Challenging the Challenges Facing C21st Theatre Training: Technology in Learning and Creative Contexts

The following post is part of a series of responses that are framed by Jonathan Pitches here.

Previous posts can be found here.

Technology in Learning and Creative Contexts

Let me start by saluting Zazzali and Klein’s chief aim to ‘offer initiatives for revising an undergraduate theatre curriculum’. Indeed, such an aim resonates with ongoing discussions taking place in the UK, both across the Higher Education sector, for example at the TaPRA Performer Training WG, as well as specific institutions, such as the PTPP Research Group at the University of Leeds, which frames the set of the responses this post is part of. I also support the authors’ decision to position theatre training in relation to the pressures academic institutions are facing on both sides of the Atlantic. However, despite this solid set of aims, I find the positions argued by Zazzali and Klein problematic on a number of fronts. The focus of this blog post is on the way technology is presented in their article. Specifically my aim is to foreground the contradictions apparent in Zazzali and Klein’s view of technology.

First some caveats: I am aware that the use of digital technology and especially investment in digital technological infrastructure in schools and universities has often been related to a neoliberal agenda and a concomitant drive not only to privatise and instrumentalise education but also prevent students from developing their identity as citizens (McCafferty 2010; Monahan 2004). My aim here is neither to apologise for the use of various technologies in academic institutions nor suggest that technology is in and of itself a bonus in learning. Rather, my intention is to problematise the implicit assumptions that seem to underpin Zazzali and Klein’s view.

A general overview of the article demonstrates that Zazzali and Klein oscillate between a rather uncritical repetition of negative, and often alarmist in tone, accounts of technology on the one hand, and a kind of reserved acceptance of the possibilities offered by digital technologies, especially social media, on the other. Adjunct to these predispositions, is a fairly obvious dislike for Blackboard, an online platform for distant and blended forms of learning often used in undergraduate degree programmes.

Let me start with the negative position, which also appears first in their article. Drawing on Giedd (2012), Junko and Cotten (2012), Zazzali and Klein suggest a cause and effect relationship between the use of social media and a decline in academic performance. They make the explicit claim that ‘multitasking with social media […] further harms the ongoing physical maturation of their [students’] brains’ (2015: 262). Later on in the article they repeat Mark Bauerlein’s assertion that current college students are ‘“the dumbest generation” while depicting troubling declines in their skills relative to what employers require’ (2015: 263). Zazzali and Klein are concerned, in other words, not only with the long term cognitive effects that use of digital technologies may have, but also with the way these effects may jeopardise even further the already restricted employment opportunities of theatre graduates.

In accordance with the negative impacts of technology on the brains and lives of young people, Zazzali and Klein are also concerned with the role that live theatre can play in a technologized world. They ask: ‘What can our field offer a society in which technology outpaces the more natural rhythms of daily living? (2015: 263). A similar tension is evident in the dichotomy they draw between ‘“off stage” activities’, like the ones taking place on the Blackboard platform, and ‘“onstage” classroom time cultivating students’ imaginations and creative skills by researching, developing, and producing live performances […]’ (2015: 264). It seems to me that Zazzali and Klein situate theatre, both as product and training process, as an antidote to the ills of technologized life. They are not alone in supporting this view. Theatre director Mike Alfreds goes as far as equating the use of technology with junk food and accordingly positions the genre of theatre storytelling as a form of detox (2013: 33-34). A similar position is repeated by Kathryn Hunter, who in an interview on her collaboration with Peter Brook in The Valley of Astonishment argues that ‘there will be a time when people will wake up because they will have grown bored with the isolation that technology has brought on to our lives. […] In the future, theatre will be even more popular, because people need it’ (Hunter in Loverdou 2014: 3, my translation). We might do well to remember, that despite their negative tone, these articulations are expressed against a background of technological infrastructure in theatre buildings, including University theatre spaces that is taken for granted, for example, central heating, house and theatrical lights, sound systems and illuminated exit signs. I will return to this point, but let’s first have a look at the positive effects Zazzalli and Klein identify in technological use.

This is expressed in relation to social media, especially when the latter are used to foster interdisciplinary learning communities. Drawing on several examples of theatre projects across various institutions, Zazzali and Klein argue that ‘a selective and strategic use of the internet and social media, for instance, could help reframe theatre courses by empowering students to connect to one another and have greater ownership of their work’ (2015: 264). Social media and blogs then can help both students and educators to transcend ‘disciplinary and geographical divides toward creating learning communities that are as diverse as they are distant’ (2015: 266). As long as, of course, that the use of such media is limited to the educational and creative purposes it is supposed to serve.

Let us pause for a moment to take stock of the evaluations of technology presented in the article: on one hand, technology renders students ‘dumb’ and even less prepared for employment; on the other hand technology – once harnessed – can serve ‘desired learning outcomes’. In addition to these two positions, Zazzali and Klein purport that ‘students are wasting valuable time using inflexible learning-management systems (e.g. Blackboard) […]’ (2015: 262). I have no wish to argue for the existing or imaginary benefits of virtual learning environments. (The interested reader can look at Selwyn’s 2016 article who pays attention to the language in which these systems are often described and calls for an evaluation of the actual benefits they are having.)

What I wish to point out is that Zazzali and Klein’s thesis is underpinned by the implicit assumption that technological devices are ‘neutral’ tools, the use and impact of which can be dictated by (intelligent) human agents. Put simply, the good or bad use of technological artefacts is a matter of human decision, if not will. According to such conception then, when social media use becomes a source of distraction and impedes academic performance, this is seen as a failing of the students to be disciplined enough and impose their will on the technological device. It is in this way, also, that Zazzali and Klein resolve the apparent contradiction of their argument. By suggesting that social media use within a theatre project needs to be ‘selective and strategic’, Zazzali and Klein can both accept the position that social media render students ‘dumb’ and advocate for the very same technology to be used in the classroom.

We could assume that the way this pronouncement would translate in an actual project would be that a student would be expected to ignore notifications coming on the social media feed that are irrelevant to the project and only engage with the relevant ones. Similarly to the binary between a destructive/distracting technology and a beneficial theatre expressed by Mike Alfreds and Kathryn Hunter respectively, such a position fails to acknowledge that western societies are technologised to such an extent that a great number of devices and functions have been rendered invisible. And even if we take into account those technological devices that are not yet transparent, there is no consensus which of these devices or cultures of use should be permissible and which should be banned and under which circumstances. If for example, our imaginary student, let’s call her Sarah, receives a notification that has not been posted by the project team, but is relevant to the project, should she ignore it or engage with it? Who or what is going to guide Sarah in making this decision? Should this guidance be part of the kind of broad theatre education, Zazzali and Klein are arguing for?

Alongside this lack of normative criteria and established protocols, a more immediate concern is that Zazzali and Klein’s ‘strategic selectivity’ position fails to account for the intentionality of the technological artefact. This is not a shade of technological determinism. It rather aims to elucidate two important aspects of technology. One is that technological devices may not determine, but ‘inflect’ the way we use them (Ihde 1990: 102-3). The other is that our relations to technology are not only informed by the actual functions a device might offer, but also by the potential actions we know are available to us (Kiran 2012). Let’s return for a moment to Sarah. Even if Sarah is determined to use social media ‘selectively and strategically’ and even if she is really clear about what a selective and strategic use amounts to, an educational project would need to take into account that a) social media feeds are optimally designed to attract the user’s attention; and b) that the user has already been conditioned to expect frequent notifications. I do not mean to let Sarah off the hook. But I do wish to argue that ‘selective and strategic use’ is not a solid pedagogical recommendation either.

Finally, another assumption that underpins Zazzali and Klein’s approach to technology relates to the issue of attention. The studies that Zazzali and Klein cite early on in their article are often premised on an understanding of attention that is based on an economic model. Drawing on such studies, Tiziana Terranova notes that ‘statements about the attention economy and the crisis of attention point to the reconfiguration of the attentive capacities of the subject in ways which constitute attention at the same time as scarce, and hence a valuable resource, while also producing an impoverished subject’ (2012: 7, emphasis original).

Echoing Terranova’s challenge to such a model, Katherine Hayles (2007; 2010; 2012) argues that theses on the effect of digital technologies on cognitive abilities are often steeped in specific assumptions about the nature of attention and specifically the kind of attention that is required/expected by Humanities. Hayles (2012) challenges these assumptions – including Bauerlein’s work, whom Zazzali and Klein cite – by pointing out that modes of ‘hyper’ and ‘machine’ reading cultivated by the use of the internet may enable the development of a different set of skills, which might also be useful in Humanities. In other words, both Terranova and Hayles emphasise that a valorisation of deep attention and a pathologisation of hyper or scarce attention are no longer adequate explanatory frameworks. More to the point, Hayles further suggests that in Humanities we often grapple with texts that would benefit from a ‘hyper’ mode of reading, now associated with the internet, rather than the deep one associated with the novel.

I propose that this is a fruitful question to ask in relation to theatre education. Are there aspects of theatre practice that would benefit from the fragmented mode of attention apparently demonstrated by the Millennials? Can theatre education become a ground where students and tutors can rehearse alternative relations to technology? Can theatre education enable students to think/use existing domestic technologies in new (unexpected) ways? This is not intended to cultivate some kind of ‘edge’ that certain graduates may have over others. It is rather proposed as a contributing factor towards developing performing arts pedagogies that have at their centre notions of citizenship, activism and public engagement. And this brings us full circle to the key aim of Zazzali and Klein’s rationale for a revised undergraduate curriculum, which, as I said already, I heartily celebrate.

– Dr Maria Kapsali, Lecturer in Physical Performance, University of Leeds, School of Performance and Cultural Industries

References:

Alfreds, M. 2013. Then What Happens?: Storytelling and Adapting for the Theatre, London: Nick Hern Books.
Giedd, J. 2012. ‘The Digital Revolution and Adolescent Brain Evolution’, Journal of Adolescent Health, 51 (2), pp. 101-5.
Hayles, K. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
________ 2010. How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine. ADE bulletin, 150, pp 62-79.
________ 2007. ‘Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes’, Profession, 13, pp 187- 199.
Junko, R and Cotton, S. 2012. ‘No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and Academic performance’, Computers sand Education, 59 (2), pp. 505-14.
Ihde, D. 1990. Technology and the Lifeworld, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Kiran, A. 2012. ‘Technological Presence: Actuality and Potentiality in Subject Constitution’, Human Studies, 35, pp. 77-93.
Loverdou, M., 2014. Interview with Kathryn Hunter, To Vima, 24th April 2014 (translation mine).
McCafferty, P. 2010. ‘Forging a “neoliberal pedagogy”: the “enterprising education” agenda in schools, Critical Social Policy, 30 (4), pp. 541-563.
Monahan, T. 2004. ‘Just Another Tool? IT pedagogy and the commodification of education, The Urban Review, 36 (4), pp 271-292.
Selwyn, N. 2016. ‘Minding our Language: Why education and technology is full of bullshit…and what might be done about it’, Learning, Media and Technology, 41(3), pp 437-443.
Terranova, T. 2012. ‘Attention Economy and the Brain’, Culture Machine, 13, pp 1-19.

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