Enacting

Long post ahead. Short version: if you’re not a person of color (this applies to all of you, not some imaginary person off in the distance), you should rethink engaging with the trauma of people of color, especially in academia and the arts, if you are not ready to hold space for them to engage with or and work through it on their terms. Your terms don’t matter if you are not from that population.

Whitney López, Bryn Mawr ’15

Built like a fortress, Bryn Mawr is maintained through a complex history dependent on the labor of others. A classroom where I often teach is on the second floor of a building named for Joseph Taylor, whose will established a Quaker college for women.1 Constructed of local stone to look like a castle, Taylor Hall is steeped in the mustiness of creased spines and more than a century’s worth of young women exercising their minds. This space is a palimpsest where “traces of the past…bleed through.” I love teaching in this classroom, with its material history tracked in deep splintery wood and tall thin-paned windows, chair rails identified by a student who recognizes what she’s seeing and decodes for others, including me; its old-fashioned closets abetting our connection with worlds beyond: once stacked with blue exam books, now housing various technical aides. But leakage tints these walls, “prior writing ghosted through to the surface.”2

Places are themselves a form of pedagogy: ones that hold and challenge us, although we may not recognize them as such. Elizabeth Ellsworth explains how we experience a place of learning not only in terms of knowledge but also physically, as we rest, pace, laugh, discover: “Our experiences…arise not only out of our cognitive interpretations of the building’s allusions to historical or aesthetic meanings but also out of the corporeality of the body’s time/space as it exists in relation to the building.”3

The call to “unghost” is a methodology for reinscribing stories erased from history. This work nudges me to ask: what to do pedagogically with such ghosted pasts and contemporary manifestations?

In my Taylor Hall classroom, I’ve been experimenting with such allusions and relations by using a strategy of “enactments” with my Multicultural Education students. These dramatic scenarios are complexly layered, moving through textual, bodily and architectural surfaces. Emerging from and across our readings and students’ writings about themselves and others, about the college and other life contexts, this strategy excavates, intervenes in, films over other, older scripts that nonetheless bleed through.

The first day of class I ask the 25 or so students to gather themselves into “diverse” groups of 4-5; we brainstorm dimensions of diversity in the room, and I ask that they include some people they don’t know; groups form through a kind of speed dating. For the next three weeks they write, read, and discuss weekly blog entries in response to this sequence of prompts:

  1. Write and post by Sun. at 5: something that happened in your past (in school, neighborhood, family…) – you were part of it or witnessed or in some way had direct contact with – that troubled/s you, raises questions for you about culture/multiculturalisms/diversity/in relation to equity/in relation to power, even if you’re not exactly sure how. Tell the story in terms of your perspective when it happened; then feel free to add any comments/questions from your perspective now.
  2. Write and post by Sun. at 5: something that happened this year in/around the Bi-Co – you were part of it or witnessed or heard about it (in the air) – that troubled/s you, raises questions for you about culture/multiculturalisms/diversity/in relation to equity/in relation to power. Tell the story in terms of your perspective when it happened; then feel free to add any comments/questions from your perspective now.
  3. Write and post by Wed. at 5: something that happened this week in/around your life, including (but not limited to) the Bi-Co – you were part of it or witnessed or heard about it – that troubled/s you, raises questions for you about culture/multiculturalisms/diversity/in relation to equity/in relation to power. Tell the story in terms of your perspective when it happened; then feel free to add any comments/questions from your perspective now.

After reading and responding online to each other’s entries, the groups use our texts and discussions as lenses for talking further about their stories, evolving issues and crossovers. A few weeks in, I alert them that they’ll be using their entries as source material to develop an “enactment” –a dramatic evocation of a story or composite of stories from their blogs, which will invite the full class to engage in key issues or dilemmas the group has been processing. Groups develop “scripts” and perform for the class for 5-8 minutes: I usually ask them to do this twice. The first time the rest of us watch; the second time we are invited to enter or intervene: as a “thought bubble” by standing behind a character and speaking what we think that character is thinking; as a character, tapping out a player and deliberately shifting the action; or, in the midst of the scenario, calling out “freeze frame” to raise a point of discussion.

As we’re stirring these experientially-based investigations, we’re also reading theorists and educators: Stuart Hall, Ann Berlak, Sekani Moyenda, Paul Gorski, Kevin Kumashiro, Elizabeth Ellsworth.4

After each enactment, I ask the “audience” to speak first from the position of one of the theorists, before speaking as themselves. “Speaking as” another is a way to step away from the person we believe ourselves to be; speaking “as oneself” may then stretch, perhaps even surprise. Prising open a fissure between what we know and who we are can become a site of leakage, of disquiet, of learning, for “enactors” and “audience.”

Enactments involve demanding intellectual and creative work: the performing group has to think hard about the issues they take on and the kinds of questions they want their audience to engage; as audience, class members need to deepen their understandings of theorists to embody them in dialogue with one another; participants prepare, and also deal with the unexpected.

This exercise tends to be highly engaging, to signal and at the same time puncture coherence, to engender troubling moments that unfurl in dining halls and living rooms. Students find themselves writing and sometimes “playing” characters from their lives with whom they don’t share aspects of their identities that feel important to them, or whose perspectives or values might disturb or even horrify them. A white student’s story of her friend group spurs her group’s enactment, and she takes up the role of a character mocking Asian students. Afterwards, she talks about how bad it felt to do this, how she hasn’t been able to shake off “speaking as.”   In enactments, the world leaks into the classroom, the classroom back out into the world, opening up new relationships but also creating raggedy edges with friends or family. In an enactment cutting between quick sketches of a Chinese student’s experiences in college and a series of phone calls with her mother, we witness what she doesn’t share with her mom: a cacophonous cultural remix at the college, then a humiliating body search at the international airport. Soon thereafter, this student stops attending classes. Worried, I reach out, but don’t hear back, and weeks later learn that she’s withdrawn from the college. Not saying this was because of the enactment. But like the dropped ceiling leakage into “a site that is simultaneously a ruin and a remake,”5 enactments hover, bubble, dissolve. Sometimes they call out phantoms that do not easily settle or “appease.” And they call me and my students to bear witness to each other and ourselves in our shared precarity.

Over the years I try out various versions of this activity, learning also that each class and group takes up the project differently. One group addresses the issue of dislocation into another persona by using a strategy from the Alternatives to Violence Project in which characters visibly step into and out of their roles at beginning and end of the enactment.   In one class the “audience” hesitates to jump in and intervene during enactments, preferring instead to locate their probing analytical discussions afterwards; in our debrief at the end of the project, we discuss this as a gesture of maintaining respect for the struggles being represented “on stage”–in doing so, were the students resisting “leakage”? Rather than presuming a “right” way to take up enactments, we acknowledge that this is delicate territory in which we are each and collectively threading our ways; hesitation might constitute a crack in the flow of the plan, a crevice of curiosity.

This year’s class jumps in from the get-go, intervening in planned and unplanned ways and sometimes questioning premises. Their risks rivet and seduce us into moments of disconcerting exposure.

  1. A Brief History of Bryn Mawr College,“ 2016, accessed June 1, 2016.
  2. This Is a Palimpsest (calicult),” analepsis, accessed June 1, 2016.
  3. Elizabeth Ellsworth, Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy (New York: Routledge, 2005), 4.
  4. Stuart Hall, The Multicultural Question(Milton Keynes, United Kingdom : Pavis Centre for Social and Cultural Research, The Open University, 2001.); Ann Berlak and Sekani Moyenda, Taking It Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001); Paul Gorski, “Working Definition,” Critical Multicultural Pavilion, edited and updated April 14, 2010, accessed June 9, 2016; Kevin Kumashiro, Against Common Sense: Teaching and Learning Toward Social Justice (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004); Elizabeth Ellsworth, Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997).
  5. Tuck and Rhee, “Glossary,” 646.