Stand Up for Yourself

Maria Shine Stewart examines what comedy class can teach instructors about what they do in their own classrooms.

August 26, 2011

Humor has saved my sanity on more than one occasion, and sanity is required for civility. Columnist Gina Barreca posed a question I recast as can civility and humor co-exist? I hope so. In a world sometimes on edge, whatever brings one back to the more positive potential of the present moment is important.

As well as the traditional ways of preparing for a new semester – reflecting on the past, reading articles, brainstorming with peers, tweaking syllabuses and lamenting the extra flap in my waistline — I dip into TV comedies. I have a special affinity for stand-up, and in the past academic year, I saw two live shows – one at a college, one at a club. It’s a way to relax. And I took it even a little further this summer, taking part in a local improv class, in order to learn.

And one might ask: Learn what?

The importance of sustaining flexibility.

Improv work and classroom teaching share common qualities/characteristics. Good performers think on their feet. Despite hours of planning, practice and rehearsal, there is the necessity of being in the moment and fielding surprises. Creative sparks may fly – along with other sparks.

To be too rigid in a classroom is a prescription for distress. Gentle improvisation can be fun; children engage in it all the time. They play. This is not to turn every – or any – class into comedy or chaos. Rather, it is a reminder to flex with student questions — even, especially, digressive ones. Listen for the answer lurking in the question, intuit the reason for the question, read nonverbals and provide authentic response. Sense the mood of the group – what I dubbed early in my teaching life “the energy of the class.” Some classes and people are more expressive; others more restrained. Know class energy and flow with it.

Teaching is a creative process.

Several theorists track stages in the creative process, and one point is the impasse. That’s when one may have gathered information or tilled the soil -- but no precise signs of life have emerged. It’s unsettling. When students talk about being stymied partway through a project (not the struggle to begin, which may require different strategies), perhaps listen. They may not need vast advice but just enough encouragement to persevere, until “aha” blossoms.

My first day of improv class was almost my last. I had my nose buried in my writing, afraid to look at my terrified peers or instructor. This is not my modus operandi as a teacher, but in this unfamiliar setting, I was afraid. What can be worse than trying to be funny and failing? Maybe being serious – and then being laughed at.

As teachers, our authority is implicit. But in improv class? That hook in old movies for pulling the hapless offstage might have been destined for me.

The value of perseverance.

After cultivating my insecurities and recognizing I was stuck, I got back to work with new material. I wrote to my teacher, just like one of my own students might. I wrote, rehearsed, stepped away, returned. Second class: better.

Your best self can shift.

Even in the hospital nursery there are indications that we have inclinations in temperament from birth. Some speculate that half of our personalities might be a given. If that’s the case, we can still cultivate quite a bit.

In the classroom I model what I hope students will use in my discipline – passionate reading, dogged writing and revising, sincere listening, and kind speech. If I feel shy, I need to come out of my shell. If I want students in the limelight, I must remember my way back into it.

Move it.

There is a quick Rx for a softer voice. It’s called a microphone. Obviously, the alternative in a classroom is to move more. There is a quick Rx for a booming voice. Quiet down. If any one of us – bold voice or not – stands in just one spot, it’s not even sound projection at all. When I was hurt in an accident years ago, upper body fluidity – including neck range of motion, and I love to nod -- was taken from me; then, I still tried to move with my emotional self. Move – in mind, body, breath -- to allow for more even/better overall projection.

Obstacles really are obstacles.

Once you’re teaching – or doing comedy – you may be oblivious to the room’s sweltering heat or numbing chill, the equipment’s hiss or beep, the flicker of lights. Your listeners may be distracted, though. Don’t be afraid to say: “I’m disappointed that the server is down… it’s 55 degrees … I’ll check into that sound that reminds me of the dentist’s office.” Stoicism is fine to a point, but don’t be a martyr.

I invited a powerful baritone to a computer classroom once. He confirmed the difficult acoustics, showing me things -- floor to ceiling and wall to wall -- I would not have noticed that interrupted vocal projection. He reassured me that it was indeed difficult for teachers and students alike to be heard in there.

Define your space.

On stage and in the classroom, move a little closer to listeners; most humans react favorably to proximity. With our current environments of boxy computers and electronic podiums, not every room is equipped with a clicker – but they could be. It’s dark and even nerve-racking to poke around in knee-high cabinets where essential equipment is stored. Bring nimble fingers, even a flashlight, and have the number of the help desk on hand. On stage, be prepared if something doesn’t quite work out. There’s nothing much you can do in such situations except: breathe.

The heckler, the haggler, the hacker.

Know your own best way for asserting authority, and don’t get rattled by your racing heart or sweaty palms, natural under threat, if you encounter any of the three “Hs.”

My superpower is silence, so if there is off-task behavior, I wait. I pull direct confrontation (a rarity) outside of the classroom.

As a novice teacher, I struggled with a contingent of whisperers. “I wish I could do the teaching and someone else could be the bouncer,” I told a supervising professor. He shared his top-secret maneuver from his years as a high school teacher: an assertive gesture pointing toward the talkers -- or out to the door -- with few words but a very firm stance.

Make sure you have an emergency move for dire situations, too.

Accept yourself.

Just as some may have brushed their hair today searching for random strands of gray, others may have hoped for a few with pigment. And others: just hair. Be kind to yourself as you prepare for class – or any speaking engagement -- with your own scrutinizing eyes staring back at you from the mirror. A friend experienced in improv told me that I’d have to move through personal vulnerabilities to get to the other side; she was right. My subject matter was childhood bullying and attempts to transmute the pain in adulthood. Maybe we can; maybe we can’t.

Most students relate to the real; be professional but be sure you feel at home in the skin that is your clothes. Fashions and expectations change. Accepting chronological age – whether at the sunrise or sunset of your career – isn’t easy. Any flaw you have makes you unique. Even as your project an image, people are projecting right back on you. If there is even some alignment, that’s enough.

Reward yourself.

Even the most unrelenting workaholic needs a reward. Choose what lifts your spirits. Teaching, like improv, is an art in process; some days will go better than others. Not everyone will get all of what you are attempting to convey at any given moment.

What’s important on a kinder campus -- or on stage anywhere -- is giving it that old college try.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, which explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


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