From March 3rd through the 9th, I was lucky enough to have been invited to give a series of lectures on modern American drama at the Institut Supérieur des Langues de Gabès in Tunisia. The experience was definitely a novel one for me, as I had never had the opportunity to travel outside of western Europe–I’ve had the pleasure of traveling pretty widely in the US, as well as to Scotland, Ireland, England, and France, but this was my first time on the African continent.
While in Gabès, I taught mostly third-year English students in American Literature–they were learning about drama, and I was asked to speak with the students about Arthur Miller’s work. I’m not primarily an Americanist, much less a 20th-century Americanist, but it was exciting to bring this important and political playwright into the Tunisian context. I gave several lectures on Miller’s dramatic context, especially realism and expressionism; his use and adaptation of Greek tragic theory for an American context; his political context, including the effects of the Great Depression and the Red Scare; his Jewish-American identity and how that impacted his politics; the American Dream and Miller’s critique of it; and, the original stage design of Death.
Structure and Context:
The third-year class had approximately 300 students in it, which was also a novel experience for me; at Marymount, my classes are typically between 20 and 35 students. During the week I was there, I lectured each day for approximately 2 hours, and then conducted a series (usually between 4 and 6) of hour-long “discussion sessions” or travaux dirigés. This was also unexpected, and definitely something I wasn’t prepared for! I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the country, or sit in on other classes, because the entire day was spent in class. The Institute also closed at 6:00pm sharp–there was no on-campus housing. Unlike our university lectures plus discussion sections at large institutions, where the discussion sections are enrolled, the TDs were not assigned–students could drop in to any one they wanted.
Because of the number of students, and the fact that the students are not officially divided into sections for discussion, these discussion sessions had uneven numbers–between as many as 60 or so, on the one hand, and 2 or 3, on the other.
I was also unsure about the extent to which the ISLG students were able to aurally comprehend my speech; part of the challenge of both the lectures and the discussion sessions was finding ways to rephrase things on the fly. I was often “Yes, Miss!-ed,” which practice one of my colleagues at the Institut explained to me as being a generic way of responding regardless of whether the concept or question was understood! So, these sessions were very pedagogically unfamiliar to me, as well.
The architectural design of the Institut was interesting–I regret not being able to take any photos of it. Essentially, the building’s three or four stories were arranged in a rough cube around an open courtyard; much of the classroom environment was open to the elements through windows and doors (it often rained while I was there, and given the courtyard arrangement, noise carried very easily into the classrooms). Classroom spaces were very minimalistic, which works well, I expect, for the lecture/TD format. Each classroom has a PA system, and I the students would volunteer to source a microphone for me at the beginning of each session. All other A/V equipment had to be requested and set up in the moments between the end of one class and the beginning of the next. Another element of note was that TDs and lectures did not seem to have a set location schedule; I am not sure if this was because my time there actually represented a compressed version of a longer period (i.e., three to five weeks condensed into one), and so disrupted a regular schedule.
I do wish that I’d had the time to sit in on a few other courses, at least once or twice, so I could get a clearer sense of what the Tunisian educational system is like–but, perhaps that will happen on a later trip. I was often at sea, because my sense of lecture/discussion/exam practices didn’t seem to match up to the Tunisian sense, and though I was asked (and willing) to bring my practices to the ISLG, I could only do so within a very specific context.
The students were in general much like my American students–there seems to be a lot of variety, both in terms of motivation and preparedness, and a large number of the class had not done the reading. In one TD, I did ask students to leave; it was clear that they’d not done the reading and were not too interested in concealing or suturing over that fact with questions. This led to an interesting situation in which I was left with a class of two students! We had what I felt to be a fascinating discussion, though, about expressionistic theatrical and dramatic techniques in Death of a Salesman, and what the play’s original title, The Inside of His Head, could tell us about Miller’s use of expressionism.
After the students who wanted to leave had left, one young man returned to the room to confront me. He explained that he felt I disrespected him by not fully engaging his questions in lecture; this was a little surprising to me, as it seems that lectures with 300 students aren’t really viable as discussion centers, on the one hand. On the other, when I did punctuate a lecture moment with a question, I quickly realized the error of my ways–several students would speak at once, making it very difficult to distinguish a single voice.
After explaining my experience to the student, I suggested that not reading and preparing for a discussion-based course, which makes it impossible for discussion to take place, amounts to a disrespect of the classroom space itself. I am not sure if I’d impressed my point, but it was very interesting as a case illustrating the prominence and sheer visibility of gender in the classroom context–indeed, gender difference was one of the most salient of experiences marking my trip to Tunisia (I hope to write more on this, later).
In another instance, I noted that there seemed to have been some reserve about watching the film I’d brought with me, the classic 1985 Hoffman-Malkovich film adaptation of the 1984 Michael Rudman Broadway production. During the scenes with the Woman, several students got up and walked out, and this happened periodically throughout the screening. I asked why, but the reason was unclear–I think it may have had to do with cultural sexualization norms.
I framed my week of lectures through the historical development of theater as a form of public, performative expression, which ties it closely to the polis.
Because of the resonances between the recent Tunisian revolution, which led to the flight of former President Ben Ali, and the social function of theater that Miller’s work embodies, my presentation of the playwright generally focused on the way that Death of a Salesman reconceptualizes the tragic mode. As Miller notes in “Tragedy and the Common Man,”
Insistence upon the rank of the tragic hero, or the so-called nobility of his character, is really but a clinging to the outward forms of tragedy. If rank or nobility of character was indispensable, then it would follow that the problems of those with rank were the particular problems of tragedy. But surely the right of one monarch to capture the domain from another no longer raises our passions, nor are our concepts of justice what they were to the mind of an Elizabethan king. […] The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or such actions.
I think the students responded well to this point of intersection, in general, and we returned to it periodically.
I also wanted to provide a context from which Miller’s own politics become legible in his plays, so we turned from there to the traditions of realism and expressionism that informed the staging of Salesman. We looked closely at the way the stage directions and the dialog drew on both realistic and expressionistic techniques to create something new and more capable of providing commentary on the modern experience. We also looked at Mielziner’s original stage designs and the set created for the 1949 production.
The politics of such stylistic choices provided a theatrical context from which we could examine Miller’s relationship to key cultural and historical contexts, the Great Depression and the Red Scare. Both of these contexts are important when we think about how he presented his advocacy for tragedy as essentially located in the experience of the “common man” in modern America. We spent quite a long time talking about Miller’s adaptation of the Aristotelian tragic tradition, which led us into his New York Times apologia for Salesman and a series of discussions about the extent to which Willy, Biff, and Happy embody various responses to the central question or fear of modernity, for Miller:
the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what or who we are in this world.
In all, I think the students learned as much from me as I did from them–about my teaching style, about what I take for granted, about the invisible rules that I tacitly and daily abide by in my own classroom. I would love to have the opportunity to return to the ISLG and teach again, with a little more breathing room and contextual awareness. And I would definitely like to see some of my colleagues there in action! That is perhaps my greatest pedagogical regret, and it’s one I hope to remedy sooner, rather than later.