Decolonizing the syllabus, part 2: so it ain’t perfect, but I am working on it

Back in September I wrote about what I might characterize as my teaching, as well as my personal, goal for F/W 2018-19: to try to decolonize my syllabi as much as possible.

I talked in detail in that post about my brand-new course, “Toronto: Culture and Performance.” That class took a group of 40 students – plus one keen international graduate student auditor, one TA-extraordinaire, and me – to the city down the highways five times over the course of 13 weeks to see five amazing shows. We also read a diverse bunch of authors writing about Toronto’s theatre ecology, held a fantastic workshop with one of the Toronto Star‘s theatre critics, and created some pretty amazing final projects, including several remarkable creative ones.

I just loved that class and cannot wait to teach it again.

One of the reasons I loved it was because I felt, every week, like I was living up to my goal of working against the colonial drift. With the luxury of a totally new prep, a course I had designed entirely from scratch, I could map a landscape that looked as decolonized as I could hope for.

The course began by foregrounding Indigeneity as central to any labour on theatre and performance in a settler-colonial state; it continued by centralizing non-White and non-dominant voices in the majority of the work we read and saw. When we did encounter dominant or “mainstream” voices, we therefore had the tools to ask critical questions about how our expectations about cultural value and theatrical “quality” in Anglophone North America are shaped by the normalization of White, straight, and cis experience.

(I’m particularly proud of a class discussion we held after seeing Anosh Irani’s not-entirely-successful Mumbai + Vancouver-set Men in White at Factory Theatre. That discussion began with a completely reasonable [and predictable] group whinge about stock characters and a perceived lack of nuance, but eventually reached a deep reflection on how genre can be an agent of colonialism. We ended that day by asking why many artists of colour might feel a pressure, or even a need, to tell their stories inside the generic frame of Western realism, aka the “well made play”, even when that frame does not suit their stories.)

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But, of course, not all courses do we get to bake from scratch, right? Some we inherit. Sometimes that inheritance is nimble and exciting. Sometimes it’s a dire mess, but the idea of  renovating it, especially under time pressure, is overwhelming.

Sometimes – and I think this is the worst scenario, personally – the course is FINE but also not the best it could be. You’re aware of this but you’re also exhausted. You *could* do something with it, but you could also leave it – the students will still learn. You’re still a good teacher; you’ll still get them to the questions they need to be asking.

This is especially hard and upsetting when the course is one that you, some time ago, designed from scratch.

I’d been planning, since September, to totally revamp my History of Performance Theory class, a winter term module I began teaching four years ago. This course has needed work for a while, and I’ve known it; it’s littered with Aristotle and The Usual Post-Aristotelian Subjects, it’s way too White, and it’s boring. I’ve struggled with the readings, struggled with finding effective ways to demonstrate the readings in practice, and struggled with setting performance-based assessments that effectively allow the students to enact, and thereby own, the theory.

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Trump and/as Aristotle. Sigh. What role the Dead White Dude in an anti-colonial performance theory syllabus?

Basically, the course is a dumpster fire, from my perspective. But, again: the students have consistently enjoyed it, and probably would do again. Nevertheless, I determined This. Was. The. Year. I would retool it completely! I would start in September!

But then, stuff intervened: personal stuff that had to be prioritized, in the moment, above redoing a winter teaching prep. When late December hit and I’d managed both to ride out that stuff and rest a bit, I realized I only had about a week to totally decolonize that nasty, white-washed pile of teaching poo sitting on the corner of my desk.

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Nope. Still depressing.

What to do? I knew I couldn’t really do anything like a proper job of reorganizing the course in a week. Remarkably, though, it was when I faced down the reality of my shortened time frame that I finally realized how much of a process the decolonizing of this course – really, of ANY existing, kinda-fine-but-not-quite course – needed to be. This was a process I could begin in December 2018 with integrity, but not finish – perhaps not finish for some time. And maybe that’s ok.

So I got to work on the beginning.

First, I asked myself what I wanted a decolonized version of this class to look like. Beyond inviting students to read texts from multiple perspectives across the centuries, what did I want the class to do?

I came up with a list.

  1. The class needs to empower the students, giving them a sense of ownership over the material and their experience of it. (This is especially key in theory classes, which can be intimidating and quickly become divided: some “get it” right away, while others remain confused and feel bad about themselves as a result.)
  2. The class needs not to hierarchize readings, in which the old White guys appear to be “first” or “top” or “most key”.
  3. The class should not be entirely chronological. While some then-to-now is important for understanding globally rich concepts (like “mimesis” and its politics), working by theme rather than temporally means shifting students’ idea of where history “is” and whether or not we, too, are part of history right now.
  4. The class needs to be as much about learning to read theory, and to use it in ways that are fun and relevant, as about “taking in” the “great ideas” of historical thought. In other words: the class needs to take as given that theory is hard but worthwhile, and therefore it’s our shared responsibility to make sense of it as a team.

This list turned out to be a really helpful starting point. It allowed me to make a plan with both my and the students’ needs in mind. (Remarkably, I wonder: do I really always foreground student needs when I plan a class? DO I?) In turn this plan led to me to do three things toward decolonizing the syllabus that I’m feeling good about. It’s still early days, but so far so good.

Here’s what I did:

First, I turned to the question of readings. Back in October, when life things were really starting to hit the fan for me, I re-ordered the textbook I have previously used for this class: Daniel Gerould’s Theatre/Theory/Theatre. It’s imperfect but also just fine, and I figured that, if needed, I could make it work better for me than it had done in the past.

I was right: looking carefully at the table of contents, I realized that, while Gerould prioritizes the Anglo-European tradition, he does include a handful of non-Western sources in the book – enough to make a critical mass if used carefully.

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Professor Gerould’s theatre theory textbook. The introductions remain a highlight for me!

I selected a number of readings that I wanted to see on the course, ranging from Aristotle and Sidney (benchmark Western writers) to Brandi Wilkins Catanese and Jen Harvie (contemporary women writing about the politics of race and labour in performance, respectively). I slotted these into early and later weeks. (Here, the chronology makes sense for me, as Catanese and Harvie will allow us to return to “old” ideas late in the term and chart their contemporary iterations.)

Then, for the weeks in between, I returned to a practice I’ve used in the past (and which Anna Griffith also talks about in her December post on her performance history class). I’d let the students select half of the readings from a list I’d curate (thus offering them security in choice). I picked four weeks for “Students’ Choice” and gathered 12 potential readings for these. These potentials included a deliberately diverse range of authors: all of the non-Western readings in Gerould, plus an Indigenous, female, Toronto-based playwright, an Egyptian-Canadian, male artist from Vancouver, and a prominent feminist performance scholar. These weeks were broadly “themed” (IE: acting theory; theatre and social justice), but beyond that the options ranged from ancient to of-the-moment and everywhere in between.

In our second class of the term, we spent a full hour exploring our reading options in small groups and making selections. In three groups, the students read several pages of four potential texts, debated their relative merits, and then presented their top choices to the class. As I predicted, the students went for majority non-White, non-normative choices in every case – but they did so for a number of reasons (including complementarity, interest in the topic, readability, and more), and not just because I, the teacher, said that would be “good” for them to read “diverse” voices. (It turns out that’s what they wanted to do, in any case!)

So we’ve now got a really rich range of readings – Aristotle; Bharata; Jani Lauzon; Philip Sidney; Li Yu; Jill Dolan; Augusto Boal; Bertolt Brecht; Marcus Youssef; Catanese; and Harvie – in that order. And the readings are majority students’ choice, so the class can feel a sense of ownership over them. My hope is that the challenges the readings will pose will seem, if not more doable, then definitely more worth working on, because of that.

Second, I created a handful of research questions to serve as a lens we can use to approach any text. These are listed in the course description at the top of the syllabus, as well as at the top of the week-by-week schedule. They are:

Who or what is allowed to be represented, and why?

Is this representation “good” for us, and why or why not? What exactly should representation “do”?

Should audiences think, or feel? Enjoy, or learn? Is there a third option?

I’ve told the students that these questions return again and again in performance theory, and that we will encounter a number of responses to them. At the same time, we should be thinking about our own responses to them: who is represented around us now, and how, and to what end? Is this representation “good” for those who are represented? For us? Who decides? Why does it matter?

Having these research questions in place as a baseline means we always have somewhere to go, if things get complicated. Don’t understand why Aristotle keeps changing his mind about whether or not “spectacle” is ok? Ask yourself: who does he think should be allowed to be represented? What does he think the audience is supposed to get out of it? Why might he feel this way? These benchmark questions offer a reading lifeline, while also raising issues that are essential to get on the table if we are going to try to make sense of theory cross-culturally.

Finally, I devised a broad assessment framework: explain, apply, and extend. Actually, I’ve used this framework before, but never as holistically as this year. Rather than just set a task (or a series of tasks) where students need to explain, apply, and extend a piece of theory, I’ve this year turned the framework into a model for our classroom working practice across the term.

At the centre of this model are three 500-word tasks where students will “explain” a theory (very basic, but important – that’s the point), “apply” a different theory (find an example of the theory in practice, from anywhere they like, and talk about it), and “extend” a third theory (push or question its parameters).

To bolster students’ confidence and demonstrate these tasks thoroughly, each week I am organizing my class prep into three roughly 1-hour chunks, one devoted to each of the tasks for the theory up that week.

Because the “explain” and “extend” portions of this work are likely to feature a lot of me talking, I’ve decided the “apply” portion of each week should be driven by the class. Students are invited to post rough-and-ready demonstrations of the theory in practice to our class website by 10pm on Wednesdays, and not to worry about whether or not they’ve got it “right”. Every post, provided it includes an example and a short description of why it was chosen, earns 2% out of a possible 10% for the “online prompt response” assessment. So making five honest attempts to “apply” a theory earns full marks, because the point of this assessment is not to “get it,” but to contribute to our class discussion in a fulsome way. (Note: this assessment is not the same as the “apply” task I note above. It’s meant to be low-stakes practice for it.)

(One student’s clever “apply” post to our class website last week: Rose and the Doctor as evidence of what Aristotle means by “the probable.”)

I’ve done other things, too, to help shape a classroom environment that offers students as much ownership over their experience as possible, while also prioritizing typically unheard voices both in the room and in our readings: students will write participation reflections and come talk to me about their participation practice in my office at mid-term; there’s no final exam, but rather a group performance project that will allow students to choose a play (from three options) they want to work on, and select into a performance group based on that choice; we’re already in the habit of moving our classroom furniture each week into configurations that allow for student-centred learning.

I hope to write about these other things in later posts, and I’ll share updates about the class – how it’s feeling for me; how it’s going for the students – during the term too. I don’t pretend this is anywhere near what I’d like it to ultimately be, but I think it’s a good start. I’m also hoping the students will help me to see what needs changing as we go, so that I can keep this particular syllabus-decolonization project in motion.

Meanwhile, stay warm!

Kim

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What happened when I sat down to plan my winter semester

This time last year I was a-giddy and a-gog with the achievement of my sabbatical just passed: 40,000 words toward the monograph for students, Theory for Theatre Studies: Space, that I completed in spring 2018. (It’s published next month, from the Bloomsbury imprint Methuen; pre-order a copy here!)

Theory for TS Space cover proof

That stellar word count was the result of me establishing, for the first time really in my academic life, a regular, sustainable writing practice: two hours or 1000 words per day, four days per week, throughout my leave. I was thrilled at how well it had worked for me, and I was sure I could sustain even a bit of that momentum going into the spring, summer, and fall terms of 2019.

Uh-huh.

Sure I could have – I am sure indeed I could have – except I didn’t exactly plan to, not properly. I created an “un-schedule” for myself for spring term, and another for summer, but didn’t stick to it; it sat on my desktop, glaring at me, but I never checked in with it. (Eventually, I became afraid to. Then I just sort of started ignoring it.)

Summer you’d think would be a great time to manage a writing practice in an easy-breezy way; after all, it’s when most academics do the majority of their writing. But how do we write, in summer? We write in a panic because deadlines are approaching. We write towards deadlines further down the line as they come into view, but probably we don’t get “enough” writing on those projects done for our liking, and then we start to panic come August and September. If you’re like me (and I assume you’re a bit like me, since I’m not that special, though I realize YMMV), and between big projects, you may just sort of unconsciously decide to eff the writing off a bit and concentrate on other things, like summer conference travel (WHAT A TIME SINK, YES?), “catching up” on admin, spending too much time on email, sort-of-but-not-really planning winter teaching, etc.

That was me over the summer: away for something like 5 weeks, including two full conference weeks, plus goodness knows where the rest of the time went. I know I did some copyediting and proofing and web-resource-gathering for the book (all valuable tasks, and ALL WRITING TASKS, I’ll add in case any of us doubt this). I know I thought about teaching at least some of the time. I know I answered a lot of email, much of it pertaining to the academic journal I edit (and which is valuable work, and sort of writing work, but also an incredibly time consuming service slog, and to be honest I’m not going to miss it when it’s over).

Then fall hit, and my dad got sick. Train. Off. Rails.

Now, dad is recovering and I had a good long winter sleep over Christmas and I feel better and brighter. And like writing again.

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(Thank heavens for the winter break. TIME TO HIBERNATE.)

So I asked myself: how exactly am I going to do that writing again? If I could, for sure, hold down a regular writing practice, how could I also ensure that I really did it?

Enter Jo Van Every.

My dear friend and colleague Jenn had recommended Jo to me before; Jo runs the Academic Writing Studio online, and supports scholars just like us in pickles just like mine. In October, Jenn alerted me to a workshop Jo was running in Ottawa in December; I eagerly signed up and started recruiting friends to come along so that Jo would have the critical mass she needed in order to make the thing a go. I was really excited to spend a day just thinking about what it was I wanted to be thinking and writing about at this stage in my career – one of the promises of the event. But then my dad’s surgery was scheduled at the exact same time as the workshop, in a city 600km away. So I had to pull out.

(Side note, because I’m pretty sure my dad is reading this. I don’t regret that choice! In fact, it had very positive consequences. Read on.)

Jo understood my difficulty completely, and very kindly gifted me, in lieu of my attendance, a basic membership to her online writing studio. I then received a number of resources from her via email, including a link to a recorded class called “Planning Your Winter Semester.” On New Year’s day, I sat down at my desk with my calendar to hand and all other distractions shut away, to listen to the class and make notes as needed.

Here’s what happened when I did that.

Plan, Wooden peg  and colorful words

Jo began by asking us what we had focused on in the fall semester; she suggested we make a quick list. Then, she asked us what went well in the fall, what we had read (if anything) new, and what the highlights of our personal life had been.

I really appreciated these early prompts; they allowed to me to make early realizations that were generative for the rest of the session. My notes for these prompts include a mix of things, but a few trends stand out.

I discovered not only that my focus in fall term had been on a lot of personal things – my dad’s treatment, and my boyfriend, whose schedule conflicts with mine so making time for one another is an active thing we both have to do – but also that I highlighted those as things I would focus on again in a minute.

I also highlighted some teaching things that were important to me, including my ongoing personal challenge to decolonize my class content and teaching practice. I noted, in fact, that one of the wins of the semester was learning that such decolonization isn’t always, or doesn’t always primarily need to be, about content; it can also, very importantly, be about the way a classroom is organized, and the ways in which students are encouraged to think about their labour as learners in a shared environment of discovery. (For more on this, see Anna Griffith’s brilliant December guest post.)

I also noted, in bold-faced all-caps type, that the highlight of my personal life in fall 2018 was taking a very short, entirely personal, and much-needed break to visit friends and family in England, between my dad’s surgery and an immovable exam commitment just before the Christmas break. The fact that I needed that break, and took it, even though the timing was awkward and the lead-up terribly stressful, was absolutely the best thing I did for myself last term.

(During my long weekend in London I visited the Christmas Slugs at Tate Britain. Hands down the best holiday deco EVER.)

We then moved on to reflect on what balls we had dropped in the fall term, acknowledging from the start that we all drop balls and that’s really ok. I noted a few, including the fact that I did not write AT ALL (caps in original!) last semester. Now, strictly speaking, this is a lie; I actually drafted and sent off a chapter on space, theatre, and gender, which was overdue but for which I negotiated a new deadline (and then met that deadline). A large part of that drafting happened during a one-day writing retreat I committed to in October, thanks to two of my brilliant colleagues in Arts and Humanities at Western.

(So: make a commitment to spend time with your writing (as in: put it in the calendar), meet the commitment (maybe because others are expecting you to? Maybe it’s just you doing the expecting? Maybe the calendar has a sharp stink eye?), and voila. Some words that will sometime not long from now be published. How’s that for a party trick?)

As we worked through our dropped balls, Jo encouraged us to think about how we would like to feel in winter semester – how it would feel to pick one of those balls up and start juggling it successfully again. (Jo works with the juggling metaphor a lot – I find it effective. She tells me juggling just one ball is A Thing, and I feel immense relief at that thought!)

This is what I wrote:

If I was a smooth juggler, how would that feel?

  • It would feel like a slower heart rate
  • It would feel like a good night’s sleep and a restful morning
  • It would feel like sunshine and walkies
  • It would feel like a fast ride on my bike

…during the winter semester I choose to feel slowed down, rested, like a smooth rider with sun on her face and warm wind in her hair.

Sure, that reads a bit corny. But I assure you in the moment it was revelatory. (I wrote in the margins, “I feel a bit teary right now!”)

I realized, during this exercise, that I COULD write in-term, and that I want to – that it would feel good to write again!

I ALSO realized that I desperately want and need to rest more, and better, and to focus on the pleasure I feel when I’m not working.

You’ll notice the phrasing in the quote above: I write that I “choose” to feel, not that I want or need to feel. This phrasing is also the result of Jo’s prompting, and I found it really helpful. Framing my wants and needs as choice – as me choosing to feel slowed down and rested, and making that commitment to myself on paper – moved me emotionally in a way that the slightly-panicked “WANT” and “NEED” phrasing did not. The latter phrasing feels reactionary, a burden; it feels affectively gluey. The choice phrasing feels more controlled, obviously, but also lighter: like the burden is not inevitable; the achievement of my goals need not be arduous.

Obviously choosing is one thing, and executing is another, especially when so much of our choices are delimited by work and family constraints. So, the rest of our session focused on turning these hopeful choices into some kind of plan for an achievable reality.

First, we listed all the things that we might need to do in the term – work, writing, teaching, family, you name it. The resulting list was long and scary, and Jo acknowledged that. She then reminded us that it was not fixed: we could add to it whenever we saw fit and we could reprioritize it whenever we saw fit.

She also said, to my mind really valuably: you also do not need to LOOK at this list all the time.

As we moved into the calendar-focused portion of the class, Jo asked us to put that list away, and make instead a new list, of things we might want to devote time and energy to in the term ahead. She asked us to highlight one thing that we’d want to prioritize above all else.

I chose two things: resting more and better, and writing regularly.

We went on to work through separate sections on writing, teaching, and service, starting with writing; we’d list what we had on our plates at the moment, where we’d want our priorities to be this term, and then we’d fill in our calendars accordingly. Jo encouraged us to block off our teaching time – office hours, prep time, AND class time – in our calendars so that we could actually see that time represented visually in our schedules. (I’m really bad at this – I never put class time or prep time into my iCal because it’s a “given”. Ditto office hours. Post-class, my calendar looks CRAZY FULL. Huh.)

She also encouraged us to think about what a reasonable commitment to our writing might be this term, and we spent time here.

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I decided I could block off one hour on a Wednesday morning (right now, in fact!), and one hour on a Friday morning, for writing and writing-related tasks.

Then I put it in the calendar, until Reading Week; during that week I blocked off a time to check in with my writing practice, make adjustments, and schedule writing time for the rest of the term.

Importantly, here, Jo reminded us that “writing” isn’t just sitting down to write a chunk of a chapter that will shortly be published. It’s about everything from planning to reading to abstract-writing to writing-for-teaching.

That built-in flexibility means not only does the blocked-off time in my calendar seem more adaptable to my weekly or monthly needs, but it seems less intimidating. I need to write for my Friday morning hour; this week, though, I’m feeling a bit brain-drained, so I’ll focus on reading the thing I’ve been putting off, for the project I’m in the beginning stages of planning. THAT COUNTS as a “meeting with my writing” (again, Jo’s helpful phrase).

Before the class ended, Jo devoted much-needed time to a section on self-care. She asked us all to think about what we already did, and what we needed to do, to feel as good as possible, even at the rough times of the semester. She asked us to reflect on sleep: how much are we getting? How much do we need? And she asked us to make some self-care goals.

Mine? To wake up every weekday morning feeling properly rested. And to take an actual break before, and after, each class I teach, so that I can “gear up” and “come down” in ways that respect the sheer exertion of teaching labour.

Finally, Jo asked a question that really resonated with me: How can I make the term easy on myself?

As I thought about this question I realized properly, for the first time, that I’m teaching two repeat preps this winter. Sure, as part of my project to decolonize my teaching, I’m adjusting one of them a fair bit. But the other – my graduate class – went very well the last time around; why should I change it? My instinct is always to over-tinker with teaching and re-write preps extensively. But honestly, why? The students are new and the stuff is new to them. They will learn! And, truly, they’ll learn better from me if I’m teaching from a place of ease and rest, rather than panic and exhaustion.

So I resolved, then and there, not to shake up the grad class beyond switching out a couple of readings, and adjusting the schedule according to the new term’s dates. I also resolved that the work of “decolonizing” my undergraduate theory class would have to happen in stages (really, that’s probably better anyway, right?), and that we would begin by introducing a handful of new readings at strategic points in the term, alongside readings I’ve taught before. I’m also returning to a past model of this class, where students help to select a number of the readings in week one, and we build a trajectory through the theory together. (More on this in my next post.)

These “resolutions” made, I felt lighter. I felt more in control of my schedule. I felt free to get up from my desk and harness Emma the Dog up for some long New Year’s walkies. And as we walked, I started to think about all the things I might do in those new slots in my calendar, marked “WRITING.”

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(Emma and I on a warm and no-white New Year’s walk along Lake Ontario.)

Best for the beginning of the term!

Kim

Two Questions (and a whole lot more about decolonizing the classroom) – guest post by Anna Griffith

Friends: I’m honoured to share this guest post by Anna Griffith. Below, Anna reports on her on-the-ground experiences decolonizing her theatre history and performance studies classes at the University of the Fraser Valley.

I’ve learned so very much from this post – I hope you do too.

***

“I didn’t learn anything…I have way more questions than when I started.”

This piece of feedback was delivered in a final presentation about what students had learned during the capstone performance theory course I taught two years ago. I am grateful that the student was brave enough or frustrated enough to say it, as it helped me crystalize two important things. First, that my framing around my classes and my attempts to decolonize need to be clearer and better communicated to the students. Second, if I am to experiment with class structures, class content, and ways of learning that challenge dominant forms of teaching and learning, then I should get used to hearing this.

On Decolonization

I teach as a sessional instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley in the Theatre Department, a place that is forward thinking in its focus on teaching innovation, Indigenization, and commitment to decolonization. Within this environment, I have been experimenting with how I can decolonize not just the content of my classes, but the structure of them as well. Although some people frame this kind of practice as student-centered learning, experiential learning, or active learning (which it is), I prefer to focus on how instructors can use these forms of learning to challenge the continued colonization that occurs through education, and thereby promote decolonization.

As a white instructor from settler ancestry teaching on unceded Sto:lo territory, I have been trying to overtly mark the ways in which alternative pedagogies can move settlers closer to understanding Indigenous forms of teaching, learning, and knowing. I am interested in how embodied pedagogy can promote learning that emphasizes the importance of holistic knowledge as it is drawn from embodied experiences and focuses on bodies as relational, within social structures, and foundational to the ways we make meaning. In my classes, I try to move us towards a place where Indigenous pedagogies, methods, and knowledge can be engaged with (not exploited or used to add a flavour of diversity).

Embodied Pedagogy

My pedagogical approaches, through embodied pedagogy and applied critical theory, see me trying to create a third space between colonial educational systems that privilege certain forms of cognition and discourse-based learning, and Indigenous pedagogies and learning systems that might radically transform our societies if we embraced the aspects offered to us. I see this pedagogical change as part of the settler work required in order to create social and political change more broadly.

In their excellent article titled “Applying Indigenizing Principles of Decolonizing Methodologies in University Classrooms,” Dustin William Louie, Yvonne Poitras Pratt, Aubrey Jean Hanson, and Jacqueline Ottman write: “We contend that institutions of higher learning need to move away from the myopic lens used to view education and implement Indigenizing pedagogies in order to counteract the systemic monopolization of knowledge and communication” (17).

The authors share with us how they apply Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s 25 Indigenous projects as inspiration and guidance to reimagine their pedagogy and teaching practice (18), and suggest them as a good starting place for non-Indigenous scholars and teachers frustrated by their “lack of knowledge, training, or confidence to incorporate Indigenous knowledge or methods of education into their classrooms” (22). Although my work started before reading this article, I strongly agree with the authors and have seen fantastic growth in my students when applying a decolonial approach to the Theatre History course I teach at UFV.

What follows is a glimpse into how I offer this course and my attempts to decolonize both its structure and content. I then give you a sneak peek into a performance studies course I am offering next term that extends this wrestling match.

Theatre History: Antiquity to 1642 – Day 1: The Negotiation

Our first three-hour class together is about framing and negotiation. In my introduction, I disclose that I am incredibly excited by and focused on embodied, active learning, and arts-based methods of inquiry and that for the rest of the semester we will incorporate an element of this into each class. I also reveal that I am working to decolonize my classes in order to challenge power structures and systems of education that often don’t include the learner’s voice.

And so begins the negotiation. I hand out a syllabus I created that has already attempted to integrate aspects of the western canon with theatrical forms from non-western perspectives. I then ask students to look for holes in my representation, to consider what they are interested in learning about, and to explore what they think they should know by the time they leave our class. We do this through small group activities culminating in a large group discussion, and I find that even if we don’t change the syllabus much, it offers students more buy-in and a structured way for their perspectives to be integrated.

Again working in small groups and then as a larger group, we generate the overarching questions that will guide us through the term. We negotiate the weight of assignments and co-create the first rubrics (an activity we repeat for each assignment). We brainstorm what they expect in a teacher, and what they expect from themselves and their peers as students, and together we come up with an agreement on how we will conduct the class.

All of this takes time, and I generally budget 30 minutes for each part of the negotiation (content, overarching questions, and class expectations), except the rubric creation which takes longer (I plan on one hour for this). We have three hours together each class, and the first day really sets up the kind of engagement and participation I expect, which is a lot. 

I ask the students for their voices and their perspectives on how to create a fair and interesting course, and although there is sometimes resistance, for the most part students are quite engaged in the process. It helps when we discuss the skills they are practicing through this experience: metacognitive thinking, synthesis and organization of ideas, democracy. Beyond that, I frame this work as the central preoccupation of a theatre historian: someone who makes decisions about what information is important (what should we study?) and how to analyze it (what issues or big themes are we going to pursue? What assignments get the most weight?). At the end of the tussle, this is what my class ended up studying this term:

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Our negotiated weekly schedule outlining the focus of each week, the region or theatrical form studied, a play and any secondary source articles for each week, and assignment due dates. Theatrical forms covered: Greek Tragedy, Mesoamerican Performance, West African Griot Performance, Roman Comedy, Indian Sanskrit Drama, Japanese Noh Theatre, Chinese Yuan  Drama, Commedia dell’Arte of Italy, Elizabethan Theatre of England

The culminating work of the class is a final creative project, which asks students to synthesize information from class and express it through an artistic medium accompanied by a written text, and presented to the class.

We start this process by creating the rubric together. In small groups, students design individual rubrics, based on the criteria they think should be assessed and what excellence in each area looks like. We then start the long process of blending them. Our discussions include defining what each criterion means, what might be excellent as opposed to very good or average work, and debating whether or not the wording reflects academic requirements while still allowing personal creative freedom.

Here is how our co-created rubric turned out:

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The final creative projects students presented were insightful, contained deep synthesis and understanding of theatrical form and political/social context, were highly entertaining, and demonstrated to me how hard students will work when they are motivated, engaged, and inspired.

Our projects this year included: masks, songs, a storyboard, a set of film notes, a Commedia cake, a comic strip, a musical score, and a mini-series trailer, to name just a few examples.

Clockwise from top: “The Tempest” comic strip created by Talia Tvergyak; contemporary Pantalone mask riffing on the current global political climate created by Coco Bedard; Anatole Smith and Keegan Zaporozan performing, with masks, costumes, and lighting design created by Linnea Balt; Commedia dell’Arte Cake created by Aimee Payeur and Ali Slack.

While one Theatre History class isn’t a fix for the ongoing acts of colonization that happen daily within western university practices, it does offer the students a louder voice in their learning, positions me as a facilitator rather than an expert, and changes power dynamics for a brief moment. It is tough and messy stuff, and I will continue to build on this experiment in the performance studies course I am teaching next term, which I’ve called Performing Bodies/Performing Identities.

Continuing the Experiment in Performing Bodies/Performing Identities

I am still fleshing out my draft syllabus, but here is where I’m at so far.

I have three main categories that frame the course: citational performances (things like drag, cosplay, or religious fashion), disciplinary tactics (bodybuilding and CrossFit for example), and modifications (think of tattoos, piercings, or cyberware). Since there are so many amazing people writing about fantastic things related to how we perform our bodies, I have compiled a smorgasbord of articles and artists we could engage with.

The Day One Negotiation Class will have students select what they are interested in learning about, or find what they are interested in studying within the course theme and pitch it to me. My hope is that the content will reflect the students in the room and their interests.

In this first class they will also set up their blogs (the main place that will house their assignments) and we will discuss labour.

Re-Thinking Assessment

Inspired by Asao Inoue’s work in Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, I am trying to find ways to measure the labour of the class. A big part of Inoue’s argument is that our assessment of writing often privileges students who write like we do (favouring the clear, academically rigorous writing of our discipline, and the students who already know those codes), and punishes students who fail to do this. He argues that there are implicit racial (and class) biases in what is judged as acceptable academic writing that are further complicated by issues of access.

Asao’s suggestion is that if grades are based on the labour and effort put into achieving high levels of academic writing, then the playing field becomes more even and doesn’t automatically privilege certain students with existing expertise. I am trying to integrate Inoue’s work in two main ways (aside from majorly checking my assumptions in how I assess).

First, I have created a weekly blogging assignment where students will engage with the text or artist’s work. I am drafting a rubric (to be negotiated) focused on depth of understanding, critical engagement, and critical analysis, but then will offer students a choice about what they do with their blogs each week (answering questions, narrative inquiry, creative response, or synthesizing and responding to other people’s ideas). These weekly marks are based on the labour of having done the response in a critical way and on time, but the expression of that knowledge can be chosen by the student.

The second way I am engaging with Asao’s ideas is through a process-based research paper. Students will submit the first draft, get feedback (possibly peer-reviewed), revise, submit a second draft for feedback, revise, and then submit for a final time. I am trying to emphasize that writing, learning, and creating take time, effort, practice, and revision.

Their creative final project will be a praxis-based performance art or public art piece that engages with the class materials and discussion in some way and allows theoretical knowledge to be translated into arts-based practice with an emphasis on personal voice. My ways of practicing decolonization through revisions in structure and changes to content are now being pushed farther to consider how and what I assess. I oscillate between feeling exhilarated and terrified by this.

Two Questions

I am a sessional instructor acutely aware of the precariousness of what that is. Working as I do requires a lot of labour up front (finding articles, researching artists, planning activities and exercises), and it feels very risky at times since my fate seems determined by course evaluations written by students. It is a tenuous place to be.

However, the benefit is that I get to approach each semester as if it is the last time I will teach this course.

I always ask myself: if this is the last time I’m here, what is the most innovative, exciting way for my students and I to engage with the material?

And now I ask myself a second question: if I measure every part of this class against my claim of decolonization, am I really doing it?

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Anna Griffith is a sessional instructor in the Theater Department at the University of the Fraser Valley in BC. She earned her Ph.D. from York University in Theatre and Performance Studies, and her current work focuses on embodied pedagogy, decolonization, and Indigenization. She lives in Vancouver, BC, with her husband and their two small children. 

OMG CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HOW TO GRADE PARTICIPATION???

This is a cry for help.

It’s the end of term. I’m absolutely thrilled: welcome back, weekday drinking! And I’m really tired. Where’s my pillow at, again?

But I’m also staring at my computer screen. Because I’ve got 40 students in my terrific Toronto: Culture and Performance class, and they’ve all been superb and committed and present, and now I have to give them “participation” grades.

Ah, participation. What exactly is it “testing” for? If you’re like me you’ve probably not spent enough time thinking about that question, or considering what we are trying to measure and reward with the inevitable “10% participation” line in the syllabus – the one that carries over from year to year with hardly a thought or a tweak.

That laziness comes home to roost this time of year. Because they can’t all get 100%, now, can they?

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So I’m being a touch disingenuous here. I’ve actually thought about participation a fair bit. In most of my classes it is a category pegged to real work and effort, not a nebulous thing that lets me quietly reward students I appreciate more than others, or unconsciously punish those who have pissed me off. (Yes, we all do this. No, we don’t mean to. Think about it.)

For example: in my OTHER fall term class, my second-year performance studies seminar, participation works like this.

We have a class blog. (All the class prep and para-discussion goes on the blog.) Every Monday I post a “prompt” related to the week’s reading, viewing, or topic in general. I ask the students to engage with an aspect of the work under consideration, and to do so in writing or by posting video or other media. I emphasize that this work should demonstrate a fulsome (not just passing) engagement with the topic or material – IE: that it should take more than a minute or two to do. But I also emphasize it is not “graded”; students should feel free to experiment, write as much or as little as they wish without fear of making grammatical errors, and take a risk if they wish (there are no wrong answers!). I place a deadline on the responses – they must be completed an hour before class – and I always incorporate them into my class prep, so it’s clear they’re not just make-work things.

The rule for this fall’s seminar was: respond to 5 prompts over 13 weeks and earn 100% in participation. That’s 20% per prompt. Come to class every day, prepared and on time, and keep your grade. Miss class without accommodation? Each miss takes 5% off your running total. Miss more than three classes without accommodation, and lose all your participation grades for the class.

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My logic for this structure was as follows. Coming to class matters a lot: seminars thrive on group discussion. Being prepared matters for the quality of discussion we have, and being on time is simply respectful. But the quality of in-class discussion is profoundly enhanced by thinking carefully and richly in advance about the work we’re going to do there – that’s the spirit of the flipped classroom in action. So the prompts were my way of saying: here’s something we’re really going to talk about. And the students’ responses were a way of saying: this is where we think we want to go with this. We’re into it!

And that, really, is what I am “testing” with participation: the willingness to have a real, considered, respectful conversation about a syllabus topic – to put something real into it, and get something real out of it.

Versions of this participation rubric have worked well for me over the past few years: sometimes the pre-prepped action relates to a prompt response; sometimes it takes the form of a performance. I’ve been learning and tweaking as I go, but I’ve been trying hard to eliminate the guesswork. Participation grades function best when they are pegged to rubrics, and when they reward heartfelt effort and genuine engagement with as much of the subjective stuff on my end either eliminated or curbed by the hard evidence of a student’s work on behalf of the course.

Flash forward to TOCAP, the big class on the screen in front of me. I didn’t do what I describe above for this class: too big; too much work. UGH! So what did I say about participation? I checked the outline just now. It says this:

To earn 100% for participation – and you really truly can (it happens all the time) – do the following things:

  • Come to class. Every day. If you have to miss, ensure you have accommodation from your academic counsellors (see below).
  • Read the stuff we’re reading. Think carefully as you’re reading. Maybe read it twice if it’s a challenge. Take some notes! Bear in mind that the reading load for this class is not heavy; readings have been scheduled to give you lots of opportunities to make time for them, and there are built in re-reading opportunities if you want to take them.
  • Contribute to class. This doesn’t mean talking a lot; talking a lot usually means you’re not paying attention to how much space you’re taking up. It also doesn’t mean nevertalking, though: lots of us are shy, but there will be many different ways in this class to share thoughts – including via silent writing, group chats, peer-to-peer conversations, and more. If you’re a shy person and you’re working hard to contribute, we will notice.
  • Take some risks! Falling on your arse doesn’t mean failing the course: it means you have to get up and try again. A risk is worth it if you learn something valuable about yourself in the process. And risks can be small: like speaking up when normally you don’t, or keeping mum when normally you talk over others. Risks can also mean trying to create a video when normally you wouldn’t, or writing your essay well in advance and bringing it to Kim or Courtney to talk about, when normally you’re a last-minute person. Taking a risk means actively taking up an invitation made by our class to push yourself a bit, rather than just showing up for the sake of it. Give it a try.

This all sounds great, and I’m sure it was reassuring. But it’s also not a rubric; it says NOTHING about how I’m going to measure these things. And that’s a problem – because right now I have to measure them.

Staring at the screen in low-level panic, I’m reminded that I need to figure out how to scale up my participation rubric experiments and fast.

There are best practices out there of course: here’s a good one from Faculty Focus this past May; here are four collated in a short article published by the Teaching Commons at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, ON. (I’m fond of the first one here, but click the second link in that bullet in order to read both the first noted article by Weimer, and the response by Slapcoff.) But the problem of scale still arises: in large classes, grading participation is significant extra work – or can be perceived that way (certainly at this time of the term, and certainly right now by me!).

This is why Slapcoff and Weimer’s linked reflections (in the first item above, as mentioned) make great sense to me: as writing assignments about participation, they offer excellent ways for students to reflect meta-cognitively on their classroom practice in a format we A&H professors are used to grading, and grading quickly. Better still, if these are (as Weimer suggests) papers written primarily for completion and reflection (like my students’ blog prompt responses), they need not be long, and they need not be marked for grammar. Feedback can happen in a peer-to-peer structure, or at strategic points in the term when life’s not too busy. It might be most fruitful, in fact, to schedule mid-term check-in meetings with students, where they bring a participation reflection with them, and talk them through in office hours. If the class is big, perhaps setting one or two sessions aside for this reflection work makes sense, too.

Options, for sure, if not solutions. What think you, dear readers? What do you do in larger-class scenarios to measure participation? What works, what’s too much work? What’s definitely not worth doing? Thoughts very welcome.

Kim

Theatre IS democracy. Pass it on.

Tomorrow is mid-term election day in the U.S.; my best wishes to all of my American readers, colleagues, and friends.

It’s an understatement to say that this is an important election. It is an election that may well determine whether the U.S. returns to some semblance of its pre-2016 self, for all its flaws and troubles, or pushes closer to the brink of genuine fascism.

This frightens me, as I know it frightens many of you. Depending on where you teach, it may also frighten your students. Or, it may be they are tuned out, don’t care too much.

Maybe they are old enough to vote and are planning to vote. Maybe they are old enough to vote but are also disenfranchised for one reason or another. Maybe they are old enough to vote but won’t be voting, sick like so many of us of the disgusting and horrifically xenophobic rhetoric that passes for political discourse in so many corners of the world these days. Maybe they aren’t old enough to vote yet, but care deeply anyway.

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Whoever your students are, you might be thinking today (whether you’re American or not) about how to talk to your students about their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. (If you don’t live in a democracy, you may be thinking about these things even more urgently.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, too.

I’ve been working slowly over the past year on a new research project about the place of theatre and performance education and training in the contemporary university. (This is a collaborative project – a big hello to Kat, Diana, Sylvan, Rebecca, Barry, and many more of you out there.) At the core of this project is one essential belief: that learning about, and learning to make, theatre and performance is akin to learning about, and learning to make, a healthy, supportive, socially progressive democracy. For this reason, theatre and performance studies are not just “niche”, nor are they “just” creative arts. They are about learning the art of genuine citizenship – and should be recognized, funded, respected, and promoted that way by university leaders.

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The Theatre of Epidaurus at sunset. The Greeks knew it.

Today feels like a good day to reflect on the firm, urgent bond between theatre-making and democracy-building. What is theatre, after all, except a creative endeavour in which a group of human beings research, practice, struggle over, and negotiate the challenge of inhabiting the attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, wisdoms – as well as the geographical and socioeconomic and cultural and historical contexts – of a group of other human beings? At its most basic, acting is the art of the proverbial walk-a-mile-in-another’s-shoes gesture, the central act of empathy that binds us to our fellow citizens (and to those among us who are not so privileged as to be our fellow citizens yet – the hardest stretch of all).

Actors say repeatedly and vehemently that it is not possible to play a character in whose experience you do not, on some level, have faith; you may be far, far from that character’s context or politics or even sense of human decency, but without some basic understanding of who that character is, where their actions come from, and how you as a human being are linked to them as a human being, no creativity can come.

The portrayal of another without even a smidge of shared understanding would result in stereotype, and nothing more.

(Brecht devotees, I am among you. But performing Brechtian distance is not the same thing as acting without empathy or emotional investment. One of my favourite clips to show students when I talk about this kind of thing is from a French documentary made about a decade ago for ARTE, about the acclaimed British touring company Cheek By Jowl. In the clip, Tom Hiddleston talks about what it feels like to play two diametrically opposed characters in the same production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. His thoughts are compelling and resonant, and represent how closely Stanislavskian or “system”-style acting is to Brechtian or “alienated” acting, at its core. [Click through to the middle to find Tom.])

But theatre is about more than the empathetic bonds actors build with characters and with one another, of course. It is also about the fundamental challenge of collaborative world-building. You start with a script, or maybe just an idea. You play. You devise scenarios from held objects. You think about design, about scene structure, about set architecture. You select patterns to draw out – then you argue about whether or not these are the right ones. The contours of your world emerge from your shared graft, energy, arguments – creativity.

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I have shamelessly snatched this evocative image of 12 Minute Madness from alt.theatre’s website; please click through to read my colleague Kelsey Blair’s terrific review of this production. Thanks and apologies to alt!

It’s hard to be sure – lots of feelings circulate in the rehearsal hall and sometimes they are ugly. But you have a shared project to make – a world to build together. The world must go on! So you return the next day, patch it up a bit, move on together, and the suture strengthens. You keep building.

This is for me the heart of theatre’s link to democracy. To make a world is hard. To cross the barriers of difference with humility is hard. To fight over something fundamental without destroying a relationship is hard. To fight over something fundamental, almost destroy a relationship, and then come back in the morning to try again, together, is hard.

So far so true, you might be thinking. But what about studying theatre, in academic (not practical or conservatory) programs like the one on which I teach? Like all critical liberal arts, academic theatre studies requires teachers and students together to enter into a shared world built by others, for others, and then undertake the challenge of really, carefully thinking through what is at stake in that world: what social claims are on the table, for whose benefit they have been tabled, and at what potential costs.

This is the work I’ve been doing every week with the students in my new experiential learning class, “Toronto: Culture and Performance”. We read (via a team of student leaders on each production, who build a wiki-page of intel for us in advance) about the place, the artists, the history and the ideas behind a production; then we see that production together, ask questions afterward of the artists and other makers, and finally return to the classroom for a debrief, held alongside a discussion of relevant readings. We investigate a world – with empathy for the makers and yet also with questions about their choices, as well as about the social, economic, and demographic constraints that have shaped their work. We ask each other what the work is meant to do for a community (Toronto and its many constituencies), and what the work seems to want to say to us.

We respect the work but push hard back on it. Which is to say: we do the work of citizens in a democracy.

I know not all classes can, or should, look like this one. (It’s a lot of work to run and expensive, too.) And yes, I also know that not all theatre practice looks like the idyl I describe above. Lots of artists are total jackasses. Lots of us prefer to nullify rather than negotiate difference in rehearsal. Lots of us are egomaniacs and practically dictators when we hold the director’s baton. (So: pretty much like your average democracy, then!)

But that’s all the more reason for us to remember, today, what theatre – as a practice, a study, an art form, and a form of worlding – at its best teaches us, and what we as teachers consequently need to share with our students. Theatre shows us how to act like proper citizens, regardless of the day: how to care for one another, how to care for our world as if we are all invested in it, and how to contour that world as if it is for all of us to experience, appreciate, negotiate, and enjoy.

This is the message I want to send my students, tomorrow and everyday, about what learning in our shared classroom means. About what I as a teacher believe in.

I hope you’ll pass it on!

Kim