On emotional exhaustion

This morning I was rushing to work. Nothing new there; I get up at 7am to make my 9:30 class, but between the dog-walking and the breakfast and lunch-making and the email-answering and the showering and dressing (if I’m lucky!), it’s usually 8:50 before I’m out of the house. This morning it was 8:55: cue the panic.

I had to stop at the bank machine to grab some cash en route to campus. This morning there was a man ahead of me – he was a bit older, looked somewhat confused, and was carrying two plastic bags filled with sundries and paper bills. I noted that he hadn’t yet put a card into the ATM machine.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, “but I’m in an enormous hurry. Would it be ok if I went first? I won’t be long.”

He was reticent to start, but then became gracious.

“Just be sure to do something nice for someone else” he said as we traded places.

“Of course!” I replied.

But, as I left the bank and jumped back into the car, I thought to myself: when? When in my incredibly busy day of catering to other human beings’ needs will I find the time to “do something nice” for someone? Isn’t that my job, more or less, all the time? In fact, I was so moved by the (grudging) kindness of this old, disheveled man toward me that I was practically tearing up as it was. It felt ages since someone had stepped out of their way to give me a helping hand. Mostly, I do the stepping, the helping, the hand-extending.

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It’s mid-October: brisk air; swirling, coloured leaves. Here in Canada Thanksgiving is over and Halloween is a week away. The geese are running wild in the streets. (No, really.) The snow has already flown. On campus, that of course means homecoming is behind us, midterms are here, and study break can’t come soon enough. The students look like zombies. Everyone is sick – my inbox is littered Tuesday mornings with tales of coughs, flus, reasons aplenty not to come to class. They trade their germs with us; my colleagues cough and wheeze up and down the hall.

It’s also the time of year when class numbers start to dwindle. Students make the calculus: whose lesson do I skip to finish the assignment for Professor X? They may know, or may have forgotten, the penalty for skipping mine. They probably make their decisions based on whose absence penalties are most punitive.

This morning, when I finally made it to my classroom (after a major parking headache, with four minutes to spare!), I faced a mere 65% of the group. I won’t lie: my heart sank. After all, I’d put heart and soul into the prep, and I was prepared to give all the energy I had to the room even though I was sweaty and slightly out of breath. I’m not sure the students could have cared any less; their faces looked, well, like they were zombies. (NB to all university timetable-keepers: for students, 9:30am is the new 6:30am.)

Now, I’d like to stop here and say that I don’t intend this post to be a rant about typical undergraduate student thoughtlessness; I wasn’t an undergrad *so very* long ago, and I know I made some stupid, thoughtless choices at the time that I wish I could take back. (Entschuldigung, Dr Langhorst!) But the combination of events at work this morning – the familiar, draining rush; the man in the ATM vestibule; the manic arrival in class; the lack of students, and those in attendance sporting their weary masks of “it’s too early!!” – made me realise, once again and as though for the first time, how incredibly emotionally draining my job as a teacher is.

To be a teacher in any capacity means that you need to be prepared to give a great deal more than you get. Those of us who do this work all know this on some level, but we rarely vocalise it; instead, I suspect, we live with the struggle of coping with an emotional deficit most days. I go to class and try my very best to give my students the most energetic and passionate experience of my research that I can; good teachers are “passionate”, after all. What the brochure doesn’t tell you: that students tend to lack similar levels of passion for the thing that ignites you. That your passion is not in a 1:1 relationship to their potential passion. And that the return on your passion-investment is often pretty poor: one or two truly excited students per semester, after maybe 40 contact hours (not counting prep, office, other…) of you doing the very best song and dance you can. I’m not denying this is a valuable outcome – of course it is; I’m just saying that it’s not a very efficient one. Forty hours of hard work for one or two lives touched is wonderful. But it also means our emotional engines run hot, run out; and we often run dry.

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(Only Eadweard Muybridge understands my pain.)

By the middle of any term (aka, about now), I usual start getting regular visits to my office hours from students in some need. Anxiety and depression are big ones; panic over deadlines and apparent confusion over the assignments I’ve painstakingly laid out in detail in the syllabus are two others. Basically, students come to my office hours to express to me their emotional struggles with the pressures of school, of getting older, of coping on their own, of peering into an uncertain future. I smile, I look concerned, I nod, I try to help them problem solve as best I can. I feel for them – really I do. I remember being in their shoes. And I often eat my lunch while they are talking, because there is literally no other time for me to eat it.

So, by the time I get home most nights mid-semester I’ve got honestly nothing left. Still, many evenings I hunker down to work: as I’ve spent so much of my teaching day meeting with students or colleagues, I usually need the extra time to catch up on administration or a bit of writing. On research days, too, the demanding emails roll in while I’m trying to write – and then they need somehow to be addressed, or at least triaged, before the next set arrive with the new day. I realised this past weekend that I’m working at least a 60-hour week right now, not counting home chores. If I have an hour a day to myself that’s a good outcome; I watch TV rarely, though I miss it a lot, and I wish I had time to read more for fun.

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I don’t want this to seem like I’m complaining about my job. I am so lucky to have a well paid, salaried, tenured, flexible position in a well respected and highly ranked Canadian research university. I just wish my students, and maybe also the world around them, could appreciate better the sheer amount of emotional labour required by me and my colleagues every day, in addition to the intellectual and administrative work that defines our jobs on paper. And I really wish my colleagues and I could talk more openly about this stuff amongst ourselves. I know I, who have so few emotionally strengthening resources to draw on at home, would welcome such a conversation with open arms.

Kim

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On resisting “prep creep”

So there I was, prepping away last Monday just after lunchtime, racing to get my two classes ready for Tuesday and Thursday, when I got a phone call from my dad. He’d been in a serious car accident (not his fault, and he’s fine), and needed a hand. Off I went.

Two hours later I was home again, relieved dad was also home and dry. I turned back to work: I had one set of prep down and one to go, but I reminded myself that the second set was stuff I’d taught before and that it went well last year. Won’t take long, I said to the dog. We’ll be off for evening walkies in no time.

[Cue time passing]

Emma Jane face!

[Emma waits]

So there I was, sometime around 9:30, still fussing the prep. Honestly, I could not understand it myself. It was no more complicated than a series of exercises I’d devised to help explore the acting theories of Denis Diderot, plus a few discussion points around the film Stage Beauty, which I use to help us make sense of the notion of acting with – and without – our emotions on our sleeves. But somehow I could not finish my plotting, leave well enough alone.

Did I mention that I had imported a good portion of my prep from last year?

What, I want to know, causes us teachers to give in to prep creep? (Def: that weird sensation that I’m just not ready, that if I just futz a bit more [add a few more lines here, directions to the exercise there] I will clearly be so much more prepared for tomorrow, for anything the class may throw.) When, OBVIOUSLY, we know this inner monologue is not true: classes go well or badly quite unexpectedly. The best prep in the world can’t stop the train crash from coming, if the mood in the moment launches us onto the tracks. Similarly, sometimes prep has to go sailing out the window – and then sending it flying is the best decision in the world.

On Tuesday, after a sleep and a think, I decided to ask my colleagues about their preparatory practices. Specifically, I asked two of them – both “senior” mid-career, both decorated teachers, both on my floor in the Arts & Humanities Building – how they prep for classes they have taught before. What’s their strategy? How much time do they allot, and when?

Both had similar responses. Lots of “minor” re-prep is to be expected, and it can take different forms (re-reading notes; re-reading salient chunks of primary text). Some major re-prep is essential if you’re to keep a class fresh. One commented on the importance of making notes on sessions just run in order to tell your future self what rocked and what sucked, thus prompting appropriate levels of re-prep later. (I’ve done this for a while now and I am an advocate, too. At the end of every teaching week I take 15 minutes to make notes in the margins of my prep documents, casual but clear: “this worked because everyone was confused and needed time to process the reading”; “this did not work at all because nobody was interested in this question”; etc.) The other noted that he purposefully tosses out some of his most cherished lecture material each year in order to keep himself on his toes. (WOW! Props.)

Both, however, reminded me (unbeknownst to them) that I may be placing my re-prep eggs in the wrong basket. Fussing over discussion questions and group work exercises is largely a recipe for… well, not much. Energy in the room and dynamics on the day are what determine a successful or unsuccessful class debate; certainly my job as discussion curator requires me to spend time figuring out the different steps in a group exercise and guiding students through it, but more important than my fussing the minor details is getting the major stuff right. And this is where I’ve been falling down lately: I’ve been neglecting my pledge to re-read the primary texts I teach in their entirety as often as possible.

Lately I’ve been skimming my re-reads, or going to the “hot” bits of articles to remind myself of key claims by authors; the devil’s in the details in this case, though, and the fresher a text is in my mind the more likely I am to teach it with verve, energy, and enthusiasm. I reminded myself of this obvious fact last week when I made the time to re-watch the entire production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House that my 20th Century Drama class was studying – even though I’ve seen that production literally half a dozen times at least. Every re-reading or re-viewing – we know this, right? – yields new knowledge, insight, discovery; plus, re-reading plays and poems and novels (as opposed to Word documents containing prep for classes!) is enjoyable, inspiring, even escapist. In other words, labour that might actually be fun.

Why hadn’t I realised this before? Instead of fussing my prep ad nauseum, perhaps I might better invest my time in a full, engaged re-read/re-view of the stuff I’m actually teaching. Sure I might remember the key bits – but then I might not. Worse still, I might have forgotten the tiny, marginal comment by the most marginal of characters that, as it turns out, just about holds the key to everything.

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If I start spending my time re-reading rather than (anxiously) re-prepping, I’m betting I can easily find time and energy to run through my previous prep, tweak as needed, and head into class feeling refreshed and excited about the stuff I put on the syllabus in the first place. Because, you know, it’s an enormous pleasure to teach – the opposite of paperwork.

How about you? What’s your prep (and re-prep) strategy? I feel like we don’t talk enough about this issue, especially with/among our junior colleagues who are just starting out and are drowning in (first-round) prep and its attendant anxieties.

So let’s start now.

Kim

On theatre & feminism!

On Tuesday afternoon I collected a courier package – from my Dean’s office, of all places! It contained, to my surprise and delight, an advance copy of my new book, Theatre & Feminism, which is published on 13 November in the U.K. and 27 November in North America.

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Part of Palgrave MacMillan’s Theatre & series, established and still edited by my friends and colleagues Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato, this book introduces students to some of the core concepts in feminist performance theory, one of the major strands of critical practice in theatre and performance studies since the 1970s.

I can’t tell you how honoured I am to be the author of this volume. The incredible scholars whose work I survey here (including Jill Dolan, Elin Diamond, Elaine Aston, Peggy Phelan, and many more) have been inspirations for me, in both my research and my teaching, for more than two decades now. The extraordinary theatre and performance I explore as part of the book’s four case studies (including Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show, Carrie Cracknell’s production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein‘s How to Become a Cupcake, and Peggy Shaw’s Ruff) confirm that amazing feminist ass-kicking work is alive, well, and thriving all over the place. And the series’ commitment to accessibility, readability, and affordability (the book retails for GBP6.99/USD11) means it truly can impact a new generation of readers, teachers, and scholars.

I’d love for the book to be free – I’d happily give up my advance and royalties if that could be the case! – but in lieu, here below I’ve excerpted the introductory pages, which I hope will tempt you into reading further, and asking your school library to order a copy too.

Fiercely!

Kim

***

From Theatre & Feminism, by Kim Solga (London: Palgrave: 2015), pp 1-4

Theatre & Feminism tells the story of the movement known as feminist performance theory and criticism, the 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 allows 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.

My version of this story begins in 2005. That August, Jill Dolan – one of my mentors, and the author of the pioneering 1988 book The Feminist Spectator as Critic – began writing her popular blog, The Feminist Spectator. I spent the spring of that year working on my postdoctoral research with Jill in the Performance as a Public Practice programme at the University of Texas, Austin. The lessons of her feminist practice – as a scholar, a teacher and a spectator to the many shows we watched together – stayed with me after I returned to Canada, thickening and re-politicizing my own feminist archive and shaping the way I tackled my first academic job. Thanks to Jill’s revitalization of the “Feminist Spectator” brand on her blog, 2005 became indelibly linked in my imagination with its origins in her 1988 book, and the connection prompted me to think about the trajectory feminist performance theory and criticism had taken over the intervening 17 years. Was the movement that had so fully shaped my own research, teaching, theatrical tastes and political imagination now properly “history”? If it was “history” and yet remained urgently relevant to me, what was different about it today, and what had not changed? Given Dolan’s deliberate choice to turn her acclaimed book into a blog directed at a public audience, could we argue that feminist performance criticism, like so much contemporary feminism, had gone “mainstream,” become the norm or status quo rather than a movement pushing in from the margins? If that was indeed the case, why should we still keep talking about it?

These are the questions that have framed my engagement with feminist performance scholarship over the last few years, and that remind me never to take the value and impact of my commitment to feminist critique for granted. The research questions that drive this book embed these questions, but also extend them. First, I ask: what did feminist performance theory and criticism aim to achieve when it broke onto the critical scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and how did it go about the task? What critical strategies in use then are still in use now, and what new critical strategies have feminist scholars and makers of theatre and performance adopted, and adapted, as the political landscape has shifted between then and now? Second, I ask: why is this form of criticism still important – indeed, to my mind, still vital – for students, scholars and makers of theatre today? How have shifts over time in the popular meaning of the label “feminist” affected the ways we might perceive theatre and performance work that openly identifies as such – or that refuses to identify as such? How might fresh work by feminist scholars and makers today help us to understand the limitations, even the dangers, of imagining that we now live in a “post-feminist” age?

The bulk of this book is devoted to exploring the history of feminist performance theory and criticism alongside its lively contemporary afterlife. In three main sections I examine three central frameworks that feminist scholars and makers have used to unpack the way gendered experiences are both represented on stage and also manufactured in performance in order to seem “given” or “natural” both on stage and in the world outside the theatre. Each section – “looking/watching/spectating”; “being versus acting”; and “hope and loss” – discusses influential theoretical texts, engages with critical debates, and features a very recent case study that demonstrates how the strategies discussed in the section can be applied to work being made and shown in theatres right now. In my conclusion I look at recent work by Peggy Shaw – arguably the most influential Anglophone feminist performer of the late twentieth century – in order to think about what happens to the feminist performance body (the body of the artist as well as the body of the critic) as we all get older in a world where women over a certain age (sadly, about 40) remain pitifully under-represented in public life and especially invisible in Hollywood and on Broadway. Before we reach the shores of these histories, however, I want to spend some time addressing my second research question, and with it those readers who might wonder if “feminism” itself ought not, by now, be history…

On being seduced – by enlightened sexism

I am an out and proud feminist. To me, this simply means that I believe in equal rights, equal pay, and equal treatment for all human beings, including those who identify as men, as women, and as other (yes, those people do exist, and more power to them). Simple, right? Most feminists would like to think so. But it’s far easier to talk the talk than walk the walk, consistently and without contradiction, in a world that’s determined to cater to women as consumers yet remains terrified of their (buying) power all the same. As Roxane Gay reminded us last year, being a Bad Feminist is relatively common. But it is still far better than being no feminist at all.

Which brings me to the book I just finished reading, the TV series I just finished watching, and the alarm I felt as they collided one day a couple of weeks ago.

Like many theatre geeks I love a good costume drama. Lucky for me there are rather a lot to choose from right now. Costume dramas are A Thing these days – it must be all the bad economic news (no, really) – and I don’t just mean Downton AbbeyOver the summer I became obsessed with Poldark, the BBC remake of its own 1975 series based on the novels by Winston Graham. The 2015 series is slick and gorgeous, and stars the impossibly smouldering Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark alongside the glowing, crimson-haired Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, Poldark’s maid turned primary love interest.

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The plot is pure Harlequin Romance meets Capitalism 1.0: Ross spends his time alternately fighting to save his copper mine from the evil banking family up the road and fawning over Demelza so obsessively that it’s hard to work out if he’s Henry Higgins or some kind of Dexter Morgan. But the series leaves us in no doubt that his love for her is true, and thus, despite the creepiness of Poldark sleeping with his teenage maid and then “making it right” by marrying her, they become an entirely likeable pair of old married lovers somewhere around the third episode.

Yes, it’s a bit obvious and a touch tawdry. Yes, the plot jumps and jives – Demelza is a farm girl with a dog for a BFF one minute, a bride the next, and then whoops! she’s pregnant/gives birth/the baby dies. But Demelza is also framed as strong-willed and big-hearted, a firm believer in her own convictions. She defies Ross to help his cousin to marriage with a man the family deems beneath her; she insists on caring for ill relations despite the risk to her own body. She works as hard as anyone. Having never learned the elite’s rules around women’s silence, she says what she thinks and what she feels. Never mind that she’s plainly making choices in line with gendered expectations – matchmaking, nursing, devoting herself to her husband against the odds. It was the 18th century – options for women were limited. It’s costume drama, so we can’t expect 20th century feminism to be on the table. Right?

Fast forward to August, and having drunk the hell out of Poldark I turned my attention to Outlanderbased on the historical sci-fi novels by Diana Gabaldon. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is a WWII combat nurse on holiday with her doctor-husband in 1945; they are celebrating the end of the war and the return of married life with a jaunt in the highlands. Curious about the standing stone monument they encounter at Craigh na Dun, Claire returns to it later and alone, only to be transported magically to the very same spot – but in 1743. The first several episodes are a rich historical puzzle as we, along with Claire, try to reason out where she is and how she might get back home again; she is constantly on guard as she adopts the script and manner of an 18th century British lady and tries desperately to fit into the role long enough to save herself. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that Claire is falling for the young highland warrior James Fraser (Sam Heughan, another buff smoulderer), and it’s just lucky that, to prevent her from being taken into custody by British redcoat fighters, the MacKenzie clansmen with whom she is traveling need to marry her to a Scot. To the series’ credit Claire is presented as appalled with this forced-marriage option, drinking heavily to try to avoid an inevitability she finally can’t outwit. But once the rings go on and the clothes come off, well, things start getting predictable.

If Poldark is a fun, sexy, largely unthreatening series about a pair of gorgeous people galloping bareback through the stunning Cornish countryside, Outlander is a smart show about a smart woman in a truly compelling fantasy-grade fictional world. Claire survives by her cunning, her generosity of spirit, AND her encyclopaedic medical knowledge. She earns her captors’ trust with her professional nursing skills. She drinks more wine than Tammy Taylor and still has room for whiskey. She stands up to badass guys in kilts and insists on her human rights despite the fact that she is both out of her century and often enough out of her depth. She’s a pro.

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(Caitriona Balfe as Claire Bishop, kicking ass…)

And yet, just as I’d been convinced of Claire’s feminist cred, Outlander slowly started letting me down. What’s worse – I barely noticed. I barely noticed when Claire made it, against the odds, back to the stones at Craigh na Dun and hesitated just long enough to be captured by the British army, skirts flailing as she was dragged away. I barely noticed when, returned to the stones by Jamie (who rescues her from the British, natch) and offered another chance to go home to the 20th century, Claire chose to give up her life, and her career, for her new man. I barely noticed when, in the (on their own terms fascinating) final two episodes, the series turned our attention squarely to Jamie’s experience of rape and torture in prison and relegated Claire to the job of bringing him back to (heterosexual) life.

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(…and again, giving in to the heterosexual imperative)

But when, in the final moments of the final episode of series 1, on a boat bound for France and fresh adventures in series 2, Claire turned to Jamie to announce she was pregnant (against the medical odds, no less!), I saw it coming. And I was shocked – because it had taken so long for me to wise up to the fact that I’d been had. What the hell was going on?

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While I was busy binge-watching Turner, Tomlinson, Balfe and Heughan, one of my bedtime reads was Susan J. Douglas’s The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us From Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild (2010). It’s a bracing book from a popular feminist cultural critic, and its subject is the music, TV, internet memes and other pop culture phenomena that purport to represent (and treat) women equally and yet, curiously, manage to reproduce a familiar series of timeworn myths and tropes about who women are (and who they ought not to be). From Survivor to America’s Next Top ModelSex and the City to The Closer, Beyoncé to Martha Stewart and beyond, Douglas does an admirable job of demonstrating the ways in which representations of women in today’s mainstream manage to pass off “empowering” images of feminine strength and resilience as somehow feminist enough, while also reinforcing long-held (and completely ridiculous) beliefs about us ladies: that powerful ones are just plain bitches, that we mostly hate each other and will claw each other to death for A Man, that we really *do* prefer shopping and child rearing, and that we thus probably aren’t cut out for that top gig anyway.

For Douglas, Outlander could be a textbook case study. Claire has brains and loads of power – within the limitations created by the sci-fi costume drama setup, of course. And there’s the rub. It’s costume drama; we can’t expect Demelza to be more than a wife and mother, and we can’t expect Claire to maintain control in a situation in which women are systemically, culturally subordinated. But when Claire chooses not to choose freedom, the series shows its cards: it’s much sexier, and thus more bankable, for her to stay with the soft-spoken, beautiful Jamie in the highlands than to return to the challenges of a complicated, 20th century urban life (in which, by the way, she would be fighting on feminism’s front lines). From that moment of “choice” onward something in the series shifts; suddenly, it’s all about Heughan’s Jamie, and Balfe’s Claire becomes his helpmeet. Yet how, the enlightened sexists might ask, can we say this is an unreasonable or unjust move? After all: Claire makes her own choice to stay behind as Jamie’s wife.

In a Guardian article that appeared earlier this week, June Eric Udorie anticipates the new film Suffragette with this valuable reminder:

the idea of “choice” feminism has become really popular. I obviously support women’s rights to make their own choices, but the idea that I have to support every specific choice, just because a woman made it, is something I think we need to do away with. By all means, get a boob job, but don’t try and justify it with feminism.

It turns out we are, indeed, living in something of a “post-feminist” moment, because post-feminism is the lie neoliberal capitalism tells us in order to convince us that simply by making our own choices, women are exercising their hard-won feminist freedoms (and therefore feminism is no longer required. Or: we’ve got some stuff, isn’t that enough?). Neoliberal capitalism also loves costume dramas: they present a chance to escape temporarily from our immediate financial, political, and social difficulties, while also offering us lessons in the benefits of hard graft and helpful reminders about how well we’re all doing today/how little is really left to fight for. Witness the outrageous success of the insufferable Crawley family on Downton Abbey. In the final season currently airing in the UK, Lady Mary is working as the Downton Agent and Lady Edith has taken on the role of publisher, moving herself toward a life in London’s Bloomsbury. These women are meant to stand as (rich!) exceptions that prove the rule: life for women is improving at a rapid rate, and soon we’ll all reap the benefits the elite enjoy now! For more proof we need look no further than Daisy, whose foot-in-mouth confrontation with a wealthy landowner over working class rights has left her to be saved by the business cunning of Lady Grantham. Or Anna the lady’s maid, whose reproductive disorder is about to be cured thanks to help from Mary. Trickle-down feminism is alive, well, and living in Yorkshire, it seems.

Sure, I could just watch something else – House of CardsOrange is the New Black, Homeland… lots of strong, contemporary women to choose from. But the mainstream costume dramas aren’t going away; they are stock-in-trade TV, and they are hugely popular when times are tough. Exhausted from my own work, settling into a precious hour or two of quiet with a glass of wine and my laptop screen, I was all too happy to let myself fall into the subtly sexist yet wildly seductive world of Claire the time traveller. Which is all the more reason to be vigilant about what these fantasies are selling, even as they peddle the tyranny of lady’s choice.

To the barricades!

Kim