Waiting for Social Media

I’m very pleased to feature a guest post by Phoebe Thompson, a student in my Theater as Social Media course at Bowdoin College (spring 2016). She wrote this piece as part of the class and I liked her ideas so much that I asked if I could post her response here. I’d like to say that she’s studying theater, but sadly she has some idea about doing research to save the oceans. Go figure.

The term “social media” is an oxymoron that describes a popular form of communication today in which information is transmitted from one receiver to another though the two are not physically together. The term is ironic, because although social media like Facebook allows humans to connect with one another and be “social,” the very act of staring into a screen to check Facebook is antisocial in a physical context. This is evident any time one steps onto a subway car—people are packed into a space, facing each other, but they are all staring down at cellphones, usually checking some form of social media. This effectively destroys the opportunity for physical contact between humans in that car, even though the environment lends itself to conversation. Social media creates presence in one place, but destroys it in another.

In Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, it is possible to see this impact on society in its earliest form. At the time it was written (around 1949), the telephone had become a staple of communication. Beckett had served as a member of the Resistance in World War II, translating and typing information received about German troops. Communication had effectively changed from face-to-face into voice-to-voice. This impersonal, disembodied communication and the feelings it produces are translated in the character of Godot. He never actually appears in the play, but he does send several distorted messages to Vladimir and Estragon by way of a messenger boy. The cyclical quality of the plot created by this ineffective communication, combined with the paralysis of the characters and their feeble attempts to change make Waiting for Godot feel very similar to Twitter.com.

On Twitter, communication also produces seemingly endless cycles, just like the circular plot of Godot. Messages are limited to 140 characters, and sometimes become very distorted in an attempt to fit everything into a single tweet. When a person finds a tweet to be worthy of sharing with their followers, they can retweet it, for which the symbol is: retweet.jpg.

Tweets can go viral, spreading much like a disease, and sometimes can bring fame to the person who thought them up. However, this fame is most often parasitized, because there is nothing stopping other accounts from copying the tweet exactly and using it as their own. This happens so much that specific tweets will “take over” Twitter for a day or two, and then disappear for a while, only to resurface months later once people find them funny again. This is very similar to the kind of humor and behavior seen in Godot, where Gogo and Didi seem to forget their repetitive actions, like looking in their hats or talking about suicide, only to restart them like they were new a little while later. In both Twitter and Godot, memory is short and patterns are cyclical.

There is also an existentialist element to Twitter like the one found in Godot. As Gogo and Didi sit idly and make pointless small talk, they make small attempts at leaving or even changing themselves, but it never results in action. This is very similar to the kind of superficial navel-gazing that occurs on Twitter, where users can build a persona based on their original content and retweets without ever actually following through in real life. Just as we see in Godot, this disembodiment and divide between people gives no motivation for real change.

~Phoebe L. Thompson

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Updating Modern Theatre

As I wrote to my friends on Facebook this morning, I’m doing something different with my Sources of Modern Theatre class this semester. In the past, this 400-level course has included a mix of theatre history, theory, and plays from the 20th century. It’s aimed at seniors and almost always offered in the second semester. TH 468 used to be required for the BFA programs in my department, but over the years these programs have cut this requirement in favor of more practical courses. Traditionally, it’s been one of the few dramatic literature seminars in the department small enough for extensive reading, writing, and discussion.

Perhaps I do not need to add that this has not made the course popular.

So, this semester I decided to do something different. The idea came from this article in WiredIf it students in Mexico as pursuing their own ideas in math, why aren’t my university theatre students doing the same? Do I really know better than them what they need or want from my course? Well, maybe. But, it seemed like a useful question to ask them rather than tell them. Rather than assign work I think the students should read and dictate the outcomes I think they should get, I asked them to define for themselves what they want. On the first day we discussed as a group: What do you want from this class? How will you get it? How will you know if you’ve got what you wanted? And then we took the first two class sessions to write the syllabus together. There were a few guidelines. They had to write at least 20 pages over the course of the semester, they needed to define a metric for regular class participation, they had to select one theoretical reading and one play per week, and there had to be and oral presentation, and they needed to define some kind of final project/performance/paper that would synthesize ideas from the work over the course of the term.

Here is their outcome and assessment grid (structure required by the university):

OutcomesBy the conclusion of this course, students will: Methods of Assessment 
create a model for an original work of theatrical innovation final oral presentation of individual theatre models; B or better demonstrates mastery
identify critical moments of theatrical transformation in-class discussion; class-generated online timeline; B or better demonstrates mastery
analyze diverse forms of drama and theatre practice, and evaluate their impact on contemporary theatre craft in-class discussions; 2 5-page critical essays, each revised and rewritten at least once each. B or better on revised version demonstrates mastery
articulate the social, historical, and biographical contexts for the texts studied and their authors in-class introductions to the authors, including background, history, and relevant information to understand the text presented (will be presented by two students each Monday). B or better demonstrates mastery.
  Specific evaluation rubric for each assessment noted in Course Evaluation.

This initial exercise was valuable at the very least because it demystified the construction of the assessment grid and turned what can be an onerous and rudimentary exercise into a real conversation about why one takes a theatre class, specifically this theatre class. We also voted on the requirements for attendance, the criteria for these assessments, and whether our aims should be proficiency (C+ or better) or “mastery” B or better. I’m pleased to say we went with mastery. (Now, we’ll see how many of us achieve this.)

Although we vote and my vote is supposedly only one among many, it’s clear I have a power advantage in the class and I’m very happy to own this. As the only one who had read all of the plays and theories before, I made suggestions, recommendations, and gave brief teasers on selections that students weren’t sure about. At the same time, I actively resisted the impulse to make their choices “better,” and this was not easy. I wince, for example, that we are reading no Brecht this semester–a significant oversight. We are reading less from the first half of the 20th century than the latter and I would critique our selections as devoted overwhelmingly to works first published in English.

At the same time, however, we constructed some wonderfully wacky pairings that I would have never dared. Rather than reading Arthur Miller’s “Tragedy and the Common Man” with Death of a Salesman, we’re reading it with Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (aka, “Death to Salesmen”?). Appia’s “Organic Unity” sits with Six Characters…, Langston Hughes is together with Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre. My favorite is Marinetti’s “Futurism and the Theatre” with Chekhov, for which some students are reading The Cherry Orchard and others are reading The Seagull (based on previous exposure). Suzan-Lori Parks, Maria Irene Fornes, and Sarah Ruhl are present together with a range of theoretical writings. Wilson’s Fences goes with Yeats’s “The Tragic Theatre.”

It’s not the syllabus I would have written. It doesn’t have lots of things I think are essential and the pairings, though potentially inspired, worry me. But, it’s not my syllabus; it’s their syllabus. Whether or not they’re happy with it by the end of the semester, only time will tell. For now, though, we’ve already had more engaged discussions about the purpose of the class and what we’re reading than many other classes I’ve taught. I’m cautiously optimistic, even as my OCD goes a little nuts.

I’ll keep you posted on our progress this semester.