Dancing in the Classroom (or, What Teachers can Learn from Jack White)

White Stripes Dancing

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Musician Jack White showed his cranky side while commenting about the current state of live music:

“People can’t clap anymore, because they’ve got a fucking texting thing in their fucking hand, and probably a drink, too!” he says. “Some musicians don’t care about this stuff, but I let the crowd tell me what to do. There’s no set list. I’m not just saying the same things I said in Cleveland last night. If they can’t give me that energy back? Maybe I’m wasting my time.”

If concert-goers who voluntarily part with $300 for prime tickets for one of the most engaging musicians/showmen touring today, an artist who makes an active effort at every show to actively engage their audience, is it any wonder to find students voluntarily parting with tens of thousands of dollars a year only to text and facebook their way through classes taken with even the most elite and engaging of university professors?

When it comes to university teaching, I am most often inclined to say that student engagement is the teacher’s responsibility. Students don’t know any better. They are the product of socialization processes driven by media experience and smart phone notifications. Viewed as an orator, it is the instructor’s duty to take the student where they are, to understand their knowledge-state, values, and interests, and entice them to enter into an experience of knowledge that is otherwise foreign, and even ‘boring.’ I hesitate to blame students for not taking responsibility for their learning, since it is exactly this kind of responsibility that is a key outcome of higher education. There is a sense, however, in which students ARE to blame for their lack of engagement. A lack of attention in the classroom is not necessarily a function of an unengaging teacher, or even of an unengaged student, but rather of the fact that students are making the choice to be engaged by media, content, and interests that are familiar and elsewhere rather than unfamiliar and present.

What’s the solution? According to Ryan Bort, the key to becoming truly engaged in and by the concert experience is to dance:

But say we are willing. What’s is the best way to stave off this inevitable boredom and really engage with what we’ve dedicated our night to come see? How do we reclaim the live experience for what it’s worth? It’s really simple, actually: Dance. Give in to that impulse. Don’t be scared. Go ahead and channel a little Bowie. I’m looking at you, stoic guy with the blank expression and girl who can’t see over the person in front of you. If you dance — and I’m not talking about timid, mindless knee bobbing — all of the encumbrances of the structured venue show will rescind into the periphery and you will enjoy yourself and the music in the realest way possible. A new world will reveal itself and you will be free. So next time dance and dance like you mean it, or keep dancing if that may be the case. In fact, it even works particularly well when the music is live and you’re surrounded by other people in a confined space.

What would dancing in the classroom look like? How can we, as educators, encourage learners to “go ahead and channel a little Bowie”? Are there inhibitions that we need to work with our students to overcome, inhibitions that ‘smart’ technologies serve to foster? How do we move learners to become fully embodied within a learning environment, to be fully present and, in so doing, to abandon themselves within the confined space of the classroom?