Aesthetics Class

Our class (minus one) with Fjolla at right.

I arrived in Kosova knowing that I would teach a Theory and Criticism class for the senior playwriting students, who are required to take a year-long course in Aesthetics. Taught during a one single semester, my class would have to be a double course, i.e., four credit hours rather than two. We had the option of meeting twice each week for two hours or once each week for four hours. The six enrolled students selected the latter option, which was best given the lack of classroom space on certain days.

For every hour of class, the students at UP are afforded 15 minutes break (smoking, phone calls, bathroom, etc.); for longer classes, students may choose to reduce or eliminate breaks and, thus, shorten the overall meeting period to three hours, which is what my students did. We met every Thursday afternoon from 2:15-5:15 for 14 regular lecture-discussions. Our fifteenth class was reserved for conferences to discuss final projects and review each student’s progress in the class.

Door to balcony facing campus.

You may find it interesting to note that here, if students want to meet with their professor or director, they usually don’t arrive during “office hours” but, instead, call with an invitation to have coffee. Similarly, most of my meetings with theatre faculty have occurred at nearby coffeehouses. In addition to this being a “coffee culture,” there is a practical reason for these outside meetings: faculty offices are shared by multiple professors and are used as classrooms for smaller classes.

Because the multi-media room at the theatre building was not available for a 3-4 hour block, I held class in the same room designated as my office, which also served as office and classroom for two regular professors. This was in the Music Building, one of the most dilapidated structures on campus: no heat or a/c, broken windows, leaking ceilings, wiring and electric load issues, etc. From the supplies budget of my grant, I purchased an electric oil radiator, white board, table, and wireless router. I also provided drinking water and refreshments each class. (My students had a two-hour class right before mine each day.) I tried to make the environment as comfortable and “learning friendly” as possible: it’s hard to learn (or teach) when you’re shaking from the cold, and we had some bitterly cold days. Later, we had some miserably hot days as well.

MacBook Air to the rescue.

In the U.S. theatre students usually don’t study “Aesthetics” per se but, instead, take dramatic theory and/or criticism. I teach T&C back at Sam Houston (it’s my favorite class!) and used it as the basis for my Prishtina class. The first hour of each class focused on dramatic theory (why is theatre–writing and production–the way it is?), the second hour on criticism (how do we perceive, understand, and evaluate theatre?), and the last hour on practice (how does all of this apply to contemporary theatre practice?). This hourly, topical format proved to be quite effective. (And when I shifted materials or equipment between hours, I let the students “stretch their legs” which, for them, meant a “fast” cigarette on the nearby balcony.)

When I initially applied for my grant (over 18 months earlier), I did so with the understanding that I would teach in English. As it turned out, I did teach (and direct) in English but always through a translator. Of my six students, two could converse in English, two had limited vocabularies, and the remaining two had no capacity for English. Fortunately, the Fulbright folks increased my budget to accommodate a translator, and, even better, I ended up with Fjolla Hoxha, who works for an American agency in Prishtina while finishing her Master’s thesis in theatre (!) at the University of Istanbul. Without her, I could not have functioned effectively here in classes or rehearsals.

Office transformed into classroom.

For each class, I would hook my laptop to the television and hope that we had electricity. On the best days, we had electricity and (wireless) internet connection, but rarely for the entire three-hour period. I always had a Plan B to accommodate lack of electricity, and I learned how to download and save internet materials (primarily video clips), so that I wouldn’t have to depend on a connection. Needless to say, each class took many hours to prepare, perhaps 2-3 hours for each contact hour.

To understand what we studied during the semester and to access some of the materials I used, you should visit my companion blog: David McTier at the Faculty of Arts. A glance at the syllabus will provide an idea of how I attempted to teach and assess an upper-division class in which I neither could speak the students’  language nor read their original writing (without translation).

View from the smokers’ balcony.

Of all the topics we explored, the ones that triggered the most discussion were:

  • copyright and legal issues (there is no recognition or application of copyright here)
  • the differences between American and European theatre practice (repertory system vs. seasons and long runs) and values (art vs. entertainment)
  • issues of gender and sexual orientation (this merits its own separate future posting)
  • departures from Aristotelian models, particularly modernism vs. postmodernism
  • opportunities to have their own plays produced, translated, introduced into American theatre, etc.

Although classes now have ended, I must wait until June 25 for final projects to arrive. After grading them, I then will give my “marks” (grades). To whom I give these or in what format, I haven’t learned yet. Maybe tomorrow I will.

About David McTier

Professor of Theatre Department of Theatre & Musical Theatre Sam Houston State University