School’s out for summer… (psst: please first leave us your feedback!)

It’s been just over seven years (SEVEN years!) since I began writing The Activist Classroom from my little office upstairs in my rented house in Balham, south London. After two semesters teaching at my new job at Queen Mary, University of London, I was fed up with a system that required me constantly to measure my productivity (and to attend meetings to talk about measuring productivity!) – so much so that I had no time to even think about teaching properly, let alone prep for it.

A lot has changed for me since then.

(One thing that will never change: my love for QM’s beautiful canal-side campus.)

Last June, the heroic Kelsey Blair approached me to ask about pivoting this site from a “blog” (soooo 2012!) to a community commons. I had actually been thinking about shutting the site down, but this was a golden opportunity to do something much better – to hand the space to a collective of shared voices, and create opportunities for different, hopefully much more diversely representative, content.

I found her some cash (not enough, but I’m grateful she accepted), and off we went.

Since then, Kelsey and I (TBH: mostly Kelsey!) have been working hard to change up our formats, to find ways to bring new voices on board without adding (too much) to everyone’s workload, and to gauge readers’ interest in participating in a range of ways in the discussions we curate.

We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished this year – I’m absolutely thrilled with all I’ve learned from the terrific interviews Kelsey has conducted, with the amazing insights (and fabulous visuals) of our first ever writer/teacher in residence, Julia Henderson, and with the contributions of many others who have shaped these past few months for us.

But yet: we want and need to do more, and to do better.

So, with an orientation toward next year (and beyond), we’ve set aside time this summer to reflect on the Activist Classroom.

We’re hoping you’ll help us.

We’ve put together a short survey to get a better sense of you, our readers: where you are in your careers, what you like and dislike about the work that appears in this space, what you’d like more of.

Our goal is to gather a stronger and more concrete sense of our readership and your needs, and to use this information to help shape the directions we go next.

The survey is going to be posted for one month from June 15, 2020 to July 15th, 2020. You can access the form at the link HERE.

We know there are A LOT of surveys floating out there right now, and this doesn’t rank among the most important ones. It will take you 3-5 minutes, but if you’d prefer not to work on YET ANOTHER FORM, you’re welcome to email us directly.

Rest assured we will receive all feedback with gratitude, take it all seriously, and keep everyone posted in this space about the paths we are charting forward.

In the meantime: to all of you teaching right now, precariously or securely, overwhelmed or supported, or anywhere in between, we see you – and thank you as always for reading.

Kim + Kelsey

 

Isolating and Blogging: Interwoven Lessons

As I finish up my winter/spring “Writer-In-Residence” position with The Activist Classroom, Kim asked me to reflect on “what this online writing experience has taught me.” It is a trickier question than I at first thought. I applied for the position in the “Before Times”— pre-Covid-19. I thought it was going to be an engaging reflection on pedagogy during my Postdoctoral Fellowship. A low-key extra task I fit in between making regular trips to Concordia University, attending conferences, writing my book proposal, and forging ahead with my new research: making theatre with elderly people with dementia.

Everything has changed. My whole world, and everyone else’s, has changed.

So it is hard to separate what the online writing experience has taught me, from what the Pandemic experience has taught me or raised for me. So, I will reflect on a few things I have learned through writing online during a pandemic.

Is My Teaching Experience from the Before-Times Relevant?

I feel uncertain, curious, and a little insecure about whether my teaching experience pre-Covid still has relevance. So many conditions have changed for ourselves and our students. The one course I was involved in teaching last term ended early because of Covid-19 restrictions, thus I don’t have personal experience teaching during this time. I watch my children try to learn online, and I can tell you it is HARD. They hate it, in fact.

My most valued learning during the Pandemic has been through actively trying new things. Not sitting and thinking, but doing – engaging in private, domestic performances of sorts. I have hatched ducklings, baked bread, tried new instruments, drawn a series of portraits all for the first time.


I definitely jumped on the Pandemic Baking Bandwagon! (image of my baking products)

I wonder how this can apply to teaching as we move forward with the new world situation. Rather than adapting old ways of doing things, do we need to facilitate students trying things that are completely new? Certainly, we need to keep experimenting and searching for new pedagogical models.

Writing A Blog Post is Harder Than I Thought

I have learned that writing a 1500-word blog post is harder than I thought. Based on how quickly I can whip off an abstract, I thought I would be able to write a post in a day, no problem. But I have found I need longer to ponder. I don’t know if this is due to the challenges of working from home during a pandemic. I start a post and then I need to let the ideas percolate before I return to it another day. I also worry more than I expected about setting the right tone, providing relevant advice, selecting the best images, etc. I have realized that with academic writing (i.e. journal articles and conference papers) I am acclimatized to the expectations. I think about the ideas, but I just know the style. Taking on a new format has made me aware of the skill set I take for granted in more traditional academic writing, and it has given me new respect for authors writing in other formats. It has also made me excited about expanding my writing repertoire.   

Embracing Slowness

More and more during these times, I try to embrace slowness. My friend Ash McAskill, a disability theatre studies scholar and activist, is exploring Slow Theatre Practice and Snail Dramaturgies (see p. 22). I think I am more like a cat than a slow and steady snail. I am languorous for periods of time, then capable of quick bursts of frenzied energy – mostly docile and loving, with the occasional rising instinct to attack.

Meow! (me as a cat)

With no space to be alone, and constantly caring for children, husband, and pets, I simply cannot be fast for long. I’m too overwhelmed. There are too many distractions. Accepting that this is not a personal weakness is HARD. It has meant that I have felt anxious about turning around blog posts quickly (despite Kim’s reassurances). The inequities for women in academia have not only become more apparent than ever to me, they have been enhanced during this pandemic, especially for women who are mothers or caregivers. I am working to value and explore slowness as a theoretical approach and also as an access strategy.

I LOVE Visual Storytelling and Not Everyone Shares This Preference

I have realized that I favour visual storytelling much more than I knew. I LOVE selecting images for my Blog posts! I have spent Isolation producing my first visual art project (@frontline_faces_of_covid19). The current lack of live performances has made me keenly aware that I am drawn to the visual aspects of liveness and theatrical performance, and that I much prefer writing performance analyses to close readings of text. I also discovered (for the first time!!!!) during Isolation that other people literally hear their own voice talking to them inside their head (mind blown!!!). I don’t: I see pictures. I am intensely visual!

This has taught me two things:

First, in future I will explore other forms of “writing” that allow me to capitalize on my strong preference for visual images. This excites me a lot!

Second, I will strive to be more aware of my visual predilection: (a) in my use of metaphors in my writing (wow are they ever visual!); and (b) in my techniques used to convey material in teaching and other live presentations. I realize that I lean toward presenting material in ways that could disadvantage those who are less visual. For example, I need to audio-describe my images more often and better.

Teaching and Writing Help Me Process the World Around Me

I have also become more aware of how teaching and writing in conjunction help me process the world around me. While I theoretically have more time for writing when I am not preparing lessons and teaching, I find writing harder because I am not in conversation with as many people. In particular, without my students I do not have access to nearly as wide a range of generational, cultural, and socioeconomic perspectives. I feel this lack.

GIF of writer’s hand tapping a pencil, unsure what to write.

The Draw of Liveness

I am more certain than ever about the importance, the draw, the communal experience of liveness. I have been watching a fair amount of theatre online ( Canada’s National Arts Centre and Facebook Live, The National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre). Online theatre can supplement but, for me, it just does not replace live, in-person performance. Even live-streamed online theatre, in my experience, lacks the feeling of communitas or the moments of utopian performativity that live performance offers.

And yet at the same time, I want to stay close to home. I have no motivation to attend live performance in public spaces at the moment; it scares me. Live theatre has shifted, for me, to at-home performances. It is my children putting on skits, it is playing music as a family, it is my husband reading out loud, it is the opera man walking past my house singing, it is the 7pm communal applause for health care workers with its clapping, cheers, and banging of pots and pans. I am experiencing a return to parlour theatre and community ritual. How can this be incorporated into the theatre and performance studies classroom? I don’t have the answer, but it is something I am pondering.

7pm Applause for Frontliners – View and Soundscape on my Porch

Thanks to Kim for the opportunity to be a guest Writer-in-Residence. I hope some of what I have to say resonates or inspires new thoughts for others.

These are difficult times and will remain such for a while. However, they are also times that bring much potential for shifting gears, re-imagining performances, and learning new approaches to pedagogy. I will continue to try to focus on that. Warm wishes to everyone!

My ducklings hatched!!! (image of 3 black duckings snuggled together)

 

Pedagogical spacing in the time of Zoom, part two

Last week, I thought about space, and about what a huge difference thinking differently about space can make to a classroom environment. Armed with the new spatial reality of COVID-19 quarantine, I returned to my memories of teaching in a dedicated active learning space (called WALS at my university) and reconsidered the lessons it provides me about how the space of teaching – the way we organize our shared physical reality – is central to pedagogical activation.

Now it’s Zoom-time, and working on Zoom can feel oddly like working in a non-place. (Hilarious sidebar: “utopia” comes originally from the Greek word for “nowhere”.) In our haste to “pivot” online in March we didn’t have a lot of room (physically or mentally) to think much past “get through the class”; now, though, online forward planning is all around us, and that means it’s time for us to figure out what the “space” Zoom affords can, and can’t, do for effective teaching practice.

One of the internet’s many images for “utopia”. Notice the several airplanes…

This week, using take-aways from my last post (have a look here; the tl;dr is in the pull quotes), I offer some preliminary ideas for how to challenge the “nowhere” pull of Zoom and re-orient our online teaching labour in ways that foreground the value of sharing physical space while learning.

1. DO NOT give up advocating for live, in-person classes.

My department was recently asked to come up with individual instructor plans for Fall. Would my class be online? Mostly online? Online with some key “live” components? Or priority-live? If the latter, I was asked to justify why.

I get this request – of course I do. But let’s not let the coercion of “justifying priority-live” erode our shared understanding, as teachers, of how important face-to-face is in the act of pedagogical engagement.

Online learning is, under the model we currently have, largely about transmitting content. That’s not teaching/learning – it’s reading. Learning in-place is about understanding our shared investments in knowledge; it’s about the importance of communicating with others, across difference, in building knowledge together. That work is spatially dependent, and spatially impactful. It’s live, in-person shit. (For more on this, I recommend late feminist geographer Doreen Massey’s 2005 book, For Space. On the pitfalls of online learning, see recent public writing by Naomi Klein and Mark Kingwell.)

“Online learning” could easily slide into passive, even propagandistic modes sold to us by semi-tech-savvy neoliberal leaders as “convenience” or “liberation”. It is neither; let’s not permit that to happen.

2. Make Zoom a SPACE of learning, despite appearances.

As online learning tools go, Zoom is actually pretty good: it allows us to be synchronous/in real time together.

(I know a lot of us have been strongly encouraged to avoid synchronous learning, but that’s a mistake if you ask me – especially in smaller classes. Let’s remember to advocate for synchronicity, too! The argument that asynchronous learning is best for online suits The Reality Before, when online learning was a choice made by people from specific demographics, not a necessity for all. The data will catch up – guaranteed.)

Zoom, thus, gives us the opportunity to interrogate the way online models shift our experience of learning together in-place, and perhaps even inadvertently highlights the key difference physical space makes to learning.

Authors and FOLD stars Jael Richardson (top right) and Amanda Leduc (bottom) chat with Steven Beattie about five years of the Festival of Literary Diversity, 4 May 2020, on Zoom. The synchronous, online FOLD 2020 was a HUGE success – thousands attended IN REAL TIME.

For one thing, when we Zoom, we’re sitting down! This is weird, and I don’t like it. The space of teaching, regardless of how we teach, is typically an active one: even if the students and I are seated at a seminar table together, there’s occasional getting up and sitting down, plus a lot of gesturing to emphasize ideas.

Over Zoom, seated and narrowly focused on a screen, we can easily physically contract. Our teaching and learning space then shrinks to the space of a chair and a frame, and it’s no wonder our affect folds inward.

My plan to counter this, in fall, is to begin each class with a spacing exercise. We’ll do a warm-up, just as we would in class; the only caveat will be that each warm-up will need to encourage us to use our learning space in novel, perhaps surprising, ways. I’ll also call for student input here: each week, I’ll invite guest warm-up curators to take over. (Students have the best warm-up ideas, by far.)

I’ll plan for this regular activity by asking the students, at the beginning of the semester, to ensure they have Zooming spaces that will permit them to stand up and move around (even just a bit), and that they will not be embarrassed to share. This might mean a bit of bedroom tidying or place-curation on their parts, but that’s ok – that’s part of the work of teaching and learning! And of course, I’ll share my reasoning with them. Which leads me to…

3. Introduce some “meta” to help students think about what it is they are missing, and why.

Not having a teaching space means an excellent opportunity to talk about that lack, about what’s missing from our shared experience. This talking, I think, needs to be ongoing, but it also needs to be seeded early.

I plan to spend a good part of the first session of any future online classes talking openly with students about our shared physical reality – what it means to each of us to “meet virtually”, what we gain and what we lose, and what my own research reveals about the way space shapes our shared, performative realities. (Which it really, really does. Just ask Judith Butler. I recommend her newish, very readable, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly [2015]. Consider assigning a chapter for your first class!)

Thinking meta-cognitively about teaching-as-space takes me back to the point in my last post when I talked about the need to work “on” space with the students in my active learning classroom. As I noted there, active learning classrooms can be initially baffling to anyone raised in lecture halls; Zoom is, in this fundamental respect, no different – and presents the same learning opportunities, albeit realized differently.

In other words, we need to spend time talking about space, no less on Zoom than elsewhere.

How are we feeling in our bodies?

Where are points of connection or disconnection from others?

Are we getting outside?

Can we step outside, together, for a minute?

What difference does that movement shift make?

These questions strike me as essential, if learning online is actually to take place. There are a lot of ways to activate them, and I’m hoping to think through options over the summer. I’ll come back to this issue in the fall and let you know where I’ve landed.

Meanwhile, though, as I said last time, I’d love to know what others are planning to do to re-orient Zoom-space and Zoom-time, and to continue to dis-orient the push toward a new, virtual norm (boo! hiss!). So, if you have ideas, please share in the comments!

Happy spacing,

Kim

Pedagogical spacing in the time of Zoom, part one

This is the first part of a two part post from Kim on learning bodies, spatial organization, and pedagogical reflection in the new teaching order. Check back next week for Part II!

***

I think we’ve officially shifted from “the great pause” to “the great login”. My back is fairly sore. I’m having a weird pain in my right knee. I blame Zoom.

I’m no fan of online learning, although I recognize it has many positives. It is accessible in ways that traditional, face-to-face learning sometimes can’t be. It is flexible, making space for those in tricky work or child-care (or elder-care, or other) situations. It is “independent” most of the time – which theoretically should be a very good thing.

The reason I dislike online learning is in some ways personal to my field: theatre and performance studies labour works best in the studio, full stop. But in other ways my dislike is not personal at all, but rather universal (I use this term with caution, rest assured) to our shared planetary experience.

One of these ways is the subject of this two-part post: online learning is a problem because it encourages us to forget about the difference SPACE makes.

In my last post, I talked about All Things Zoom-Teaching. I ended with some thoughts on the place of space in our larger discussions about what “pivoting to online” does to the pedagogical experience:

I’ve done a lot of reflecting over the past year on my embodied experience of teaching in [my new active learning classroom], a space where a) I’m not the physical centre of attention; b) students need to work together (at pods, where they are seated facing each other) pretty much all the time; and c) lecturing is simply not possible, really, because lecturing more or less requires a).

Now, fast forward 12 months: Zoom is an entirely different embodied experience of teaching, and now we’re having to do a whole lot more learning about the shape of the thing, what it’s doing to our bodies, to the choreographic whole.

If we’re going to have to keep online teaching all the things in September, we are going to need to talk, with our students and each other, a lot more about what this means to our bodies.

This reflecting has been humbling, profound – and ongoing.

Last weekend I was chatting with a dear friend in the UK; he’s a tech person but equal parts online cheerleader and skeptic. (I find the higher up you get in tech circles, the more true this becomes.)

I said to him, you know, the shape of quarantine – where we are all sequestered at home with individuals deemed ‘safe’, allowed out only with great caution, highly aware of our proximity to individuals deemed ‘risky’ – really brings into relief for me how much our identities as humans are tied to spacing; that is, to the practicing of place-making in relation to other (human and not-human) subjects in the world.

The tennis courts in my local park re-opened a couple of days ago. We are all OVERJOYED – not just because tennis feels “normal”, but because those spaces are tied to our sense of community-self.

This acknowledgement of space-as-matter(ing) is below the surface for a lot of us most of the time. It’s something most people right now are likely perceiving as fatigue, depression, anxiety, feeling “cooped up” – the host of affects that attend to this kind of radical shift in spatial norms. But for me (who has written a bunch of books and articles where spacing practices lie at the centre in one way or another) the perception of space’s ontological centrality is not just affective but also intellectual, and indeed pedagogical.

It’s caused me to reflect in fresh ways on my classroom experience in my active-learning (WALS) classroom over the last few semesters, and to think specifically about how that room encourages spacing practices that are at the heart of a great learning experience.

Once more unto the blog: this image of WALS UC 1110, my active learning classroom, has appeared here before. That’s the amazing Katie Flannery showing off her pod’s learning.

For example: I’ve realized that I need to actively choreograph the WALS space experience for myself and my students. This is more than just showing up and improvising; it’s a thing I need to pay attention to in the planning process, each and every week (as well as overall, before the semester begins).

Students’ pods, where up to 6 can sit together (see the image above), are ranged around the room; I need to face each student/pod as equitably as possible throughout the class. I therefore need to plan to move a lot; teaching thus becomes physically laborious, but that labour is essential or the room doesn’t “work”. I need to account for this physical labour in the exercises I program, but I also need to account for it in a parallel self-care plan, which needs to be part of the teaching schema I organize.

That is: I need to “prep” for self-care, for my own movement choreography and its impacts, just as I “prep” lessons for the gang.

The pods also need to be curated: I’ve learned the hard way that students get chummy quickly, and of course they default to sitting with pals as often as possible. If pals are at a pod together, that is license for hijinks! This isn’t to say students should not have agency in their in-class relationships, nor that they should be actively prevented from socializing in class (some of that is essential to paying attention, in fact). But it is a reminder that the pods need both my organizing hand, and a bit of mixing up – I need to build and shape and hone the students’ learning communities actively, along with them.

This too is work, the work of place-making, and it is pedagogically essential to a good learning community, and therefore to effective learning outcomes.

Alongside these revelations – that I need to account for my body in the learning space, and that I have to help the students to effectively organize their bodies in the learning space – I’ve realized that I also have to lay the groundwork early to shift students’ expectations of how our learning will look and feel.

The WALS space is a wonderful gift to us, but it is also not the norm; neither the students nor I are habituated to a de-centred learning set-up, nor are they used to thinking about teaching and learning as a spatial practice. (Thanks, years of stupid lecture halls.)

That is: I’ve realized I need to talk with my students, early and often, about the “meta” of teaching and learning, about how we learn as a function of space, and about what learning entails from our bodies in the different spaces where it takes place.

OK: so far so February.

But our new, public-health reality is Zoom-based, at least for now. So how do we port some of this reflective learning into The Great Login?

In the second half of this post, coming next week, I’ll think about how some of the take-aways I’ve highlighted above can work in Zoom-space. In the meantime, I’d love to know what others are planning to do to re-orient Zoom-space (and Zoom-time) in a way that is productive pedagogically. If you have ideas already cooking, please share!

Stiffly for now,

Kim

 

Reflecting on Uncertainty in Uncertain Times

Hello from another week of the odd times with the Activist Classroom. This week I reflect about navigating uncertainty in this, the strangest collective year in recent memory.

The novel coronavirus is a terrible party guest. It came uninvited. It’s wildly unpredictable. And, it’s armed with a thousand bad conversation starters:

What are the government’s plans for re-opening? Are resources reaching society’s most vulnerable members? What protocols will remain in place? How will they be enforced? When will children return to school? Should they return to school? When will retail open? What about the film industry? The fitness industry? What will universities do? Will we ever get theatre back?  What will the “new normal” look like? Are we already in it?

These questions run on loop in my head, in the news, in the endless zoom calls. They are, in fact, an articulation of one of the defining features of the Covid-19 pandemic thus far: uncertainty.

We don’t have all the information, and so we don’t have the answers. And no one else has them either.

1200px-Question_mark_(black).svg

The uncertainty itself isn’t unprecedented. People’s worlds are routinely turned upside-down by innumerable catastrophes and marvels. What’s unprecedented, at least in recent western memory, is that so many people are grappling with a similar set societal uncertainties at the same time.

In these uncertain times, I find myself turning to my favourite thinkers and writers. One of these thinkers is Sara Ahmed. From examining queer orientation to tracking the logic of happiness to researching diversity work and complaint in post secondary institutions, Sara Ahmed frequently begins with the question, “What does X [an orientation toward an idea, the concept of happiness, a commitment] do?”

Ahmed

The cover of Sara Ahmed’s recent book, Living a Feminist Life

As we move through the uncertainty of spring 2020, I find myself drawn to this question.

What is the uncertainty produced by the Covid-19 pandemic doing? More simply, what are the multi-layered (personal, social, political) effects of mass uncertainty?

One day, when I’m feeling intellectually sharper than these early pandemic days, I will probably ask these questions on a broader scale.

Right now, I’m drawn to my personal sphere. So, I asked my mother what she thought about uncertainty and the novel coronavirus.

“It’s the little things,” she told me. By way of example, she explained that she and my father didn’t know how to make a virtual doctor’s appointment.

“Do you want me to look it up for you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can look it up myself!” (Admittedly, I walked into that reply). “I’ve just never had to. I don’t know how it works or what to expect. The uncertainty makes you pay attention.”

Indeed.

Since the pandemic response ramped up in Canada in late March, I have felt the novel coronavirus’s call to attention across my life: at the grocery store, in the daily emails from my university, in hours-long phone calls with friends I may not see for a long time.

spotlight2

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on parts of my life. (Also: I chose this image because it’s a theatre stage illuminated by a pair of spots, and I miss theatre stages.)

I have noticed this call to attention in my teaching life, too.

Most folk have now weathered the mid-semester upheavals of the spring outbreaks and institutional closures, but the traditional post-secondary teaching structure has undoubtedly been shaken. As colleges and universities begin to plan for fall 2020 at least partly online, the lasting effects for classrooms — for the entire post-secondary norm — are, well, uncertain.

In terms of teaching, I, like everyone, am curious about all the big questions: Will classes be virtual in Fall 2020? What about Spring 2021? How will this affect teaching in the coming years? But, I find, too, that many more personal questions are floating to the surface:

  • How will I, who so value the “liveness” of both theatre and teaching, adjust to asynchronous virtual teaching methods?
  • How can virtual space prompt me to re-imagine my classrooms in new ways?
  • How will I support students, whose learning conditions and university experience are likely to undergo rapid changes in the months ahead, while also encouraging rigorous, critical engagement with the material we’re meant to be studying?
  • How will I learn from, and remain in touch with, colleagues (without getting bogged down in administration and endless virtual calls)?

My inner coordinator, the part of me that likes to plan and schedule and colour code things, is eager to start answering these questions. And, at some point, she will prevail.

But, for now, I have decided that my pedagogical work is about attunement and inventory: To where am I drawn? What do I turn away from? Where does pedagogical focus lead me? What questions do I return to? 

I am hopeful this work will anchor me – and perhaps, if you choose to borrow it, you – as I navigate the uncertain waters of the months ahead.