I have a medical condition that means I need to get regular vaginal ultrasounds – which are about as comfortable as they sound. These ultrasounds make me very anxious, because I worry about what they will turn up; they also frighten me because my past experience has been that the technicians who perform them are not always fully aware of the ways in which their bedside manner affects not just my experience at the clinic, but my entire frame of mind for the day. To be blunt: I’ve had some very, very bad technicians give me very uncomfortable, borderline offensive, ultrasound treatments. And it’s not just the way they wield their probes that grates.
Last Friday I rode my bike to a clinic near my house for the latest of these tests. I was left alone at an “unmanned” reception desk to wait for what seemed like a very long time; I was beginning to worry I was in the wrong place, or had been forgotten, or had gotten the time of the test wrong. Finally, at 10 minutes past the appointed hour, a middle aged, very tired-looking woman emerged from behind the security door to call my name. She sounded, from the start, like she was barely tolerating me.
She ushered me into a large, dim room with all the usual equipment – a big set-up that takes a fair bit of space. Against one wall was her desk. She told me her name, offering a limpid smile (the kind of smile that says: I have been at this all day, and I do not want to be here); then she told me to sit in a chair at one end of the room while she took her place at the other. She asked me a bunch of questions about my condition while staring at her computer screen. I learned that I did not need to have a full bladder for this test, and I asked if I could please use the bathroom before we began; she told me to hang on, that she needed to ask more questions first.
Before we began, she started telling me about how she felt the test she was about to do was useless for my condition; she spoke to me like I was a clinician, rather than a nervous patient about to have a vaginal probe inserted into and moved around the interior of my body. She did not pick up on any of my bodily clues, which ought to have indicated (had she been more perceptive; had she been less tired?) that I was uncertain about what exactly she was telling me (is the test on? Off? Do I need other tests or treatment?). Finally she said: “but we’ll test you anyway.” Same limpid smile, bordering this time on sarcasm.
While she was conducting the test she asked me about my work; she spoke as if by rote, as if she knew this is what she was supposed to be asking at this moment in time. Then, she asked me if I felt that the diagnosis I had received for my condition (the first one more than ten years ago; the second eight years ago, after a battery of tests at the Sunnybrook and Women’s hospital complex in Toronto) had been properly carried out. I found myself justifying the care I had received, by doctors I had liked and respected, while she pushed the probe up and down against my internal organs.
Finally she finished, indicating that kleenex was beside the bed on which I was reclined. (Strangely, this was the most uncomfortable part of the whole experience – to be told “there’s the tissue.”) She drew the privacy curtain, but then kept right on talking to me about current findings related to my condition while I pulled on my pants and trousers. Then I had to ask: am I free to go?
Hurt, still anxious, and, frankly, extremely angry, I left the clinic; I rode out onto the main street and nearly collided with a van while trying to turn back into my neighbourhood. At some point, I think I yelled at another driver. My heart rate was higher than normal. My hands were shaking.
I share all this because, despite the epic fail that was, for me, this particular ultrasound, I’m now, a few days on, rather grateful for the experience. More than any “bad” test I’ve undergone in the past, it reminded me of how important very simple actions and gestures in the office/clinic space can be when putting me (as a patient) at ease. And that made me think, in turn, about my own role as a “clinician” of sorts, during my office hours with students. After I finished steaming at the woman who had conducted my test, I asked myself: How’s my desk-side manner?
Let’s talk about what we do when we meet students in our offices. Do we face them as we speak to them? Do we multi-task while explaining stuff to them? Do we use our body language to communicate something less than welcoming? (Are we too tired for this meeting? are we rushed?) What kind of interpersonal interactions are we modelling when students come to see us? Is our office-hour manner generous? Does it need some attention?
I don’t think directly about these kinds of questions very often. That’s not to say I give them no thought – for example, some years ago I made the decision to rearrange my office furniture in order to place the desk alongside one wall and my chair in the middle of the space, so that students could sit in front of me and we could face one another, without the desk as barrier between us – but I have to confess that, when I have a raft of office hour appointments on my books, I am typically anxious to get them all over with as soon as possible. They take up time I could be using to mark, deal with admin stuff, or just plain get the hell out of the office and back to my research. I have to wonder whether I’m communicating this rush to my students, and how that’s making them feel.
A long time ago now, in the second year of my full time teaching career, I frequently found myself bombarded by students over the lunch period; I hadn’t yet learned how to manage my office-hour time effectively. I would welcome all comers, even if it meant I had to chew my lunch most days while miming sympathy or understanding to the student across the desk (the desk was still in the way at this point). One day, during the spring rush, one of my favourite students came to my door, saw me smiling and nodding while chewing at yet another student, waved and left. Later, he sent me an email; in it, he wrote: “I didn’t want to bother you. There were so many people waiting for you. And suddenly I realised how emotionally draining your job is.”
And that’s it: teaching is an emotionally taxing job. An enormous amount of the work that I do with students is affective labour, and it effects me profoundly (as all affective labour does). I understand this to be an essential fact of my gig, but it is also a problem that is becoming increasingly acute (and, perhaps, increasingly invisible) as governments everywhere download more and more “soft” work – the work of carers and teachers – with less and less support onto an unsuspecting, generally under-compensated body of workers. I’ve been reading a lot about the social, economic, and ethical dimensions of this problem recently; if you’re interested, I’d encourage you to check out the recent issue of TDR on “precarity and performance“, co-edited by my colleague Nicholas Ridout and Brown University’s Rebecca Schneider, as well as the book Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant, and the provocative essays “Immaterial Labor” and “Neoliberalism in Action” by the Italian sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato.
So how do I deal with this problem, since it’s not going away anytime soon? How do I manage my emotional work, so that it does not wreck my day, while also communicating something about its dimensions, its politics and challenges, in a teachable way to my students? Because, after all, the office hour is a crucial site of teaching and learning, and as an activist teacher I want my students to understand the nature of my work – in both its security and its precarity, both its humane dimensions and its susceptibility to pernicious, increasingly familiar social injustices.
I suspect the woman who administered my ultrasound was, after all, rather a lot like me: her job is a daily emotional struggle, and (insofar as the NHS is also in real trouble these days) she is no longer properly supported. She was taxed, tired, and I caught her not at her best.
The problem is that there was no space within the room she made for me to talk about that (shared) dilemma. The office hour can be such a space. I’d like to make it one.
I’ve belonged to the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv for a very long time. It’s an amazing resource, run by Rick Reis at Stanford, and its regular postings touch on matters relevant to university students and teachers at all points along their careers (from undergrads to senior administrators). The posts come twice weekly in term time; they are almost always good reads over lunch, but some are genuinely inspiring. These are the ones I save: I print them, I forward them to colleagues, and I place them in my current teaching folder, for use in the next set of classrooms.
Today’s post was one of those posts. It excerpts material from Stephen Brookfield’s 2012 book, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions. You can read the entire post here; below, I quote my three favourite insights from the post, with thanks to Brookfield, and to Tomorrow’s Professor.
Brookfield’s principal claim in this excerpt is simple but startling: that teachers need to remember that students need to learn what critical reading, writing, and thinking actually mean before they can do those things. If you’re anything like me, you have internalized “critical thinking” as the raison d’être of the Humanities classroom, forgetting that there are actually a lot of incorrect assumptions and blatant misunderstandings about the very idea of what it means to be critical circulating in our popular culture. Brookfield intelligently frames, and rebuffs, those misunderstandings; here are my top three. (All text is from Brookfield; all boldface and italic emphases are my own.)
That It’s Negative:
For many of us the word critical carries negative connotations. Being critical is equated with cynical pessimism, with taking great pleasure in knocking down what other people have created; in short, with attacking and destroying what we portray as the naïve and shortsighted efforts of others. It is important to say from the outset, then, that critical reading is a process of appraisal, involving the recognition of positive as well as negative elements. In fact, using the words positive and negative is mistaken because it only serves to reinforce a false dichotomy that we have to reach a verdict that something is good or bad. What critical reading and writing are all about is assessing the accuracy and validity of a piece of work. This means that we will usually find aspects of research, philosophy, or theory that we dislike, disagree with, and find incomplete or overly narrow. But we will also find aspects that seem to us well described, recognizable, and informative. Few pieces of writing we read in a doctoral program will be so unequivocally wonderful or awful that we can adopt a film critic approach to its appraisal, giving it an intellectual thumbs up or thumbs down. If we are reading critically we will almost certainly find that our appraisals are multilayered, even contradictory (as in when the same passages both excite and disturb). But central to all critical reading is the acknowledgment of what we find to be well grounded, accurate, and meritorious in a piece of scholarly writing, as well as what we find wanting.
That It’s the Preserve of Politically Correct Left-Wingers:
…The point about critical reading, properly encouraged, is that critical questions are asked of all ideologies, disciplines, and theories. So a critical social science turns a skeptical eye on all claims to universal validity. For a teacher to mandate in advance—either explicitly or implicitly—that only one ideological interpretation or outcome is permitted in a discussion or assignment is to contradict a fundamental tenet of critical thinking. That tenet holds that all involved—including teachers—must always be open to reexamining the assumptions informing their ideological commitments. For teachers this imperative is particularly important, since one of the best ways in which they can teach critical thinking is for them to model the process in their own actions. I hope, personally, that a critical reading of texts results in students becoming more skeptical of conservative ideologies, and more aware of the inhumanity of monopoly capitalism. And I feel a duty to make my bias known. But I also must continually lay out my own assumptions, and the evidence for these, and invite students to point out omissions in my position and to suggest alternative interpretations that can be made of the evidence I cite. For me to decree that “proper” or “real” critical thinking occurs only when students end up mimicking my political views would be the pedagogic equivalent of papal infallibility. I would kill at the outset any chance for genuine, searching inquiry.
That It’s Wholly Cognitive: (this one’s my favourite!)
Critical reading, like critical thinking, is often thought of as a purely intellectual process in which rationality is valued above all else. The concept of rationality figures so strongly in work of critical theoreticians such as Habermas that it’s not surprising to find it prominent in discussions of critical thinking and reading. However, critical reading as it is outlined here recognizes that thought and reasoning is infused with emotional currents and responses. Indeed, the feeling of connectedness to an idea, theory, or area of study that is so necessary to intellectual work is itself emotional. Even our appreciation of the intellectual elegance of a concept or set of theoretical propositions involves emotional elements.
So in critical reading we pay attention to our emotions, as well as our intellect. In particular, we investigate our emotional responses to the material we encounter. We can try to understand why it is that we become enthused or appalled, perplexed or engaged, by a piece of literature. As we read work that challenges some of our most deeply held assumptions, we are likely to experience strong feelings of anger and resentment against the writer or her ideas, feelings that are grounded in the sense of threat that this work holds for us. It is important that we know this in advance of our reading and try to understand that our emotional reactions are the inevitable accompaniment of undertaking any kind of intellectual inquiry that is really challenging.
I’ve decided that I’m going to use these insights next semester very directly – I’m going to share them with my students, and invite a conversation about them. (This conversation might take place on the same day that we talk about owning our intellectual space; let’s imagine it to be a meta-lesson, early in the term, on how to improve our classroom learning toolbox.)
And, on that note: if you’ve got specific strategies for helping students to understand critical thinking and to develop their CT skills, I’d love to hear them.
Best of wishes,
I recently wrote in this space about learning to live with failure – to experience what it means to mess up, or be messed up, without needing desperately to get outside of that feeling, to move quickly on and away from the terror of what seems in the moment like a shattering personal disaster. Then, ten days ago, I received an extraordinary object lesson in what living with failure, with personal disaster, and moving slowly and publicly through that experience, can be in practice.
Peggy Shaw, one of the founders of the iconic performance troupe Split Britches, is also one of my performing heroes. As a young graduate student at Dalhousie University I read about her work with Deb Margolin and Lois Weaver in books and journals, in awe of their hilarious, pointed, bracing performances of gender and sexuality. I saw Peggy perform live for the first time in Menopausal Gentleman (1996), when she terrified my partner by seemingly threatening to come into the audience and make him participate in the show. Later, I had the privilege of working with Peggy and Lois during their month-long residency at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005, when they revived their ground-breaking Dress Suits for Hire at the Throws Like a Girl festival. Now, I am very fortunate to work daily with Lois Weaver at Queen Mary, University of London, where she is a professor in the Department of Drama, and to see Peggy when she visits town.
In 2011, Peggy Shaw suffered a stroke; her new show, Ruff, is about the experience of living and working through and with her stroke-changed body and mind. I saw the show at the Chelsea Theatre on April 5; it opened in Alaska, and visited Dixon Place in New York before coming to London (read about Ruff here, here, and here). It is, in reviewer Alena Dierickx’s words, an “ode to vulnerability and ageing that is all too often hidden away as if it is shameful or, worse still, boring.” For me, this is what makes Ruff an essential intervention into contemporary feminist performance, and into contemporary activist performance.
Peggy arrives on stage to thunderous applause and hoots of glee from an audience of friends, colleagues, and fans; she grins broadly, clutching an orange, a shoe, and a bottle of water to her chest. When the applause dies down she begins speaking in what strikes me as a quite formal, studied tone; it’s almost as though she’s struggling to remember her lines. I become a bit uncomfortable. What’s going on? This isn’t the virtuoso I remember. Then, she hands me the orange. “Will you hold my orange, please?” she says, looking into my eyes. Of course I will: immediately, I’m in her (slightly awkward) space, part of her performing world. She gives my friend Catherine the shoe, and my colleague Lara the bottle of water. Always the same question: could you please help me out for a minute? And now, we’re all in this, with Peggy, together.
I’m uncertain and nervous for about 10 minutes as the show proceeds and it’s clear that Peggy is struggling to remember her lines; that she is not the virtuoso I remember. She’s different now; age has changed her body, the stroke has affected her memory, and her physicality. But then I realise what else is going on here: Peggy is making this show out of these shifts and changes – out of what we as a culture would typically deem her failures as a performer, post-stroke. Her failure to remember her lines (a direct result of the stroke’s alteration of her brain) is literally on display: there are three LCD monitors on wheels around the performance space, running the full text of the show throughout the hour-long performance. Peggy moves them and uses them as needed; often, she turns the monitors toward us, letting us mark the differences between her (imperfect) memory of the script and the script “as written”. (I enjoy this a lot: it’s a salient reminder of how provisional all scripts are when they hit the boards in the bodies of actors.) Her newly compromised body is on display, too: she sits when she needs to sit, takes a break when she needs to take a break, and drinks from the bottle of water when required (always asking Lara politely first: can I have a drink?).
Most importantly, Peggy makes the performance one in which we, her audience, participate again and again as carers: audience as support system. We hold her stuff while we watch; we hand it back to her when she needs it (or, in Catherine’s case, walk on stage and place it as she needs it, when she’s already on her side on the floor and realises she’s missed the cue to reclaim the shoe); we witness her struggling and her amazing achievements; and we laugh and clap and laugh again as she turns the Kafka-esque ridiculousness of living through stroke into her trademark lesbian-feminist-butchly-outrageous comedy. We are with her as co-participants, as a community of vulnerable human beings: from the moment she walks on stage and reminds us how embarrassing an actor who struggles with lines is supposed to be; to the moment we understand that, in this performance, an actor is going to struggle to remember her lines and we are not going to be long embarrassed about it; to the moment, very late in the show, when two inflatable, remote-controlled fish float into the space to remind us all that this stroke is not in any way the end of Peggy Shaw’s world, but the beginning of a new set of journeys, journeys for which she’s going to need a bit more support than we’re perhaps used to giving one another, and very likely more support than we’re used to having to give actors on stage.
“Lois, am I supposed to be here now?” Peggy calls out to Weaver, who is sitting in the audience, at one point when she can’t quite remember her blocking. Why, Ruff asks then, is performance supposed to be about virtuosity, about dazzlement? Shouldn’t it also be about community, about expressions of care, about generosity and the celebration of long-standing friendships and working relationships? Above all, can it not be about recognising the human-ness of failures when they happen, about supporting our others through those failures, and easing the burden of moving through (not past) them?
In some ways, Peggy acts as our teacher in Ruff: full of humility, full of grace, but full of brass and intelligence and wit, she shows us what it means to get up in front of a group of people, mess up, and then embrace (even laugh at) the messing up, own it and live it, and turn it into a lesson in shared survival. In turn, we her audience act as teachers for her, too: a web of support that offers her the grounding she needs to get her performance (and her fish!) off the ground on this night, and every night from now on. Her stage becomes a true arena of learning. What a gift.
A few nights ago I ran into some graduate students from my department at the theatre, and we chatted for a while about what we had liked, and not liked, about the production. I found my junior colleagues’ reflections thoughtful and very worthwhile (they liked the production less than I did, and I was very keen to understand why), but I also found one of them very hard to hear. As our conversation developed she seemed to be sinking into herself, making her points so quietly I actually had to lean into her and turn my head toward her mouth to catch her words (and even then I think I missed half of what she was saying). I asked her to repeat herself a couple of times, but then I didn’t really want to keep doing it – I felt embarrassed, and, to be honest, a bit embarrassed for her.
This encounter struck a chord with me. Over the past year I’ve witnessed a substantial number of formal, in-class student presentations, and, on the vast majority of occasions, when young women presented their work they expressed the same kind of awkward, embarrassed affect as I experienced from my junior colleague at the theatre the other night. My women students would approach the front of the class and stand very awkwardly, hands thrust into pockets or sleeves, and seem to fold inward as they read their presentations from a piece of paper. Typically they spoke far too quickly, or far too softly, or both. They were plainly nervous and quite possibly, on an unconscious level, slightly ashamed to have the floor; they certainly did not give me, or their peers, the impression that they felt they had the right to be at the front of the class, taking up “teaching” space, owning their ideas.
My friend and colleague at the University of Calgary, Susan Bennett, has been mentoring me for some time on how to “take up space” in my discipline. Her attitude toward what it means to take up space has some affinities with Sharyl Sandberg’s currently trend(ing) notion of “leaning in” (click here for an excellent round-up of Guardian reporting and comment on her book), but in many ways Susan’s strategies are less daring, and far more doable. She has counselled me thus: when you speak at a conference, attend a board meeting, report on your work to a group of peers, or otherwise present yourself as a professional in your profession (or in the professions, plural), do not be afraid to own the space that has been given to you to offer your work and your opinions. Believe in the strength of what you have to offer. Believe that everyone is listening to you, and is keen to know what you have to share. Inhabit the space at the front of the group like you belong there – because you have earned the right to be there, and because you do belong there.
This is advice I think both young male and young female students need to hear, but it is advice young women in particular have been conditioned to doubt – and thus the work of “hearing” it is much harder for them. In one of my recent senior seminars, both of the male students in the class were able to take their places at the front of the room for their presentations and give me the impression they belonged there; by contrast, perhaps 15-20% of the women gave me that impression. Of course this is not a new observation – I could have guessed at these numbers before the seminar began – but I think it’s urgent (especially given the backlash from both men and women, both right and left, that Sandberg has recently faced) that we rehearse this observation again and again, and that, as teachers committed to training strong leaders and activist citizens, we think about ways to convince our students – all of them – that they have, by virtue of their places in our classroom and the work they do within our class community, equal right to inhabit the space at the front of the room.
How might we achieve this kind of a paradigm shift? Starting small seems a good idea to me. Having realised the problem with my women student presenters, and having noticed how pervasive that problem is (from undergraduates through to PhD candidates), I’ve decided that next year, in all seminars with presentation components, I’m going to give a pocket lecture and a demonstration on “taking up space”. Why is it important? What does it mean? What does it not mean? Taking up space, after all, should not be a bully stance: ideally, it should be about taking personal ownership of the front of the room – making space for your ideas when the stage is yours – and then being confident enough to open that space up to others to respond, share, and inhabit the podium position, too. Finding the balance between “owning” and “controlling” is an enormous (and in our culture a very gendered) challenge, and I think it’s worthwhile to have a serious, frank conversation with students about it before the main work of the semester gets underway. That way, we can, perhaps, receive one another’s work over the following weeks with a bit less gendered baggage, and a bit more generosity of spirit. And, perhaps, the women on the course can leave the classroom each week feeling stronger in themselves about what they have to offer the world.
Update on my last post: so far so good. Since Monday, I’ve read two new journal articles, one directly in my field and one not at all in my field, over breakfast (and, in one case, also over an afternoon coffee break); I’ve spent almost two full hours on a priority project that has been causing me stress and worry; and I’ve managed to keep my admin to about 90 minutes per day (with the exception of yesterday, when I had to visit campus for the morning – that was pre-booked and unavoidable). I’ve also read three chapters in my nominated book, Sharon Carnicke’s excellent Stanislavsky in Focus. Best of all, I feel good at the end of each day: I can track the time I’ve spent on different kinds of related research labour, and I can see ideas from these different kinds of labour starting to dovetail in productive ways. Next week, the challenge will be to incorporate time for marking (ACK! I forgot about the marking!) into the scheme.