Activating the activists: The Activist Classroom goes to the University of Michigan

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting the University of Michigan, where I gave a talk and a graduate seminar for students working in drama, English literature, and related fields. My talk was about my current research project (“Realism After Neoliberalism”), but my graduate seminar was framed by issues related to the blog. I wanted to take the opportunity afforded by a 90-minute discussion with graduate students I didn’t already know or work with to push at some of the core terms and ideas on which the blog is based, and to get a sense from them of what being “activist” in one’s teaching actually means, might mean, or perhaps should not mean. The students – Phil, Claudia, Charisse, Matt, Ann, Lauren, and a couple of others who wanted to remain anonymous for the purposes of this post – did not disappoint; over the course of the seminar we compared strategies, anxieties, and they helped me to interrogate and even unsettle (in a good way!) some of my core beliefs about activist classrooms.


I organised the session around four “prompts” – questions I posed to the group in succession about a series of related ideas. I offered a prompt, we free-wrote quietly in response to it for about 5 minutes, then we paired up (different pairings each time) and shared our thoughts locally before debriefing as a group and then moving on to the next prompt. This is an extension of thinking/writing exercises I use often in my undergraduate classes, altered here based on the nature of the session, its audience and purposes – talking to junior colleagues who are also beginning teachers.

These were the prompts:

1. What do you aim to do – really do – when you teach?

(This is a “tell me your teaching philosophy” prompt, but it asks you to reflect on your philosophy before you write it down, rather than repeat what you think you should be saying in your teaching portfolio.)

2. What does the word “activism” mean to you? Is it a word with which you identify?

(This question asks you to think about the term in any context that makes sense to you; that context need not be the classroom.)

3. For you, what would be the most important features of an “activist” classroom?

(Here, feel free to reflect on what you think might be activist teaching practice, or conditions for activist learning. Or both.)

4. Do you have concerns about the terms/ideas we’ve been working with today? How might we address these concerns in a productive way in our teaching practice, or in our teaching training?

(The idea of “activist” teaching or learning motivates me, but also carries some potentially troubling connotations. Should teaching be activist? What should the limits of a teacher’s “activism” be? What parameters should we be setting for ourselves? I’m aware here of anxiety in the North American public sphere around “activist” judges, for example. While I tend to sympathise with judicial “activism”, that’s because it often swings my way ideologically. I’m fully aware that my sympathy is a matter of my political perspective and also my cultural privilege – two things my students are absolutely not required to share. What, then, are the risks of activism in my diverse and poly-perspectival classrooms?)

Below is a brief summary, based on notes taken and shared by participant Ann, of three key problems we worked over during our time together.

1. Community.

In relation to my first prompt, several of us wrote separately about the notion of community-building in the classroom. I spend a lot of time working on making my classrooms true communities, partly because the students I teach need to be able to trust one another enough to become vulnerable in performance. Some of the other members of the seminar talked about related problems in English lit or Freshman Comp classrooms: in a space where many students are there simply because the course is required, building a community of learners is both hard and very, very important. Lauren noted one strategy for handling the “compulsory” hot potato: she invited students to reflect, in one late session during a recent course, on why they were there and on whether or not they ought to have been made to take the class. Such an approach is potentially dangerous – they might all gang up on you and tell you it’s rubbish! – but the most likely outcome is the one Lauren experienced: a mix of reactions, including some strong defences of the class, and some strong claims to the contrary. In such a debate, important opinions are shared, lessons learned, and, maybe, communities (or alliances?) born.

Matt helped us to remember that community can be, contrary to some expectations, a radical goal, as each of us belongs to many different communities, and it can be useful to reflect upon how we invest in those communities more, or less, at different moments and in different circumstances. No student is going to invest simply or singularly in their classroom community; rather, they are going to bring their experiences of their multiple, different allegiances to bear on their learning, and on their sharing with peers. That exposure to community experience can then, in the classroom, also be an important exposure to lived, human difference.

2. Risk.

The second and third prompts generated a number of reflections on the challenge of risk in the classroom. I’ve thought a lot about risk over the years – again, partly as a function of teaching drama, theatre, and performance, where students are required to take on a certain level of personal risk in just getting up on stage – but a panel on which I participated at the annual ATHE conference a few years ago helped me to remember that “risk” is a relative concept. It’s pretty easy for me to take risks, because I’ve been doing it my whole career; in fact, as an extroverted university teacher of drama I’ve made a career of taking certain kinds of risks (which makes them far less risky overall, right?). In the classroom, however, risk needs to be managed properly: the stakes can only be so high in order for students to be able to practice taking considered risks (and to practice not taking a risk too far).

Phil shared a terrific exercise: giving students the regular opportunity to assume potentially “risky” roles, like that of classroom leader. As he noted, when you give students the job of running the show, or picking the next topic for discussion and then explaining their choice, they take on responsibility for their peers’ learning; this is a risky role with manageable stakes, and it’s one that allows individual students to demonstrate their strengths and test their limits while also learning what it means to face potentially negative feedback from those (peers and teachers) whose opinions they care about. In turn, I shared some stories about moments in my classrooms when I’ve simply been honest with students about what I’m feeling: exhilarated, exhausted, or confused by what the class is or is not giving me, about what our dynamic seems to be that day (sample question: “guys, what the heck is going on?”). In those moments, I assume a level of risk: I expose myself as a human being to my students. It’s a manageable risk for me, as I’ve done it before, but it reminds students that I’m a member of our shared learning community, and that what we are or are not achieving impacts me affectively and thus personally, too.

3. “I don’t want to say I’m an activist teacher.”

I’m quite sad, in hindsight, that we were rushed in working on our last prompt, because it’s in many ways the most important one, and certainly it is the one I am most interested in right now. During our discussion of our second prompt (what does “activism” mean to me?) I talked about how I’m a bit worried that calling my classroom an “activist” one lets me off the hook. If I spend each class talking the activist talk, I can excuse myself more easily from walking the activist walk. I tend not to join picket lines. I don’t normally attend demonstrations. Unlike a number of my (brave) colleagues, I’ve never been arrested for taking a stand. Am I using “the activist classroom” as a get-out-of-jail-free card?

Matt had strong (and valuable) opinions in response to this question. He noted that one can be both an activist and a teacher, but for him these things are not, indeed cannot, be the same. How can one be an “activist” in the classroom without tacitly aligning oneself with the politics of one’s employer – an employer that might be, as my current employer, Queen Mary University of London, is right now, taking a decidedly conservative, even neoliberal stance on wages and workplace morale? We might use our classrooms to teach students to think like activists – Claudia called her pedagogical practice “activating the activists”, which I like a lot – but that should not be confused with our own practices of activism, practices which need to extend beyond the rarified worlds of university teaching (and university employment). Ann pointed out that the university (that is, the contemporary, generally risk-averse, generally for-profit learning institution) is only interested in supporting student activism up to a point (read here about the recent crackdown on student demonstration at University College London, to cite only one of a growing number of examples). How, then, under the umbrella of these institutions, can we teach students the genuine nitty-gritty of activist practice, including how to protect themselves from its sometimes extreme risks?

Although it was short, this last chunk of our discussion rattled me a bit. Ann, Matt, and the others were right: my classroom might offer regular opportunities to think and talk about the theory and practice of contemporary activism – social, political, artistic, economic, or otherwise – but my job as a teacher is to arm my students with a strong skill set, and that’s it. When I leave my classroom, that’s when my turn comes to put my existing skill set into practice by fighting for what I believe in: fair, living wages for all; a strong and independent arts community; accessible social housing; a government that listens to independent researchers and makes decisions based on the best evidence available in order to support the needs of the greatest number of its constituents. Teaching students about these problems, these urgencies, is part of my labour as a committed and politicised thinker, but it should not, cannot, be all there is to it.


Warning: female nudity!

It’s reading week, and I’ve flown over to North America to give a talk and a seminar at the University of Michigan’s Graduate Drama Interest Group, and to visit my mom and dad, who live nearby. I landed in Toronto on a snowy Friday afternoon, and after dropping my bags with friends I headed out to the theatre to see Untitled Feminist Show (2012) by Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company at Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage Festival.

For those of you who don’t live and work in the Performance Studies bubble, Young Jean Lee’s TC is one of the hottest properties on the NYC scene, and Untitled Feminist Show is just the latest in a tidal wave of stunning, contrarian, pull-no-punches works. Here’s how the company describes the piece on its website:

In Young Jean Lee’s latest experiment, UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW, six charismatic stars of the downtown theater, dance, cabaret, and burlesque worlds come together to invite the audience on an exhilaratingly irreverent, nearly-wordless celebration of a fluid and limitless sense of identity.

What this promo doesn’t say (though the review grab-quotes below give the game away) is that these six amazing women perform the show without an interval, and completely in the nude.


The nudity is obviously “the hook” for this show, but my experience of seeing the piece live was that it’s not a gimmick in any way; rather, it is a profound call to audiences to think about what it is that we do – how we look; what we think; what we expect; maybe even what we desire – when we watch provocative theatre now, especially such theatre made by women. So the ladies are naked, but it’s me that feels stripped bare. How do you watch a piece of theatre like this? No, really: how do you?

I was enormously surprised by my reaction to the performers’ nakedness. After the first few alarming minutes – watching and listening to Becca Blackwell, Katy Pyle, Desiree Burch, Lady Rizo, Madison Krekel, and Jen Rosenblit enter from the back of the raked Fleck Dance Theatre auditorium, their rhythmic, heavy breathing punctuating their descent, and feeling like I might be about to witness, uncomfortably, a kind of Bizarro porn show – I was amazed to realise that the nudity was slowly beginning no longer to matter to me. Or, perhaps more accurately: about 15 minutes in, it stopped filling the frame. That’s not to say I did not see, notice, or experience it through every minute of the show; as my friend Rebecca Burton remarked to me of her own experience after the performance, I could not stop watching the women’s naked bodies – their exuberant, joyful, playful, powerful naked bodies – and yet at the same time those bodies’ nakedness simply did not register in any overwhelming way. Which is also a way to say that they did not register in any way that I could have guessed before the show.

How, then, does Untitled Feminist Show ask us to look at women’s bodies, at femininity in our cultural landscape, at femaleness in the theatre? I’ve read a few comments online that suggest that the show somehow manages to divorce sexuality from gender, and gender from the body, to render gender exclusively as a performance and the nude female body somehow “neutral”; while I respect these analyses I also don’t quite agree with them. For me, the whole show was about looking at, past, through, around, and every which way in relation to the women’s nakedness – the nakedness of six bodies that were, for me, always ultimately female, always marked by a political, aesthetic, or labour relationship to femininity. Now, I want to note here that Becca Blackwell does not identify as a woman, and I do not mean for this comment to try to write past or over Becca’s experience of her work, her body, or her politics (read her compelling reflections on making and performing in the show here) – or indeed over the experiences of any other cast or crew member. But as a feminist spectator, I found the gendered dimension of the show writ provocatively large. For me, UFS is a piece of political performance drawn from dance, mime, physical theatre, and other performance genres that openly invites me to look hard at a group of naked women and then figure out how to deal with my experience of their nudity so we can get on with the show. The figuring out is left entirely to me – it’s thrown overhand, and hard, at me as they deep-throat their way down the steps of the rake and onto the stage in minute one, in fact – and it’s the political part.

UFS is basically a cabaret (naked feminist vaudeville!) featuring a series of both funny and poignant vignettes – from a slightly off-kilter fairy tale witch-versus-mean girls bit, to a killer dance number featuring mimed vacuuming, breast feeding, cooking, and other chores (so much cooler to a beat, ladies!), to a strong, gorgeous, and loving pas-de-deux between Pyle and Krekel choreographed counterintuitively to “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”. Many of these deliberately dramatise hackneyed feminine stereotypes (loving friends! Hateful bitches!) or typically “female” issues or problems (harried mommies!); in each case, however, the nudity offers a simple yet incredibly powerful, living and breathing counterpoint to viewer expectation – and to feminist expectation! – in the wake of what otherwise seem to be too-too-conventional scenarios for a “feminist show”. I “get” the thing the vignette is targeting/taking down, but it’s never (or, at least, for me was never) oversimplified because the women’s naked bodies stand squarely in the way of my urge to either over-value or dismiss the ubiquity of the story and its attendant, rough-and-ready acting-out as feminist lore. For me, then, it wasn’t that the nudity “neutralised” each bit, taking gender out of the equation at the moment it seemed most relevant; rather, the women’s profoundly material nakedness made me consistently look twice at everything I was watching – once at the story and its potentially overdetermined place in our culture’s sexology, and once (at the same time!) at the bombshell of the performing body, in all its physical, fleshy, unanticipated glory.

What about those bodies? They are varied: some quite large, some relatively small, some entirely middle-sized; in keeping with the fairy-tale theme of a good portion of the show, let’s call them Goldilocks-sized (aka: just right). All of them are powerful, and all of them are vulnerable: we see them stroke one another, we see them batter one another, we see them weep for one another, we see them tear one another’s hair out (literally). These women’s bodies fight, love, giggle in the pure pleasure of dancing (beautifully but imperfectly) together, jiggle and shake and sweat and writhe in the struggle of being naked female bodies on stage together. (I’m pretty sure it’s hard fucking work.) More than once the choreography punctuates a dance sequence with a full-frontal vulva shot (reminding me of the divine Jess Dobkin). The effect is like a command: hey you! Look here, dammit. See this. What are you going to do about it?

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking that’s a bit cheap, a bit easy; in truth sometimes it did seem that way in the moment as well. But mostly not. Mostly Untitled Feminist Show seemed at once passionately amateur and shockingly sophisticated; exceptionally risky and unbelievably joyful; genuinely loving, hilarious good fun. And this odd, unexpected blend makes it much more than the sum of its parts. Each of those parts on its own might not be all that amazing, original, or insightful as a “feminist show” (as the Globe and Mail‘s Kate Taylor predictably concluded in her meh review). But as components of the raw, bare, stunning collective whole that is an hour of glorious, unashamed, energetic female nakedness, those parts blend into the pleasurable provocation that is UFS‘s political remainder. Next time you have to look at a (naked) woman’s body, how will you do it? No – how will you really?

Rock on, World Stage!


On getting some sleep

I’m one of those people you’d describe as “not a morning person”. In an ideal world I’d start my evening around 8pm, go to bed between 12 and 1am, and rise between 9 and 10am. I work well in the early afternoon. I hate teaching early morning classes. (And this semester I have two 9am starts. Ugh!) I have the circadian rhythms of an actor, clearly.

If this confession makes you want to judge me a little, go ahead; I always expect it to provoke judgement. My mom (hi mom!) used to battle to get me out of bed, even resorting, in my high school years, to turning a spray bottle on me (relax: it only contained water). For years I forced myself to get up by 8am, in an effort to be A Good, Productive Adult – because waking up early = intrinsically productive, right? In fact, when I was a PhD student I’d get up at 6am to swim every day. I was smug in those years. I was also pretty freaking tired.

This year I’ve decided to give myself a break. On days when I don’t need to be anywhere before noon, I sleep until my body wakes me up (usually after 9, rarely after 10). This amuses my husband and dog (who always get up and head straight for the park at 6:30am, and usually lumber to bed together around 10pm), but they don’t pressure me to change. They know I’m exhausted, and that rest is one of the few gifts I can give myself unequivocally.

There’s a fair amount of research now about sleep patterns and wellbeing; for example, there’s some evidence that sleeping too much, as well as too little, can adversely affect one’s health and fitness. My measurement of my own experience has been entirely anecdotal but fairly consistent: when I am woken by my alarm before 7:30am I’m almost always deep in a dream, and the alarm breaks the REM pattern; I get up but am dreadfully groggy and very, very tired (rather than productive, note) by late afternoon. When I give myself the freedom to rise in my own time, I wake up more refreshed in general, and with more energy 60-90 minutes after getting up. So, I can’t get up late, hop out of bed and run; I can, though, have a very productive afternoon if I get up mid-morning, in my own time. (Last year, when Jarret and I were training for, among other challenges, the Scope L2P24 ride, we’d typically wake at 7am on a Sunday and get out the door on our bikes before 8am for a 5-8 hour ride; I struggled enormously with that schedule and always sensed I wasn’t really riding my best. By comparison, last Sunday I got up at 10am, was on my bike and out the door at 12:30 – shockingly late for a “real” cyclist! – and had one of my best training rides of the last 12 months, including posting a personal best overall pace.)


Health, wellbeing, and feeling good aside, I’ve also lately been reading some cultural theory about the crucial social and political importance of a proper, self-guided night’s sleep. As part of my current research project on realist stagecraft, political performance, and neoliberal ideology, I have just finished reading Jonathan Crary’s new 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013). This is a crossover book, for both an academic and a lay readership; it includes footnotes but not many of them, and no bibliography. It’s also not as well referenced as I’d like, but as a result it’s also really accessible, and helpfully so as it’s a provocative polemic about the ways in which late (neoliberal, also known as finance-driven) capitalism is invading every waking moment of our lives. Thanks to the advent of “smart” technology and the mediatized social worlds and markets it generates, rest, sleep, and the crucial time for free thinking, dreaming, and imagining a better world that rest and sleep support have become rarer and rarer indeed.

Sleep is an example of one kind of “free” time, something so few of us now seem to have in any supply. As Crary argues, late capitalism has replaced the quotidian rhythms of earlier, less frantic eras with a postmodern space/time in which all of us are consistently marketed to, required to market ourselves to one another online, and otherwise pressured to keep pace with the constantly self-renewing technology that now shapes our movement patterns, our consumption patterns, and governs our waking lives. More and more we’re being forced into boxes in which six or seven hours’ sleep is hard to come by, let alone the time to stop and think about what we are actually doing with our lives, buying with our money, or learning from our reading or our constant, largely banal conversations on Twitter, Facebook, or email; Crary cites statistics suggesting that more and more of us (like my husband) are waking in the night to check our feeds and profiles, anxious at being out of touch even in our moments of unconsciousness. This, for Crary, amounts to nothing less than an attempt on the part of a variety of powerful agents (from banks to governments to tech companies to marketing firms) to commodify what has until now been uncommodifiable: the time to switch off, renew, and awake refreshed and able to think critically about the choices we need to make every day. In a perfect 24/7 world, the lights would never shut off, keeping us plugged constantly into the expectations at which we direct our endless clicking, liking, following, purchasing. In a perfect 24/7 world, nobody would ever have time to plot a revolution; they’d be, among other things, far too tired.

At times Crary gets carried away, overstating his case and risking the label of technophobe; at his best, though, he makes a remarkable claim, one I find genuinely compelling: that sleep is a passive form of activism, and that prioritising uninterrupted sleep may thus be a truly activist gesture! After all, he writes: “Sleep is an irrational and intolerable affirmation that there might be limits to the compatibility of living beings with the allegedly irresistible forces of modernization” (13); it is therefore

…an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism. Most of the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life – hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship – have been remade into commodified or financialized forms. Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present. (10-11)

To sleep, perchance to dream of a more liveable world. One in which we are consistently given the space and time to read a difficult book, or a piece of long-form journalism, and debate its arguments, its evidence, and its merits with friends and colleagues. One in which my students and I can spend more than two hours a week together, talking of just such things, because I don’t need to keep time back for the mind-numbing administrative tasks that have been downloaded onto me and my colleagues by a university system in thrall to a government that rejects our very raison d’être as teachers with whom to read, write, and think freely. One in which it’s OK (really OK) for me not to have a Twitter account. One in which I don’t need to check my email while on holiday because I’m afraid that dozens of advert blasts will clog up my inbox each day, freezing me with anxiety when I launch the program upon my return and see the number next to the tiny envelope icon. One in which getting up with my body, between 9am and 10am, need not be a source of shame for me (“within the globalist neoliberal paradigm, sleeping is for losers” [Crary 14]), but rather can be a source of pride, a way for me to nurture my productivity, my sense of self, and my political spirit, all in my own good time.

Sleep well, friends!