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!


1 thought on “Reflecting on the academic year that was, part one

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