Kerri Ann Considine, one of our post-doctoral lecturers, speaks about her successful teaching practices.
Kerri Ann Considine is a post-doctoral lecturer in the English Department. In addition to teaching in both the English and Theatre departments and with the Cinema Studies program, Kerri also works as a dramaturg with the Clarence Brown Theatre. She is currently working on the upcoming production of Candide, which will be a collaboration between the CBT and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Kerri’s research focuses on dramatic literature, theatre, and performance studies. She served as a research assistant for two major anthologies: The Norton Anthology of Drama, Second Edition, and The Routledge Anthology of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Drama, and has published two performance reviews: a review of the U.S. premiere of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone which appeared on ASAP/Journal’s online platform in June 2017, and a review of the Broadway production, Hand to God, by Robert Askins which appeared in Theatre Journal in March 2016.
Our interview follows:
Your English 102 topic is “Inquiry into Performance and Theatre.” Could you tell us more about this topic and why you chose this as your course’s theme?
As our world becomes increasingly focused on technology, and as interactions with people happen more and more often through a digital medium, I feel theatre and performance offer an important way for us to consider human interaction, engagement, and connection. Because English 102 is a research and inquiry class and because our first-year-composition program here at UT is rooted in rhetorical inquiry and writing methods, theatre also works well as a topic because rhetoric and theatre share much of the same vocabulary and theoretical history. For instance, theatre and rhetoric can both trace an ancestry to Aristotle, and much of the way we teach students to craft an argument relies on vocabulary that invokes ideas of role-playing, invites students to view their writing style as though they are creating a character, and asks students to consider the audience of their written texts. Marrying composition with theatre, then, makes a lot of sense. Theatre gives us excellent tools for thinking about author/text/audience and about the context within which we create our texts and within which those texts are received.
In the course, we begin by visiting our Special Collections library on campus and researching historical artifacts from the history of performance at UT. We then move on to use qualitative research in order to explore a work of live theatre in performance and think about the profession of theatre and its relation to audience and to community. Finally, students conduct secondary source research to examine how ideas of performance operate in their own fields of interest.
Performance is a big topic, and I like that it offers many opportunities for students to relate the idea of performance to their own passions and fields of expertise. I have had students investigate sports performance, ritual and religion, academic performance, identity as performance, cultural performance, political performance, game-play, and online/digital performance. Students have conducted research and written papers on topics as wide-ranging as the history of the Pride of the Southland Band, performative masculinity in rodeo, the effectiveness of presidential speeches, dance and body image, the influence of Disney princess culture, and the impact of artificial intelligence on workplace performance. One of the best parts of the course for me is seeing all the brilliantly creative ways students apply this topic to their own interests.
How do you introduce the qualitative unit to your students? What is your major assignment for that unit and how do you guide your students as they get started on this project?
For the qualitative unit, I structure the assignment around a production at the Clarence Brown Theatre. This semester, the project centered on the CBT production of Alabama Story, a play by Kenneth Jones in which a children’s book about the marriage of a white bunny and a black bunny ends up at the center of a political controversy over racial relations in late-1950s Alabama. This unit asks students to look more specifically at issues we’ve been discussing in terms of audience, author, text/performance, and context within the framework of a piece of theatre in performance. Their goal is to develop a research question related in some way to theatre production that asks about how people think or feel about a topic, how they perceive an issue, or how they behave. This semester, for instance, students asked questions such as: How do UT college students feel about the relevance of theatre to their lives versus the relevance of film? How do theatre professionals approach possibly controversial content such as that found in the CBT production of Alabama Story and how does a college-aged audience feel about that content? How does the set design of Alabama Story impact the way an audience understands the production and its message?
We then work through the different qualitative research methods to gather data for their projects. Students practice their observation skills when they go see the play and attend a backstage tour, interview professionals working with the CBT, and conduct surveys with their fellow classmates about their views on theatre and the performance they saw. This is a pretty large project that can feel a bit overwhelming at first, but we break the project into smaller parts and spend a lot of time in class working through each piece. Having a focus for the project (the CBT production) helps keep everyone on track and allows us to work together on different aspects of the project in class, since, even though the students might have wildly different research questions, the production provides common ground for discussion.
What kinds of activities do you use to teach your students the proper ways to conduct observations, interviews, and surveys? How do you teach them to apply some of these skills to their papers?
We work through each research method individually in class to help them prepare for the process. Because many of them have not spent much time analyzing a play in performance, I give them a performance analysis assignment with very specific questions that helps them to walk through the kinds of things they should be thinking about and looking for in their observation of the play. Attending the backstage tour and hearing from professionals involved in the production also help them gain new insight into different aspects of theatre and performance which can help them become more savvy observers of the performative event.
To prepare for interviews, students participate in “Avatar Day,” in which they interview one another in class about the way they represent themselves in a digital space. They first create their own digital avatars (they can either use an avatar they already have or make a new one, and I give them a list of free and easy-to-use avatar generators). We spend some time discussing effective interview practices, and then they swap avatars with a classmate. Each student develops interview questions in order to discover why their partner chose this particular avatar, how their partner feels about the avatar, and how/why their partner feels the avatar represents them. We have a class discussion after this to think about the kinds of questions that worked well and the kinds of questions that might still need some tweaking to work in an interview environment. This practice interview allows them to think about how to create open-ended questions and follow up questions that elicit the kind of information they need. After this practice “Avatar Day,” students work in groups to develop the interview questions they will use for their qualitative research projects. For the actual interviews, students decide who they would like to interview based on their research questions and request a first and second choice, and then I work with the Theatre Department to pair students (in groups of 3 or 4) with an interviewee. The Theatre Department has been incredibly generous with its time and talent over the nine years we have been doing this project, and my students have had the opportunity to interview professionals involved in production (directors, actors, designers), business and marketing, community outreach, and more.
For the survey portion of the project, we do a practice survey in-class so that students have an opportunity to practice creating questions and to see what kind of results different questions might bring. The topic of our class survey is how college students create a performative identity on social media. I split the class into several groups, and each group develops 5-7 survey questions on a specific question related to this topic. One group, for example, might be tasked with coming up with questions about what social media sites are most popular with students. One might develop questions about how college students feel about interactions with friends on social media sites versus interactions with friends in person. We then pool the questions in one large class survey, and work through it as a class. This, again, allows us to see the questions that work well for a survey and to address and improve any questions that seem to result in unclear answers or data that would not offer useful results for our survey topic. For the actual survey, I break the class into groups of 2-5 students based on their research questions, and students create the surveys together in their groups. We take the final surveys in class, which allows us to discuss any issues that come up as the surveys are being taken. While the data is necessarily narrow since the survey pool is limited to our class, the surveys do offer initial trends students can analyze for their project, and this allows us to think about how to address the limitations of survey data in their analyses and what they would need to do differently were they to pursue this research project further.
Before they write the final qualitative paper, students generate a research log that gives them a place to document their research data and make some initial reflections on what is important about that data and what it might mean. I have found that this log offers a way for students to gather the information they have been generating in one place, reflect on the trends they see, and draft some initial language about their conclusions. This gives students a transitional step between data collection and paper writing.
What is the most challenging part of teaching the qualitative unit and how can teachers work to overcome this challenge? What advice do you have for those teaching the qualitative unit for the first time?
I think the most challenging aspect of the qualitative unit is that there is so much to cover. Helping students work through three different methods of qualitative research takes a lot of time, and asking them to really work through these methods and then also figure out how to incorporate this data into an effective argument can seem overwhelming. I have found that putting students into groups for the interviews and surveys based on their research questions helps make the workload more manageable, and it allows them to create and develop their materials in an environment in which they are also learning to collaborate effectively and getting feedback on the material they generate. I also do a lot of in-class workshopping for this unit so we can look at the different steps together, which helps model effective methods for creating and conducting interviews and surveys. Another thing I have found to be helpful is to schedule one of the course conferences at the very beginning of this unit and to have students bring a research proposal to the conference. Having the opportunity to talk with students individually about their projects up front means we can ensure they have strong research questions that are appropriate for the goals of qualitative research, which can go a long way toward ensuring the success of the projects.
Kerri would like to thank the faculty and staff of the Department of Theatre and the Clarence Brown Theatre for their support of this project over the years: “I especially want to thank Tom Cervone and David Brian Alley, who have been instrumental in setting up, organizing, and continuing this collaboration over the years, Robin Conklin, who has offered her time for an interview for every section of this course I have ever taught, and Hana Sherman, for her help with this year’s classes.”