Acting Up: Philosophy with a Twist
Higher philosophical thinking through drama.
Do As I Do:
Corby Kelly (left) and James Henderson Collins bring the study of philosophy to life for their students.
Credit: Elena Dorfmann
"Now, sthick out youah tongue ligh thith," commands Corby Kelly to a grinning circle of teenagers, his tongue hanging as far out of his mouth as it will go. "Anh say, 'Gaaaahhh!'"
Students in Stanford University's Philosophical Stages summer program are wiggling their bodies, doing jumping jacks, making absurd faces, and playing improvisational theater games at nine in the morning. Everyone is comfortable and relaxed; many are barefoot.
And then each pulls out a well-thumbed copy of Aeschylus's Agamemnon.
The ensuing discussion is thoughtful and probing, reminiscent of a college-level seminar. Students, some still early in their high school careers, examine with profound fluency the nature of language and argument, personal versus social definitions of justice, reverence, and self-control, and the inner workings of such epochal mythical characters as Clytemnestra and Agamemnon -- all while bringing their own experiences and perspectives to bear on the subjects at hand.
Eager, articulate dialogue is just a fraction of what happens in this classroom. This three-week summer course and research project, approaching its third year at Stanford, is precisely what the double entendre of its name implies: a way of teaching philosophy by pairing it with the dramatic arts. Course facilitators James Henderson Collins, an advanced doctoral student in the Classics Department at Stanford, and Corby Kelly, recently awarded a PhD in the classics, came up with the idea in an effort to take philosophy instruction beyond the confines of crumbling books, abstract concepts, and drooping lids.
"We both taught many classes where we worked with students in traditional settings, where we sat with books open and talked about big ideas," explains Collins. But, he says, "often the students are clueless about how these things are supposed to impact them outside the classroom."
Theater -- along with other collaborative project-based activities -- transforms this traditionally esoteric field into what the ancients believed it to be: a practical, functional understanding of the way we communicate everyday ideas and perform everyday actions. Philosophical Stages students emerge, therefore, not only able to speak easily about ancient Greek tragedy and the philosophical angles of Clytemnestra's plight but also far more confident, well spoken, and self-aware.
The students -- some from largely affluent Palo Alto, California, home of Stanford, and others from the poorer neighboring city of East Palo Alto -- learn and practice theatrical techniques, developing an understanding of the characters in both Antigone and Agamemnon through class presentations and staged debate, engaging with guest speakers from the Bay Area community (including a videoconference with their texts' translator, Paul Woodruff), using wiki technology to develop their own Web pages, and designing a culminating performance that combines selected scenes from the plays with their own written reflections.
Says Maev Lowe, a sophomore at Palo Alto's Gunn High School, "We're challenged here in a way that we're not challenged at school."
Thanks to grant funding from the Stanford Humanities Lab, a center for experimentation and collaborative projects in the humanities, and the Wallenberg Global Learning Network, whose mission is to achieve better learning outcomes for students of all ages, the course is offered at a very low tuition -- $50 per student covers it, allowing most anyone in a local school district to apply. (As it's a daytime class, however, participating students must be able to travel to the Stanford campus.)
Though the program is still small, the breadth of its early success is an inspiration to instructors, funders, and participants alike. As Jeffrey Schnapp, founder and codirector of the Stanford Humanities Lab, affirms, the combination of philosophy and theater "has the obvious advantage of taking students beyond the abstract into a realm where they physically embody these ideas. We see it as the next big thing."
Philosophical Stages students are the actors, choreographers, set designers, and dramaturges of their final performance.
Credit: Elena Dorfmann
When the Project Is Performance
What is happening here is a new kind of PBL (project-based learning): performance-based learning. When students start the day moving and thinking on their feet, and when they study the motivations of tragic characters because they will have to become those characters on stage, they are more likely to understand the material, retain it, and bring it into their lives outside of the classroom.
"It's a little funny, the things that we do," admits Elibet Jimenez, a junior at Eastside College Preparatory School, in East Palo Alto. "But they really help us loosen up. You're doing openly funny stuff with other people without worrying about it. I think it makes me more open to talking about my ideas."
Actors are effective communicators, say the course facilitators, which is the cornerstone of practical philosophy, and not only because constructive dialogue is its typical medium. Performance was part and parcel of the standard school day in ancient Greece. "To be educated was to assume characters, was to explore character, was public performance," says James Henderson Collins.
The skills actors develop go hand in hand with a subject matter that is, in large part, a lesson in perspectives: How do I define loyalty? How does my classmate? How does Antigone? "That's one thing I love about acting," says Shoshana Mitchell, a Gunn High School junior. "You get to be someone you're not. You have to act like that person, think like that person, be that person."
Memorizing lines and acting in the final performance is just part of what each Philosophical Stages student undertakes to make it all happen. Students here are actors, directors, choreographers, set designers, stage managers, and dramaturges. Each brings individual strengths to both the classroom and the onstage finale, whether that's a talent for drawing (Nicolette Bocalan sketched impressive busts of Sophocles and Aeschylus for the stage backdrop) or for writing (Mary Wolff penned the lines that weave a narrative out of all of these disparate scenes).
Ownership and collaboration make students into active, self-directed learners; they, too, are the facilitators of this course. "Rather than studying knowledge," says the Stanford Humanities Lab's Jeffrey Schnapp, echoing a core tenet of his center's mission, these students "have the opportunity to become producers of knowledge."
To this end, the class uses twenty-first-century tools to explore ideas at least twenty-five centuries old. A wiki, or collaboratively authored Web site, serves as a class forum -- a place to find, compose, and post homework assignments, and a stomping ground for creative expression. "It's something you can personalize," says Gabriel Cervantes, an Eastside student. "You can put pictures of yourself up, but it's also academic. It's a nice mixture of both. I think it's really effective."
Credit: Elena Dorfmann
Spreading the Word
"What I want is for this to be something that extends far beyond just these students, and this building, and Stanford," says course cofacilitator Corby Kelly. "That's why I'm involved." Luckily, prospects look good. Not only did several students from last summer's program return for another round this summer, but Philosophical Stages alums were also eager to offer what they'd learned during the class to their families and communities.
Last winter, inspired by class discussion and encouraged by Kelly and Collins, each student conducted three thirty-minute dialogues, one each with a peer, a mentor, and a parent, focused on one of the philosophical virtues (abstract concepts such as honesty and courage) discussed in class and unearthed in the Greek tragedies they'd read and performed. Afterward, three of these students helped lead a seminar for Stanford faculty, in the company of play translator Paul Woodruff, called "The Necessity of Theater: Tools for Dialogue in Democracy and Education."
In light of such successes, Philosophical Stages received renewed funding from the Stanford Humanities Lab for summer 2007. Along with the Metamedia Lab, at Stanford and at Sweden's Göteborg University, the project won a $50,000 planning grant for a project titled Co-Creating Cultural Heritage, with the aim of enhancing pedagogy through a focus on cultural and personal identity.
For student Maev Lowe, the class is affirming as well as instructive: "It brings out all these things you didn't know you had inside your head." Although philosophy is a subject rarely offered at the high school level, these things are inside young heads, and in all of our heads (not just ancient Greek ones). "Anyone can make philosophy the heart of what's happening in the classroom, regardless of curriculum," says James Henderson Collins. For the founders of and participants in Philosophical Stages, philosophy is much more than a single discipline: It is a thirst for understanding that pervades all disciplines and touches all human thought.
"Philosophy is about exploring theoretical ideas on the one hand, then making them relevant, useful, practical, accessible, and functional on the other," he explains. "When you place that question and that dichotomy at the center of the material that you bring into the classroom, students are free to ask this question: "'Why are we doing this?' Then they own it, they collaborate, they make it something that they won't forget."