Performance art is not teaching

October 23, 2007, 12:34 pm

Inside Higher Ed has a blurb about Sian Reid, a sociology professor at Carleton University in Canada. Prof. Reid spent the first three weeks of the semester teaching wearing full-body Muslim garb, “covering her body except for a small slit for her eyes”. Ms. Reid is not Muslim but rather a pagan who is “milky skinned, with long red hair”. Why did she do it?

“My whole job, in first-year sociology, really,” Ms. Reid, 41, said yesterday, “is to make (students) aware of the assumptions they make about the world in their taken-for-granted reality.”

The IHE blurb and the original article from the Ottowa Citizen give Ms. Reid rave reviews for “making students think” and for making “a profound impression on their new academic lives”.

However, we don’t really know whether Ms. Reid has made people think or that she has had any sort of impact at all, much less a “profound” one, on the lives of her students. Indeed, we (including, it seems, Ms. Reid herself) don’t even know if she has succeeded in what she claims as her “whole job” as a sociology professor. Has she assessed the outcomes of her “lesson” with viable tools? Does she have concrete, measurable instructional goals for what she intended students to learn, and does she have a reliable means of determining whether or not they learned it? If not, then what she has done is not part of “her whole job” but merely performance art.

And what to make of the claim that the entire job of the first-year sociology professor is to make students aware of the assumptions they make? My understanding of sociology is that it is a well-established social science that attempts to explain social behavior by something like the scientific method of observation and inductive reasoning. A thorough survey-course level understanding of sociology, one would think, would therefore consist of learning the methodology of the discipline; its history; its major players; its major movements; the major theories and their pros and cons. This is at least what my introductory sociology class was like. There is a lot of stuff to learn in sociology and it cannot be summed up merely as “making students aware of their assumptions”.

This is like saying that my whole job as a first-year calculus teacher is to make students aware of their assumptions about what math is good for. If I did only that — and maybe I could dress up as a hillbilly to further push my students’ assumptions — then I’d expect to be fired. The above description of a sociology professor sounds more like the job description of a “diversity officer” than that of a professionally-trained content expert in a social science discipline. Yes, make students aware of their assumptions, of course — but also remember to teach sociology. A student who is aware that they feel differently about people dressed up as Muslims, but can’t tell you the difference between Karl Marx and Max Weber, has not learned sociology, no matter how clearly they may perceive their feelings.

I had a biology professor in college who was well-known for outrageous stunts during his lectures. I remember one lecture he gave on evolution in which he dressed up as Charles Darwin and gave a dramatic interpretation of Darwin’s theory. In another lecture he demonstrated the structure of a cell by bringing in a giant washtub (the cell wall), filling it with water (the fluid in the cell), and dumping stuff into the water — a spare biology textbook to represent the information stored in a cell, for instance.  I learned a lot about biology in Dr. Hunter’s class, and I remember the more outrageous lectures as if they were yesterday. The difference between Dr. Hunter and Ms. Reid was that Dr. Hunter was using the performance to convey substantive information about biology to me; simply dressing up as a Muslim to see what happens, to make me aware of my feelings, might lead to interesting results and even get students to think, but it’s not the same as teaching a subject.

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