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There are certain parallels between Jerry Springer and Greek tragedy.

Unless my students have laughed out loud at least once, I typically consider my tutorials an abject failure. It’s not that I’m the funny guy or anything, rather, I try to induce laughter by design. That is, I usually try to devise something that is interactive while also encouraging students to take small social risks. Such risks, combined with an attendant air of giddiness and excitement, is such that students eventually make each other laugh. One of my favorites for creating this type of mood is my newly minted Jerry Springer activity, and, believe it or not, it’s got some demonstrated pedagogical value to it as well. Janice Rehner’s “Practical Strategies for Critical Thinking” inspired this activity which takes around 1.5 hours from set-up to finish. I use it to encourage students to look at a complex issue from various points of view and thereby enriching their perspective. Most recently I applied it to Euripides’ play Hippolytus, but, with enough imagination, it can be adapted for use with most moral issues.

In the play Hippolytus Aphrodite instigates a complicated plot to punish the young virginal man who gives the play its name. The goddess of love is miffed because Hippolytus not only fails to give her her due, but actively shuns her in favour of that uptight virgin-loving tomboy Artemis. A large number of characters play a role in the tragedy that unfolds, and all will have various degrees of culpability for the eventual death of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. (spoiler alert!). Aphrodite made the poor woman fall in love with her unresponsive stepson, such that Phaedra kills herself to avoid shaming her family.

Anyway, you get the picture, it’s a complicated plot but with just enough characters to make oh say, 5 or 6 groups, while assigning one character to each group. The first thing I do when I get to class however, is play a clip from Springer to confuse the students and set the mood. I love confusing my students for short periods as I believe that confusion is an essential state for learning, plus it’s just fun to watch the expressions on their faces.

After assigning a character to each group I explain that we’ll be recreating the Jerry Springer Show using the cast of Hippolytus. “Really get into character!” I tell them, “be Aphrodite!” Each character will go onto the show, pick out the character/s they blame most for what happened, and give these wrong-doers the ‘what-for.’ In other words students work together to draft up statements that they read when they confront the character/s they blame the most. What becomes evident through the course of the show, is that the nature of the tragedy will differ from each character’s perspective. For instance, Phaedra and her loving nurse are going to be much more upset about what happens to Phaedra and won’t be apt to care all that much that Hippolytus comes to such a violent end. Moreover, different characters will each have their own unique set of bones to pick with other characters.

After each character makes his or her statement groups reconvene and work to come up with responses to the allegations made against them. By now students will have warmed up to the activity and we start to see them acting the part a bit more and here is where you start to laughter breaking out. I don’t actually make them get up and act things out or anything (but, I wouldn’t stop them if they chose to do so!).

As I noted earlier, this activity has demonstrated pedagogical value. The reason I chose Hippolytus for this was that students had to write a paper answering the question “who is to blame for the tragedy in Hippolytus.” The trick to this paper is not only to identifying the main culprit/s, but also adequately describing the nature of the tragedy (a lot of students seem to forget that Phaedra dies in this story). According to one TA, typically in the past he ends up getting a pile of generic papers blaming the most obvious candidate: Aphrodite. Interestingly, when I got my students’ papers, only a couple picked out Aphrodite as the prime suspect. Admittedly, it became a problem because there were some who failed to even mention her role. But at least they were encouraged to examine the issue from different angles which I would say is a great start on the road to critical thinking.