Feed back to me (part 1)

October is marking season at my university: midterms, essays, tests and quizzes all crowd into the space between the end of September’s silly season (frosh week, reunion weekend, general football mayhem) and the final date to add or drop courses. The wind and rain rush in, the leaves come down…and we all end up buried, by Halloween, under piles and piles of papers.


This year I’ve been trying something new with my undergraduate class in performance studies; for the first time I’m marking essays explicitly against a pre-existing rubric, one I’ve made freely available to everyone on the assignment page of our online learning portal. I’ve used marking rubrics regularly for the last few years – they were mandatory at Queen Mary, where I taught from 2012-2014, and I found them clarifying and productive. But this is the first time I’ve used a rubric as a literal marking tool, rather than just as a general set of guidelines for our reference.

(What’s a rubric? Click here for a really helpful explanation.)

My typical marking pattern until now has been some variation on this:

  • post a rubric for students for written assignments, so that they know broadly what I expect in terms of content, structure, research, grammar, and style;
  • read papers without consulting the rubric carefully, assuming it implicitly reflects what I already know to be true about good, bad, and ugly essays;
  • write up comments without direct reference to the rubric, and assign a grade.

I suspect a lot of us mark this way, whether we realise it or not. And this is not, of course, to say our comments on student papers are not fulsome, reflective of our rubrics, or written with care; I personally pride myself on providing clear feedback that describes a paper’s intention, where that attention is achieved, where it is not achieved, and what students may adjust in order to advance up the grade scale. I’ve also experimented several times with laddering assignments, with using peer feedback on drafts, and with various other techniques to lower the writing stakes and make the process of editing and improving written work more transparent and accessible.

(I’ve written about, and hosted some terrific guest posts on, assessment challenges in the past; click here for the archive.)

So I clearly care a lot about assessment – about getting it right and giving students the intel about their work that they need to improve. But rubrics? Not so much with the caring about rubrics, maybe. I suspect I’m a bit jaded, like many of us, because rubrics look on the surface like yet another measurement tool we’re being forced to use in order to fit our teaching labour into boxes that can be ticked by our senior administrations and the governments who control their purse strings. They are probably such a thing. But they are also something else: they are a clear, consistent way to communicate student success and mitigate student failure, on our own terms. (Let’s not forget: most of us still have the freedom to set our own rubrics. For now, anyway.)

And, as I discovered, they are also a great way for us to learn key information about our own marking tendencies and the assumptions underpinning them.

Marking with the rubric changed the pattern I describe above. My process now goes something like this:

  • import the rubric bullet points into my existing marking template;
  • read the papers with those bullets explicitly in mind;
  • comment in equal measure on each bullet;
  • assign a rough grade zone to each bullet (IE: this aspect of your work is at “B” level, or at “A-” level, etc);
  • average the bullets to arrive at a final grade.

In case you’re having trouble picturing this, here’s a screen shot of my template, with some (anonymised) feedback in place:

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 14.03.31.png

The first thing I realised after using the rubric in this way? I’ve historically given far too much weight to some aspects of student work, and too little to others… even though my rubrics have always implied that all aspects – content, structure, research, and grammar/style – are equally valuable. So I’ve been short-changing students who, for example, have good research chops but poor writing and structuring skills, because the latter makes the former harder to recognise, and without a rubric to prompt me I’ve simply not been looking hard enough for it. I’ve also, without question, been over-compensating students with elegant writing styles; less impressive research labour becomes less visible if the argumentation runs along fluidly.

Right off the bat, then, my use of the rubric as a marking guide both levelled the playing field for my students, and allowed me to come face to face with one of my key marking biases.

The second thing I realised was that marking in this rubric-focused way is a real challenge! I am a decorated editor and an astute reader of colleagues’ work, but that doesn’t mean I’m a perfect grader – not by any means. Reading novice scholarly work (aka, student work) with care requires keeping a lot of balls in the air at once: where’s the structure slipping out of focus; when is research apparent, when is it there but not standing out, when is it obviously absent; how much is poor grammar actually impeding my understanding, as opposed to just pissing me off (a different level of problem).

To do the juggle well, I’ve discovered, I have to slow down. Except… I have trained myself (as we all have – neoliberal university survival skill!) to read student work very quickly, make some blanket judgements along the way, and then produce a final grade driven as much by feel as by careful analysis of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses. When I was forced to put feeling aside and look back at all of a paper’s component parts, I as often as not saw that the grade I “felt” at the end was right was not, in fact, what the rubric was telling me was fair.


So add a few minutes more per paper, then. But where to snatch them from? It’s not as if I’m rolling in free time over here…

Thankfully, the rubric came to my rescue on this one, too. My third discovery: I could write fewer comments, and more quickly, yet still provide comprehensive feedback. The rubric language I include on each page of typed assessment stands in nicely for a whole bunch of words I do not need to write anew each time, and it standardises the way I frame and phrase my comments from student to student. That’s not to say everyone gets the same feedback, but rather that my brain is now compartmentalising each piece of assessment as I read, and is more quickly able to put those into the comment “boxes” at reading’s end.

Plus, in order to keep feedback to a page yet also include the rubric language in each set of comments, I’m writing less per paper, period. I doubt this is a bad thing – students generally don’t read all the feedback they receive from us, if they read any of it. Placing my responses to their papers directly in the language of my already-stated expectations, and offering smaller, more readable chunks will, I hope, get more students reading more of their feedback, and using it too. (I have plans to survey them on this in the last week of classes – stay tuned.)

As luck would have it, just as I was thinking this post through I came across a compelling discussion by Lynn Nygaard that uses “mirroring” as a metaphor to explain assessment labour. Nygaard’s ideas got me thinking about other ways I might transform my marking’s efficiency and effectiveness in future; although her focus is on feeding back to colleagues and grad students, I think it has some real applicability to undergraduate assessment too. I’ll share some of her provocations and reflect on them (ha!) in part two of this post, next week.

Until then, happy midterms!


Why did the bus driver pull over on the side of the highway?… and other tales from our field trip to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche 2016

“To be honest, I have no idea where I am right now…”

I knew we were in trouble when the bus driver (SCHOOL bus driver… it was “reunion” weekend at Western, which I reasoned explained why there was not a motor coach to be had within 50km for the night of 1 October) turned off the freeway leading into downtown Toronto and onto the suburban highway that goes North. I had clocked the traffic jam warning on the LED sign we’d just passed; I let myself imagine he’d made a snap decision to go up and around the snarl. Smart.

But no. As it turned out, his GPS had taken him off course. And since he hadn’t been to Toronto in, oh, 25 years… well, here we were astride the 401, North America’s most congested highway, and the bus driver was a puddle.

So began the excursion I led to Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s all-night art “thing”, a couple of weeks ago. NB, for those not familiar, is an art and culture over-nighter that officially started in Paris in 2002 (although it traces its routes to Nantes, a small French city, and back to 1984); the idea is to set citizens free in the city from sundown to sunup, and to turn otherwise uninviting (or frightening) urban spaces into welcoming hubs of creation in order to entice their visits. Toronto has had a Nuit Blanche since 2005; I’ve been following it closely since 2008, when my friend and colleague Laura Levin and I went in search of zombies… and discovered instead the festival’s intrinsic ties to the rhetoric of urban creativity then sweeping North America – the one pushing former manufacturing centres to convert to zones of hipster gentrification OR DIE TRYING.

BUT. It was still a lot of fun!

I’ve taken students to NB in Toronto before, and we’ve had a wonderful, illuminating time (click here for more). But this year I had a record number: 20 undergraduates in my performance studies class, plus 10 grad students studying the vicissitudes of art-making in the global city. Together, we made a bus load’s full – and at $30 a head return (downtown Toronto is 100 miles/200km from our university) a full bus was all I needed to break even. So I doubled us up and booked the big yellow submarine (though I won’t be doing THAT part again…). And then I thought:

How do I wrangle 30 student cats??!!

Herewith, the story of the strategy.

(All photos by Camille Intson)

To start, I decided on the buddy system. Twenty undergrads, mostly sensible, mostly engaged with the idea of performance as a public good, mostly sensible. (Did I mention sensible?!?) Plus 10 grad students, eager to demonstrate No Longer Undergrad Status (NLUS), and sensible in every way necessary. Partnering up seemed a win: give a couple of grads to a quadrille of undergrads and voila – nobody gets lost, nobody dies.

And on the whole it worked! With one exception (the bunch of ’em are still arguing over who ditched whom… though my sense is nobody is holding a grudge), the groups hung together and helped one another to find a pathway through the event, discovering food, coffee, and some firm ideas about what, exactly, this event DOES for both the city and its citizens along the way. Everyone turned up at the rendezvous on time at 1am, and in general they seemed sated, if exhausted. WIN, WIN.

Next, I minimised the prep. Last time out, we spent a class (me + the undergrads) planning the trip. That made sense in context: we were 8 total, and we all hung together (mostly) as a result. What to see? Everyone got to choose something to hit over the course of the night, and we charted a route together.

This time, given the ad-hoc groupings, I decided to let the students work it out for themselves: I gave them the event URL and encouraged some light research. I also imagined spontaneity would be a boon. Why overplan when, really, the point is fun?

Ten years on, Nuit Blanche TO is quite commercial, a bit underwhelming, and largely an exercise in thinking about who the city is for, and who benefits from a “carnival” atmosphere. Better just to go full carnival and think about it later…

Finally, I figured out my part in it. This took me a while. Which group would I join? It seemed nonsense to be with only one (and patently unfair). But obviously moving through the event alone was silly too: the point was not for me to “do” Nuit Blanche (mostly, they’re all the same…), but to watch the students do it for the first time, experience the excitement of the big gets, and feel the let-downs of the pieces that promised the moon prematurely.

I cracked it only the morning of, in fact: I’d circulate, just as I did in class during group exercises, but with a bit more (physical) space between the groups. I duly made sure all the grad students had my mobile number and vice versa, and then we made a plan to text each other coordinates at various points in the night. I’d text something like, “I’m at X, where are you?” and according to responses I’d plot a route to the next group. I worked out that I could spend roughly an hour with each bunch, excluding commuting time, and that turned out to be perfect; at the end of the night I even had 45 minutes to spare (which I used to grab hot cocoa from Dark Horse’s pop-up in 401 Richmond, and then hit the Spacing Store for a Halloween present for a good friend’s twins).

The bus driver was, no word of a lie, SERIOUSLY freaked out by the Nuit Blanche traffic, even well after midnight, but planning ahead meant we boarded by 1:30am, and I was home at 4am. Sure, the white-nighter (hello, past self!) fucked me up a bit…


But it was worth it.

Sleep well!


Talking to students about Clinton vs Trump

I’ve not been watching any of the U.S. presidential debates – neither of the two main events, nor the VP candidates’ debate. This isn’t because of disinterest or distance; on the contrary, as a Canadian I’m uncomfortably close to and heavily invested in the outcome of this contest, and as a woman and a feminist I could not imagine the stakes to be higher. The campaign has become nothing less than a referendum on misogyny: a man who revels in violent language, casually admits to sexual harassment, and displays bald-faced ignorance of raced and gendered realities (alongside a swath of sociopathic behaviours) is up against a talented, openly feminist woman with three decades’ worth of experience in federal politics. There’s just no other way to sign it.

The reason I’m not watching the debates is because they cause me profound, deeply-felt anxiety; it’s just so exhausting, upsetting, too hard. (For many women, it has been triggering. Trump is a bully and a predator; watching that behaviour in others, when you’ve been personally victimised, can leave you emotionally shattered and physically ill.) Of course I eat up the commentary afterward – in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and the Washington Post. I obsessively check Twitter and Facebook for reactions. I look for balance – what did the left think? What the right? – in an effort to figure out what a cross-section of us are really thinking. I know this is a fool’s errand, but it has become compulsive behaviour for me.

I’m terrified.

When I walk into my classrooms, I look at my students and wonder hard what they are thinking. Are they watching? Are they fearful like me? Is Clinton v. Trump on their radar? Are any of them Trump supporters – or simply not sure? (How can you not be sure?!?! I fear blurting out to them…)

Given the raw abrasion I’m experiencing, I’m understandably very much afraid to bring the election, in any detail, up in classes. Quite apart from the fact that it’s not professional for a university professor to express her specific political views in the classroom (we have enormous influence, and students still believe, sometimes quite rightly, that profs want them to parrot views back to them), I honestly can’t imagine mediating a reasonable conversation about this election campaign with students right now. It’s too hot a button – for me if not for many of them.

And yet. And yet. At this moment, in America and its spheres of influence (which, let’s be honest, is still most of us), nuanced conversation is under siege. Reasoned debate has flown the coop – Trump is working hard to suffocate all space for it. As Kenneth Pennington wrote in the Guardian Monday morning, the Trump circus is depriving Americans of exactly the kind of discussions citizens of an advanced democracy deserve to be having at a crucial juncture in their nation’s political and economic history. They are already losers in this contest, but, if there is anything yet to be salvaged, it’s the future of difficult ideas in the American public sphere.

Which means that now more than ever, my students – students across North America, and beyond – need to talk about this election. They deserve the tools of critical engagement and nuanced expression our arts and humanities classes foster, precisely because Trump mocks the notion that complex, nuanced arguments are a social good. They have a right to dissect the orchestration and dissemination of his, as well as Clinton’s, political performances. They have a right for a strong basis for careful judgement.

APTOPIX Campaign 2016 Debate

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to give my students the intellectual means to make sense of what is happening right in front of them, even if I choose not to invite an open discussion of debate specifics, or of Trump’s most astonishing, demeaning statements.

The question, of course, then becomes: how?

This autumn I’m teaching a second-year core theatre studies course called “performance beyond theatres”; it’s essentially an introduction to performance studies, the interdisciplinary field that examines the performative dimensions of social and cultural behaviour in a wide array of contexts. Luckily, one of those contexts is politics; politicians are rhetoricians, after all, and rhetorics is talk-as-show.

Performance Beyond Theatres gives me a natural opening for political discussion, but it also offers me the chance to ground that discussion in forensic description and textual analysis, which together let us unpack political behaviours with a (relatively) objective eye. I find this relative objectivity very useful: nobody need openly stake a claim to a “side” in order to participate in the discussion. Rather, we examine together how politicians enact their personae, how they use language to inculcate the realities they want us to believe in, and how we, as interested and critically attuned audiences, might react in turn. (Between fire-brand high-fiving and utter disbelief, there are a number of options.)

How does this work? When we explored ritual performance near the beginning of term (with anthropologist Victor Turner), we looked to Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech (available on Youtube) to help us understand the moment of a ritual subject’s “reintegration” into a community. (The context, from our reading, was a new leader preparing to take up the mantel of authority.) Paying attention to Obama’s tone, his affect, the stage set-up, and his choice of words, we were able to talk about the role his “community” – voters; actors on social media; producers and consumers of more traditional media; denizens in the audience in Chicago that autumn night – played in shaping and affirming his status as winner of the election, an ordinary man who had been through the fires of the campaign to emerge victorious as “their leader”. Today in class, we are watching Justin Trudeau’s 2015 acceptance speech alongside our reading of J.L. Austin’s theory of performative language; we will be analysing the ways in which Trudeau’s vocal performance was crafted to enact his governance ethos and promise all-important “change” to Canadians – in other words, to “do” political things, even before he had done a single, real thing as the new prime minister.


Did you know Justin was once a drama teacher? Outstanding training for PM. (And: he has an arts degree. THAT is what you do with it.)

I sincerely hope that, a year from now, I won’t be switching Obama out for Trump’s victory speech; frankly, Hillary Clinton’s will be (WILL BE) both more inspiring and far more instructive for future students of political performance. At the end of the day, that’s what makes me most angry about this season of Trump trash: he is an utter waste of time, space, and energy, and my students and I have far better things to do with ours.

All this said, I know many of you, especially those of you reading from the U.S., will have brought the election up directly, and at length, in classes; I’d be very keen to hear how you’ve done it, and with what results. Please leave comments! You have my respect and admiration. (And to those of you reading from a campus where guns, concealed or not, are allowed by law, I cannot fathom the risks you take every day to bring up matters critical, if not political.)

Stay strong!