What I learned this week in University has been extraordinary.
The weeks leading up to the first week of classes have been a whirlwind, as colleagues on the faculty and staff have examined under a microscope what each of our learning objectives is for the semester, and how to make sure that the syllabus and the ensuing assignments reflects those. All the while making us ask ourselves, “What have we been doing until now?”
Over the summer, we’ve completed an intensive 6-week course about teaching off-ground. We’ve populated our Learning Management System (that’s called BlackBoard at my university) with modules guiding the arc of the class over the semester. A wise colleague in a best practices session years ago revealed the secret of building that arc with dramatic structure, as though you were writing a play. That’s stuck with me since then.
Individually, we’ve stuffed the readings, the videos, the probing questions to spur discussion in class into the weekly modules, with the hope and breathless anticipation of young parents stuffing their children’s stockings by the fireplace on Christmas eve.
The University has trouble shot and anticipated all the things that could make a class go sideways – adding heightened security to the access to Zoom, ensuring that only the students and faculty in the class have access. The university pre-populated those zoom links right in BB so the students would know where to go. Nothing worse than not finding your classroom on the first day!
As admins, we hired adjunct faculty to lead our various sections of Production Experiences, which began as zygotes of ideas from the creative minds of our production and design students. We then assigned the students to seminal idea pods, opened the doors and shoved some exciting and diverse designers and actor/activists into the rooms with them to begin constructing the collaborations around those ideas. As faculty heads, we’ve sat in on the preliminary sessions. I’m still putting my thoughts together about what I witnessed this week, but it sure looked like committed engagement to the exercises even in spite of trepidation about not knowing the usual path to performance. Sounds like real learning to me. More on that later.
In my Freshman seminar, Theatre Scene, I teach a dozen non-theatre students about the Theatre Scene – how to read a play, learn how a play is put together, and then how to identify and describe what they are looking at when the see the play comes to fruition, usually on stage.
All the planning in the world is critical, but if the students don’t open their Christmas stockings and dive in, it makes for a heavy slog in the classroom.
So, I’m happy to report they seem to have embarked on the journey with good intentions. The pandemic has presented us with some amazing alternatives to our usual course of exploration through the school’s season of plays.
The model is:
- Reading a play
- Learn about the playwright and the time in which the play was written
- Analyze the play’s structure
- Explore and research the “given circumstances” to determine what a creative team needs to know before presenting a play.
But first, I thought we’d begin by questioning and exploring exactly what is a theatre in this unearthly time we find ourselves in.
Back in April, I tried to feed my voracious appetite for live theatre with a hearty online diet of everything I could find in the virtual cupboards. In addition to some brief snacking on daily interviews with Broadway stars stuck in their homes but sharing music and stage ephemera in the pursuit of raising money through The Actors Fund, I discovered the Zoom Plays by Richard Nelson. The first, launched on Youtube in April 2020, involved members of the Apple Family, last seen in 2014 at the Public Theatre. The siblings, Richard, Barbara, Marion, Jane, and Jane’s partner, Tim, met on a family Zoom chat to dissect “What Do We Need to Know?.” Nelson’s prolific career as a playwright, librettist, director, and now producer has centered in the last decade around the aesthetic of verisimilitude in the Rhinebeck Panorama.
Nelson was quoted back in a New York Times preview article of the April live zoom performance: “All I can say is, ‘We’ll see,’” Nelson said. “But this is the life we live in right now. So trying to find a way to live in that world and articulate that world feels important.”
I remember the feeling of my own early zoom social calls, friends gathered to compare incredulity about the world events locking us in our cells, and in the tiny cells across the screens of our computers. The second play, “And So We Come Forth” is the one I’d asked my students to read, and this weekend to watch. On Thursday, the second class, they had clearly found the Christmas stockings, and the 10 remaining students (I lost two of the in the first week – how careless of me) dove into the discussion with vigor and delight, many of them not having a lot of experience reading plays, all disarmed by the natural way Nelson’s dialogue unfolds. It was truly gratifying. In the play, two of the characters describe hearing from a friend who plays a game at night with her husband, asking life probing questions which they then share with friends. Using the breakout rooms, I asked the students to come back with questions they are asking themselves. I was moved by their universal breadth and depth.
Friday, I spent the day “on the ball,” seated in front of my computer for a 6 out of 8 hour Zoom meeting of the Academic Senate/Provost retreat. It was exhausting, but there were fascinating panels:
- What have we learned going on line?
- The evolving nature of faculty work and implications for faculty composition
- Fostering and Sustaining an anti-racist culture at USC
- Diversifying the faculty
Later, Friday night, I hauled upstairs a slew of packages – the very heavy one, a new Apple product I’d been waiting for. After five years with my MacBook Pro, I had invested in a new MacBook Pro to take me into the 20s in style. A life long Mac user, from the very first square computer with 3×5 disks, to this glossy, dynamic creativity partner, I’ve always enjoyed the beautiful way in with which they envelop their products. Speaking of Christmas stockings, there is not anything as seductive as peeling back the plastic on the box, raising the lid, leveraging the computer (in its beautifully designed sleeve) up with the tab underneath.
There’s always that moment where after you’ve oohed and ahhed over the sleekly redesigned screen and keyboard; the moment of realization (I remember this in 2015) that “Oops, there’s no more cd slot. No more headphone plug” For me this time, it was the realization that there’s no more HDMI port – all the slots are the same USB-C slim little ports. It is a small price to pay for the seductive offerings I had seen on the video sales pitch prior to plunking down my Apple tithe.
- 16-inch Retina display
- Up to 8-core Intel Core i9 processor
- Up to 64GB memory
- Up to 8TB storage
- Up to 11 hours battery life
- Touch Bar and Touch ID
- Backlit Magic Keyboard
And there it was, out of the box, clamoring for me to worship at its sleek gray shrine, and so at 11:00PM, after the long week’s events, I did just that. This was the first time I managed to set up my new computer by myself without the aid of an experienced IT guru. He would be very proud of my progress. There are only a few things that I seem to have botched and not too badly.
The rest of the first week of school was filled with the usual gazillion zoom meetings, a return of my staff to work, daily walks to the Reservoir, a bounty of deer (Thursday), the discovery of an unfortunate unexplained swelling of my feet, and occasional glimpses of the Democratic convention at night over the top of my computer as I studiously wrapped the gifts to put in students’ stockings.
My recently stated resolve to clear the shelves of my darling’s books was short lived. Last night, as I waited for my new computer to suck the contents from the old, I set a sturdy cardboard box down by the bookcase and stood assessing which ones I would remove first. And stood. And stood some more, silently, each book’s spine eliciting access to a tender shard of my husband for which I was unprepared. I’d even bought some Ex Libris stickers to put inside the books prior to donating them to the Library. The box sits dumbly empty still. I may need some help.