In the contemporary world of academia and the job market, there is a widespread perception that studying and work are not something to have fun with; they are things you just have to do in order to achieve success. But at Lloyd International Honors College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Dean Omar Ali and his ‘ensemble’ (professional staff, comprising a budget and operations manager, an administrative assistant, two assistant deans, and four academic advisors) are creating a new kind of performative culture which challenges this prevailing assumption. Drawing upon the work of the developmental psychologist and educator Dr. Lois Holzman, currently serving as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow, they intentionally perform and play both as a means of instruction for Honors College students and as a guiding method for their respective job roles.

by Nils Skudra

ABOVE PHOTO – Dean Ali, with Honors student and SGA President Samaya Roary, and Provost Dana Dunn

The idea of ‘performing’ is applied in the curriculum, in extracurricular activities, and during the day-to-day work of running the Honors College—as during weekly ‘ensemble’ meetings in which Dean Ali and his staff discuss the work of the Honors College. In all these spaces, they infuse the improv theatre technique of “yes, and” to cultivate an open and playful working and learning environment. The method is simple: acknowledge and accept ‘offers’ (what people say or do) and build on these positively. In doing this, the Honors College is redefining commonly held notions about how we learn, grow, study, and work, providing both students and staff with a new lens into how they approach their respective roles and what they bring to those roles.

For some of the staff members, performance as part of the job has been an empowering and creative experience.

“I’m a people person,” says Linda Dunston-Stacey, the Budget and Operations Manager for the Honors College, “but not everyone is.” “Coming to the Honors College made me realize that there was a framework for what I do and that my intentionality now had some words to it.”

Ms. Dunston-Stacey’s reflections illustrate how the concept of performance redefined—or gave clarity to—the work that many of her colleagues were engaged in, giving it new meaning and purpose. We can be intentional in our actions. We can choose to be present, or not. We can try new ways of being, even if we are not all, as Ms. Dunston-Stacey is, a ‘people-person.’

The Honors ensemble will often play games at the start of meetings as a way of practicing being deliberate at yes-anding each other, having fun together, and building connectivity. An example would be the ‘one-word story game,’ in which an individual adds onto the sentence with one word initiated by the previous person next to them, followed by the next staff member, creating a story together on a given subject. Another such game is the ‘questions game,’ in which participants, one at a time, go around, asking a question about a given subject while building on what the person next to them asked. These various games help to create an open and creative atmosphere.

For Professor Spoma Jovanovic, who teaches in the Department of Communication Studies and offers an Honors seminar, the task of higher education “is to solve the world’s problems,” and therefore “I take seriously the things that I teach, and the ways in which I interact with students are really to better prepare them to tackle the complexities of the world in which we are all living.” She considers this pertinent to the current cultural atmosphere in the United States since, she maintains, “I’m worried that students are growing up in a culture where standing back and not participating is seen as okay… I feel that we need to teach democracy since it doesn’t really exist in our public sphere too much.” For Professor Jovanovic, having conversations is a kind of performance, and one that is much needed at this moment in the nation’s history.

Another Honors faculty member, Professor Nadja Cech, from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, reflects that “the context in which my students learn is critical for their ability to engage effectively with content.” She notes that “[s]ometimes we play games related to chemistry, such as chemistry charades, where some of us act out a complicated chemistry term (such as ‘spectrophotometry’) and the rest of us attempt to guess what it is.” Such game-playing helps to create a culture in her classrooms and labs where scientists-in-the making build a sense of community and get some laughs in. “Any activity that allows us to connect with each other is relevant to the subject,” she maintains, “because the human relationships are as important to the learning process as is the subject matter.”

Dean Ali, who teaches history and was selected in 2016 as the Carnegie Foundation North Carolina Professor of the Year, echoes Professor Cech’s sentiment. “What is the sense of having a classroom if we don’t connect with each other?,” he asks. “‘Yes-and’ helps us do this … by focusing on and building our relationships with students and the class as a whole, we are ever-more effective in helping students stretch and learn,” Ali notes. He concludes, “I’m an environmentalist, and not just the tree-hugging kind! I’m talking about being attentive to social environments. To the extent we attend to social relationships and building classroom environments where students can take intellectual risks, which can sometimes be hard emotionally, we support our students develop and grow in all kinds of ways.”

With respect to the effectiveness of performance in the classroom, many faculty and students of the Honors College regard it as highly beneficial to the process of learning and discovery. As Dr. Cech notes, the practice of chemistry involves a degree of play and improvisation—that is, students ‘performing’ as scientists, as well as the activity of experimentation, which is inherent to the scientific process. “Successful chemistry experiments require creativity and a willingness to follow up on scientific curiosity,” she maintains. “When doing chemistry research, we’re often doing something that’s never been done before. It’s important to allow for failure in this process. You can’t be afraid to try because the experiment may fail, you try it anyway. In essence, this is a type of improvisation.”

Honors College students recognize the effectiveness of performance in their academic and work lives. Honors student Samaya Roary, who also works and serves as UNC Greensboro Student Body President, states that sometimes she has to show up at meetings when she is tired or feels underqualified, but she knows that she must step into the role and be confident. “Performance plays a role in my life because it’s very de-stressing to realize that at the end of the day it’s just a play, we’re all figuring it out together… and to know that we’re all going through this ‘performance of life’ can be very reassuring, especially because college can get very stressful.” She recognizes that performance can be a challenge as well because it is something she is “constantly growing in.” As a word of advice to students, she states: “Go outside of your comfort zone, try something new and do something different. See if you like it… Be willing to learn from others that you might not consider quote-unquote ‘experts.’ You might be surprised!”

In conclusion, the concept of performance has been highly instructive and beneficial as a teaching and work tool for students, faculty, and staff in the Honors College, and in a wide variety of ways. After all, their motto is “Ludite, Explorate, Perficite!” (“Play, Experiment, Perform!”), as Assistant Dean Dr. Rebecca Muich, a classical philologist helped to create two years ago with the support of the university’s provost, Dr. Dana Dunn. As a form of pedagogy, performance enables faculty to engage students and encourage their participation; as a workplace tool, it provides staff members with creative skills for dealing with moments of pressure and administrative challenges; and for Honors College students, the practice of performance has proven to be a vital asset. In Roary’s view, performance equips students with the academic, social, and professional development skills that are necessary for their success as they move from university into their careers.

Nils Skudra is a freelance writer, Honors College Research Assistant, Civil War historian, and UNC Greensboro alumn (M.A., History, 2018), who you can find serving up a hot cup of coffee at A Special Blend in Greensboro, North Carolina.

For further reading:

Ali, Omar, and Nadja Cech, “’Yes, And,’ as Teaching-Learning Methodology,” Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed (April 2017)

Holzman, Lois, “Become a Vygotskian!” A Conceptual Revolution, The Creative Side of Culture Change, Psychology Today (April 6, 2013)

Kamenetz, Anya, “Nonacademic skills are key to success. But what should we call them?” NPR Ed (May 28, 2015)

Livengood, Jake, “Learning from Improv,” Inside Higher Education (June 15, 2015)

McNerney, Sam, “What Improv Teaches us About Creativity,” Big Think (2017)

Salit, Cathy, “The Five Fundamentals of Performance,” Performance of a Lifetime (May 18, 2016)

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