Week 2, Day 6
The second week was focused on research. We began each class with groups giving progress reports. Some students had already begun their story-collecting over the weekend. The LGBT group had attended a Gay Pride parade on Sunday, the Tibet group had begun communicating and setting up appointments.
I gave a talk about the concept of “folk research” and how this idea is closely related to the concept of popular education. We talked about everything from recording media (including situations where it is better to not record), to the value of hearing the same story over and over, to the implications of open-source ethics, to the importance of properly introducing yourself. A lot of what I said had to do with power differentials implicit in the interviewer/interviewee dynamic, the importance of sensitivity, patience, empathy. To my pleasant surprise, most of the students seemed to intuitively understand the basics, but were eager to figure out the more nuanced details of it all.
So I asked them to add to this list (most of the stuff on the right side was added), and we had a very interesting conversation out of that. Some students had interview experience and they shared many stories of what had worked or not worked. Others did not have experience and asked many questions. It was clear that there was a good deal of nervousness around this part of the project – it was just outside some people’s comfort zones. So the discussion was very important – it is interesting to note that this was the longest single conversation that we had throughout the whole course, and students kept having more to say, very unlike prior talks.
We played a “Question Game” that I learned from Detroit Summer, going around in a circle asking each other questions – if you cannot think of a question fast enough or you repeat, you are out, and the game continues until everyone goes out. It was a fun silly way of introducing the concept of “Essential Questions,” and after that we worked together to come up with some good types of essential questions, the kind that prompt people to think hard, synthesize, analyze, go beyond the obvious response… “Why? or why not?” “What did you learn?” “Where did that idea come from?” “Do you think it will change?” “Do you really think that is the truth?” and etc.
Students got some group work time, to develop their own more specific questions, and then we got all 3 groups together and shared with each other.
After lunch we did a couple of simple theater games. I wanted students to also have the option of providing interviewees with non-verbal communication, just in case there was insurmountable language barriers or people just had a hard time expressing themselves. So we briefly ran through these two easy, fun games.
I talked very briefly about Augusto Boal, creator of “Theater of the Oppressed,” mostly just saying his ideas are a continuation of the ideas of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” just different medium.
Then we started with the “Living Sculptures” exercise where 3 actors all take frozen poses, and the audience interprets the meaning of the scene created, then we change poses, add/subtract characters, or give new props, and re-analyze. I had the 3 students start in a line, one sitting on the floor, the next standing behind, the third standing behind on a chair holding a stick. The very hierarchical “chain-of-command” feeling of this pose is instantly obvious. From there it got more interesting, with viewers asking actors to rise or sit, face toward each other or away, just to see how subtle changes make big differences in relationship.
When I have done this activity in the past, viewers have almost always focused on direct and obvious relationships between individual actors, “He points at her,” “She raises the stick over his head,” “He cowers,” “She puts her hand on his shoulder,” etc. These students had a much more interesting approach, saying things like “What does it look like if everyone is standing in a line, but all facing different directions?” or “What does it look like if everyone is posing that same way but their heads are at the same level?” etc. Though most students were reluctant at first, eventually we went through at least a dozen scenarios, and a few of the students were very keen on interpreting and studying the different poses. This is a great side-effect of this activity, as I have often done this with younger students to help them understand the communicative power of body language, relationship, height, etc.
Then we did another quick exercise, “Gesture Round,” where we all stood in a big circle, I named one of the group topics, and then each one of us came up with one simple gesture that showed part of that story. I gave very little instruction, so gestures were varied but certain themes come out indicating common understandings or core elements. After making our way around the circle once, we again went through everyone, quickly a couple of times, so that all gestures together made a kind of dance. We did this for all three topics.
After the activities finished, we did a little debrief. Some students really did not like this activity. Some seemed to really love it. One student told me this was his favorite lesson. The lesson I learned is that it is good to mix things up, and even if theater games really have nothing to do with your course or project it is good to demand students use different parts of the brain once in a while. Even for those who were asking themselves “What is the point?” they got to experience something new from fellow students, and I am glad we included these kinds of activities.
I let them have the rest of the day to plan within their small groups, and to make phone calls, set-up appointments, etc. Some left early to attend a talk by a famous Tibetan poet, others stayed in class and asked me and Pinak for advice, etc. By the end of the day, they had all officially started on their work!