2, Number 1, Oct 2001
to Moral Distress in the University: Coping with Moral
Distress by Using the Theater of the Oppressed to Identify
and Resist the Sources of Distress
following material by Kate H. Brown, excerpted from
an article in the September 1999 issue of Change,
provides another tool for people working with conflict
in higher education.
Boal's Theater of the Oppressed
should know the world we live in, the better to change
- Augusto Boal
To engage fully in our university work is to bestow
upon it meaning and value. At our best, we reflect upon
our tasks - we imagine what is possible, what is good,
what might be the right direction in which to go. And
from those deliberations, we move forward with purpose,
care, and a sense of agency. Without reflective practice,
we lose our full grasp of the hopes and desires that
are born in imaginative deliberation and the transformational
possibilities that lie within real situations. Reflective
practice helps us to recognize and respond to the moral
dimensions of our work.
Sometimes, however, our institutional contexts prevent
us from acting on the fruits of our reflections. Even
when we believe we know the right thing to do, we often
feel constrained from doing it because of stultifying
demands or practices over which we have little control.
Ethicist Andrew Jameton refers to these experiences
as moral distress. This concept has helped both of us
in writing this article to think in terms of organizational
and personal barriers that keep us from realizing our
deepest moral commitments in our university work. Central
among those commitments is to participate in creating
a vital, democratic academic community. Though neither
of us expects a life free from moral contradiction and
complexity, we - and our colleagues - want to be part
of an ethical community, one that fosters dialogue and
encourages democratic partnership among multiple interests.
This article describes how we have adapted techniques
from Augusto Boal's participatory theater to realize
this vision more fully. Boal's Theater of the Oppressed
has emboldened our colleagues and us to move past victimization,
denial, and numbness to respond more creatively to circumstances
of moral distress in the university.
illustrate our adaptation of Forum Theater, we will
draw on examples from a recent workshop with university
faculty, administrators, and researchers. We began by
eliciting stories of moral distress. For instance, one
faculty member told of her distress when a colleague
became intractable in the face of her efforts to support
his African-American students. The students had come
to her to complain that their professor was using examples
from a book, The Bell Curve, to document a racial basis
for differential intelligence. The students felt the
teacher's purpose was to offend and rile. However, when
confronted, the professor claimed academic freedom and
refused to consider what the students or his colleague
In another example, an administrator in the workshop
described how a dean had called in a new, untenured
faculty member about a peer review letter critical of
a senior faculty member's teaching performance, and
suggested that the untenured professor revise the letter
to lessen its critical edge. The dean, a close friend
of the senior faculty member, explained that the latter
was going through difficult times personally.
Another administrator discussed a program that recruits
wealthy international students who do not always have
adequate language competencies; a faculty member in
this program was told to change his evaluation standards
so that more of the students could pass.
Other workshop participants described situations in
which people were so invested in existing routines and
hierarchies that generating fresh perspectives and alternative
responses became impossible. Everyone's story started
with a conflict with a particular person, but as the
participants explored and elaborated the situations,
they came to a sense of being buried beneath practices
that they did not create and felt powerless to change.
Before scripting participants' stories, we wanted the
audience to experience a Forum Theater. We presented
them with a script we had designed beforehand for the
The scene is the first meeting of an admissions committee
in a medical school. The dean of the medical school
sits at the head of the table, the chair of the committee
at the other end. Two faculty members and a student
representative sit along the side of the table.
The dean opens by giving the committee its charge: to
select the medical school class for 2003. After thanking
the committee members for serving and urging them to
recommend "the best and brightest," the dean
reminds them that the admissions process has changed
because of a newly passed law. He says, "Students
now compete up front - there is no longer to be preference
based on race or gender."
The dean rises to leave and a committee member, an untenured
faculty member and the scene's protagonist, asks the
dean, "Your comments about affirmative action...aren't
there federal guidelines that supersede the state's?
Can't the school have funds taken away if you discriminate?"
Her voice is tentative, unsure.Now standing by the door
ready to leave, the dean replies, "I'm not telling
you to discriminate."
The faculty member says, tentatively, "But I think
this could be the result if we can't consider more than
traditional criteria for admissions."
The dean replies abruptly, "I feel very strongly
that you're coming close to making an accusation that
you don't really want to make. You don't really want
to walk down that road"; and then, without another
word, he leaves the room.
During this interchange between the dean and the untenured
faculty member, the rest of the committee members remain
silent, with eyes averted from the two players, passively
distancing themselves from engagement in the controversy
by shuffling papers and so forth.
The untenured faculty member, the protagonist, was clearly
out on a limb in this brief scene. The workshop participants
commented on how oppressive the committee members' silence
felt and how clearly it signaled complicity with the
dean's position while seeming to reflect neutrality.
Interestingly, when the players extemporaneously moved
the scene forward to a closed-door discussion within
the committee, its members continued to align themselves
with the dean, the antagonist, in spite of their unanimous
commitment to affirmative action. One committee member
stated patronizingly that the protagonist could vote
her conscience on each candidate and could gain a voice
The committee chair forcefully rejected any proposals
for responding with a formal statement of opposition
to the dean because of the time it would take to draft
such a statement: his schedule was already so full of
meetings that he could not justify mounting a resistance
to the dean's interpretation of the law, however flawed
it might be. Other committee members offered time constraints
also as reason enough to reject even an informal meeting
with the dean to discuss the issue further. In the end,
no one was moved to join the protagonist, whose passionate
response was to resign from the committee as a symbolic
gesture of outrage....
to your library for the full text of this article.
Augusto. Theater of the Oppressed (trans. C. A., &
M. L. McBride), New York: Theatre Communications Group,
Games for Actors and Non-actors (trans. A. Jackson),
New York: Routledge, 1992.
Brown, Kate H., and Diane Gillespie. "We Become
Brave by Doing Brave Acts: Teaching Moral Courage Through
the Theater of the Oppressed," Literature and Medicine,
Vol. 16, No. 1, 1997, pp. 108-120.
project of Campus Conflict Resolution
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo
to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication
585 Manoogian Hall
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.
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