Teaching as Acting and Directing

Article excerpt


It is important that English professors teach literature in novel ways which will help students acquire skills they need to interpret texts. I believe that the professor can play the role of the buffoon and the director when teaching literature to engage students in class and help them discuss and write about literature in a more pleasant and enjoyable way.

"All the worm's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts"--William Shakespeare, As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII).


The world of literary scholarship is based on paradigms which break down to give place to new ones. As many of the social sciences, such as history, literature has been shaken and redrawn over the last few decades due to our growing acknowledgment of multiple perspectives that concede different narratives and analyses. David H. Richter believes that "Radical changes are afoot in the structure and method of professing literature, along with new ways of organizing traditional disciplines." Thus, Richter asserts, senior scholars, "whose ideas have come under debate have had to examine and respond to these challenges, to find new ways of defending old ideas" (2000, p. 12). As scholars engaged in teaching others, Helen Vendler suggests in her article What We Have Loved, Others Will Love, that we should urge our students to prefer the dispassionate presentation of fact, to value concision and clarity, and to appreciate the new critical vocabulary when it brings new dynamism to our world (2000, p. 34). Exposure to critical debates may make literature seem attractive, as Gerald Graff suggests in Disliking Book at an Early Age, and critical readings complemented with discussions may make students catch the literary bug (2000, pp. 4244). Graft mentions Richard Rorty's trouble with Bloom's "just read the books" theory in order to restate Rorty's point that in teaching one text, one teaches an interpretation of it, what literature teachers teach is thus not literature but criticism (Ibid, pp. 46-47). Terry Eagleton proposes in The Rise of English that literature is "an ideology" having "the most intimate relations to questions of social power" and that it could provide a "potent antidote" to ideological extremism since it deals in universal human values and it works chiefly by emotion and experience (2000, pp. 49-51).

Teaching literature can be very rewarding when one considers it acting and directing. We, professors of writing, seem to have forgotten the idea of people as actors on the stage of life proposed by "Old Will." We complain at conferences and meetings about the difficulties we have in our literature class to make our students read and interpret literature, and we try to find innovative ways to enlarge their attention span hoping that they will somehow develop a taste in reading and writing about literature. O, tempora! One might think that what I am about to propose is scandalous or even ridiculous if the reader does not have the patience to follow me to the end and then to pass judgment.

Without further ado, I would like to encourage you to play the role of the buffoon and the director when teaching literature. I must open a parenthesis here and mention that according to OED, the term "buffoon" means a ridiculous but amusing person, and it comes from the French bouffon, which derives from the Latin buffo, meaning "clown." The term used almost interchangeably with words such as scurra (Latin word from which the English language has the word scurrilous), histrio, or joculator. In time, the word came to have the same meaning as mimus and histrio, scurra, and joculator (Ogilvy, 1963, p. 614). After the Norman Conquest, the buffoon became a professional entertainer who, at first, flattered his master and then began to point out the flaws in his master's thinking or acting or even to advise his master with regard to decisions, be they personal or social. …