Own your space!

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.

4 thoughts on “Own your space!

  1. Thanks for this reminder about gender equity in classroom presentations. It resonates with my experience as a teacher of vocal production for theatre performance. I have often observed that young women coming into the theatre program as first-year undergraduate students are convinced that they simply don’t have the vocal power to fill the theatre space. By focusing on the mechanical process of producing a strong, natural voice (I’m Linklater trained), some of them have been able to markedly improve their vocal power and range before they graduate. Perhaps focusing on breathing, relaxation, and so forth can help to sidestep the learned social patterns that seem particularly to inhibit self expression in female students. It certainly won’t hurt.

    • Thanks, Simon! Great advice. We don’t run a conservatory school, so our students, while used to being on stage (in black box spaces, anyway), don’t always have vocal training. Doing some vocal “warm ups” tailored for the seminar room is definitely a strategy I’ll try!

  2. Thanks for the post, Kim. Very timely and thoughtful. As a newly emerging academic (lots of experience as a practicing artist) I often catch myself feeling intimidated, like an imposter (ah, that old syndrome…) And of course this manifests itself physically and spatially when I speak or make presentations or even write papers. Good to be reminded of the importance of our own vocal and physical presence.

    • You make a great intervention, Julia: of course it’s never easy for us at the front of the class to maintain that “ownership” stance! I’ve humiliated myself countless times in front of my students; the turning point for me as a teacher came when I learned to be honest in/about those moments, rather than trying to perform everything-is-fine-ness. That honesty has, on balance, been much appreciated by and even inspirational for my students, and I consider it to be a large part of what I do when I “own” my space. That is, owning my professional space, for me, means owning *up* to errors, mistakes, forgetfulness, and other (minor) disasters. Owning my basic humanity. Subject for another post, perhaps!

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