Improvisation: A Formula for Teaching

Artwork by the inimitable Victor Juhasz

Winding up spring term’s college classes, I ask students what they know now that they didn’t know ten weeks ago.

The weight of ideas learned in one class is stunning, but what’s more impressive is how students learn how to make sense of concepts in framing and communication.

For example, a critical element of how information gets framed in mass media arrives on the heels of who has an interest in how the story unfolds.

Researchers call this frame building–a practice when frame sponsors create a narrative that gets broadcast widely.

Frame Building

A classic example of political framing arrived when the term inheritance tax shifted to death tax.

It is remarkable to discover that the term death tax didn’t appear in mainstream news randomly:

The phrase death tax was created by a smallish tribe of super-wealthy Americans (frame sponsors) who hoped to shirk their duty to pay taxes: taxes that fund community schools and roads.

Who pays inheritance taxes? One percent of Americans.

A gross estimate–based on the US Census of roughly 335 million–would be about 3,335 people impacted by the inheritance tax.

That’s about the number of endangered wild tigers remaining in India and the student population at the University of North Carolina in the small berg of Asheville.

For my Oregon readers, the number of millionaires affected by a death tax is about the size of the towns of Oakridge or Jefferson.

Still: Republicans struck down the tax which could help build communities at no cost to 99 percent of Americans.

Shysters at Work

During our class, hard evidence revealed that a handful of shysters hoped to reframe the 2020 US election.

Emails to the departing White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, urged his help to fabricate a fib that the election was fraudulent in order to reinstate the loser.

Meadows’ emails were turned over to the committee investigating the January 6 mêlée at the United States’ Capitol, where five souls perished because of The Lie.

One of the shysters is Ginni Thomas, who epitomizes the frame builder: an individual with leverage, courtesy of her political and social position, and courtesy of access to resources.

She has the power to boost The Lie.

Thomas’ emails were reported widely in March–from the Associated Press to the New York Times–calling the election “the greatest heist in our history” and framing Joe Biden’s win as “the end of Liberty.”

Thomas–who is married to Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas–is considered a “vocal right-wing activist,” according to Jane Mayer, a New Yorker magazine writer. Mayer writes:

“[Ginni Thomas] has declared that America is in existential danger because of the ‘deep state’ and the ‘fascist left,’ which includes ‘transsexual fascists.’ Thomas, a lawyer who runs a small political-lobbying firm, Liberty Consulting, has become a prominent member of various hard-line groups. Her political activism has caused controversy for years” (Mayer, 31 January 2022).

Improvisation Enriches the Experience

Students got the chance to see real life unfold, breathing energy into theory.

I could pivot the class in line with current events, thanks to training in improvisation and yielding to the moment.

While Ginni Thomas will be a minor footnote in American political history, she embodies a real moment in time when the powerful few–regardless of how or where they gained their power–attempt to sway opinion.

We learned in class that the Teaching Moment is not theoretical.

The Teaching Moment is practical.

We need to ask: Who are the folks empowered to leverage change?


7 June 2022

Image Credit: Victor Juhasz

Today’s blog is dedicated to the students who plunged into the Framing class and leaned into improvisation: Jenette, Audrey, Dante, Frank, Nathan, Grace, Nya, Benjamin, Leah, Faith, Reese, Lola, Emma W., Jill, Cassidy, Chioma, Benardo, Marilyn, Katy, Dennis, Emma V. and Lindsey.

With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations

























About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in nativescience and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s