Thursday, March 27, 2008

Process V. Product: Classroom Edition!

While I was directing Tempest in Hyderabad, I wrote a few posts about the idea of process vs. product. We know, for example, that "process-based" rehearsals are often more fun, but that "product-based" rehearsals often yield better results for an audience.

(For the uninitiated: "process-based" refers to a system which allows the actors in a performance to create "freely," without any fear of being right or wrong; while "product-based" refers to a system which focuses on eliminating certain choices in favor of better ones, and, while not necessarily dividing things into right/wrong, requires a director to say the dreaded word "no" to an actor -- often many, many times.)

I'm going to write about process v. product in terms of my current theatre production shortly, but right now I want to focus on the idea of process v. product in the classroom.

As a TA, I generally get a section or two of "Introduction to Theatre" every semester. It's the typical American gen-ed course, in which students are exposed to the barest fundamentals of a subject in the name of furthering liberal education.

Like many gen-ed courses in the humanities, this Intro class follows an almost entirely process-based method of teaching (and grading). Effort counts more than result, and participation is valued over content. Papers are graded on whether they answered every question in the prompt, but not on what those answers actually are.

(Incidentally, even though our students were told, repeatedly, that their grade was based on whether or not they addressed every question in the prompt, many wrote papers which did not answer -- or even hint at -- one or more of the questions. Baffling.)

Just as a process-based play is easier to direct, a process-based class is much easier to teach. Everyone feels great, lots of people get As, good times are had by all.

However, today I spent a few hours grading my students' "ten-minute play assignment." (The assignment was... um... to write a ten-minute play.) Because they fulfilled the structure of the assignment (they had characters, speaking some dialogue, with some stage directions) I sat and wrote "nice job! 100%!" on student plays which were, in fact, dismal.

I wished I had the time to sit down with my students and talk to them about what makes a successful play; how to create conflict between characters, how to create believable rising action, how to build to an appropriate climax and resolution. Even more than that, I wanted to talk to them about the very nature of storytelling. Why do we tell stories? What differentiates a story from, say, an anecdote -- or from a description of an event? (Many of these plays were just that: descriptions. Two guys sitting in a dorm room talking about girls and sports and cars for ten pages. No conflict, no momentum.)

I know that the assignment was pure process-based, intended to give students an idea of what playwrights do by having them write a play -- but if the product they turned in wasn't actually a play, then did they really learn anything by going through the process?

But we don't have time to teach them how to really write a play, because next week we're moving on to acting, then directing, then design...

I remember being infuriated at this when I took gen ed courses as an undergrad. I recognized all these easy-peasy courses as simulacrum of the real thing, and I wanted the real deal. I didn't want "Physics and You;" I wanted physics. Eventually, I gave up and decided I wanted to play Earthbound (and write a three-act opera based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses), and became grateful for any gen ed course easy enough to require no mental effort.

I know I've written about this before on this blog, but this whole thing... makes me sad. It also makes me feel like a really bad teacher.

People have been telling me, throughout my entire university career, that I need to spend less time worrying about product and more time experiencing the process. "Put that intellect aside; roll around in the unknown!" Lord knows I tried. I gave up what I knew made sense, and I rolled. But as I approach the end of my graduate career, I'm becoming more and more infuriated with anything that doesn't actually connect process to product. Let's lay it on the line, team: some products are better than others. How do we create them? How do we teach people to create them? That, at the end of all this, seems to be what's important.

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