It’s “welcome week” at Queen Mary, which means we’re knee-deep in new students, meetings, and general first-week merriment (and stress!). Despite the administrative stuff, which I’ve never much liked and which seems to increase as I get more and more senior in my job, I’ve always been extremely fond of the first week back at school. As my friend and colleague MJ Kidnie once said to me, it’s the best time of the year: everybody is fresh, there’s a pleasing nip in the air, and nothing is due yet!
September is, in this spirit, the perfect time to remember why we love teaching and learning, how we got where we are today, and what makes life on a university campus so challenging and yet so special.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Glasgow, presenting a lunchtime talk to the postgraduate student caucus at the Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA). Our topic was “postgraduates who teach,” inspired by a recent survey of postgraduate teaching conditions in the UK, which reveals – surprise, surprise – a cohort of PhD teachers who are often radically underpaid, poorly trained, and unhappy with their working conditions. In the face of this bad (but sadly predictable) news, I organized my contribution to the session around this question: given that things aren’t rosy, and probably won’t be rosy any time soon, how will you get what you need out of your postgraduate teaching assignment? What will you do to ensure your teaching experience is rich, that you get the feedback you need, and that you don’t let teaching (as it all too easily can, and definitively should not for grad student teachers) dominate your life?
My talk revolved around the work I have done on this blog, but our discussion afterward shifted into the problem of student ennui: how do we conquer our students’ apathy, and encourage them to take responsibility for their learning? One young woman (whose name I am currently seeking!) made the excellent observation that, as I had been discussing strategies I use to develop, maintain, and evolve my teaching practice, perhaps we need to find ways to encourage our students to think critically about their learning practice. Gobsmacked was I by this: what a terrific idea, and what a succinct way to explain the work I, and the terrific teachers I know, all try to do every day.
So how, then, do we best teach students how to build a learning practice?
I’ve been pondering this question for a while, and I think the answer is: we start at home, by thinking through our own learning practices. Every teacher has a teaching practice and a learning practice, whether we realize it consciously or not. Every teacher also has a learning genealogy: a family tree of teaching influences good, bad, and eclectic that have shaped who we are and how we teach over the years. I suspect (generalizing from my own experience) that many of us are influenced overtly and covertly by a host of individuals and experiences that we assimilate into our teaching without thinking often enough about how we’re doing that. This kind of subtle, continuous assimilation is perfectly normal and not a problem, but if we want to reflect on, and then teach properly, the practice of learning to our students, perhaps we need to bring our teaching genealogies into the open.
I’ve done mine – it’s partial, necessarily, but as complete as it can be at this moment in place and time – and I want to share it here. I also want to invite and encourage everyone reading to do the same, and to comment on this post with their own genealogies (partial, complete, limited, as you wish). I’m hugely curious about what influences us, and how. My guess is that, for many of us, our teaching genealogies will feature teachers we’ve loved, students who have shaken our foundations, and probably a bunch of other stuff from the world outside the classroom too.
Think of this as an exercise in curating and cataloging the process of how we all got here, to this fresh September
Kim’s teaching genealogy:
- Mrs Bradley, elementary school music. Mrs Bradley was the first of my teachers I properly remember. I also remember finding her crying in the music room after a particularly bad choral concert; I suspected in that moment that our poor singing had embarrassed her in front of parents and colleagues. I felt embarrassed, too (my teacher is crying!) but also sympathy for her, as I realized for the first time that teachers are human beings who also cry, and whom we can disappoint.
- Mr Fiorello, middle school French. Growing up in a working class suburb in Edmonton, Alberta, I’d get bullied and then blamed for it by the parents who didn’t want to hear about the crappy things their kids had done to me; they called me a tattletale. Mr F. hated bullies, and taught me – for the first time – that it was perfectly OK to call them out, in fact that it was my job to call them to account. He was my first activist teacher.
- My dad. My dad taught me long division on the billiard table in our basement, using the balls and other stuff of the game to model the math. When I was struggling horribly and convinced I wasn’t smart enough to get what everyone else in my class already seemed to grasp, he helped me see that there is more than one way to learn a complex concept.
- Mr Stelter, high school English. Wayne Stelter at Archbishop MacDonald High School in Edmonton was probably the single most influential person to teach me. Kind, gentle, warm hearted and entirely hilarious, he made English literature seem like a pretty cool career. He supported and nurtured my skill with language, and he encouraged me to pursue literature in my university studies. He also helped me to decide against becoming an architect (my high school dream), but in such a way that allowed me to come on my own to the crucial realization that it would be the wrong career choice.
- Nora Stovel, third-year drama. Nora teaches at the University of Alberta, and her drama courses in the third year of my English lit degree changed my life. I use a version of Nora’s fun, active, collaborative drama-teaching model in my own practice to this day; it evolves constantly, but the core remains hers.
- My female mentors. I’ve been lucky to work alongside a number of incredibly talented female academics, both ahead of me and in my own cohort of colleagues – all of whom have taught me important things about how to manage my time, how to balance work and family life, how to prevent myself from getting sucked into jobs detrimental to my research, and how to take up space. Shout-outs especially to Elizabeth Harvey and Nancy Copeland at the University of Toronto, who got me through my dissertation and helped me get my first job; to Susan Bennett at the University of Calgary, who demonstrates work-life balance every time we meet; and to Jenn Stephenson at Queen’s University, with whom I have had endless productive teaching conversations. A lot of my work with my mentors hasn’t actually been teaching-specific, but it all has an impact: a balanced academic life means a better time in the classroom, full stop.
- The students in my first Modern Drama class at Western University, autumn 2005. This class went about as badly as it could have done in the first few weeks; by December I was convinced it was a train wreck and that I was a horrible teacher. I sent around an informal survey before we broke up for the holiday, asking each student to list one thing they wished to stay the same, and one thing they’d like to see changed, in the second semester. I locked the surveys in a cupboard in my flat and went to see my parents for Christmas; when I came home I sat down to read them, flooded with nerves. But they were fine. The students were mostly OK! Some stuff emerged as a problem, but the good news was that it was a fixable one. I made a plan, held an hour-long discussion with the students about that plan when we regrouped in January, and we agreed on a couple of simple changes. The results were amazing – and I began to feel confident, and happy, again.
- My husband. Jarret and I joke that he has dropped out of almost every school that has ever given me a degree (it’s quite nearly true!), but in the long run that fun fact has proved a really useful model. Jarret has no degree – though he does have a cobblestone university education – and yet is a successful entrepreneur and lifelong independent learner. He has taught me to encourage students who don’t fit traditional university models to build the strength to think outside the box marked “social expectations”; he has also reminded me, again and again, to look out for the students in my classrooms who look like the learning models on offer aren’t working well for them.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even though there are now students in my classes who were too young to watch the series when it premiered in 1997, and who don’t even remember it ending (!!!), I continue to use Buffy anecdotes, episodes, and more in my teaching. The Buffster and her Scoobies were the original feminist geek activists: they saved the world, man!
- My terrific and inspiring colleagues at Western University and at Queen Mary, especially MJ Kidnie. I’m so lucky to know so many amazing teachers, and to be able to rely on them for exceptional advice and support when stuff goes wrong in my classroom. MJ stands out, though: she was the first colleague to observe my teaching, and one of the first colleagues whose teaching I observed. She is hugely supportive but also the straightest shooter I know: she praises boldly and celebrates vigorously the stuff that goes right, yet she is also candid and extremely clear when she sees things go wrong. She has taught me that I can be both generous, genial, and funny in front of my students, and rigorous, firm, and direct with them, calling out students who take liberties that put the egalitarian nature of the classroom at risk. I’m pretty good at the former, but not very good at the latter (a familiar problem for a lot of female teachers I know); MJ, however, is a master at both. She thus models the kind of teaching into which I’d like my practice to evolve.
The above remains a work in progress as I track how I’ve become the teacher I am today and where I’m going as I try to shape my teaching and learning practices for the future. I could add many more people and things and experiences to this list, of course – including the inspiring Jo McRae, who is actually my teacher as we speak! – but I’ll leave it here for now: 10 seems a good, round number.
I’ll be returning to this topic in the not-too-distant future; I’ve asked the postgraduates who attended the TaPRA session with me to reflect on their own teaching genealogies on their caucus blog, and already posts are coming in. Hopefully some of their wisdom and reflections can appear here soon, too.
In the meantime, happy September!