Theatre as Voice (a guest blog by Emily Jones)

One of my long-term hopes for this blog is that it may become a forum space for students as well as teachers of all stripes to reflect on the places where teaching, learning, theatre and activism cross over, and on what the results of those crossings-over may be. Below, and with her permission, I’m reblogging a recent post by Emily Jones, a third year student in theatre and performance at Lancaster University; here, Emily reflects on her experience as part of Lancaster’s V-Day labour, and in particular its production of The Vagina Monologues. Emily writes thoughtfully, openly, and with commitment about the challenging work of supporting her peers, and learning from them, as V-Day opens up difficult terrain for participants and spectators alike. Thank you, Emily!

Drama Queens Review

This is a guest post by Emily Jones, a third year Theatre student at Lancaster. Emily originally wrote this for a half-day Gender and Women’s Studies seminar which I co- organised with a colleague Anne Cronin (from Sociology) entitled ‘Is the Personal Still Political?: Young Women and Sexualisation’.

The impetus for this seminar was our alarm at evidence of the growth of ‘lad’ culture on University campuses across the country and this event included a brilliant presentation based on their research into this phenomenon at Lancaster by first year Gender and Women’s Studies students. Other papers were given by postgraduates and lectures on the topic of ‘laddism’ more broadly but also on femininity, queer identities and on the need to educate young women about their sexuality in positive terms.

While some of the stories and evidence that emerged from this event were alarming, it felt positive, productive and considering the…

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Three morsels and a question

Yesterday, some words of wisdom from teaching and learning scholar Phyllis Blumberg’s latest book crossed my virtual desk. They do that thing I really love the stuff that spams my inbox to do: they say a bunch of should-be-obvious things in ways that make me think about why they should be obvious, and why nevertheless they often are not, for many of us anyway. Whether you teach at the secondary school or college level, in private or public institutions, I suspect they will resonate. Here are my favourite three morsels, followed by a question for all of you related to the issues they raise.


First, Blumberg talks about learning “objectives” vs learning “outcomes”. I’m betting many of you, like me, have learned to tune these phrases out, rolling your eyes along the way. Yes, yes, we all have objectives and stuff! We know what we want the kids to learn already! As for these terms, they are just university biz-speak; they mean the same thing. Right?

Actually, no. Here’s Blumberg, helpfully, on the difference between “objectives” and “outcomes”:

Learning outcomes are the big picture, often complex goals that instructors expect students to achieve or learn by the end of the course.  They should be stated in terms of student performance, not what the instructor hopes to achieve, such as what content will be covered.  Learning outcomes are also called instructional goals (Diamond, 2008; Nilson, 2003).

Learning objectives are smaller units of learning that flow directly from the learning outcomes.  While a course may have about five larger learning outcomes, each learning outcome may have a few learning objectives associated with it.  For example, learning objectives may describe what students will learn from the discussion in a specific class. The literature often interchanges learning outcomes and learning objectives. In this book, I am referring to the larger learning outcomes.

I’ve realized, as I’ve thought about this over the last 24 hours, that while I have plenty of (let’s face it, stock) “outcomes” on my course outlines, I almost never take the time carefully to think them through, much less to link objectives to outcomes. Students will learn to write proper critical essays; students will write some critical essays in order to do that. Except –

Most concepts and tasks in higher education are complex, involving different component skills, cognitive processes, and many different facts.  To help students learn, instructors need to break down these complex concepts or tasks into their component parts, provide students opportunities to perform these skills or cognitive processes separately, and then allow them to practice the integrated tasks before assessing them. Instructors can point out the key aspects of the task so students know where to concentrate their efforts (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Jeez – duh! Except for the part where I’d never actually thought consciously about this cause-effect framework before. Thinking back to my course this past term on Shakespeare’s afterlives (QM Drama’s DRA 316: “Shakespeare After Shakespeare”), I considered the work we did in the weeks after spring break on building individual essay topics, then on creating essay-related presentations to solicit peer feedback, and then on the essays proper; I realised that the outcome I was aiming for was not “will learn to write proper critical essays” but rather “will learn to work methodically through all of the steps required in order to build independent areas of research interest, and will then apply that learning in the creation of a personal-interest-driven critical essay modelled on the kind of independent critical exploration characteristic of graduate school study”. I also realise that the objectives I employed were multifaceted: 1) will study and practice the process of developing independent research questions; 2) will learn how to shape research questions into essay topics; 3) will test the viability of research questions via peer feedback; 4) will learn to re-shape (sometimes reformulate completely) essay questions based on that feedback without panicking unduly; etc.

Why didn’t I think of this stuff, in this way, before? I think I know the reason (one of them, anyway).

Preparing course outlines during summer research time is (one) onerous, and (two) also works frequently only at the level of theory (because, let’s face it – it’s summer). I undertake this work mostly under duress, try to get it done pretty quickly, and rely on what I think will be “really cool” rather than (in some cases anyway) on what has worked well before. I tend to over-tweak existing formulas based on the elusive/imagined “really cool” factor, rather than letting the formula rest for another year or simply refining the outcomes/objectives a bit with the past year’s evidence fully in mind. Note that I always want to do the latter – I keep and annotate all my course evaluations for this purpose. I just don’t give it enough time or care, I think, because I don’t take the pedagogical logic behind the language of “outcomes/objectives” seriously enough when I’m also kind of hurrying through the task so I can get back to the book/article/conference paper/edition/whatever. In fact, as the above example from DRA 316 demonstrates, “outcomes/objectives” are absolutely central to the most interesting, and the most fun, work I do with students. If I forget about them come course-prep time, I risk losing all that productive fun, the legacy of previous work and the power of framing its value clearly for students in future.

And on that note, Blumberg offers me one more crucial morsel I want to share here.

The relationship between the difficulty of a course and student learning is curvilinear.  The best learning occurs when the course is perceived as difficult enough to be challenging, but still seen as achievable.  Under these circumstances, students are motivated to try.  If a course is too easy, students do not put forth any effort.  If the course is perceived as too difficult, students are not motivated to try because they think there is no way they will succeed (McKeachie, 2007).

I’m pretty sure we all aim for this, in theory, all the time. But many of us often don’t succeed. Why not? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s because we haven’t built the logic of this statement into the “objectives/outcomes” framework that (if you’re like me) you’ve been busy dissing/ignoring/putting up with rather than taking fully on board as a pedagogical tool.

What, then, if every course you taught next semester featured as a stated outcome:

  • “Students will learn that being intellectually challenged can be a source of pleasure, a source of community, and a site of genuine personal growth!”

…followed by a bunch of complementary objectives? And what might some of those objectives be?

That’s the question. Please weigh in!




On getting “chicked” – and why strong female cyclists need to have sympathy for the guys (Guest post)

Sam Brennan (from Fit is a Feminist Issue) and I have traded guest posts this week. Here’s mine – a reflection on gender experiences during my recent cycling trip to Tuscany. Enjoy!


Team Tuscany: ready for the big final day! Team Tuscany: ready for the big final day!

It’s been almost a year since I guest-blogged in this space about my experience preparing for and riding Scope’s London-to-Paris-in-24-hours challenge, and a lot has happened in that time. I’ve become a stronger, more focused road cyclist. I’ve engaged a terrific female cycling coach, Jo McCrae, and she’s helped me to train my tempo zone and grow my climbing capacity. I’ve chalked up some serious personal bests, achieving a current PB of 7 minutes 51 seconds on Box Hill, the famous climb in the middle of the London 2012 Olympic road races. I knocked 24 minutes off my 2013 time in this year’s early-season “Puncheur” sportif in East Sussex, placing 6th out of 30 female riders. And just last weekend I kicked some serious ass on a cycling holiday in Tuscany.

Some of you may remember that, as part of…

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Guest Post: On racing as a masters athlete and teaching as a midlife professor

By Samantha Brennan



“More than ever before in my life I’m comfortable with failure. My powers of patience impress even me these days. … There are things that come easy and things that come hard and it’s not necessarily the case that you’ll do better at the easy stuff. I try to model that and teach it to my students. In the classroom I’ve tried some things that haven’t worked. It’s no big deal.”



This summer I turn 50, the Big Birthday. I recently declared myself at the halfway mark in my career as a university professor. And mostly I’m excited about that. I love my job and retirement is the furthest thing from my mind. (Well, except for hating Canadian winter. But as I’ve recently realized, you don’t need to retire to flee cold weather. I’d love a joint appointment at a university somewhere warm.)

I’ve been interviewed about about turning 50 at the Queer50 site and written about it lots over at Fit is a Feminist Issue, the feminism and fitness blog I started with my friend and colleague Tracy Isaacs. See, for example, On not growing old gracefully. There I wrote,

I began as an assistant professor at 28 and ending at 68 sounds good. And here I am at 48. And, here’s the best bit, lots of the hard work is done. I’m a full professor. (Professors move from the rank of assistant, to associate, to full.) Kids are successful and happy, in their teen years and beyond. So the stressful, hard work of getting tenure and coping with toddlers is behind me. So I’m going to have fun. I love my job, love teaching and love research and writing. Great friends. Great family. And as you know from reading this blog, lots of enjoyable and rewarding physical activities. Fun times and adventures ahead.


But what does that mean for teaching? I know what it means for research. I’m taking on some big exciting fun projects (Feminist Philosophy Quarterly: coming soon) and writing about some fun things, like Miss Piggy for example! (See Is Miss Piggy a Feminist Icon?)  I’m submitting fewer things to refereed journals and  accepting more of the exciting invites that come across my inbox. I know I should care more about my research profile but I’m also just coming off a long stint of academic administration (eight years as Department Chair) and I’m ready for fun.

I have to confess that for a philosopher, I’ve been awfully non-reflective about my teaching, not as philosophical as I might be.

But I have been thinking a lot about fitness and what it means to be a midlife, middle of the pack athlete and it seems to me there are some things that midlife teaching and midlife racing and training have in common.

Here’s six thoughts:

1. In both athletics and academics I love teaching new people, introducing people to the sports and to academic disciplines and ideas I’ve come to love. I get the same feeling when a friend buys her first bike (see here, here, and here) as I do when a student decides to major in Philosophy. I’m all “See here’s this beautiful shiny thing that I love. You might love it too!” and when that works, and the two connect, that’s just wonderful.

2. I have a base level of fitness/knowledge that allows me to branch into new things. Last year it was trying rowing and teaching Digital Ethics, both brand new to me. My level of background in applied ethics is such now that I feel like I can take on new courses without the amount of preparation required eating up an entire semester. In sports my fitness level means I can concentrate on skills. I’m not out of breath from the effort involved.

3. I’m a good student. I love coaches. We had a terrific rowing coach and I think the CrossFit London coach is also amazing. I’ve learned a lot from some of the Aikido Senseis. These days I’m finding I pay more attention to the teaching techniques they use and trying them out on my own students. I’ve been thinking about the role trust plays. When they say I can do something, that something will be hard but I can do it, I believe them. I say similar things to my students about understanding philosophy.

4. As a teacher and as an athlete I know my strengths. There are topics I can turn to in the classroom that I know will go well. “Let’s take some time and talk about the utilitarians as moral and political reformers and their views about homosexuality.” Off we go. On the bike, I’m no hill climber but give me a straight stretch of a road and a sprint, and I can have fun with that.

5. More than ever before in my life I’m comfortable with failure. My powers of patience impress even me these days. There are things that I do that I find very hard but I stick with them. Aikido is like that. It took me nearly six years to learn how to roll. But I did it. There are things that come easy and things that come hard and it’s not necessarily the case that you’ll do better at the easy stuff. I try to model that and teach it to my students. In the classroom I’ve tried some things that haven’t worked. It’s no big deal. I have a long history of successful teaching behind me. It’ll be okay. I’ve started sharing bad news – SSHRC grant rejections, journals that don’t want my work – on Facebook so that my graduate students can see that it’s normal, just part and parcel of an academic career.

6. In both the academic classroom and in the athletic context, there are a great many things I can’t wait to try. I keep drafting course outlines for future courses in a wide range of areas: the ethics of big data, sexual ethics, sports ethics. I do the same thing with sports that I admire from the outside but don’t have time to try. I add them to my list. Cyclocross racing anyone?


On academic work and mental health (for professors and students alike)

It’s May! Back in Canada, my colleagues are throwing off the shackles of two chilly winter terms, getting out the shorts and sandals, and finishing the year’s marking and meetings en route to four months of welcome research labour. Here in the UK it’s exam term; we’ve had a lovely Easter break over April, and now must complete our own marking, meeting, and finalizing before taking off for the summer. In short, we’ve hit a cherished time of year.

Normally this is when I start to breathe a bit more easily, feel a bit stronger and lighter; the weather lifts, the intensity of the work tapers off, and time can be made in the day for taking things slowly (…and going to the gym, or out for a ride on my beloved road bike*). And so I have. But this spring is also filled with challenges for me: my family is struggling through a time of illness, and soon I’ll be packing up a portion of my house and heading back to Canada. My husband, dog and I will be living a trans-Atlantic life for a while, and I’m fretful and anxious about the emotional challenges ahead.


*Photo of me and bike, feeling not sad at all.

I’ve pretty much always been an anxious person, though – and my anxiety pushes beyond the bounds of normal levels. I’ve been treated for it, and for other mental health difficulties, for well over a decade; I owe a great deal of my current wellbeing to the work I have done since 2001 with my superb psychotherapist, Andrew, who is based in Toronto. I also take medication to help me cope with anxiety and its fallout (which manifests for me as a sometimes-debilitating hypochondria). My anxiety has at times made it difficult for me to work, and sometimes I need to make allowances because I’m just not feeling quite OK. I’m not very good at this part, but I’m getting better.

I’ve been prompted to share this personal information by a spate of recent chatter on the Guardian Higher Education network: a recent article and a recent blog post generated lots of commentary and spurred the Guardian to conduct a survey on academic labour and mental health. I took it, and I was surprised to find that much of the stress and anxiety I feel is not directly attributable to my job; I suspect this is partly because of the history of mental health difficulties I’ve had over the course of my lifetime. I often wonder if I didn’t seek out my career in university teaching and learning because of a perverse attachment to the stresses of being a student; knowing that anxiety is part of what drives me (as my mother once memorably said to me, about herself), I suspect I sought out the worries I knew, rather than opting for unfamiliar psychic burdens. Anyway, obviously my job is full of stresses, but I don’t consider that abnormal in any particular way. Which means two things, I think: first, that I’m pretty self-aware, and manage my anxieties fairly effectively (I’ve had lots of help and training, fortunately); and second – and this is the argument that the above-linked blog post very succinctly and helpfully makes about academics in general – that I’m perhaps too cavalier about the psycho-physical toll university life has on me, my students, and my colleagues. And that’s a serious problem.

Anecdotally, many of my fellow uni teachers report a sharp, recent increase in the number of students who come to us during office hours or advising meetings with serious mental health challenges. Just this past year I’ve encountered a student who was finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning, a student whose roommate was presenting with clinical OCD, a student from outside the UK struggling with loneliness and feelings of depression, a student diagnosed with a learning disability who was initially unable to cope with the diagnosis, and handfuls of other students not sure how to deal with what we might call the mundane stresses of academic life. I have no idea if this marks a true “increase” in student mental health problems in the UK or elsewhere – if anyone has statistics to hand on this, please post them in the comments section below – or if this is a matter of more students willing to report on their challenges to advisors; I do sense, though, that for the students who come to see me, speaking about these issues remains extremely taboo. It still takes a great deal of effort to work up the courage to knock on the door, or to email for an appointment. I’m open with students about my own mental health struggles, which may be one reason they feel they can take a chance and come talk to me, but that doesn’t make it any easier in the moment, for either of us.

Ever since I read the material on the Guardian network I’ve been thinking about how we can better support one another – colleagues and students – in maintaining our mental health and wellbeing, and I think this challenge applies equally to university and grammar school settings, although I fully admit to knowing nothing about mental health provisions for the latter in the UK or in North America today. (I remember having two psychological breaks as a student, one in year 4 and one in year 8, but I got almost no support from teachers and felt profoundly ashamed of myself as part of the experience. Then again, that was almost 30 years ago now; I hope and pray times have changed.) One thing we can, and should, do – as I’ve argued in this space a couple of times before, complete with holiday snaps! – is to remind students and peers alike that working all the time is not a good idea, will not make your output better, and will not contribute to a long and successful career; every body needs rest in order to assimilate learning, nourish itself, and grow. (I don’t care if you work in a lab, in a library, or in front of a computer most of the time – we are not ourselves machines.) But surely we can also do more.

One of the strengths of my current academic home in the Drama Department at Queen Mary University of London is the openness with which we talk about mental health issues; in fact, we maintain an academic focus on the links between performing arts and emotional wellbeing through the work of scholar/practitioners Caoimhe McAvinchey, Ali Campbell, Lois Weaver, and others, as well as through our affiliation with visual artist, performance maker, and lay medical expert Dr Bobby Baker. Next year, we’ll also be inaugurating a Master of Science pathway in Creative Arts and Mental Health, shared with QM’s Wolfson Institute for Preventive Medicine. We’re really good, in other words, at talking openly and without judgement about the kinds of wobblies that our society still, in 2014, rarely lets us admit to. Which makes us darn lucky, and sadly rare.

What have I learned from QM Drama’s focus on performance and wellbeing that might offer us a model for talking about and engaging with mental health challenges in our classrooms and staff rooms elsewhere? Here are three tips, off the top.

  • Talk about mental health and wellbeing in the classroom. More than once. And early on. Perhaps put something about it – and about the resources available to students – on the syllabus/module outline, along with some friendly, supportive language about how all of us need such help from time to time. Then make time to talk about it regularly; check in with students about how they are feeling throughout the term. As part of this process, take a risk and be honest with students: are you feeling a bit crap yourself? Why not share that information? Sure, of course, we need to retain some professional distance: a classroom is not group therapy, and many of us are not qualified psychologists. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot be honest, as human beings, about how things are going and how we’re feeling. In my experience, when students clock that their teachers are imperfect human beings too they feel instantly more at ease. They feel better.
  • Share coping strategies with students, both in the classroom and in office hours. I am very willing to tell my students that I struggle with clinical anxiety and that I take medication to help me manage that condition; I am also very willing to share my experiences of talk therapy with them. Some of you (and some of them), I know, will think this is over-sharing, but I consider it a normalizing gesture – making what might seem shameful sound actually pretty OK. I have these conditions but I’m doing fine and feeling well; you can also feel better and do well. There are a lot of services on a modern university campus designed to help students manage mental health problems, and of course it’s essential that we direct students in need to those services; sometimes, though, before sending a student away to be pathologized by a campus counselor, it can help for us to let that student know that we are all, in many ways, in this together.
  • Make some noise in your department, school or centre about mental health issues for students and staff. At QM Drama talking about mental and emotional wellness is part of what we do, both professionally and as colleagues and friends; I know full well that this is not the case in every department. (A dear friend and colleague in Canada once admitted to me that he takes medication for depression, and that by his estimate half of our department may have done; I had no idea, but when he said that to me, strict truth or not, a weight lifted.) Perhaps each department on every university campus should have a strategy – maybe ad hoc or informal, if not necessarily fixed on paper – for supporting its staff and students in times of emotional need. This strategy might be as simple as all staff being encouraged to talk about mental wellness issues whenever necessary, with students or peers; it might extend to encouragement to check in with students in the classroom, when teachers feel comfortable or able to do, so that such check-ins are considered normal and not strange for students going through the department’s courses. Or, maybe it’s as simple as fostering an atmosphere of openness and non-shamefulness in relation to mental health issues, so that everyone feels like, if they need to speak up for their own good, they can do that safely in the office or the photocopy room.

As I’ve been writing this post I’ve been wondering to myself if I’m stating the obvious; surely we all know by now that struggling with anxiety, depression, or even compulsive behaviours is not abnormal. But I have a feeling I’m not, and that we really don’t; stigmas remain, and they are tenacious. Big Pharma and its many colourful pills may be ubiquitous, but the rise of medicating mental difficulty has not necessarily opened our eyes, hearts, ears or mouths to the complex and debilitating realities of coping with it. Surely one of our jobs, as teachers and teaching colleagues, is to break such remaining barriers down – or at least to make life and work more manageable for those trapped behind them.

Be well,