Why Do this Project? Part II, or My Collaborators Offer Their Thoughts

Last week I posted on why I am committed to the project that moves TD 301 from a bricks-and-mortar class to one that meets online as a SMOC. I am not doing this project alone, however. I have two collaborators, Andrew Carlson and Laura Baggs, both of whom have significant expertise in teaching in general and with this course in particular.

Dr. Andrew Ian Carlson is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance where he is head of the B.A. in Theatre and Dance. He is also the managing director of the Oscar G. Brockett Center for Theatre History and Criticism.carlsonDr. Carlson is a professional dramaturg, actor and teaching artist. In 2016, Dr. Carlson received the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. He also received the 2015-2016 Dad’s Association Teaching Fellowship and the 2015 award for outstanding Theatre and Dance faculty. Read his full bio here.

My other collaborator is Laura E. Baggs, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Performance as Public Practice Program and the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre History and Criticism Fellow. She is an artist-scholar who investigates gender and issues of in/equality through performance. Baggs comes to the Performance as Public Practice Ph.D. Program with a M.F.A. in theatre practice: staging Shakespeare from the University of Exeter and a M.A. baggsin performance research from the University of Bristol. Read her full bio here.

Andrew Carlson
My first response to the idea of doing an online version of Introduction to Theatre was that theatre classes do not belong online. In other classes, I have strict rules that prohibit technology in the classroom. I tell students that learning about theatre means learning how to be present with other human beings in a shared space and time. The first day of class, I tell them that when they are online, they are not present.

At the same time that the idea for this SMOC gained traction, I was teaching an Introduction to Theatre class for four hundred students. I taught passionately, exerting constant energy to make the class engaging, challenging and entertaining. But despite some successes, I had to admit that there were limitations. I did not always connect to students. Being in a shared space did not guarantee “presence.” During many classes, there was an inescapable anonymity that was at odds with my idealized version of the theatre classroom.

Later, my colleague Dr. Charlotte Canning challenged me to think of the possibility that our students relate to technology differently than we do. They have personal connections to YouTube artists and communicate constantly through blogs and social media. The interactions are meaningful and even intimate. I recognized that I had a bias against technology that may be getting in the way of teaching students.

Today I want to teach this class because it is online. I want to find out if I can meaningfully connect to students through a camera. I want to develop tools that deliver content more effectively because they are on online interfaces. I want to discover how to create a sense of “liveness” in this format. I want to explore structures that mirror well-constructed television shows, full of rising action, dramatic turns, and central questions that create dramatic tension. I want to explore what it might mean to be present with students who are not physically present.

Laura Baggs
As a second year PhD student in PPP I am very excited to be involved in developing TD 301 as a SMOC for primarily one reason: the unique pedagogical experience which I hope will translate into an effective and engaging learning environment.

I am fresh from my first semester teaching the current bricks-and-mortar version of TD 301 at UT. Something I thought a lot about before stepping foot into the 500+ person lecture hall on the first day of class was the place of technology in my classroom. Should I allow my students to have their phones out? Should I allow students to take notes on laptops? Should I ban cell phones and laptops all together? How much would a ban matter in such a large space? These questions were fueled by a desire to create an environment for my students which would be the most conducive for their learning. What’s better: taking notes by hand or typing them? I assumed that the more technology I allowed them to have at their fingertips the more opportunities I provided them to distract themselves.

The transformation of TD 301 into a SMOC turns my dilemma on its head as we have the opportunity to use technology and media to its fullest rather than fight against it. I think this opportunity to reimagine what we know about pedagogy based on the current bricks-and-mortar version of TD 301 will enrich my training and experience as an educator and prepare me to teach the students of tomorrow. And, perhaps more importantly, I hope a born-digital TD 301 will engage our students in yet unknown ways and meet them in the 21st century.

Why do this project?

The reinvention of TD 301 as SMOC will involve massive resources (time, labor, and money) from many people and units on campus. Our current course works well and is highly rated by those who teach it and the students who take it. Why bother? If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

There are a lot of excellent reasons to jump into this project now. The project is not about fixing something, but about trying something new. It’s a project that draws on digital humanities, pedagogical theory, histories of the academy, and artistic experimentation. If nothing else it is worth doing because it is exciting and more than a little intimidating.

To explore why we are doing this project I have identified five broadly defined areas of inquiry. I outline them here (in no particular order) and each will also be the subject of its own blog post.

1) Faculty and Curriculum
At UT we are very fortunate that the creation of online courses has very much been a faculty-lead initiative. Under the auspices of Project 2021 we have control over content and design. There was a time, however, when this looked like it would not be the path of online teaching. Earlier in the 2000s, when the MOOC bubble enveloped the academy, courses were often imposed with little input from students or faculty. This lead to a widespread backlash. But SMOCs are different. They are taught in real time, the faculty member is on campus and available to students, class content can be responsive to the current moment, and students can interact with the instructor during the class. SMOCs demand their own critique.

2) Histories of Technology and Teaching
As a historian I am always thinking about precedents. This is no less true of my teaching than it is of my research and writing. One question I am increasingly exploring is, why is the 19th century lecture still so prevalent today? Why do we continue to embrace a teaching method that grew out of a specific set of historical circumstances that no longer pertain? What are the benefits of this way of teaching and learning that no other model can provide? The development of TD 301 as a SMOC is a way to think about what 21st century teaching might be. I want to know what I can do in an online course that I can’t do any other way.

3) Pedagogical Theory and Training
Pedagogy is one of the primary focuses of the PPP graduate programs. We want our graduates to be well on their way to teaching excellence by the time they defend. Our students get classroom experience as TAs and as instructors of record. They take a formal class in Pedagogy. They graduate with solid experience as well as with a polished teaching philosophy, sample syllabuses, and a facility with a Learning Management System (LMS, which at UT is Canvas). What they have not had at this point is any experience with digital pedagogy. More frequently higher education is turning to these ways of teaching. How many of our PhD students, however, are ready to lead these efforts when they become faculty members? TD 301 will become part of the way we develop tomorrow’s teachers today.

4) Students, Community, and Technology
My students, my teenage daughter and her friends never put their phones down. They feel connected with the You Tubers they follow. For them, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook have redefined what intimacy and community mean. How can we capitalize on this? Older generations lament that our phones are making us selfish or detached and impersonal. Nevertheless, what might it mean to connect with students on the platforms they embrace? When I was a teenager the “generation gap” was a common term and posed as an unbridgeable gulf. How can we stop treating these platforms and devices as generational divides and start using them as intergenerational convergences?

5) Live Performance
This category is simultaneously the subject and the method of my inquiry. Theatre (and dance, despite the exclusionary course title) does not simply supply the content. Their histories, methods, and practices also shape how and why we do what we do. The movement of this class into the virtual realm cannot ignore past and current ways that live performance has shaped the very things we are undertaking in this project. Theatre and technology have a millennia-old relationship from the Greek ekkyklêma to the Renaissance chariot-and-pole system to the 19th century Mr. Pepper’s ghost to the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera and beyond. It was a play that introduced the word “robot” to the world. Even the art itself—performance—has long been posited as a way to teach. As Horace defines it in Ars Poetica written c. 19 BCE, theatre is to “instruct and delight.” As we move the class from the bricks and mortar space (its own design influenced by centuries of purpose-built theatres) to the virtual space of the online classroom, how will theatre and dance come with it?

Moving Theatre from the Classroom to Your Computer

filmingEvery semester thousands of students enroll in a huge lecture course that introduces them to theatre. The majority of them know little about theatre or the arts and are curious. They sit in large lecture halls and listen to the instructor far away at the front or the room. The experience in many ways mimics that of the theatre.

But what happens to such a class if it moves online? What are the implications of teaching an art form that relies on the body’s physical presence with no bodies at all? This blog follows the process of transforming the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas’ course for non-majors, TD 301 Introduction to Theatre, from a bricks and mortar class to a Synchronous Massive Online Course or SMOC.