Posts filed under Humanities

FEATURE: Experiential Learning with the Creative Arts

Title of the Course: Theater and Performance Seminar/Workshop

Instructor: Esther Fernández

Department: Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies

Course Number: SPP0 382

Intended Student Audience: Undergraduate students with three or four years of Spanish language instruction. The course is taught in Spanish but serves majors and non-majors.

Courses Description:

This course gives students the opportunity to approach Spanish dramatic literature through a creative and experiential learning process. The theme of the fall 2017 workshop was: Enacting OppressionAll the plays studied deal with this topic from very different perspectives and historical eras (from Lorca’s rural tragedy The House of Bernarda Alba to Juan Mayorga denunciation of the Holocaust in Himmelweg). The first half of the course is devoted to studying the plays from a literary, critical and analytical lens and the second half is dedicated to exploring theater through various aspects of staging, such as dramaturgy, acting, translation, setting, costume and sound design. Students work in groups to organize a series of original scenes from the original plays studied in the first half of the semester and these scenes are then adapted, directed and performed as the final outcome of this seminar.

Celda de Juegos Poster.jpg



  • To understand what are the major periods in the history of Spanish dramatic literature;
  • To gain knowledge of some canonical and non-canonical works of Spanish dramatic literature;
  • To understand how to practice close reading and literary analysis;
  • To develop collaborative and leadership skills
  • To develop creativity in conjunction with the study of literature
  • To get training in basic acting skills and dramaturgy



Experiential Learning

Professor Fernández designed her course on Spanish Peninsular literature with the creative arts and experiential learning as central teaching strategies. In addition to introducing the students to a wide array of Spanish plays from the Early Modern period to the present, students in her course have the opportunity to create an original script as the final outcome of the seminar. The course's experiential component encourages students to approach literary analysis from the perspective of those who write, design, and conceptualize literature and theater. 

The course followed the structure of a symposium developed by scholars (including Professor Fernández ) in the research network Iberian Theater and Performance Network (ITPN). At the center of the most recent biannual symposium was an effort to design a performance specifically tailored to the theme of the conference. The organizing committee created an original script based on a series of scenes from the major dramatic works with the guidance of two professional actors and a dramaturge.

Adapting the ITPN model, Professor Fernández has students work together over the course of the semester to adapt, direct and perform their own play as the final course product.  Students write their own play by pulling together a series of original scenes from the plays studied in the first part of the course. Creating their own play in this manner encourages students to analyze and understand the the nuances of oppression - the course theme - in each play, looking for similarities, differences, and variants. Students are encouraged to engage in a deeper and richer analysis of each play. 

Scaffolding Unstructured Learning

Professor Fernández wants students to have the freedom to be creative in the development of their final play for the course. This requires careful scaffolding of assignments that allow for curiosity and discovery to emerge organically. Professor Fernández organizes student work around several assignments, but leaves plenty of unstructured class time for students to work in groups to develop the play and discuss their contribution to the final product. After the class develops and organizes the scenes for the final play students work in small groups to contribute one element to the performance of the play, such as costume design, the play bill, or staging. At this point in the course Professor Fernández says students are intensely engaged from the very beginning of the process until the end. In a sense they are "creating the class."

One lesson for me has been how when the class seems more unstructured the students really take the lead even more than when I try to guide them closely.
— Professor Fernández

The experiential and collaborative design of the course is a new experience for many humanities students. Early in the semester Professor Fernández prepares students for their central role in the course design and outcome by reminding them that this is not a “traditional” literature class. However, literary analysis and critical thinking are emergent learning outcomes as self-directed learning takes shapes over the semester.



Final Performance

In future iterations of the course Professor Fernández would like to have students perform the play at the end of the semester. Many students enrolled in the course are double majors and she was concerned with the first run through of the course it would be asking to much of them to learn lines and perform publicly. Therefore, she decided that the best thing would be to film a version of a dramatic reading of the play. However, as the end of the semester drew near she found that a public performance would have been a perfect showcase for the the students' commitment, excitement, and hard work. According to Fernández: "This course is so experiential that I believe the students deserve a creative outcome." For future iterations of the course she is hoping to organize a dramatic reading that could be performed publicly for the Rice Community. A' Q & A' session about the play, the class, the project as a whole would take place after the performance.

Grading, Assessment, and Feedback

She found that grading can be a challenge due to the experiential nature of the course. This semester the group of enrolled students was small enough that she was able to monitor each student's leaning and to advise them individually. She was able to make sure everyone was contributing to the group work and to the class. This type of course is better suited to a small class size with students majoring in the course topic. A class taught with this pedagogical approach requires that all students need to be similarly engaged and passionate about the material to ensure a hard working group of students, building trust in each other and creating community

Space and Props

A course with this level of group work and self-directed learning requires an appropriate classroom space.  Many of the course meetings ended up taking place in outside spaces on campus to allow students to experiment and get creative.  A black box theater will also be ideal for some of the sessions. In addition, Professor Fernández plans to explore the resources that the Rice Theater Department could offer in terms of basic props, costumes, space, and guidance of some components of the performance.


 ITPN (Iberian Theater and Performance Network):

This network was developed to enhance the study of Iberian theater and performance from a trans-historical perspective, bridging Golden Age theater (1580-1700) with contemporary performance, playwriting, and theatrical practices in the plurinational setting of the Iberian Peninsula.


Professor Fernández

Professor Fernández

Esther Fernández
Assistant Professor of Spanish Peninsular Literature & Culture

Esther Fernández Rodríguez is the author of Eros en escena: Erotismo en el teatro del Siglo de Oro (Juan de la Cuesta, 2009) and the editor of Don Gil de las calzas verdes (2013) and El perro del hortelano (2011) for Cervantes & Co. Spanish Classics. Additionally, she has co-edited Diálogos en las tablas: Últimas tendencias de la puesta en escena del teatro clásico español (Reichenberger, 2014). Her essays and occasional publications attend to eroticism and the Spanish comedia; visual and material culture; and performance analysis of classical theater’s contemporary adaptations. In her teaching and scholarship she combines Early Modern literature with visual performance analysis. She also teaches classes in contemporary literature with a focus on contemporary social and political issues. Dr. Fernández’s current work includes editing a volume that explores Anglo-Spanish relations vis-a-vis the contentious image of Elizabeth I in Early Modern Spain, as well as a monograph on the ritualized figure of ‘the puppet,’ in ceremonial and theatrical contexts, which served to materialize representations of religious and ‘non-religious’ worlds across pre-modern Iberia.

Posted on May 15, 2018 and filed under Humanities.


Picture of the class with professors and students holding a Rice University flag.

Title of Course: Jerusalem: Holy City in Time and Imagination
Instructor(s): Matthias Henze and Melissa Weininger
Department: Religion
Course Number: 392
Intended Student Audience: Undergraduates, non-majors


Course Description: This course covers the history of Jerusalem, exploring Jerusalem’s significance to the three major monotheistic religions and to the modern state of Israel. As part of the course students travel to Jerusalem over spring break where they encounter the sites they study in class. Students experience Jerusalem as a modern, living city. Through a study of the historical, cultural, religious, and political important of Jerusalem, coupled with students’ own observations and experiences from their visit to the city, the course aims to encourage students to develop analytical tools for understanding the place of Jerusalem in its contemporary contexts.

“These are exactly the types of classes that make a college experience.”
— Jeremy Reiskind, Sophomore, Sports Management & History Major


In this course students gain a basic knowledge of Jerusalem’s past and present, its religious meanings in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and its role in the modern conflict in the Middle East. Instead of simply “covering” the long history of Jerusalem in chronological fashion, this course aims to provide students with the critical tools necessary to develop their own analysis of Jerusalem today. Close attention is paid to how the history of Jerusalem continues to shape the city and life in the city today. The course distinguishes three progressive levels of teaching and learning:

Level A: Gain a basic knowledge about Jerusalem.

  • Geography: become familiar with Jerusalem’s urban geography;
  • History: study major periods and moments in the history of Jerusalem in the regional and international contexts;
  • Religion: study the basic histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as they pertain to their respective (internally diverse) attitudes toward sacred space in general and toward the holy places in particular;
  • Urban development: gain a more detailed understanding of the urban development and political history of modern Jerusalem;
  • Politics: become familiar with the basic political issues pertaining to Jerusalem.

Level B: Become an informed reader of Jerusalem.

  • Writings about Jerusalem through time: practice mindful reading of sources from ancient Near Eastern to modern scholarly prose, attentive to their respective stated or unstated interests;
  • Religious literature: understand the historical-political contexts of different bodies of religious literature, including the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament;
  • The media: learn to identify bias in contemporary representations of Jerusalem in mass media as well as in scholarship, especially where bias is not obvious or hides behind the appearance of scholarly objectivity or scientific truth.

Level C: Become an informed visitor of Jerusalem.

  • The main goal of the trip to Jerusalem is to integrate and critically apply levels A and B;
  • Visit Jerusalem and its surroundings, explore how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam claim, create, and maintain sacred spaces, and experience first hand conflicting claims to authority and religious meaning;
  • Meet with representatives of different groups in Jerusalem and learn about their lives in the city today



Henze and Weininger designed the course with a pedagogical approach that seeks to provide multiple perspectives on the city of Jerusalem with an emphasis on the integration of the old and the new and the interconnection of history and modern life. The course is designed to provide students with the critical tools necessary to develop their own analysis of Jerusalem today. In order to achieve this, Henze and Weininger built the course around an experiential learning opportunity during the middle of the semester. The course is divided into a three-unit class with a one-unit week long ‘urban immersion’ in Jerusalem over spring break.

To prepare students for an intensive week of travel within Jerusalem, the first half of the course focuses on building a foundational knowledge of Jerusalem that prepares students for a mindful and critical engagement with historical-political context of contemporary Jerusalem. One of the primary ways that students prepare to become informed travelers to the city is through the collective production of a travel guide that each student bring with them on the Jerusalem trip. Each student produces one chapter of the travel guide highlighting a historical site the students are likely visit on their trip. In addition, prior to leaving for Jerusalem each student gives 20-minute presentation on their chapter of the travel guide.

According to the Henze, students’ coursework prior to the trip gives them “the confidence, when in Jerusalem, to ask questions and add to the conversation”. But Henze and Weininger say the real learning happened over the course the seven-days that they lead the students through key historical and contemporary sites in the city of Jerusalem. Each day’s itinerary includes tours, visits, and speakers that provide students with the opportunity to explore the city, its rich history, and the contemporary context. Henze and Weininger also carefully planned visits and opportunities for students to encounter a variety of people with different backgrounds, religions, and perspectives. For example, students spent one evening in conversation two family members from the Bereaved Families Forum – one Israeli and one Palestinian family– who have lost loved ones to violence in the city. 

In addition, there are daily opportunities for students to collectively reflect on their experiences in the city.  Henze and Weiniger say that regular opportunities for critical reflection with the professors and other students are essential for students to process their own emotional and analytical responses to what they are seeing, hearing, and experiencing during their time in the city. It is this reflection, they say, that enables students to construct their own knowledge, ideas, and values about the city of Jerusalem.

Once back in the U.S., students return to the classroom with Henze and Weininger where the second half of the course provides students with the opportunity to use the knowledge and experience they gained from the trip to analyze major political, cultural, and social issues in the classroom. Guest speakers from across campus and the Houston community, such an archaeologist working in Jerusalem and a former Ambassador to Israel from the Baker Institute, are brought into the classroom where students can ask questions informed by both their experiences in and studies of Jerusalem.



Henze and Weininger’s vision for the course was to create an atmosphere of respect for diverse ideas, opinions, and personal relationships to the course material. They began by selecting students with a variety of academic interests, religious backgrounds, and approaches to the material. In order to attract the best pool of applicants Henze and Weininger wanted to insure that the cost of travel to Jerusalem would not be a barrier to participation. Therefore, the students’ travel and lodging costs were paid for in part by supporters of the Program in Jewish Studies. In the end, fifteen students were selected to take part in the first offering of the course.

Screenshot of student blog post title

From the beginning Henze and Weininger focused on creating a community of trust, respect, and engagement among the students that facilitated peer-to-peer learning. All aspects of the course from assignments to the organization of student time while in Jerusalem were designed to help students develop the pedagogical skills to be each others instructors and to put those skills into practice. For example, Henze and Weininger asked students to keep an electronic journal by blogging about their learning, reflections, and experiences over the course of the semester. These blogs became a way for students to process their own learning, as well as, to learn from each other as students read and commented on each others blog posts. According to Henze and Weininger this assignment proved essential to creating a strong and coherent community of students once they traveled to Jerusalem as the interaction on the student blogs enabled the class community to extend beyond the more structured face-to-face interaction in the classroom.

“Class discussion are my favorite part of the course. I feel as though I actually have something to offer, intellectually speaking.”
— Sparrow Gates, Sophomore, Religion Major


Students listing to tour guide.

To learn about the city of Jerusalem in the 21st century poses a set of unique challenges as the city’s history spans four thousand years, is the center of three world religions, and there are conflicting perspectives that make the city highly contested. Henze and Weininger wanted not only the content and experiences afforded by the course to illustrate the challenges, but they wanted the course itself to challenge student’s ideas, perceptions, and emotions about the city of Jerusalem. With this in mind, they designed their team teaching itself as a way to model how to engage with and embrace these challenges. Drawing from their own academic backgrounds and study of the city, they were able to model for students how to engage in dialogue with others in a political context where it is impossible to be neutral.  Henze and Weininger said that in classroom discussions they focused on modeling good communication skills when talking about difficult topics and experiences. This helped students to feel intellectually and emotionally prepared to engage on “difficult conversations.”

“When I hear their differing interpretations and ways of addressing the issues it makes me more confident and comfortable to develop my own understanding and conclusions.”
— Eric Brighton, Junior, Computer and Electrical Engineering Major


Henze and Weininger plan to teach the course again in the spring of 2017 with some minor changes to the course design.

  • The class presents some logistical challenges. Traveling abroad to a region of the world that is frequently subject to travel advisories means that flexibility has to be built into the course design as well as the travel plans. While both the travel to and within Jerusalem worked out well this time around, for the next iteration of the course they will make minor changes to the itinerary for flexibility and to avoid repetition.
  • The most valuable experiences for students were the personal encounters they had with people in both formal and informal settings. For the next trip, they plan to increase the number of personal encounters on the trip.
  •  Students were attracted to this course for a variety of reasons but most of them held deep emotion connections – whether they were religious, intellectual, or personal - to the city. These emotions were brought to the surface and often intensified once in Jerusalem. For future iterations of the course, Henze and Weininger, want to focus on ways to not only provide for the emotional well-being of their students, but to enhance the support the students can offer each other.
  • The course provided students with the tools to reflect on their experiences, beliefs, and viewpoints, but for future iterations of the course they want to provide more opportunities for students to develop their critical research skills. In order to help students integrate their experiences in Jerusalem with research projects, they plan to (1) provide a framework beginning early in the semester for students to begin thinking about their final projects and (2) devote classroom time to teaching students how to approach a research project and reading scholarly texts and guide students through the process of research step by step.




Professor Henze

Matthias Henze
Founding Director of Jewish Studies
Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism
Professor of Religion

Dr. Henze's academic interests are broad, though the focus of his published work has been on the Jewish literature from around the turn of the Common Era, with an emphasis on early Jewish apocalyptic literature.  His most recent monograph, Jewish Apocalypticism in Late First Century Israel, is the first of two interrelated volumes he is writing on the Syriac Apocalypse of Barcuh, an early Jewish apocalypse. 

Professor Weininger

Melissa Weininger
Anna Smith Fine Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies

Dr. Weininger specializes in the study of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, with an emphasis on gender, nationalism, and ideology.  Her research includes work on Jesus in modern Jewish literature, gender and modernity, and nationalism in contemporary Israeli literature.  Her most recent publication is an article on A.A. Kabak's Hebrew novel about Jesus, The Narrow Path, and his development of an ethics of nationalism.  She is also working on a project on the role of gender and nation in modern Jewish literature and culture.