The Tragedy of the Commons: Dramas of the In-Class Oral Presentation
A feminist, a psychoanalyst, and a young conservative meet on a nineteenth-century Russian train. They carry steaming mugs of tea balanced between gloved hands, and chatter animatedly as the train lurches between stations in the remote countryside. The topic of conversation is a recent domestic homicide in the capital. The murderer unexpectedly boarded the train a few hours earlier and spoke at length about his case to another passenger. Having eavesdropped on the conversation, the three now debate the merits of the man’s arguments. They spar passionately from the perspectives of twenty-first-century feminism, #MeToo politics, Freudian psychoanalysis, and social conservatism.
This scene did not take place in on the tracks of Tambov or Tula, but rather in context of my 2019 Global Cultural Studies seminar “Life Stories: Literature and Personhood.” The three actors were students, performing a dramatic response they had written to Lev Tolstoy’s 1899 fictional work, The Kreutzer Sonata. The scene was their own creative reimagination of the opening of Tolstoy’s text and one of a series of performances I assigned to my class in lieu of more standard oral presentations.
I had noticed in past seminars that students seldom listened to one another during these presentations. Class members who already possessed robust speaking skills had a distinct advantage, while their peers were either bored or intimidated. Even the strongest presentations had an artificial, even desultory quality: public book reports delivered under duress. Yet semester after semester, I found myself reaffirming the same stultifying pact: I must assign oral presentations, the students must complete them.
Struggling to envision how my students could explore course readings in a more intuitive way, I turned to that semester’s syllabus. Hélène Cixous’ 1979 play Portrait de Dora (Portrait of Dora) caught my eye. In her play, Cixous lifts passages from Freud’s work and inserts them into an imagined dialogue between analyst and patient, in order to critique the gendered power dynamic in the original and (partially) reclaim agency for the female voice.
Taking Cixous’ play as a structural model, I asked my students to write short dramatic scenes that made a critical claim by creatively adapting language and essential ideas from the assigned week’s reading(s). Their scenes could take any form: from dining hall conversation to comedy sketch. I supplemented the basic instructions detailed on the course syllabus with a longer hand-out* early in the semester. Groups of no more than three students were to submit a 3-5 sentence summary of their proposed idea and meet with me or the course TA to discuss it in advance of the presentation. Although they could read from printed copies of their “scripts” on the day of the presentation, I encouraged them to perform to the best of their ability. Props were welcome. Each presentation had to conclude with a participatory activity involving the entire class. In order to head-off a potentially unequal distribution of work among group members, I based individual grades on the presentation’s strength and the students’ assessment of group dynamics, gauged through a written a self-evaluation form.*
I was initially unsure whether my class would grasp the purpose of these dramatic scenes. Would writing a script reproduce the old problems of inattention -- one portion of the class speaking at the other? Yet the outcome exceeded my expectations. My students staged court cases, gave mock museum tours, imagined the interior monologue of Shakespearean characters, and acted out therapy sessions. One group concluded with a competitive round of Jeopardy. Another circulated drawing materials and asked seminar members to sketch a character, then describe the logic behind their choices.
The assignment allowed students to mobilize their own voices and inhabit course readings in a manner that neither resulted in a flattened caricature nor a simplifying critique. I gradually saw a different approach to their written work emerge, as well. Having had to learn to operate the levers and pulleys that made the course texts turn, bend, even flip, my students were exponentially more nuanced writers and thinkers.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cate I. Reilly is a scholar of literature specializing in Central and Eastern European modernism and the interwoven history of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and medicine. She takes both an interdisciplinary and theoretically-focused approach to research and teaching. The scope of her work encompasses comparative modernisms, translation studies, the politics of language standardization, literature and science, Marxism, psychoanalysis, subject formation in the shadow of globalization, and the fraught legacies of deconstruction. Cate received a Ph.D and M.A. in Comparative Literature from Princeton, and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Yale.