To end the school year: In praise of eight strong, gorgeous academic women

Those of you who are not British, not sporting geeks, and/or not die-hard feminists might not know that something history-making happened in London last Saturday, thanks to eight brilliant and sporty young women.

The Oxford Blue Boat won the first ever women’s Oxford-Cambridge boat race to take place on the Thames Tideway, on the same day and on the same course raced by the men’s boats every year.


(Here the Oxford women are, celebrating with well-deserved abandon.)

Although the men’s Boat Race is a longstanding UK tradition, and although the Oxbridge women have been racing each other, too, for nearly a century, NEVER before have they been granted equal opportunity in terms of course, location, and media coverage with the men alongside whom they train and study. In fact, as BBC commentator Claire Balding – herself a pioneering sportswoman whose choice to anchor the inaugural women’s race for BBC was controversial and provocative – noted several times during pre-race commentary on Saturday afternoon, even today some in the rowing establishment believe women should not race the same distance as men, while women’s varsity rowing has suffered as the poorer and far less respected cousin to the men’s sport for almost a century. (For the record, the Tideway course is 4.2 miles/6.8km long, from Putney to Mortlake in central-west London. It took the Oxford Women’s Blue team just 19 minutes 45 seconds to run the route; the winning men’s team, also from Oxford, clocked in at 17:35. Not exactly a shattering difference!) From anxiety about rowing as “unladylike” to fretting about women’s constitutions, those who opposed, or who still oppose, two “equal” boat races on the Thames are clearly tapping into a host of antiquated tropes about how women’s bodies restrict our cognitive and physical capabilities – despite all manner of evidence to the contrary.

And now these eight powerful, beautiful, drop-dead brilliant women from Oxford – alongside their equally talented, powerful, smart colleagues from Cambridge – have added further proof, for anyone still wavering, that women can row the boat every bit as well as men can.


(The Cambridge women’s crew on the Thames at Hammersmith Bridge)

But there’s more to this story than equality in sport, however important that is. (And to me, it’s extremely important. What society believes about the strength and capacity of women’s bodies impacts everything we experience: from women’s safety to our roles in government, the economy, the home, and everywhere else.) Each of the athletes, both men and women, who competed in the 2015 Boat Race is a current Oxbridge student, and each balances a rigorous training regimen on the water with a challenging study and exam schedule. The Oxford Women’s Blues study English literature, management, science, medicine; they are earning BAs, MBAs, MDs and PhDs. Caryn Davies, the two-time Olympic gold medalist who rowed Stroke for Oxford in the race and who is studying for her MBA, told Karen Attwood at the Independent that prepping for this event was more difficult than Olympics training, given the additional pressure of lectures and study. There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that this challenging pairing – daily on-water training, alongside daily study pressures – strengthened these athletes’ resolve while also broadening their physical and intellectual power bases. As I argued in a recent post about fitness and mental health, working the body supports the labour of the brain by offering an outlet for intellectual and emotional stress; similarly, the work of the body offers much needed time and space for the brain to process important information and make fresh, unexpected connections unconsciously.

For more than 150 years it’s been a given that the Oxbridge men’s teams must balance study and rowing; since the beginning of the tradition in 1856 the Boat Race has peddled the message that men’s rowing, matched with elite university education, builds community leaders and outstanding citizens. (No unmanly behaviour here! Quite the opposite.) This year, the women’s crews added a fresh, much needed chapter to that age-old story, as they proved the unstoppable force – the sheer physical power – generated by eight incredibly strong, bright, dedicated women working together, synchronous stroke by synchronous stroke, for a common cause.

As we leave this academic year behind, let’s take a lesson from the amazing, pioneering women of the 2015 Oxford and Cambridge crews. Let’s celebrate the strength and power of university women as they work hard every day to match the agility of their bodies with their intellectual abilities, fighting on through the battles for equality and fairness that remain. Let’s remember that such equality and fairness are not yet things we can take for granted, on the water or in the study hall. Let’s celebrate every victory. Let’s refuse to be cowed by naysayers. Let’s refuse to be defeated.


(Sheer strength, sheer joy)

Congratulations to all the Blues!


When students grade each other (and other peer-assessment challenges)

I’m a big fan of group work in the classroom. Partly, this is because it takes a group to make a piece of theatre, and I teach theatre; partly this is because life is all about working in groups of people, and working in groups of people is astonishingly hard.

Just ask this person:


Or, ask students (including my TA this year, Madison Bettle) if they like group work, and you usually get two kinds of responses:

“it’s ok/I’m fine with it” (translation: other people do the work, so it’s pretty great!/I love doing all the work, so it’s pretty great!),


“I find it difficult” (translation: I do all the work, and I really resent it).

So why do I persist? It’s simple: learning to be a better collaborator is as important to living and working in the world as is learning to breathe. It’s a pity more of us don’t place an emphasis on effective group skills in our teaching, because, man, oh man, do we all need it!

Over the years, I’ve approached the challenge of group dynamics in my theatre studies classrooms in a variety of ways. I’ve asked students to put on scene studies in groups, but not for grades; the students loved this work, but often resented not getting marks for it. (Understandable, if sad and depressing.) I’ve asked students to put on scene studies in groups for grades; the students loved this work, but found it incredibly annoying when a member (or more) of the group slacked off and got the grade anyway. (Friends: call it collateral damage and then call it a day.)

This year, I took a slightly more complicated approach: I asked students to put on scene studies in groups for grades, and then I asked them to contribute to their final marks by grading each other.

This is the story of how that turned out.

Last Thursday, the students in my 20th Century Drama class had just one job: to get into their performance groups, answer a series of questions, and come to a conclusion about what grade(s) the various members of the group deserved for their efforts this year. The student-generated grades (which I would respect, regardless of difficulties) would make up 5/15 marks for the performance component of the class; the performance component of the class would make up 15/100 marks for the class as a whole. (In other words: some pressure, but not a tonne of pressure.)

As Charlotte Bell explained in this space last autumn, students need clear tools to assist with peer grading. This is the task I set to help the students manage the challenge (and it is, of course, a challenge!) of grading themselves and one another:


Part One:

On your own, please respond to the following questions, in writing. You have ten minutes.

  1. What were my greatest strengths as a group member this year? List up to THREE traits, and include details explaining each.
  2. What were my greatest weaknesses as a group member this year? List up to THREE traits, and include details explaining each.
  3. Where did my group excel this year? For example, when and how did we meet our own expectations? Summarize your feelings, and describe one or two key occasions where the group achieved what it set out to do.
  4. Where did my group fall short of its own expectations this year? Summarize, and describe one or two key occasions where you feel the group could have done better.
  5. What grade would I assign my group for our year’s efforts?
  6. What grade would I assign myself, as a group member?

Part Two:

In a pair WITHIN your group, please discuss your responses to Part One, and then respond to the following questions. Remember to be honest, respectful, supportive AND FAIR.

  1. Where did our group excel, and where did it fall short of expectations? Summarize your individual findings (take notes!), and then decide if, on balance,
    1. You excelled much more than you fell short
    2. You excelled a bit more than you fell short
    3. You sometimes excelled, but often also fell short
    4. You largely fell short.
  2. Based on your individual reflections, and also on your comments and choice above, what grade would you assign your group for this year? (Choose a number, based on the letter category that corresponded with your choice above.)
  3. Are there members of your group who went beyond the call of group work duty? If so, choose whether or not to assign them bonus marks.
  4. Are there members of your group who let the group down? If so, choose if and how to penalize them.

Part Three:

As a group, discuss your findings and share your tentative grades.

Negotiate: what final grades will you assign each group member? What comments will you include to support your grade choices?

Type your comments and grades. Note that the comments should be about a paragraph long (no more).

Send your comments and grades to Kim, via email.

When I created this template, I worked hard to take as many differing voices into account as possible, mindful that students would have (potentially) different impressions of how things had gone in their group. What I forgot, I realise now, is that having different impressions of how things have gone is very different from being able (or feeling able securely) to express how things have gone to a group member with whose opinion you might not fully agree. My template seeks to be academic in its objectivity – but, as teachers all know, objectivity is extremely difficult to achieve when assigning anyone, let alone one another, grades for our shared efforts.

The Thursday of our peer assessment exercise arrived, and we did – I thought! – pretty well. The students were lively and cheerful in their group chats in class; most of them emailed me happily with shared or individuated group grades shortly after. I annotated my class notes (this is my habit, to preserve some kind of institutional memory for future years), and called it a win.

But then, two things happened.

First, I was approached by a group that had run into trouble: one of their members had been perennially absent for meetings and prep, but had always arrived in time to claim the glory. In our peer assessment exercise they had manifested no remorse (or even awareness!), and the rest of the group had felt uncomfortable confronting them. Result? The group had agreed on a shared grade, but now deeply regretted it.

Second, I received what I thought was a truly heartening email from another group featuring a member often absent; by all accounts it sounded like that student had stepped up in peer assessment, owned their mistakes, and agreed on a lesser grade.

I was thrilled that for one failure another success had resulted. I also realized, at that point, that it would be helpful to get the students’ feedback on how the peer assessment exercise had gone, since I had two very different pieces of evidence to account for.

On our last day together, I posed the following question:

How did it go for you and your group? Reflect in writing for ONE minute; aim to indicate something of value, and also to make one suggestion for improvement.

Given the balance of evidence at hand, I expected a fair amount of positivity in the students’ responses. Instead, I got this (incredibly valuable! – But somewhat unexpected) feedback:

  • It was difficult to discuss group issues in a class setting – can we give people the option to find another space to talk?
  • It was difficult because most of our groups became close over the year: we were worried about upsetting the group dynamic;
  • Could we try anonymous grading? People don’t want to address people to their face if they feel others have not done their share;
  • Could you (Kim, the teacher) shield us from the harshest of comments but still express our concerns?
  • Could we try doing group work assessment at the half-point during the year?

Looking at this feedback now, as I write this post, I’m surprised at myself. How did I not realise the difficulties inherent in the peer grading template I’d designed? Of course I’d known it would be hard for students to confront group members who did not pull their weight; what I’d forgotten (hello!) was that I had rather a lot more experience in grading underperforming students than most students do – and thus that I really needed to provide some hard-core emotional and intellectual guidance to the students needing to do this work now.

How do you tell someone you’ve grown to like, and even to love, that they let you down in your shared work? How do you assign them a number?

One of the groups facing challenges chose to let sleeping dogs lie; the other, however, ended up revisiting their assessment and grades. I met with two representatives in my office today to talk through what had happened. One member, felt by the others not to have pulled their weight, had been assigned a lesser grade after the fact by the remaining members of the group; that member felt, correctly, that they had not been given the chance to speak or respond to accusations. The other member represented the majority feeling: that the first member was well liked and respected but had put in far less work, and thus deserved a lesser grade. [That member also explained that the others, who had spent a long time after class talking about how to account for this disparity, did not feel comfortable confronting their peer in class – whether wrongly or rightly, they felt sincerely that their peer would not be willing to fully hear and accept their critique, and they did not want to disrupt their group’s friendly dynamic by pushing the issue.]

Our meeting was fruitful but hard; I know both students worked to be respectful and not to get overly emotional about the stakes involved. (And here I have to say how much I respect the efforts of both in this regard!) I acted as a mediator for this meeting, and I learned two very important things from it.

First (duh!) that I needed to create a safer space for all of my students to share their group feedback. In our debrief of the peer assessment one student suggested we feed back anonymously; rather, I suspect, what needs to happen is that I, as instructor, need to a) create multiple moments of low-pressure feedback throughout the year, culminating in b) a meeting of the group with me in which we decide on shared or individuated grades. My role as mediator is crucial, and it cannot happen in the classroom; it needs to happen in my office, or in another semi-private space where students feel able to speak honestly and openly.

Second, that (hello again!) all group feedback is marked by social privilege, including gender privilege: this was absolutely the case in our meeting, and it brought home to me the lived significance of how these kinds of privilege impact student voices in the classroom, though few students realize it. The way we approach and respond to one another depends on how confident we have become in our own voices and perspectives, be they gendered, raced, or classed. In today’s meeting – which, I want to stress, happened between me and two very mature and thoughtful young adults – I was reminded of this research by Colin Latchem:

Although it is important to avoid gender stereotyping and acknowledge that there can be considerable variations within each gender and particular context, there is a considerable amount of research on psychological gender differences in communications. In general, men are held to construct and maintain an independent self-construal (Cross & Madson, 1997). As a consequence, men tend to be more independent and assertive, use language to establish and maintain status and dominate in relationships, and transmit information and offer advice in order to achieve tangible outcomes. By contrast, women tend to be more expressive, tentative, and polite in conversation, valuing cooperation and using dialogue in order to create and foster intimate bonds with others by talking about issues they communally face (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003).

Today’s meeting reminded me that I cannot simply give students space to express their feelings about one another’s work; I need to make space in which those feelings can be safely and effectively expressed regardless of social privilege.

Next year, I plan to invite performance groups to feed back to each other informally a few times over the year, and I plan to take an active role in that feedback in order to help students to understand what they are saying to one another, and how they are saying it. At the end of it all we’ll have a chat, and I’ll be a part of it; I’ll try to mediate group challenges, but I’ll also make an effort to talk about how seemingly invisible power dynamics impact what is said between group members, and how.

Because group work isn’t just about students working in groups; it’s about students learning the very human skills of talking to each other across race, gender, class and other social and ethnic boundaries. They need our help to do this well – and we owe it to them, and to our larger world, to help them do it.



On walking my feminist talk

I’ve just finished writing a book; it’s called Theatre & Feminism, and it’s part of the excellent “Theatre &” series edited by Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato, and published by Palgrave. Like all Theatre & books, it’s written accessibly for a wide (and primarily student) audience, and it’s short and punchy (not like a stodgy academic book at all). In my first paragraph, I describe the book like this:

Theatre & Feminism tells the story of the movement known as Feminist Performance Theory, the critical lens through which scholars understand theatre and performance practices that take gender difference, and gendered experience, as their primary social and political focus. This story, then, is about women and theatre, women at the theatre, and women in and of the theatre; but it is also more than that. Above all, it is about how feminist theatre theory and practice allow us to understand the way all gender is constructed and reinforced in performance, for better and for worse, and for all human beings on the planet – be they men, women, transpersons, or others. “Feminism” remains a contentious term (more on that in a moment), but for me it is the best and most accurate term to use when thinking about gendered experience from a human rights perspective. Any human being worried about discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation will have some affinity with the term, whether or not they realize it; similarly, this book aims to demonstrate the many ways that feminist scholars and makers of theatre and performance have enabled, and continue to enable, productive discussions about women’s (and others’) experiences of gender, sexuality, political power and human rights, both on and off the stage.

I grew into my feminist identity during what’s known in the academy as the “third wave“. That term describes a period (beginning roughly in the 1980s) during which feminist scholars and activists thought a lot about how gender is constructed by social expectations, and also by our mundane performances of self every day (for example: by how I dress when I leave the house in order to register as a “woman”, as an “attractive woman”, as a “professional woman”, and so on). As part of my third-wave education, I came to understand feminism as implicitly connected to my gender identity, not just my identity as a female person; I’m thus, as a feminist, less focused specifically on women’s experiences and women’s rights (as opposed to gendered experiences of all kinds, and human rights broadly imagined) than many feminist writers, critics, and activists tend to be. I consider men’s experiences of their gender identities to be an important part of my feminism, and I know well that men can be victims of patriarchy, too (though they are, of course, far more likely to benefit from its assumptions and prevarications than women are).

When the peer reviews for Theatre & Feminism came back a few weeks ago, one of my readers took issue with the conception of feminism in my opening paragraph. The reviewer (who is anonymous, which is best practice in academic publishing) resisted both my conception of feminism as about “more than women”, and also the way in which the paragraph described the book to come (s/he felt the book was more woman-centred than I was accounting for – and s/he is probably right). I grumbled; I felt like my sense of feminist self was being challenged by an old-school bra-burner who didn’t understand the position I was adopting. I resisted making any changes as a result of the critique, and my editor backed me up. But, the more I’ve thought about the reviewer’s challenge over the past little while, the more I’ve wondered if they were correct – and, moreover, what their* critique of my stance might say about me, and about the way I walk my feminist talk.

As a result of a number of significant changes in my life this past winter, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my terrific psychotherapist, Andrew. I’ve known Andrew since 2001; I am where I am today in no small part because of his support (and his extraordinary nose for bullshit). But we’ve clashed a few times over the value and premise of feminism. Andrew received his medical degree in the 1970s, and his sense of the movement is rooted in the second wave – the moment, stereotypically speaking, of the bra-burners. Recently, Andrew and I have spent a lot of time talking about my relationship with the important men in my life, and not long ago I had a realisation in his office: that my relationship with my long-term partner was far, far more conventionally gendered than I would have otherwise imagined. This isn’t to say that my partner and I sought convention; far from it. We would both describe ourselves as fully committed to a feminist purpose. Rather, as Andrew pointed out, we fit snuggly into convention, because we were both raised in “conventional” families, which in the 1970s (when we were born) meant families in which dads went to work, moms stayed home and raised kids, and both resented the other for their labour (rather than celebrating the hard work of working away and working at home, respectively). I hadn’t recognised, until then, that although my partner and I worked, on the surface, very differently from our parents (I went to work; he worked from home), we were effortlessly replicating normative gender patterns nevertheless (I did the cleaning; he walked the dog) – and hating each other for it.

Call me gobsmacked! How could I be a feminist in a Stepford relationship? Well, ok: it was hardly that bad. But I’d obviously been long denying (or simply accepting) the things that I knew, intellectually, were bad and wrong for me, most likely out of a combination of habit and familiarity. After all, most behaviour is learned; what did I learn in my first home, and from the vast majority of the cultural influences that hit me each day for the first forty years of my life? On balance I can’t really be surprised that my partner and I struggled to surf the tide. And this was an important (if, in hindsight, obvious) revelation too: being a feminist today is freaking hard work! Because there is nothing – NOTHING – obvious about a feminist position to the majority of human beings in most human cultures. Which makes living a feminist life a daily challenge.

Something else troubling and enlightening spurred me to think this problem through recently – the problem of how I live my feminist identity every day. My friend Jessica makes fantastic, superbly empowering athletic headbands for badass women athletes; she’s made me a few. I asked her for some more this past week, with various bespoke phrases printed on them; she dropped some samples by my office on Tuesday. Among those I’d asked for was one, bright fuchsia, that read simply “feminist”.

I saw it, and I balked.

I will tell anyone, and everyone, that I’m a feminist – loudly. In theory. But will I walk the walk, in practice? Will I really? Will I put on the headband and wear the label proudly, regardless of the context? I was surprised to realise, faced with the headband, that I wasn’t exactly sure. Sitting in my office, I thought about passing the “feminist” sample back to Jessica, citing a resistance to wearing it in mixed workout company. Boys at the gym, etc. (No, really.)

Then I thought again. What was I afraid of? That I was going to have to explain that I wasn’t actually a Beyoncé fan? That I was going to have to offer a potted history of the third wave? I’m not sure, but I think I was afraid that the term is just too toxic now; that I want to be a modern, easy-going girl. Just like in my partnership: I didn’t want to rock too far from normal. Funny how normal gets under your skin, and stays there.

It’s hard work, man (woman!): walking this feminist talk. Just ask the unbelievably talented Roxane Gay.

But I kept the headband. I’m trying harder next time.



*Grammarians! I’m using “they/their” as a neutral pronoun in the singular here, as per best feminist/queer practice. See here for more details.