Last year I submitted a course syllabus and accompanying (ir)rationale for “TH3171 – Theatre History from the Ancient Greeks to the Neo-Classical Age” to this forum. The (ir)rationale allowed me to elaborate on my choice to teach the canon against itself, as it were, by teaching skills for deconstructing the materials we encountered as we encountered them. I named my plan of action tactical failure: “I have chosen not to construct a radically global theatre history syllabus that can address [Steve] Tillis’s concerns and blaze new trails through the halls of the university, but, rather, one that allows me to perform the limitations of the traditional theatre history survey timeline along with, and for the benefit of, my students. This tactical failure takes a cue from Beckett’s motto in Worstward Ho, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’”
I’m writing now to report on that experience. In the words of Lisa Le Feuvre, “Even if one sets out to fail, the possibility of success is never eradicated, and failure once again is ushered in.”* These words describe a paradox at the heart of failure pedagogy; namely, that the results of tactical failure will likely lead to great confusion. Did I succeed in failing? Is that even possible? What precisely have I succeeded in doing by performing the limitations of traditional theatre history survey courses? Did my performed failures elucidate anything for the students or were they just plain old infelicitous attempts at action—non-exciting failures (fizzles?), as opposed to productive failures? After reflecting on the highs and lows of that particular course, I came to two realizations:
- Tactical failure [as described in my (ir)rationale] helps to teach students the value of self-reflexivity and the benefit of asking good questions: What is this source that I’m reading? Who translated this text? How much of my contemporary, U.S.-based, privileged viewpoint is shaping my reception of this medieval play (for example)? These questions are fantastic, and students recognizably appreciated grappling with them.
- Tactical failure did not offer clear strategies for reading old texts, nor does it offer insight into the art of theatre scholarship, by which I mean the craft of doing research.
In short, tactical failure encouraged students to research topics on their own, but it did not teach them the skills to undertake that research. After reflecting on that experience, I decided to approach the 2012 version of TH3171 from a completely different angle. My main goal was to teach strategies for undertaking historical research, thereby introducing theatre history through the doing of historiographical inquiry. I divided the semester into three sections. Section one presented Ancient Greek tragedy, Sanskrit Drama, and Noh Theater as the foci of a case study on Ancient Theater. Through lectures and class discussion, I modeled strategies for learning about these historically specific theatrical practices and introduced students to how historians and theatre scholars have gone about studying these events that happened so long ago. Section two introduced the concept of comedy and asked students to track how comedy had changed from the time of Terence to Molière’s day, and from seventeenth-century France to the world of Aphra Behn and Restoration England. Section three presented a rigorous research project to students that challenged them to practice the ideas we have explored in the first two parts of the course. Guided by detailed prompts (available on the Faculty Club page), students generated research journals and blogs to share their research process; they locate diverse materials—texts, visual art, secondary sources—that lead to an in-depth understanding of an assigned topic such as Yoruban ritual, Russian Theatre pre-1750, and Tudor Drama (to name but a few). Distilling all of their information, students presented a lecture or a performance to the rest of the class that elucidated their specific topic and helped the class to understand how they went about their historical research. By asking them to construct an annotated bibliography while undertaking their research, I was able to collate all of their sources and distribute a lengthy bibliography to the class at the end of the semester.
The experience of teaching this syllabus called to mind the words of Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman: “Failure is an argument for acceptance. To embrace failure is to surrender the will to control.”** Instead of revealing the inability of canonical works to illuminate the mysteries of the world through tactical failure, I found myself letting go of the reins to the class so that the students could collaborate with one another and inch towards their own discoveries. The relaxing of my grip on the class did not mean that I could not teach lessons. Reading Odai Johnson’s essay on Terence and genocidal memory (in Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions) during the first section of the course, for example, allowed me to turn the class’s attention toward the power of absence in the archive. It was only through the doing of the research project, however, that students could put the knowledge gleaned from that article into practice. The effort of completely remaking my theater history syllabus yielded great surprises and a sense of satisfaction among the students that they were learning skills they could transfer to other courses. I will happily re-deploy this syllabus in the future, and I invite you all to borrow from and adapt my assignment prompts to fit your needs.
* Failure, ed. Lisa Le Feuvre, (Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010) 12.
** Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman, “The Anatomy of Failure: An inventory,” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts vol. 17, no. 1 (2012): 110.