[Note from A&E Editor Shannon Neu: The arts, including music, dance, theatre, visual art and other art forms have likely affected your life in some capacity, either in school or in other aspects of day-to-day life. In the upcoming weeks, I am going to investigate how the lives of various members of the UNCG and Greensboro community have been impacted by the power of the arts. Each week I will feature a different individual and their stories of the role the arts have played in their lives.]
Dr. Omar Ali is an associate professor of Comparative African Diaspora History and the interim dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at UNCG. Last fall, he was named the 2016 Carnegie Foundation North Carolina Professor of the Year by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Though Dr. Ali did not focus on a specific performing or visual art in school, he was introduced to arts through teachers, classmates and friends. These experiences helped him evolve his ways of thinking about the world around him. He considers this exposure to the arts to have been critical to his overall education.
Dr. Ali reflected on one of his most prominent memories of how the arts impacted his education.
“One of my former high school teachers, Dr. (Stanley) Scheinkopf, immediately comes to mind.” Dr Ali said. “Dr. Sheinkopf was one of my English teachers at Pasadena Polytechnic in California. He was extraordinary. He tried to engage me and the class in the most creative and imaginative ways. You see, I was totally uninterested in Shakespeare, in literature, in reading (let alone writing) generally.
“I remember being barely awake in one of his classes, slouched in my chair. He came over to me, asked me to stand up and stab him in the gut with a pen he handed me. I was confused but certainly woke up. By him having me do this impromptu — as part of performing a scene from Hamlet or Macbeth, I can’t remember which one — I was forced to deal with the sudden reality of someone who was not going to let me remain passive.
“His willingness to engage me in such a bold and playful way impacted me profoundly. What an extraordinary pedagogical move on his part! His willingness to put himself out there, to do something that was even potentially dangerous to himself (after all, I was a high school kid with public license to stab his English teacher with a pen) was both alarming but so appreciated in hindsight.
“I hesitated, I remember, and he then took my hand with the pen and had me dig into him — so much so that I thought I/we might hurt him. But he was fearless. His risk-taking for the sake of teaching me continues to inspire me. I had never felt so given to by a teacher.”
Dr. Ali mentioned that performance is still an integral aspect of his life, including when he is teaching. “It’s part of what I often do in the classroom, in meetings, in the community and at home to help create more growthful and giving environments — ultimately more joyful learning environments,” he said.
He went on to explain how there are formal spaces, such as classrooms in which he teaches, or programs or projects that he leads, in which he has to perform. However, it’s in the non-formal settings — the in-between spaces, in the hallways, walking down the street, sitting on a plane — where performance (pretending, playing) is so vital.
“Shakespeare wrote ‘All the world’s a stage.’ This is how I experience the world — as performance spaces — or potential performance spaces,” Dr. Ali explained. “As children, we play, pretend and perform, actually quite easily. That’s how we learn, grow and become language speakers, for instance.
“As we get older, however, we are told to ‘stop playing around and get to work!’ We are trained (in the worst sense of the word) to ‘behave’ — which is very different than performing. Behaving is carrying out social roles in very narrow ways.
“There is little if any creativity in behaving (misbehaving is perhaps a creative, albeit not always helpful way of creating). Performing and play are creatively liberating (and tend to be non-authoritarian). Performing and play are ways of creating new intellectual-emotional-artistic possibilities.”
Dr. Ali believes that the arts are fundamental to education. “That is, if by education we mean learning and developing as human beings, not simply being able to regurgitate information,” he added. “Much of formal learning in schools and in college is about acquiring knowledge as opposed to learning to become better learners.”
Dr. Ali encourages members of the UNCG community to attend “Monday Play!” on any Monday at 12:15 p.m. in the Faculty Center and challenge themselves through playing and improvising.
The purpose of Monday Play is “in part, to have fun, and, as importantly, to learn how to become better players and improvisers — essential to becoming better at navigating, indeed transforming, the classroom, the workplace and our experiences with friends and family,” Dr. Ali said. “By becoming better at play and improvisation, we become more sophisticated and able to handle challenges, more resilient and better learners. How do we do this? By building on what others give us while providing leadership to those around us by modeling openness, care and joy. It’s a creative act.”