was not white, or straight, or even male? What would my roles be then? Where would I fit into society?” (Paul Flynn, final paper) These are the questions we grapple with as we analyze external and internal oppression and explore the relationship between society, culture, and our patterns of beliefs and values.
As my students and I work through various TO technique (image theatre, forum theatre, cops-in-the head) I gradually become less a teacher and more a student; I am a participant/observer in the classroom, working beside my students, writing in my journal, and keeping copious notes on our progress in each class session. But something is missing. bell hooks writes: “empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging our students to take risks” (1994, p. 102). So, if I want to build trust, I need to do more than just sit back and watch; I need to model openness and risk-taking. Now that is scary.
As I look at all the obstacles in higher education today, all the things that need to be fixed, I am overwhelmed. I know the system is broken, but I’m not sure how to fix it. Two years after teaching my first class in TO, I had a research assistant contact and interview fifteen of the eighteen students who were in this class, and almost without exception, they all felt the experience had impacted their lives in significant ways: one person left a long term relationship that had been emotionally abusive; another told his family he was gay; a woman confronted her uncle who had sexually abused her. When I discovered all the issues these students confronted in the months following this class, I was awed. TO had a lasting effect on them, far beyond the semester we shared.