Relax Your Head

It was my first visit to my new osteopath. After 18 months of bouncing around in my kitchen to Zoom cross-fit, I’d knackered my left foot. The inflammation was causing pain all up the side of my shin, and connecting to the Known Issue in my left hip. The earliest I could get an MRI was December. So I needed some assistance.

Crystal asked me to lie down on her table, and then she put gentle pressure on the trouble spots. In that way osteopaths do, she began sensing my story.

“Are you under a special amount of stress right now?” she asked me. “Your body is really amped up.”

I have no doubt she was right. But here’s the thing: no special stress at the moment, really. I’m on sabbatical.

Sabbaticals are gifts given by a combination of labour laws and historical workplace privilege to academics. They aren’t free: we’re meant to have projects to do that require concentrated research time; we earn sabbatical periods with accrued teaching time; and we take a pay cut during the sabbatical period. But still, they are gifts.

And I’m terrible at receiving them.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about sabbaticals:

The first definition of “sabbatical” in the OED, as a screen shot. It reads, among other things, “A. adj. 1. a. Pertaining to or appropriate to the Sabbath.”

I was surprised to learn of sabbatical’s religious roots; it had never occurred to me that “sabbatical” is of course derived from the “sabbath”! (I’m most moved by the 1892 reference to “calm … contemplation of his labours”; more on that in a minute.) The link is unexpected, but also instructive.

I’m not a religious person; I have a strong spiritual sense, or at least I believe I do, but I’m agnostic in practice. Which is one reason, I suppose, that I do not rest well; I do not have a sense of rest as something that calls me, the way (perhaps) acts of spiritual devotion linked to rest days might call others. I like to be busy; busy-ness is distracting and I find distractions calming. (I’m working on it in therapy, don’t worry.) Rest, in other words, is hard work for me, and it does not come naturally.

If I worship anything, it’s my bicycle – and the connection to the road, the earth, my community it offers me. Here, rest is essential: you can’t do the kind of riding I do (usually somewhere between 40km and 80km at a go) without resting regularly. There’s a lot of strong evidence about the essential role rest plays in building strength, capacity, and physical endurance – full rest days let cyclists like me go faster, climb stronger, and avoid injuries.

A cat in repose, head on a pillow. CATS JUST KNOW.

Rest is also more than muscular, though – it provides a way for athletes (of all kinds – including writing athletes!) to regroup, adjust their headspace, reduce their cognitive load, and refocus. (I recommend this wonderful piece by the psychotherapist Susan Tarshis on searching for rest in her life, her exercise, and her work.)

Do I rest well off my bike? Nope. I know I should, but somehow on “rest days” I feel like I should be… doing something. So I garden, or I sneak in a lifting workout, or I do a short row on my ergometer, or I try a spot of yoga (complete with headstands).

My partner tells me, wryly, that my Facebook status should permanently say “sore”.

Clearly, though, my employer isn’t granting me sabbatical leave to ride my bike or to convert to Catholicism or Judaism. I’m meant to be writing a book (which I also did on my last leave, when I taught myself the power of a regular, controlled writing practice). I’m also undertaking two new teaching-research projects, complete with a stable of five (FIVE!) graduate fellows.

Here’s what the OED eventually says about this more familiar kind of sabbatical:

The OED’s second definition of sabbatical, item c.: “designating a period of leave from duty granted to university teachers at certain intervals…”

I note here with interest that this definition of sabbatical indicates the leave is “for the purposes of study and travel“; I think back to the “calm… contemplation of labours” in the first, religious definition. There’s something moving about the “meta” aspect here, the idea that I might use a sabbatical to reflect on how it’s going, on how my working practice is or is not serving me; the idea that I might use this time to learn to be a better, more capacious, kinder (to myself!) version of Professor Kim – not just to do Professor’s Kim’s research projects.

I’m also caught out by the phrase “designating rest or absence…”: sabbaticals, even MY kind of sabbaticals are… about REST?!

The definition I’m quoting here is the origin of meaning for the very thing I’m currently undertaking; in other words, the world’s most historically thorough and reliable wordsmiths are telling me plainly that sabbatical leave MEANS a period of study, travel, and rest.

If you talk to anyone working at a university who is coming up to a sabbatical, they will tell you how desperately they need it.

They are exhausted from the emotional labour of holding up the students in their charge, all of whom are in a liminal transition space between childhood and adulthood and are consequently undergoing constant, often difficult change. The independence of university instructors means so much of what we do is homegrown (no set curriculum), and quality prep is loads of work that has to happen before we even get into the room with those students. And don’t even get me started on university administration.

Like academics everywhere, I’ve always experienced the first month or two of sabbatical as a kind of falling over. I’m drained and I know it and what I really, really, need is to rest. But I’m also an excellent subject of power, and the prevailing wisdom of this culture is GO GO GO; rest is to be regarded with some suspicion. This is the flip side of the world of the bike, the world of the sabbath, where rest is to be cherished and revered; this is the world of publish-or-perish, the world of economic neoliberalism, where only the busy people are regarded as good enough, as fully human.

So I feel like I should fall over… but I can’t let myself. There’s a book to write, right? And ethics protocols to craft and graduate students to hire and … and … and …

This dog. I want to be this dog.

The 24/7 world is a lie, though, and increasingly we get it. The most productive among us are the ones who rest and work in balance, who rest MORE than they work, in fact. All over the globe, corporations large and small are trialling the four-day work week, to massive success. (The link here is to a short BBC article; if you want a deeper dive, I recommend a listen to this podcast episode, from Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd at Reasons to be Cheerful.)

Academics have some of the most flexible working lives on the planet, and yet the old joke is that we work all the time. We fetishize work as a badge of honour; then, we pass the fetish on to our graduate students, and we find them in the library on Saturday mornings. Could it be that we fear if we don’t perform our commitment to constant graft, we might be found out as – GASP – privileged? Free to rest whenever we need it?

I wonder what it would mean, for me and for anyone of us who feels somehow bad about themselves when they are resting, to take the OED definitions of “sabbatical” to heart. What if we regarded our leaves as periods of time when our jobs shift deliberately from work to rest – from work to calm contemplation about the many things we need in order to be our full selves? What if our sabbatical “projects” were not books or articles, but the recalibration of our bodies, traveling to see family and friends, a stack of work-unrelated books to read for fun?

What if the whole reason for the sabbatical was, unabashedly, to rest?

I’m still working on this, of course; even as I write this post I feel uneasy imagining myself prioritizing rest over the other things on my to-do list. It’s a hard lesson to unlearn; we live in a world that has naturalized a carelessness of self (principally so that it can sell products related to self-care back to us). It’s a trick of power – and it’s a very effective one.

But then, I find myself thinking back to my last sabbatical. When I wrote more or less a whole book in three months, simply by devoting two hours, or 1000 words, each weekday morning.

And I wonder: what could two hours of solid, devoted rest each weekday morning achieve for my aching foot? My sore hip?

I might even be able to wear my favourite shoes when I head back into the classroom in January.

This is Freddie, my road bike, enjoying a view of the Yorkshire moors above Hebden Bridge. This was taken in the first week of my last sabbatical, in 2017.

Back to School: A Report from the Field

Most falls, “back to school” is an overused slogan used to sell pencils and autumn-toned sweaters. This year, it describes my actual teaching situation: I am back to teaching in-person in a classroom for the first time in nearly two years.

Returning to nursing school? Keys to success - American Nurse Today
“Back to school” means back to in-person for Kelsey this year.

I cannot say that the transition back into a classroom was entirely smooth. A perfect storm of seasonal allergies, some acid reflux, a cold, and projecting my voice in front of A GROUP OF CO-PRESENT HUMANS resulted in me losing my voice. Like truly: no voice. Given that I’ve been speaking nearly continuously since I uttered my first word (“dog,” much to my mother’s chagrin), the no voice thing was a shock to my system.

Other than my voice-loss, however, in-person teaching went relatively well. Below, I detail some of my observations from the first few weeks back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Before last week, I hadn’t been in a room with 70 people (the size of my largest class) since March 2020. I had anticipated that being around so many people might be a bit discombobulating. And, it was … for about three minutes.

Then, everything promptly felt very normal. This was representative of my experience overall the first two weeks. Yes, the students were adjusting to being back in a classroom, but, overall, they were keen to listen, ask questions, and engage. The lessons flowed, more or less, according to plan. Not one projector worked how it was supposed to.

Teaching 2021: the apex of hand sanitizer stations.

Indeed, other than the masks and the sheer volume of available hand sanitizer, I found that teaching in-person in 2021 felt very similar to teaching in person in 2019.

Some teaching strategies are more easily executed in-person

I appreciate the many digital tools available for various forms of group work and collaboration. I also know that online, hybrid, and blended teaching models have lots to offer and are here to stay. But I’m going to come out and say it: some things are easier and better in person.

Group discussions are significantly easier to prompt and manage. Small group activities, particularly those involving props, work better in-person. And class management — being able to assess how long students need to complete an activity; being able look out and see confused or bored faces; being able to notice a student’s raised hand mid-lecture — is, quite simply, much easier.

I will say, however, I miss zoom’s help with names. Having each student’s name permanently attached to their sternum (or wherever the bottom of their zoom frame lands) is really very helpful!

Students raising actual, rather than virtual, hands in class? What a thrill!

What you think about modes of delivery is strongly influenced by your own personal circumstances

Three years ago, if you’d asked a random professor, student, or administrator what they thought about hybrid, online, and blended teaching delivery options, you would probably have been met with a shrug or a blank stare.

Today, everyone has an opinion on modes of delivery. And I’m finding that most people’s opinions are based on their individual circumstances.

Students who work full time tend to prefer hybrid, online, and blended models. As do students and faculty with heavy care responsibilities or extended commutes to work. Folks who live near campus, have been isolated for much of the last eighteen-months, or identify as extroverts, on the other hand, tend to appreciate in-person classes.

Opinions on delivery models tend to stem from the deeply personal.

The fact that people prefer models that fit their own needs isn’t revelatory, of course.

But, I do think it’s noteworthy a lot of the arguments for and against different delivery models begin from the individual and extend to the collective rather than the other way around.

And, I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little worried about this trend. Of course, personal experience connects individuals to communities. But, also, what’s best my life isn’t a good gauge for assessing teaching and learning strategies more broadly. I’m hoping that as the Fall speeds along, the conversation might begin to change to focus on collectives and communities.

Systems are still very good at incorporating change into their frames

I teach three classes a week: one Tuesday, one Thursday, one Friday. I began to lose my voice after the Tuesday class. I was hoping that it would come back before Thursday, but it was not to be. So, Thursday morning, I made the decision to move my first class to zoom, where my students could turn up the volume on their devices and I wouldn’t be tempted to shout. This was, I thought, an upside to pandemic teaching: more flexibility and accommodation options, for both students and teachers.

Proving the perseverance of my optimism, I again hoped my voice would be better Friday morning. It was not. In fact, it was worse. I had to strain to speak, and even then, the sounds were thin and squeaky.

I debated whether to cancel the class. But, I hadn’t given the students much notice and cancelling when I could zoom felt like poor form. Also, I was once a fairly high level athlete who was told by many a coach to “tough it out” and play through illness and so I’m very bad at taking sick days. And, you know, I’m in a limited term appointment and am not super keen to draw attention to myself for cancelling last minute. So, I decided to hold the class on zoom.

My voice barely made it to the end. And, even though I drank my weight in honey-lemon tea and refrained from talking for the weekend, my voice was still hoarse the following Tuesday.

It's all about Sick Time.” - Cardinal Services
Sometimes, taking a day off is important.

The truth is: teaching on Friday made my voice worse, and I should have cancelled class.

This made me aware how easily systems adapt to integrate new tools and strategies into their logics. On the one hand, online teaching can create flexibility and accommodation for individuals. On the other hand, it can also discourage folks from taking days off because you can zoom-in from almost any circumstance, can’t you? But, not taking sick days serves the logic of the institution. Rest and healing are required for the health and wellness of students and teachers, as humans.

Despite the voice debacle, I’d say my first two weeks back in a classroom were good. And, they also helped me identify that I’d like to direct some of my activist teaching energy toward the systems that are shaping the “new normal in teaching” in, and after, the era of covid.

SEPTEMBER 2021: Welcome!…back?

Hello friends, and welcome to autumn term 2021. Are we all seated comfortably, with our masks and seat belts comfortably adjusted?

Buckle up for another school year with the Activist Classroom!

And an adjustment it sure is. Both of us find it hard to believe that two years ago it was normal to head for campus, enter one’s office or one’s classroom, face other humans, and begin talking together.

Now, it it feels odd, disquieting, discombobulating: like we’ve lived an entire life between 12 March 2020 (that’s the day it all shut down for Kim, while she was riding the train home from her campus office in London, Ontario), and 4 September 2021 (that’s the day Kelsey marched into her brand-new office at Concordia University in Montreal, a school she had not even applied to work at back last March, and where she has been working entirely remotely since autumn term 2020 began).

Kelsey, the first time at her office (after being employed at the university for over a year).

That weird temporal drift you’re feeling? It’s real. It’s in our bodies, our brains; it’s in our cells, our neurons, our reflexes when we step off the sidewalk so someone can pass at social distance, when we turn away from other humans (even masked ones) on the subway.

And it’s going to take some time to unlearn.

You’ve probably been thinking a lot about this already, even if only indirectly – even if only through the twitches in your body. And if you’re like us, you’ve probably been inadvertently hoovering up media posts about coping with The Great Return – most likely while stuffing half a sandwich in your mouth between fielding student emails & administrative missives about vaccine and masking policies.

In this first post of the 2021-22 academic year, we’ve decided to share some of what we’ve been hoovering these last few weeks; then, we’ll each share one thing that we are hoping, and one thing each we’re fearing, as we take our first tentative steps forward/back/around in time.

Kim’s recommendations:

I get a lot of email newsletters from media orgs I trust, including the Guardian, the New York Times, and The Ink. I tend to go for letters that focus on gender, political and social equity, racial justice, and the climate emergency.

The Ink by Anand Giridharadas

This week, the NYT gender newsletter, In Her Words, published a piece on boundaries in the workplace: how people who identify as women in the US are fighting back against orders to return to the office full time, refusals to mandate masking up, and other practices that risk their own and their family’s/community’s health and wellbeing.

I recommend the piece highly for its practicalities, but also for its key take-away: in this unprecedented No-Longer-Before-Time, we get to say what we need, and we have the right to be heard and accommodated. (This is something disability activists have long known and told us, of course – may our voices lifted together continue their revolution!) We also have the right to expect that those up the chain will anticipate our needs and prepare accommodations so that we do not need to ask for them all the time.

Check the newsletter out here, and follow NYT gender on Insta here.

I’m also a regular reader of University Affairs (in fact, I have a piece coming out in UA shortly on editing as peer mentorship; I’ll share it when it’s out!). Recently, UA did a pair of very useful stock-takings: where are Canadian campuses on the fight against systemic anti-Black racism, and where are they in the long process of decolonization and reconciliation (which, to be very clear, is a VERY long road, one which most of us have only just begun walking)?

University Affairs: Ever useful.

While these pieces are not “about” COVID and The Great Return, they are very much about the urgent cultural shift that took place alongside the pandemic and shaped its wake: the need to, at last, look past the power of neoliberal capital and think about how our lifeways are failing huge swaths of our population, burying truths that need rising and acknowledging. One of the COVID silver linings, for me, is that these truths are in front of us now, and they will not go away without a fight.

For some of us who are enmeshed in decolonization and reconciliation processes on our home campuses, this stuff won’t be “news”, but it’s important I think to get a sense of how the larger conversations around these crucial topics are building in different places. In particular I find it valuable to hear from Black and Indigenous campus leaders on how it’s going for them and what else they need from us.

The pieces are here and here; I highly recommend them also to readers outside Canada, especially our UK readers who are working in their own contexts on decolonization initiatives.

Kelsey’s recommendations:

Neither of my recommendations are about university teaching specifically but I’ve found both helpful as we fall into another September.

The first recommendation is a piece in The Conversation by Daniel Heath Justice that offers an eloquent and clear set of steps for recognizing and addressing residential school denialism. The topic is specific to the territory now known as Canada but the article’s argument-counter argument structure offers an excellent model for refuting inaccurate and oppressive claims more broadly. I found it particularly helpful for thinking through potential applications in real world settings, which feels particularly pressing with a Canadian federal election on the horizon.

I need to give a disclaimer on the second recommendation: it is published by a magazine/blog that is owned and operated by a for-profit investing company (albeit a self described women-centered investing company). I have zero affiliation with the company, and beyond a quick website peruse, know little about them but ….

Ellevest’s post on practical steps for handling work overwhelm made its way to me, and I’ve included it here because 1. The start of semester can be, ahem, overwhelming and 2. I found the tips and advice realistic and useful.

Organization: One of Kelsey’s favourite ways to manage overwhelm.

Kelsey, what are you fearing?

Very practically: Classroom management in relation to Covid-19 protocols. My institution (and province) requires that masks be worn in class by students at all times. I’m not overly worried about students not wearing masks at all. But I am a nervous about how a behaviour such as a student repeatedly, not accidentally, having their mask below their nose might affect the classroom dynamic and put me in a rule-enforcer position.

More philosophically: That we will individually and collectively get worn down by the march of “the new normal” and that our compassion (for students, for colleagues, for ourselves) and our commitment to change and activism will become misplaced in the hubris of the everyday.

Kim, what are you fearing?

My two greatest fears at this point, in descending order, are:

1) that we will not learn and absorb the best lessons the last 18 months have offered us, especially what it means to have compassion for the whole human in the classroom and the academic workplace. (Snap, Kelsey!)

2) that we will not learn to live with this virus – because live with it we must, and we need to start now. That’s why vaccines are so, so crucial, and why scientists are heroes.

Back to school?: the question that has many of us re-examining, well, everything.

Kim, what are you hoping for?

I am on sabbatical this autumn; this feels a really lucky escape! That said, I’m on sabbatical for a specific reason: I have a book project and two teaching research projects that really need making headway on before January.

I’ve been thinking a lot about workload these days, precisely because mine is significant yet also incredibly flexible at the moment, and that’s a gift I struggle to accept. I’ve also been thinking about mental and physical wellness, because I’m at a moment in my life and in my body that demands such thinking.

I’m hoping that I may learn to accept the gift of flexibility in my sabbatical labour, along with the gifts of kindness and compassion when I don’t get it all done – in other words, that I’ll allow myself to make my own wellbeing project #1, with no guilt attached. (I’m going to write about this in an upcoming post; stay tuned for more.)

Kelsey, what are you hoping for?

Broadly, I hope that the waves of the covid ocean ebb and become part of a tide that doesn’t overwhelm our bodies, health care systems, and publics.

More specifically, after spending much of the last year in Montreal — which had strict health measures that kept me fairly isolated from the public — I feel like “back to school” stands in for “back to society.” I hope I bring the lessons and growth of the last year into my re-entry. I hope that I maintain my hard-fought enjoyment of downtime and my on-going relationship with balancing the different parts of my life.

In Loving Memory of Catherine Silverstone

Friends, it’s that time again: time for our summer hiatus. Those of you who have been longtime readers know that Kelsey and I have been on a journey these past two years to begin transforming The AC into a community-owned space, one that can reflect more than just the teacherly musings of two White women working in central Canada. That process has been up and down, but 24 months later, we have a plan. We will share more details about that plan as our work evolves, but we will say now that it rests on two principals: turning this space over to a broad range of new voices, and setting those new voices up for success by providing as much material support as we can.

Those two things – ceding space for new voices, and holding that space with proper support so that those voices can stand up and be heard – are essential components of all great pedagogy. I learned this from someone our community of theatre and performance scholars lost on 4 October last year: Dr Catherine Silverstone, Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Queen Mary, University of London.

Catherine smiles into the sun.
Dearly missed!

Although I was *technically* senior to Catherine when we worked together at QM in the early 2010s, I instantly found her to be a teaching mentor. Cat was, simply, the finest teacher I’ve ever known.

It was therefore my honour and privilege to be asked, shortly after Cat’s death, to prepare a tribute to her for Contemporary Theatre Review‘s Backpages section. I knew right away that the tribute had to foreground Cat the teacher, and I knew too that I had to involve her students in its making. In late October we gathered on Zoom, still wet with our tears, to share joyous memories of Cat’s leadership inside and outside the classroom, her remarkable humility and grace, and her exceptional capacity for listening, learning, and making space for and with students (including student-peers like me).

I received the offprints of our finished work yesterday, and it’s my pleasure to share (with permission) the text with folks here on the AC.

Read and remember a remarkable scholar and teacher; think of your own teaching mentors; and remember, too, the hard hard work we’ve all come through, knowing better days will come, and will come soon. See you in September.

Kim and Kelsey

***

(To read this in print, or online as a PDF, please visit Contemporary Theatre Review [issue 31, numbers 1-2] via T&F journals here, or via your home library’s holdings.)

Pedagogies of Care: Remembering Catherine Silverstone

By Kim Solga, with support from Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer

A hot summer evening, and I’m rushing; I’m late for dinner with my new colleague Catherine Silverstone. I should have arrived ten minutes ago, but I misjudged, as usual, the length of my journey, and now I’m running desperately from London Bridge station, rounding at speed onto Bermondsey High Street, panicking as the minutes tick by. What will she think of me, stupidly late for a meal she’s arranged to help orient me to my new gig at Queen Mary? Sweat cleaves to me in the gently waning sunlight as I collide with bins and people along the pavement, finally arriving, panting, out of breath, mortified. 

And there she is: sitting quietly at a window open to the breeze, with a glass of wine and her phone, patiently waiting. Instead of even a hint of frustration she offers me the biggest smile, a chair, her open arms. If I’ve inconvenienced her there’s no sign of it; no sign of frustration or bother at all. I’m instantly calmer, and I’m instantly present to her. We begin to chat like old friends, even though we are not that – not yet anyway. But we will be.

This was the Catherine I knew: abundantly generous, consummately professional yet also high-spirited and cheeky, never less than fully human. No detail was too small for Catherine’s attention; all the little things, as she knew, mattered. And so did every student matter because, as Catherine understood, from our students we have so very much to learn. So, when CTR approached me to craft a short remembrance for Catherine, I knew it had to centre her students—as she never failed to do. I’ve shaped the reflections that follow from memories shared by Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer during a chat on 30 October 2020. My heartfelt thanks to them all.

Good Times

Many peers knew Catherine as a passionate, eclectic scholar, as at home with Shakespeare as with Derek Jarman. Her students, however, know something more: that for Catherine, there was no hierarchy among the many elements of her labour. All were—as she would turn her favourite phrase, with a glint in her eye—“good times.” 

Jarman and Shakespeare were as important to Catherine as the work of preparing quality class materials, of attending (as Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary) to student concerns over water fountains and malfunctioning microwaves, of reading PhD chapters with such care that each sentence might warrant comments or track changes (something lovingly known as “being Silverstoned”). This equivalence was, for Catherine, political: nobody has the energy to interrogate the elitist structures separating “the Bard” from the amazing queer artists who follow if they haven’t had a warm lunch or a proper drink of water. As HE teachers it was our duty to attend to it all.

The cover of Cat’s first book, Tragedy in Transition, edited with Sarah Annes Brown

What’s at Stake?

Ben remembers Catherine asking him this all-important question during a supervision; it resonates with all of us, and “it will never be out of me,” he notes. Catherine’s politics as a queer feminist were everywhere palpable; her firm sense of social justice informed all aspects of her practice as a teacher, a colleague, a scholar and a leader. Anna recalls how important Catherine’s sense of social justice was to her own decision, now, to pursue a career in human rights law; “If Catherine were in another job, she’d be a human rights lawyer!” Mojisola adds. For Catherine, politics was not a position one adopts; it was a practice one lives, folded and leaved into all aspects of being and working. At stake for her was the work of the political, not the glamour of ideology.

Anna and Mojisola remember that nobody was prouder of their queerness, more open about it, and yet for Catherine queerness was never about her, the work of anti-racist justice was never about her. Anna remembers Catherine’s classroom as a safe space in which to “learn to love one’s queerness”; Mojisola honours Catherine as someone with whom, as a Black woman, she felt safe “in terms of race,” someone who never boasted about her allyship: “she just got on with it.” She recalls that Catherine was always first to check her privilege as a white, educated person from a settler colony, always first to put her power to work for those with less. 

Teaching with People’s Palace Projects

Mojisola offers a remarkable example of this work in practice. As Director of Teaching and Learning, Catherine realized that a handful of students in the Queen Mary BA Drama program were on track to earn 2:2 degrees, but could do much more with a bit more support; she pulled their names, saw in them the traces of historical underprivilege, did some maths, and made it possible for them to be mentored to better degree outcomes. Quietly, no fuss—but lives were changed forever. Sarah remembers Catherine committing exactly the same graft to the work of TA support: she convened difficult discussions, took flak for the department, set boundaries, offered space to share openly, then made attainable promises around wages and conditions and got proper results for the young people who needed them most. “Doing the boring stuff, paying attention to details, looking at structure,” Mojisola notes, leaves in Catherine’s wake a legacy of what Sarah calls “real, tangible, difficult change.”

Pedagogies of Care

Our conversation, Ben reminds us, keeps coming back to this word: care. Every aspect of Catherine’s work for, and conduct among, her students and peers was infused with a “sense of civic care.” To be Catherine’s student was to encounter someone who was always willing to be vulnerable, because she saw herself as no more nor less than them. She was even more nervous than the MA candidate sat in front of her at interview, happy to share that she, too, found these sorts of formal public situations awkward, uncomfortable. She was someone who listened to your words with mouth slightly open, eyes alert, seeing you, hearing you—but properly. She was someone in whose classroom you knew you needed to be, because what teacher takes such serious interest in the most mundane things, always giving you the benefit of the doubt, listening with infinite patience, knowing she can never understand the circumstances shaping the moment in which you come to her in need?

Anna calls Catherine “powerfully unassuming”: extraordinary in her capacity to elevate our ordinary lives, to lift up tiny details for generous attention, precisely because it’s the little, human things that so affect our capacities to teach and to learn. Catriona, Sarah, and Caoimhe were all Catherine’s PhD supervisees at the same time, and yet, they recall now, they all emerged with independent writing styles, separate senses of scholarly self, because as Catriona puts is, “the way that Catherine shaped you as a scholar was about the way you think.” Mojisola calls this Catherine’s capacity to demonstrate the southern African philosophy of Ubuntu: “Ubuntu means, I am who I am because you are who you are. I am me through you and you are you through me.”

“Perhaps Your Problem Contains its Own Solution”

Catriona parrots this Catherine-ism and we all laugh, delighted for a moment, remembering. And then a pause. What, dearest Catherine, is the solution to this problem, this great loss of ours, our loss of you? There may be only one: to live your legacy as you would have done, with no ego, with firm allyship, with strongest commitment to the most vulnerable among us and also within ourselves. 

Mojisola made a list to help us imagine what this solution might look like. Catherine would have loved it (after being embarrassed for a moment to be caught in the spotlight, of course).

Listen without prejudice.

Listen without bias.

Listen without interrupting.

Attend to the detail.

Dig as deep as you can.

Don’t be afraid of boredom. (The boring stuff is what gets the job done.)

Turn the question around.

Wait patiently for the answers.

Accept people. Believe your students. Then they will feel believed in.

Don’t be afraid of the mundane work that is part of dismantling discrimination. 

Let your students teach you. Everyone is an expert in their own lives.

Give praise generously, when it is due.

Never forget to love, to be loved, and to dance.

What we’re taking with us: three term-end tips from Kelsey (#ACsurvivalguide)

Holy smokes, we made it through another bizarre, shaped-by-the-pandemic semester!

Image Library | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC
This is the organic shape of Covid-19. The specific shape of your pandemic experience may vary.

I haven’t yet had time to do full reflection and inventory from the teaching year (aka, I’m still marking!!). But, already, I know that the last eight months have drastically impacted how I approach teaching. Here are the first three things I’m “taking with me” beyond this topsy-turvey COVID-19 era.

1. Slow down.

For many, this has been a mantra for the pandemic as a whole. For me, it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn (and relearn) throughout the year in the classroom.

I have a lot of energy as a human and a teacher. On top of that, I value multimodal learning that offers students a range of entry points to engage with material. By extension, my lessons have traditionally incorporated lots activities: there’s a cluster lecture, a close read, then a scavenger hunt!

Slow Down - ELGL
Good advice from a turtle.

Online teaching looked me in the eye and said simply: it’s too much.

Because, here’s the thing about virtual teaching: simple tasks, like sharing documents for peer review, take longer. This extra time-taking has forced me to slow my lessons down and give more time to fewer activities. You know what? My classes are better for it. The simplified lessons give students more time to engage with one another and sink into tasks. Moving forward, I will definitely pare down my lesson plans to hone-in more, and offer more time and scope for settling into the task at hand.

2. Do the same work for myself that I’d do for others.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like, and am good at, planning, scheduling, and organizing. When I first started teaching, I used to schedule and organize administrative tasks like marking. As I’ve transitioned from part time to full time teaching, my workload has ballooned, and I’ve often forsaken this prep work for myself.

“Organize” is one of my favorite eight-letter words.

This year, I had two courses with TAs. To support my TAs, and their transition to online teaching and marking, I did a lot of extra scheduling and administration such as providing detailed instruction sheets for their assigned tasks.

In doing this work for my TAs, I also did it for myself. Clear workload breakdowns in advance of performing said work? Super useful. Pre-written explanations for common structural or grammar issues? Way faster. And who came up with these teaching hacks? I did.

This reminded me that I need to 1) remember the value of front-loading administrative and planning work and 2) use my own skillset to not only support others but also myself.

3. Leverage the online tools.

In the fall semester, I took attendance manually (with the backup of zoom) in my classes. (For those concerned with access, there were alternate options for those that couldn’t attend live sessions). At the end of that semester, collating and cross-referencing my messy notes with zoom’s weird output format took me an eon.

The title of this children’s book, Just a mess, accurately describes my attendance-taking process in the fall semester.

For the second semester I had time to learn the attendance tool on Moodle (my school’s online learning platform). It took me twenty minutes to set up, and it allowed students to record their own attendance and log it in the system. Not only was this quicker and easier for everyone, it also helped ease student anxiety because they had access to their own attendance record.

It’s easy to huff and puff about technology, and there is no question that zoom freezes suck, but this was a good reminder that the tools can be helpful too – if we take the time to explore them a bit, when we have that time and space.

As I continue to get distance from the semester, I’m sure I will uncover more reflections to share. But these feel like a meaningful start and a good reminder that even in the strangest of times, there can be improvement and learning.