circusbookphotoThe Academic Team is pleased to present our first article written by a guest writer. Pamela Ford is an anthropology professor at Mt. San Jacinto College in California. She recently created a seminar course that gave students the opportunity to research and discuss circus arts. We asked her to tell us about her experience teaching the class with hopes that it will inspire other educators to create similar courses. 

“Circus” is rarely the topic for a college course, but when given the opportunity to organize a semester-long multi-disciplinary seminar for honors students, I picked this topic without hesitation. Within moments of the announcement, a biology professor came over to me to say he would like to contribute a seminar session about animal behavior and training. “In a former life, I was involved with an aerialist,” he told me. From that moment, I knew I was right: faculty from many disciplines would be ready to contribute their expertise to this seminar.

I developed a love of circus because both of my children spent about 12 years of each of their lives growing up in the Great Y Circus in Redlands, CA. Our family has attended AYCO Festivals and Unicycle conventions as part of our summer vacations. For me, the seminar topic would be extensive and fascinating. My students were not so sure at first. One of them was convinced that we could discuss all there is to know about circus in just 2 hours. Since we were still talking at the end of the first 3-hour class meeting, he changed his mind.

What did we talk about? Well, acts, of course. Students learned about particular acts with the training and safety concerns that accompany each. Students researched topics such as the training of cats, impact of the Big Apple Circus, ramifications of the Hartford fire, the history of juggling, the contributions of the Shrine Circus, a comparison of Cirque du Soleil with Ringling, and the importance of spandex to circus performance.

Faculty members came each week to present and discuss perspectives of circus from their disciplines. We learned together about the early history of circus performance (pre-Roman); Victorian women in circus; freak shows; what makes the human body capable of contortion; animal behavior; and whether animals should be in circuses or not. We learned about Barnum (he didn’t own a circus til he was in his 60’s!) and we watched and discussed fascinating films:
“La Strada,” “Freaks,” and “Water for Elephants.” We delved in to the novel The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day. A clown visited to share her ideas about modern clowning and she (tried) to teach us all to juggle. And I shared descriptions of youth and social circus. Some students attended the opening show of The Great Y Circus in May in which much of the content of the course was made visible.

Over the semester, we read Duncan Wall’s The Ordinary Acrobat. Duncan graciously met with the class via Skype for our final session, an energetic and thought-provoking meeting that involved everyone. It was an experience dubbed “Awesome” by the class, and that left me with a teaching high lasting several weeks. One of the students, a psychology major, made the comment at the end of this course, that she is convinced that “deep down, we are all circus people.” It only took a semester for her to recognize that. It is my great hope that all of the faculty and students who participated in this seminar will hold that conviction for their lifetimes and will share that notion with others in their lives.

Pamela J. Ford
Professor of Anthropology
Mt. San Jacinto College
1499 N. State Street
San Jacinto, CA 92583

Below is a copy of Pam’s syllabus for her course on circus. Feel free to e-mail Pam for more information on her class or if you would like to use any material from the syllabus.

Date Topic Presenter Assignments due & preparation for this week’s class
Jan 24 Introduction to Seminar
Introduction to the topic of Circus
Pam Ford, Anthropology
Jan 31 Origins, Purpose & Legacy of the Roman Circus Gary Vargas, History Read chapters 1 & 2
Journal due:  Try to define “Circus.” From The Ordinary Acrobat, “The point is that the circus—strictly speaking, neither theater, art, sport nor entertainment—is ignored academically because it is so difficult to define & quantify.” What do you see as the theatrical, artistic, & athletic features of the circus?  How do these correspond to other forms of popular culture?
Feb 7 Practice Juggling and Clowning Jenna Lowery, Alda Martinez, Colin Nye Performers and youth circus advocates representing Great Y Circus, Circus Now, and AYCO Read chapters 3 & 4
Journal Due:  Describe your past experience trying to learn something physical (how to bat a ball, make a dance move, skateboard, whatever…). How did you deal with frustration? Did you become obsessive about practicing?  Do you think you could depend upon your body to do something so consistently that you could earn a living with that skill?
Feb 14 HOLIDAY, No School
Feb 21 Acts:  Individual student presentations about circus acts Students Read chapters 5 & 6
Journal due:  What does it take to make people laugh?  Think like a clown and describe the kind of character you like to see, or that you might like to be, as a clown.
Feb 28 Freaks Jim Davis, History Read chapters 7 & 8
Also read pp 197-198 on freak shows
Mar 7 Animal Behavior & Animal Behavior & Training:  How do Animals  Learn to Act This Way in Circus Performances? Roy Mason, Biology Roy Mason, Biology & Environmental Science Read chapters 9 & 10
Read chapters 9 & 10
Journal due:  Comment on your reactions to the presentation on Freaks.
Mar 14 Should Wild Animals be Used in Circus Entertainment? Michael Plotkin, Biology Read chapters 11 & 12
Journal due:  Describe your thoughts about animal training. TWO Sources due.
Mar 21 Circus in Literature Michelle Stewart, Literature Read The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day.  There will be another assignment from Dr. Stewart.
Mar 28 SPRING BREAK, No School
April 4 The Prince of Humbug: Exploring the Curiosities & Spectacle of P.T. Barnum’s Imaginarium. Christina Yamanaka, History Read chapters 13 & 14 (note that Barnum is described briefly pp 193-204)
Journal due:  What is your image of the traditional American circus?  What do you expect to find in the circus? Where did you get these expectations?
April 11 Bodies in Motion:  The Role of the Skeleton & Muscles in Movement Erik Ozolins, Anthropology Read chapters 15 & 16
Journal due:  Does the circus  today necessarily depend upon “humbug?”  Describe your thoughts on this.
April 18 Circus in Film
Film to be determined
Paul Hendry, English Read chapters  17 & 18
Journal due: Consider what you would do to maintain/improve your body if you were a performer.
April 25 Gendered Romanticism Under the Big Top Tamara Smith,History See the film “Water for Elephants”;Search on-line for images of women in circus posters, old & new.
Journal due:  After viewing these images of female circus performers, compare them to images of females in advertising today.
May 2 Today’s Social Circus and Youth Circus:  Are they just for entertainment? Pam Ford Read chapters 19 & 20 (social circus already mentioned on pp 176-180)
Journal due;  What advantages and disadvantages do you see for children to learn circus skills?  Are these skills relevant to life today?
May 9 Student Research
May 16 Student Research
May 23 Wrap Up Seminar. What have we learned?How do we view circus now? Everyone Invited Re-read your notes from the entire semester.
Journal due: summarize what you have learned about circus this semester and how you think this affects your future relationship to circus.