To be clear, Lizbett Benge was not a theater kid. The stilted nature of a scripted theatrical production never interested her. It wasn’t until she started her doctorate work that she realized she could “just make things with the people and things that you have, and that’s art.” Then it started to click.
Benge is in her first term at Carleton as the Robert A. Oden Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Humanities in the Theater and Dance Department. Her two classes this term, called “Art and (Un)Freedom” and “Space, Time, Body, Minds,” center radical feminism and prison abolition in a new approach to learning in an academic setting.
The combination of Benge’s bright pink hair, her array of colorful tattoos and her work that is, as Department Chair Judith Howard put it, “honest, authentic, bold and really fierce,” would make her stand out in any crowd, but especially a crowd of Carleton professors. Her classes, in Howard’s view, “provide that brave space of creativity and social change that’s rare in academia.”
That difference is not lost on Benge. After graduating from Arizona State University with a PhD in Gender Studies, she said she often questions her place in academia and her decision to pursue a PhD in the first place. At the time, she said, she was searching for a new path. As a child of the foster care system and a first-generation college student, she felt as though “sometimes [a PhD] is the only way people will listen to you.”
Though her degree affords her some level of automatic respect in the world, Benge rejects the idea that when she assembles a class of college students to talk about states of freedom, she is the expert in the room. She invited her students to co-create the syllabi. Just because she’s the professor, she said, “I don’t think that means me telling people what to learn. No, it’s people telling me what they want to learn. Hopefully there can be some joy and pleasure in that so we can all survive to the best of our abilities.”
For Avery Reyes Beattie ’24, this sort of mutual learning in a decentralized classroom environment was what attracted her to Benge’s classes in the first place. She said, “the experience that I’ve had with professors is very rigid, like, ‘this is how we’re going to do it.’ Lizbett came in on the first day and said, ‘I don’t have a syllabus, so we’re going to make it together.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god! Are you kidding me?’”
Howard believes that Benge’s introduction to the department will “expand the definition of performance and theater because her approach crosses many different realms.” One of these expansions is that Benge “likes working in communities,” which is very difficult during the pandemic. An interactive course by Benge is currently undergoing development and might roll out with the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE) when the pandemic is under control. When that happens, Howard said, “she will be front and center in that work.”
Howard also discussed Benge’s unique approach to sociopolitical issues. She praised how Benge “confronts injustice with a really straightforward radicalism” with the thoughtful use of her body expressions. One of Benge’s central philosophies is to “acknowledge and unsettle relations” like racism, sexism and transphobia. She hopes her students will go on and create art that “reflects diverse constituencies in an authentic and socially just manner.”
A typical day in Benge’s virtual classroom involves a lot of moving. She describes herself as “squirrelly” and so, “with any kind of transition, I’m probably going to ask you to get up,” she said. Motion activities could be anything from choreographing a dance based on how overwhelmed students are feeling that day to just standing up for a water break.
Benge said she has had to get creative with the online format, since the hybrid version of “Art and (Un)Freedom” was originally supposed to be offered during Fall Term, but was cancelled due to low enrollment. She leads her students beyond the text-based discussion that might be expected in a Carleton humanities class. One of Benge’s favorite examples is when she asked students to “type a letter in the chat if you’ve heard of what decolonization is before. Then you get this alphabet soup, and from there I try to just abstract it out. We might take all the letters that have shown up in the chat and make a collective poem out of it about decolonization, about what we know, where each letter is going to represent the first letter of the first word of each stanza.”
Benge’s philosophy can be boiled down to one conglomerate word: spacetimebodymind. The term was born, she said, after she realized the inadequacy of each word—space, time, body and mind—on its own.
“The body is not isolated. I’m also thinking and living and experiencing things. Yes, that might be filtered through the experiences that I have in this fleshly shell, but that’s not devoid of my mind and where my body is situated,” Benge said. In order to move toward the “fullness” she craves, we all need a more complete understanding of experience.
Reyes Beattie added, “Lizbett’s approach is that we need to be in our bodies in order to be in our brains. Especially because we’re at Zoom University, being in our bodies is hard when we’re just sitting at a screen. In order for us to engage in the conversations, she understands that people have to move.”
So far, Reyes Beattie said, the move away from the traditional structure of an academic classroom, where homework assignments are reframed as “accountability exercises” and the ultimate priority is everyone’s joyful learning, has paid off.
“Because Lizbett framed it as though we’re going to build this class together, everyone has a stake in it. Everyone is there to show up and there to be actually engaging with one another.”
Though Benge still has one more year to teach at Carleton, she says her possibilities are wide open after that. She is teaching this term from her home in Arizona, where she will stay as long as Carleton leadership allows her during this period of remote classes. When the time comes to move on from Carleton, she said, “I want to organize, and I want to provide political education to people, particularly system-involved youth.” All she ever wants to do, she said, is to “make art and f*ck it up.”