My Teaching Philosophy and Stephen Colbert

My Teaching Philosophy and Stephen Colbert

Those of you who’ve read this blog before will recall that in August I rewrote my teaching philosophy. Instead of addressing it to faculty or administrators, I addressed it to my students, and it was a liberating experience. Suddenly, concepts that I’d had trouble articulating in the past came easily, and my words communicated a sense of purpose that I’d always felt but had rarely been able to express.

I expected that teaching philosophy to last for a while. After all, the last one I’d written had been in 2012, and while five years was likely too long for something to go without revision, it suggested there was a certain shelf life to these things.

But I couldn’t get that teaching philosophy out of my mind. It wasn’t that it was untrue or unclear – it summed up my feelings precisely. It was simply that when I walked into a classroom, I was rarely cognizant of all the things I’d written. Instead, I realized slowly, I was thinking something far simpler: “Yes. And . . .”

I first heard about “yes, and . . .” in 2006 when Stephen Colbert was the commencement speaker at my institution. On the way to some great advice for that year’s graduates, he told the following story:

Stephen Colbert at Knox College, 2006

When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back.”

I thought it was a great story, and pertinent advice for graduates about to go out into the world and improvise the next part of their lives. But I forgot about it pretty quickly. And then, years later, I heard another variation on “yes, and . . .” at a conference for practitioners of Intergroup Dialogue. I was part of a group of twelve people who were trying out Dialogue for the first time, and at the end of one of our sessions, the facilitator asked each of us to offer one word about how we were feeling. One person spoke, and then the person sitting next to them was asked to speak, beginning with the words “yes, and . . .” Their job was to affirm the person who’d spoken first before adding their own word. It sounded glib at first, but it was a surprisingly powerful exercise. We realized our emotions, however different, were linked.

I take both versions of “yes, and . . .” into the classroom with me each day. Colbert explained why, some eleven years ago:

[By] following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Replace ‘scene’ with ‘class period’ and ‘audience’ with ‘rest of the class’ and you have a pretty good description of how I like to teach.

“Yes, and . . .” requires I admit that my entire, carefully-crafted lesson plan might go out of the window with a well-placed question from a student. It requires that I respond when something is unclear, or challenging, or interesting in a way that suggests we

Students in my Museums Class

spend more time on it than the other five things I had planned. “Yes, and . . .” asks me to listen to my students and hear when they’re saying they’re tired, hungry, shy, or struggling as much as when they’re offering an answer that might superficially seem “correct.” “Yes, and . . .” prods me to affirm what’s meaningful in a student’s feedback, while still asking others to add more. It has me telling people bits of history trivia that will never be on a test, but which solidify us as a community through laughter. It means nothing is set in stone, not even due dates – if there’s a compelling reason to do things some other way I can say, “yes. And . . .” and meet my students where they are.

I do say no – boundaries are healthy things in academia as in all other walks of life – but I also say yes – yes, and here’s how we can make that work.

I turn back to Colbert for the best part of all:

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

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