Evaluating Improvisations

It’s a Monday morning. I’m sifting through quotes.

Bakers sift flower. Professors sift words. Words are vessels for thoughts. Sifting is an analysis of the material at hand. You get it.

I like examining thoughts. That has to be at the center of what colleges are about. Otherwise, what are we doing here, people? Sifting through grant money? Bringing in tuition for a university? Beware the neoliberal academy, fellow academics.

Anyway, I’m sifting this morning. Here’s a warning. This turned into a thought-rant. So it gets messy below. Enjoy at your own risk. Thinking is messy.

I’m thinking about how improvisers evaluate their craft. I suspect that teachers have many things to learn from practicing improvisers, not the least of which concerns how to evaluate their work. I’m convinced that schools would be more joyful, open spaces if teachers were evaluated the way that improvisers are evaluated in healthy improv communities.

Consider what improv director Asaf Ronen (2005) wrote about improv. He suggested that serious improvisers, if they practice long enough, will come across “radically different mindsets of what ‘good’ improv looks like” (p. 20). In other words, good improv is subjective. Asaf even places quotation marks around the word good, that smart-ass. Improv, as a form, welcomes that quality is subjective and improvisers have radically different views of what good improv is without delegitimizing other perspectives. In fact, this difference often lead to unexpected moments of discovery in a scene if improvisers welcome competing views. Improv can facilitate productive dissensus instead of standardizing an arbitrary list of best-practices agreed upon by the powers that be and imposed broadly on others.

There’s something for teacher evaluation here. So much of teaching and teacher education is obsessed with evaluation. Was that lesson “good?” Is that teacher “good?” Look, I’ve met hundreds if not thousands of educators over the last twenty years. More if you include my experience as a student in K-12 schools, which I do in my memoir about teaching. The “best” teachers I’ve had share very little in common. What made them “good?” A million contextual, idiosyncratic things went into my experience of those “good” teachers. Nothing standardized about it. The difference, in fact, might be what made them memorable.

I’m not suggesting there isn’t a discipline or a quality to the craft of teaching. I am offering that teaching, like improv, is as Ronen (2005) wrote, “a personal” art form where people work “without a script to guide their actions and motivations” and “tend to pull a lot from their own lives and personalities” (p. 21). How can we measure all teachers in the same way? Certainly, that’s what neoliberal measurement tools such as the Danielson Framework aim to do. Here is a model that boasts it can be applied across all schooling sites and all teachers in the United States. For the betterment of teaching and learning? Your children? Sure, that’s a good sales pitch. Danielson and like-minded entrepreneurs stand to make a tidy profit if school districts buy into their claims and, in my experience, not enough teachers or administrators or schools resist the idea of “the good” as school reformers such as Charlotte Danielson conceive it. I certainly got burned by Danielson’s Framework.

Should teachers be obsessed with whether or not they are at standard, as their administrators see it, on a rubric such as the Danielson Framework? Consider what Stephen Nachmanovitch (1990) wrote about evaluating improv in his book Free-Play:

“To either like or dislike our work for more than a moment can be dangerous. The judging voice asks, ‘Is this good enough?’ But even if we create something really stupendous, sooner or later we have to perform again, and that inner judging voice is back again, saying, “It had better be better than last time.” Thus one’s very talent can be a factor in blocking creativity. Either success or failure can turn that voice on. The easiest way to do art is to dispense with success and failure altogether and just get on with it” (pp. 134-135).

This is a pretty wild claim our boy Stephen makes here. For Nachmanovitch, improvisation provokes the artist to get rid of the idea of success and failure altogether. Get rid of the idea of “good” and pay more attention to the work at hand. Is that even possible? What might that even mean?

I don’t think Nachmanovitch is suggesting there isn’t a discipline or a craft to improvisation. Quality still exists. But quality is fluid and contextual. I think he’s writing about towards something I’ve seen millions of time in my work as a director of improvisation and a teacher.

People are so afraid to make choices.

“Is this good?” “Is this how I’m supposed to do it?” “What should I do?”

It’s so much easier to look at the teacher for simple answers to simple questions. Complexity? Who needs it? In my experience, teachers are often rewarded in our institutions when their pedagogy asks simple questions and is met with simple answers. Simple outcomes. Establish the “good” and then evaluate whether or not the student met the standard. This creates a dynamic where the student is confirming the teacher’s intentions without making a choice, without creating or tuning into something new. Over and over and over again.

The dynamic I’m describing here is useless to new improvisers. It’s not helpful when you’re working without a script. There is no simple, right answer in improv. No obvious and agreed upon “good” thing that should happen next. Improvisational moments and scenes develop in their own, unique ways and require idiosyncratic responses that vary depending on the people and places involved in the work. We dive into our psyches and let stuff out. What stuff? Why that stuff? Those are great questions. So many possible answers.

Teaching is working without a script. The kind of teaching I value, anyway. There is never a simple, right answer. Classes, mentorships, and pedagogical moments develop in their own, unique ways and require idiosyncratic responses that vary depending on the people and places involved in the work. What’s the outcome? That’s a great question. So many different answers in so many different moments. At least in my experience.

So I’m weary of the teacher who tells me there is one right way to do anything. Human beings are infinite. There’s so many pathways available to us. Why would we impose overly standardized tools of evaluation to limit explorations? Fear. Insecurity. Ego. All these things play into, I think. Nasty stuff.

Teaching and learning can be improvisational. People come together for a brief moment of time to make new relationships with each other and, in turn, new discoveries and new knowledge about what they are. What we are. What might be. That interests me. One person telling another person what the “good” is makes me nervous, especially when their view is standardized and legitimized as the only good. I worry that accepting such a dynamic can freeze your soul. Leave you incapable of making choices. Make improvisation impossible. Scary.

One last quote. Well, two, actually. Both are from Viola Spolin (1999). The great-great-(great?) grandmother of Chicago improv. Here’s the first one:

“There is no one as dogmatic as the six- or seven-year-old who “knows” the answer. He is already reflecting and accepting the patterns of the world around him. He is right, and they are wrong! It seems almost impossible at first to eradicate this judgmental and thus limiting words from these very young children” (pp. 295-296).

Okay, two things. First, women can improvise too, Viola. What’s with the “he” language? Second, damn, Viola, that’s good. Children impose their views on others. I’m not so worried about six- or seven-year-old children. I’m worried about children in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who think they “know” the answer and impose that knowledge on others as objective truth. That’s not pedagogy. That’s fascism. Check out this next quote from Viola:

“How a teacher-director questions his students during Evaluation must always be carefully watched, so as not to put his ideas or words into the minds and mouths of students. And while it may be true that only one grandfather out of twenty thousand will climb around couches  as does a six-year-old boy, it is a reality that is possible and therefore the student-actor has the right to explore it” (p. 297).

Two more things. First, the “he” language is nuts here. Grandfathers and boys. Okay, Viola. Feminism happened. Get on with it. Second, damn, Viola! The student-actor has the right to explore an idea, even if that idea is beyond the teachers understanding or intention. That’s radical yes, and. It is not the job of the teacher to put words or ideas into the mouths of students. The teacher’s job is to create a space where students can come to ideas or words, in relation to their teachers, in their own ways. Sometimes the words are surprising. The teacher should be okay with that. This all seems very true to me.

Let’s go one step further with these ides. Perhaps, it is not the job of the teacher-educator or school administrator to impose a right answer for what “good” teaching is on teachers and future teachers. Instead, maybe it is the work of leaders in education to facilitate spaces where teachers cultivate their capacities to translate experience and knowledge into meaningful experiences for students. In fact, the obsession in education with measurable results might have led to frameworks of teaching evaluation that do little more than create and solidify judgmental voices that renders educators unable to make choices, to improvise. Crush the teacher, serve the standard. Folks like Charlotte Danielson get rich. Yikes.

Okay, I think I’m done sifting for now. I hope the bread rises.

Works Cited:

Ronen, A. (2005). Directing improv: Show the way by getting out of the way. New York, NY: YESand Publishing.

Sawyer, R. K. (2004). Creative teaching: Collaborative discussion as disciplined improvisation. Educational researcher33(2), 12-20.

Spolin, V. (1999). Improvisation for the theater: A handbook of teaching and directing techniques. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

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