On wasting time

Last week I had the chance to observe one of my colleagues, the applied theatre practitioner Ali Campbell, guiding a senior-year studio class. Normally, when I visit another teacher’s classroom, I expect to: sit quietly at the back of the room; watch him or her lead a discussion or provide lecture material; listen to student commentary and observe group dynamics; and then head up to the front of the room at the end of the class to tell my colleague what a good session it was and what I noticed about it.

With Ali, things always go differently.

What happened when I arrived in the rehearsal room where his class meets? First, I was handed a cup of tea. Indeed, the class was preparing for a tea party, during which they would be hosting a posse of seniors, retired NHS nurses originally from Jamaica, in order to conduct a performative, community-driven knowledge-sharing exercise; I arrived as things were getting started. The guests hadn’t arrived yet, so the students were all pitching in to make tea, find milk, lay out biscuits, and prepare name tags (special ones, on which we were each invited to draw an object representative of who we felt ourselves to be on that day). The guests were late, so this went on for quite a while, but Ali was not fazed; the room was absolutely jolly and, although the students were doing a bunch of different things, clearly not all of them “work”, the class also felt fully under control.

If the description above makes you roll your eyes and wonder if Ali and his gang weren’t just wasting precious time, I understand. All the stuff we tend to assume about what makes a productive classroom (eyes forward, people!) suggests they were. But what if our assumptions are misguided? What I noticed as a guest in the room was that the room housed an exceptional learning community; the students were working seamlessly together as a team, knew what they needed to do, and, once we got down to proper “work”, they quickly and organically generated exceptional insights together, all from the smallest prompts from Ali. By the time I left almost two hours later (the class meets for four hours at a time, once a week), I’d had two cups of tea, two cookies, made a rather nice little name tag, helped a group of four female students make a series of nuanced observations about the experience of crossing international borders, and created and performed with them a brief, Boal-inspired image exercise reflecting on those observations. In other words: we got rather a lot of stuff done.

I thought again about Ali’s classroom a couple of days ago, when I read a Tomorrow’s Professor post about “flipping the lecture” – a teaching mode designed to give students the freedom to listen to lecture material online, at their leisure, and then come to class prepared to work a series of problems in groups with the professor as roving guide rather than sage-on-the-stage. Flipping the lecture is just one of a number of alternative, active-classroom oriented pedagogical models that have become increasingly vogue in Anglo-American higher education over the last twenty years, but the thing I like about it is exactly what I liked so much about visiting Ali’s classroom: it implicitly puts pressure on the assumptions we hold about what constitutes a “productive” classroom – and it pushes directly back against the notion that a bunch of students talking together, in small groups, all at once in a classroom space necessarily means bad rather than valuable stuff is going on. Are those students probably also talking about Facebook, or about what happened at the party on the weekend, in addition to working on the problem assigned for the session? Of course! But: does the freedom to talk about a wide range of topics (even “time-wasting” ones) while also doing the work of the class help to energise them, to give them a kind of counter-intuitive incentive to get down to business?

“Flipping” (or Inverting) the classroom is a fairly new practice in and of itself, and there’s not a lot of “hard” data on its effects yet. But, as Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller argue in a March, 2013 paper in Educational Leadership, the anecdotal evidence from instructors is encouraging:

To date, there’s no scientific research base to indicate exactly how well flipped classrooms work. But some preliminary nonscientific data suggest that flipping the classroom may produce benefits. In one survey of 453 teachers who flipped their classrooms, 67 percent reported increased test scores, with particular benefits for students in advanced placement classes and students with special needs; 80 percent reported improved student attitudes; and 99 percent said they would flip their classrooms again next year (Flipped Learning Network, 2012). Clintondale High School in Michigan saw the failure rate of its 9th grade math students drop from 44 to 13 percent after adopting flipped classrooms (Finkel, 2012).

At its core, the notion of “flipping” is really just this: handing the work of the classroom’s “doing” over to students, trusting them with class time. That’s what seems frightening, I think, to those of us (like me) who learned primarily in conventional lecture-style classrooms, and who flourished in those spaces (and thereby earned classrooms of our own). Students are supposed to be more Welcome Back Kotter than Head of the Class, we reason; they aren’t supposed to be trusted with their own education. But these days we also spend a lot of time telling them they need to take charge of their own learning; why don’t we try showing them how to do that, too? As Goodwin and Miller conclude,

What inverted classrooms may really be flipping is not just the classroom, but the entire paradigm of teaching—away from a traditional model of teachers as imparters of knowledge and toward a model of teachers as coaches who carefully observe students, identify their learning needs, and guide them to higher levels of learning. (My emphasis)

I use a lot of delegated discussion and problem-solving exercises in my theatre studies classrooms, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes (OK: plenty of times) get frustrated, worrying that the students aren’t taking things seriously enough, or taking enough “content” away from the day. And, some days, I bet they aren’t. But plenty of days they are, and on those occasions I do exactly what I’m supposed to do: I play the coach, the guide, the cheerleader, the community leader. I encourage them to figure stuff out for themselves, I celebrate great ideas and make gentle fun of underwhelming ones – and, if they don’t take it all seriously enough, I try to remind them why (and how) they should. If they leave uninspired, it’s their fault, not mine – and that’s liberating for me, too, I must say.

Thanks, Ali!

Kim

On impact

This post is, by my ad-hoc self-imposed standard, a week late. Where’ve I been? To Texas, to Texas, for ASTR: that’s the annual meeting of the American Society for Theatre Research. Aside from being an excellent excuse for three days of barbecue, chilli and margaritas, ASTR this year featured a glorious celebration of one of the most influential, thoughtful, and eclectic scholar-teacher-activists in my field: Professor Jill Dolan.

Jill supervised my postdoctoral research at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005; she’s also been mentor and friend to, and vigorous defender of, a large number of my friends and colleagues in the discipline of theatre and performance studies, both younger and older. She deserves a place on countless teaching genealogies, not least because of the exceptional work she’s done in recent years on her performance blog, The Feminist Spectator, which was named after her important 1988 book The Feminist Spectator as Critic, and which has just spawned a new volume of its own, The Feminist Spectator in Action.

Thinking about Jill now, I always think first about her blog; I often read it over lunch, to see what she’s been watching (at the theatre and on TV and at the movies), and to admire her accessible yet rigorous style. She gets it just right, I think; The Feminist Spectator (which is, in many ways, a model for this blog, and for several academic blogs in my field, I’d wager) seeks to cut across audience demographics, and makes the crucial, generous assumption that every audience member is a critical one, interested on some level in thinking deeply about the material he or she watches, even if that spectator doesn’t realise it in the moment (while enjoying the show, which we all should do, of course). As it addresses all comers with its open, even-handed tone, its forceful critique, and its deliberately feminist engagement, the blog “smartens up” rather than dumbs down contemporary entertainment and insists its readers are absolutely smart enough to “get it”. And, in that, I guess The Feminist Spectator “has impact”.

What’s impact? This question tears the hair out of academics working in the UK these days. We’ve all just (about) finished a massive, top-down governmental audit of our research practices and outputs (that’s books and articles to me and you!) called the REF (“research excellence framework”), and one of the most important measures in this year’s REF (accounting for 20% of individual department scores and, according to the Guardian, spawning a new industry thereby!) is “impact”. Research impact is both a superficially clear concept – it means to have a measurable effect on people and groups (and companies…) outside the academy – and a deeply fraught one. Is being interviewed on the BBC “impact”? What if nobody is listening? Is speaking to large gatherings of non-academics “impact”? What if nobody takes any notes? Is spearheading scientific research designed to drive fresh product development or manufacturing innovation “impact”? What if nobody “buys” what the research is selling? For each of these, the answer is moot until we get the results of the REF next year; the question that remains in the air, though, is: whose impact is better (more impactful?) than others?

At this question’s prompt, I’m reminded of something that “impact” absolutely is not: one’s own teaching. Our teaching “outputs” do not count toward our REF submissions; writing a book about teaching, for example, is useless as far as the REF (and thus your department’s monetary investments in individual researchers’ REF potential) is concerned. Perversely, if I speak about my research on the radio or on TV, that work is naturally considered “impact” (even if nobody listens); if I deliver the same talk to my students in a seminar, with all of them taking notes (and then taking their learning out into the world) that work is not.

How utterly ridiculous – of course. And I have no doubt, personally, that the reason the former counts as “impact” and the latter does not has to do with money, plain and simple – with who spends what money where, and with how that spending gets counted by the systems that govern the funding of higher education in the neoliberal state. But I also have to laugh at the Kafka-esque nature of the REF’s relationship to teaching, because talented scholars like Jill Dolan, who “impact” diverse constituencies with their work every single day, make very little distinction between teaching and research labour, and indeed likely think – as I do – of teaching as the most impactful labour they do, in a huge variety of forums. So I’d like to raise a toast (make mine a margarita, on the rocks, please!) to Jill, and to everything she has taught her colleagues in theatre and performance studies, gender studies, and queer studies, as well as her many and varied readers far and wide: about how we talk to one another, both inside and outside the academy and both inside and outside the classroom; about how that teaching labour is both pleasurable and activist; and about how that labour is absolutely, unequivocally, a form of research. Which we must carry on. Because, REF it or not, it damn well has impact.

Cake

With spirit,

Kim

On Madness and Theatricality

“Madness and Theatricality” is the name of a studio practice course taught by my friend and colleague Bridget Escolme at Queen Mary; it’s a thoughtful, critically engaged exploration, via performance-making, reading, and discussions, of what it means to put mental illness on the stage, and to use the stage as a platform on which to explore what mental illness means to individuals and to the societies that (often) judge them. This course has been top of my mind lately, as Bridget and I have been involved in a project to develop a collaborative Masters of Science program in the creative arts and mental health at Queen Mary. We’ve been learning from our colleagues in the medical school; hosting discussions with the exceptional artists and educators at CORE Arts, Pallant House/Outside In, Daily Life, Ltd., and elsewhere; and, of course, seeing stimulating performance.

Two recent pieces have got me thinking about the ways in which we, as tuned-in members of twenty-first century society, talk now about mental and emotional wellbeing, sickness, recovery, and that loaded term, “therapy” – and about how we might do so in more nuanced ways. One of these performances has been far more influential and widely visible than the other; neither is “correct” in its representation of mental illness – whatever that might mean – though one, I think, is far more productive than the other in its rendering of the weave between “illness” and “art”, as well as in its thinking about what it means to be a “patient” (and how to recognise the limitations of that term). Both use humour; both invite a certain sadness. Both engaged and troubled me, but in very different ways.

This blog is about teaching, performance, and activism, and in that sense it’s about thinking ethically and critically about the issues that matter to teachers as well as to students. As a perfectly healthy teacher who takes medication for what is technically classified as a mental disorder (according to the American Psychiatric Association), I’ve been noticing an awful lot of my fellow “sufferers” around these days, both among faculty and among students. Some come to my office to speak with me directly about their difficulties; others struggle quietly, waiting too long to seek support; still others are sick of being diagnosed and classified and made to conform to boxes on forms and labels on pill bottles. For better and for worse, mental illness and wellness are now as much a part of the lingo, and the experience, of university teaching and learning as are books and tuition fees. Talking about the representation of these things needs to be part of our critical idiom too, then, as we work through who we are, who our society seems to think we are, and who we hope to become. For me, reflecting on these two, recent performances in tandem has been part of that working-through.

The first is Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s new, widely acclaimed film remaking Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and starring Cate Blanchett in the role of the Blanche Dubois figure. Like most intellectual types, I’m a fan of Allen and was keen when I heard rumours that this was by far his best film in years, harking back to the heyday of Annie Hall; I also adore Blanchett and find her a tremendously thoughtful interpreter of challenging female characters from the modern canon.

Blue Jasmine is well made, funny, charming and pleasurable in all the ways you’d expect from vintage Woody Allen; it’s also shockingly classist, using, I suspect, the excuse of Williams’ own rather stereotyped Stella and Stanley to turn both Sally Hawkins’ Ginger and Bobby Cannavale’s Chili into lightly but firmly disdained comic relief. But raging elitism isn’t a new thing for Allen, and while I object to it here I’m not especially troubled by it, because Hawkins and Cannavale are particularly strong and able actors who make of their characters terrific, complex, contradictory figures, at once sure of the respect they are owed by those “above” them yet doubting of the respect they can offer one another. As I’ve reflected on the movie, it’s not the camera’s mocking of Ginger and Chili that’s stayed with me; rather, it’s the ease with which Allen frames Jasmine as “sick”, perhaps irretrievably so.

Blanchett’s performance is virtuosic, her Jasmine at turns hateful and pitiable and smart and gorgeous and funny. The problem is that every time we get a sense of Jasmine’s intelligence, warmth, and talent, the camera pulls back to show her falling prey to hallucinations, inappropriate talking in public, and other behaviour that has been standardized in our contemporary imaginations as just plain “mad”. For those who don’t know the play, Streetcar frames Blanche, the fallen sister of the slumming Stella, as lost to nostalgia and reverie and regret to an almost debilitating degree; she ends the play carted off to hospital as she delivers her famous, dubious line about relying on the “kindness of strangers”. The play’s “mad” plot is part of Allen’s intertext, in other words, but while Williams’ Blanche is by no means one-dimensional, and is arguably a victim of male violence and social stigma (for her sexual choices as much as for her pretensions to grandeur) rather than simply a sick woman, Blanchett’s Jasmine has, in the end, no place to go but crazy. Every time Blanchett offers depth, warmth, or complexity, for example, one of two things happens: either we see her ordering a Vodka martini (thus suggesting alcoholism explains her problems), or we see her talking to herself/others as though she is reliving a scene from her past with her philandering husband (thus suggesting a broken heart has shot her into some form of psychotic break). She’s interesting and remarkable and lovely to watch, and I want to invest in her, follow her into her world – but then, all of a sudden, I’m given a sharp, well-executed reason for disconnecting, for remembering that, after all, she’s just sick and needs help.

I don’t want to diminish Blanchett’s achievement in this film; an actor in a Hollywood blockbuster (which is what a Woody Allen movie, give or take a few million in receipts, always is) can only do so much with the lines on the page he or she is given, and Blanchett creates as attractive and compelling a figure as I can imagine, given the script. But the limits of Jasmine as a representation of a woman struggling with a combination of difficult social and economic circumstances (Jasmine has lost everything, including her marriage, and moved to San Francisco to start over) and a possible illness are clear in the fact that we’re never given to believe Jasmine can really come out of this one without some sort of medical intervention. She’s not hauled off to the ward at the film’s end, but she might as well be.

On the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is The Fantasist, a puppet and physical theatre piece created by Theatre Témoin and presented this past week as part of the Suspense Festival of puppetry in London. Creator/performers Julia Yevnine, Catherine Gerrard, Julia Corrêa, along with co-deviser and director Ailin Conant, weave a world in which we begin and end on the ward Jasmine might anticipate, and yet that space is so much more than just a hospital room where benevolent care is doled out to needy, difficult women. For one thing, the “patient” is also an artist, and – more importantly – is the “fantasist” of the title; as the show’s press materials explain,

In the mind of the fantasist, the real and the fanciful become dangerously blurred. As Louise gazes into the night, her fancy takes form. Objects move, time changes … and a seductive stranger opens up a world of exhilaration and magic.

These are the “glorious heights” as well as the “murky depths” of what it means to live with bipolar disorder, rendered on stage as an experience at once conducive to pleasure, to safety and comfort, to childish innocence, to forceful adult sexuality, to exceptional artistry, and to creative destruction, and yet also shown to be harmful, difficult, and painful for the artist/fantasist, drawn to protect her harsh but creative world even as her “jailer”, the consultant Josie, strives to protect her from that world with pills and injections, as well as kind words and gentle physical contact. Who is the threat here: Josie, or the mysterious blue man (a stunning, morning-coated, gentleman puppet)? Who offers the elusive “cure”: friends and family, pills and needles – or the potion the blue man proffers, and which the manic, Muppet-like, wardrobe-dwelling, half-broken but still-feisty female disembodied heads encourage Louise to drink? What’s better: making gorgeous paintings on canvas, walls, and doors, then destroying them – or “slowing down” and sleeping, recovering, letting the body relax and breathe? The performance offers these questions but no answers; Louise’s inspiration is also her illness, and the pros and cons tend to balance out disturbingly well. I found myself riveted, mesmerised, troubled, enchanted, and hurt; as Louise disappeared into her wardrobe in the show’s final moments I was not sure what had happened to her, and not entirely sure if it was a bad thing.

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[Julia Yevnine as Louise, with puppets, in The Fantasist]

This isn’t to say, of course, that The Fantasist “celebrates” bipolar disorder as a source of genius, rather than staging it as illness; in fact, it does both, and far more mundane things in between. The thing it does that Blue Jasmine fails to do, in fact, is exactly this: it offers us a picture of mental dis-ease that asks us to question our assumptions about what it means to live in and with an altered mindscape, and that suggests the ending need not entail a journey onto the ward for all “patients” at play’s end. Louise, after all, escapes the ward, just as Jasmine appears to be heading for it. But, again: we’re not entirely sure if that’s a good thing, either.

I see friends, colleagues, and students struggle every day with versions of Louise’s blue man, inhabiting Jasmine’s pain but not drowning in it. Why can’t our most popular representations of “madness” do a better job of performing the murky, grey areas, the complexities as well as the confusions of living with variants of the DSM’s cold, hard diagnoses? Surely we owe our students, not to mention one another, better models of living with these experiences, so that we might reassure and comfort one another, certainly, but also so that we might come to know ourselves better.

Kim