It may be summer, but plenty of UNO students are still keeping their love of learning alive through dozens of course offerings including everything from Art and Accounting to Urban Studies.
A few of these classes, however, are a bit more unusual than others - offered as special courses that tackle a subject in new and exciting ways.
What do you call a play without a script?
It may sound like the start to a bad joke, but it also describes improv, a style of theatrical performance that has existed for millennia, but most recently has become largely associated with comedy troupes like the Upright Citizens Brigade or shows like the early 2000s hit “Whose Line is it Anyway?”
UNO Assistant Professor of Theatre Ryan Hartigan has been involved in improv for more than 25 years, including several years teaching at UNO. He says that while comedy features heavily in a lot of improv, it is ultimately just a different way of telling a story.
“Improv can move from humor to riveting drama and everywhere in between because it is a story that is being made in the moment,” Hartigan says. “The tone can shift rapidly if you really trust your fellow players.”
This lesson is what Hartigan teaches all of his improv students, including those taking a special summer course called “Improv and Genre,” where students have the opportunity to apply improvisational skills to different stories and settings, in order to create engaging performances.
One student in Hartigan’s class, senior Enrique Madera, a theatre major, says he was initially skeptical, but has found that removing the strict boundaries of a script have helped him feel more confident.
“I don't feel as tense anymore when I try to take control of a scene or even just go along with it,” he says. “I can be comfortable when there is something I see that is not familiar or have to do something that is not familiar.”
Fellow senior Austin Hizer, a computer science major hoping to make a career in acting, also says the class has helped him understand how to adapt when things go wrong in a scene.
“It's important to know that if you mess up you don't have to immediately switch it to comedy, you continue with the seriousness and even if you get a couple of laughs, it's not bad to have some comedy in a dramatic scene,” he says.
Hartigan, who will offer his regular improv class this fall, says his classes are designed to teach a wide array of skill sets that students may not easily get in other environments because so few university programs have improv as a formal course offering.
“We're covering characterization, status, narrative, storytelling, 'benchplay' - the skill of working as a team, as a performance group - and how to use genre to ‘world build,’ amongst other things.”
Hizer adds that even exercises that may seem silly, including a game where students have to alternate between using nonsense words and actual English, provide important lessons.
“You'd have a scene going on and speaking gibberish, not being able to fully convey what you're saying with words, so you have to use gestures and other movements and then you'd switch into the English so you could actually get context to what is going with the scene and then go back to the gibberish. It was very interesting."
Hartigan says that improv also isn’t just for the theatre; in fact, he has also been hired to consult with several Fortune 500 companies here in the United States and in his home country at the New Zealand Treasury.
“Rather than being locked into the tunnel vision of only concentrating on specifics, improv provides people with an attitude and skill base to be able to improvise, to learn widely, to connect disparate concepts, and to peer mentor,” he says. “These are skills that employers are crying out for and that I encourage in my class.”
Madera says improv can also teach someone a lot about themselves by understanding what their gut reactions are when it comes to adding to a scene.
“You are making it very personal without even realizing it,” he says. “Ryan gives us the time to self-reflect so then you can see 'Oh, that's how I am, wow' and maybe you can change it for the better or maybe you stop doing it.”
Ultimately, Hartigan says, improv is not as much about performance as experience and the ability to create unique dialogues and shared meanings with others.
“I think the most important thing for improv is that there are many paths to the same destinations. Encouraging curiosity and openness is at the heart of all of the best improv.”
For many, the words “film theory” immediately call to mind black-and-white, silent films with subtitles, but not Adam Tyma.
This summer, Tyma, an associate professor of communication, is teaching a section of “Film Theory and Criticism” with a small twist: all the films he plans to show are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“I wanted to demonstrate that ALL movies can and should be considered worthy of study and critique,” he explains. “This is how we learn about ourselves as a culture. It does not have to always be 'Citizen Kane' or 'The Godfather.' We can learn just as much through Marvel.”
Often derided as mindless, Hollywood blockbusters, Tyma says that films such as those in the “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “X-Men” and “Iron Man” franchises actually tackle important current social topics, including terrorism, isolationism, corporate greed and civil rights.
“In reality, ‘the masses’ - and I hate that term for a host of reasons - are not consuming ‘high-brow’ or ‘high culture’ performances or texts,” he explains. “And, if they are, chances are ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘Agents of Shield’ or ‘Powerpuff Girls’ is scattered amongst those other artifacts. By and large, the best way to make sense of the ideas and social truths that people are living and living by is through seeing what is ‘day-to-day’ - what some referred to it affectionately as ‘the mundane.’”
By using Marvel films, Tyma argues, students taking this film course will have an easier entry point to discussing and examining not just social themes, but also film technique, story structure and genre.
“At the end of the day, these courses are meant to help students develop their ability to dive into a topic or a thing deeper, to think through the various ways it makes meaning for and about a person or group, to be able to collect and deliver those observations (through writing, speaking, or teaching), and to use those skills when they are making decisions,” he says.
Tyma adds that he hopes his students will walk away with the ability to carry these skills beyond the classroom into other facets of their lives. He hopes they can also teach others to think beyond what is shown on screen and ask “why” it is being shown.
“That question will go a long way,” he says “But a word of warning - once you start down this road, movies will never be the same again.”
Is there any better way to spend the summer than watching AMC’s hit series "Mad Men" and earning college credit?
Not for Danielle Battisti, an assistant professor of history at UNO, who created the course "The Men and Women of 'Mad Men': Race, Class, Gender, and Consumption of Postwar America" to examine the real-world history behind one of television's most popular shows.
“I’ve been a big fan of the TV show ever since it started,” Battisti said. “As a historian of the 20th century U.S., never have I seen a TV show that is so well-made for the era.”
The course is being taught entirely online, but requires students to watch the show online and read supplementary materials in order to critically discuss the themes being presented.
“I’m trying to introduce the students to an era of ‘postwar consensus politics and culture,’” Battisti said.
The course uses the series as a lens through which to study the complex political, social, economic and cultural dynamics of the United States in the years after World War II. Particular attention is paid to exploring how factors such as race, class, and gender shaped both individual experiences and social dynamics in the postwar period.
Battisti uses the characters in the show to get students interested in social commentary, literature, and other studies of the postwar period
“Don Draper literally embodied ‘The Man in the Flannel Gray Suit,’” Battisti said, in reference to Sloan Wilson’s novel of the same name, which follows a young World War II veteran trying to balance his marriage and family life with the demands of his work for a New York television network, while also dealing with the aftereffects of his war service.
Other books featured on the syllabus, like William Whyte’s "The Organization Man" or Vance Packard’s "The Lonely Crowd," also introduce students to the gendered and class critiques of modern American capitalism.
And the men don’t get all the attention. Other readings, including Helen Gurley Brown’s notorious 1962 guidebook "Sex and the Single Girl," written for single women looking to enjoy life outside of marriage, breathe life into characters such as Peggy Olsen and Joan Holloway. Similarly, Betty Draper is meant to embody the “discontent of the suburban housewife” that Betty Friedan and others in the Women’s Movement began to describe in the 1960s.
Suburbs are a big part of the class as well.
“Most of our students come from the suburbs, so this is something they can connect to that will help them understand their history," Battisti said.
It’s all part of history professors at UNO trying to rethink the way they teach students in an increasingly digital world.
“We can’t teach history the same way we did 10 or 20 years ago,” Battisti said. “We’re becoming more digital, there’s been a conscious effort within the department to evolve. The show is a great way to capture students’ interest.”
It’s an online course right now, but if things go well, Battisti hopes it can be expanded into a full course in the fall and spring semesters.
“This only scratches the surface of what I would like to do.”