On going back into the classroom (first week back – full report here!)

(First and foremost: a big welcome to any new students reading!)

Mid-September. Western University has been back in session for just over a week, and I’ve just finished teaching my first full week of classes. Some of my friends in the U.S. have been back in the classroom since mid-August (OMG! Sending sympathy…); others go back next week, along with my U.K. friends and colleagues. So, basically: it’s battle time, peeps, no matter where you are.

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Which means it’s also the perfect time for a back-to-school report: how’d that first week go for us, anyway? I can’t speak for everyone (though I think I CAN speak for the people with offices near me, and for the others in my neighbourhood who teach at Western and have dogs), but I thought it might still be fun to report back on stuff I learned from the first week back, 2015, for the purposes of a) comparative fun, and b) mutual commiseration. Enjoy.

1. Man, am I tired. And hungry!

Yes, body. I know. Every year we go through the same thing. It’s been a decade of full time  uni teaching, and yet I never seem to learn: if teaching is emotionally and physically exhausting, the first couple of weeks back (aka “re-entry”) are especially so. This means a couple of things.

First, I will be hungrier than usual. Because, you know, performance at the front of the class = calories burned. This summer in India I scored a fabulous tiffin box after an utterly fantastic foodie tour of Hyderabad; this week I packed it to bursting both teaching days with snacks and lunch. Yet by the time I got home each day, I was ravenous once more. And last night – no word of a lie – after a huge dinner and a modest dessert I ate a small tupperware full of undressed pasta. Not because I wanted to, but because something in me dragged me to the fridge and made it happen.

Second, it may not be ideal for me to go, from a full day of teaching, home to walk the dog and then on to the lake to row 10km. The row is a fantastic antidote to a day spent in the cerebral confines of brain/classroom/computer, but the physical labour expended during the row simply increases the chances I’ll go home and eat two dinners. Which also, btw, produces restless sleep. (I think this is what They call a Catch-22.)

In other words: I’m working on readjusting to the physical realities of classroom labour. At least (for the first time in 10 years! Slow learner, me) I remembered to bring a full bottle of sparkling water with me to my lecture class both days this week. I even dropped a whole case of the stuff by my office last Friday. We’ll see if I can remember to keep stocking up. (And yes, environmentally conscious friends: I plan to ask Santa for a Sodastream.)

2. There are far too few students in my classes. Through no fault of my own.

I am at a record low: 26 students in my 20th Century Drama class (cap = 45), and 9 students in my Performance Theory class (this one because the program is still new, but still). This is not because students run away from me (they don’t, even though with the sparkling water spraying all over the place they’d have every right), but because our entire Faculty of Arts & Humanities is suffering from poor enrolments this year like never before, a trend seen right across Canada and beyond. The reasons? There are a few, but the number one is this: we’ve suffered for more than a decade now under a government that is plainly anti-research and anti-science, and even more strenuously and insidiously anti-arts, anti-culture, and anti-liberal humanities. My university, ever willing to play the princess to any prince bearing funding, is more than happy to toe government party lines, and is increasingly run by those who have no idea what Arts & Humanities is, let alone what we do. So we’re in a PR war – except that mostly we seem to be going down in flames.

Which is why, at our recent welcome-back department meeting, many of us were urged to put our marketing caps on, get out there on social media, and start selling ourselves. Should we be doing this? Arguably, absolutely: it is part of our jobs to tell the world why the work we do matters. But also, arguably, no. It’s my actual job to teach my students and publish my research, so that the latter may return to my classrooms in the form of developments in my thinking and innovations in my teaching, which might then (in the knock-on effect that is the basis of all university labour) produce thoughtful, critically-equipped citizens, workers, and (ahem) voters. Surely I don’t also have to be a whiz with Twitter? I mean (see #1 above): how much can one professor achieve without dropping dead from exhaustion and/or hunger?

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(BTW, this post is not the place to go into detail about why the arts and humanities DO matter. Instead, I’ll direct you to a great, recent op-ed piece by my colleague David Bentley on the topic.)

3. That stuff I said I’d do back in May: so far, so good.

In particular, I’ve made a go of asking my students in 20th Century Drama to create, together, the 2015-16 version of the online supplementary course reader that my terrific T.A. from last year’s class pioneered. Madison came round to talk to the new cohort this past Tuesday about what the course reader is, and why and how she built it; I then asked everyone to sign up for two slots (one per term), offering both specific weeks and topics to choose from. Everyone signed up, and most selected a topic in advance; I’ve already had a few students come by asking questions related to preparing their first entries. And I decided that an example was in order, so I created the very first entry myself, including a few different modes of access (images; text I wrote; links to news articles) in order to demonstrate that the course reader is flexible enough to accommodate a lot of different kinds of material. I’m hopeful that this will be a success, and a truly effective way to get students to participate online while also working together to make a shared resource. I’ll continue to report back throughout the year.

I’ve also followed through on my plan to devolve more power to students around choosing deadlines. In my larger class I’ve made options the key: students must hand in their first paper at the same time, but then they can choose which of two live theatre events to use as the basis of their review assignments (and thus which due date they’d prefer), and – more radically – which of three due dates in March they’d like to commit to for their research papers. At first there was a bit of confusion around this (of the “Dr Solga, are all these dates a typo?” variety), but if anything that only served to demonstrate how entrenched the “prof says this is due on that day” model remains. For my part, I am hopeful that students will think carefully about what I’m doing here – inviting their input, via their schedules and their individual needs, on what deadlines will *really* work best for them – and choose wisely when our first research workshop in January comes around. And if they don’t, perhaps that’s even better; missing the deadlines they set for themselves will cause some anxiety, but hopefully lead to some real learning, too.

Because, you know, mistakes: university education is full of them. And thank god for that.

Hang in there, people!

Kim

 

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On using theatre… to teach the teachers

This past Wednesday I took part in Fall Perspectives on Teaching, my university’s semiannual teaching conference. It’s an opportunity for faculty and graduate student instructors to ease back into the autumn teaching term with collegial conversations, practical sessions (on things like new classroom technologies and copyright compliance), and – of course – inspiring keynote sessions.

This time around I was honoured to be part of one of those keynote sessions: a forum theatre workshop focused on managing cultural difference in the classroom. This event capped off the day, and was organized by Western Teaching Support Centre staff Aisha Haque and Nanda Dimitrov, as well as Naomi Tessler of Toronto’s Branch Out Theatre, who also facilitated the session.

What is “forum theatre”? It’s part of a system of performance-driven social activism called “Theatre of the Oppressed“, which was pioneered by the late Brazilian director Augusto Boal. In a piece of forum theatre, spectators witness actors perform a scenario that includes (typically politically inflected) conflict and tension. Then, the scene is played again, and this time spectators become “spect-actors”: they are invited to stop the action at moments they feel frustrated or inspired to make a change in the scene’s trajectory. They are then invited to come up onto the stage and take the place of one of the actors, improvising the scene in a new way in order better to address one of the problems it stages. At its best, forum theatre offers a means to empower communities; it’s not “drama therapy”, but theatre for social change.

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(Augusto Boal leading a workshop in New York, 2008)

My job on Wednesday was to offer a (very brief) introduction to Boal and his work and then to encourage my colleagues to put aside their stage fright and boldly take part in the play as spect-actors. (I was also meant to take part: Aisha, Nanda and their colleagues were a bit worried nobody else would jump in. They need not have been!) Since I’m a drama teacher and also very comfortable speaking to large groups I was daunted by none of this. I knew what I’d say about Boal, how I’d tease out my colleagues’ inner extroverts, and I imagined the forum bit itself would be great fun. I had read the scenarios in advance, so I also knew that the “change” the play was trying to encourage wasn’t really for me. I already have a lot of training in sexual and cultural diversity both inside and beyond the classroom, and as a teacher I pride myself on fostering an inclusive and respectful learning environment. I imagined that, once my introduction was over, I would simply sit back and take similar pride in watching my colleagues from across the arts and social sciences encounter the transformative power of theatre – the “impact” of the arts in action.

I definitely got that – and it felt just wonderful to see the work of the theatre regarded as socially valuable by a group of scholars and teachers who had probably thought little of it (beyond its entertainment value) before. But I – drama “expert” me, teaching “expert” me –also got much more than I bargained for! I thought I knew already how to address the ugly discrimination in the scenarios we were watching; when time came for me to jump into the story, however, I ran into some trouble. And the trouble proved really instructive.

I stopped the first scene at a point where the professor is trying to manage a “know-it-all” student, who really wants to keep the discussion about Greece’s current economic misfortunes “on track”, alongside two other students who are shy to speak but have important personal perspectives to share (and who feel vocally excluded by “know-it-all” Claudia). The spect-actor before me had prompted a shift in the dialogue; the professor in the scene then invited one of the students, from Egypt, to share her perspective, but “quickly”. (In the world of the play, he’s impatient and anxious.) Instead of asking to roll the scene back to the beginning, I asked to start from that moment of grim professorial impatience. My plan was to play the professor as someone in mid-mistake, realising they had screwed up and needed to turn things around. This happens to all of us: when was the last time you said the wrong thing, or revealed too much of yourself, or unintentionally marginalised a student in class only to see their face and know, in that minute, your own error (and even shame)? Rather than starting again from the beginning, and playing some version of the “ideal” professor who would never discriminate against any student or let a mouthy keener speak rudely to a colleague, I decided I’d toss myself onto the fire and see how I reacted, and how others responded to my reactions.

I’m usually pretty good in a classroom crisis and I was pretty sure I could get the scene back from the brink, but I was wrong. I thanked the student who had spoken up with her personal perspective, and then commended her doubly because I knew she had been struggling with speaking in class. (Her struggle with Canadian expectations around class participation, given her different experience of schooling in Egypt, was the point of the original scene.) My (studio) audience of fellow teachers reacted audibly to this; they clearly thought I’d made a wrong choice – even though I hadn’t said anything I wouldn’t say in a classroom of my own. Instantly I felt the mood shift, and with it my focus shifted. I was no longer aiming to change the trajectory of the scene, or “save” the crisis; now, I was aiming for approving reactions from my peers. From this point on, I felt myself flailing; my attention had been diverted, and I wasn’t thinking about what was best for the students in the scene anymore. Mostly, I was showing off: I figured, if I could not play for results, I could at least play for laughs.

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(Boal at right: not afraid to look silly for good reason.)

After a forum scene featuring a spect-actor ends, the facilitator asks that actor to talk about what might have changed as a result of their intervention; then, the audience weighs in. In the case of my scene, not much changed for the better, but I did realise a few really valuable things as a result of the problems I experienced on stage.

First, it dawned on me how much I perform for my students, and how much my investment in myself as a “good” or “natural” performer may get in the way of teaching and learning more often than I might imagine. My classroom persona is witty, clever, smooth, and funny. In other words: I play to win them over, and I play for laughs. Students generally love this: funny beats boring at 9am every time. But let’s face it: if I’m overly focused on who I am (IE: who I am playing) in front of them, then I can’t be fully focused on them and what they need from me.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that teachers need to be selfless givers of knowledge – not at all. The job of teaching is challenging and messy, and in the best classrooms knowledge is collaboratively made, not “given”. I’m simply trying to acknowledge that sometimes I overdetermine my classroom performance, and when I do I am probably doing everyone in the room a disservice, including me. (Man, performing for students is exhausting!) Before our forum session led me to embarrass myself in front of about 150 of my peers, I may not have been fully willing to own that. Now I am.

Second, I discovered that the stuff that works in class for me works because my classroom is a community – albeit an imperfect one – rather than just a bunch of disconnected student bodies. As we debriefed the (largely negative) impact of the choices I had made in my version of the forum scene, it occurred to me that I’d made similar choices before in classes, but the effects in those cases had been quite different. Why? I think it’s because, all “performing” aside, in my classes I work hard to establish respectful, human connections amongst all of us (teacher, T.A., students) right from the start of term. I refer to us as a community of learners even before we really become that thing. I divide students into working groups that I curate to ensure a diverse mix of experience and comfort with things like group work and public speaking, and we spend time getting to know one another before the really hard work sets in. I also try to demonstrate to students that I’m a totally fallible human being; when I’m wrong I usually say so, and if I don’t know the answer to a question I’ll admit that too. So while it’s true that sometimes I over-perform for students, showing off a bit and maybe sacrificing learning engagement for virtuosity, it’s also true that I try to foster a space where we are all free to be ourselves, safely. That mix – of virtuosity with totally fallible humanity – characterises the spaces in which I work.

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(At left: debriefing my forum intervention, with performers Natalie Abdou, Naomi Tessler, and Rehana Tejpar.)

In the forum scene, I over-performed out of sheer anxiety – until I didn’t. At a certain point, realising things had gone kinda Pete Tong, I pulled back and said to the students: I’ve made a mistake. We need to dial back, perhaps turn back to the reading for a minute, regroup. This was the opposite of performing: it was me being me, being as honest as I could be in that moment. In my own classroom I would have done nothing less. Except this time the effect was, once more, the opposite of what I expected: the “students” in the scenario did not trust the professor I was playing, nor each other, and so the audience took this honesty for an attempt at deflection, at sweeping a problem under the rug, at turning away from the students as opposed to toward them. Without trust in one another, my being honest with them simply read as insincere, or even cowardly.

I learned one other very important thing on Wednesday, and I hope my fellow spect-actors did too. It’s so much harder to regain equilibrium from inside a troubled teaching scenario than it is to imagine the ideal from the outset, when you can script the scene according to your own expectations of yourself as an enlightened instructor. My talented colleagues offered us some absolutely brilliant revisionings of our play, including some inspired solutions to overt classroom discrimination; most of them, however, chose to start scenes over and play them their way, based on a set of assumptions they hold about what kinds of teachers they already are. And they are amazing teachers! But I am too – and yet I still got stuck, and that getting stuck led, for me, to important, unexpected learning.

Thank god for the pedagogical power of the theatre.

Do try this at home!

Kim