Sunday, August 26, 2012

Against Appreciation

I have a confession.  I don't like theatre appreciation classes.

Or, more to the point, I am not at all sure precisely why they exist.  Yes, I am familiar with the pedagogical and educational materials on the importance of a "well rounded" education in the liberal arts tradition, and I could not agree more.  However, I find myself confused as to the actual, specific purpose of appreciation class within the dramatic tradition.  The whole thing seems to be a nonstarter.  The broad nature of these classes, running the gamut from introducing the major varieties of theatrical practitioner to an abbreviated history of theatre with a smattering of dramatic literature, seem to come, at the end of the day, to "yup... there's the theatre alright.  There it is."  Yet an entire semester of pointing at something and insisting that it should be valued (which is the abbreviated version of my reading of a variety of apprec course descriptions) cannot be healthy for either teacher or student.  For the latter, they learn less about the operations of the theatre than they would if they auditioned for an extracurricular show, and for the former... oy.  So why do these courses exist?

The argument often seems to run in the direction of "creating a future audience," which is the same line often used by Theatre for Young Audience folks in justifying their distinction (distinction without difference, at the end of the day).  But, aside from the show(s) which the students are required to see during their time in the class, is there any demonstrable evidence that these classes lead to any tradition of attendance in their enrollees?  The evidence suggest a resounding "no."  They see their assigned shows, write their papers, and then stand a very solid chance of never setting foot in a theatre again once the semester has ended.  It hinges on the idea that teaching a student about aspects of drama, about "how it works" will inspire an "appreciation."  Yet the courses focus on cognitive domain development without affective domain accompaniment.  This comes from the survey nature of the course, where one cannot spend enough time on any one thing in order for its value to be demonstrated.  If anything, it may serve to enhance the experience of already dedicated theatregoers.

This model of appreciation seems to be rooted in the idea that, in our media dominated society, live theatre is in competition with cinema and television for hearts, minds, and market share.  Yet, as an inherently social activity, the theatre is truly more in competition with bars, nightclubs, and other such activities.  The decision isn't "Hamlet or CSI: Miami" (at least they both have a Horatio), it is "Hamlet or Hooligan's Nightclub."  Or, given the nature of offerings in many community playhouses, "Legally Blonde or Hooligans."  The community, not the classroom, is the place to fight that particular battle.

And no, I'm not just pissed that such classes have a notorious reputation among the general undergraduate population as being pure "cake."  I am under no illusions as to how a sizeable portion of the student body (as well as a number of our colleagues in the sciences and business programs) view our general education offerings.  The issue that troubles me is that the course is so general, so nonspecific, and that in trying to encapsulate the entirety of the theatrical experience in a single semester, it winds up spawning generalization.  There simply isn't enough time to give a fair assessment of the theatre.  And, as Stanislavski once told us, the general is the enemy of art.

We do not teach all of mathematics in a semester.  From multiplication tables to theoretical calculus in 16 weeks would be laughed out of schools with no standards of excellence.  Then why do it with theatre?  Hell, why do it with any of the arts?  Music?  Why does it make more sense to create an institutionally watered down course?  And why would any self-respecting student take it?

Might we not be further ahead do find disciplinary classes which are geared towards general student consumption?  For example, what about a course like Storytelling, History of Theatre, or Creative Dramatics?  Each of these courses, pointed and emphasizing a specific element of the theatrical experience and approaching it from a specific methodology would be inherently far more than pointing and saying "this is a good thing.  You should to this."  Wouldn't such course also do a great deal to introduce the students to traditions and techniques of the dramatic arts while also giving them something specific and concrete as well?  In our newly skill/vocation-driven system of higher education, I cannot imagine that this would be considered a superior outcome. (It is interesting to contemplate the higher education was initially resistant to teaching drama because it was viewed as purely practical, vocational education... and now that vocationism is the dominant model... it is resisted as being impractical.)

However, when I have attempted to offer courses of this nature, I have been met with a resounding lack of enrollment, causing my courseload to plummet as students flock to Music Appreciation and Art Appreciation.  Which leads to the real kicker, as a method of self-preservation, I create and offer a number of Apprec sections in the online format.  Yes, I teach apprec.  I teach a lot of apprec.  Hence my trouble sleeping at night, because although I do everything I can to lead a fulfilling and interesting course, I still have the feeling that I am trying to make a silk purse from a sow's ear.  If there is a better way, I'm not sure what it is.

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