What support really achieves

As a number of readers know, I’m in the middle of training for a slightly mad event: a charity cycle ride that will see me and my teammates try to get from London, England to Paris on our road bikes in just 24 hours. (That’s 280 miles, or about 450km. Yikes!) As part of the build-up to that event I’m writing some guest posts for Sam Brennan and Tracy Isaacs at Fit, Feminist, and Almost Fifty; click here to read my first one.

I’m passing this post in particular along because it’s relevant to teaching and learning; in fact, it features me thinking from the perspective of a student about what support from a teacher or mentor means (or can mean) in practice. In most areas of my life I teach, or occupy a sharing role (as a partner, for example); I’m not often anymore in the position of the novice learner. But as a cyclist – and especially as a serious road cyclist – I am very much still learning. So, as I prepare for London to Paris, I’ve got my student’s cap on. It’s a useful shift in perspective – one I really recommend to all the teachers out there!




Evaluate me!

This past week I prepared my first set of “module reports”. Here in the UK (or at least at my school, Queen Mary), at the end of each term instructors and convenors take some time to reflect on what happened during their modules (aka courses), to examine and comment on trends in the student evaluation data, and to share future plans for each module. In my department there’s a standardised template for this task, and after looking at it online I was kind of dreading filling it in (six times over). Finally, last Monday, and with permission from the colleague in charge of collating the reports, I decided to chuck the template out and write about each of my modules in an extended way in my teaching journal. I then imported that writing into a Word doc and sent it to her. Job done!

And now I have to ask myself: template tantrum aside, what took me so long?

The exercise was terrific. By far, the most useful (and satisfying) part of it involved looking seriously – which is to say carefully, and for longer than 15 minutes – at the student evaluation data for each course I taught in 2012-13. The jury remains perennially out on whether or not eval data can tell us anything useful about student experience and/or professorial teaching skill (for two recent articles, one on each side of the debate, look here and here). Nevertheless, I’ve always taken student evaluations seriously, read them (I thought) with some care, and marked up my hard copies before sticking them in a dedicated folder in my filing cabinet for future reference. I realized this past week, though, that never before have I taken a dedicated (and not a short) period of time to really look properly at both the data and the written student comments on my evaluations, and to cross-reference student experiences across several concurrent courses.

Doing this (slow, measured) cross-referencing was really eye-opening. I know I’m good at certain key teaching elements (being engaging in front of the class; managing group activities effectively; connecting with students who can’t quite articulate what they need, and helping them to figure out a path forward), but I’m less good (as I suspect we all are) at working out how exactly I can improve my teaching in those areas the evaluations flag (often nebulously) as potential problems. That’s likely, in part, because in the past when I’ve read my evaluations just for me I’ve been drawn to the good stuff (of course), and I’ve worked actively to minimize the impact on me of the not so good stuff (of course, again). As I noted in my post back in April on failure, it’s a fairly typical human reaction to receive criticism alongside an immediate urge to mitigate it; without doubt, in the past when I’ve read student evaluations I’ve done so with an eye to absorbing the good, pushing past the bad, and getting on with other things (aka forgetting about it). This time around, because of the demands of the “module report” exercise, I had to spend a good chunk of time observing, accounting for, and then writing about both the good I’d achieved and the places I’d failed to achieve what I was hoping to do.

What did I learn? For the most part, things I knew already, but only intuitively and for myself: that I’d often felt rushed in my seminar on Naturalism (a number of students asked in their evals for longer seminars, which was gratifying [!] and also took some of the sting out of the comments saying that they had felt rushed, too); that the course I ran on gender and power in early modern drama had been taken over a bit too completely by its experimental archive component, leaving some students feeling that they hadn’t really completed the course they’d signed up for; and that a number of students weren’t completely clear on my marking criteria. I also discovered trends that are likely evidence of more global difficulties in our department and even higher up the chain: for example, students struggle to understand aims and objectives in all of my courses, even though “aims” and “objectives” receive their own headings on both my (extensive) course outlines and on our department’s virtual learning environment module pages. For me, the take-away here is that students may need more help navigating our new virtual learning software, and probably also that they ignore a good chunk of my outline documents (maybe those should be shorter, and easier to navigate, too…).

The other thing I realized while reading, reflecting on, and writing about my evaluation data is that I’m not satisfied with the evaluation documents we use here at QM (and that’s not just a QM problem – I’m not satisfied with any of the evaluation forms I’ve ever filled in, or handed out for filling in, as a student or as a teacher). To minimize marking labour these are multiple-choice forms, with not a huge amount of space made for students to reflect in writing on their experiences; the questions are generic, enormous, and need to apply easily to vast numbers of different kinds of courses in order to be cross-reference-able across the entire university (and beyond). I understand, in other words, why the forms look the way they do, but the fact remains that, for courses driven by intellectual curiosity and creativity, complex research questions, and extended pieces of reflective (and research-led) writing, answering “yes”, “no”, or “maybe” to very general questions about teacher preparedness, methodology, and resources can only tell us so much about student experience. I know it’d be a lot more work to program and evaluate written reflections, coding those reflections for key words and themes (in 2008 I led a qualitative data-driven teaching study at Western University, so I do really get what a pain in the ass this kind of work can be), but I suspect we’d learn more, and more useful things, from text-centred evaluations in programs like English, Drama, and elsewhere in the Humanities, if not also in the “hard” sciences and engineering.

More importantly: in courses driven by creative thinking, writing, and performing, as all of mine are, evaluations that ask students to “grade” their instructors on the same terms – that is, via creative thinking and writing – as those by which we grade them might bring a welcome sense of fairness to the evaluation process. After all, if I stand up in front of the class and tell my students that their assessment of my work really matters to me, and is an important part of our shared classroom labour, I’d like to be able to hand out those darn forms knowing that I’m asking them to offer me the kind of feedback I’ve proudly offered them, and that I will, indeed, be taking it seriously.


PS: mid-term evaluations, how to create them, and how best to use them… the subject for another post, perhaps. Meanwhile, check out the terrific evaluative resources provided by the Cornell Centre for Teaching Excellence here.

On second marking

Ah, second marking. Those reading from the UK will be heaving out a huge groan right about now; second marking, scourge of all our ends of term. For those not familiar (you lucky so-and-so’s!), second marking is the practice, common in the United Kingdom, whereby each paper or exam worth more than 50% of a student’s final grade in any given class must be read by a second teacher, assigned a second provisional grade, and then a final grade agreed by both parties. Sounds onerous, doesn’t it?

Yes, it’s absolutely onerous. And I’ve been complaining loudly about second marking to all my Canadian colleagues this spring, enjoying (in a slightly masochistic sort of way) the pain that spreads across their faces as they think about what that might mean: a whole extra load of papers to grade at the end of every term. Madness!

This week, however, I had a really good second marking experience. I was working with a colleague whose load consisted of just a handful of papers, but long-ish ones. They also weren’t in a traditional paper format, arguably making both their writing (for the students) and their marking (for us) tricky. I collected the papers from our school’s secure server, read them on my flight home from Vancouver, and was slightly surprised to discover that, in a number of cases, I disagreed with my colleague’s assigned grades. (Not enormously, but enough to make a difference to the students in question, for sure.) This disagreement didn’t have anything to do with the quality of my colleague’s assessment or feedback (both of which were excellent), but, I think, rather resulted from my bringing a quite different disciplinary perspective to the materials at hand. I simply may also have been in a different frame of mind than my colleague when marking: I’d just spent a few days with good friends at a conference, and two days on a proper holiday. There’s something to be said for a genuinely ‘fresh’ perspective!

I sent my thoughts to my colleague when I landed, and she then had another read of all the papers, taking my comments into consideration. Later, we swiftly and congenially agreed marks that took both of our perspectives into account. As a result of this – the second marking process at its best – her students can be confident that they received extremely fair grades and thorough feedback, and both of us can say we had a positive, indeed even generative, second marking experience.

Of course it’s not always this way. Sometimes second marking means uncomfortable disagreements, or dealing with colleagues’ hard-headedness, or sometimes it can feel like an incredible waste of everyone’s valuable time. I’ve had perfectly fine second marking experiences as a teacher in the UK so far, but as a student at another University of London college, in the late 1990s, I had rather bad ones. (In that case, my college practiced double marking: students saw all the, often contradictory, feedback from both markers as two separate grades on the same paper. QM Drama’s practice is more sane: the first and second markers work together to agree both grades and feedback. In this sense, it’s properly collaborative.)

My experience this week got me thinking seriously, maybe for the first time, about second marking as one of the many tools in my ‘activist teacher’ box. I’ve been wondering: what does second marking do for us, both teachers and students? I’ve realised that I have long thought of second marking as administrative – a thing we have to get done and over with, like most committee work – but, of course, it need not be: even though much second marking isn’t directly experienced by students, it’s still a teaching and learning opportunity. It’s a chance to collaborate with colleagues, to share our feedback practices with one another, and to gain others’ insights into great marking techniques. It’s also a chance to see ourselves as markers – a role I sometimes too easily gloss over when thinking of my labour as a teacher – reflected in the eyes of a third, less interested party, someone who can help us to see what kinds of feedback are useful, and what kinds are unhelpful or even harmful. Students are rarely able to offer that kind of in-depth reflection on marking that affects them: getting marks and comments back on a paper is just too fraught an experience. Although the most intelligent and thoughtful of students (such as the one about whom I wrote in my first post on this blog, here) can take the time to separate themselves from the grades they get and approach the challenge of improving their work a bit more objectively, I am living, teaching proof that not all good students are good at that kind of labour. (As an undergrad, I would run into bathroom stalls in far-flung buildings to read my comments, so nobody I knew could hear the whoops of joy and wails of grief.)

I’d like to hear others speak to this  issue – teachers and students alike. Is second marking on your radar? Is it your scourge? Does it make a difference to you if your work is read by two professors? Do you find I’m overstating its potential value? I remain on the fence here: second marking takes a heck of a lot of time, and I’m not convinced it can ever all be valuable. Is it another instance of what my colleague Martin Welton calls “mission creep” in the academy, where instructors at all levels are increasingly called upon to plug enormous, systemic gaps in post-secondary institutions? Or is it exactly at the heart of our mission, as teachers and lifelong learners?

Curious to know your perspective,


Thinking critically about “creation”

I’m currently attending the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research (CATR) on the gorgeous UVic campus in Victoria, British Columbia.


This morning we kicked off with a keynote by playwright and performance-maker Marie Clements; Maris is a Metis/Dene artist whose spectacularly magical-realist plays have featured prominently on my Canadian Drama courses over the past few years. She’s also an utterly inspiring speaker. Her topic this morning was “A Creator’s Guide to the Unknown”; she cheekily began by telling us all that she’d duped us – there’s no guide to be had. Sipping her water and settling in at the podium, she then offered up a beguiling riff on the subject of what it takes not just to create art in her/our world right now, but to survive, creatively, this life we share. I took a lot of notes (not something I do much at conferences any more), because the more she spoke the more I heard echoes not only to my current research interests, but especially to my teaching and learning practice. I’d like to share here three of the most valuable insights I pocketed at Marie’s talk this morning.

1. It’s important to bring your baggage to creation.

A few of my colleagues were chatting this morning before breakfast about how powerful students’ anxieties can be. And ours too! We work in a creative industry, and I don’t just mean because we’re all theatre professors and students, driven by the impulse to perform. We are creative when we make performance, to be sure, but we are also creative when we write scholarly papers about performance (or anything else). It’s true: scholarly labour is creative labour, and a scholar’s writer’s block is no less severe than a novelist’s or a playwright’s.

I have been absolutely defeated by writer’s block in the past. When it comes upon me, it stems from the fear that I will never be able to get down on paper in any kind of coherent fashion the ideas swirling chaotically in my brain. And I know I’m not alone in this fear and in my encounters with its attendant inertia. (Did I mention I’ve been writing this great book about contemporary realist performance for, oh, about four years now?) One way to get over this stuff is, as Marie notes, to bring your baggage along: not to ignore it, or to try to forget about it, or to hope it goes away – but to reckon with it. Talk with  peers, friends, teachers and mentors about it. Acknowledge that what we are doing is hard, intellectual, creative labour, and requires us, sometimes, to dig deeply into our own selves in order to make critical connections and face painful ghosts. I might not be writing about those ghosts, but do not think they aren’t bugging me while I’m sitting there not writing. Do not try to pretend the bags away – that has never worked. Zip them open.

2. The most important thing is to keep the pace.

Marie told us that she tells her young mentees to write for three hours a day. Or, if that’s not possible, to sit in front of the computer/paper/desk/whatever for that period of time, and just try. Write something. Write crap if it’s crap you think you’re writing; something may or may not be salvaged, but the act of writing itself is never, ever a loss.

I’ve only recently come to recognise this advice as wisdom; I always thought that I was one of those people who wrote best in blitz form, after the crucial research was done. But, hey, did I mention that book I’m writing? Right now the blitz just isn’t working; I’ve taken, as those of you who read my summer strategies post back in April know, to doing 60-90 minutes a day, outside term time, of core work on stuff that scares me. So far so good; in fact, so much so that I know this is advice – in slightly modified form, of course – that I’ll be passing on to undergraduates in the autumn. Got four papers due in the next three weeks? That’s ok; work on each for half an hour a day. You’ll get there. Just keep the pace.

3. A huge part of surviving is knowing what not to be afraid of.

Fear can keep us from doing a lot of stuff: we all know this, right? This morning, Marie reminded us how important it is to embrace fear. Getting used to fear – what it feels like, what it can do, what it can’t do – is part of living, she told us; instead of trying to control fear, why not train ourselves to live with it, to experience it “as a tool” that will help us get what we need? The only way to know what is not worth my fear is to allow myself to feel fear when needed, and to be ok with it.

This is superb advice for any teacher – for example, I need to allow myself to be afraid in the moment just before I walk into my classroom, so that I can experience the care, the concern for my students, that fear signifies, and so that I can not be afraid when I’m actually standing in front of them – but it’s also ideal advice for anyone engaged in a process of active learning. I’ve written in this space already about the value of sitting in the presence of failure, feeling it and observing it rather than trying to control it and make it go away. I think Marie’s advice to feel fear, embrace it, and then use that fear-feeling as a tool to move forward productively is of a piece with my thinking about failure as a valuable feature of any teaching and learning experience.

What does it mean to use fear as a tool of learning? I suspect it’s about understanding proactively how much power resides in fear, and about knowing that fear can make you do useful, mindful things as well as lousy ones. Marie’s examples this morning tended toward her family’s experience of working in the natural world: when you are hunting animals, for example, or working on the land you need to know what things – storms, predators, certain plants – warrant your fear, so that you can know where safely to step, where to take shelter, how to protect yourself. Fear, embraced and accepted, provides a clear path forward: step here but not here; take this action instead of that action. In my role as a teacher, feeling fear in a mindful way can help me to make a good classroom plan, and to execute it knowing that I’m doing something to help myself out of stress’s way. Feeling fear mindfully may help me to develop systems for being more adaptable in the classroom, so that when I’m shaken I can stand up again, acknowledge the shakiness, and keep going. In my role as a researcher, feeling fear in a mindful way may help me to try out new strategies for curbing the anxiety that a big block of writing labour produces in my imagination. It may help me to give myself a break when one strategy doesn’t work, knowing there’s another yet to be attempted. Or perhaps it may help me simply to be kinder to myself, to remind myself that many of my colleagues and peers feel this same fear, and that we all, every day, survive it anyway.

Not being mindful of fear may prompt the opposite actions, and those actions may become ruts, roadblocks, perhaps even catastrophes. I want to avoid those – and I want my students to avoid them, too. Here, then, is to unzipping that baggage, embracing that fear, and keeping the pace. Advice for teachers and students young and old, from a tremendous artist and a gifted human being.

With gratitude,