When I first started teaching as an adjunct faculty member at the American University in Cairo in 2018, I ran to one of my favorite mentors to share the exciting news. A historian and economist by training, and a storyteller and mentor by DNA, AbdelAziz EzzelArab is a professor of history at the American University in Cairo. I rushed to Zizo, as most people call him, and shared the exciting news of teaching. But, I share in ambivalence, the only course available for me to teach was an undergraduate course titled “Introduction to Community Development,” a subject matter that was foreign to me and not related to my research interests at all. With a larger-than-life smile and a passionate look, Zizo assured me teaching is the happy news: “As for the content, you will study and learn it with the students anyways.” Zizo then shared a line that transformed my view on teaching forever: “Teaching is all about performance…it takes passion, and performance skills.” For Zizo, teaching is a cultivated practice that depends on much more than a well-prepared syllabus or a strong command of the content. Teaching is a full-bodied experience, one which requires an active engagement with every muscle of your body, along with full and undivided attention through which a teacher plays with and builds on student engagements to inform class content and discussions.
Over an extended Zoom call with a seven-hour time difference between Cairo (where Zizo is based) and Toronto (where I am currently based), Zizo traced his views on teaching back to an unforgettable encounter in 2004 with Roger Owen, the Middle East economic history “guru,” as Zizo calls him. Zizo described the encounter in the following way: During a long and awkward walk in an open field at the University of Pennsylvania on their way to a meeting, Zizo shared with Roger that he just watched the film The Mona Lisa Smile the night before. Since the film was also partly about teaching, Roger remarked, “I always thought they managed to project a better image of us than the reality…As a matter of fact, it’s very strange because we’re in the entertainment business after all.” Zizo went silent, thinking about how surprised he was that this idea never struck him. Yes, indeed, teaching is an entertainment business and what we do is perform in class. Zizo and many of his friends describe Roger as a teacher with a domineering presence and sharp performance skills, a recipe that Zizo carried on with passion. As Zizo’s student, I never looked at the clock in any of his classes. Zizo’s intense passion, overwhelming presence, and wholesome engagement in class, both with the material and with every student in the room, captivated my entire being to remain fully focused, impatiently waiting for his next move, word, or eloquent silence.
"We're in the entertainment business after all."--Roger Owen
The Class as a Stage
While embodying teaching as performance, Zizo conceives of the class as a stage, one in which the teacher’s challenge is to keep the audience engaged and to hold their attention fully. For that, we need performance skills that transcend knowledge of the content of class or the material at hand. Zizo remarked, “Imagine watching an actor reading off a script on stage,” you’ll surely lose interest in just a few minutes, if not less. As a stage with an audience who might be uninterested, impatient, almost asleep, or too bored, the class is an invitation for teachers to use the space creatively and engage the students wholeheartedly. Zizo always used the whiteboard, the projector, and the screen. But he also always moved around class, sometimes while talking and at other times in complete silence. A silence that, again, was eloquent in its own way—allowing students to reflect, think about what he just said a few seconds ago, or anticipate what he was about to utter. “When class is over, I sometimes feel that I just came out of a soccer game,” Zizo shared. Alongside mental effort, teaching is a performative art that requires bodily, muscular, and physical labor.
Looking for his recipe of a talented teacher-performer, I asked Zizo how he prepares before every class: he smiled mischievously and responded, “I never prepare for classes.” I went silent for a good while, thinking: what’s after the joke? He repeated that he does not prepare before each class, only sometimes revisiting the marginalia of the texts for the week/day. He also never has a “script,” or a structured breakdown to how every class will proceed. For Zizo, these minute everyday details do not matter. Rather, Zizo enters every class with a main message or a few key takeaways that he wants to deliver: A basic skeleton for a tree that he can never sketch out fully in advance. The branches, fruits, and leaves only grow through engaging with students in class and using their engagements to draw bigger conclusions and wider connections. Zizo begins every class with a warm up round of questions volunteered from students, which he writes on the board. In most cases, he picks one of these questions to inform and begin the class conversation, a delicate balance of lecturing and discussing with students. Wittily and mischievously, Zizo shared that he always relies on provoking questions in most classes, some of which he might not have an answer to. These provoking questions can be actual questions, or can take the form of a song somehow relating to the course content. When this happened when I was a student, Zizo would silently put on the song once he entered class, and we would all watch in anticipation, looking at the screen, then looking at Zizo, as he stayed there in absolute silence. Once the song was over, most of us usually had much to share about what we just watched. These provocations allow Zizo to sense the space, how students are interacting with the content, and how he needs to direct the conversation. Teaching a class in this way feels like a soccer game indeed, or an improvisation session that leaves you with an unparalleled adrenaline rush—you’re constantly alert, vigilant, fully prepared, and on the lookout for every comment and question to steer the conversation and deliver your main message in the most unexpected way.
Supportive Roles of Documents
In reality, Zizo prepares for classes much earlier, over an extended period that allows the content to ferment, simmer, and mature, and for unexpected links and conversations to emerge during class discussions. Before every semester begins, Zizo crafts three documents for each class he teaches. In the first document, Zizo sketches the course objectives and framework. This is the most important document in which the “bigger picture” and the broader outlook lies: What is this course trying to share with its audience? This document takes the form of a narrative or a story, a haduta as Zizo calls it in Arabic, that a teacher narrates to themselves. Akin to a roadmap, this is a key document to revisit whenever topics get too overwhelming or when one gets lost during the semester and its monstrous deadlines.
In the second document, Zizo creates a skeleton of the course in the form of a tree made up of class dates and topics as its main branches. Each course usually includes around four or five main branches, topics, or themes that Zizo sketches out in this document. In the third and last document, Zizo fills the tree even further, extending every main branch with smaller branches made up of texts, videos, and artifacts that he will use throughout the term. Before the semester begins, Zizo makes sure to read, digest, and reflect on all the readings and artifacts he listed in the third document, so that when classes commence, he feels ready to take this up one step further. Confident in and comfortable with the course and its content, Zizo is now free to perform, improvise, and put the content to play on stage.
Beyond Zizo’s three secret documents, “preparing” for class as such never really stops. As he profoundly narrates, Zizo is always in the “headspace” of class while commuting in the morning to campus, for example. During that time, he is conversing with the texts, playing with them, and thinking about them and the students together. This continuing conversation with texts is what allows Zizo to remain less focused on accruing or transferring knowledge, and more on cultivating connections between texts and bigger questions and realities. This craft of making connections and pulling texts to converse with wider realities and issues is at the heart of Zizo’s teaching philosophy, one which replaces a teacher’s authority with a passion and curiosity to pose questions. “Just don’t take yourself too seriously,” Zizo reminds me. “Nothing is more pleasurable than being in a class with students,” he continues, “because what brings you together in that stimulating space is a set of common questions that you are both trying to answer or work through.”
Cultivating Playfulness within Rigid Structures
The cautionary note here, of course, is that not all courses allow much room for playfulness or plenty of conversations with students, let alone the freedom to design a course as a teacher fancies. As we chatted about my Teaching Assistant (TA) duties and teaching tutorials at the University of Toronto, the first questions that Zizo asked me were regarding the structure of the course, my freedom to change the texts, and how comfortable I am with the course content. If the course material is already set beforehand and your appointment as a teacher requires sticking to a certain structure to class, your freedom to craft the content and play with the material is restricted. Institutional and structural factors, such as teaching expectations, the number and background of students in each class, the amount of teaching load you have per semester, and personal and dispositional preferences (i.e. how you wish to carry yourself as a teacher), all go into how relatable, beneficial, or feasible this post reads to you right now.
Institutional straitjackets and personal preferences notwithstanding, it is still an inspiring and worthwhile exercise to reflect on teaching as performance and sense the class as a stage. Let me put it this way: performance skills, teaching as performance, ditching scripts, and improvisation are tools that you should consider adding to your teaching toolkit/toolbox, experimenting and tinkering with them whenever and wherever possible. As we log off, Zizo advises, “Dance ballet in class once if you wish, why not?”
Suggested Tips to Nurture Playfulness in the Classroom
While instructors may be required to teach certain materials and may not have much room to incorporate content of their choosing, the following list includes some ideas that instructors can implement on the small scale to bring playfulness into their courses.
- Open Conversation from the Start: Put yourself in the place of students and craft an engaging discussion question that helps jump start interaction with your class content.
- Be Dynamic: Move in different corners of the class as you discuss or engage with students.
- Use Classroom Components/Equipment as Props: Draw on whiteboards, move chairs, sit on desks, speak with your pencil case (integrate props as “members” of the classroom).
- Draw on Popular Culture and/or Social Media: Incorporate viral Tiktok videos, short films, and songs to animate your content and provoke stimulating discussions.