Peter C. Wood, PhD
– Teaching Philosophy –
My teaching philosophy and practice are informed by the importance of four key principles: the value of practical and embodied knowledge, scaffolding as a pedagogical tool, the classroom as community, and the necessity of reflective practices. Even before John Dewey, there has been a long tradition—borne out by contemporary cognitive science—that speaks to the importance of the practical application of theoretical knowledge. In other words, we learn by doing. In theatre, our performance classes and many of our design classes are necessarily about actually doing things with bodies and materials. However, the concept is also necessary in other classrooms. In dramatic literature classes students develop their script analysis skills by performing short scenes in front of the class. They also exercise research and presentation skills by sharing production histories of specified plays. Students in my historical avant-garde class synthesize their learning about various movements by creating art based on the styles and philosophies of each movement. Such practice-as-research—be it Dada collage, Expressionist dance, or a Futurist performance script—gives students a deeper and more embodied understanding of the material. Class discussion is another important tool that allows students to practice clear and persuasive communication. Allowing students the time to verbally work through complex concepts or passages is crucial to their intellectual development.
Scaffolding is always necessary to master a new concept, be it performative or intellectual. Before students in my introductory acting classes begin work on their principle open-scene projects, I give them simple, four word versions. Students then perform these scenes a number of times, each time adding one discrete element, such as a specific relationship or one new given circumstance. This practice allows students to both apply and evaluate how small changes can alter a scene’s meaning. In non-performance classes, students regularly break into small groups to work on discrete elements of the reading. For example, in dramatic literature, groups are asked to identify the central idea of the play. Each group then prepares a short presentation supporting its claim with evidence from one of the remaining five Aristotelean elements. Other students are then asked to either dispute or support the presentation using evidence from their own assigned element. This mirrors the final project that students will have to complete on their own and allows them to apply script analysis, the gathering of textual evidence, and critical responses in a low-stakes situation.
I am dedicated to making my classroom a space for building community. This means being forthright in my expectations of student work and behavior, as well as my own role and responsibility in the classroom. Clear objectives, goals, and expectations for the course, as well as for each class, provide a structural order that helps everyone understand how our community operates. Each class begins by looking back at previous work and allowing students to raise any issues or questions before I outline the goals and tasks for the day. Additionally, I show respect and attention to the ideas and thoughts of everyone in the classroom. Even when a student’s argument is flawed, I allow them to make a case for their idea. Instead of simply shutting them down and saying “no,” I offer counter-arguments and suggestions. This behavior models what I expect from my students. I guide them to respond in a similar manner and allow their colleagues to speak in full before presenting alternate points of view. Additionally, community is built on the importance of recognizing and valuing difference. Unacknowledged privilege in the classroom devalues these differences. I have a duty to be aware of how such privilege enters the classroom via structures of race, culture, religion, socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, and power dynamics. This is why I defer to a student’s choice of pronoun and their own sense of identity, be it racial, cultural, sexual, or gendered, and why it is important to present diversity and inclusion as a regular part of every course. One example is using the Tumblr site “Medieval People of Color” when teaching medieval and early modern theatre, as it is an important resource that vividly shows a surprising diversity of cultures and bodies present in European art during the period.
I am also increasingly concerned with how little time most of us have for reflection. The constant influx of information through our various digital devices can disrupt the cognitive processes that convert new knowledge to more complex levels of understanding. This is why, in all of my classes, I use journaling to provide a practice of contemplative pedagogy. In the final five minutes of class, students are asked to write, by hand if possible, about what we covered in that particular class and how it connects with what we have studied previously or to their own lives. I also journal during this time, focusing on what elements of the class worked well, what elements did not, and how I can improve my own performance to better match my teaching philosophy. Urging students—and myself—to cultivate a habit of reflection helps us all understand our journey through the material in deeper ways, making connections that we might not make otherwise. Students then type and submit a number of these journal entries, allowing me to see what connections they are or are not making during the course.
In his essay, “Theatre for Pleasure, Theatre for Instruction,” Bertolt Brecht wrote that the “contrast between learning and amusing oneself is not laid down by divine rule; it is not one that has always been and must continue to be.” Everyone who has spent time making theatre knows that joy and work are not mutually exclusive. Neither should they be mutually exclusive in the classroom. By insisting on practical knowledge as much as possible, giving students a clear set of scaffolding tasks and concepts, building community, and urging reflection, I attempt to create a classroom space that stimulates a creative and joyful approach to both life and learning.
Theatre & Performance Studies
Theatre scholar, teacher, director & sound designer as well as a web/graphic designer, writer & occasional musician/composer.