This past weekend I went to Planet Wrestling, a show put on by my awesome local wrestling company, New York Championship Wrestling, in Whitesboro, NY. Obviously, as the author of Philosophy Smackdown (Polity Press, 2020), I can’t help connecting philosophy and pro wrestling, but perhaps because we’re now a couple of weeks into the teaching semester, my experience as an audience member really made me think about my students’ experiences in class, and what philosophy professors might be able to learn from pro wrestlers.
I was a pro wrestling fan for over 20 years before I first got to see it live. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to go to a whole range of different events, of all sizes. Being there really hammers home the key role that the audience has in the spectacle, and you come to appreciate that being an audience member means being a part of the show.
This is something that philosopher Lisa Jones discusses in her great paper ‘All caught up in the kayfabe: understanding and appreciating pro-wrestling’, published in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport in May 2019. Other art forms, and sporting events, no doubt rely to some extent on audience involvement, but pro wrestling involves a very particular kind of audience involvement, where different characters are designed to provoke very specific audience reactions. As Jones discusses, there is no ‘fourth wall’ in pro wrestling, and, if the audience doesn’t cooperate, the show itself is compromised.
A significant aspect of the purpose of pro wrestling is to not just engage the audience, but to interact with the audience. Heels want the audience members to heckle and boo them, and do all they can to make this happen. Sometimes, the audience doesn’t cooperate, either because they are passive, or because they are being deliberately contrary, which happened at times at the NYCW show, where the audience purposefully cheered heels beating down babyfaces (which one heel called them out on)! But, really, it’s all about getting a reaction: arguably even the wrong reaction is better than no reaction at all.
This definitely struck a chord with me in regard to teaching. I teach small classes at a small college, so, even though classes involve an element of lecturing and putting on a show, what I really want is for students to interact and engage in discussion. This can often be pretty hard to do. Many times I throw a question out, and am left hanging, waiting in vain for a response.
It’s sometimes hard to get across to students in such classes that their reactions, thought, and engagement is just as key a component of the class as my explanations. And I sympathize: I was a very quiet and reserved student, who hardly ever said anything, much as I’m quite a reserved fan at a pro wrestling show. It’s weird then to be in a position where you’re both trying to emphasize the importance of participation, yet totally understand the reluctance! It’s hard to take a leap!
Sometimes I have found myself inadvertently using pro wrestling tactics to try to get a response. One way to get students thinking and responding is to provoke them; prod at the views that they have. Playing devil’s advocate and presenting a controversial view is one way to do this (and not too far off playing the heel). For instance, in my first intro philosophy class this semester I gave them David Benatar’s argument for why it is better never to have been, and, subsequently, why it’s wrong to procreate. For most people, this is a total heel argument. As someone who has one kid, and another on the way, I obviously disagree with it, but I had a lot of fun hamming it up as if it were something I took seriously, and this got much more of a reaction than it would have if I’d just dismissed it straight away. It definitely gave them something to chew on.
There’s a wealth of tactics to use when you’re looking to provoke a reaction – any reaction – to start a discussion. Appropriately using the masters of this – pro wrestlers – as inspiration can sometimes be a very helpful tool.
- Play the heel, defending a view you know students don’t like.
- Play the babyface, desperately trying to defend a view they do like from objections, and calling on them for help (just as a babyface calls for the crowd’s cheers to break out of a submission hold).
- Take on the character (or gimmick!) of a philosopher you’re discussing.
- Encourage students to take on roles in class discussions or debates, making clear that you don’t always have to believe the view you’re defending (just as there’s a separation between a pro wrestler and their character).
- Stop and ‘play to the crowd’ (or at least acknowledge their existence) when you realize that there has been no student interaction after a certain amount of time.
This should all be done with a sense of humor of course, and there are limits – one shouldn’t resort to standard cheap heat heel tactics of straight-up insulting the audience, or stating or defending offensive or discriminatory views. (Though I have no qualms about getting some cheap pops for comments in support of college sports teams!)
You may well already know of these methods, and already employ them, but it’s fun to think about how close they are to pro wrestling antics. I also think that, just as the best pro wrestling characters are extensions of the real people playing them, the best teaching personas are ones that are pretty close to who you really are. I’m a total babyface when it comes to these things, so I can’t really get away with playing a mean #heelprofessor like some people might (which is probably a good thing).
Also, these tactics need to be treated carefully to avoid fostering the often unpleasantly combative atmosphere that can develop in philosophy at times. Whilst a connection between philosophy and amateur wrestling goes back to the Ancient Greeks, funnily enough I think pro wrestling is a much better model for philosophy than its amateur counterpart, or indeed standard combat sports like boxing and MMA. This is because the point of a pro wrestling match is for the wrestlers to work together to achieve something, as opposed to fighting against one another. That can also be a valuable message to convey in philosophy classes.
Anyhow, more on that issue, and on the relationship between pro wrestling and philosophy (particularly research in philosophy) in my book Philosophy Smackdown, coming in Spring 2020 from Polity Press!