Acting: Developing a Vocabulary

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What can we learn by exploring peer feedback practices in other disciplines?  That’s the central question driving this series of posts.  So far I’ve looked at creative writing and the studio arts.  In these next posts, I will consider acting.


Lynn McNutt is relatively new to Florida Atlantic University, but she’s already made quite an impression.  She’s energetic and enthusiastic, funny and approachable, and engaging - all qualities she brings to her classes, to the college, and to our football games (Go Owls!).  She’s also smart and a great director (I was entranced by her Lear). I had the chance to sit down with Lynn and talk about how peer feedback practices are developed in the acting classes she teaches for our department of Theatre and Dance, and one of the themes that first jumped out at me is the development of vocabulary.


Logistically these practices feel quite different, since Lynn doesn’t allow peer feedback until the end of the sophomore year.  The lack of a language with which to offer real feedback, a common theme in this post series, is a primary reason for waiting so long.  Students immediately want to say why a scene was good or bad, Lynn notes, without knowing why it was good or bad.  Thus, she spends a lot of time in the introductory classes instilling a vocabulary for talking about acting.  She’ll direct students’ attention by asking specific questions about a scene: “Do you see a difference between this way and that way?” Those questions direct responses, but also begin to introduce a vocabulary for talking about acting.  She then gives her feedback to the actor in front of the whole class so that they can see that vocabulary in action.  The development of such a vocabulary is a central pedagogical goal.  Acting is a result of a “soul connection to the technique” and while her students arrive with plenty of soul and emotion, what they need to develop is a way of talking about technique.


Lynn’s approach echoes a very common theme: students can’t give productive feedback without training on what is good and why it’s good.  I feel like we do a lot of that work in our own classrooms, and it’s one of the reasons I use peer revision sheets.  Often, I tie these sheets in to a particular element of writing that we’ve been discussing in the classroom.  For example, if we’ve been discussing how to make an argument, then I will ask students not only to identify the argument in a peer’s paper but then to also evaluate that argument using the language we’ve developed in class.  Vocabulary, in this sense, becomes a central goal of my classes, as well.


Lynn uses a host of handouts and worksheets about technique and also recognizes that students might arrive with a varied vocabulary of acting (some will have learned about “intentions,” while some would know about “goals” - and still others would be familiar with “goals”—all more or less the same thing).  I found that component familiar, too, as some of the students in my class will be used to thinking in terms of the “thesis” of a paper while some will know “argument.”  I prefer instead to talk about “project,” the thing they’re trying to accomplish in the paper.  But knowing the vocabulary students already have is a great way to transition them into the language of the classroom, a technique Lynn and I both share.


Chatting with Lynn helps me to recognize the importance of peer revision in developing a set of meta-skills around writing, skills that are centered around developing a language to talk about academic writing, both what it is and how it works and what makes it effective.  I plan on refining my focus there.


More from acting next time!



About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.