The word “present” is a noun, an adjective and a verb. That means, it is a thing, it is a thing that you are and a thing that you do. It is pronounced a little differently depending on the usage but is it simply a coincidence that the same word is all three?
First comes the noun form. The present. Meaning, the present moment as defined by time and space. The here and now. Then the adjective form. I am present. The doctor is present. Meaning, a condition of existence. A condition that is the foundation for any kind of relationship to exist. The third is the verb form. To present. Something that you, the one who is present, does in the present moment in time. I present, the President of the United States. This is the fourth form, a noun. The thing presented. The Christmas present. As we move across the meaning of this word from its nominal form to its verbal form, we move from a meaning that is abstract to one that is very pointed and specific. The present moment – implies the eternal aspect of time. The condition of presence – a more specific position describing a particular subject. And the act of presenting – a carefully formulated action which implies a subject and an object.
We all give presents. We all present something or the other. We present our identification if a policeman asks for it. This happens every now and then. But, there is something, we present almost all the time. Our selves. We present, the physical image of ourselves, our arrangement of garment, our point of view, our opinion and our entire being to people every day. People in the workplace, on the streets, at home. This act of presentation is motivated by our world view, our aspirations and our past – which taken together can be called our story. “What’s his story?” we often ask.
Currently, I am interested in two particular modes of presentation that, when thought about carefully, have a lot in common. The presentation of the theatre and that of the classroom. I am involved, currently, in the development of an orientation workshop format for new teachers at an exciting mid-journey startup in the Delhi NCR region. And I am calling it “Presenting Yourself.”
We have discovered, the teachers and I, that the theatre and the classroom much the same but also different. Both usually have rows of seats looking on to a stage area. Through the use of stationery-props, the actor-teacher presents a story-lesson. In the theatre, it is crystal clear to all concerned that the same script when performed by different actors will bring dramatically different results. But for whatever reason, this is less obvious in the classroom. People do understand in general, that a certain teacher will bring more to a certain lesson than another teacher but in the modern age of “smart” classrooms with their prepared videos and slides, the teacher is becoming relegated to a partial-mute who’s only job is to facilitate the dissemination of compiled facts. It is demoralizing, to say the least. Most unjustly, the teaching profession has lost the affection and heroism that it once afforded. A heroism and affection, that arguably, is still alive in the theatre. There is practically no good reason for this discrepancy to exist.
This brings us to the another difference between the theatre and the classroom. The theatre – when setup correctly, is a process-oriented environment and the classroom – more often than not, is a result-oriented environment. This is more acutely true when the classroom we are talking about is responsible for producing results in competitive examinations. In a play, actors don’t rush through the story as fast as possible to get to the standing ovation. They relish the story and pace each scene, giving it its right place in the narrative flow. The goal of this process is to produce understanding and engagement in the audience. In a lecture though, even though we have the same goals, we often find teachers trying to “get through” the syllabus. Students trying to reach an answer faster than others. These behaviors are motivated by the affect of timed competitive entrance exams. In these exams, it literally doesn’t matter how you get to the answer, only that you do somehow and that you do more frequently and rapidly than others around you. Students are not concerned about each step, how it goes from one to the next. Not concerned about the values of helping each other, of taking everyone along, of the group dynamic. Yet, every MBA worth her salt will tell you that people succeed in groups. I should caveat this by saying, that there is “commercial” theatre where results are gauged by ticket sales, likes, tweets, awards and all kinds of other rubbish but we are discounting this type of theatre for the purpose of this discussion.
The goals of the orientation workshop are still to be determined. We are administering a pilot. Firs and foremost, we must restore in our teachers, the sense that their particular perspective is of prime importance. That not just the curriculum but their own interpretation and presentation of it through the lens of their unique self is important. We must also, develop in them, a habit for self-reflection. This is a habit that is well developed in actors. In the good ones anyway. They (sometimes over-zealously) talk about their “process” or their “method” and continue to refine it through the run of their careers. Finally, we must inculcate in our teachers, an appreciation for the process-oriented approach. We cannot, in this workshop at least, question the competitive examination system and must act within the constraints and motivations that it presents. But we can, produce in teachers, the ability and willingness to blend into their teaching regiments, certain aspects of the process-oriented approach.
We have chosen to structure our economy so that our kids and the people who mentor them must put themselves through the grinder in order to achieve what we have defined as success for them. We teach our kids the virtues of help, of friendship, of togetherness and of uniqueness but we then make them compete in cattle-style competitive exams for the purposes of earning a livelihood. Is it a wonder that most of our kids are confused and a generation of teachers are mired in dilemma? Ultimately, we have to accept that all of life is sacred. Our kids and their teachers cannot sully their selves in the profane as exams approach and then surface back into the sacred, after the exams are over. We have to question the bigger picture, where we teach our kids that a livelihood is obtained at the expense of others and still ask them to be “good human beings.” But until then, we have to continue our inquiry within the constraints of the present.