Decolonizing the syllabus, part 1

Welcome to autumn! I’ve been away for a lot of the summer, but I hope to post at least twice a month until April. As ever, if you wish to pitch a guest post, just use the “about” page to get in touch!

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It started a while back, maybe two years ago. I stopped loving what I was teaching in my undergraduate-level Performance Theory seminar.

I taught from a textbook that is relatively diverse, all things considered – which is to say, it includes a handful of not-Western texts, mostly from before the 20th century. There are one (maybe two?) text(s) by women. It is a good book, though it was not designed as a comprehensive history; rather, it was designed as a “representative” one – representative, really, of the theatrical theory “we” have always learned, and are meant to pass along.

I have always taught in what I would characterize as a fashion skewed against accepted norms: I’ve flipped the classroom since way back, preferred the knowledge we make in class together to any knowledge I could impart in long lectures, and whenever my students and I have read “colonial” (read “canonical”, for the most part) texts, I have tried to uncover the places where those texts do things we might not expect, and provoke questions we may not have thought to ask. In particular, I flag up moments when persons unseen enter the text by stealth – women, queer persons, workers, persons of colour – and encourage students to talk about what their spectral presence might signify.

Of course, I also supplement the textbooks I use with things I’m reading in my research, and with articles and books that have been important to me throughout my career. Though my Performance Theory seminar is technically a “history of” class, I have always included at least four weeks on contemporary authors, drawing out questions of gender and sexuality, race and social status, labour and emotion as these things are considered and theorized by my peers in the discipline.

But roughly two years ago, this strategy stopped working for me. I felt far too keenly the whiteness, the maleness, the traditional-ness, of the early part of the course – and I felt uncomfortable about its influence on the term as a whole.

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That’s when I realized that what I needed was to decolonize my syllabus.

There’s a lot of talk right now about what it means to participate in living, breathing, ongoing forms of colonial injustice – to inhabit it, push back against it, question it, fight it, and survive it. Serena Williams’ recent travails at the French and US Open tournaments make a superb, painfully visible case in point. The treatment she has received in the press and on social media (for her completely legitimate clothing choices and for her entirely reasonable expressions of anger) smacks bitterly of race-based profiling that can be traced quite easily and directly back to the legacies of European colonialism beginning in the fifteenth century.

Even today, in 2018, Black women are treated with significantly more patronizing hostility than are white women, or men of any colour, full stop: that’s living, breathing colonialism, right here and now.

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Serena Williams is a strong Black woman and a star. She is consistently white-washed in gross and unfair reactions to her body, performance, and actions in the media. That’s our colonial present for you.

For us on Turtle Island (also known to some as North America), questions of decolonization are particularly urgent because the practices of settler colonialism impact the daily well being, the living memories, and the future potential of hundreds of thousands of our indigenous fellow citizens. Each of us on this land who does not trace our roots to an indigenous community on Turtle Island is a settler, though few of us realize what that means, or understand the uneven distribution of privilege it affords (in settlers’ favour).

For me as a resident settler Canadian, settler colonialism is an everyday reality to which it is all too easy to turn a blind eye. Therefore, it is a shared reality that also requires calling attention to, excavating, and thinking through in my classrooms. I need to do this excavating and thinking-through with and alongside my students, and decolonizing the structure of my classes is a necessary first step in that labour.

But: how to do that, effectively?

Around the same time that I became aware of my need and desire to make these syllabus (and attendant course) changes, I got an email from my dear friend and colleague Natalie Alvarez. She was convening an online working group with syllabus decolonization in mind, geared toward helping one another develop new ways to approach teaching theatre history in Canada. Would I like to join? I eagerly accepted the invitation, knowing my performance theory seminar would benefit immensely from this collaborative labour.

Most of us in the group are settler scholars; a couple of our brilliant and generous indigenous colleagues joined too, however, and one of them, Dylan Robinson, set the tone for our group with a pointed post about the central challenge we faced. Why start where we’ve always started? He asked. Why not upend entirely the field of inquiry, start with the “other” stuff and make it central instead of peripheral?

The most basic problem, he highlighted for us, is not that there are white dudes all over our courses (though that IS a problem, and jettisoning them is no bad thing). The most basic problem is that we let these white dudes set the tone, frame the question, and thus – as I had already felt uncomfortably in my seminar – shape the term’s work. Every time.

What if we let a woman of colour, or an indigenous scholar or artist, do that privileged labour instead? What if the white dudes were required to dialogue with them, rather than the other way around? What if indigenous world views became the backbone of the course’s ecosystem, and colonial knowledge systems were required to take a back seat for once?*

The incredibly talented Inuk musician and activist Tanya Tagaq – one of the fiercest forces of decolonization in Canadian music and performance. Check her out here. (You will not regret it.)

Dylan’s prompt left me feeling revitalized, and able to do the work ahead. Because my Performance Theory seminar is a second-term course, I decided to leave the questions of exactly which texts to assign in that course to percolate for a couple of months. Then, I set about planning the new course I’m teaching this fall.

“Toronto: Culture and Performance” is an experiential learning course in which I take 40 students the 200km to Toronto five times in the term to see theatre of all kinds and talk with artists and arts administrators. It’s a TONNE of work, but also a labour of love for me, as it’s an adaptation of the terrific and popular “London: Culture and Performance” module taught at Queen Mary, UL (where I used to work). As a bona-fide new prep, this course was the ideal place for me to trial a decolonizing classroom paradigm; moreover, because its syllabus is driven by what Toronto is showcasing on its stages this autumn, I already knew I was going to be programming a bunch of awesome intercultural work by amazing queer artists and artists of colour.

Wearing the hat Dylan’s post handed me, I decided immediately that we’d open the class with a trip to Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional indigenous theatre company, to see actor-writer Jani Lauzon’s new work I Call Myself Princess. To prepare, we will read brand-new work on the intercultural city by my settler colleague Ric Knowles, and we will look at indigenous performance through a specifically indigenous lens with a reading by Anishanaabe/Ashkenazi scholar and artist Jill Carter. From there, we will see a revival of the brilliant Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times, Toronto’s iconic queer house, and read about its history from lesbian artist-scholar Moynan King’s perspective; only then will we move on to more “mainstream” venues (and then, principally in order to talk about urban theatres and economics). Later, we will return to questions of intercultural practice at Factory Theatre, which has been for several years at the forefront of remaking Toronto theatre’s image as “The Great White North”. The end-of-term treat is Come From Away, the smash-hit musical about 9/11 in Newfoundland.

To set the tone for the term on the syllabus proper, I rewrote my course description as a series of questions for us to keep coming back to:

What’s a “global city”? Is Toronto one? How does the theatre that appears on Toronto’s stages contribute to, or maybe even contest, Toronto’s “global city” aspirations?

What’s an “intercultural city”? Is Toronto one? How do the performing arts help to shape the intercultural structures that now identify Toronto to Torontonians, and to the world? For whom are those structures liberating – and whom do those structures still leave behind?

What does economics have to do with theatre? Is theatre a viable business? How and when and why? What does theatre economics have to do with other kinds of urban economics – like, say, real estate?

What about memory? How does the theatre shape our memories (personal, communal, historical) of the city and its inhabitants? What about space? How does theatre literally help to “make” (that is, to shape and contour) a city like Toronto? What about labour? Who works in the creative economy in Toronto, what do they do, and how is their work valued (or not)?

Then, right after the logistical stuff about where the class meets and where to find me and my TA, Courtney, I offered four land acknowledgements. Here’s the preamble:

Land is a big part of what we are going to be talking about when we talk about Toronto, culture, and performance: who works on it, how their work is valued, who is recognized as fully human in the city, who is ignored, left out, stepped over. Acknowledging the politics of our inhabiting the land is an important part of starting our work on all of these scores.

Below are four land acknowledgements: from Western University; from Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto; from Kim; and from Courtney. On our first day together you’ll be encouraged to make your own land acknowledgement. It can take any form you wish, as long as it is both respectful and accurate.

My goal, in both making my own land acknowledgement and in foregrounding several different land acknowledgements on the syllabus, was to introduce the “politics of place” as central to our course labour, and also to introduce those politics as personal, as a responsibility for every one of us in the classroom. I wanted to make “place” personal, and to invite students to think about their relationships to land, and to the feelings “place” evokes for them, as a matter of the standard labour of a normal university course. I wanted to help them think – early and often! – about the unseen and maybe even unfelt elements of place that enable their connections to it. For that reason, we spent the first ten minutes of our first class warming up, creating sculptures with our bodies that represented the way we feel when we are in “our” cities (where our cities might be any city, big or small, that we call “ours”). We then spent the next half hour introducing ourselves by talking about our relationships to the places evoked by the body sculptures we’d made.

My goal in my classes is always to create a sense of community: of shared investment and shared learning, founded on respect and care for one another. This year, as I focus specifically on making my classrooms an inviting place to challenge the settler-colonial commonplaces many of us take for granted (and which enable so much of our settler privilege), I hope to help students develop respect and care not just for one another, but for the unseen faces around us on the (in southwestern Ontario, treaty) land we occupy.

I’ll write more posts about my decolonization project as the term advances, letting you know how it’s going, good and bad. I’ll also share some of the strategies I’m trying out in my Performance Studies seminar, where we have begun by intentionally marginalizing the traditionally most dominant male voices in the field, in order to open with perspectives on the discipline – and on the politics of discipline-making itself – by four female scholars, including two Canadians. Those women are all white, though – something I realized after the syllabus was set, and something that reminds me I’ve still got far to go.

With anticipation and hope for a good term,

Kim

*There’s a lot of writing about decolonizing the classroom on the web, with lots of different perspectives on offer. I quite enjoyed reading this, an account of a panel discussion on the topic earlier this year at Ryerson University in Toronto. The panel foregrounds the importance of indigenous/non-indigenous collaboration in the classroom and in pedagogical planning, something I very much endorse and would love to participate in.

 

 

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