Active learning in the graduate seminar room

This past autumn I taught my first graduate seminar in almost eight years; as a result of sabbaticals, career moves, and then my labour establishing a new undergraduate theatre studies program at Western, I had had neither the time nor the opportunity to teach graduate students (Brits: that’s postgrads to you) since summer 2009. I was excited to get back into the seminar room with smart MA and PhD candidates, but I was also a bit daunted.

I find graduate teaching a mixed blessing. On one hand: smart students, well read, self-selecting into a challenging program. We can expect them to be prepared; we can expect them to be keen; we can expect them to participate. On the other, though, there’s the whiff of imposter syndrome all around us in grad seminars: every student is eyeing every other student, wondering if they know enough, if they are smart enough. Showing off can ensue; oneupmanship happens whether students intend it to or not. Fraught dynamics emerge; and there I am, the prof who ALSO fears she doesn’t actually know enough to be teaching graduate students, caught in the middle, trying to keep the discussion on track.

(Imposter syndrome never goes away; you just learn to cope better with it. Sorry.)

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With years between me and my last graduate outing, I had some questions for my peers as I prepared the syllabus: how much reading is too much? Not enough? Are we still assigning One Seminar Presentation and One Final Essay, or have assessments evolved? In general the consensus was: 100 pages per week, give or take; seminar presentations always; one or two essays as you prefer.

The goal, as ever, was to make discussions in the room rich, but prep not too onerous. Grad seminars, the logic goes, should involve the prof and the class preparing the reading, and then coming to the room with questions and ideas to propel a discussion. Profs aren’t prepping lectures (or, most aren’t), and the onus is on the group to find useful things to say about each set of readings each week.

Pure, unadulterated active learning.

Except, well… maybe not. As I planned my new course (“Performance and the Global City”; please email me if you’d like a copy of the syllabus!) I spent a lot of time thinking back to my earlier graduate seminar experiences, both as a teacher and as a student. I realized that the traditional seminar model creates some barriers to access that reveal its limits as an active learning environment.

First of all, good discussions require a fair bit of curation; it’s not enough to come to class with a handful of talking points and/or questions for the room and assume everyone will be able to jump in and dig deep, just like that. (Quiet students will always struggle with the “so, what did we think?” opener, and, no, it’s not them, it’s us.)

Second, certain voices dominate class discussions because they have been trained by existing learning protocols to do so; those voices are comfortable with minimal prompting, and they aren’t always aware of how much space they are taking up. For profs keen to get a rousing discussion going around the seminar table, those voices are a godsend; we may complain to each other in the halls or over drinks about the students who dominate our discussions, but without the keeners who can kill airtime, our under-curated discussions can stall and leave us exposed.

Finally, can I just say that the traditional graduate seminar presentation is more often than not boring as heck? Does anyone actually enjoy listening to anyone else read a paper for 20 minutes at a go? What – other than how to write a clever paper and deliver a very dull conference presentation – do we imagine we are teaching our postgrads with this kind of assessment?

OK, so I know I’m being hard on tried and true models here, and if your graduate seminars run conventionally but very well then I’m really glad, and I would not want to stop you from carrying on with them. But the more I thought about the grad seminar status quo, the more I knew I didn’t want to do it again. So I hatched a new plan.

I decided to import a bunch of flipped-classroom active learning techniques from my undergraduate classes into my new graduate seminar.

This shift manifested in two key ways. First, student presentations were styled as peer teaching presentations, not research presentations. Every student was required to teach one article over the course of the term to the rest of the class, and students were required to work in pairs for this task. Further, I explicitly asked them not to create a lecture, but instead to frame the teach with an active learning exercise.

Here’s the brief for the peer teach I included in the syllabus:

PEER TEACHING EXERCISE

Once this term you will work in pairs to lead the class in an exploratory exercise based on one of our readings. The goal: to help you to try out different ways to connect students with challenging material. For that reason, I ask you not to prepare a lecture-style statement for this task; you should of course have thoughts about your reading you would like to draw out, but the point of this exercise is not to tell us what they are.

Here’s how the task will work:

  • By Wednesday at NOON of your week to teach, you will post to OWL a provocation (maybe a question, maybe not…) based on ONE of the readings for that week. Let Kim know in advance which reading you will focus on.
  • Your classmates will offer preliminary reflections on your provocation on OWL over the following 24 hours. You should read and note these reflections.

You will then prepare a learning exercise to help us explore your provocation.

There are lots of exercises to choose from; you might want to consult some research on “active learning” or the “flipped classroom” to help you out – the Teaching and Learning Centre at Weldon can help with this, or (of course!) you can have a chat with Kim to discuss some options. Your exercise need not be complicated, but it should be more than you simply asking everyone, “so, what did you think?”

When you come to class on Thursday, you will run your exercise, and then debrief it. Here, you can incorporate your classmates’ preliminary responses as much or as little as you feel will be productive.

You will have a total of 30 minutes for your teach. (NOTE: this is actually not a lot of time! Use it with care.)

Clear as mud? Don’t worry! Kim will model this task in our second week. If you’re still stuck, though, ask yourself this question: did a teacher ever do a really useful, cool thing in class that really stuck with you? What was that cool thing?

Second, not only did I model a variety of peer teaching exercises for the students in the second class of the term, in order to give them a concrete sense of how their own teaching sessions could work, but I continued to incorporate group-based and pairs-based learning exercises in my own teaching week to week in order to make those things normative in our seminar room.

We’d do think/pair/share work, we’d use “world cafe” or long table-style discussions, and one week we even debriefed our field trip to Detroit by creating team maps of the experience on flip chart paper, trying to draw connections between our on-the-ground experiences and the ideas conveyed by our readings about the city.

(Candid snaps of the students at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit – Sebastian, Lacey, Sharon, Emily and Robyn)

The students came along, gamely, for the ride – although they were understandably hesitant at first. I made a point of leaving my office door wide open to them as they prepared for their teaches, and after each teach I’d invite the presenters to come for a debrief, where we’d talk about what went well and what didn’t, and where they could be free to ask me all kinds of questions about active learning models.

Students consistently reported to me that they enjoyed the teaching exercise, found it unusual but productive; nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were just humouring me. After all, grad seminars are supposed to be complex, serious learning environments… and we were mostly just having a good time. My imposter syndrome gurgled away in the pit of my stomach. Could they really be taking this seriously, getting as much out of it as they were getting out of the modernist theory and poetry seminar up the hall?

When my seminar evaluations landed in my email inbox last week, that gurgle erupted once more. Here was the moment of truth: What They Really Thought about our flipped seminar, all those small group discussions and messing about with coloured markers.

To my genuine surprise and utter delight, the evaluations universally praised the experience. I was astonished; students called our class a “refreshing and dynamic break” from the traditional model, a “comfortable and open learning environment” where everyone “could express their opinions and ideas without fear of judgement.” This one below is my favourite, because it tells me I achieved everything I had wanted to do, and also more than I’d hoped:

Through her use of active learning in her teaching practice, Kim fostered a deeply collaborative class environment. It was an environment where it felt safe to fail, which made it all the more generative – we were able to take risks, offer partial thoughts, and hash them out together.

I really appreciated that she encouraged using creative practices in our assignments, especially given the course material. Being able to engage in the practices that we were locating in our readings and field trips was a really valuable research method for me – that Kim gave us the latitude to work outside the boundaries of more traditional methods really enhanced my experience in this course.

Last Friday I had lunch with one of the students from the class, Emily Hoven. I told Emily about the evaluations and my surprise at their unwavering support for the flipped seminar model; I then asked her if she could talk to me a bit about what in particular she had found productive (or even not productive) about the model.

Her reply confirmed my own suspicions and chimed with the data on the evaluations.

She noted, first, that there’s a spirit of competition in graduate seminars that is not always helpful; everyone’s trying to say the next smart thing. That can make for brilliant, lively discussions, but can also make for intimidation and fear. In our class, she pointed out, we all worked together in a more equitable way; as a result, feelings of competitive angst lessened considerably.

Next, she pointed out that, as an undergraduate, she’d had a lot of experience with flipped classrooms, and thus our classroom felt both familiar and safe. Never mind that the model was unlike other grad seminars; it was like enough to active learning that many students are now experiencing at university that it provided a sense of grounding for students who might otherwise be struggling. She noted that likely this was not true for all the students in the class, but my guess is it’s also more true for many than we might think. As active learning becomes more common at the undergraduate level, we should consider its value as continuity at the graduate level, especially for Master’s students who are undergoing a sea change in their learning experiences and expectations as they enter grad school for the first time.

Finally, Emily’s comments, along with those on the evaluations, reminded me of what I found to be the most positive peer-teach outcome of all: it required everyone to renegotiate the vocal dynamic in our seminar space. Remember above, when I noted that certain voices tend to dominate seminars because they’ve been trained to do so by extant pedagogical models? In our classroom, new models driven by different learning dynamics meant quieter voices were invited actively into the learning space; shifting the room’s architecture (figuratively, but frequently literally, too, as we moved furniture to facilitate different kinds of group work) changed the default “permissions” of our seminar space, to productive effect.

In one of my favourite peer teaches of the term, this shift became glowingly evident as the most vocal person in the room and one of the quietest worked together; the former student actively placed herself in the peer teach’s supporting role in order to make space for her peer to take centre stage.

It was remarkable evidence of the power of genuine “active learning” in the graduate classroom to help everyone feel a little less like an imposter, and a little more like an empowered knowledge-maker.

Feeling grateful,

Kim

More theatre treats

Oh my gosh folks, I’ve been AWOL! This may be the longest I’ve ever gone between writings (haven’t checked, don’t hold me to it…). April spit up on me, that’s my only excuse.

I’m emerging now, and will have a post on active learning in the graduate seminar room for you next week, followed by my promised further thoughts on the diversity-in-practice symposium I attended in Toronto last month.

Meanwhile, I’ve just done another review for Keith at Stratford Festival Reviews, of another compelling show featuring not one single white person. (Hey diversity in practice! ROCK ON.)

It (also know as ‘for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf’, by Ntozake Shange and directed by Djanet Sears) was truly incredible (autocorrect wanted to make that ‘edible’… maybe it was that too!!). If you’re in the greater Toronto area or plan to be within the month (hi, friends at CATR!) please check it out and grab some tix.

The link is here.

Enjoy, bon  weekend, and I’ll be back very soon.

Kim

On diversity, on Canadian stages, right now (part one)

It’s end of term and I’m swamped. I have LITERALLY no time to write ANYTHING… but then I went and promised a review of Anusree Roy’s brave new piece at Factory Theatre in Toronto to Stratfordfestivalreviews.com.

Bugger.

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Happily, I’d spent several days previous at an industry symposium at Modern Times Theatre in Toronto, where we talked at depth about what practicing cultural, gender, and ability diversity in our artistic and academic labour means right now – in the rehearsal hall, on stage, in the the audience, on the page.

Equally happily, my new friend Dhurin agreed to come to the theatre with me, and give me his perspective on the show (a full-on diasporic, new-to-Canada-living-in-Mississauga perspective, yo).

Click here to find out what happened next.

And, once I surface from the marking, look forward to a post on the meatier, more challenging, aspects of our discussions at the symposium.

Almost there!!!!

Kim

 

Top tips… for next time around

Last week of classes for us lucky Canadians! Which, of course, means we finally get to breathe, sleep, and stop being zombies. ABOUT TIME.

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Longtime readers know I often get all nostalgic at this time of year (spring fever?), thinking back on the goods and the not-so-goods of the year passed, and thinking ahead to better-luck-next-time. This year, I started heading back to the teaching future early, thanks to a lunch date with my friend and colleague Kate. We were meeting to talk about Kate’s class, which I had observed early in March; ostensibly I was writing Kate a letter of support for her upcoming promotion, but in fact I really just wanted to pick her brain about the awesome ideas I got from sitting in on her class. (Thanks, Kate!)

I emerged from lunch newly energised – and at the perfect time, because: ZOMBIE. I needed to write down my thoughts immediately, so I thought, hey, why not start with a post on the blog?

As I was driving from lunch to my office I made a mental list of the five things that I think I’d like to try out next time (AFTER MY SABBATICAL! AFTER MY SABBATICAL! DID I MENTION I’M GOING ON SABBATICAL??!!!!), thanks to talking about teaching over soup and beet juice with Kate.

Here they are.

1. Start with a warm-up

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A group of Western University students warming up with artists Mina Samuels and Jacqueline Dugal during a recent workshop on campus. Photo by Julia Beltrano.

This wasn’t Kate’s idea, ok, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a bit, and Kate reminded me of why. In her class, she set the tone for the whole period by pausing at the outset and marking the moment of beginning with some powerpoint slides designed to orient students, grounding them in the work ahead and helping them to understand where they had been, were now, and would be going. This kind of tone-setting is so useful, not least because it brings everyone together, in the space, as a community, and then prepares for the shared labour about to be undertaken.

When I teach studio classes I always begin with a warm-up. Sometimes it’s as simple as some yoga. Sometimes it’s a rousing game of “zip-zap-zop”. (That’s zip-zap-boing! to you Brits, thank you very much… although the Eastenders version is still kinda my favourite.) Maybe we might close our eyes and fall into each other, fear be damned.

The logic: studio classes are about body work, so let’s warm those old bodies up! But… seminar work is about our bodies, too! Which is to say: if we are tired, or poorly nourished, or stiff, our thinking is badly affected. So warm-up rules apply: let’s remind ourselves of the bodies that hold our brains, wake up our arms and legs, laugh a bit, share a moment. There shared knowledge begins.

2. Set ONE overarching outcome, in addition to the obvious

Kate and I talked about time management: how do we get through it all in just three hours per week? We talked about how much less content we teach now than when we started, 5 years ago, 10 years ago…. We talked about all the other things we want our students to take away – critical thinking skills; stronger research skills; better writing skills – that we feel like we just don’t have enough time to land fulsomely with them.

Then I said: hey, you know what? Maybe we only have time for ONE of those things, per class, per year.

We both went: “huh!”

So here’s my idea: set one outcome, a kind of ur-outcome, that rests above the other, more mundane ones that we have to include in our course outlines. Or maybe we don’t even put those other outcomes on the course outline (your mileage may vary, depending on your university’s policies, I know). Maybe we just write (for example):

In this course, students who commit to our shared labour will…

develop valuable teamwork skills, learning how to collaborate with others self-reflexively, and effectively.

And then we organise our assignments and in-class activities with that outcome in mind, trusting that the other stuff we’re expected to teach will come along with it – or will happen in another course in our program, because we’re labouring together, after all.

3. Write more, and more creatively, during class time

Kate and I both use versions of what I know as the “two-minute paper”, a chance in class to think while writing, and thus think/write before speaking.

My strategy: I pose a question about stuff related to whatever we’ve read/watched. I make the students write for two minutes before anyone can answer said question. I swear by this as a chance for students to gather their thoughts – whether or not they *actually* write stuff down – before I ask for replies, thus (among other things) circumventing the usual problem of the usual suspects raising their hands right out of the gate.

But the problem is this: some students don’t want to write in reply to the prompt/question. And often the students who DO want to write are the usual suspects. So it works… kind of.

Kate made me think about a couple of writing-related things during our lunch: first, that sometimes the best class writing might not be two minutes long. Sometimes it might be longer. Sometimes it might be five, ten minutes – in relation to an assignment, say, or maybe just reflecting on the state of affairs, the state of the day, how we’re all feeling. More time might be good time.

She also reminded me that, sometimes, the best writing is creative writing.

Academics often forget that we were once students. Students who found stuff academics find fairly familiar kinda… well… hard. Baffling. Frustrating. And when we were students, did we not want to express ourselves? Find ourselves? Discover our creativity, what we have to offer the world? Sure, it’s all very Dead Poets Society, but it’s also true: we are teaching young people who are struggling with big ideas and tired and looking for outlets to express themselves creatively whenever possible.

And that’s no bad thing.

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So maybe next year, my prompts will become less scholarly, and a bit more creative. That’s not to say they’ll stop being rigorous; they might just change their skin a bit, invite a bit more playfulness.

I’ll keep you posted.

4. Be a hard(er) ass

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During the class of Kate’s I attended, several students came in late. Kate glanced toward the door (everybody glanced toward the door) as this happened, but mostly she let it slide.

I do exactly the same thing, every time.

So I asked Kate over lunch: what should we do about students who come in late?

We talked about the labour of calling them out. About how tiring it is, for us, to get angry or lay down the law (whatever that might be). We noted the emotional labour of teaching-as-is; it’s already a hell of a lot, and dealing with thoughtless latecomers is an extra pain in the ass.

(Full disclosure here: I’m pretty sure I was a thoughtless latecomer at least once in my undergraduate career, if not, oh, 17 times.)

So then we said: hey, what if we didn’t – just DID NOT – deal with it? What if, instead of calling it out or ignoring it, we just stopped?

What if we said, on the course outline, and at the outset (fair warning):

Hey! Sometimes you might be late. When that happens, we’ll just STOP. Stop the class. Stop talking.

Not to embarrass you (you might be embarrassed, but, hey, that’s not the goal, though it has fringe benefits…), but because talking through your disruption is tiring and unproductive.

So we’ll pause. When you’re settled, we’ll start again.

Hey, being late happens. It’s happened to all of us.

Maybe just don’t let it happen again, if you can help it.

5. Build in time for spontaneity

I’ve been teaching full time for 12 years now. Every year, every week, I over-prep. I prep because the prep is for me – to make sure I don’t run out of stuff to say. Because that would be a catastrophe, right?

Kate reminded me of something I’d forgotten entirely: sometimes, often, the best learning happens spontaneously.

How do we build in time for that? Maybe by sticking it in the prep.

I’m serious! I’ve started including “if this, then maybe this… or if that, maybe not” moments in my prep, to remind myself that I’m always, already, being responsive to my students’ input, and sometimes that means throwing the whole thing out. But mostly it means being willing to be at sea for a while, to see where the conversation goes.

Usually, if the conversation goes sideways, I scold myself for not getting through the entire plan in my prep.

But what if the conversation going sideways IS the best possible version of the prep? Maybe I need to make more time, and space, for that.

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Happy end of term!

Kim

On the art of saying no, redux

Remember back last year – in July! Blessed July! – when I wrote about learning to say no more often?

Well, yesterday morning my good friend M sent along a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education written by our colleague Robin Bernstein, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard (and a terrific performance scholar, btw). Robin’s article made me wish I’d written it, instead of the thing I wrote. Her “The Art of ‘No'” is more or less the ideal distillation of everything I wanted to say in that post, and much more besides.

So, of course, I emailed her right away and asked if I could link to her work here on the blog. And she kindly and enthusiastically said: yes!

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“The Art of ‘No'” a rich and funny piece, full of smart, clear advice. It’s also – I think – all the better for its brash, uncompromising tone:

Don’t explain. Maybe you have a good reason for saying no. Maybe you don’t. Either way, if you try to justify your answer, you open yourself to judgment and bargaining, or you risk oversharing. You don’t have to defend your decision.

  • Don’t say: “I wish I could attend this event, but I need to drive my aunt to the doctor on that day.” The event could shift to a different day — and now you’re on record stating that you want to attend. Or the asker could judge your personal life, or question your commitment to the profession.
  • Instead, say: “Thank you for this invitation. Unfortunately, I’m unavailable to participate. I appreciate your thinking of me.”
  • Or: “I received your invitation to participate in [event]. I have a previous commitment at that time, but I wish you the very best for a successful event.” No one needs to know that you previously committed to going home, watching Project Runway, and eating Funyuns.

At the same time, though, the article is generous in key ways:

Be strategic in naming your replacement(s). If the proposed gig is desirable, suggest someone who could use a career boost. Pay special attention to issues of gender, race, and position: Consider passing a good opportunity on to a person of color, a person without a tenure-track job, or someone else who faces documented disadvantages in academe. If the proposed labor is undesirable, nominate someone competent but underutilized. Be sure only to suggest someone you respect and trust to complete the task reasonably well.

So go forth and read this piece. You’ll be glad you did. Quite apart from the sage advice, it’s a beautifully performative piece of writing in which Robin, as a woman with cultural privilege in our public sphere, models the act of standing up for herself, unapologetically and unabashedly, while also supporting the needs of others.

Thanks Robin!
Kim

No-frog

Lots of memes with white girls saying no. So I decided to go with the frog.