Dr. Tim Doherty
Associate Professor of English
In 1992, Tim Doherty took part in a life-changing workshop with Brazilian director and writer Augusto Boal, founder of Theatre of the Oppressed. “Boal helped me to realize that I could use theatre and role play to move my students from their media-saturated home language to a more academic language,” says Doherty. For the next 15 years, he integrated role-play and improvisatory theatre into his teaching. During his 2006 sabbatical, he expanded his interest to conflict resolution and mediation, practices that also involve “flexibility of mind” and can be used to teach persuasive writing.
His work led him to adopt “The Believing Game,” a classroom technique pioneered by English scholar and personal mentor Peter Elbow. In the Believing Game, students are asked to suspend their own beliefs on a topic and to argue or write effectively on the opposing view. This time-intensive exercise involves research, role play, reflective writing, and eventually persuasive writing.
Doherty says that play can promote learning by lowering apprehension. "It helps students feel a bit less intense about getting their learning right the first time and it can promote risk-taking. Play alone isn’t the point—it has to be matched with reflection on whatever the play generates," he says.
He opts for forms of play appropriate to a college writing classroom, such as introducing a topic and asking everyone to pass notes. "I let them do what is usually forbidden, and we see where it takes us. I also do what I call the vocal museum—people write anonymously on a topic and then I tape their short compositions on the walls around the room. From there, students write responses on the wall of writings. It loosens everyone up and gives them a foothold on a topic in a way that is low-stakes," he says.
Doherty points out that we often use combat metaphors when we discuss argument and persuasion in college writing, such as “shooting holes” in an argument or “tearing apart” an argument. "The aim is to win rather than to seek common ground or find some way out of the mire," he says.
Doherty tries to teach students both adversarial and non-adversarial strategies of persuasion. The Believing Game, a non-adversarial approach, helps students to see that language is marked by habit. "We have habitual ways of using language in conflict that either push people away or invite a respectful dialogue. More often than not, we don’t realize that conflict can mean opportunity rather than fear of loss," says Doherty.
Doherty promotes active listening in his classes. "After we establish that it helps a lot to listen when you are in a conflict, then it’s a small leap to realize that that same stance can be taken when you read. You don’t just bathe your text in highlighter—you find instead those moments when a writer is revealing the real nature of his or her argument," he explains.
For Doherty, one of the greatest things about college teaching is awakening students to their own habits of mind. "The best I can hope for is to leave them with a suspended and unsettled state of thinking. With active listening and The Believing Game, one of my goals is to help students develop a continuous skill of listening, empathy, and a willingness to change perspective," he says.