Never a Dull Moment: Teaching and the Art of Performance (Feminism Takes Center Stage)

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Teachers are really performers, classrooms are stages, and the students the captive audience.

Does this sound like your educational experience? Would you like it to be? Jyl Lynn Felman, performance artist, feminist, and teacher of over twenty years, is here to show us the way.

Dynamic, animated and improvisational, Felman’s approach to teaching breaks new ground, dramatically transforming the traditional classroom into an intellectual theater. In this classroom, teachers are performers, not lecturers and students are active participants, not passive receptors. In this classroom, risk-taking, intellectual honesty, and openness are all part of the show. The result is a critically engaged and emotionally invested learning experience for both student and teacher.

In beautifully crafted essays, Felman gives a performance that is hard to forget. Along the way, she takes on some of the most important issues on college campuses today: identity politics, sexual harassment, race relations, anti-semitism, eating disorders, tenure, and the value of teaching.

Never a Dull Moment is a performance not to be missed.

Praise for Never a Dull Moment

“Jyl Felman’s brilliance as a teacher is unmistakable in this book — a dynamic combination of lyrical writing and provocative ideas. Anyone who has ever experienced the personal transformation that comes from teaching about social justice will recognize the wisdom in Felman’s approach to educating the “whole” student. Anyone who hasn’t, needs to read this book.”
— Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

“This is a book that equates pedagogy with courage, teaching with hope, and politics with particular bodies mutually crossing into uncharted territories where meaning, passion, justice, and critique open up new possibilities for critical learning and social change. Never a Dull Moment is a moving, courageous, and insightful book that every teacher,student, administrator, and parent should read.” — Henry Giroux, author of Fugitive Cultures

“In her exciting book Never a Dull Moment, Jyl Lynn Felman reveals the deeper value of “face-to-face” teaching, not simply as a means of getting information across, but as a way of exploring some of the most sensitive gender and racial issues we confront in the contemporary classroom.” — Lillian S. Robinson, author of In the Canon’s Mouth Dispatches from the Culture Wars

A Conversation with Jyl Lynn Felman

How do you motivate your students to learn? How do you keep them engaged and interested? Can you talk about your teaching method and how it relates to “The Method” developed by Lee Strasberg?

First of all, if I’m bored by the material, the students will be bored. So, I motivate my students by the passionate connection I have to the material itself. That is, their opinions matter, and they know this is the key to the classroom and their ultimate success. Students write every week, usually a response paper to the material. Often I read from their papers or have the students themselves read to the class. This helps students realize their own intelligence, and that of their peers. A remarkable transformation occurs at this moment. In addition, students are required to meet informally out of class each week. So, a gestalt is established, where there is an energy and synergy both in and out if the classroom. An intellectual camaraderie is established. This relates to “The Method” by Lee Strasberg – that is the WHOLE person, not just the brain is engaged. Learning then becomes a mind AND body experience; the students’ relationship to the material is enhanced and permanently absorbed for later application.

What so you think about the virtual or Internet classroom? Do you think students can learn in this setting?

To bash totally the virtual classroom would be utterly ridiculous on my part. The key is how, when, and where it is used. There will never be a substitute for face to face learning and teaching. This is essential to education. BUT, as a compliment to the living classroom, I think the Internet has great potential. For instance, in all my advanced seminars a list-serve is created for all class participants, enabling us to have a continuous dialogue in and out of the classroom. Often students send the entire class news articles and current events via the list serve. A lot of learning, synthesizing and connecting happens that then spills over into the live classroom. This is terrific. The problem is when the virtual classroom becomes the only classroom. When all contact is virtual, there is no human connection. We can already see the result of this in young kids who spend too much time in front of a monitor instead of outside making friends.

Most teachers at the University level try to maintain a certain distance from their students, but for you, teaching is both intellectual and emotional. Why is your approach so different from most of your colleagues’?

I was raised for the most part in graduate and undergraduate education on human “distance” in the classroom. A kind of there, but not there, reality. It was deadening. And I had to work harder to stay engaged and learn something. In fact, I stopped going to almost all of my law school classes by the second year because I never missed a thing, and was not missed at all! I could learn everything on my own and still get terrific grades. The key is that the classroom experience has to be an experience, emotionally and intellectually, for both student and teacher. For this to happen the teacher has to be a whole person, vulnerable to her students and open to questioning. The classroom is literally a hot house – everything is nourished and growth is maxed to the highest potential I am not a robot; I do not want to teach robots!!! So, although it’s far more work, it is also far more rewarding to teach through human connection rather than disconnection. Distance and discipline belong in the military, not in the classroom. Ultimately, students learn more when they are connected emotionally to their peers and to the teacher. I know no other way to teach. It is the only way I have ever truly learned anything.

In your book, you say you don’t dress for class, you costume for class. Do the costumes reflect what you’ll be teaching that day?

This is loaded for me. I had to work for years to undo all the social conditioning relating to woman and appearance. Only when I could take back myself, and decide for myself how I wanted to look, what style was my own, could I begin to use the body and art of costuming to great effect in the classroom. Yes, I do plan what I will wear depending on the topic. I don’t want to be an interference or steal the show – I only want to compliment the material and enhance the learning experience. It’s a blast to dress high femme one day and bad butch another when teaching gender!!! Color is extremely significant. A teacher who wears black all the time communicates as much as the professor who is a slob or slovenly dressed. There is definitely a double standard in the academy for male and female professors. Men get away with a much more relaxed appearance than women do. It’s also a question of how to convey conviction and credibility in spite of rigid gender roles. Women are much more susceptible to harsh judgment based on appearance! (Just look at Hillary Clinton’s revolving door of “looks” and now Laura Bush, or Plain Jane, who seems to be working so hard not to be noticed.)

Food figures prominently in your work — not just in Never A Dull Moment, but also in Cravings and Hot Chicken Wings. Can you talk a little about that?

Food is memory, culture, and narrative for me!! Food is the body and all her pleasures and displeasures. Food is about connection – with another human being and with the self. Food brings the body and the mind together. I am a visual person and a simple dish of freshly scrambled eggs topped with parsley can conjure up an entire scene. Finally, I have begun to allow food in the classroom at break and I have noticed a huge difference. The students, mentally fatigued from the first hour or so get to nourish themselves and further connect with each other more informally. It’s amazing how introducing food in all her glorious tastes, textures, and smells can transform an entire mediocre space or experience. I love cookbooks with fabulous color photos where just looking at the picture fills me up and I can taste the food on the page itself! There is something so utterly satisfying about a good meal that makes me think all things are possible. Food is my best metaphor yet, which is why, at heart, I am truly a Jewish lesbian vegetarian kosher chicken writer.

Do you consider yourself a role model for your female students? For young Jewish women? For lesbians?

This is a difficult question. It’s not for me to decide whether or not I am a role model. I know for some women and men, specifically Jewish and feminist, I am. They see that they can be critical and loving in relation to Judaism when they observe me. As for my female students in general, this is far more difficult. Because I am not heterosexual, not married, never have been married, and don’t have children, many women do not see themselves in me. In fact, I may represent a threat to what they desire and a challenge to everything they hold dear. On the other hand, for the potential risk-takers, witches and future amazons, I am by default a role model because there is no one else out there on the edge. And yet, I am another kind of role model; that is, a model for what not to do or be if you don’t want to be surrounded by credibility attacks!! I prefer the word mentoring. My students and I mentor to each other, we truly do. Mentor allows for more mutuality and less abuse of power in either direction. Mentoring is more sustainable over time, that is I expect to remain life-long friends with many of my students, where as I don’t think role-modeling offers this possibility. With role-modeling there is ultimately a parting of ways, where as the mentoring relationship continually transforms itself in reciprocally beneficial ways. For lesbians and gay men, who want to be out and lead a full, rich life, I am by default, not by choice, a role model; we have a special nonverbal bond about the risk involved in publicly surviving and thriving.

Publication Date: May 11, 2001
ISBN: 0-415-92660-2
Trade Paperback Original

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