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Volume 2, Number 1, Oct 2001

Responding 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

The 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.

Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed

"We should know the world we live in, the better to change it."
- 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.
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A Recent Workshop

To 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 had said.
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 occasion:

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 that way.

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....
Go to your library for the full text of this article.

For Further Reading

Boal, Augusto. Theater of the Oppressed (trans. C. A., & M. L. McBride), New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985.

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.
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