Dramatism: A technique of analysis of language and thought as basically modes of action rather than as means of conveying information.
K. Burke (1966:54)

Behavior as Dramatistic Expansion

With the preceding analysis, the analysis of school rhetoric as a structure has been ccmpleted with an indication of the extension of its use across the various groups in the school. In the process of specifying more exactly the features of these structures, we have narrowed our attention to verbal constructions. What is traditionally considered "behavior" has somewhat receded and it is time to get back to it. Our interest in rhetoric will persist, however, and we are going to approach behavior not as the opposite pole to verbalization as "what they do versus what they say" but as another mode of saying. We remain within the frame suggested by Burke's definition of dramatism but with the term reversed: We analyze modes of action as basically instances of language.

"Behavior" in this context refers to organized whole body movements over a period of time longer than the few minutes it takes for a verbal utterance to be produced. The product of such behavior can also have a much more massive presence than the black on white marks that are the typical result of written verbalization. "Behavior," in this sense, always involves much verbalization but the very mass and inertia of the product of such behavior make its power over future action incommensurate with the power of pure verbalization. Indeed, what gives verbalization its power is the fact that it can be the starting point in a chain that can lead to radical and irreversible changes in the historical stream. Simple verbalization leaves open potentialities either because many of its implications have not been spelled out or because the speaker can still retract it (and the intended audience refuse to hear it). Behavior, after a while, becomes inescapable both for the producer and for those who have to react to the objects that are left over.

We now focus on this process of behavioral "expansion." This can help us understand some of the conflicts that divided the participants, particularly those which were generated by the rhetorical structure as such (rather than by the fact that the structure does not allow the expression of the "true" social situation of the participants). I speak of "expansion" in reference to the work of Garfinkel (1967) and Labov and Fanshel (1977) in which they talk of the fact that no verbalization, particularly in "natural" discourse, ever fully specifies all the information that would require specification if the utterance was to be understood by an "outsider." This information can be made manifest in an "expansion," a text which an analyst produces. In fact, "expansion" is something that all speakers are involved in. It is a very rare utterance when speakers only say the strict minimum, particularly in our talkative cultures. If we accept the idea that silence between two people who share a lot can be quite an efficient mode of communication, as Hymes suggests it is among many Amerindian people, then we may say that any verbalization is an expansion.

Seen from this point of view, a paradoxical property of expansion becomes manifest. The more a potential statement is expanded, first verbally and then behaviorally, the more restricted is the body of information that is made to be relevant to the utterance (see Hill & Varenne, 1981). The primary silence (not the secondary type which can be "louder than words") is pregnant with an infinity of possible identifications. Anything can still be said or done. At this stage, two protagonists do not know how they may disagree on the meaning of the concurrent event or what is to be done about it. Let one talk and the infinity is bounded; a possible directing line is suggested to the audience who must now acknowledge the suggestion even if they intend to reject it. Imagine one American calling another one on the telephone for the first time. To break the silence, the first one says after he has heard that the receiver had been lifted:

"Mr. Smith?"

thereby suggesting 1) that he knows the other's name, 2) that it is time for naming, and 3) that it is time for some formality. The second man answers:

"Call me John."

thereby acknowledging 1) and 2) while challenging 3), thereby possibly suggesting 4) that he has recognized the caller as one with whom he wants to be informal. The first speaker expanded on the world by marking one aspect of it, and in so doing he restricted the information field. The second speaker picked up on the suggestion and further restricted the field of interactional possibilities.

This exchange could lead to a decision to meet face-to-face and to an actual meeting. This meeting can be looked at as an expansion of the phone call, a behavioral, or "dramatistic," realization of one of the potentialities that lay dormant within the initial situation, before the caller picked up the telephone. At the same time many other potentialities have been forever eradicated and all further action will have to deal with the fact that these two people did meet.

All action in the school can be seen as a moment in such a chain of dramatistic expansion. The letter of rejection from a college admissions officer which may radically transform the subsequent life of a student is the dramatistic expansion of a very long chain whereby 1) colleges decided to require "objective" measurement of the work of high school students who apply for admission; 2) a school system decides that to ensure that their student may get a chance to attend these colleges, the student will have to pass a "standardized" test which will be evaluated "blindly" by a computer at some testing service; 3) a student takes the test and obtains a very low score. From the first step (itself the end of another chain), which may have involved relatively restricted conversations between a few powerful people, the behavior of thousands of people has been altered, a major industry has been spawned that will provide the "objective evaluation," and will then generate a smaller industry of political and scholarly entrepreneurs who will be trying to show how arbitrary the "objectivity" of the system really is.

Once the rhetoric has been dramatized, the object it has created comes to possess an identity which makes it "present" in the most immediate sense. Take the school building itself, for example. Once it was built, it became non transformable and all future behavior within it had to adapt to what was initially nothing else than the rhetorical gesture of an architect in his drawing room. The architect could havebuilt within certain material limits, another building. Most participants in Sheffield did not think about the arbitrariness of the building very often. The building was shaped in the traditional middle fifties fashion, which made it all but invisible to a population who saw in it exactly what a school building should look like. And yet, at any time, the participants could become aware that something else could have been there. On hot days when the sun poured through the unprotected windows on the southern side of the building, the arbitrariness of the building re-surfaced as Man, in the form of a teacher complaining about unbearable heat, fought the assertion of Culture, in the form of a building of glass and brick, over himself.

Individualized Instruction

Text 29b

"Believing in the dignity and inherent worth of every individual, we accept every student as he is when he enters our school. We recognize that each student has different abilities, interests, and needs to which our curriculum must be suited. We shall do our utmost through guided judgment in course selection to help each student develop his potentialities to the fullest extent so that he may become a productive member of our democratic society....

Knowing that the causes of democracy and free education are bound together, we believe that one cannot survive without the support of the other. The responsibilities rest with the school to project the ideals of our democracy and to create a conscious awareness of our American heritage, enabling the student to meet the conditions of a changing world....

Above all, we believe that education always
should be concerned with the individual, not with averages of peer groups or types.... True teaching occurs when one person's mind is stimulated and when a human heart is touched by another human heart."

The document from which the above is excerpted was labelled the "Sheffield High School Educational Philosophy." It was displayed prominently at the beginning of several compendiums of rules and regulations, particularly the Teacher's Manual. This was appropriate since a major aspect of the teachers' evaluations had to do with whether a teacher "implemented the philosophy of the school" (see T9, page 86).

The tradition of such "educational philosophies" written in this style is a long one. In 1897 Dewey published his "Pedagogic Creed": "I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race..." (1957:19).[ftn 1] These documents are political documents. They are controversial documents both in their content and in their very presence. For they can also be used, or they can be accused of being used, as instruments of control and discipline. Most, if not all teachers in the school, if they had had to write an educational creed, would have written something very similar to the one quoted. None but one had, in fact, written this particular document and quite a few teachers felt free to poke fun at the principal for appearing to take what it said seriously. Some teachers went further than poking fun. Since Foster had become principal, the philosophy also referred to "individualized instruction," an "innovation" whose time has come, as Foster would say, one of these new fangled fadish ideas through which ambitious administrators hope to advance their careers, as many critics of the principal would say.

I would like to look at this controversy as a discourse rather than as an attempt to "individualize" instruction. I do not want to evaluate pedagogies. Nor do I want to examine the relation of this particular pedagogy to the rhetorical structure which has generated it. I will start with the verbalized expansions, the "texts" produced by the informants and try to show why these texts and the various dramatistic expansions that could follow from them were controversial.

The introduction of individualized instruction was the occasion for a great amount of talk. It was "new" and everyone expected that novelty would lead to dramatistic changes. The proponents of the pedagogy continually created performances that exemplified to themselves and others that they were, indeed, individualizing instruction. At the same time, it challenged opponents to create other texts justifying and exemplifying their own position.

Let us first look at a text which represents what a proponent of individualized instruction would write:

Text 65

Message to Students: Remember YOU must utilize YOUR opportunity for an education. Set realistic but challenging standards for yourself, and do not be satisfied until you have completed your work according to these standards. Be competitive with yourself to the point where each item of work you submit is material by which you are proud to be judged.

It was also stated:

Text 66

"About groups: Each student is programmed according to his individual needs, abilities, and readiness to accept challenge and responsibility."

These are passages from a brochure titled Program of Studies that was distributed to students to explain to them the academic mechanics of the school. What might first be noticed is the shift from T65 to T66 from a personal mode ((YOU), a realization of /I/) to the bureaucratic mode ([each student], a realization of /it/). This may parallel a shift from a highlighted opening paragraph to a text of minor regulations and policies. In any event, the bureaucratic mode is a singular mode (reinforced here by the presence of "each" in "each student") which contributes to the narrowing of the intended field of the student as a single psycho-biological unit. In spite of the apparent collective plural in "Message to Students," there is little doubt that the "YOU" is intended to be read as anything but a "THEE" (as the singular in yourself indicates). The message is not to a class but to a separate person.

All this is highlighted through the position of the message, its distinctive style in contrast to the remaining bureaucratese and through the typographical means of capitalizing the first two "you's." I could mention here that these methods of highlighting (except perhaps the typographical) were quite common, particularly the inclusion in all public documents, otherwise written bureaucratically, of an opening statement written personally in the /I/ mode.[ftn 2]

These declaration are not , however, particularly typical of what made individualized instruction controversial among teachers, first, and parents, second. Individualized instruction is also a technique the essential principles of which are outlined by one of the few teachers who were committed to it:

Text 67

"Who the hell says German I is 180 days? Why can't it be 200 days for some kids and 80 days for others? That's what my feeling is. Take a kid with some psycho-motor difficulty for example. He's never been able to take language before. In this course he is. He is plowing through, but I say "fine." Let this guy take a language and let him get a B or a C and let him take a year and a half to do it. My God, he is going to say, 'I took a year of German.' I say it's good for the kid.'"

The idea is to organize instruction so that students with different abilities and different zest can move through the curriculum at different speeds. Operationally, this is understood to mean that the teacher first defines rather precisely what he expects students to learn over a normal year. Those are his "behavioral objectives." These objectives are then organized into shorter "units," each with its limited objective. The students are expected to work through each unit with the understanding that they will not be allowed to move on to the next higher unit until they have demonstrated mastery over the previous one. This has many practical implications.

First, the teachers have to formalize their "behavioral objectives" and, concretely speaking, to write them dawn in quite elaborate detail. Second, the organization of the teachers' classroom routine has to be radically reorganized since it can no longer be assumed that all students in the class are at the same point in their movement towards the objective. The class can no longer be treated by the teacher as a homogeneous group. It has become a heterogeneous aggregate and the teacher has to deal with each student separately.

Most teachers in Sheffield dealt with the first issue in essentially the same way: The behavioral objectives for the whole year were a thick sheaf of paper spelling out what to read, what tests to take at what point, what to expect from the students and when. The second issue could be handled in two basic ways. It could be that the teacher stayed immobile and students came to him when they needed him. It could also be that the students stayed immobile and the teacher moved from student to student. In the first instance the class gave the appearance of being in constant physical motion if not in total chaos. In the other instance it gave the opposite appearance as students tended to remain quieter. In both cases, however, the gestalt of the room was very different from that of a more traditional classroom. No visible "teaching" appeared to be performed since the teacher never addressed the class as a whole for long.

There was much controversy about how much teaching, and indeed learning, took place in the individualized classrooms. While I cannot settle this, it is evident that in all cases the teacher remained very active though in a radically transformed way. The teachers had to write down "behavioral objectives"—often a long process for which they used parts of their vacations. They also had to reorganize their daily routines in a way that could certainly be psychologically shattering. Testing routines, grading routines, even the showing of films, the organization of field trips, all had to be altered, more or less radically.

What is indubitable is that "individualizedinstruction," whatever its value and however original it might have been pedagogically, was strongly typified dramatistically. It was in fact possibly more typified this way than in any of its other realizations (T65 and T66, for example, could easily have been the preamble to a more "traditional" type of classroom organization, to "open classrooms" and, in fact, to any pedagogy that wishes to identify itself with the basic principles of progressive education). As we move into drama we move also into "behavior," as I argued earlier. Things become truly difficult and tensions arise. The decision to let students move at different speeds through a curriculum is, undoubtedly, the same statement as the capitalization of "you" in T65). However, as one goes from the purely verbal expansion of the structure to the dramatistic realization of the same structure, many things do change, from the medium, to a variation in the degree of involvement of other pressures onto the performance itself. In drama, ideology meets the world, a world made of other possible expansions of the fundamental ideology and the infrastructural requirements of the society which supports the performances of the ideology.

Let us look at some of these world-generated difficulties. One of the least articulated, though possibly most powerful, was the physical appearance of individualized instruction classes where the teacher remained immobile. Student movement was high, and so was the noise level. Both things signalled to other teachers and to parents that the classroom was "in a state of chaos" and that there was "no discipline" in the room. When this is joined to the labelling of the method as "new" and the general political atmosphere of Sheffield, it is not surprising that many of the people involved, teachers, students and parents, were made "uncomfortable."

Even for those who were not actively opposed to the technique, there were problems in the phrasing of the proper manner to expand individualized instruction. I mentioned the "behavioral objectives" which teachers had to write. These were problematical in all cases. They were even more problematical in all the situations when the normal expansion of a discipline's curriculum clashed with the normal expansions of the two words "behavior" and "objective" as it did in most "humanistic" disciplines. In more concrete terms, it may be somewhat clear in such areas as language or science what it is, in behavioral terms, that the students must do in order to demonstrate competence. It is not so clear in other areas, like, say, English literature. There may be "objective" goals, to the reading of a novel, but it could be argued, by a critical teacher, that these goals could not be phrased behavioristically. It is also possible that, even for a teacher who agreed with the principle of "individualized instruction," the process of writing the objectives would be more difficult in the liberal arts disciplines than in others. Or else the process can be subtly subverted as I believe it was by the English teacher who operationalized it by establishing rigid schedules of reading for his students.

Furthermore, while the word "objective" itself can be taken to be simply a jargonistic, multisyllable Latin synonym for "goal," it can also be taken to be the transformation into a noun of the adjective "objective" with all the implications that go with it. In other words, the test that a "behavioral objective" has been reached is the presence of "objective behaviors." That education can be not only a matter of "objective behavior" (e.g. speaking French or programming a computer) but also of subjective behavior (e.g. "being a productive member of our democratic society") or not a matter of "behavior" at all, while possibly paid lip service to, is subtly denied in the words chosen to describe more concretely the educational process and then to operationalize it.

A participant might then argue that the stress on objectivity was "in fact" inimical to "individualization" in that, under this operationalization of education, education becomes a simple matter of skill and not a matter of overall maturation and preparation for a fuller personal life. Indeed, one of the expected side effects of "individualized instruction" was the tendency of many students, as they became savvy in the mechanisms of the program to race through behavioral objectives in certain disciplines in a competitive spirit that owed little to "education." One could argue that "individualized instruction" was not, in fact, "individualized."

Our task is not to decide who is right or wrong in this dispute. It is to understand how it is that the "shared" ideology did not only allow them to disagree over ideological matters, but also propelled them to disagree.

I have shown how certain expansions of individualized instruction could conflict with the more normal expansions of "order" and "discipline" (which led the proponents to argue accurately in fact, but totally against the participants' common sense, that these normal expansions were arbitrary and that movement and noise in a classroom were not inimical to education). Other expansions conflicted with the normal expansions of "humanism" and "culture" (in the nontechnical sense of "a cultured person").

It is not that all participants thought such expansions were intrinsically impossible. The author of the Educational Philosophy, this least "objective" of document, did include a list of what he labelled "objectives" after the general part of the document from which I quoted earlier. This second part began in the following fashion:

Text 29c

Important specific objectives to accomplish our purposes:
1) To develop physical and mental fitness
2) To foster those ethical and spiritual values which will develop a sense of personal integrity and moral opportunity.
3) To instill in our students an understanding of the rights and obligations of citizenship...."

It went on like this for twelve points.

The principal obviously had a vested interest in demonstrating to skeptical teachers that writing "objectives" could be done. But such an attempt did not bind the teachers. There always remained a core of indeterminacy in the expansion process. It could always be argued that some other expansion could have been possible.

Some teachers did not doubt that individualized instruction meant "that you can reach your own potential at your own pace" and that it was a way to diminish the importance of the evaluation of students in terms of "dumb" and "smart." Others paid lip service to individualization but subverted it: They taught in terms of formally drawn behavioral objectives but insisted that all students be at the same point at the same time. Others, while not militantly opposed, could not take the process seriously. There was a lot of foot dragging about the writing of behavioral objectives. Some teachers, among themselves, complained that "It's a pain in the neck," "It's ridiculous," "A complete waste of time." In the active opposition were those who would say that individualized instruction is "useful in some courses for some students," but that "it's unfortunate when a school thinks that everything has to be done through that approach." There were also those who attacked the concept head on, for example, on the principle that in a "regular" or "traditional" classroom situation, the "dumber kids" can pick good ideas from the "smarter ones" and will do better because of the support given them by the other ones (see T68).

The Place of Disagreement in Rhetoric

I have mostly dealt in the preceding section with the process of expansion, verbal and dramatistic, using a series of texts such as the Educational Philosophy. Even though some of these texts were associated in the mind of many teachers with "individualized instruction" because they had been produced by proponents of the technique, I do not think that they were in themselves very typified. It is also true that these texts are themselves rather elaborate expansions of even more restricted cues. I have insisted that as one expands a cue further, as one explicates the suggested relationship between the cue and the world, and as one eventually acts on this expansion, one restricts the information field to the point where conflict between varying expansions becomes inevitable, all the more so since, in dramatistic expansion, the communicational superstructure encounters the social infrastructure. The reverse of all this is that, as a participant gives a more compact version of his interpretation of the world, this version will become less distinguishable from the version that could have been given by an adversary who operates within the same rhetorical structure.

Let us examine, for example, the most radical statement of opposition to individualized instruction that we recorded:

Text 68

During our conversation we somehow got on the topic of homogeneity in the student body in terms of academic achievement. Mercer Tower told me that he thinks that individualized instruction is a very bad idea because, although it encourages smarter kids to move along at a quicker pace, it prevents the dumber kids from picking up good ideas from the smarter kids. Mercer noted that he thinks that the interaction of students in regular classroom situations is a much better teaching atmosphere. He said that he feels that there's no doubt about it that dumb kids learn things from smart kids in a traditional class setting. He said that there are some kids who work fine on their own in an individual capacity. He said, however, that there are other kids who always seem to need the support of their classmates. He said that he meant support, not in a negative way, for example, cheating, but support in a good way in terms of encouragement on the part of the smarter kids for the slower ones, and in terms of the interaction of ideas that can take place in a traditional class setting. He added that he thinks that the move in the whole school system toward individualized instruction is a very bad idea and that he hopes that in time people will realize that they should go back to the traditional class situation.

Tower ran a "traditional" classroom in which all students had to review the same curriculum at the same time and take the same tests on the assumption that they should all together have reached comparable levels of development. This was considered by all participants to be at the opposite extreme from the position expressed by the teacher who said: "Who the hell says German I is 180 days?" (T67). And yet, there is much that is common in Tower's argument with the arguments which proponents of individualized instruction would make. Let us look, for example, at the two central sentences: "There are some kids who work fine on their own in an individual capacity... (but) there are other kids who always seem to need the support of their classmates." What Tower is doing is distinguishing among children in terms of personal characteristics of the children, which is exactly the same operation the German teacher was performing in T67. The difference of opinion only becomes explicit further down the line in the expansion process. The issue has become which technique, i.e. which dramatistic expansion, is most representative of this shared interest in the individual success of each child to reach "his own potential." Here, suddenly, disagreement explodes.

I do not mean to decide whether Tower and Foster were "fundamentally" in agreement, or in conflict. What is certain is that the tools which they have at their disposal are very much the same tools. In other words, they cannot escape manipulating the /1/ mode in the type of serious consideration of human interaction which was the setting of all the disputes about individualized instruction. They could end at many various points performing acts so different as to appear "shocking" to the protagonists. But they started with the same mechanism, a mechanism which marks the single and separate human organisms as the hierarchically primary foundation of all interaction.


1) In fact, the popularity of such "creeds" seem to spring from something rather deep in America as the recurrence of texts such as the "Pledge of Allegiance" or the "Farm Bureau Creed" testify (see Varenne, 1977).back to text

2) This was also true of the Policies and Bylaws (see T37, p. 192).back to text