Tired already? Let Them Teach Each Other! (Trust me. It will be good for you.)

It’s the first week of October, so no denying it any more: school’s back in session. Shit has gotten real.

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I know I’m in the fortunate chair this term, on sabbatical. (Nope, I don’t plan to stop mentioning it anytime soon. Sorry!)

But that doesn’t stop me feeling the autumn vibe through friends, neighbours’ kids, and through the growing chill in the air. Which is why, when the latest Tomorrow’s Professor post, on encouraging students to teach each other, rolled across my desk Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice how ideal it is for just this moment in the term – when stress levels are rising, the thick of the marking and the prep is looming, and the chaos of midterms is starting to glance over the parapet.

The author of this particular post, “Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle,” is Tim Murphey, who teaches in the English Department at Kanda University in Japan. It comes from his chapter in the book Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education (Springer, 2017).

It’s normal for me to get inspired by TP posts throughout the academic year, but it’s not typical for me to base an entire post of my own around one. In this case I’m making an exception, though, because Murphey’s insights and evidence from his teaching experiments echo my own, very positive, anecdotal experiences with different forms of peer teaching in theatre and performance studies classrooms.

I’ve long felt peer teaching to be an essential means of activating deep student learning, especially when it comes to applying and extending complicated theoretical concepts. Put bluntly, students learn way better when they have to explain stuff clearly to each other; it means they have to internalize, vocalize, share, and collaborate – even if they kind of hate doing it in the moment. (And of course they do. Sitting at the back and sort of listening to the prof while actively cruising Facebook or Snapchatting with friends is way easier, duh.)

Murphey’s research concurs with this assessment of peer teaching’s impact on student outcomes, but his article also notes more, and deeper, benefits.

First, he talks about how valuable peer teaching can be for teachers, both in terms of saving us time AND in terms of making us better at our jobs.

Second (and throughout, actually), he focuses on how important the practice of peer teaching is as an ethical, and a democratic, practice – for students, but also for faculty. Everyone benefits, he argues, when we share the hard work of making sense of our world, together.

Which also feels crazy timely to me, ya know?

Herewith, then, a bit more from Murphey, and me, on each of these terrific ideas.

1. Peer teaching helps teachers teach better. It teaches us to give up a bit of control, and to get comfortable with the idea that maybe we don’t know everything and that’s ok. It also encourages us to reduce over-prep and spend our teaching time more wisely – working ideas through in the classroom, in the moment.

Just in time for early October, Murphey opens his introduction with this slightly painful truth:

Too often first time teachers, and even many experienced teachers, work much too hard preparing too much material for their classes to fill the allotted time. I myself confess to over-preparing and planning too many activities and materials.

I’ve also overprepped for years. (I call it “prep creep“.) Worse, I’ve been actively working NOT to over-prep for years, and yet, still, there’s that voice in my head. That voice that says…

You’re going to get to the end of the prep and have no more to say and there will be 10 minutes to go and everyone will look at you and know you suck and are an imposter.

Friends, that voice is wrong. It is an asshole, that voice. Total douchebag.

First, under no circumstances will you ever run out of stuff to say. I’m pretty sure that you got your degrees because you like to talk about your research and stuff, right?

Second – and this is The Great Paradox of Teaching – the more you write stuff down to say it, the easier it is to *actually* run out of stuff to say. The more activities you program for your active classroom, the more rushed everyone will likely feel. You will be anxious. The students will become cross and confused.

Nobody will be happier, or will have learned more, because of the excess stuff on your pages.

Here’s where peer teaching is a genius short-cut to help us get in the habit of more classroom improv, less over-prep. Yes, of course, helping students learn how to teach each other well takes careful set-up, and regular practice. You need to decide what the students will work on figuring out together, and you’ll have to give some thought to how they will get from point A to point B. You’ll need to offer some guidance along the way.

But a lot of that guidance will happen in the moment, and will be dependent on what the students say, and what they find they need as they unpick the problem you’ve set for them. You can’t prep for that; what you need is to develop confidence in your role as a guide. That takes practice in real time, in front of anxious or bored or anticipatory faces. It’s risky. It means being willing to mess up quite a bit. But it gets better and easier with time – it really, really does.

We might think it’s our job to stand up and spit up the knowledge, but that’s a ruse; in fact, our job is to be the expert learner in the room, not the person who has completed the journey of learning.

Which is, of course, the other reason peer teaching is so worthwhile: because it reminds us that we, too, are always on that journey with our students.

2. Peer teaching is just basic democracy. It’s sharing the knowledge and the challenges knowledge poses. It’s getting to the bottom of complicated things.

I don’t know about you, but as I read the headlines these days, I mostly think to myself: these skills, the ones that teach you about not being afraid to think hard, and to confront things that do not make sense, and to talk to other human beings about those things, and to work toward some kind of provisional answers, and then to toss them out and try again, just as hard and without losing heart…

… these skills are the only skills that matter right now.

Murphey quotes from Lee Shulman’s book Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education (2004, pp 36-7) in his epigraph, and I’ll rehearse the quotation here because it’s remarkable in its clarity and insight on the public and ethical and democratic value of shared teaching:

Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it.

Shulman’s framing of learning as property is exceptionally timely, as the endgame of neoliberal consumption practices loom, warlike, into view. Knowledge can’t be owned; it must be shared. When we try to own insight we produce tyranny, and tyranny is the enemy of further learning, of the freedom to debate, discuss, and disagree.

The only way we can help our students understand this is to share the process of making knowledge with them, again and again, messy though that process might be. We need to model knowledge-sharing practices in our classrooms, urgently, precisely because they seem so very far away these days, when we open Twitter, or click the news links in our Facebook feeds.

And then, once we’ve fumbled through the peer teach, and hit all the roadblocks, and struggled to find the answers, we need to talk with our students about why the messiness of sharing knowledge is a social good, and not a thing to be loathed and feared.

***

My sincere thanks to Tim Murphey for inspiring this post with a very compelling article. Please follow the links embedded above to purchase the two books referenced here, either for yourself or for your school’s library.

Meanwhile, if you use peer teaching practices in your classrooms I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments – models are always very welcome.

Kim

 

 

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On scheduling

In my last post I mentioned I’m on sabbatical. When I did that, I bet some of you went: “ARGH! Why can’t I be on sabbatical too!

Don’t feel too bad, at least not on my account. Because the truth is I suck at sabbaticals: nobody is worse than me at sorting out life during unscheduled, unplanned time. I’m pretty much useless without frameworks and extant demands to concentrate my focus. I joke that I only took on my last book project, Theatre & Feminism, because I was moving across the ocean, changing jobs, and taking on some caring responsibilities for my mom – I needed a work project to help de-stress my busy life.

Alas, I now have ANOTHER book project – the kind with a contract, a deadline, and a hard-at-work-already marketing team – and it needs to get written on this here research leave, which ends in late December. I spent July trying to recover from my winter and spring teaching obligations, August moving house, and September, so far, has been eaten up with a combination of works taking place at my new place, and self-imposed, utterly unproductive angst about all the other kinds of works NOT getting done around my new home office.

In other words: I need to fake up a framework for myself, and fast.

Cue the un-schedule.

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What’s an unschedule? Basically, it’s a schedule you create for yourself that prioritizes all the life/fun/”in the way” stuff that normally gets left OUT of a schedule, and which then of course takes over anyway, and guarantees that your schedule is not actually going to function as intended.

I learned about the un-schedule when I first began my job at Western, during a Teaching Support Centre workshop on work-life balance, from my (now) friend Tracy Isaacs, one of the professors behind the terrific blog Fit is a Feminist Issue. I still recall Tracy opening her talk with these words: “I’m on sabbatical right now, so of course I have balance.” What strikes me as incredibly ironic – yet also entirely useful – looking back on that presentation now, is that Tracy located her work-life balance in her un-schedule. Without scheduling of some kind, in fact, sabbaticals do not generate balance; they are not magical work-life re-jiggers. A sabbatical can easily become a stressful black hole for people like me, who are normally workaholics and operate effectively under pressure.

So, how does one make an unschedule? Mileage varies, I’ve found, after some informal googling. The one rule is that you start with the immoveable stuff (food! sleep! school run!), followed by the “for you” stuff (exercise, haircuts, reading, coffee with friends). Then you either schedule, or leave blank, the spaces around them, which can in theory be filled with work tasks, life tasks, or whatever else needs doing. The principal is simply that, by starting with a realistic look at your habits, your commitments, your pleasures, and the actual time each takes, you can more logically set out a day or a week that genuinely represents your needs.

I spent today working at the British Library; in “un-schedule” fashion, I started with immoveable commitments (one fun: lunch with friend Bridget; one less so: adjusting a piece of writing I need to present on camera tomorrow). Then, once they were completed, I turned to my spreadsheet app, created a blank schedule document, and got to work.

Before I take you through my process, here’s what the finished product looks like:

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My first order of business was to delete Saturday and Sunday from the picture altogether. I do not work on those days, period. (That’s a hard and fast rule, UNLESS it’s term time, I’m teaching, and something comes up that simply cannot be readjusted into the week. I also don’t check my work email on weekends, which is a decision I made last fall and it’s been a life-saver.)

Next, I tried to work out what blocks of time I needed: an hour? Less? More? I quickly realized that each day, for the purposes of creating a one-page, at-a-glance weekly schedule, needed to include the same time blocks, but that each day would never really look the same, task wise. I decided that this will simply mean that some days “10-12” will be more like “9:45-11:30” or “10:30-12:30”, depending on the day and the tasks at hand. Not a big deal; the schedule, after all, is a guide, not Big Brother. I can adjust on the fly.

My next job was to identify stuff that simply has to happen each day. Right now, given sabbatical, there’s honestly not a lot of that: few meetings, fewer demands on my time from colleagues or students. Cue momentary panic: my life is empty!! How can I be so unproductive?? Then, I closed my eyes and pictured Emma the dog giving me the side-eye she uses for all purposes of emotional blackmail. Problem solved.

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(Emma says: you HAVE to take me walkies. RIGHT NOW.)

I began to un-schedule in earnest by filling in my morning routine. I am not an early riser (8:30 is optimistic, people!), and I like to walk Emma first thing (actually, I permit myself to be herded to the door first thing). I like to check email over coffee. This takes time. Empty the dishwasher, make a smoothie and some eggs, tidy up, water plants in the garden… I’m not going to pretend these things don’t happen, and don’t take up to 2 hours, depending, in the morning. That’s the way I like it. So into the schedule it went.

The next thing I noted – and this is slightly un-un-schedule-y, but whatevs – was that I wanted to block off at least 2 hours a day for sitting in front of my computer, email program closed, writing (or trying to write – staring blankly at text I reject as sub-par but have as yet no idea how to fix also counts for something). That damn book deadline means I need to generate about 4000 words a week until Christmas; that’s a lot of writing, but it’s not unmanageable for me. I reason that I’ll need 12-16 hours per week to generate that amount of content, unedited; so two hours each morning, every morning of the week, takes care of the bulk of that.

And so we come to lunch. I always eat lunch, but lunch for me rarely consists of just eating. I am extremely active: an avid cyclist, swimmer, rower, and I practice Iyengar yoga (among other kinds). Which basically means I’m an endorphin junkie. Without the endorphins, work goes less well, period. So, to be realistic, I blocked off 2.5 hours for lunch-hour activities each day; for two of those days I scheduled a bike ride (which, until the snow flies, will likely take the full 2.5 hours), while for one I scheduled a swim, and the other a yoga class.

This part of the scheduling task was actually hard – not because I don’t know how much time I need for lunch-hour activities, nor because I didn’t know what those activities might be, but because I’ve just moved to my new city, and so don’t actually have my new workout routine in place yet. (Will I like the yoga classes I’ve identified as “good timing”? Will I want to swim every Friday?) This realization prompted another brief moment of panic: how can you make a schedule when you don’t even know WTF about your new life yet AAGGHH?? Which I solved by reminding myself of another really important detail: the schedule is not fixed. It’s flexible!

If in three weeks it turns out my exercise routine *actually* looks very different to what I’ve scheduled, that’s fine: I can just change the schedule, moving the work stuff around as needed. That’s the power of the un-schedule.

Which brings us to the afternoon. I am not an early riser/morning person = I like to work late into the afternoons; that’s why that block begins each day at 2:30pm and continues until 5:30, with an option to extend to 6:30pm as needed. I know myself; I’ll get going in the afternoon and might not want to stop. I won’t want to cook, let alone eat, before 7pm, guaranteed. So this is a very logical, practical organization of my time.

And what about the tasks that slot into that 3-4 hour window? I’ve recorded these as “primary or secondary” tasks, to reflect that some days I’ll want to return to the morning’s writing, and some days I know I won’t. I also have other stuff on tap – blog posts to write, new work by colleagues to read, as well as other research projects bubbling to the surface. I edit a journal, Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada, which requires some concentrated time; I’ve scheduled an afternoon a week for that work, and hope (for a change!) to restrict it to that window of time.

In four of these afternoon slots, you’ll notice that I’ve also added a note: “may include travel to Toronto.” I now live within Toronto’s public transit corridor, which means I can visit friends, see theatre or films, or head into the city for meetings very easily. The bus and the train are both options for me; both take an hour, and both are ideal work zones. I know I’ll want to visit the city at least once a week, and I know I can combine that travel with work on public transit very easily. It made sense to remind myself of this in the schedule, so that if someone invites me to a meeting in Toronto I can honestly say: I have M/T/Th/F from 2:30pm; what works for you?

Which brings us to 7pm. “Stop working!” I’ve told myself in each evening slot. Why? Because I might not stop otherwise. I might have not been as productive as I want to be in the day, or I might be stuck on a tricky paragraph; I know myself well enough to know that, if that happens, I’ll keep pushing until I fall down from hunger or exhaustion. (Again, the principal that drives the un-schedule is self-reflexive honesty.) But if I’ve followed the schedule, and it’s 7pm, then, dammit, it’s time to stop. Tomorrow’s another day. And look! Wednesday might include an optional evening activity (there’s nothing scheduled at lunch yet… we’ll see), plus there’s restorative yoga on Thursday nights at the studio near my house. A great excuse to shut the computer down.

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(Looks odd, feels great. BKS Iyengar always knew when to stop working.)

How’s this going to go? Your guess is as good as mine. I’m going to stick as closely as possible to the schedule for the next couple of weeks and note what needs adjusting; then I’ll rejig it to reflect aspects of my weekly reality I could only glean from living through the schedule. (I might repost it at that point, if I learn useful things in the process; stay tuned.)

For now, I’m going to try to operate by the following three principals:

  • all the activities in the schedule are valuable. I will make time for all of them – even the damn dog walking – as close to the slotted time as is reasonable.
  • the schedule is a guide; adjustments on the fly do not equal failures.
  • the schedule is flexible; it should flex with me. If I bend too hard to meet the schedule’s “demands”, it won’t be sustainable.

Meanwhile, if you work to a similar (or similarly-spirited) schedule, please let me know what you use and how it works for you! I’m very keen to understand how others cope with the sabbatical conundrum.

Kim

 

On settling in

Happy September!

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, well, the answer is not on vacation (alas!). Although, nor is it: drowning in class prep and panicking over the re-entry. Because I’m on research leave (thank heaven!) until December.

Where I have been, instead, is moving house – not just to a new place, but to a new city. Nope, I’ve not got a new job – instead, this move is just for me. It’s the first move I have ever made (number 16!), in fact, that is just for me. Not for school, not for job, not because parents, not because partner.

It is purely in order to help me strengthen my work-life balance and improve the quality of my days and nights. Huzzah!

Of course, getting to that huzzah! has not been easy; moving is a total bitch. What with the emotional upheaval, the endless administration (hydro! internet! property tax! boxesboxesboxes!), the disruption of routines, the losing of things, not to mention the weird physical exhaustion and the all too frequent forgetting to eat…

Hell, with a list like that, it sounds *exactly* like I could very easily be gearing up for the teaching term, doesn’t it?

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I was thinking about this weird comparison this afternoon, and remembering what it felt like (five moves ago) for me to arrive both in a new, strange city, and in a new, scary job. Which led me to think, in turn, about those of you reading who may be in that very situation right now – having just moved your home, your life, maybe your family, and who are now getting ready to jump with both feet into new classrooms, new colleagues, new responsibilities and expectations.

You might be feeling overwhelmed. I sure was – back then, and last week, too. Herewith, then, some thoughts (cobbled together from my own rather impressive failures) on how to feel less freaked out, and a bit more settled in.

  1. Do one thing at a time. When I’m unpacking I always lose the plot: I’ll be unwrapping pots and pans one minute, then I’ll go to the bathroom, and the next thing I know I’m trying to sort out the medicine cabinet. Overwhelm breeds a lack of focus; it’s hard not to succumb. Remind yourself that if you do one thing at a time everything will get done – maybe not quickly, but then, it’s not a race. What’s most urgent? The plates and forks, for sure. Finishing the syllabus for day one. Or maybe getting your employee ID card and other HR business sorted. (Getting paid is A Good Thing – it is more important than perfectly polished prep, believe me.) Meeting each of your new colleagues in person can wait; so can that unfinished book chapter (oh yes, it really can). You’ll feel way more at ease by week three, at which point you can return to the missed stuff in peace. (Hint: if you’re truly fretful about missing a deadline or forgetting a task that you need to back-burner now, make a list of unmissable items – then paste that list into a calendar reminder for the first Monday in October.)
  2. Take breaks. During those breaks, eat something. I think I consumed maybe 5000 calories last week; that is not normal and I am not bragging about it. The lack of food correlated to my refusal to take regular breaks from the unpacking; I was convinced that if I just kept going and going and going the house would magically get sorted and life could continue as normal. (I do this every time. EVERY TIME.) Of course, what actually happened is that I got very tired and very hangry, and I cried a bit more than I should have. Had I stopped more often, sat down for 10 minutes, and had a sandwich and some tea, I guarantee I would have felt less sad, less weary, and less anxious. Food is miraculous that way. (Hint: if you’re like me, and you always do what your phone tells you to do, set an alarm for every hour or so. When it goes off, take a short snack or drink break. Don’t omit the snack/drink portion – trust me.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to tell people you’re new, and to ask for help. I’ve run into a lot of neighbours already; my new neighbourhood is dog- and kid-friendly, and there’s a big park up the street where everyone gathers. Folks keep asking me if I have been to X dog park, or Y grocer; when they do, I gamely say “I moved here five days ago! I know nothing! Tell me where that is and why I should go!” It’s not much different when you move to a new job, or a new department; people are going to assume you already know a bunch of stuff about which you have no actual clue. Now, especially if this is your first job, you might be tempted to pretend you’ve already totally got this, in order to appear massively competent and clearly not an imposter. That’s a mistake; trust me. (You are not an imposter; you are simply NEW.) You need someone to explain the photocopier to you, and to show you the quiet coffee shop away from the undergrad traffic. And to help you work out the classroom AV systems! Just ask; you don’t need to appear panicked about it, but you really don’t need to pretend you’re sorted when you’re not. (Among other things, that kind of pretending creates extra emotional labour, which nobody needs!)
  4. When you go home, be at home – even if home is still kind of a mess from the move. It’s hard to relax among boxes, I know – but when you leave the office, even if the prep isn’t quite done, do what you can to leave the job behind. Academics live our work; teachers live our work. But when your life has also just been upheaved, and your stuff is all over the place, and your partner/kids/animals feel the unsettlement too, give all of yourselves a break. Once home, eat the pizza and watch some Netflix. Then maybe tackle some boxes. Do not (do not!) check the work email; let the work of settling in come first. By midterms you’ll be checking that work email all the time, and that will be way, way easier to cope with once your home life is unpacked and nestled in.
  5. It’s totally ok to feel deracinated. This is the word for it, courtesy of my dear friend Steven. Uprooted, pulled from the tender shoots, yanked and tossed sideways. I remember my first year at Western, in an apartment way too big for my modest belongings, in the centre of a city where I didn’t know anyone. Once the teaching term hit I was on the ground, running all the time, trying to catch up to the self I thought I was expected by everyone else to be. Everything you’re feeling is normal – painful, scary even, but also normal. What’s more, everyone you work with knows that feeling, too; we were all new in the department, to the town, and in the classroom once. Try not to judge or blame yourself; there’s nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of here! Breathe through the feelings of anxiety, panic, uprootedness, and overwhelm. Take it one step at a time. And know the feeling will pass.

(Emma The Dog, unsettled, then settled… it’s going to happen. Don’t worry.)

Happy September!
Kim

PS: self-care is hard; I feel like I’m re-learning the basics all the time. Here’s some more advice you might like, from my clever and lovely friend Cate.

On making a feminist show

High summer! Perfect time to think about, oh, you know: lemonade and sangria, lazing at the beach… and creating complex feminist theatre for a major Shakespeare festival in southwestern Ontario.

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Members of the Bakkhai chorus Sarah Afful, Quelemia Sparrow, and Bahia Watson. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Today in Intermission Magazine – a fabulous, Toronto-based, online performing arts industry publication co-edited by May Antaki and Maija Kappler – I’ve got a piece about the creation of Bakkhai, directed by Jillian Keiley and currently on at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.

The article tells the story of how this iteration of Bakkhai (translated from the Euripides by poet Anne Carson) evolved into a complicated work of feminism – that is, into a show that doesn’t celebrate women so much as it reveals the challenges of living as a human being under patriarchy, for men as well as for women, but especially for women (and especially for women of colour).

You can – and I hope you will! – read the whole thing here. (Below, as a teaser, is a brief excerpt.)

Enjoy that beach day!
Kim

***

When I met the group one Wednesday morning in March, we began with a cheery warm-up game that included every single one of us. I instantly felt part of the team. Then we sang “Happy Birthday” to cast member Graham Abbey, which caused me to experience a minor fangirl moment (I think I hid it well). After this light-hearted start, we sat in a circle, the normal configuration for the “debate and discussion” portion of the cast and crew’s time together. I felt strongly the sense of bondedness, the ethos of community, that animated the space (and that, I later learned from Dunsmore, animates all of Jill’s rehearsal rooms as a matter of course).

When I had agreed to come to the rehearsal, I thought I was stealing an hour of the cast’s practice time in order to “explain” feminism to them. I didn’t realize that I had, in fact, been invited to enter a space of rigorous discussion that the creative team inhabited together all the time.

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Members of the Bakkhai company.

Bakkhai rehearsals always began with debates over big ideas related to the play-world—is there a god? do we have free will?—in which cast and crew were assigned sides. These provided nuance into the many ethical issues tabled by the play: Do I have a responsibility toward my community to temper my pursuit of pleasure? Should women be supportive of one another regardless of whether or not they like, or agree with, each other? Is violence a just response to personal or community oppression?

But the debates also offered key embodied insight into the experience of fundamentalism—and into just how easily one can become prone to it. As cast member Diana Tso told me, always being assigned sides meant cast members were asked repeatedly to live inside multiple, divergent perspectives, exploring where individual perspectives and orthodoxies originate, when “someone is so pro-this, or pro-that.”

The debates gave the cast a chance to peg their characters’ developments to the social, cultural, and historical contexts shaping the play. Even more importantly, though, they provided an opportunity for team members to get to know and understand one another personally but also intellectually, on a level playing field, and in a room designed to be utterly open, absolutely equal, and completely safe. (This included paying special attention to gendered language. As Dunsmore and Gowdy explained to me, team members of all genders were encouraged to check their use of diminutives like “girls” and “boys”.)

I got a sense of the eclecticism and openness of the cast and crew’s discussion space during that first meeting with them. The cast were warm and respectful, but their questions were hard. If the Bakkhic women are brutal, violent, full of fundamentalist rage, how can they enable a feminist politic? Where do the men fit into a vision that inherently excludes them? (Does it?) With the women being “foreigners,” what role might intersectionality play in a feminist approach to this play? How can we reconcile to feminism the most pressing contradictions in the play—for example, when the Bakkhic women celebrate Agave, but then use her to feed their violent revenge?

I talked about feminism as a critique of patriarchy, and patriarchy as an ideology that deploys both men and women to uphold the damaging binary (men vs. women; men above women) on which its power rests. I explained that women often make the best patriarchs: if you sense you can make the system work for you, you sure as hell are going to try. Together, we discussed feminism as a critical practice that tries to unpack the violence patriarchy causes and also to imagine more equitable alternatives to it. That mandate includes both women and men as participants: as victims, as villains, as supporters, and as resistors.

Feminism, in other words, is not straightforward, and it’s rarely “nice” in any traditional way. Maybe a feminist show shouldn’t be, either.

 

On teaching and the mental load, part 2 (some notes toward solutions)

Last week I wrote about teaching in relation to the gendered mental load – the experience, all too common among women, of both doing the work and managing the work, at home but also in the classroom. Of carrying more than their fair share of the burden, often invisibly, because of the subtle cognitive and emotional responsibilities that accrue to both domestic and pedagogical labour – and which for a variety of reasons are still assumed, even if largely unconsciously, by most people in our culture to be “women’s work.”

After reading that post, I bet a few of you were thinking: gosh, yes. I see some of that in my experience. But, Kim: what’s the solution?

If I had the solution, of course, I would be rich and famous – and probably hiding out on a remote island trying to stave off the angry, anti-feminist internet trolls.

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So no, answers have I none. I do, however, have some ideas about how we might do better at redistributing the mental load. And these come from my own recent experiences – on holiday, believe it or not.

From 1-11 July I was hiking and cycling in the Calder valley in West Yorkshire. (Calder is the ancestral home of the Brontë sisters, btw; these amazing women were POSTER CHICKS for the mental load, thanks to their arsehole, alcoholic brother Branwell. And Branwell, dammit! You would not be enjoying all this weird posterior fame if it were not for your shockingly talented and enterprising sisters. Jackass.)

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Anne, Emile, and Charlotte (right) vs Branwell (left) – as per the BBC, in the 2016 biopic To Walk InvisibleGreat fun – check it out.

Anyway, back to my holiday. I had put my out-of-office message on my work email and disabled it on my phone (which was along with me for navigation purposes); on my computer, I funnelled work emails into a holiday inbox (my computer was along with me because I’d planned to do some free writing toward a new book, between hikes and rides). I decided to check my personal email once a day, largely to get rid of spam and finalize some plans with friends post-holiday.

Things did not start smoothly. I was full of anxiety those first few days away. It was the come-down after two long weeks of teaching Western’s study-abroad class in London, England, during which time I’d been responsible for 12 Canadian students pretty much 24/7. Some of those students presented challenges for me – let’s just say they were struggling with their own mental loads, and as the prof-in-residence their loads were necessarily mine, too.

As I’d been teaching all day, every day in London I’d been managing other stuff, too – research projects in the air, a journal issue about to be released, two graduate students nearing completion. I’d worked through the day on my final Friday before vacation to tidy up as many loose ends as possible, but as I tried to settle into holiday rhythm I felt convinced I couldn’t just leave it all to be on vacation for 10 days. Too many people were counting on me!

Of course I’d done everything I could to clear my inbox; still, I felt nervous and uneasy.

On my fourth day away, overcome by this unease and against my self-imposed rule, I checked my work email’s holiday inbox. I reasoned with myself that I could delete the spam and would feel better for it not overflowing. (Spam is evil. EVIL EVIL EVIL.)

You can guess what happened next. I found an urgent email from a colleague, writing on behalf of one of my graduate students; that student had not received the work I’d sent back to them before my break, owing to an email glitch. The tone of my colleague’s message was polite, but it read to me like they assumed I’d dropped the ball on my student and left a mess for someone else to clean up.

So what did I do? Did I sigh, roll my eyes, and then say to myself: “damn! How annoying! Let’s shoot the work back again, with a copy to the colleague, and remind everyone of my holiday dates. Then let’s forget about it until the holiday ends”?

Nope. Of course not.

What I did was, I lost my shit.

First, I panicked. Then I emailed my colleague with details (let’s say excessive details) of all the work I’d been doing to support the student in question, while also teaching my study abroad course. I then re-sent all the work to the student, with copies to my colleague and another member of our admin team. I sent separate notes to the admin team member involved. I made a full evening’s work for myself, while on holiday, and produced in the backwash almost 48 hours’ worth of fretting to follow.

What happened in the end? My student replied with thanks, apologized for the email mishap, and my colleague replied supportively, too. Sensing my mood, on about my sixth or seventh email, they also reminded me to forget about all of this not-actually-big-deal, not-really-world-ending stuff and just enjoy my holiday.

Since this minor but telling email meltdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

What does it say about my mental load at work?

What does it say about my own expectations of myself in relation to that load?

What does it say about the systemic issues that shape both that load and my relationship with it?

Climb_HebdenBridge

Things about which to lose one’s shit: maybe this. Maybe not email. (An image of an actual cobbled climb in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Really.)

Lesson number one for me was this: I made extra work for myself where I did not need to. I overreacted to a simple situation and created both stress and labour where none was required. I made extra work for myself by checking my email on holiday. I did not need to do that! I SHOULD NOT have done that! The world would not have ended had I not looked at my colleague’s email until my break was over. Armageddon was not even in sight.

So that’s it, right? I created my own mental load problem. The solution? Just say no! Simples, ja?

meerkat

Not so fast. Lesson number two: I did what I did because I live inside a work structure that creates an onerous mental load for me on a regular basis, to which I’ve become slowly and unknowingly accustomed.

I understand my responsibility, as a teacher, to be to tend that load at all times. And more: I have learned to peg my self worth to my tending of that load at all times.

After two weeks of supporting 12 young women in a huge, foreign city, my pastoral care radar was at its max. I was utterly drained.

Maybe I checked my email because my body thought that experience wasn’t yet over. Maybe I checked my email because I’d created some destructive muscle memory that needed satisfying.

Most likely I checked my email because, unconsciously, I believe that’s what “good teachers” do: they make themselves available to their students 24/7. They never let their students down. They bend over backwards. They sacrifice their breaks. They martyr themselves.

To say this is destructive, wrong-headed, and awful is both true and not helpful. Remember what I argued in my last post, when I cited research into student responses on course evaluations: as a rule, women need to work harder to be perceived as caring and supportive teachers at university level. Whether that scenario holds true in every classroom or not doesn’t really matter: women are by and large socialized to over-care. And we do it at our own expense, more often than not. (We are socialized to do that, too.)

How do we begin to fix this?

Let’s start with what we – women in situations similar to the ones I’ve been describing – can do to help ourselves unload some of that mental load. In my own case, step #1 would have been for me to leave my computer behind on my holiday. (Free writing? Who cares! Just take the holiday. THEN write.)

Step #2 would have been for me to delete my work email completely from my phone.

Step #3, upon finally receiving my colleague’s email, would have been to take a deep breath and go for a walk. Then after some reflection to reply as I suggested above: briefly, calmly, unapologetically, and with the missing work attached.

(I might also, at the same time, have noted to my colleague – a kind and sympathetic human who would have heard the message! – some ways that the tone of their email might have been adjusted to help me feel less burdened by the situation.)

How could I have gotten to a mental place where steps 1-3 might have been conceivable for me? That would have involved me, in the first instance, asking for more support during my study abroad labour: being extremely clear to the colleagues around me what I needed, and asking for those things, frankly and kindly and, again, without apology.

But of course, there’s a catch. Academics in general, and women (among other non-white-male) academics in particular, rely for their status and security upon appearing to be shit-together-don’t-need-no-help types; asking for help reveals weakness, which places us, potentially, at risk.

Now, some of you (just like me, as I just wrote that sentence) are likely thinking: but there’s lots of help available at my school. And my male (among other) colleagues are super kind and supportive.

Yup, sure, true. But guess what else? Our mental loads are learnedingrained; they are systemic and they are tenacious, regardless of the objective realities of our work situations, and regardless of the kindness of our male (among other) colleagues. (They sneak in. They aren’t so immediately easy to see as a colleague’s gesture of kindness.)

Which means that it’s not just down to us to get a grip and take a holiday and ask for help.

It’s actually down to our colleagues, our line managers, our chairs and deans and others in positions of power at our institutions to help change the culture of the mental load.

The key thing to remember about the mental load is that it is often invisible. We have to work, sometimes very hard, to bring it into focus.

So: those of us who carry a lot of load need to look straight at it, and question whether or not we should be carrying it. We need to ask ourselves why we are carrying it: who benefits from that carriage? At whose expense does it happen? Then, we need to take some action based on our responses.

This might be as small an action as speaking out about it, candidly, to loved ones and colleagues who can help. It might even involve speaking openly with our students about the mental load. (I’m a big advocate for that: students, once invited to see teachers as human beings, often do so, and do so with real empathy.)

Just as crucially, those who do not carry as much load need to look with nuance at the others around them, and question how much mental load those others are carrying – and on whose behalf. For some of us, in fact the first job might be to look at the load itself, maybe to see it for the first time. To consider carefully the labour behind the stuff that just magically, somehow, gets done. And to ask who the hell is doing it, if we are not.

And again, the imperative to take action pertains: to ask questions, to imagine alternatives. Maybe just to make fewer assumptions.

Finally, at the level of structure – department level, faculty level – we need to do this work, and officially. How about a wellness task force (gender-balanced) to look at mental load specifically, to parse carefully the inequities in certain kinds of labour in our immediate environments, and to recommend action toward redress?

Or, even simpler – and with fewer risks of offloading the work of thinking about mental load onto those already burdened with mental load – how about some informal but curated discussions about how our local loads are distributed? (For this purpose, I’m a huge fan of Lois Weaver’s Long Table format. It is amazing because nobody leads; everyone must invest and hold a stake. Try it.)

When I started my academic job I got two excellent but flawed pieces of advice. The first was: keep your head down and publish, publish, publish. The second was: do not make yourself invaluable, or you will be placed on every committee ever.

The first problem with this advice is not that it’s bad; it’s that it is systemically naive. It assumes I can live with appearing both selfish and not quite good enough. For a woman like me in the academy, both of those prospects are social, and emotional, poison. Unbearable.

The second problem with this advice is that it expects me to adjust myself to a flawed system; it does not expect the system to open its eyes to me.

But here’s the thing: it’s not that hard to see what others are doing, going through – and what each of us is not actually doing about it. You just have to look a bit harder, more carefully, at greater depth. As academics, isn’t that what we are trained to do?

To end, and in the spirit of lightening the mental load, some snaps from Yorkshire – after I finally threw the email out the window. Enjoy and feel free.

Kim