Calling all readers: I need some advice on attendance issues!

It’s rare for me to post two days in a row, and it’s rare for me to post something short and sweet. Let’s say it’s a rare day, then.

These past couple of weeks I’ve been experiencing that thing that lots of teachers experience this time of year on uni campuses everywhere: a marked drop in attendance in some classes. I was particularly surprised this morning to find 12 students missing in my modern theatre class, as it was a very special day: we had a Skype visit from the First Nations artist Tara Beagan, and the class had prepared for that visit in advance, posting a number of excellent questions for Tara to our class blog. It was a chance to talk to a working Canadian artist about all manner of stuff, not limited to the reading; it was a chance to listen rather than talk a lot (also rare in my classes!); and it was a chance – most important – to experience something fun and different. Worth getting up for, right?

Hmmm. Apparently not so much. Or not for everyone.

So what’s the issue? In the spirit of my post last night, I’m going to start by assuming it’s not me, it’s them – that it’s about stuff going on in students’ lives (midterms, papers, angst in general about workload), not really my business. But that prompts another question: HOW do I get students to come to class, regularly and on time, despite this stuff? Because it is THEIR JOB to come to class, after all. And because I know it is possible – I have a valued colleague who never has serious attendance problems. I know she’s dynamic in the classroom like me, but she’s also a bit of a hard-ass, and there we differ.

Is hard-ass-itude required to enforce attendance? Is there another or better way that you have found to ensure students come to class, without openly penalizing them or calling them out if they don’t?

Help much appreciated,

Kim

On asking more questions

I’ve been trying a lot of new things in my two classes this semester. Last week I wrote about some changes I’ve made to the way I handle in-class performance work in my 20th century theatre course, which is primarily for English Lit students. This week, I’ve been thinking about just how many other changes I’ve been juggling these past two months. I’ve been trying new exercises in classes – including, for example, Lois Weaver’s terrific Long Table, which requires students to take complete responsibility for a discussion as well as responsibility for when to jump into and out of that discussion. (It’s harder than it sounds!) I’ve been bringing guests like Hattie Morahan and Tara Beagan in via Skype and asking students to build the questions we will ask them, thereby taking some ownership over the quality of the visit and the information it yields. In my smaller performance studies class (“Performance Beyond Theatres”) I’ve been requiring a lot of ad-hoc presentations and participation from students, partly in order to match the class’s more intimate seminar shape and feel, and partly in an effort to “lower the stakes” around anxiety-inducing things like speaking in class.

A couple of days ago, though, I was reminded by a student that sometimes the things that I think will be a breeze and a treat are neither; sometimes the things I suspect will lower the stakes only cause panic. I am, to state the never-quite-obvious-enough, not my students, and there’s a limit to what I can guess of how they are feeling. I’m better at this guesswork than I used to be, when every single thing that happened in classes or in office hours got filtered through my new-teacher impostor syndrome, in which I imagined that it was All My Fault For Sucking So Much. But even now, with a decade in the classroom behind me, I’m still a bit quick to imagine either that I’ve screwed up big time, or that I’m a Teaching Genius, depending on the mood of the day.

There’s not a lot of half way in the classroom; it’s a performance, after all, and performances are full of heightened affect. It’s exhilarating when you fall in love with how well things seem to be going, and taxing, very very taxing, when things seem to be going rather wrong. Sadly, it’s hard to feel the more obvious, likely more accurate thing: that stuff is mostly fine and could also be better, and that it’s mostly nothing to do with you, the teacher, at all.

This evening I sat down to read my latest Tomorrow’s Professor posting, which features a “throwback” book review by Roben Torosyan, director of the Office of Teaching & Learning at Bridgewater State University, about Stephen Brookfield’s landmark 1995 text, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. As is often the case with TP postings, this one was exactly what I needed, at exactly the right time.

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Torosyan talks about his longtime debt to Brookfield’s book (hence the nearly 20-years-on review!), and particularly to Brookfield’s fondness for short, qualitative questionnaires that encourage both students and teachers to take regular stock of what’s going well, what’s not going so well, and what has been surprising, pleasurable, rewarding in the classroom.

This is what the book means by critical reflection, then: simply taking regular time to reflect calmly, sincerely, and without judgement on mundane classroom stuff.

Here’s Torosyan’s version of Brookfield’s “critical classroom incident” questionnaire for students:

1. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?

2. At what moment in the class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening?

3. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most affirming and helpful?

4. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in class this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?

5. What about the class this week surprised you the most? (This could be something about your own reactions to what went on, or something that someone did, or anything else that occurs to you.) (p. 115)

And here’s the questionnaire Brookfield recommends as a weekly debriefing exercise for any teacher engaged in a new prep:

1. What moment (or moments) this week did I feel most connected, engaged or affirmed as a teacher–when I said to myself “This is what being a teacher is really all about”?

2. What moment (or moments) this week did I feel most disconnected, disengaged, or bored as a teacher–when I said to myself “I’m just going through the motions here”?

3. What was the situation that caused me the greatest anxiety or distress–…[one] I kept replaying in my mind as I was dropping off to sleep, or that caused me to say to myself “I don’t want to go through this again for a while”?

4. What was the event that most took me by surprise–where I saw or did something that shook me up, caught me off guard, knocked me off my stride, gave me a jolt, or made me unexpectedly happy?

5. Of everything I did this week in my teaching, what would I do differently if I had the chance to do it again?

6. What do I feel proudest of in my teaching activities this week? Why? (pp. 73-74)

There are, I think, two key things to note about both of these questionnaires.

First, respondents needn’t respond to everything. The idea is to write about what’s especially compelling in this class, this week – but to get it out, whatever it is, because whatever it is can only then become a teachable moment, a chance for learning something important about class dynamics or about the way students are receiving particular kinds of material or exercises or formal innovations. Students should be encouraged to talk about the good and the not so good, honestly. Teachers should be encouraged to do the same.

Second, these tools are designed to help teachers, in particular, to get past the urge toward extreme classroom affect. If you’re anything like me, you probably feel either pretty/really good, or pretty/really crappy after most classes, and it takes a lot of effort to detach from those feelings of profound investment and even responsibility for what I often imagine is a shared feeling of good/bad/awful. It’s really tempting to assume that students feel exactly the same way I do. But what if that’s not true? What if that excessive affect is actually completely personal and subjective, and more importantly not that useful in its raw form? Brookfield’s prompts for teachers are meant to help us objectify, as anecdotal evidence, what we might otherwise ingest too fully (and generalise too abstractly) as subjective feeling. His prompts for students are, likewise, designed to help teachers recognise broad patterns but also outliers in the classroom, so that we can learn from the former and learn not to over-invest in the latter.

I’d already decided, before reading Torosyan’s review, that Madison and I should poll our class about the effectiveness of our recent thesis-building workshop. I now thing I’m going to poll both of my classes at the half-way point to find out what kinds of “critical moments” in class – both good and bad – are shaping their experiences, and how we might improve the good and manage the bad better. I’m also going to do the teacher questionnaire next week, as our October Study Break hits, for both of my classes, and I’ll invite Madison to do one too. (Madison, you are hereby invited!)

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I’ll let you know how it goes.

Kim

On making English Lit students get up and perform – really well

Those of you who know a bit about me, my research and my teaching know that I am famous (particularly in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University) for making students in my honours-level English classes perform, all the time, for marks and not for marks. The point of our performances is to discover the story that human bodies tell about play scripts, which is often a very different story from the one that the script alone can tell. When I began teaching at Western in autumn 2005 I became quickly notorious as the woman who made groups of students stage scene studies and withstand Q&A sessions with peers every week. Every week! But the information, the pleasure, the strength, the joy that work provided was and has been pretty much endless, certainly for me and likely for a number of students now long graduated who have been kind enough to keep in touch. (A lot of those students just killed their Finals to boot, thanks in part to inspiring peer performances in class.)

When I moved to Queen Mary, University of London in autumn 2012, the shape of my teaching changed. A Drama Department is different from an English Department in so many ways; principal among these at QM was the focus on political, socially aware embodiment we promoted in every class we taught on our Honours BA in Drama program. In my studio classes I had to develop different approaches to teaching familiar texts: instead of relishing occasional performance, I had to figure out how to balance expected practice work with small-group learning about the theory behind the making. In my seminar classes, meanwhile, I had to find ways to incorporate performance research experiments without taking too much time away from our class discussions of readings, and without making those experiments seem like banal, poor relations to the more intensive work completed in studio. (I actually don’t think I succeeded on this front; something to aspire to in future, then.)

So goodbye said I to the weekly scene studies familiar from Western – there just wasn’t place nor reason for them at QM. But fresh challenges – namely, teaching critical and political approaches to performance to freaked-out first-year students who had just finished A-level devising and had no idea what was about to hit them – prompted fresh learning, for me as much as for them. I thought hard about how to shift the model I’d been using at Western to suit a QM first year audience. I met with the brilliant folks at Thinking/Writing, part of the QMUL library’s stable of resources. And I talked to people in my department – strong and well-loved teachers all – about existing best practices.

This is how, in place of my old, weekly scene study scheme (better adapted to students for whom performance is newly illuminating as an approach to textual exegesis), I came to institute a pair of mandatory performance workshop days for my first year class, “Performance Texts”. In each of these workshops, a different group of students (actually, four groups of students per day – it was a huge class) would present 10 minutes of work inspired by a specified text. (Including, for example, Kane’s Blasted, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Fugard’s The Island – eclectic as a mix, but all politically and emotionally challenging works.) One workshop happened earlier in the term, and was keyed to the first assignment; the second workshop happened closer to Christmas, and was generally a lighter affair because students knew what to expect (and that it would be fun!). In both cases, and across both classes in two different academic years, I can honestly say that I had four of the best teaching days of my life.

The workshop system – aided by the suite of fantastic exercises, including both free-writes based on students’ “critical moments” from each performance, and group discussion followed by a performer Q&A, both developed in conjunction with Kelly Peake from Thinking/Writing – worked better than my weekly scene study scheme ever had. Why? Basic chemistry: students were sharing a hot-house community environment, in which they were literally all in it together for two or so hours, and in which they had to work together and individually in a variety of guided ways. The energy in the room was high, the students’ level of engagement palpably strong, and the level of discourse impressive for a group of first-years, thanks in large measure to the writing exercises Kelly suggested we use to guide students’ engagement, channel their energy, and prompt targeted discussion. So, when I returned to Western this past autumn and resumed my place at the front of the Department of English and Writing Studies’ honours-level modern theatre class, I decided to import my new performance workshop plan rather than revert to the old scene study framework.

I knew straight off the bat that the biggest challenges I’d face in this new environment would be a brace of English and Writing Studies students who would be a) terrified of performing, and b) uncertain what was expected of them on this important day called Performance Workshop #1. The old scene study scheme had strengths and weaknesses, and one of its strengths was the normalisation of performance in my English classes. Performing is what you did, regularly; learning from class performances happened every week. Students figured out quickly how to read performance effectively – you had to or you were screwed. Under the new workshop system the stakes were oddly heightened, even though I try to chill the stakes in class whenever possible, the better to encourage creative thinking and risk taking. But I couldn’t avoid the fact that our first performance day would be loaded with risk for half of the class, the half that was expected to get up and show us something good.

How did we prepare for the big day? My TA, Madison Bettle, and I worked hard in the lead-up weeks to help students start acclimatising to the differences between reading plays as books and reading plays in performance. We looked at some clips from the outrageous, compelling, controversial Berlin Schaubühne adaptation of A Doll’s House, and we talked about what small moments of gesture, speech, light/sound change, or movement might do to communicate key meanings. (These small moments we named, after Kelly Peake’s suggestion, “critical moments” – moments in performance that create a spark, generate learning, provoke something worth pondering further.) Next we held a “scratch” day, playing with ad-hoc performances from Chekhov’s The Seagull, the text set for the first performance workshop. Students were unsure what to do, but the stakes were low: we were just playing, in order to see how student performances might work to make new textual meaning. Then, we watched Simon Stephens’ and Carrie Cracknell’s brilliant A Doll’s House for the Young Vic on Digital Theatre Plus and held a class interview with Hattie Morahan, the whip-smart, gregarious and generous star of that production; we worked on gaining deeper insights into how critical moments on stage are built, and the many ways we might perceive their meanings. And then, just like that, it was time for Performance Workshop #1.

The big day was this past Tuesday, and I have to say it was superb: another exhilarating day for me as a teacher, and a pleasure to watch, especially as students who were not performing communicated the inspiration their peers’ presentations sparked in them. Although in their reflection posts on our class blog the student performers generally talked about the stresses of getting together enough beforehand, of not having enough time over Thanksgiving weekend to prepare, etc, they also talked intelligently and with honest self-reflexivity about what they might do better next time, and how. Sure, some of the performances were more “theatrical” than others, but all demonstrated a level of commitment to the thought work expected of them that impressed me and Madison and generated plenty of healthy class discussion. Students wrote their own scenes, re-imagined Nina as a real seagull (and a male seagull to boot!), and created a retrospective of Irina Arkádina that gave depth, empathy, and warmth to a character we had too easily dismissed in class discussion as self-involved and retrograde. I’m about to turn from this post to preparing the groups’ marks for their work (gang, if you’re reading, they are coming!), and I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to reward these thoughtful student actors for strong and committed and thoughtful performances that genuinely pushed each of them, productively, out of their comfort zones and into a space of new learning.

With gratitude to all y’all in English 3556!

Kim

QoM v KoM: Strava’s Genders (Guest Post)

I’ve written a guest post at Fit Is A Feminist Issue this week, one that tackles gender issues related to the popular run and cycle app Strava. Check it out below!

Fit Is a Feminist Issue

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Sam recently wrote about her experience joining Strava, the internet hub for sporty men and women who want to measure their success against one another, and “compete” even when we aren’t officially competing (as in, when we’re just going to work and stuff). Her post resonated, in part because Sam and I are having an ongoing conversation about what it means to be marked as “female” on Strava. Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or an infinitely complicated thing – something that taps into the trickiness around gender and sport in so many areas?

A few months back I joined Strava. It was my partner’s idea: he had been using Strava to keep up with friends and to test himself on known stretches of road (we are both cyclists). He always glowed, I noticed, when we returned from a ride and he uploaded his data to discover new personal…

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An Inspiring Fellow Traveler, Discovered by Accident

I’m always on the lookout for ways to work better, smarter, more helpfully and more mindfully with my teaching assistants. I well remember what it’s like to be in that role: you are so eager to learn the teaching ropes, so utterly terrified of screwing up, and, at the same time, so fretful about stepping on your supervisor’s toes, not wanting to overstep your bounds. Maybe you have something to say, some suggestions to make, but you’re utterly terrified you’re going to be shot down or shut out, humiliated – especially if your supervising professor hasn’t been too welcoming, or hasn’t clarified your role in the course particularly well. It happened to me, more than once. The scars still pinch, so I feel for my junior colleagues in the TA job and try to do right by them.

I’ve been fortunate to spend time with some outstanding, committed young teachers in the almost 10 years since I began working full time in universities, and I know that many have gotten much our of working with me. That’s primarily because I figured out pretty quickly the two basic but essential things I had to offer them: 1) as many clear chances as possible to get up in front of the class, alongside 2) regular opportunities to reflect on what happened there, what was going well or badly, what needed tweaking. The formula was simple: do it, mess it up, score big, talk about it. Figure out together how to reproduce the good or avoid the bad. Say how you’re feeling, own the highs and lows, then work out how not to take it personally. Teaching well emerges through a mix of strong, honest dialogue with someone who has been there, observing and thinking carefully about others’ teaching practices, and then not being afraid to own mistakes and admit fundamental human flaws. (Teachers are human! We don’t come from pods!) Or, anyway: that’s what has worked for me, and it’s what I try to give my TAs.

This fall I’m lucky to have not one but two committed young teachers in my orbit: my TA for 20th Century Drama, Madison, and my tenant, also a PhD student at Western (albeit not in my area), called Jon. Madison inspires me with her astonishing energy and deep engagement with our students, primarily online via our class blog (you can check it out here if you wish; I’ll write more about my and Madison’s work together later this year). Jon and I, meanwhile, often chat after hours about our teaching experiences, while we are getting our suppers ready or reading in our shared household space in the evening.

Recently, Jon told me about a unique class he took a few years ago at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Convened by Martin Bickman, a celebrated scholar of literary pedagogy, “Theory and the Teaching of Literature” is an innovative graduate course that sets as its “text” an undergraduate class in American lit, which Martin and his students run together as a teaching team. Jon’s description of this experience – the way the course invited Jon and his peers to take ownership over the teaching; the way it required reflection and constant risk-taking; the way it weathered disasters and normalised mistakes as all part of the job – made me immediately want to learn more. Thanks to links Jon provided I quickly found Martin’s 2003 book, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (it’s in the post), as well as a 2010 article he wrote for the journal Pedagogy on the importance of returning the study of literature to its roots in community activism.

Here is Martin, from that article, writing about the shape and the goals of “Theory and the Teaching of Literature”:

…the student engagement in and work accomplished by this graduate course was radically different from those of my more conventional classes. In two decades of teaching this course, I recorded fewer absences than in one semester of my more traditional classes. I could dispense with grades entirely, because the motivation to help the undergraduates learn was far stronger than anything external. The graduate students took ownership of the class, assigning their own readings and projects. The competitiveness that usually underlies graduate seminars was replaced by a sense of common endeavor, because the main result of our work was not individual papers but the creation of two related communities, the undergraduates and us.

I sought not to clone myself as a teacher but rather to help the graduate students theorize their own teaching, as close observers and reflective practitioners who could use the perpetual feedback of the classroom to revise their strategies. I also know that teachers teach only in ways they have learned, so I tried to make our own class as organically experiential as possible and not let its members do unthinkingly what had been done to them in their own educations. (Martin Bickman, “Returning to Community and Praxis” 16-17)

Martin goes on to summarise the ethos of the class like this: too many teachers don’t realise that what they are really doing when they get up in front of a class is trying to prove to the students how smart they are, that they really do belong at the podium. That’s what lies behind a hell of a lot of lecturing, the rank-pulling when a student tries unsuccessfully to challenge a teacher’s claim, and I suspect it’s why generous, frank group discussions are genuinely difficult to pull off.

I’m not immune from this yucky urge to show off to my students; none of us is. Impostor syndrome is wired into academic DNA. But that’s even more reason for us to try harder to give up some of our teaching control, to TAs as well as to our students, and see where the experiments might lead us. Chances are that both the student teacher and the students proper will learn something real, and remember the feeling for a good long time. Chances are, too, that little by little we will all learn that being in the classroom is so much more fun and interesting if you don’t insist on being the cleverest one there all the time.

I’m scheming about cooking up a version of Martin Bickman’s course at Western, and I can’t wait to read his book. Meanwhile, take a look at his inspiring “Returning to Community and Praxis” here.

Excitedly!

Kim