How improv can transform life in the classroom and beyond it (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

How improv can transform life in the classroom and beyond

My first in-person course after being vaccinated was not, as I anticipated, one I was teaching. Rather, I was a student in an improvisation class I took over the summer. When I was doing research for an academic project, I found a class in Greenville, S.C., not far from Clemson University, where I am an associate professor in higher education and student affairs. I’m always asking my students to take risks and learn new things, and it had been a while since I had done that myself, so I signed up.

I learned some exercises. I met a wonderful instructor and some great people. We were each there for different reasons. One guy did stand-up and thought improv might make him less rigid, another person hoped it would make him a better communicator and at least one person said they were there to work on their social skills. I left with an appreciation of improv, having had a good time learning with the group.

I was also reminded of what Eugenia Villa-Cuesta wrote in Inside Higher Ed last October about her experience incorporating improv skills into teaching her biology course. She wrote, “I needed to get rid of my fears by focusing on helping my students.” She’s exactly right. Through the course of the class, I learned things that have transformed my teaching, advising and thinking about my pedagogy this fall. The way that our instructor presented the philosophy of improv aligns with what I’ve hoped to achieve both in the classroom and outside it. A few takeaways:

Improv is about putting less of you out there and more of you into the group you are working with. Too often as a teacher I think of myself as the leader, convener, facilitator, lecturer or the like. I hold myself responsible for generating all the content and for the success of the course. On the first day, I often say, “If this course goes well, it’s because I’m a great teacher. If it doesn’t, it’s because you as students haven’t done your part.” It is a joke, but the truth is that I am only a part of the larger experience. Students bring their wisdom, insight and knowledge into our learning together. They have lived lives and had experiences that I have not and perhaps cannot.

For instance, at a final course meeting last week, I asked students what they wanted to do that day, and a number of them asked for time to reflect on the semester. We each drew a visual representation of our semester (I saw a lot of roller coaster–like imagery) and were vulnerable in sharing distinct parts of ourselves. The different experiences and identities of all people in our classrooms and other academic communities is something to be celebrated. At the same time, the students’ and my individual stories highlighted how much we have in common across the community of learning we had created. If we can all listen and lift each other up, the learning is better. I relearned that through improv.

The scenes are pretend, but the inspiration is real. Improv is grounded in reality. Similarly, our learning is driven by real concerns or situations we anticipate we might face—whether it involves a case study or a role-playing situation in class, an anecdote or story told to make a point, or hypothetical questions students ask.

Ultimately, maybe we are all making it up as we go and improvising throughout our lives. That said, there is some freedom and the chance to build community as we adapt to emerging situations. Not only is that relevant to improvisation, but it is relevant to how we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. We have new knowledge to apply, but we know now more than ever that we cannot anticipate the scenarios that will unfold in our work or life beyond it. If improv is grounded in reality, then reality is also informed by improvisation. We do not simply have to go back to what was. We can build something new and better together.

As students defended their dissertations this fall semester, I saw communities gather and build in support of scholars. By holding those defenses virtually, people from all over the country and the world were able to join candidates taking the last step on the journey to earning the title “Doctor.” We were able to record the presentations and had the opportunity to capture comments of support and celebration in the chat as reminders of how big this achievement, in fact, is. But we would not have gotten to that without improvising when we could no longer come together in person for those presentations.

Improv is about supporting everyone else around you and improving what they give you. “You can’t be in improv if you’re a jerk, because you have to be supportive of one another,” our instructor told us. When he said this, it reinforced that improv is about the group, not about any one individual. You have to accept what you are given in improv; it’s often referred to as the “yes, and” practice. The accepting is not the end, however. The goal is to then add to what you have been given to make it something more, something better. Improv is about gratitude, creativity, community and giving back.

So, as a result of the improv class I took, I have created a project to study how students use, and can use, improvisation in navigating higher education. I will be engaging with students who are historically underrepresented and excluded from STEM experiences to not only share improvisation strategies in a general sense but also to help them see how they may have already been using those strategies. For example, first-generation college students have to make things up as they go along somewhat, since they do not have parents to turn to who have been there and done that. I’m looking forward to hearing their stories—and then trying to help support them in ways that perhaps neither they nor I expect.

In improv, you assume everyone involved will be successful in every interaction. I think my world would be a bit better if I always assumed the best and then improvised through the pieces that aren’t the best. I pretty much always assume my students can and will be successful. If I can expand that to my colleagues, other people in my life outside work and even to myself, well, that is a lesson that will inspire me to be grateful for a long time. Each of us can become a better person when we believe we are surrounded by better people.

I have found it much easier to navigate moments of frustration at work by adopting this mind-set. Like most of us, I can get annoyed when my emails go unanswered or people do not follow through on things they said they would do. But the combination of COVID and improv has begun to inculcate in me a sense that we really are all doing the best that we can.

I am currently working on a project with my friend and colleague Cristobal Salinas. We have each hit walls along the way but have created space to process such obstacles. We meet every other week virtually to talk through successes and challenges. Often our first sentences start with, “I’m sorry that I haven’t …” but the other one affirms that we are doing good work, that life is hard and that we can figure out next steps. Call it adaptability or flexibility, but we are being vulnerable and moving forward in community with one another.

Maybe there are other ways to think about how we navigate our classrooms, meetings, programs and initiatives. Maybe we can take some of what we already know and use it in new ways. Maybe we carry the answers to our questions inside and just need to let our own ideas and solutions come to the surface. Or maybe we can just make things up as we go. But as improv teaches, we have the opportunity do so in community with others who can support us in often surprising and revelatory ways.

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