Hack the final!

My department requires me to give a final exam in every one of my undergraduate courses at the second and third year levels. Technically this is an English Lit department, but it also manages the administration of our Theatre Studies program, on which I principally teach, and that means I’m required to give finals in all of my my lower-level theatre courses, at least for right now. What’s worse, university regulations require me to make the final exam in each class worth at least 30% of a student’s final grade. ACK!

This regulation has long struck me (even when I was primarily teaching English classes) as troublesome, and pedagogically unsound. I should say right away that I’m in no way against final exams per se; I recognise that they can be a very efficient way, especially in larger classes, to ensure students have covered a course’s broad bases and read key texts. They are a due diligence exercise for teachers and students, requiring one to connect learning expectations to potential outcomes, and the other to demonstrate that they have taken at least some of those expectations seriously.

But in classes based on the shared critical exploration of cultural works, and in particular works of art, exams have limited use value at the best of times. And in a course like my “Performance Beyond Theatres”, which introduces students to the discipline of performance studies and the practice of live art making through a political lens, final exams feel positively draconian.

My students and I have spent the term watching films from Paris is Burning by Jenny Livingston to What Would Jesus Buy featuring Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping; we’ve done a workshop on Augusto Boal’s image theatre technique; we’ve made video reports about cultural events around our city; we’ve taken a road trip to Toronto for Nuit Blanche; we’ve created group performance “actions” based on current issues on campus; and together we’ve worked through the (not inconsiderable) challenges of creating a marking rubric for such a personality-driven, aesthetically-focused creative task.

In short, we’ve been a team of forensic performance makers and hacktivists, a community more than a class. How could we possibly now sit down and write a final?

I first faced this challenge two years ago. My solution then was to request a take-home exam from my academic dean, which he kindly granted. I argued that a take-home would offer my students much more scope for creative reflection on the semester’s work and ease the burden of translating our unconventional labour into basic written form. To my surprise, though, some of the students felt pressurised by the take-home-ness of the exam. If it’s to be done at home by X date, what’s to stop you from taking 30 hours, rather than 3, to complete it? Should you let it eat your life? If you don’t, will you get a poorer grade?

So I switched up the hack. Instead, the following year, I invited my undergraduate students to crowd-source the final exam with me. It worked. Contrary to what the cynics in us might expect, students didn’t generally beg for easy; instead, they thought every bit as creatively about potential exam tasks as they had about our work throughout the year. The first creative commons exam I produced, in my performance theory class in 2015, included questions like: “create your own ‘Gerouldian’* introduction for one of the theorists on the second half of the course”, and “watch the following performance clip. Select a theorist from the course. Impersonate that theorist’s voice and attitude, as well as his or her ideological position. Critique the performance clip from his/her perspective.” The resulting exam papers were an absolute blast to read.

How go about crowd-sourcing a final? This past term, in Performance Beyond Theatres, we spent a chunk of the last day of the term dreaming up ideal kinds of questions we might like to face, and then we worked together on the questions themselves. I asked the students first to weigh in on our course blog with their preferred category of exam question (short answer? essay? creative option? what kind?), and then with their ideal question based on our term’s work. About 30% of the class chose to contribute this way; in class, we looked at the responses and then did the same exercise again, this time in teams.

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As we debriefed the exercise, I discovered that this group of students were keen on options: maybe an essay, OR a creative option, or both? Maybe some short answer mixed in, but again, optional – not everyone wanted that one, though some very vocally did. I suggested perhaps I could create an exam with a host of options, and students would be invited to mix and match questions, based on points value, to make up 100; this would leave the responsibility for a good range of responses up to the student, but would not pressure anyone to do any kind of task that didn’t suit their learning style. The room loved this idea.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: THIS KIND OF FREEDOM DEFIES THE PURPOSE OF AN EXAM! Honestly, I disagree. What’s an exam for? To test reading, synthesis, uptake? To find out what students learned and didn’t learn? Sure – all those things. But ask yourselves this: what do you remember of the courses you took as undergrads? I have a PhD and am a professor at a respected research university in central Canada; I remember literally FOUR pieces of content from my undergraduate career, only one of which has had any genuine relevance for me as a scholar (thank you, Dianne Chisholm!).

The stuff I really, really remember all has to do with the way I learned, the way I was taught, the collaborations I was invited to participate in, and the things I learned about myself through those collaborations. That stuff stuck with me – and it informed the teacher and researcher I became in a number of key ways.

My final exam hack, then, isn’t about creating an “easy” exam; it’s entirely about giving students ownership over the process, as well as a say in the nature of the course content and practice we are testing.

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As an exam-building team in PbT, we came up with a number of great essay and creative-option questions driven by exactly this logic. One question asked students to reflect on the “learning outcomes” listed in our syllabus, and to use a technique called thick description to examine moments from the term when those outcomes were met, or not. (The results of the seven answers to that question I received were fascinating; I’ll share them in a separate post soon.) Another option asked students to reflect on a recent moment from their personal lives that could be better understood and processed using a handful of the theories we’d read or art works we’d looked at together. Still another asked students to consider a recent global event (ex: Trump’s election; the Brexit vote; the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock) through the lens of our course work. My favourite creative option asked students to imagine two of the artists or theorists on our course as moderators for a Trump-Clinton presidential debate, and to create candidate dialogue based on their work. (Only one student took that option up, but hers was an utterly brilliant, smart and superbly crafted job. I laughed out loud while reading! She earned the highest grade in the class.)

There’s one more key to my final exam hack: students get to see the exam in advance. For the PbT gang, I posted the exam questions to our online learning portal the afternoon of our last class. I invited them to prepare as they wished; I emphasised that there was no “right” prep method, only the one that each student felt would best contribute to their own success. They might write answers up in advance and bring them on pieces of paper; they might plan outlines and bring those along on the day; they might re-read and re-watch course material, make fresh notes with the exam questions in mind, and bring those notes with. All books were permitted in the exam; so was food, music (in headphones), and anything else to make us more comfortable. I emphasised that this need not be a formal, hushed environment in which we fetishise sitting still and concentrating really hard; that was not the nature of our work together, so it ought not to feature in our test environment. The only rule: no disturbing those who wanted to work quietly. Some students chose to write the exam like any other, sure, but many appreciated the more relaxed environment. I know I did.

What was the result? The majority of students did very well indeed – their preparedness shone through and I saw real, marked evidence of their understanding the material. Many chose to quote readings directly, multiple times; a number made truly original connections amongst our course materials and came up with exciting new ideas. Most of all, I noticed that virtually everyone had fully prepped for the exam: books had sticky notes marking key readings; typed or hand-written notes featured bullet points and connecting arrows. A few wrote portions of their answers in advance, but this was not the norm. Mostly, the norm was fulsome readiness to explore the questions in the room on the day. I suspect that, having removed the fear factor (what will the questions be??!!), the exam hack gave students the confidence to know that preparedness would pay off, so they really, really prepared.

Will I keep doing this? As long as I’m required to give final exams in Theatre Studies classes, for sure. But to be honest I might enjoy doing it even if not required. I really like the opportunity hacking the final affords us to think critically, as a class community, about the intended purpose and outcomes of a final, especially in Arts and Fine Arts courses. Capstone tasks – from finals to presentations to portfolios – are inevitably based on a series of critical assumptions about how learning should culminate and be demonstrated; so much of our learning, though, is processual and driven not by content retention but by learning about the process of learning itself. How to “test” that? Maybe by testing the task, to see if it measures up.

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Kim

PS: for those of you keeping track, I am indeed preparing the third of my reflections on mobility, space, and access, featuring a review of the astonishing Shakespeare Trilogy at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Look for that in your virtual stocking next week.

*Daniel C. Gerould was my remarkable and respected colleague at the CUNY graduate centre until his death in 2012. He edited the popular textbook Theatre/Theory/Theatre, which features gossipy, delightful introductions for each of the authors he spotlights. In my performance theory course, we use that book for one half of the term before moving on to more contemporary writings.

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On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 2

It’s a two-hour drive to Detroit from where I live. It’s as easy as getting to Toronto, really; sure, there’s an international border, but the queues aren’t huge (and Toronto traffic is worse by far). So I go more and more often that way – usually to the airport in Wayne County, but increasingly to the city, where incredible new creative worlds are blooming amid the ruin porn.

Detroit offers an amazing case study for thinking about spatial privilege and its lack: it’s today a largely African-American city, with an incredible history that spans both Indigenous cultivation and Fordist exploitation, as well as black and mixed race experiences of all kinds. Post-Fordism, Detroit famously went bankrupt: huge swaths of the old industrial city fell to decay and the hulks and shells of former factories make the skyline seem apocalyptic to me as I shoot across the I94, through its scarred belly. It’s both harsh and beautiful.

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But Detroit isn’t a ruin any more; today it’s a blossom. Artists have flocked from Brooklyn. Urban farms are popping up all over. Middle-class people are returning to the core. I know this thanks to smart writers like Rebecca Solnit, whose “Detroit Arcadia” (published in Harper’s in 2007; read it here) investigates the city’s history as well as its potential through an eco-critical lens. I first felt it watching Jim Jarmusch’s glorious Only Lovers Left Alive (watch for the sequence in which Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton [as vampires!] drive through the night-washed city). And then I got to feel it again, most powerfully, when I took my graduate seminar, 10 students studying performance and the global city, to Detroit for a day of cultural encounters on 4 November 2016 (three days before the US Presidential election. Yup).

We went to Culture Source, a new networking organisation that links a variety of arts groups across Detroit and its adjacent counties (and that is run by smart, arts-forward women with business experience. Good combo that). We went to MOCAD, and played with stunning metal creatures built by Juan Martinez and Gizmo for Dave Eggers’s The Spirit of the Animal is in the Wheels – an exhibit that offered young people an opportunity to think about urban transportation as fun, creative, and kid-friendly.

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And we went to the Lightbox.

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Lightbox is located in the part of Detroit, north of the I94 and the Piquette corridor, that still lies in part in ruin. Corey Gearhart and Stefanie Cohen bought the building from the Baptist church that had converted it from the bank it used to be. Its main space is a wide-open room with a lovely new sprung floor; there are chairs, toilets, and living space on site for Steph and Corey, and others as needed. It’s an artist-run community space now: that means that it’s available for those in the local community as well as those in the artistic community to use as a place to come together, try out new ways of being together, explore shared interests, and share imaginings about a stronger and more inclusive future.

I learned about Lightbox from my colleague Petra Kuppers, a disability artist, scholar and activist from the University of Michigan. I contacted Stef and Corey and they welcomed the class on our field trip day with the warmth of longtime neighbours. We settled on the floor in the main space, on cushions as desired, drank tea and learned about the evolution of the room, as well as the vision Stef and Corey hold for it. Unlike so many of the spaces we’d been studying – or had visited during our day in Detroit – Lightbox read as entirely up-for-grabs: a space where individual or group stakeholders might determine, day to day, week to week, or month to month, what it could be. And it could be multiple things.

Basically, Lightbox is the spirit of Detroit in bloom. Detroit as space-in-the-making.

Stef and Corey inspired the hell out of us; students’ reflection papers demonstrated how completely they had encouraged us to recognise, and believe in, alternative models to the “creative city” – urban theorist Richard Florida’s popular, neoliberal paradigm for hipster-driven new city-worlds. So when I got an email from Lightbox a few weeks on, telling of a workshop in early December on “the politics of space” with noted dance artist Barak adé Soleil, I shared it with the whole class and offered space in my car to all comers.

Two students (and one partner) jumped on the chance, and off we went on 3 December. The event started at 6pm and was potluck, so we all brought some food to share (yummy salad; tortilla crisps with cinnamon; fruit; celebration bread: we did not share this information at the border, OF COURSE). Things started gently: Barak was our host, but we didn’t start talking until everyone had eaten. (All good hosts need to learn this trick!) All we needed to do to prepare for the “workshop” portion of the event was to write a different thing on three pieces of card stock: how we saw ourselves in terms of “race”, in terms of “queerness”, and in terms of “disability”. We also had to make dinner conversation with our neighbours. The prompt: how did we get here tonight?

The slow start made me skeptical. As a teacher, my first urge is always to over-program EVERYTHING. That way everyone knows I’m prepared, right? But Barak’s a trickster and his plan was cunning. He knew that if he honoured our slow opening up, let our pieces of paper do the talking, we’d get there. We’d get someplace nobody expected.

After the food, and a bit more food, and a bit of talking, we moved dinner things out of the way and left just a small table in the middle of the space. Participants were sat in a huge circle around the room; Barak was at the central table. He then shifted the mood of the space and the tenor of the conversation by getting a table cloth out of his bag, moving his bits and pieces out of the way, heaving himself out of his wheelchair and onto the table, and arranging it just so. This was the first time I saw the extent of his disability – and I’m going to say here (even though I am ashamed of this) – that I was glad to bear witness to it. He is so entirely able in his body that I had perceived him as not really disabled (not disabled “enough”?…) up to this point. I wonder how many of us do this every day when we encounter those who live in differently abled bodies.

What Barak did next was remarkable. He put on a scarf that covered his entire face, heavy black gloves, and rendered himself essentially lumpen, not-quite-human. He gently, with grace and control, fell to the floor. Then he began to move around our circle, pushing and pulling and rolling his body from chair to chair, person to person. He groaned and gasped as needed. He laboured his body. He touched almost everyone.

This performance of struggling mobility, of limited access in a world of “ability”, changed everything about the night. After Barak returned to his chair, took off the hood and gloves, and resumed his place as host, our conversation could begin, really begin. We explored everyone’s writing. We talked about the many ways that “race” signifies for each of us in the room, how it shapes our daily encounters, interactions, and even basic imaginings about what and who we are. We talked about who (and how) we imagine ourselves to be, over and against how others perceive us to be – and about how that changes what we say, how we move, what we assume about each other, each day. We talked about the assumptions we had made about each other before the performance, and about how the performance, and our listening to our pieces of paper afterward, revealed complexities we couldn’t on our own imagine about who was in the room.

(These images are from Barak’s blog, linked above. I do not have photos of his stunning performance, alas.)

We talked about how many of us feared identifying as “just white”. We talked about how hard it is for so many of us to see ourselves reflected in normative sexual labels. We talked about how many, varied, experiences of colour, desire, and ability adhered in our bodies in the room. We recognised how complex identity in the body is, in practice, day-to-day.

In all these ways this evening of powerful, strange encounters coalesced into a politics of space. It marked my first trip to the US since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the elevation of Donald Trump, and it reminded me that all movement in space, always, is political – that is to say, it is always about relations of power among bodies moving together.

We have been thinking in terms of embodied hierarchies an awful lot recently: you’re either in or out (Brexit); you’re either with us or against us (Bush, Isis, Trump, Syria…); you’re either in the “right” body, possess the “right” sexuality, live in the “right” sexual body… or you risk losing access to marriage rights, abortion rights, the freedom to travel. Barak’s black, queer, disabled body operated as a crucible of all of these stakes in our shared space. Coming into the workshop I thought his disability principally would shape our conversation: what barriers to physical and mental access do humans face, in Detroit and beyond? But we ventured far afield, and I realised by night’s end that “disability” is a term we need to embrace as powerful as we plan our activism in the face of current exclusions.

What if we recognized disability as a basic human condition, not an exceptional one? As something that affects far more human beings than we at first glance might recognise? That is not lodged necessarily in body or brain, but also in community, in identification, in nation? What if disability – the challenge of mobility, of safety and security of person both in place and in movement – could be understood as a condition we all share, to varying degrees, and therefore all must take seriously for everybody?

The two students who came with me to Lightbox were in the process of preparing their final project for my class; they were planning a festival of creative women for our city that would be driven by an interest in inclusion and accessibility. At one point in the evening Barak noted that, as strong and genuine as many peoples’ intentions toward accessibility are these days, “accessibility” meets reality when he turns up at a space and can, or cannot, actually get into it, actually participate in the thing on offer. Accessibility is about his body, forcefully, in a space, asking questions about who that space is for. It can be planned for… but it also needs to be understood as an ongoing conversation.

Mobility is moment to moment; access is context-dependent. Some days the US border guards really want me to explain what I do for a living, ask a lot of probing questions, and some days they don’t care and wave me through. Some days Barak finds himself in a welcoming space with no physical and few other barriers to discovery, and other days there’s a step nobody noticed. That’s frustrating. But it’s also when things get interesting.

This might sound a bit utopic, but I think I learned at Lightbox that contingent access and precarious mobility are actually conditions full of potential – if we harness them fairly and honestly. Because it means we can all do stuff, little things, all the time, to support each other’s mobility, strengthen our rootedness in place, and that can just be normal. It might be as hard as crossing an international border, or as simple as writing a few words on a piece of paper. But either way, it’s actually totally doable.

That’s what I learned, three weeks after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, from the once ruined, now blossoming, city of Detroit.

Kim

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 1

I’ve been traveling in England this week, seeing friends I don’t often see. Such a pleasure! But a strange thing keeps happening: many of them have followed our hello hugs and smiles with questions about how I am doing, and queries about what they sense has been a very hard term for me. This is strange because I actually feel like my term was totally good; I’m in a pretty good place right now. Huh?

Their reactions have made me realise that I’ve been whinging a lot here, and on Facebook (which I use to keep up with far-flung friends, NOT for news purposes!), and probably unreasonably so. FB in particular is a platform that encourages catastrophic highs and damaging lows: hit “like” and its cognates to celebrate my totally amazing wins and my horrible devastations in equal measure! When things cook along normally that’s pretty boring, social-media wise; we don’t post that shit, because it would sink like a stone. No wonder all our lives seem like roller coasters now.

So, having to explain (a bit bashfully) to my dear pals that I’m actually doing pretty well has reminded me of how true that is, and in this year of years how lucky I am to be able to say that. I hold a very stable, well paid job in a stable democracy. I have access to free health care, and functional insurance if I get sick. I have my own, safe home. I have a strong support network. I hold two G7 passports, which means I get to move around the world virtually seamlessly, often without having to talk to any border guards when I do.

This morning, while walking along the South Bank on a rare sunny day, gazing over the millennium bridge at St Paul’s and watching the light dance on the dirty river, I totted up this good fortune. And I realised that my current well-being is rooted entirely in my spatial privilege. It is based, on one hand, on my total stability, my firm sense of self-in-place, and on the other on my mobility, my freedom to walk anywhere, fly anywhere, go anywhere I choose, when I choose. Here, I hasten to add that such mobility always relies first of all on that firm sense of em-placedness (my comfort and safety at home, my salary, my passports that root me in two nation-states): one cannot be without the other, even if you’re the fancy-free, nomad type.

It’s the end-of-year holiday season, which makes a perfect excuse for me to give thanks for the above spatial good fortune. I’d like to do that, here with all of you, by engaging in some critical thinking about space and movement over the next two weeks.

Regular readers know that I care about space a great deal as part of my teaching; for example, I’ve reflected before on how women (teachers and students) are and are not encouraged to take up spaces of authority in the classroom and beyond, as well as on how teaching spaces themselves affect the way we communicate and learn in class. As a preface to the posts to come, I want to claim that, just as being-in-space (safely, unencumbered) is a privilege we share as part of a community but enjoy largely individually, the way we as teachers make space for students – for their experiences, for their differences, as we encourage them to take up space in ways they might not previously have felt able to do – forms a core part of their learning process. It therefore should be central to our teaching practice.

Now seems an acute time to think about matters to do with space and movement in other ways, too: between the ongoing civil war and refugee crisis emanating from Syria, Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union, and the US’s election of Donald Trump to the White House (to name just three events), lots of us who previously enjoyed both mobility in space and security of place are now seeing those privileges radically curtailed. Many of us have been broken, and equal numbers of us empowered, by recent votes; those feelings, too, translate into spatial practice. In the US and the UK, instants of violence against racial, religious, and sexual minorities have been on the rise; those who believe such violence to be a public good clearly feel empowered to move and behave differently now, compared to six months ago. On the flip side, migrants and minorities in both countries are feeling much less safe in the very places they previously called home, and much less able to move around with the freedom (safety, security) the most privileged among us rarely think about.

What aspects of our spatial privilege do we take for granted? What aspects of others’ lack of this privilege do we simply ignore, or choose not to see? My claim here is that space isn’t just a non-thing, or an abstract thing: it is key to our human wellbeing, and its fracture is the beginning of human end. How might we, then, imagine a different, better way to be in, and move through, space together? (…Especially now that Mr Trump’s cabinet-elect appears uniformly to believe that our shared earth is not in a fundamental state of crisis, and that space is a thing to be conquered, not held and cherished.)

I’ll put some pressure on these questions and the issues surrounding them in the three posts to come this holiday period. On Friday, I’ll offer a reflection on a wonderful, inspiring workshop on “the politics of space”, which I attended two weeks ago at the Lightbox community arts hub in Detroit and which was led by the incomparable dance artist Barak adé Soleil. Next week, I’ll publish my reflections on Phyllida Lloyd and Clean Break theatre’s extraordinary Shakespeare Trilogy, performed by a mixed-race all-female cast at London’s Donmar Warehouse, which I saw last Saturday.

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Barak adé Soleil

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Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar

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Jade Anouka as Hotspur in Henry IV

Finally, I’ll start the new year with some thoughts on stuff I’ve learned this year – to my surprise, I have to admit – about the ways in which I lack mobility, and about the spaces in which I don’t feel free. There aren’t that many of them, but they exist; my encountering them this past year has been a blessing, because they’ve really got me thinking. I hope the resulting posts will help you think a bit more about your own experiences of space and mobility, too.

Meanwhile, a happy start to the holiday season, wherever it finds or takes you.

Kim

You are, in yourself, wonderful. Even in the darkest months, it’s true!

END OF TERM. Oh god. I could not be more tired and I think I’ve cried enough in the past week that I may be accidentally mistaken for a hormonal 12-year-old. But nope, still an adult: just an adult under maximum end of semester stress. AAGGHH!!!

If I think I’m in trouble, though, just imagine my poor students! I have 42 years of figuring out how to be resilient, eat well, manage stress, get enough sleep. And still I’m a weepy mess! Which makes me think, as I walk into my classrooms in these last few days of the term and look into their eyes, how hard it must be for all of them to be keeping their shit together right now.

(Indeed, on Tuesday, our “performance action” showcase day in my undergraduate class, I learned that one of the students had just lost a loved one on the weekend. Still this student showed up and pulled out a great performance. THAT is resilience; it’s also really hard, when you’re, like, 19. HUGE kudos.)

All this to say I was both delighted and relieved to see, this morning in my daily blog digest, an uplifting and inspiring post by the amazing Carly, who also writes with me at Fit is a Feminist Issue, about student mental and sexual health.

I’m linking the post HERE; it’s called “all bodies are good bodies, my body is a good body: affirmation as a path to better health”. Please have a read, especially if there are young people in your life who may be struggling with identity issues and/or issues of shame and fear around their gender and sexuality right now. (I’m 42 and totally [ok, mostly] clear on who I am as a sexual human, but STILL I felt much, much better about myself and my own choices after reading this moving, tender post.)

What’s it about? Carly writes of an amazing project she was involved with at Planned Parenthood Toronto, creating affirmation postcards with young people for wide distribution among centres and constituencies where those in need could find them and take strength and solace from them. The best part? If you feel inspired – for your students, your kids, the kids around your neighbourhood, the kids who hang out at the community centre on the corner of your street, the kids in trouble who live in the ravine near your house (that’s me)… – you can download the PDF of the postcards the team made, print them out, and share them on your own, near and far and wide.

What a wonderful gift, this first day of Advent 2016.

(PLUS: this is a terrific opportunity to support Planned Parenthood in kind, if you cannot afford to make a donation, at this precarious time for this incredibly important organisation.)

Enjoy, be strong, feel complete in yourself!

Kim