Russell A. Hunt
St. Thomas University

Making Student Writing Count:
The Experience of "From the Page to the Stage"

Atlantic Teaching Showcase
Mount Allison University, Sackville
27 October 2001

[as published in Atlantic Universities' Teaching Showcase 2001: Proceedings,
Ed. Gary Tucker and Denise Nevo. Halifax: Mount St. Vincent University, Spring 2002. 121-130.]

If you believe, as I do, that the single most important thing an institution of higher education can offer students is support in becoming more adept at dealing with written language -- as critical consumers of it, and as effective, fluent, and powerful producers of it -- you probably spend a lot of time thinking about how such abilities can be developed as part of teaching courses which have nothing, explicitly, at least, to do with writing and reading.

If you don't believe that, probably not much of what I have to say here will seem very compelling, because it will likely seem a process of moving away from ("shirking" is a word often used) the main business of education, which is to ensure that students have a thorough grounding in the content and methods of disciplines. I won't, however, apologize for that. What I have to say is grounded in my conviction that helping students become more fully literate is more immediately important than any subject matter I have command of, precisely because I believe it is only by helping them become more fully literate that I can help them become skilled and informed practitioners of my discipline, or any discipline or field of knowledge.

What I propose to do here is to outline one way in which I have addressed this challenge. In this case, my response to the challenge involved not merely adapting an existing course to make writing and reading serve different, and what I believe to be more educationally effective, purposes. In this case the course was conceived with that purpose in mind from the very beginning. I offer a description here of how that course was designed and conducted, not with the expectation that anyone will go off and do likewise, but in the hope that the considerations and constraints operating in this case, and the specific kinds of thinking and acting involved in presenting the course, will offer an occasion to think about the functions of writing and reading in quite different courses and disciplines.

English 2223, "From the Page to the Stage," came out of two or three areas of interest I had been involved in.

One was the increasing interest, in our English department, in what we're calling the "performative" aspects of literature (it's obvious, I think, that such an emphasis is entirely consistent with my concern for audience). It's my experience that traditionally, in English departments, literature is taught the way music might be taught in a school for the deaf: as an exercise in translating one form of notation into another. We felt that we wanted our students to have more opportunities to hear and see it performed, to experience and reflect on and talk about being audiences for its performance, to perform it. This led to my thinking about how I -- one of the last people likely to teach a course in which plays were produced -- could create one in which students were led to pay attention to actual performances, and to attend directly to the relationship between the written words on the page and the experience of theatre.

At the same time, I was continuing my long-standing interest in understanding how literacy learning occurs. Without going into a great deal of background here (some references to my work and that of others are in the list of readings, below), the fundamental idea I've been pursuing since the early eighties is that language learning in general occurs most powerfully when the learner is using language for something she is genuinely engaged in. This is fairly easy to see in the case of infants learning their first language -- no one hires experts to teach them; they learn because they need to learn in order to achieve food and comfort and identity. It's harder to accept that this model is also powerful in later phases, like the deepening of literacy which accompanies "higher education," because we have so heavily invested in the idea that direct instruction is the only realistic alternative. Writing, in schools, is for assessment, for proving you know something you've been told.

Certainly, most of the research that has been done on "authentic motives" for writing has suggested, or assumed, that in schools -- and in university -- there is not much opportunity for engaging in writing that genuinely matters to the writer. The most ambitious study I'm aware of, a seven-year observational project conducted at Carleton and McGill, comparing learning to write in university faculties and in paired professional situations -- is reported in the recent book Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. The authors make very clear the distinction between what they call "authentic purposes" and writing which serves "systemic" functions -- that is, writing that's produced to demonstrate learning and to be graded. Their conclusion is that the "real world" and "school writing are worlds apart.

My own view is that they do not have to be, and that if we can find ways to create situations in which student writing matters -- to the writer, and to someone else -- it can change and deepen learning. It is as part of my attempt to pursue ways of doing this that "From the Page to the Stage" developed.

The most immediate factor in the creation of the course came out of a device I had occasionally used in other course, one I called "Playgoers' Guides." In my first year "Introduction to Literature" course, for instance, I had occasionally organized groups of students to do research on a play being produced on campus, assemble and share their research, and then publish it in the form of a single folded sheet of information about the play, the playwright, previous performances, or whatever, and actually distribute it at the theatre with the company's own programs. One of the most successful such enterprises had been an ad hoc group of volunteers who produced a "concertgoers' guide" for a performances of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas by a local chamber choir (they signed themselves "The Widow Dido Task Force.")

As the English department talking about the "tilting" of existing courses and the possible invention of new ones in the service of making performance more central, it occurred to me that such an activity might become the basis of an entire course. The confidence that I could justify such a course as part of an English curriculum was bolstered by my conviction that writing with real, authentic audiences, and varying ones, is an irreplaceable experience, and that this form of situated writing was one of the most authentic such occasions I had found. The question was whether such a course could be organized given practical constraints such as availability of public occasions for such research and writing, and the accessibility of texts.

The central breakthrough in organizing the course was my realization that everyone didn't have to read all the same plays, and that no one would have to read all of them. I decided that everyone would need to do a certain minimum number of tasks, and that the class meetings could be used primarily for organizing those tasks, and for giving students an audience on which to try out their presentation of what they'd learned.

In the event, it turned out there were over fifty students in the course, far more than I'd expected or planned for. Given that I wanted workably sized groups to work on each play, this mean I needed to locate eight or ten local productions occurring during the term. What made this particularly difficult was that the productions needed to be ones for which it would be possible to read a published script ahead of time, and do research on the author and the play. A production of a script written locally by a student, however good it might be, was not grist for this particular mill.

My central aim was to afford students a number and range of experiences from which it seemed to me they stood a good chance of learning some things about how plays worked, about how language is realized, about the ways in which written language could serve their purposes in their role as researchers and disseminators of what they learned.

I was lucky. During that term there were nine local productions of plays whose script already existed and which had been produced elsewhere, ranging from Theatre New Brunswick's mountings of The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls and The Drawer Boy to Theatre UNB productions of plays by Christopher Durang and George Walker, to a high school production of Guys and Dolls and the St. Thomas drama class end-of-term production of various scenes. (Like almost everything else referred to here, details of this are available from the course Web site, listed among the references. In this case, a complete list of the plays we used is there, along with a term schedule.)

Here's how each student's work during the term was structured. This is quoted from one of the written "prompts" through which the business of the class is mainly carried on:

For four plays this term (including Attic), you need to read the script, write about the reading, see the production and write about that. My estimation is that this is about 7-8 hours' work in total; four plays would be about 28-30 hours. For one other play this term (this will be your focal play) you need not only to read the script and see the production, but conduct research on it, participate in planning and delivering an in-class presentation on its context and background, and participate in producing a "Playgoer's Guide." My estimation is that this will take up about 15 hours in total. And finally, for two other plays you'll need to respond formally, in writing, to a group presentation (that'll take no more than about 45 minutes), and see the production and write about it (another three hours or so each). And for each item you complete you'll spend a half hour or so writing an email to me explaining what you did and what you learned doing it (for seven tasks, that's about another four hours).
Each student was responsible for keeping track of her own progress through this agenda and making sure she didn't fall behind. And each signed up, at the beginning of the course, to participate in a group focused particularly on one of the plays. This is how that was described:

A group, responsible for that play, will read the script; each member will write a public "first take" or reflection on it. The group will conduct research on the script, its author, the tradition or context it was written or produced in, previous productions, etc. -- anything we can learn about the play which will help us to understand it better and more fully. The group will present some portion of what it's learned to the rest of the class -- possibly through a Web site, possibly through distribution of printed material, possibly through an in-class presentation, more likely through a combination of all of these. The rest of the class -- particularly members of two other groups, who will be the "designated readers" -- will help the group select from and organize its research findings so that they can be distributed in useful form to the audiences for the production. The findings will be published, probably in a leaflet to be distributed to audiences at the theatre Everyone will attend the production and write a public reflection on the entire experience

A couple of practical considerations are also important to mention. One is that the class met formally only one night a week. This meant that from Monday to Monday the primary contact between members of the class -- for instance, the members of working groups investigating particular texts -- was via email. It's also important that texts for plays were shared among the class, either by being put on two-hour reserve at the library or by making a limited number of photocopies available for borrowing. This regularly required contact among members of the class between formal meetings; most of this contact was via email as well. All these emails are, in my view, an important experience for increasing a student writer's facility, if nothing else.

What this all meant, then, was that to finish the course each student had to do a substantial amount of writing, in various situations and for various purposes, none of which except the emails to me reflecting on the process and their learning were, in the words of Worlds Apart, "systemic." All had (at least potentially; much depends on the extent to which students can internalize this new rhetorical situation) the potential authentically to inform, amuse, entertain or persuade other people; all had the potential to be media for the student (or the group) to present herself (or themselves) to the rest of the class, to the audience in the theatre, or to visitors to their Web site.

Here's a partial list of the kinds of writing each student did:

Whether this whole process had the effects I hoped for is, of course, a subject on which it's difficult to be categorical. Measuring learning even of the simplest things is pretty difficult; measuring the kinds of change in disposition toward writing, and flexibility in understanding and responding to rhetorical demands, and in reading a wide range of texts with engagement and understanding, is pretty close to impossible.

One can, of course, present some effective examples of a kind of writing that might well never be done without this rhetorical situation. One student responded on her Web site to reading Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw like this (in part):

I really enjoyed reading the script. I often found myself laughing out loud in James Dunn and drawing some unwanted attention to myself. The first thing that struck me was how amusing the characters and their dialogue was. The dark humour, present throughout the script, relies on the audience being aware of certain stereotypes and facts about the period in which it was written. In that sense it is dated, but that by no means causes it to lose its edge, for if one takes the period into consideration then they will find it equally funny. At the same time there are many parts of it that have no connection to a period in time and stand one their own. . . . The property and costume listings left little to be imagined, as did the set design. Lighting does not seem to be of much importance. However, I am curious to see if UNB follows French's directives. I am somewhat doubtful that they will. For one thing, I do not think that the stage a Memorial Hall could accommodate such a set.
Another student reported on seeing the TNB Drawer Boy, after having read the play, written about it, seen the presentation of the group's research Web site and read the Playgoer's Guide:
The Drawer Boy is the simplest most complicated play I have ever seen. It is also the most moving play I have ever seen and I have seen a lot of plays. The play was so intimate having only the three characters which also made for an extremely warm atmosphere. But it was also intimate on the level through the manner in which the actors effortlessly (or what appeared to be effortless) drew you into their lives, causing you to feel everything they are feeling. For example, I did not feel bad FOR Angus, I felt BECAUSE of him. When he was upset I was upset, when he was confused I felt the frustration he was going through. It was truly amazing, strange, and unique. I am not saying this so I can be saying something neat, it's really what happened when I saw the production and to tell you the truth upon realizing this I was kind of freaked out. . . . Michael Healey really writes for the stage, not the page, and that is what is so great about this play. . . .
Of course, one might say (I might say) I probably picked good examples. I can be checked on this, however, since all the student writing is publicly available on the course Web site. I think it's clear that by the end of the term, in general, control of tone is far stronger, across the board. (In what other situation can you easily imagine a student writing about a complicated, academic idea, "I am not saying this so I can be saying something neat, it's really what happened when I saw the production and to tell you the truth upon realizing this I was kind of freaked out"?)

I don't want to give the impression that the course was brilliantly successful for everyone. Anonymous course evaluations included lots of comments from students who didn't agree that they'd learned much, like this one: "The student task forces allowed me to learn about different scripts, playwrights, and productions. I felt I was being taught through these presentations. Everything else was based on my experiences. I am not convinced that learning from my experiences can be considered receiving education."

On the other hand, occasionally I found ones like this: "Using the web pages have made me learn in two ways. I gained experience working with publishing a web page, and also, I realized the importance of being accountable for what you write publicly. When the Professor mentioned that the cast for one of the plays had the web address for our reflections, I felt a great deal of responsibility for what I had written (and criticized) that I had never felt before in my writings at University."

Some further reading

The main page for the course is available on line, here. Titles below which have links are also available on line.

Dias, Patrick, Aviva Freedman, Peter Medway, and Anthony Paré. Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1999.

Hunt, Russell. "Collaborative Investigation Online: Eighteenth Century Literature Moves to the Computer Lab." Computer-Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom. Volume II: Higher Education, ed. Zane Berge and Mauri Collins. 93-110. Hampton Press, 1995.

-----. "Consolidating a Paradigm Shift." Technostyle, in press.

-----. "'Could You Put in Lots of Holes?' Modes of Response to Writing."Language Arts 64:2 (February 1987), 229-232. Repr.Interwoven Conversations: Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection, by Judith M. Newman. 378-382. Toronto:OISE Press; Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1991.

-----. "Some Strategies for Embedding Writing in Dialogic Situations."The Point: The Newsletter of SCENT - UPEI's Senate Committee on the Enhancement of Teaching 5.1 (June 1996): 3-4.

-----. "Traffic in Genres, In Classrooms and Out."Genre and the New Rhetoric, ed. Peter Medway and Aviva Freedman. 212-230. London: Taylor & Francis, 1994.

Kohn, Alfie, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993.