Reflecting on the academic year that was, part three (“pie in the sky”)


In my past two posts I’ve reflected on what went well, and what was a hot mess, during the academic year 2014-15. In this last “academic year that was” post, I’m going to share three things that I’ve decided I’d really like to try in my classrooms next year. If any of you have experience with any of these, please share them in the comments! I need top tips, as well as fair warnings.

  1. Peer teaching. (IE: when students teach each other, and learn in turn that their peers actually know some valuable stuff.)

In the same way that I’m committed to doing a better job of peer evaluation next year, and along the same lines as my scheme to get my students to create their own supplementary readers online (see my last post for details on both of these things), I want to try more and better peer-teaching techniques in 2015-16. Madison (my ace T.A.) and I did some of this in 20th Century Theatre this past year, and I relied heavily on pairs and group work in my smaller theatre classes (because lecturing to just five people is just plain weird). Both of those experiences taught me, however, that peer teaching is hard to do properly: like peer evaluation, it requires very careful calibration by and support from an instructor.

I have lots of experience facilitating group discussions but not that much with bona fide peer teaching, and I’m always casting around for excellent examples of peer teaching exercises. Recently, one from the sciences crossed my desk – its creator is University of Michigan engineering prof Steven Yalisove. Trying to figure out how to balance “clickers” as a student engagement tool alongside lecture material, Yalisove decided to ditch the lectures entirely and use the principle behind clickers – how much are you learning, and where are you falling short? – to develop this peer-teaching model:

In class, Yalisove employs clicker-based quizzes to find out how much students actually learned from the text. Sometimes, if it’s clear they haven’t grasped a concept despite valiant efforts, and they’re frustrated, “then a short lecture can be very useful.” But he keeps it to about 10 minutes. He also assigns difficult homework guaranteed to stump his students. When they return to class, he has them work in teams using whiteboards to try to solve the homework problems. Three instructional aides – undergrads who took the course the previous year and are essentially the students’ peers – advise the teams. After each assignment, students write a “reflection” on their experience, and they’re graded on their effort, not their results.

(The above text is excerpted from an article by Thomas Grose in Prism 24.4 [2014]; it’s available here.)

What I love about this model is the fact that it’s not driven by the notion that students are “experts” (students don’t actually buy this claim, in my experience), nor is it something that happens once in a while and is thus marked as special. It’s fully integrated into the week’s work in class, every week, and it casts students not as teachers but as problem solvers, working in teams. That sounds an awful lot like life in the real world to me – built in learning outcome! It ALSO sounds like an ideal way to encourage students to recognize the inherent, knowledge-making value of their role as homework-doers and textbook-readers: both of these things, in Yalisove’s model, count as means to a clear end – tools that will be used and further developed in class in order to figure out a challenge important to the course’s stated objectives.

I’m not yet sure how I’m going to adapt this model for my own classrooms, which are smaller than Yalisove’s and do not involve clickers of any kind, but I suspect it will be a really fruitful way to work through the theoretical concepts that I introduce throughout my 20th Century Theatre class, as well as in my performance studies and performance theory classes. I especially like the idea of assigning homework with the caveat that it’s not going to be “gettable” in one reading, nor should students try to master it at home; if you break down half way through and throw the book across the room, that’s FINE – just make a note of where, and why. If the goal of the homework is simply to prepare some way toward figuring it out together, in class, with a peer partner… will students be more inclined to do the reading? I’d like to find out.

  1. Student “crits”.

This speaks to my interest in peer evaluation, and to my goal of finding ways to make it both more normative in all of my classes and less of an emotional strain for students not used to judging each other (at least, not out loud and to one another’s faces!). Anyone who went to art school knows what “crits” are – you present your work publicly to the department, and then your teachers and peers rip it apart. Well, that’s the nightmare version anyway. At their best, critiques are a chance to present work in progress, and to hear what an audience of peers thinks is working well, and what needs some improvement in the time and space remaining before the assignment is due. Really, “crits” are what we do for one another all the time when we ask friends and colleagues to read our stuff and offer feedback, and I’ve used them to greater or lesser extents in research essay assignments for a while now. But I think I could use them more, and better, and in relation to a lot of assignments – especially the ones that cause real anxiety, like presentations. This might seem counterintuitive – if students are stressed because they have to stand up and speak in front of the class, won’t getting peers to critique them out loud make that anxiety worse? – but as I noted in my comments on class presentations in my last post, I suspect the outcome could well be that students a) take the presentations properly seriously, and b) begin to understand that critique is a GOOD thing, and that receiving critique well can lead to a better grade, not a poorer one.

One thing is for certain: as I develop mechanisms for regular in-class crits, I need to ensure that students experience the crit at the true midpoint of an assignment’s allotted duration. I also want to build crit participation into the grade structure for any such assignment, so that giving generous and helpful critique, as well as taking others’ critiques seriously, gets clearly, tangibly rewarded as part of the task at hand (I’m hoping this may be a clever way to disrupt the “criticism = bad grade” formula so many students cling to). I also need to make sure that assignment rubrics are nice and clear, so that students know both what is expected OF them, as well as what measures to use to focus their critiques of each other. As Johanna Inman argued in a recent article in the National Teaching and Learning Forum (24.2, February 2015),

… prompts such as “Is this work effective and why?” or “Does this effectively fulfill the assignment?” or even “Is the planning of the work evident?” generally lead to more meaningful conversations than questions such as “What do you think?” Asking students to reserve judgment responses in the beginning of the critique is helpful to prevent generic comments such as “I like it.”


  1. Inviting greater student input on…assignment dates.

Yup, I think we’ve hit that point. I never seem to get it right: my Big Paper is due the same day/week as everyone else’s Big Papers, and the students freak out because, well… time management is a problem that we’re also working on. At Queen Mary, assignment dates were out of my hands, which proved to be a very good thing; students still complained, because to be honest due dates still overlapped horribly even when centrally planned, but I had no say and could send them away to grouse at someone else. I also had no authority to set extensions; that’s something I truly came to appreciate and it’s a policy I’ve adopted back at Western. When papers are due on a Friday students are given the opportunity to take the weekend for a flat “fee” of 3%; otherwise, late papers are penalized at 2% per day, and (as of next year… I’m declaring it here and now) any paper more than a week late may be received until the end of the semester, but will be eligible for a top grade of 50% and no feedback. I give no extensions beyond the weekend option; if something happens that requires accommodation students need to go to academic counseling to get an official request for clemency.

This hard-ass (ok, medium-hard ass) approach has already saved me more than a handful of headaches, and I’m loving it. And to my great surprise, faced with the no-extensions policy students this past year handed stuff in more or less on time! At first the “cheap weekend” deal freaked a few of them out: was it an extension or not? Should they take the minor penalty, or not? I told them it wasn’t up to me; they needed to decide whether or not the extra time was worth it to them. I told them I might well, in their shoes, have taken the weekend, at least sometimes. The idea that THEY got to decide, that the choice, and the consequences, were in their hands, seemed incredibly empowering, at least for some of them. And I had a lot less admin crap around extensions to worry about!

So now I’m interested in extending this policy a bit, and at the same time tackling both the time management issue and the overlapping due dates problem. What if students were given not a due date, but a date range, for each assignment, and were then required, at the start of each semester, to declare their own specific due dates compatible with their personal calendars? (I’ve not yet worked out how this would function in terms of my calendar, except to say I think it might ease the marking challenge for both me and my TA if we get smaller piles of papers spread out across the deadline period.) My logic is this: if you’ve picked the date, you live or die by it, barring unforeseen issues for which academic accommodation is appropriate. Furthermore, and in keeping with what seems to be a theme emerging from this series of reflections, a date you’ve picked is one you, in theory at least, feel greater responsibility toward: not keeping it means you have failed yourself, not me.

I also hope this could be a really helpful tool for teaching students time management, which starts with looking ahead at your whole term and plotting out your labour while you’re still in the glow of September, the nothing-is-due-yet month. Next year I hope to expand the “essay road maps” we tried out (with limited success, admittedly) in 20th Century Theatre over the winter, in order to get students checking their progress regularly against a plan they have made themselves; to further keep students on track when deadlines are floating, I plan to require them to book 15-minute check-ins with me at least once before each assignment is due. It would be their responsibility to make the appointment and to keep it, and I think it will be easy enough for me to keep a log of missed appointments, or those not made, and to build a penalty into each assignment for such misses.


So there we go. I think what this tripartite reflection exercise has revealed to me, overall, is that I’ve learned this year the value for them, and the gratification for me, of giving students the opportunity to take real, concrete responsibility for their own learning, in clearly framed and ultimately impactful ways. From choosing readings and due dates to engaging extensively in peer critique, online learning, and team problem solving, next year will hopefully involve lots of opportunities for my students to take ownership over elements of our course(s), to recognize themselves as responsible for knowledge-making in class and beyond, and to look to themselves as the point at which the proverbial buck stops. I’m sure it won’t all work, and some of it may be a spectacular failure. (But, yay failure! So instructive.) It’s also clear to me that it’s going to take a lot of forward planning, and not just in August, so I’d better get to work!


(Emma, Rachel, Nora, Jonas, Kim, and Sarah: History of Performance Theory, emoji version)

Reflecting on the academic year that was, part two

Last week, I began my reflection on the two semesters just past by remembering things that went really well during the 2014-15 academic year; today, I offer my reflections on three things I’ve identified that need tweaking as I try, valiantly, to Prep Ahead for 2015-16. (It’s a work in progress.) 

English 3556 debrief session, 2015

On our final day together, my 20th Century Theatre students and I talked about all the ways our year was amazing, as well as many of the ways it could have been even better; my thoughts below are culled in part from that discussion, and in part from my own impressions of problem spots in all three of my 2014-15 courses.

(Note: if you missed the first post in this short series, as well as the preamble describing the nature and purpose of this reflection exercise for me, click here.)

  1. Group work peer assessment (is hard. Really hard.)

I built two peer-assessment exercises into 20th Century Theatre this past year, and I made a hash of it. Students in that class work in groups throughout the year; the groups are set in weeks 2-3. Each group prepares two major scene studies (or more – see my previous post for my reflections on performance workshops) and a presentation in the penultimate week of class, all for marks, plus we do lots of ad-hoc group work during different in-class learning exercises throughout the school year. The peer assessments this past year came at the end of each semester, and in each case I forgot the obvious: that students don’t know how to grade each other, and that they are (understandably) really uncomfortable doing it. Less committed students who screw their groupmates on shared tasks are unlikely to own their actions (or even to acknowledge them!), while the hard working bunch may have few if any resources to draw on in order to take the measure of their group, as individuals and as a team, fairly and accurately. Plus, mostly by year’s end the groups are full of friends; who wants to grade their friend?!

I’ve talked about this issue on the blog already, and in that post I noted how, at first blush, I thought the peer assessment went really well … until it dawned on me that the two groups that had had serious problems at various points in the year had not been able to look straight at those problems or talk about them with the troublesome group members involved. At this point I recognised that, in order to assess the assessment process fully, I really needed to ask the students to tell me what had been useful about the exercise, and what had been challenging. This is what they told me:

  • It was difficult to discuss group issues in a classroom setting – give people the option to find another space?
  • It was difficult because the group became close over the year: students worried about upsetting dynamics or ratting our their friends;
  • Could we do a full peer assessment at the end of term one? (I really messed up the December assessment, leaving almost no time for it before class broke up for the holiday. Students could be forgiven for forgetting it happened!)
  • Could they grade each other anonymously? People don’t want to address problem group members to their faces;
  • Could I get students to feed back to me, and then I might weed out the harsher comments and provide groups with collated feedback?

The latter two of these suggestions, which are non-starters to me, are telling: students are scared of having to do the grading. They implicitly understand that it’s incredibly hard to do fairly (uh huh!), but that’s exactly why I think peer assessment is the ultimate teachable moment, one of the few places where in-class work has a direct bearing on the kind of stuff we are asked to do as citizens in a functioning democracy every day.

The first three comments are, in this respect, even more eye-opening: they reveal the extent to which I need better to prepare students for the rigours of assessing themselves and each other. I need to create a welcoming, inclusive space; I need to act as a mediator, without taking over the assessment discussion, in order to manage the group dynamic (and model good negotiating skills!); and I need to incorporate multiple self-assessment exercises into the year’s work (not just one! Not just two!) in order that students are fully prepared for the scale and significance of the task when it happens in April.

I haven’t yet worked out the details of how I’m going to reshape the peer assessment task, but once I do and next year’s class is up and running I’ll report back on how it’s going here on the blog. I’m committed to doing peer assessment properly this coming year!

  1. Presentations. I may describe them as low-stakes, but students will not necessarily believe me.

I decided to use casual, ad-hoc presentations, not for marks, in my Performance Beyond Theatres class in Fall 2014; the idea was to get students used to talking to and in front of each other in a semi-formal (but low-stakes) way as often as possible. It did not go to plan. Each student was invited to take on the task of introducing a theorist, or a key concept, once (at minimum) or twice during the term; we settled each week on who would present the following week. I figured students would understand what I meant when I said this was low-stakes work, easy to prepare in 20-30 minutes at most and then to present in five minutes or less; I even modeled “what I wanted” from an ad-hoc presentation in our second week together.

What I forgot, of course, is that students are not used to “low stakes” at all, let alone low stakes coupled with the dreaded words “class presentation”. With most clearly terrified of the labour as well as the stand-up-and-talk expectations, only the truly keen volunteered in the first few weeks. After that I had to pull teeth. Eventually, I also found myself forgetting about presentations at the beginnings of classes (not THAT low stakes, Kim!), which then encouraged students to see these presentations as not that valuable or important after all, and then… enough said.

Meanwhile, in April, I learned from my students in 20th Century Theatre (who were tasked with creating final group presentations and who did a truly outstanding job with them) that my instructions regarding expectations for those presentations were not clear enough. Granted, the brief was (intentionally) broad: select a “hot topic” (from the many the class covered) that has become extremely important to your group, as a team of learners, over the year, and create a 10-minute presentation, in the mode of your choosing, about that topic. But I also generated a rubric for the presentation that was highly specific: it explained in detail the criteria for grading as well as the specific components I wanted to see in the finished presentations. We did “mock” presentations the week before the final presentations were due (built on this model, given to me by Charlotte Bell) and students were asked to grade their own “mock” work using the rubric in order to get used to it. The results, during the final presentations proper, were simply terrific. So wtf?

I can only conclude that, in both cases, I missed the mark by not offering enough information about expectations early enough, and by not clarifying properly the role presentations played in our course’s learning outcomes. I am tempted to try the “low stakes” presentation model in Performance Beyond Theatres again, but this time around I think I would invite students to select presentation slots and topics in advance, and I think I would incorporate a peer critique into the process (for more on crits in the classroom stay tuned for my next post, on cool new stuff I want to try). Certainly, “critique” is not necessarily compatible with “low stakes”, but I think it has two advantages: inviting students to take the work seriously, and also encouraging them to understand that “critique” is not the same as “grade” – and why that really matters.

  1. Ah, the internet. 

All of my classes this past year had websites associated with them in addition to our official yet somewhat dysfunctional “OWL” (“online Western learning”?) course web space (it served as a way to send messages and record official assignment and grade information). The custom websites – I used WordPress for each, for ease more than anything – were spaces where the students and I could contribute to our blog roll, where I could post info about upcoming events, and where students could complete the “blog post” component of their grades. (In my theatre studies classes, students had to post X number of times; in 20th century theatre, which is officially an English lit class, groups had to post reflection pieces after their scene studies.) In 20th Century Theatre, I also had a superb Teaching Assistant, Madison Bettle, who took charge of our website and created what she called a “supplementary course reader”; there, she would post information about texts that she discovered while preparing for class, as well as mini-lectures in support of a given week’s work. (Madison, who is a 19th century prose specialist, knew nothing about modern theatre when we began; to make a place for her on the teaching team we decided she would play the role of the course’s “expert learner”.)

I have become really sceptical about getting students to do online work if it’s not fully integrated into an existing assignment (and even then!). I’ve routinely tried to model regular blog posting as a way to engage with course material after hours, but no matter how enthusiastically I post, few students seem to follow suit. I can’t tell if this is because students think posting to the class website isn’t that important (even if I emphasize that it is), because it’s a task that’s easy to forget, because they aren’t used to having to do online stuff for school (!!!???), or because many students truly aren’t that tech-savvy. My gut tells me it’s because the stakes aren’t high enough in this particular domain – there’s apparently not enough to lose by not posting, even if a student risks losing some marks, so forgetting or ignoring the task carries less anxiety with it. After all, the students in my 20th Century Theatre class routinely reported, in straw polls and anonymous surveys, that the material on our custom website and especially in Madison’s supplementary reader was enormously important to them, and they ranked the site on our mid-point survey as one of the most valuable aspects of the class. It clearly wasn’t that they weren’t going to our online hub – it was just that they weren’t all that interested in contributing to it.

For me, this points back to a more systemic problem: students tend to think university is where you go to get filled up with other peoples’ knowledge, not where you go to make your own – and they certainly do not think it’s where one goes to learn from fellow students. I have tried to use student blog participation as a way to shift this attitude, but I think by assigning blog posts I’ve attacked the branch and not the root: I’ve not communicated clearly enough that the blog is a space where we make knowledge together – and that student knowledge is real knowledge, stuff that has value for marks, but also (and more importantly) beyond that.

What to do in order to begin to address this problem? Given that Madison’s replacement next year may well not be interested in creating a supplementary course reader, and given that the students this year found that reader incredibly valuable, I think the answer is right in front of me: I need to get the students to make the supplementary course reader themselves. This will have to be for marks – probably a good number of them – and I know I’ll need to assign students specific sections of the reader in order to get them to take ownership of a part of it in a real way. But if the project is ongoing throughout the term, and if the stated goal of the task is to create a shared bank of information to support student work throughout the year, I might stand a fighting chance of convincing the class that their self-made knowledge does, in fact, have real, lasting benefit to their gradebooks – and maybe even in their Life After Marks.

Next up: cool new ideas I’m keen to take out for a spin.

Reflecting on the academic year that was, part one

Term has officially ended: hooray! Time to tear through the piles of paper in my office, stick a bunch of stuff in the shredder, rip off my fabulous teaching shoes, and dance barefoot in the sprinkler…

Girl jumps through water sprinkler.

(You didn’t think I meant that OTHER sprinkler dance thing, did you?)

Well, yes indeed. I did all that (though the sprinkler was actually a hot tub – more on that below) – but then I also started thinking, wistfully, about teaching again. (No, really; just a few days of semi-clad sprinkler dancing/hot tub soaking will do that to me.)

This spring, already hot and steamy in southern Ontario, I’ve decided it would be a good idea to spend some time reflecting on how the past academic year went before I get too far away from it. Typically, I turn 180 degrees from campus and all things pedagogical as soon as I hand in my final grades, only to return to teaching concerns sometime in August, when I start getting pestering emails about outlines, course packs, and other deadline-related stuff from the administrative officers in my department. Usually, at that point, I’m in total denial about having to go back into the classroom; the result is that I block off a week, panic that it’s not enough time, and do what I think it’s fair to say is not a full-assed job of my course preparation. It may look pretty darn spiffy at week’s end, but I know it’s not the best I can do, and, worse yet, it’s not achieved without real suffering.

So what, I asked myself this past week – while lounging, dancing, soaking, and lying about with my dear friends Steven and Peter in their idyllic riverside cottage in rural Nova Scotia – if I did some advance prep while I’m still sort of in teaching mode? Right now, I still have the energy to contemplate problems arising from the terms just past, to consider useful changes I might make next year, and to celebrate stuff that went reasonably well and should not be changed. So why not use it?

I decided a reflection on the year, in writing, was in order. In order not to overwhelm myself, I decided to go with the tried-and-true “three things” model: three things that went well, three things that need tweaking, three new ideas that I might like to try out, based on what I learned in 2014-15. I’ve also decided (again, in order not to overwhelm myself, or you!) to blend my reflections on all three of my classes together, rather than doing three things per class. Just for reference’s sake, though, this is what I taught this year:

  • English 3556E: 20th Century Theatre* (full year, English cohort, 33 students)
  • Theatre 2202F: Performance Beyond Theatres (half year, 7 students)
  • Theatre 3205G: History of Performance Theory (half year, 5 students)

(*Actually called 20th Century Drama, formerly Modern Drama. I prefer “Theatre”, for all the reasons that plays are not novels. On this point, except in official correspondence related to the course’s university designation, I will not be moved.)

Today, I offer “three things that went well”; over the next couple of posts I’ll roll out the three things I’d like to tweak, and the three new ideas I’d like to try. Each post is a touch long, though I hope not too rambling; if you get to the end please do consider leaving your own thoughts, suggestions, and term-end reflections in a comment. Feel free to read pool-side, though be careful with your screen around the sprinklers!

Three things that went well:

  1. The students in 20th century theatre, as usual, LOVED the performance workshop component of the class.

They loved creating scene studies; they loved performing for one another and they did a superb job of responding critically to one another during our “talkback” sessions after each performance and in their performance response assignments. They learned a lot about the plays on which they presented, and they took that knowledge with them into other assignments (essays and exams, as well as into their final group presentations).

This year, I did something different with the performance component of the course: instead of asking students (different students, arranged in groups) to perform every week, in a regular one-hour performance slot, I organized two dedicated, two-hour performance workshops per term. In the past I’ve gone with the weekly studio model, and students have responded extremely well, but I’ve also gotten this feedback: that it’s too much performing, and that we end up having to rush through texts in our remaining two hours of class time as a result of turning the third hour each week over to student performance and feedback. I don’t actually agree with this second critique; I believe that the learning students accomplish in the performance hour is ultimately more memorable and effective than anything I could tell them in hours one and two. BUT I do recognize that it’s a lot to do and to take in for students, that it’s often a whirlwind, and that a large part of the problem might simply be too many texts on the course (IE: a syllabus planning problem), given the performance expectations that go along with them.

I did a straw poll about the performance workshop setup with my class this year, and most said they preferred the idea of it to the idea of weekly performances. But I’m not sold. I think it’s likely that the latter is equally appealing, perhaps moreso, once students get into the groove; another of my colleagues used my weekly performance hour model in her Canadian Drama course, and the students raved about it (as they always did for me). I’m considering an in-between model next year: assigning fewer plays, then keying a performance to each text, alternating between student and professional/recorded/live productions. In theory, this would give each student group the chance to do at least two scene studies per term, and in theory we could then spend two weeks on each play, with plenty of time available to explore the relationships between text and performance in each.

  1. Field trips. Now that Western is running a full-on Theatre Studies program, we have every excuse (and every reason!) to take students to see live theatre, and often.

There are some terrific local theatre venues in London, Ontario (the Grand downtown; the Arts Project on the Dundas strip; the Palace in Old East), but I think there’s also merit in taking students to Toronto and further afield as often as possible. This past year my Performance Beyond Theatres class went to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche all-night art festival; we were a small group but we had a marvelous time exploring the question of where the city ends and the art begins by wandering about with a minimal map, getting lost when required. We ended up producing a class review (forthcoming this summer!) of the event for Canadian Theatre Review, an exercise that was extra-curricular (and therefore led primarily by me) but enormous fun and a good publishing opportunity for students. Next year I’d like to introduce the possibility of such a review as a class assignment; I suspect we could easily find a publisher in one of the on-campus papers, and by asking students to take the lead on a review from start to finish I could offer them an excellent chance to try their writing (and interpersonal!) skills out in a professional venue. I might also encourage students to review in pairs or groups (unless they absolutely wished to review solo), and then to submit their individual reviews for publication in an open, competitive process with a pre-arranged venue (like The Gazette, Western’s student paper, or Western News).

In my larger classes, field trips are harder to organize, as I learned this spring; coming late to realize that two relevant performances of plays we were studying were upcoming – one in Toronto and one in London – I scrambled to organize tickets for interested students. (I didn’t make attendance mandatory, as I’d not known about them in time to include the performances on the syllabus.) This didn’t go brilliantly; in one case our trip to Toronto was scuppered by a bad winter storm, and in another not nearly as many students as I’d hoped opted for a (free!!) ticket to a local production of Miss Julie (though I did get the cast in to speak to the students, who seemed really to enjoy the chance to talk about the play’s characters with the actors). I blame myself here: I just hadn’t thought to do the legwork in my one “English Lit” class to put upcoming performances on the course, and to arrange tickets and transport in advance. (I may have been spoiled by my time at Queen Mary, where everyone prompts one another constantly to be thinking about good shows for student visits.) I’ll be doing much more self-prompting this coming year; I’ve already put reminders about field trip planning in my calendar.

  1. Letting students decide readings. (No, really.)

Admittedly, I did this as a trial in only one class, my small Performance Theory seminar, but I’m sold. I got the notion from Sarah Bay-Cheng, an awesome friend and colleague who teaches a similar course at SUNY Buffalo, and who explained her strategy to me last summer when we found ourselves eating delicious curry and trading teaching tips at Dishoom in Shoreditch, Proper London. (Totally recommended, btw, foodies.) Using Sarah’s model, I selected a reliable textbook for the course (Daniel Gerould’s Theatre/Theory/Theatre), supplemented it with a bunch of titles of more recent performance theory pieces I think are significant and worth reading even at the undergraduate level, and chose one text per week for our syllabus. Then, I made a roster of secondary selections, from which we chose as a group in the first long (2-hour) lesson of the year. Each student got a week to work on (in fact, we did this twice – once for the historical material and once for the contemporary, with an hour for each task), and a selection of good reading choices for that week. Their job was to practice their skimming/quick reading skills in order to get enough of a sense of each text to be able to decide which they thought would be best for us to select for that week, and which would go with the selection I’d already scheduled. None of the readings were “wrong”, so there was little pressure, and the students had plenty of time to do the choosing. The results were terrific: the students were in most cases hard pressed to pick which reading they liked the best, and they made some surprise choices that really impressed me. Best of all, when we got to “their” weeks, they had a sense of ownership over the readings they had chosen and stepped up to the plate to honour that work by preparing extremely well; many went on to work on their chosen selections in research projects or on the final exam.

I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to scale this up, but I am certainly going to give it a try in Performance Beyond Theatres next autumn. In 20th Century Theatre I may do a slightly more limited version of the exercise, given that I have to order books, including single edition play texts, well in advance of week one. I might invite students to choose secondary readings, or perhaps productions to attend from a roster I’ve pre-culled. Or maybe I’ll throw caution to the wind. Who knows? But definitely my experience this year suggests there’s little to lose, and a lot of investment in and commitment to course readings (precious thing!!!) to gain, in giving student choice pride of place on the course outline.

So that’s it for now. Next up: stuff that I f*&@ed up royally and need to rethink. Before we get there, though – the students agree that we had a pretty awesome year:

English 3556 debrief session, 2015

…and hats off to all of them!


A Tale of Two Systems

Herewith, the text of my contribution to the Western “Alternative” 100 Days of Listening Tour. With thanks to all my colleagues who maintain the “Noah Confidenze” Tumblr site, here.

Dear fellow faculty members, staff and students,

I’ve been at Western since 2005, but from 2012 to 2014 I worked as a Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. Queen Mary Drama is, according to the last two REF (“Research Excellence Framework”) exercises mandated by the British government, the top academic theatre department in the UK, and as of last December the top academic performing arts department, including but not limited to theatre. Its researchers are nationally celebrated and internationally respected writers and artists. They are also an amazing group of human beings who truly love each other and spend time outside of work together.

In spite of this exceptional good fortune and warm intradepartmental culture, however, over the last several years my QM colleagues’ working lives have grown harder and harder, the morale in the school of which they are a part dropping further and further. Research money is thin on the ground, but scholars are still expected to produce world-beating materials in time for the regular “dry runs” designed to prepare the college for success in the REF. New research centres are created according to what upper-level administrators think will best support the school’s brand, after only limited consultation with faculty members involved with or impacted by the schemes. Students, rocked by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s decision to raise tuition rates across the UK to £9000 per year, are themselves increasingly demoralised, anxious, and rightly worried about job prospects on the other side of their degrees. Meanwhile, the REF itself ( – which requires every academic department in the UK to submit faculty research “outputs” for “quality assessment” according to their national or international “impact” – dominates every aspect of academic life. Thinking of a new book project? Ask first if it will be “REF-able”. Writing a book for students? Think again – according to REF criteria teaching-focused work will have no measurable research “impact”. Taking on a journal editorship? That means you’ll be helping other scholars publish their REF research, but what about yours? Can you spare that kind of time? Or perhaps you’re planning to write about a Canadian topic, or a South African topic, or an Icelandic topic? Careful: that work may be deemed only to have limited, “national” significance.

During my two years in London I saw first-hand the human “impact” this neoliberal quest for profit-driving, brand-oriented research has had on brilliant, politically engaged, activist teachers and writers. Everybody is tired; everybody is anxious; everybody is worried about their job, the health of their department, the possibility of future funding (all of these things are tied, in different ways, to REF outcomes). Faculty members fretful about their basic job security, hopelessly overworked as they try to shoehorn “world leading” research into the space between measuring impact and trying to teach the citizens of the next generation, have precious little time for political protest about what has rapidly become the status quo. And that, of course, is exactly what neoliberal governance models hope for. If we’re all too tired to think, smart and critically engaged professors become far less of a threat. And we become far more likely to take the soothing words fed us on faith.

I came back to Western last August, knowing that I had seen our future at Queen Mary. I had witnessed, and (barely) survived, the world in which we will all end up if we do not mount a sustained, vigorous protest against the corporatization of higher education in Canada, and against the decimation of critical inquiry as the university’s major contribution to the public good. The scandal that has blown up around Dr Chakma’s salary provision has given us a precious opportunity: a clarifying object around which to mount a clear and public debate about the future of Canadian universities, their increasingly slavish devotion to neloliberal governance models, and the very real dangers – for students, faculty, the public, and citizenship itself – of their appetite for power and profit allergic to thoughtful challenge. I urge us all to hold tight to this fight, even after the flames of Amit Chakma’s scandal burn out.

Yours in solidarity,


On the power of academic protest (take academia back!)

If you work in the Canadian university system you have probably heard about what’s recently been happening at my school, Western University. Our president, chemical engineer Amit Chakma, is at the centre of a scandal about administrative pay: his contract permitted him to take home double his pay packet at the end of his first term in office, in lieu of the administrative leave he was due. (What is administrative leave? It is a sabbatical given to scholars after several years in major administrative jobs in order that they may catch up on their research work. Since university administrators are traditionally drawn from the faculty, the assumption is they will return to active teaching and research once their admin gig is done.) Admin leave is not a holiday with pay: it’s a chance to get back up to speed in the job for which you are normally paid, and from which you had been seconded in order to do administrative labour for the university. Dr Chakma’s poor choice, to take a huge bonus instead of leave, sent the opposite message: that research leaves are a kind of “free money” opportunity, paid for by the suckers who hold the public purse.

As a result of Chakma-gate, as this event and its aftermath have become known, my colleagues and I find ourselves exhausted and frustrated, as we constantly defend the nature of our work to friends, family, and beyond. The other week, to offer just one example, I found myself explaining to the farmer who produces my weekly veg box what sabbaticals are (essential, concentrated research time, during which the books and papers needed for tenure and promotion get written) and how difficult they can be to afford for many ordinary faculty members (at Western, you take a pay cut when you’re on sabbatical). I just wanted to buy my veg on my one free day that week! But when you’re confronted by (a totally kind, generally ethical) somebody who is pretty sure, based on his reading of recent events in the papers, that you are an overprivileged fat cat, well… it’s hard just to plunk down your $20 and walk away.

Professors – elitist ivory-tower dwellers blah blah blah – are easy targets at the best of times; now, Chakma-gate has got us mixed up in many minds with the bankers and politicians who cravenly screw the public over for money and power. The really sad bit, though, is that President Chakma’s contract provisions are only one very visible symptom of a much larger, systemic problem: university governance models, including at Western, rely increasingly on excessively paid career bureaucrats who dictate neoliberal policy from above to diffuse and vulnerable students and faculty below. As Terry Eagleton recently argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the impact of the problem is wide-reaching and most devastating for the liberal arts disciplines whose daily work is hardest to link directly to the profit motive. In other words: under Dr Chakma’s presidency, many of us in the ordinary faculty have felt left out and screwed over, too. And many, many of us have not reaped anything like the benefits he has – quite the opposite.


That’s the depressing bit. The GOOD news is that Chakma-gate has also proven to be a truly galvanising force for faculty and students at Western who are fed up with a budget model that plays favourites among faculties and presses the arts and humanities to accept increasing austerity measures while lavishing money, support, and bling on STEM and the school of business. Protests, votes of non-confidence, and lots of discussion in the media have prompted Dr Chakma first to pledge to give back his “bonus” pay, and then to engage in what he calls “100 Days of Listening” as he speaks with different constituencies about our ongoing concerns. Looking out across our university’s rapidly decaying forest from the top of this particular tree, a number of my colleagues have chosen to take Chakma-gate as a real opportunity to try to arrest what sometimes feels like our intractable slide into a “new normal” – in which higher education is reframed as “job training”, with no room for the arts, social sciences, or any discipline in which the debating of ideas takes precedence over skill and content delivery in the service of increasing corporate profits.

This fight is a long time coming, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be part of an academic community that is so geared up for it. For the two years I was in the UK, I lived and worked in the shadow of the dystopian endgame toward which schools like Western are marching. (I’ve written about this on the blog before; see here and here for two representative posts.) While I was part of the truly incredible Department of Drama at Queen Mary, University of London, one filled with brilliant community activists and scholar-artists, too regularly we felt like protest against the neoliberal hierarchy in which we were trapped was pointless and the system more or less immovable. The best we could do was keep calm, keep writing and talking about the problem, and then find a way to manage the workload amidst the gloom.

At Western, right now, I feel like we still have the chance to fight this fight and win – but the window is closing. As part of the ongoing protests in the wake of Chakma-gate, a handful of my colleagues have created an “alternative” 100-days-of-listening tour, in which faculty and students share their perspectives on the larger issues at stake via blog posts on social media, primarily through a dedicated tumblr account and the superb Facebook group, Take Academia Back. I recently contributed a blog post to the “alt” tour; it will be up shortly, and I’ll reblog it here at that time. For now, I want to urge all of you to click on the metadata links I’ve built into this post, read a bit about Chakma-gate and the protests in its wake, and follow similar stories on your home campuses and in your communities.

I also want to urge you, if you have not already, to join Take Academia Back on Facebook, to follow “Noah Confidenze”, our online protest alias, on tumblr – and to share in the comments below (or anywhere you think most productive) your own stories of fighting back against higher ed’s reductive and damaging new normal(s). Keep talking, and if you can, start mobilising! I know it’s extra work, and we’re all tired – but that’s the point, I suspect. The new normal wants us to be too tired to mobilise against it. That’s what makes it so dangerous.

'I love to come here because it reminds me of how I became a capitalist.'

This fight is too important to give up on. Our futures hang in the balance – and I know from my time abroad that it is not a future any of us would choose to live or work in.

In solidarity!