Teaching between Spoon-Feeding and Dialogue: My Experience in Institutions of Higher Education and in Interactive Theater

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Marie Elias (French Literature / Theater Studies, University of Damascus / Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, Damascus, Syria / Saint Joseph University, Beirut, Lebanon)

Teaching is a difficult, exhausting profession, but an exciting one, and, if handled satisfactorily, it allows for enriching forms of knowledge and social interchange. I assume that everyone who has taught has their own opinion and perspective. What I would like to present here is my personal view of teaching based on my own experience. In brief, I will set out the fundamentals of teaching for someone like me, who has spent her life teaching in various institutions, and ask how a teacher or professor can make this process as useful as possible, without suppressing their own personality (that is the unique ‘I’ of each one of ‘us’), while making of teaching a process of human and knowledge interchange. Throughout history, teaching has been an almost passive process: the teacher gives information and the student receives. Since the 1950s, however, teaching and the teaching process have evolved, and we have recently witnessed how the entire learning process has been transformed into remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic, whereby students have become responsible for themselves as they endeavor to learn from the screen.

Personally, I would like to ask how it might be possible to move completely away from the spoon-feeding of information, whatever the conditions of teaching are, and turn towards thinking skills, discovery, and autonomous learning. Would this be easy or difficult, and what are the factors that would assist in achieving such a goal? This question has concerned me over the many years that I spent as a practitioner in various establishments. How can we take the process of teaching further in order to build students’ personalities and help them find work? Here, I set out a modest experience in formal education and what came afterwards, which became my obsession once I shifted to working in the field of social development.

About Me

To begin, let me introduce myself. I am a former professor at the University of Damascus in Syria. I have taught for many years at various universities, starting at the Department of French Language and Literature at the University of Damascus, where the language of instruction was French, and then, concurrently, in the Theater Studies Department at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, also in Damascus, where instruction was in Arabic. I then taught at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon, where the language of instruction varied between Arabic and French, depending on the students’ desires and career paths. I state this to demonstrate that I have sufficient experience to give an opinion or speak about my experience in teaching.

I would like to point out that expounding on teaching and culture is only possible through addressing the teaching conditions and the form of the institution concerned, since each academic institution has its own structure. Therefore, we will have to go into some detail to explain the idea. As a preliminary, I will try to demonstrate that academic teaching implies freedom and thinking, and that if the teaching conditions change, then the whole meaning of education changes. In the end, I will move on to present the project of interactive theater that I oversaw after my experience in formal education. This led me to assemble a troupe able to take this form of theater into a wider arena and also encourage young graduates to forge a career.

Teaching Conditions in French Departments at Syrian Universities

The University of Damascus, a state-sector university, is under the authority of the Ministry of Higher Education, and there is considerable centralization of all academic and administrative matters. This means that departments, and even faculties, lack autonomy. Instead, different departments are linked, and there is similarity between corresponding departments at universities in other governorates, which means that any change has to encompass all universities. For this reason, individual experimentation only happens through great effort, and the experimenter is left to bear the consequences.

Unfortunately for me, I taught for many years during that specific period which was dominated by the policy of absorption, on whose basis the universities took in the largest number of students, particularly in ‘speculative’ (arts and social science) faculties. Although it is correct that this decision opened learning to all, that is, there was a democratization of academia, which allowed students from poorer social classes to enter university, this came at the expense of quality. Teaching vast numbers of students also came at the expense of student-teacher relations. Professors were obliged to use the material for memorization that the students could study regardless of attendance. From another perspective, this decision was not accompanied by a growth in job opportunities, which proved to be a disaster. We, faculty members, were turned into an exam machine that set students examinations all year long. In this model of academic system, admission to university was based on a crude weighting of marks in the specialized subject and the student’s overall average. Arts departments and the humanities in general therefore bore the brunt of this policy. In the French Language Department, after students were accepted into their majors, their proficiency was assessed to divide them into sections of various levels. If applied in ideal fashion, this method might seem satisfactory, but the reality was not like that, for students had the choice to attend classes or simply sit the exam. Under this policy, because of the enormous number of students, the whole teaching process was turned into a process of examinations. We set the students exams three times a year, but neither the students knew their professors, nor the professors their students. It is well known that excessive reliance on exams kills the learning process.

The fundamental problem for those teaching at this university, and in the Faculty of Arts in particular, was the large number of students and their poor, or wide disparities in, proficiency. Furthermore, under this academic system, the teacher was supposed to give academic lectures, but in practice this was not feasible because students were not at an academic or linguistic level that would allow them to pursue theoretical academic studies. We, teachers, therefore faced real adversity. There was also a pressing issue that affected the teaching process, which was the issue of the labor market after graduation.

This point is implicitly present in the name of the department I used to teach at: the Department of French Language and Literature, which already existed when the country was francophone, when French was also taught at private schools, at least in the big cities, such as Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia and Tartous, while the countryside remained neglected. The name of the department implies the teaching of language and of literature, but teachers do not know which of the two aims they should prioritize. In theory, the first two academic years are supposed to provide students with the necessary language skills, while the third and fourth years are for teaching literature, linguistics, translation, critical methods, comparative literature, and an overview of the history of the arts. Without giving a lengthy description, I would say that the ill-conceived implementation of this vision exhausted me. I would always ask myself how to get the information across and how to teach students to love the subject and ask questions at times when circumstances did not help. In this situation, I believe, one must forget the idea of teaching and academic lectures completely. From another perspective, even the logistics were awkward: a shortage of learning spaces, poorly-equipped lecture halls, the problem of textbooks – meaning the same material being taught year after year, and so doing away with the professors’ freedom to experiment with their subjects. Repeating the same content over the years kills off any incentive for change and research.

The question that remains open until today concerns the objective of this teaching. Were we training teachers of French or something else? Ostensibly, we were supposed to train French teachers, but the majority of graduates were oriented towards other less-demanding and more-lucrative careers like office work, translation and tourism. Teaching in a private-sector university like Saint Joseph University in Beirut was something else because the number of students was limited and, more importantly, the professor was completely free to choose what to teach.

Teaching Conditions at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus

The Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Syria is under the authority of the Ministry of Culture, which means that its internal organization differs from the university academic system, although it is also an academic establishment and some aspects of its design took advantage of the form and organization of university faculties. The institute awards the same undergraduate degree after four years of study, but the artistic and practical part is of much greater importance than at the university. Founded in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the institute was initially seen as a cultural project, which is evident in its design. Here, I will only speak about the department at which I taught, the Department of Theater Studies, since it is similar to corresponding departments at the university, and not go into details about other departments and how they were set up.

Admission to the institute is by written and oral examination. The written exam is marked by a committee, not an individual, and the oral exam takes the form of an interview with a panel, which selects the best and most convincing candidates. The number of students is very small, which enables dealing with and training each student as an individual. The institute provided space for interaction within the class, allowing participants to enrich the subject with whatever research or sources they had. This was further facilitated by the library, which was open to all.

Instructors were able to choose part of the curriculum themselves each year, although I believe that subjects, some theoretical and some practical, were defined when the department was established. Some subjects concern the history of theater and performance and others the process of writing and directing, or how to turn written material into dramatic performance. There were also subjects such as aesthetics and literary criticism. All of these prepared students for a career connected to drama criticism, teaching drama, working with a director, or dramatic writing Many students were oriented towards television drama, because it was in demand and lucrative, as was the case with graduates of the acting department.

At the institute, I taught subjects that bridged theoretical knowledge and practical application: dramaturgy, studying the dramatic text, theater laboratory, and play writing. The most important of these subjects was drama criticism, which forced me to pose many questions concerning the content of the subject and how to deal with western concepts of drama within Arab theater and how to fill the knowledge gap between western science and culture, at one end, and what reached the Arab world of this science, at the other end. This is what eventually led me to work, with a colleague of mine, on a critical dictionary of theater that defines the key concepts in theater and performance. In my case, teaching at the institute motivated me first to shift to working and dealing with the Arabic language, and second to write in Arabic, which in practice meant direct contact with the real world.

My Experience in Interactive Theater

After this teaching experience, and owing to prevailing circumstances, I moved to work in the field of social and cultural development by linking culture with theater, which means linking development with knowledge and knowledge development. This engagement with development, including development of the theater, meaning encouraging recent graduates in particular to work in the theater field, was the result of daily contact with the state of the learning process on the ground and of the many questions raised by instructors at the university and the institute. I had the chance to receive requests to program this kind of work, and I began to research and think alongside teaching. In particular, I took an interest in the interaction between the messenger – be they actor, theater activist, or teacher – and the receiver.

A new phase of my professional life began: to form a troupe working in the field of interactive theater or interactive arts. I worked with SIDA, an institution under the authority of the Swedish Foreign Ministry and overseen by the Theater Institute in Stockholm, on a program to animate youth theater in the areas of writing and directing. I then worked to establish the kind of interactive theater advocated by Augusto Boal to contribute to the development process. I started working in the field as an artistic advisor and received European funding, especially from Sweden as mentioned above. Then I formed a troupe which was trained with experts that we brought to Syria. The troupe put interactive theater into practice in the countryside and then in state schools (with funding from the Swiss DROSOS organization). This work continued for two years, until the Syrian crisis began. Before leaving Syria in 2012, I founded a non-profit development organization, Muwāṭinūn Fannānūn (Citizen Artists), which is still active in Syria.

Logo of the organization Muwāṭinūn Fannānūn (Citizen Artists).

What is interactive theater? It is theater that creates an interactive relationship with the audience and thus differs from traditional theater, which treats the receiver as a recipient not a participant. Interactive theater is based on conscious participation, and so differs from the passive arts of whatever nature (and, of course, there have been attempts to produce interactive programs on the small screen). This theater, which is also sometimes called ‘motivational’ theater, endorses the principle of interaction with the participants to create a constructive relationship that is a key requirement for the dramatic structure. Mostly, the spectator is also an actor (acting out situations, finding solutions, or acting their own story). With the spread of interactive theater, it has acquired many uses, most of which are appropriate, but sometimes they have been unplanned and superficial.

This is a simple definition, but there is a long history of practice and experiment linking this theater with teaching, societal development, culture, crises (even political ones), and wars. This also answers the question I posed at the beginning: what is my understanding of teaching? Plain and simply, teaching is not about providing facts but about searching for them while driving the other to think for themselves.

The circumstances we are currently living, I believe, justify talking about interactive theater and the principle of interaction in the teaching process that I adopted in my work at all the establishments where I have taught. In an age of individualism and the isolation imposed by modern life, amid the spread of everything virtual, after the global technological development the world has witnessed, with the additional isolation enforced by the coronavirus pandemic, for me, the concept and principle of interaction are a lifeline to break out of this isolation. We hear a lot about interactive television and interactive theater, and even interactive learning, which today seems essential and provides an answer and realistic, tangible solution to the barriers between us as individuals in society and the loneliness we experience in our daily lives. Therefore, in the end, I will be engaged with adopting the idea of ‘the interactive’ after my long experience and my work founding an interactive theater troupe working in schools. Given the absence of a tradition of dialogue in our societies, we feel that this theater is very important for our countries since interactive theater is, in essence, ‘dialogue’ and ‘interaction’.

Conclusion

The difference between teaching at the university and at the institute is that the institute is more connected to the cultural life of the country and permits the formation of professionals able to enrich the cultural scene in general through the options made available to students and the mode of teaching. Time and reality have proved that after years of teaching and reassessing the curricula, we graduated a cultural elite who have played a major role on the cultural scene in Syria and beyond. Sadly, academic institutions have declined considerably in recent years given the lack of staff and the absence of a vision pushing towards the permanent development of education.

Translated from Arabic by Raphael Cohen.


Marie Elias (ماري إلياس) is a former professor at the University of Damascus, Department of French Language and Literature, and the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus, Theater Studies Department. For more than a decade she has been teaching at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, where she supervises research and masters and doctoral dissertations. She received her doctorate from the University of Paris III with a dissertation on the plays of Kateb Yacine. She has been a member of numerous juries, panels and editorial boards. Among her published works are On Cultural Activity in Syria during the Years of Fire (2016, with Rama Nijma and Jad Karim al-Jabaei; in Arabic), Anthology of Modern French Drama (in 2 vols., 2002 and 2006; in Arabic), Dictionary of Theatre: Concepts and Terms in Drama and Performing Arts (1997, with Hanan Qassab Hassan; in Arabic), and Exercises in Dramaturgic Writing and Improvisation (1988, also with Hanan Qassab Hassan; in Arabic). In addition, she has published articles and translations. Marie Elias has participated in many cultural development activities and formed an interactive theater troupe. She is currently overseeing the Muwāṭinūn Fannānun (Citizen Artists) organization, which is a non-profit development organization supporting early theatrical productions by young men and women, especially in Syria.


This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021

Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, 24.06.2021

Amani Albedah, The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange, 01.07.2021

Abdulhadi Alajmi, History without Debate: A Reading of the Crisis in Arab Historiography, 15.07.2021

Hala Auji, Outside Looking in: On Teaching Art History from the ‘Margins’, 22.07.2021

Marko Demantowsky, “Innovationitis” and Humanities, 23.09.2021

Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, On Contemporary Arab Philosophy as a Field of Study, 7.10.2021

Azelarabe Lahkim Bennani, How the Values of Modernity Contribute to Cultural Mediation, 14.10.2021

Jenny Rahel Oesterle El-Nabbout, German Medieval Studies and the Arab World: Overcoming Disciplinary and Epistemic Boundaries within the Humanities, 28.10.2021


Citation: Marie Elias, Teaching between Spoon-Feeding and Dialogue: My Experience in Institutions of Higher Education and in Interactive Theater, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.12.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/31594


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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