Half term pulse check (part 2)

Last week I wrote about the crazy blended learning experiment that I’ve been undertaking in my performance studies class this term, along with my colleague at Brock University Natalie Alvarez. This week, I offer a post about another half-term reflection exercise – this one perhaps with less “argh!” in it.

On the (extremely blizzardy!) Thursday before reading week, my 20th Century Theatre students and I had the enormous privilege of hosting three talented female artists from the Shaw Festival, the big modern theatre shindig that takes place down the highway from us every summer. (Not the Stratford Festival – that’s another highway, in another direction!). These three women – director Vikki Anderson, actor Fiona Byrne, and actor Julia Course – worked together on the Shaw’s terrific 2015 production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, a play about women fighting their way, sometimes quite brutally, up the career ladder in Thatcher’s Britain. (I wrote the program note for that production, I’m proud to say; you can read it here.)

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The ensemble in Top Girls at the Shaw Festival, 2015. Fiona Byrne (in the blue) and Julia Course (in the wig) are centre.

Top Girls is very dear to my heart; it’s probably my favourite feminist play of all time, and it’s definitely in my British drama top-10. (And yes, that means it bumps a good load of Shakespeare. Though not Titus Andronicus.) What I love best about Top Girls is that its feminist politics are in no way straightforward; in fact, far from being sisters in solidarity, most of the characters in the play are total bitches to one another. As another talented Canadian director, Alisa Palmer, notes in the documentary chronicling her celebrated production of the play for Soulpepper Theatre in 2007 (revived in 2008), even calling this play feminist is in no way a given. Its main character, Marlene, is a Thatcher supporter and, like her hero, a total patriarch both at the office and at home with her family.

(Watch the trailer for the documentary, called Girls on Top, below. It’s a superb, uplifting piece of filmmaking.)

Now, I do not support the line of argument that says women need to be nice to each other in feminist plays. In fact, I think it’s enormously instructive to write angry female characters being jerks to each other, because that’s one way we get to disrupt the tired, inaccurate argument that feminism is just another word for male-bashing. (Feminism pursues structural equality – political, social, economic… you name the structure – for all human beings according to gender identity and sexual orientation; part of that pursuit means understanding that “patriarchy” is not another word for “guys”, but is in fact a system of oppression that deploys both men and women as its instruments.) But I can get behind Palmer 100% when she explains that, for her, the most feminist thing about Top Girls was the staging of the play itself – and the welcome opportunity it afforded for a group of women artists to work closely together for an extended period of time, building a fictional community (however imperfect) and developing networks of love and support with one another in the process.

Imagine my delight, then, when Vikki, Fiona, and Julia reported the same experience making Top Girls for the Shaw, and explained at some length to me and my students what it meant to them to work in one another’s company through the 2015 season. Vikki noted how incredibly rare it is to work with an all-female team on any play anywhere, let alone on a play with a substantial budget at a major theatre festival. (Much more typical, she said, are situations where she is the only woman in the rehearsal room.)

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Vikki Anderson

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Fiona Byrne

She also made the point that the women of the cast and creative team behaved differently when no men were present to watch or judge; as she said, it really doesn’t matter whether or not the men in a rehearsal room are good, generous people or not, because human nature dictates that men perform for women, and women for men, in most social situations – and that women in particular carry the stakes of performing “well” in those situations close to the bone. Working on a show with all women thus meant a degree of social and emotional freedom for the actors on this project, and a welcome opportunity to experiment and play without worrying overly much about how things looked the first time around. Again, this is not to celebrate female “community” uncritically, paying no attention to the problems that arise within such communities (as in any others); it is, however, to mark both the rarity of getting to work on a team laden with talented women in an industry that still tips the scales heavily toward men, and the pleasures that come from knowing your coworkers have gone through similar kinds of embodied experiences as you have – and that they have your back.

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Julia Course

Having one another’s back is particularly important for those who work in the theatre industry, where actors put their bodies on the line constantly and must become vulnerable again and again in order to do their jobs well. Julia shared a remarkable experience on this score when she described what it was like for her to go from a heavily made-up role, that of the semi-fictional character Lady Nijo (a 13th century Japanese concubine and later Buddhist nun) in Top Girls‘ magic-realist first act, to the role of Angie, Marlene’s awkward and angry teenage niece (actually, daughter), early in the second act. Julia described a really tough quick change, in which she was divested of her wig and all her makeup, jumping into jeans and then appearing on the stage of the small Courthouse theatre as a gangly, uncomfortable teen wearing no makeup at all. For a female performer in a repertory company like the Shaw’s, such a situation is almost unheard of: the festival produces much early 20th century drama, and thus usually costumes its actors in the corsets and dresses more typical of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Julia talked about how exposed she felt in jeans and a simple top, her face bare, in such close quarters with the audience. To be revealed in such a way is excruciating for any actor, but it is especially so for a woman, who is judged throughout her career on her looks and is expected to conform to a relatively rigid set of rules governing physical attractiveness.

My favourite part of our chat with Vikki, Fiona and Julia arrived as class ended. Although we’d been a reduced crew as a result of the massive snowstorm, when the clock ticked over to 10:20 I realized that few students were prepared to leave. It was at this point, too, that Fiona had really energised the conversation, speaking about the challenges she faces as a working mother in an industry that doesn’t really care too much about stuff like who is looking after your kids while you rehearse (or how much it costs to pay them). Releasing the class, I invited those who wished to stay behind for an informal chat to do so; we gathered at the front of the room and Fiona, Julia, and Vikki offered some career coaching for anyone interested in pursuing acting or directing. One student shared a horrific story of discrimination based on appearance at her summer job the previous year; the group opened up as the artists made clear both that such experiences are in no way rare in the performance industry, and that it’s up to us not to tolerate them, to stand up together against them.

We finally broke up about 20 minutes after class officially ended – and then only to take Fiona and Vikki for coffee with most of the students who had lingered! (Julia had attended by Skype.) I cannot thank these talented women enough for giving so generously of their time to us, and especially for wearing their feminism so boldly and actively during our talk. Both men and women in the class were galvanised – and it’s a visit I certainly won’t soon forget.

With gratitude!

Kim

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Half term pulse check (part 1)

Reading week! Also known as: Fly to Jamaica Week. For me, though, it’s almost always Fly to London Week. I’m in the UK right now for work meetings, plenty of theatre-going, and, of course, catching up with the friends (actually, more like family) I left behind when I moved from Queen Mary back to Western in August 2014.

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Getting away for reading week has a number of advantages (for faculty and students alike). It’s necessary, I think, to get physically as well as mentally away from the classroom for a time, just to check in with ourselves and make sure we’re taking care of the needs that often go ignored in the term. (Proper nutrition! Proper sleep! Game of Thrones! OK, so I am so not a GofT person, but I know all y’all know what I mean.) For me, reading week is always a pleasure in part for the excuse it affords to check out of my head and back into my body for a few days. But it’s also a pleasure because it provides a welcome, comparatively relaxed opportunity for me to take the pulse of the classes I’m teaching and work out if anything needs tweaking or changing as we head into Term 2, Part 2.

This winter term I’m teaching two classes at Western: 20th Century Theatre (an English and Writing Studies course), and Performance Beyond Theatres (aka Performance Studies, a core course in our Theatre Studies program). 20th Century Theatre is a full year class, and I invited the students in that group to fill out an anonymous survey at the mid-point (Christmas break); I then made micro-adjustments after going through their responses with my TA Meghan before we returned in January. In Performance Beyond Theatres, though, THIS is the midpoint, so I did a quick survey with them last Thursday, specifically focused on the blended learning experiment we’ve been doing in that class this semester.

[What’s blended learning? Click here.]

This post is about that experiment, the students’ feedback on how it’s gone so far, and my response to that feedback. (My next post will be about the utterly amazing artists’ talk we held in 20th Century Theatre just before the break – inspirational, fun, and provocative. Look forward to that one.)

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Back at Christmas time, my friend and colleague from Brock University Natalie Alvarez and I embarked on an utterly mad teaching experiment. We decided to mingle our two undergraduate performance studies classes online in order to give our students on our separate campuses (about 200km apart in real space) some value-added learning opportunities. Why the hell? Well, for one thing, performance studies is still a relatively new phenomenon in Canada, and especially in undergraduate classrooms in Canada; Nat’s class and mine were thus not only unique birds, but they were also, kismet-like, happening at the same time. We therefore figured some kind of co-teach model would offer our students exposure to one another and to our shared expertise in the field as teachers and researchers, as well as an opportunity to collaborate on some pretty unique assignments. (We also hoped the experiment would set a precedent for blended learning opportunities in our separate departments going forward).

IMG_1925 (At right: Nat + me in Portland, before the blended learning madness overcame us.)

So, armed with optimism, courage, and a couple of drinks, we put together a shared course WordPress site (which needs to remain private, as it’s a place for learning, trial and error – no links here), created a short intro video explaining our logic to the class, and then committed to trial running the virtual portion of the course until reading week, when we would ask the students whether or not it was worth continuing.

The layout of our blended course has looked like this so far. Each week, one or the other of us creates an online lecture based on the week’s readings. (Our course outlines are not fully identical, but our readings and our assignments are deliberately matched.) That lecture is meant to be about 25 minutes long, and it includes a task for the students to do in the remaining 25 or so minutes of what we call their “virtual hour”. For example, during the week on Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” I delivered an online discussion of the reading, focusing on three key ideas, and followed that with a video demonstration (starring my dear friend and collaborator D.J. Hopkins) of the task I set for the group for the week.

(My demo with D.J. during de Certeau week: a taste of the student experience.)

Following this virtual hour labour, our individual classes have met live each week for two further hours in order to work through both our reading materials and the materials each student produces as part of their task work. (Each student has also been required to comment on one other student’s task materials in order to demonstrate online engagement; typically, my students comment on work by Brock students, while the Brock students, who are part of a much larger group, look at one another’s materials as well as Western students’ materials in equal portions). In typical “flipped classroom” fashion, we try to use our face-to-face meetings to explore challenges in the readings, work through problems we’ve encountered in making sense of them, and nuance our thinking about our weekly subject matter as much as possible. (IE: no lectures here.)

I’ve personally found our online work really gratifying, humbling, and instructive. It’s been a significant challenge for me to learn how to use video tools in a not-crap way (I’ve been teaching myself Screenflow, for example, and have figured out how to do basic video editing in Quicktime as well). As I rarely lecture in my “real” teaching life, I’ve also found preparing and delivering the online lecture materials a useful way to rethink stagnating elements of my own pedagogical practice. (Yes, active learning friends: lecturing does have some real advantages.) The materials my students have produced in response to the weekly online lectures have been consistently of a high calibre, and some of them have been simply outstanding. I always find they contain insights worth pulling out in “real time” classes, and frequently those insights lead us on to further discoveries.

The process has not been without bumps, though. In part because Nat and I are in no way AV experts our online materials have often been posted to our shared website later than planned, and other hiccups have occasionally interrupted their sharing. (Last week Youtube blocked my lecture on Judith Butler because one of the videos I embedded, by the awesome feminist performance artist The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, contained a Backstreet Boys audio track. Welcome to the neoliberal classroom!) On the content side, sometimes in class I’ve felt like we’re treading ground already familiar from the lecture, and I find I have to really challenge myself to get the balance between concept reinforcement and further concept development right. (This is much harder than it sounds.)

So what do the students think so far? On our mid-term surveys we asked three questions:

  1. What have you found productive/useful about the virtual hour labour?
  2. What have you found unhelpful, or unproductive?
  3. Would you like to continue with the virtual hour after reading week?

The feedback did not provide a consensus – half the students wanted to keep the virtual hour, while the other half did not! – but it did prove remarkably consistent. Most students said they found the online lectures helpful and clarifying – and we’d already sensed in class that this was the case. They also, however, said that the lectures were too long and that the tasks plus lecture consumed easily more than an hour (more like 1.5 hours, in fact) each week.

The students are not wrong: by the end of our first six weeks our online lectures had crept well beyond 30 minutes (my last one was 43 minutes! Yikes!), and of course Nat and I easily forgot (as many teachers do) that students always take much longer than we do to complete any learning task – they are simply less experienced learners and so inevitably slower. I found myself, a bit embarrassed, thinking back to my review of Martin Bickman’s book back in January, and to his comment about how he, at least, was never bored by his own lectures… without question Nat and I fell a bit in love with our own commentary on our favourite performance studies topics, and forgot about our stopwatches.

At the same time, though, we found ourselves thinking carefully about the implications of this feedback for our teaching more broadly. After all, what the students’ comments reveal is that there simply isn’t enough time in any given teaching week to cover complex topics as fully as we might like to do – or as we believe we need to do.

Now, of course, we all know this is true: it’s a teacherly cliche to complain there’s not enough time! It’s also easy to forget, however, that you’re blabbing on too long or trying to cover too much when you can just run long in a live classroom hour and pick up the following week where you left off; I’m as guilty as everyone else of bad classroom time management. To our surprise, however, our virtual hour sessions seemed to operate like a pace car, showing us in real time how little teaching time we’re actually working with – and thus how prudent we actually need to be with our answer to the all-important question, “how much is actually enough?”

So what’s next for the blended experiment? We’ve decided to try one more virtual hour, and in it to enforce a rigorous 20-minute online lecture cut-off time. (REALLY.) We’ll do a further, quick pulse-check at the end of that week and then make a decision about the remaining three sessions – online, or go live, according to a student vote. Whatever the results of that vote, though, I know I’ve taken from this first trial run a total classroom time-management recalibration, which can only be a good thing.

Temperately,

Kim