Yes, in spite of what many of my former students may have thought, I often did worry about at least some of them a good deal more than most of them probably suspected. Again, most probably won’t believe it, but I don’t think I ever assigned what is referred to as a “bad” grade, without a considerable degree of sadness. Not enough sadness, I confess, to make me believe that I should assign a higher grade than I felt was actually earned, but some sadness, nonetheless.
I don’t think I was really very different from at least most of my colleagues in this, however. I’ve never known anyone who was involved with education who actually enjoyed assigning low grades. Yes, one could say that there is a minor amount of Sadism which can come out when one is developing tests, especially essay-type tests. There is a certain gleeful wickedness in devising questions which require the responder to pull together disparate facts and try to explain relationships between them or between events and/or trends in the development of something. NOTE: I am NOT apologizing for all of those Theatre History and Lit/Crit questions which I put on tests asking people to “compare and/or contrast” two plays; or explain what it would have been like to see this play during the period it was written; or how the theatre of one period is different from and/or similar to that of another period, etc. You know, the questions which had “no ‘correct’ answer.” I will admit that I often enjoyed thinking them up, but my intent was always to challenge the student to actually try to make the connections and see the relationships between the various periods, styles, performance modes, and the like; and then express their thinking in a manner which others could understand. I knew (and still know) that this wasn’t easy, but I think that this was the point; it’s what education is supposed to be and do. I hope those who have come after me have seen the value of this and have made it a part of their practice.
I know I was, at least on occasion, criticized for not giving enough “positive reinforcement” to those who tried but didn’t obtain as high a grade as they thought they should. What I’m not sure I ever explained as clearly as I might have is that the Theatre is a business of RESULTS, not just of efforts. Robin Williams has told the story that one of his acting teachers once suggested that “Method acting can be like urinating in brown corduroy pants; you feel wonderful, but we see nothing.”
I would add to that the idea that you (the student) are unlikely to find that many directors (even in education, let alone in the “real” world of commercial theatre) will spend much time giving “that was really good” notes. Their focus is, almost always, on what ISN’T working. Based on that, one could suggest that, for a faculty member, it is a part of the job constantly to push for improvement, not just to praise the work done in the past. It’s only my opinion, of course, but I didn’t feel I was doing my job unless I was trying to make each of my students better at whatever they were doing in relation to that particular class. My job was to TEACH them, not to build their egos in order to be their “friend.”
If we could be friends along the way, so much the better, but that was not the point of what I was doing. I did wish to be a friend to my students. I wanted them to trust me to be fair, but honest with them, to tell them the truth as I saw it about their work. Sometimes that led to praise; sometimes it led to some disappointment, on both of our parts.
But, what’s, ultimately, important in the theatre (as an actor, designer, director, scholar, writer, or whatever) is the result, not the effort. If what you do isn’t effective in terms of communicating to the audience, it really doesn’t matter how hard you tried. I think that’s what Williams’ teacher was trying to say about “the Method.” If it helps you, fine, but your task, ultimately, is to communicate to the audience. If that isn’t accomplished, it really doesn’t matter what you have done, or how hard you have tried.
Anyway, these are some of the things I have been thinking about as the new school year approaches. I guess that it’s hard to break the habit of thinking about “school” at this time of year, even after one has been “out of it” for over a year. I wonder if I’ll still think about this sort of thing in five, or ten, more years. I suspect that I probably will, but that’s for the future to reveal. In the meantime, I’ll just keep doing what I do, writing these postings and letting the world know what I think, if it cares to listen.
There’s an old Polish expression which I learned about from my daughters: it translates as "Not my circus, not my monkeys." It means "Not my problem." The new school year fits into this category for me, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about it. For any of you who are about to start a new school year, you have my best wishes and kindest thoughts.