Allow me to start by introducing myself: my name is Christopher Petty and I teach in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University, as well as in the Theatre Department at Suffolk County Community College, and I hold one of the more obscure degrees you’re likely to come across: dramaturgy. I spend most of my time being split between the two worlds of writing and theatre, as well as the worlds of academia and performance. However, the more time I spend in each, the more I become convinced that the way we work in theatre is not terribly different from the way we write and teach writing. In fact, I believe that the two can in fact inform each other with excellent results.
My fiancee (a fellow dramaturg and writing teacher) and I joke that 90% of a dramaturg’s job is explaining what dramaturgy is. In reality, dramaturgy refers not so much to a particular activity but rather the process of using an intensive analysis and understanding of dramatic structure to immerse oneself in the world of a play, then finding effective ways to open up avenues of understanding and exploration for other collaborators and the audience. This may apply to the process of assisting a playwright or company in developing a new play, or for a production of an established or newly finished play. Recognizing not only where feedback is needed (and where it isn’t) but also how to provide it in an effective and non-prescriptive manner is crucial to this process. While this skill becomes well-honed as one continues to work in the field, the truly tricky part is getting others (collaborators and audience) to do this. Moreover, you need to get them to do it intuitively; there is neither time nor interest for a crash course in critical feedback in a 30-minute audience talkback session.
This brings me to my main point: the writing classroom is not unlike the artistic space of the theatre, whether educational or professional, in its need for productive critical feedback. Peer response and revision can be a great tool; however, in my experience there is one major drawback in the fact that most students don’t yet know how to give constructive feedback. This is not for lack of effort or intent, but rather because we are asking students who are roughly at the same skill level to respond to ideas that they are all in the process of learning themselves. For this reason, it is not uncommon to see a peer review assignment become awkward, reserved, and unfruitful. In fact, it is likely that many teachers who do not use these type of activities in the classroom have had mediocre experiences with them in the past, and indeed it can often feel like the blind leading the blind. Yet students and theatre audiences alike are in reality some of the best analysts because of the fact that they are not experts: they are the audience, the ones whom the work is for. They speak not from a place of resource and authority, but rather from a place of perceiving and reacting. Their responses are honest and candid, and reflect not what the work tries to be but rather what it is/does.
The issue at hand is how we can harness and guide these responses into productive and useful feedback. As a dramaturg, the first step is getting audiences to avoid prescriptive feedback: a large number of people will attempt to “write” the play for the playwright, providing ideas of what they could do, what they should have done, and so forth. Instead, we want to get them to respond to the play that the playwright is trying to write, rather than the play that they would have written. One of the best ways to do this is by developing specific, objective-oriented questions with which to lead the audience. In this manner, you can get them to provide you with the same important ideas, phrased in regards to what you’re looking for. Even negative feedback can come out in a positive manner, because the direction of the questions guides audiences into refining their raw responses into focused thoughts.
We can apply these same ideas in the writing classroom. By developing objective-oriented questions about their writing for students to respond to, we can encourage their honest feedback while decreasing the risk of unnecessarily negative, unproductive, or simply incorrect comments. Furthermore, instead of pressuring students into trying to find something to respond to when they may feel out of place, unqualified, or insecure about providing judgement to others, we simply create a conversation that not only brings up individual concerns, but elucidates ideas and concepts that students may not yet be proficient in with their own writing.
While this may sound like nothing new, this idea is not simply about developing a rubric by which students must respond. The key idea (and most challenging aspect of the process) is crafting specific assignment- and objective-based questions that feel less like something out of a textbook and more like the natural discourse that comes with a reader’s instinctual response to a piece of writing. Rather than feeling pressure to live up to an academic standard that would preclude the necessity of the course, students should become immersed in their writing process as a system of exploration and discovery. In this way, we reinforce the truth that writing is not a set of rules and absolutes, but rather a constantly-growing skill focused on communicating ideas to an audience in a way that is skilled, purposeful, and developed.