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On stage at The Comedy of Errors that night, long-lost twin brothers embraced to the swelling strains of “Amazing Grace”; offstage, in the seat next to mine, my Very Reluctant Student turned to me—misty-eyed, breathless—and whispered,
This is your sign to take students to a performing arts or intellectual event this semester. I know it’s a big ask. Faculty fatigue is palpable. Budgets are gutted. Asking professors to do anything extra seems, well, downright insulting.
But here’s my pitch: these outings are uncannily efficient delivery mechanisms for many high-impact practices that promote student learning and well-being: they’re emotionally charged and novel (Cavanagh, 2016; Morrens et al., 2020 ); they provide common intellectual experiences and foster faculty-student connections (Kuh, 2008; Chambliss and Takacs, 2014); they raise questions through art (Bain, 2021); and they foster empathy (Rathje, S., 2021). One-stop shopping. Here’s how to maximize the benefits for your students, your university, and even—gasp!—yourself.
Hyping your event on the first day of class is a surefire way to build intrigue. Show a theatrical trailer or images from the play you’re planning to attend. Going to a poetry reading? Share a verse or two. Have tickets for a speaker? Show part of her TED Talk. Get a baseline by asking students to discuss their prior experiences with these types of events. Spark their curiosity by sharing vignettes from previous student outings (“This one time, Petruchio entered wearing leather chaps and nothing else!” “Then, Gloucester’s fake eyeball rolled off the stage and onto my student’s foot!”).
As always, transparency is key. Students work harder when they know how an activity will benefit their learning (Brown et al., 2014, pp. 229–230), so be explicit: “Mark your calendars for Macbeth on November 15” is less motivating than “Here’s how attending Macbeth on November 15 will help us accomplish our fourth learning objective.” Communicate that this event is integral, not extra, by including it in your course calendar and making it required.
Whether we like it or not, students are sizing us up on day one, and those impressions tend to stick (Buchert et al., 2008). Showcasing your event demonstrates that you’re not a lather-rinse-repeat instructor who hastily dusted off last semester’s syllabus and plans to coast through on autopilot. This semester will be different. Unique.
To make this learning experience as active as possible, apply the same robust set of research-based principles that govern the rest of your teaching choices. First, don’t send your students in “cold”; assign readings or documentaries that will allow them to feel like they’re part of the conversation. I’m reminded of my former student who can pinpoint the precise moment he decided to pursue a PhD in literature: reading a few essays on Hamlet emboldened him to ask a question during a scholar’s pre-show lecture on the play. “I felt like I belonged there,” he says.
Speakers love prepared students too. Native American activist Winona LaDuke, for example, was visibly delighted when my students arrived with their well-worn, annotated copies of The Winona LaDuke Reader; physicist Mario Livio clapped and cried “Bravo!” when a student quoted a passage from Why: What Makes Us Curious? Quick tip: many speakers’ and performers’ contracts include educational outreach clauses, so don’t hesitate to ask the venue’s artistic director to set up a meet and greet or small-group discussion for your students.
Preparation is powerful, but prediction is your secret weapon. If you want students to pay attention, ask them to make predictions about the event beforehand (Lang, 2016, pp. 41–62). For the symphony: “Now that you’ve read Othello and listened to Verdi’s Otello, what do you predict will be the most emotionally moving scene?” For the theater: “As we’ve discussed in class, Macbeth’s witches can be depicted as malignant puppet masters, passive observers, or somewhere in between. How do you predict this production will treat the witches?” I think of these predictions as little buoys that students can cling to as the performance or presentation washes over them.
Instead of having students write reflections about the event and submit them to you alone, invite students to make their work public. They could interview each other for your university’s podcast station or post a review for your course blog. Working in a real-world rhetorical context with a specific audience will bring purpose and meaning to their writing (Borst & DiYanni, 2020).
I’m lucky to have both a performing arts center and a speaker series on campus, so a few years ago we developed a one-credit honors class that we informally call the “How to Be a Curious Human Seminar.” Each semester, students and I choose four or five events, attend them together, and meet once per week to prepare and discuss.
The best thing about this course is that I’m not an expert on anything. One semester, our lineup included the Russian Ballet’s The Nutcracker, political correspondent Jamelle Bouie, and journalist and author of Concussion Jeanne Marie Laskas. Am I an authority on Tchaikovsky, racial politics, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy? Nope. No problem! My students did their own research and presented mini-lectures on these topics. As it turned out, one of my students had grown up dancing, so she talked us through some scenes from The Nutcracker. A political science major in class selected a couple of Bouie’s articles and led discussions on them. Our cohort also included several football players who shared their experiences with the multiple concussions they had sustained over the years.
This seminar is an honors program highlight—many students, in fact, enroll multiple times. Together, we’ve attended avant-garde dance exhibitions, improv comedy shows, and National Geographic presentations. We’ve led standing ovations for world-renowned cellists, Tibetan drummers, and Irish folk singers. We’ve guffawed at The Importance of Being Earnest and recoiled in horror at Frankenstein’s cruelty. On one occasion, I was forced to attempt hip-hop dancing at a spoken word performance (it wasn’t pretty).
Every time I teach this seminar, I’m reminded how little is gained by an instructor who projects the (illusory) notion of absolute authority in the classroom.
“Of course she takes her students to the theater—she’s a Shakespearean! My discipline just doesn’t lend itself to this kind of thing.” I hear you. But remember, that same disciplinary exceptionalism defense is also given about flipped classrooms, effective program assessment, process writing, and problem-based learning, all practices that we know are good for students’ learning.
So get creative. What business ethics class couldn’t be enhanced by an outing to Death of a Salesman? What physics major couldn’t benefit from analyzing a ballet? Take your leadership class to Henry V, your biology class to that Earth Day poetry reading, or your sociology class to Puccini’s La Boheme. Be brave.
And please don’t let content coverage anxiety dictate your choices. Instead of shoehorning an outing into the imaginary list of topics or texts you have to teach, consider finding a suitable event first and building part of your course around it. I’ll teach Richard III and Romeo and Juliet next spring because they’re both playing nearby, which means we may not get to King Lear. And guess what? I won’t get struck by lightning. My students’ positive experiences with Richard III and Romeo and Juliet will make them more likely to attend King Lear on their own next time it comes to town (and that’s really the point).
Some semesters, planning an outing is simply too daunting. Securing funding. Arranging transportation. Exchanging voicemails with group sales reps. Making sure Nana can watch the kids. I get it.
So, work smart. Start by finding in-house opportunities and consolidating your efforts. If your theater department is putting on a play that connects to your class, do they need an audience for their final dress rehearsal? Win-win. Know a communications major who could moderate a Q and A with the cast afterward or a journalism major who could write a review? Win-win-win. Could Admissions invite a group of prospective students to the event? Win-win-win-win. Could media and communications office capture some footage for your university’s website? Win- . . . well, you get the idea.
Also, try this quick mental reframe: view these events as bulwarks against burnout, as activities that replenish rather than deplete. I know, I know, it’s not about us, it’s about our students. But it’s not not about us, either. It’s OK to admit that a book reading inspires us as writers or a play reminds us why we wanted to teach this stuff in the first place. Are there snowy February evenings when I curse myself for buying tickets to that play back in August? Of course. But having 40 students waiting for me to board that bus to the theater guarantees that I will attend anyway. And I am always glad that I did.
It’s the strangeness, after all, that we sacrifice when we choose to teach. That first blush of wonder. I will never again be completely blindsided by Ophelia’s madness, or surprised by the way the floor vibrates when the string basses signal the Capulets’ entrance in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I no longer gasp when Caesar’s assassinated or Hamlet’s poisoned. But my students are experiencing these moments for the first time, and bearing witness to that feels special, even—dare I say?—sacred.
One final request: please have students sign a thank you card and send it to the behind-the-scenes professionals—house managers, ushers, box office associates—who assist you. They, after all, work hard to make those “whoa” moments happen.
Bain, K. (2022). Super courses: The future of teaching and learning. Princeton University Press.
DiYanni, R., & Borst, A. (2020). The craft of college teaching: A practical guide. Harvard University Press.
Brown, P. et al., (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.
Buchert, S., Laws, E. L., Apperson, J. M., & Bregman, N. J. (2008). First impressions and professor reputation: Influence on student evaluations of instruction. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 11(4), 397–408. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-008-9055-1
Cavanaugh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
Chambliss, D. F., & Takacs, C. G. (2014). How college works. Harvard University Press.
Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. American Association of Colleges & Universities.
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. Jossey-Bass.
Rathje, S., Hackel, L., & Zaki, J. (2021). Attending live theatre improves empathy, changes attitudes, and leads to pro-social behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 95, Article 104138. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104138
Nichole DeWall, PhD, is a professor of English at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois, where she teaches Shakespeare, medieval and early modern literature, drama, and composition courses.