Who knew improvisatory comedy could be useful in higher ed?
I’ve been a fan of “improv” for years. I have decided opinions on the merits of the various hosts and cast members of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” and have seen a few subsets of the cast live. (For my money, Clive Anderson and Aisha Tyler are the best hosts; Drew Carey was nearly unwatchable.) Podcasting has proven itself a great medium for improv, given its flexible time limits: I happily recommend any episode of “Comedy Bang Bang” in which Paul F. Tompkins portrays Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Jessica St. Clair plays Marissa Wompler. (“Womp It Up!”) Recently my brother referred me to “The Dollop,” a podcast that combines American history with improvisatory comedy. It’s uneven, but the episode about “Disco Demolition Night” and the career of Bill Veeck nearly made me drive off the road laughing.
The key to improv is “yes, and…” Each member of the troupe has to follow on what the previous one said or did. If A says she’s receiving signals from Alpha Centauri in her fillings, B has to accept that and build on it. It’s a sort of mandatory leap of faith. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does, it builds a sort of infectious momentum. An improviser confident that her partner will follow “yes, and…” will be more willing to take risks.
At the workshop last week, Sandy Shugart, the president of Valencia Community College in Florida, offered “yes, and…” as a way to build infectious momentum on campus. He was discussing the tonal challenge of acknowledging real issues without implicitly disparaging the people who’ve been working on them for years. That can be harder than it sounds. At Holyoke, the first time I asked the math department about low developmental math pass rates, their knee-jerk response was to deny blame. I wasn’t blaming, but they were so accustomed to being attacked that they assumed that even a simple question must signify a hostile agenda. It took years to get past that defensiveness. We did, but it took time.
Had I opened with “I know you’ve been concerned about developmental pass rates. Could you bring me up to speed on what you’ve been doing about it so far?,” we might have been able to get to the productive stage more quickly. That’s a version of “yes, and.” It opens with an explicit assumption of good faith, and sets the stage for working together. Instead of focusing on sussing out a sinister hidden agenda, we could skip directly to trying the next thing.
As he spoke, I realized that “yes, and…” is a conceptual cousin of “mindset.” “Mindset,” drawing on the work of Carol Dweck, is all the rage in the community college world. It rests on drawing a distinction between two concepts of intelligence. In the traditional, “fixed” view, people have a certain IQ or a certain level of intelligence, and that’s what they have. They can’t change it. If you’re “not a math person,” then nothing will make you one. The “mindset” school argues that intelligence is a muscle, and it can grow stronger with use. Struggling to learn something isn’t a sign of failure; it’s a necessary step in intellectual growth. We routinely accept that logic in the context of physical exercise, so it’s a short step to apply it to mental exercise.
Dweck and her acolytes have shown convincingly that a negative “fixed” mindset can be self-fulfilling. If I think there’s no point in trying, I won’t try, and I won’t improve. (If coerced, I might try in a really foot-dragging sort of way, fail, and take the failure as confirmation.) But if I think that I can get better with practice, I’m likelier to practice. There’s a reason to try. Changing mindsets upfront can lead to self-fulfilling forward progress.
In other words, we have “mindset” work to do on our own campuses. We can do a better job if we’re open to the possibility that it can happen, and that our own efforts matter. That means starting by acknowledging the work that has already been done, and by taking pains to point out the progress that has already happened. Instead of the usual “fork in the road” message, start with an appreciative acknowledgement of infectious momentum. Then take it to the next level, and the next, and the next.
Neither “yes, and…” nor mindset will work every single time. Nothing will. But they’re much likelier to work than what we’ve been doing. Improvisation requires a level of trust that people who rely on traditional models of strategic planning may find naive or opaque, but I’m okay with that. The bigger laughs require bigger risks. We may surprise ourselves. Given how much our success matters for our students and our communities, I think it’s worth the risk.