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.
It may seem a small and insignificant thing, but, with smaller classes, I always make a point of learning my students’ names early in the semester. Doing so starts to show them that I am interested in them as individuals. Knowing one’s teacher has such an attitude improves a student’s educational experience, as most people tend to flourish under the light of personal care and attention. Moreover, excellent pedagogy requires something other than a standardized approach. Connecting with students is the best way to get them to connect to the material we are teaching. Obviously, students come into our classes with varying goals, abilities and interests. One must tailor one’s delivery and feedback to meet students’ particular needs and thereby bring out their personal best. As I mature as an instructor, moreover, I have sought to expand my role in helping my students make the most of their time at university by realizing that I can do more for them than pass on course material and assess their assignments.
If new instructors are at all like I was, then many are more concerned to demonstrate that they know enough to stand in front of a classroom, than they are to learn about students’ backgrounds and abilities. Time and experience however has served to shift my focus from myself and onto my students and their particularities. In keeping with this shift, I have devised systems to track feedback on past assignments to which I can refer while grading current work. This allows me to identify obstacles unique to certain students, give them challenges commensurate to their abilities, and recognize when they have made progress in these areas. I also routinely set up one-to-one sessions with my students to learn about their background and goals so that together we can find creative ways to connect essay topics to issues that matter to them. When a writer takes a personal interest in her topic the work becomes less onerous and she is more inclined to focus on crafting an argument she cares about than merely producing the sort of rote 3-point essay students seem to have been trained to write in high school.
As much as good student/teacher relationships facilitate academic success, however, so do interrelations between peers. In interacting with one another, students become more aware of varying points of view and stand to benefit from one another’s knowledge. Hence, I devise class activities that are interactive while also encouraging students to take small social risks such as participating in formal debates, role-playing, or otherwise presenting the results of brainstorming sessions. Due to the attendant air of excitement such activities evoke, it is not unusual to see a class erupt into laughter at least once, say, while bringing the cast of Hippolytus onto the Jerry Springer show, writing online dating profiles for Odysseus, or perhaps while setting up counselling sessions in which Plutarch advises Roman couples. Moreover, when students participate in such activities I see them combing through their texts and animatedly discussing course material, called upon as they are to approach various works in a novel and interesting ways. I have come to understand, moreover, that friendships fostered while interacting in my classes have persisted beyond the end of term for many of my students, providing them with an important basis of support through the course of their university careers. As focused as good educators are upon presenting course content well, many may overlook other small and equally essential pieces of a satisfying and successful university experience. Cultivating a sense of belonging inside the classroom and a sense of relatedness that extends beyond its confines both enriches our students and enhances that scholarly knowledge we impart to them.