They say you should do one thing every day that scares you. Eight weeks ago, that thing for me was going to the Village Theatre for my first improv class. Over the last 8 weeks, in addition to laughing a lot and making new friends, I learned that those of us in academia can learn quite a bit from the “rules” of improv. In this post, I’ll share a few of the insights most applicable to college teaching.
Rule 1: “Yes, And” Your Classroom
I first learned about “yes, and” from Bossypants, Tina Fey’s most excellent memoir. It’s the first and most important rule of improv, and it also works as an approach to the classroom. Improv works because you and your partner commit to saying YES to whatever gets thrown out on stage, then adding to it – that’s the AND part. For example: if I tell April I’m excited we’re on our way to see Huey Lewis after we eat at the Cheesecake Factory, she agrees, and then asks if I remember that time we saw Hall & Oates together. Boom! There’s a scene.
As I stood there standing in a circle week after week on stage with 11 strangers, playing word games, pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and laughing until my face hurt, I realized that I had been “yes, and-ing” my classroom the whole time I’ve been teaching. Based on my experience, good face-to-face teaching relies on yes, and as a daily approach. If you’ve ever led a discussion based on a single question, or asked the students a question you intended to build a lecture from, guess what? You just yes, and’ed the class! If you’ve ever agreed with what a student said and added to it, you absolutely just yes, and’ed the class!
My goal moving forward is to simply be more conscious of that action, and look for ways to build in more yes, and moments. It’s a little easier in face-to-face instruction, but I’ve seen it work in online classes, too. For example, when I talk about transmedia in my Digital & Social Media graduate class, I don’t ask every student in the class to start a new thread about transmedia, which is the easy, sort of default way to start a discussion online. Instead, I ask the class to, as a group, come up with some ideas for a transmedia campaign. They aren’t graded on who starts what thread. They’re graded on the overall quality of the ideas they generate, based on whoever starts the idea and whatever other ideas get called up. In this case, the entire class participates in a yes, and environment, and you also see a lot of cool team building happen, if it hasn’t happened in your class already. Speaking of groups, let’s talk about rule #2, which is:
Rule 2: Group Dynamics are Crucial
There were 3 different level 1 improv classes happening at Village Theatre this round of class sessions. Our group quickly identified ourselves as the Tuesday Tacos, since class was on Tuesday night. We started a GroupMe where we had side conversations all week long. We talked about who said something in class that kept us laughing all week. We talked about cereal. We made fun of Will. We talked about movies and D&D and karaoke. We even started to hang out outside of improv, going out for a beer after class and seeing each other on the weekends. (Wait a minute; was my entire improv class dating each other? Sort of sounds like it, now that I write it all down.) When we did a goodbye exercise in the last class, we almost cried. In short: our group became super close, and it made us even funnier, because the more we learned about each other, the easier it was to pull out funny stuff on stage.
So when a student from the Monday class joined us last week, he talked about how his class never really bonded like ours did. They had no GroupMe or week long conversations. They didn’t hang out after class. They didn’t really know each other, and they also rarely laughed at each other’s jokes in class. We were all super sad about that, because the group dynamics were what made our class stand out as unique, and what made every week fun. We truly became friends, and we will continue to hang out on a regular basis even though we’re all super busy, come from all walks of life (we’ve got everyone from college students to a neurosurgeon in the mix) and live scattered about the city.
I think there’s a lot to be said for the importance of cultivating a strong group dynamic in the classroom. Even though GroupMe and other group chat apps have been problematic from a cheating standpoint this semester, especially in our online classes, I’m still a fan of using GroupMe for out of class conversations – not cheating, but talking and regular collaboration. There have been some interesting things written lately about the usefulness of crowd sourcing lecture notes and even group exams (and the academic Twitter conversations on just how exactly we are to handle these sorts of things have been interesting, too). If you play your cards right, and work from the beginning to engage team building and collaboration in class, you might end up with a class that ends up working with you throughout the semester, creating a really positive class culture which could lead to empowering learning experiences.
Rule 3: Don’t Try to be Funny. You Are Enough!
One of the first scenes we did in class was the “you are enough” scene, in which we came up on stage in pairs and had a conversation. We assumed we were in a park. And the point was to just be ourselves, and talk. The point is to prove that you are enough! Whatever life experiences you have, or whatever you bring to the stage, is more than adequate to create a scene or even a laugh. Our host gave us a word to get us started, and then we talked, starting with something related to that word. In improv, trying to be funny can be detrimental to actually getting a laugh. Improv magic works when and if everyone on stage is themselves, and follows a few basic rules. Guess what? We found something to laugh at in everyone’s conversations that night, without anyone even trying.
I’m a big fan of appropriate humor in the classroom. Research supports the idea that humor can improve instructor immediacy, which can improve student motivation to learn. But: some of us just aren’t funny in front of a crowd, nor should we actively try to be funny. I think everyone can benefit from humor in the classroom if the humor comes from a conversational professor who is engaged with the class and the material. If you’re also yes, and’ing what your students throw out to you during your discussions and lectures, you’ll likely get a few laughs – because your life experiences, expertise, and passion for the subject combined with questions and comments from students eventually should lead to at least a few moments of laughter in your classroom. This is all dependent on the subject matter, of course. In something like the field of communication, where I live, one could easily go super serious all the time (especially in today’s political and socioeconomic climate), or one could build in the occasional lighter topics that make people laugh on the way to making your point about something important (like when I bring up this guy to talk about kids and media effects, and how Danish television can teach us a lot about some of the problems with American kids’ television).
Anyone else ever found improv to be a helpful tool in the classroom? Share your experiences here!