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Acting in a Composition Class

(cross-posted on the CUNY Humanities Alliance site, here.)

At LaGuardia, English 102 — the second composition course — is called Writing through Literature. We need to teach three genres throughout the course of the term: poetry, drama, and a genre of our choice (no surprise that I’m doing comic books for Prof’s Choice — Ms. Marvel, specifically).

Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of acting.

We’ve been doing a lot of reading aloud of the script of Intersections, a play written collaboratively by LaGuardia student actors and their directors. I’m actually delighted that my students haven’t had the opportunity to see the play yet (though we will later, in May — when I told them about the opportunity, they cheered almost as loudly as they did when I told them I proposed to my girlfriend over spring break. They’re a good bunch, to say the least.).

I’m delighted they haven’t seen it yet because the acting — the intonations, the gestures, the interpretations of tone, of movement, of emotion — that my students are bringing to this brilliant script is all their own.

When they read from their seats or — even more fun — when they get up in front of the class and perform from the script, my students are able to lift what’s on the page into their movements, their voices, their stumbling over words and their confident deliveries of sharp one-liners.

And this acting, this risk-taking?

It’s already making them — making us, as a whole — better writers.

We were talking in class about what happens in our heads when we read something. It’s like we’re all actors, we concluded, even (and sometimes especially) the shyest and most introverted and most anxiety-stricken among us: when we read, we’re simultaneously actors and directors and stage managers, all in our heads, as we translate what’s on the page, on the screen, into the screen, the stage, in our minds.

We take what we read and we give back to it with our own thoughts, our own experiences, our own imaginations, our own emotions.

And isn’t that what the basis of writing is?

I chose their required research assignment to come in the middle of the term, not at the end (as it typically is). I did this because I wanted my students to shake up the notion that the endgame, the goal, of writing classes is the fetishized research paper (which is inevitably what we’re arguing when we place it at the end of a backwards-designed course). I did this, also, because we are paying special attention to what we think the students (and professors) who collaboratively wrote this script had to research, had to tap into, during their own writing processes. We’ve been discussing the Intersections script explicitly as a draft, a work-in-progress, because that’s exactly what it is.

And that’s exactly what all of our writing is.

And, as they act it out, as they think through research vis a vis the performance of words on a page (pun intended), I’m already witnessing my students’ analyses get deeper, get richer. Their writing get more involved, simultaneously more clear and more convoluted.

So, acting in a composition class?

The Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who, wearing 3D glasses, in his pinstripe suit, pointing and gesturing wildly as he shouts,

The Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who, wearing 3D glasses, in his pinstripe suit, pointing and gesturing wildly as he shouts, “Oh, yes!” gif from http://gifsec.com/wp-content/uploads/GIF/2014/05/oh-yes-reaction-gif.gif

Absolutely.

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