Two Questions (and a whole lot more about decolonizing the classroom) – guest post by Anna Griffith

Friends: I’m honoured to share this guest post by Anna Griffith. Below, Anna reports on her on-the-ground experiences decolonizing her theatre history and performance studies classes at the University of the Fraser Valley.

I’ve learned so very much from this post – I hope you do too.

***

“I didn’t learn anything…I have way more questions than when I started.”

This piece of feedback was delivered in a final presentation about what students had learned during the capstone performance theory course I taught two years ago. I am grateful that the student was brave enough or frustrated enough to say it, as it helped me crystalize two important things. First, that my framing around my classes and my attempts to decolonize need to be clearer and better communicated to the students. Second, if I am to experiment with class structures, class content, and ways of learning that challenge dominant forms of teaching and learning, then I should get used to hearing this.

On Decolonization

I teach as a sessional instructor at the University of the Fraser Valley in the Theatre Department, a place that is forward thinking in its focus on teaching innovation, Indigenization, and commitment to decolonization. Within this environment, I have been experimenting with how I can decolonize not just the content of my classes, but the structure of them as well. Although some people frame this kind of practice as student-centered learning, experiential learning, or active learning (which it is), I prefer to focus on how instructors can use these forms of learning to challenge the continued colonization that occurs through education, and thereby promote decolonization.

As a white instructor from settler ancestry teaching on unceded Sto:lo territory, I have been trying to overtly mark the ways in which alternative pedagogies can move settlers closer to understanding Indigenous forms of teaching, learning, and knowing. I am interested in how embodied pedagogy can promote learning that emphasizes the importance of holistic knowledge as it is drawn from embodied experiences and focuses on bodies as relational, within social structures, and foundational to the ways we make meaning. In my classes, I try to move us towards a place where Indigenous pedagogies, methods, and knowledge can be engaged with (not exploited or used to add a flavour of diversity).

Embodied Pedagogy

My pedagogical approaches, through embodied pedagogy and applied critical theory, see me trying to create a third space between colonial educational systems that privilege certain forms of cognition and discourse-based learning, and Indigenous pedagogies and learning systems that might radically transform our societies if we embraced the aspects offered to us. I see this pedagogical change as part of the settler work required in order to create social and political change more broadly.

In their excellent article titled “Applying Indigenizing Principles of Decolonizing Methodologies in University Classrooms,” Dustin William Louie, Yvonne Poitras Pratt, Aubrey Jean Hanson, and Jacqueline Ottman write: “We contend that institutions of higher learning need to move away from the myopic lens used to view education and implement Indigenizing pedagogies in order to counteract the systemic monopolization of knowledge and communication” (17).

The authors share with us how they apply Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s 25 Indigenous projects as inspiration and guidance to reimagine their pedagogy and teaching practice (18), and suggest them as a good starting place for non-Indigenous scholars and teachers frustrated by their “lack of knowledge, training, or confidence to incorporate Indigenous knowledge or methods of education into their classrooms” (22). Although my work started before reading this article, I strongly agree with the authors and have seen fantastic growth in my students when applying a decolonial approach to the Theatre History course I teach at UFV.

What follows is a glimpse into how I offer this course and my attempts to decolonize both its structure and content. I then give you a sneak peek into a performance studies course I am offering next term that extends this wrestling match.

Theatre History: Antiquity to 1642 – Day 1: The Negotiation

Our first three-hour class together is about framing and negotiation. In my introduction, I disclose that I am incredibly excited by and focused on embodied, active learning, and arts-based methods of inquiry and that for the rest of the semester we will incorporate an element of this into each class. I also reveal that I am working to decolonize my classes in order to challenge power structures and systems of education that often don’t include the learner’s voice.

And so begins the negotiation. I hand out a syllabus I created that has already attempted to integrate aspects of the western canon with theatrical forms from non-western perspectives. I then ask students to look for holes in my representation, to consider what they are interested in learning about, and to explore what they think they should know by the time they leave our class. We do this through small group activities culminating in a large group discussion, and I find that even if we don’t change the syllabus much, it offers students more buy-in and a structured way for their perspectives to be integrated.

Again working in small groups and then as a larger group, we generate the overarching questions that will guide us through the term. We negotiate the weight of assignments and co-create the first rubrics (an activity we repeat for each assignment). We brainstorm what they expect in a teacher, and what they expect from themselves and their peers as students, and together we come up with an agreement on how we will conduct the class.

All of this takes time, and I generally budget 30 minutes for each part of the negotiation (content, overarching questions, and class expectations), except the rubric creation which takes longer (I plan on one hour for this). We have three hours together each class, and the first day really sets up the kind of engagement and participation I expect, which is a lot. 

I ask the students for their voices and their perspectives on how to create a fair and interesting course, and although there is sometimes resistance, for the most part students are quite engaged in the process. It helps when we discuss the skills they are practicing through this experience: metacognitive thinking, synthesis and organization of ideas, democracy. Beyond that, I frame this work as the central preoccupation of a theatre historian: someone who makes decisions about what information is important (what should we study?) and how to analyze it (what issues or big themes are we going to pursue? What assignments get the most weight?). At the end of the tussle, this is what my class ended up studying this term:

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Our negotiated weekly schedule outlining the focus of each week, the region or theatrical form studied, a play and any secondary source articles for each week, and assignment due dates. Theatrical forms covered: Greek Tragedy, Mesoamerican Performance, West African Griot Performance, Roman Comedy, Indian Sanskrit Drama, Japanese Noh Theatre, Chinese Yuan  Drama, Commedia dell’Arte of Italy, Elizabethan Theatre of England

The culminating work of the class is a final creative project, which asks students to synthesize information from class and express it through an artistic medium accompanied by a written text, and presented to the class.

We start this process by creating the rubric together. In small groups, students design individual rubrics, based on the criteria they think should be assessed and what excellence in each area looks like. We then start the long process of blending them. Our discussions include defining what each criterion means, what might be excellent as opposed to very good or average work, and debating whether or not the wording reflects academic requirements while still allowing personal creative freedom.

Here is how our co-created rubric turned out:

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The final creative projects students presented were insightful, contained deep synthesis and understanding of theatrical form and political/social context, were highly entertaining, and demonstrated to me how hard students will work when they are motivated, engaged, and inspired.

Our projects this year included: masks, songs, a storyboard, a set of film notes, a Commedia cake, a comic strip, a musical score, and a mini-series trailer, to name just a few examples.

Clockwise from top: “The Tempest” comic strip created by Talia Tvergyak; contemporary Pantalone mask riffing on the current global political climate created by Coco Bedard; Anatole Smith and Keegan Zaporozan performing, with masks, costumes, and lighting design created by Linnea Balt; Commedia dell’Arte Cake created by Aimee Payeur and Ali Slack.

While one Theatre History class isn’t a fix for the ongoing acts of colonization that happen daily within western university practices, it does offer the students a louder voice in their learning, positions me as a facilitator rather than an expert, and changes power dynamics for a brief moment. It is tough and messy stuff, and I will continue to build on this experiment in the performance studies course I am teaching next term, which I’ve called Performing Bodies/Performing Identities.

Continuing the Experiment in Performing Bodies/Performing Identities

I am still fleshing out my draft syllabus, but here is where I’m at so far.

I have three main categories that frame the course: citational performances (things like drag, cosplay, or religious fashion), disciplinary tactics (bodybuilding and CrossFit for example), and modifications (think of tattoos, piercings, or cyberware). Since there are so many amazing people writing about fantastic things related to how we perform our bodies, I have compiled a smorgasbord of articles and artists we could engage with.

The Day One Negotiation Class will have students select what they are interested in learning about, or find what they are interested in studying within the course theme and pitch it to me. My hope is that the content will reflect the students in the room and their interests.

In this first class they will also set up their blogs (the main place that will house their assignments) and we will discuss labour.

Re-Thinking Assessment

Inspired by Asao Inoue’s work in Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, I am trying to find ways to measure the labour of the class. A big part of Inoue’s argument is that our assessment of writing often privileges students who write like we do (favouring the clear, academically rigorous writing of our discipline, and the students who already know those codes), and punishes students who fail to do this. He argues that there are implicit racial (and class) biases in what is judged as acceptable academic writing that are further complicated by issues of access.

Asao’s suggestion is that if grades are based on the labour and effort put into achieving high levels of academic writing, then the playing field becomes more even and doesn’t automatically privilege certain students with existing expertise. I am trying to integrate Inoue’s work in two main ways (aside from majorly checking my assumptions in how I assess).

First, I have created a weekly blogging assignment where students will engage with the text or artist’s work. I am drafting a rubric (to be negotiated) focused on depth of understanding, critical engagement, and critical analysis, but then will offer students a choice about what they do with their blogs each week (answering questions, narrative inquiry, creative response, or synthesizing and responding to other people’s ideas). These weekly marks are based on the labour of having done the response in a critical way and on time, but the expression of that knowledge can be chosen by the student.

The second way I am engaging with Asao’s ideas is through a process-based research paper. Students will submit the first draft, get feedback (possibly peer-reviewed), revise, submit a second draft for feedback, revise, and then submit for a final time. I am trying to emphasize that writing, learning, and creating take time, effort, practice, and revision.

Their creative final project will be a praxis-based performance art or public art piece that engages with the class materials and discussion in some way and allows theoretical knowledge to be translated into arts-based practice with an emphasis on personal voice. My ways of practicing decolonization through revisions in structure and changes to content are now being pushed farther to consider how and what I assess. I oscillate between feeling exhilarated and terrified by this.

Two Questions

I am a sessional instructor acutely aware of the precariousness of what that is. Working as I do requires a lot of labour up front (finding articles, researching artists, planning activities and exercises), and it feels very risky at times since my fate seems determined by course evaluations written by students. It is a tenuous place to be.

However, the benefit is that I get to approach each semester as if it is the last time I will teach this course.

I always ask myself: if this is the last time I’m here, what is the most innovative, exciting way for my students and I to engage with the material?

And now I ask myself a second question: if I measure every part of this class against my claim of decolonization, am I really doing it?

***

Anna Griffith is a sessional instructor in the Theater Department at the University of the Fraser Valley in BC. She earned her Ph.D. from York University in Theatre and Performance Studies, and her current work focuses on embodied pedagogy, decolonization, and Indigenization. She lives in Vancouver, BC, with her husband and their two small children. 

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5 thoughts on “Two Questions (and a whole lot more about decolonizing the classroom) – guest post by Anna Griffith

  1. So, you make a big deal – to yourself at least – about “decolonizing” your class teachings…because you’re in a place that was once controlled by an indigenous group. Yet, you’ve no curriculum that includes anything close to the local indigenous culture. It’s no wonder your students are confused if your rhetoric and demagoguery – not pedagogy – is overtly anti-colonial but your subject matter includes examples of all sorts of “other” – read as non-White – sources but nothing remotely close to the locally historical culture.

    • Thank you for your comment and for raising a really valid point about my curriculum not containing any local Sto:lo content. My main reason behind this is that our course is focused on theatre (which does stretch into the realm of performance), and I did not want to conflate oral history with theatre since it often loses weight and validity when viewed as theatrical entertainment. I did not want the specific function of oral history (spiritual, legal, etc) to get distorted by focusing on the performative elements of Sto:lo stories, songs, or dances. But as you pointed out, this is definitely an area I will have to reconsider in the future. Many of us who teach survey courses in Theatre History are trying to find alternatives to the traditional scope of what gets taught as the origins of theatre (usually focused on the development of Western forms, techniques, and innovations); for example, I am attempting to offer a more global perspective to students. I am curious, if you were in my shoes, creating a course on theatre history from Antiquity to 1642, how would you approach it?

      • First off, who’s your expected audience from a “racial” standpoint? Secondly, what’s you’re actual goal? To broaden students’ exposure to theater or to “Un-White” it? Thirdly, what’s the timeframe to work within, i.e., how many hours of class?

        Now, given the time, I’d break it out by cultural thread. Greece / Rome – Shakespeare (definitively including morality plays); Japanese theater forms, archetypes; Chinese theater forms, archetypes; and Indian theater forms, archetypes (There’s a lot more than Sanskrit, some of which are often mistaken for being only dance)

        The issue comes when and if either African or Native American theater forms are desired. Both the lack of good sources and the dramatic differences between tribal forms even in relatively close proximity presents a problem I don’t know how to deal with.

        One thing though – in either African or Amerindian tribal theater, presenting the performance elements doesn’t necessarily distort the rest. If anything, it provides a “teaching moment” that can inform the students that theater didn’t and doesn’t to this day always exist for merely entertainment. Those performances were designed to teach and did so quite well since they engaged more parts of the audience’s brains.

  2. Interesting points and thoughts here, both. Jonolan, your comment initially made me think about how the idea of “decolonization” resonates beyond settler colonial states. For example, I’m currently visiting friends and family in the UK, many of whom work at universities here; there’s a focus on decolonization here right now too, but it’s not specifically indigenous-focused (partly because the UK’s colonial/empirical/settler-colonial structures and histories are very different from those in the lands the English colonized abroad). So, for example, at Central School of Speech and Drama, where I do some work, there is currently a “decolonize Central” movement afoot, in response to the overarching Whiteness of the school (historically and presently) and the ways in which that optic and its assumptions marginalizes Black academics and students, among others. In the Central context, “decolonization” is specifically about redressing the “Empire vs” structures that have made it difficult for those not White and not historically upper or upper-middle class to break into the cultural capital reserves of elite England.

    Thanks for this important reflection, both!

  3. Pingback: Decolonizing the syllabus, part 2: so it ain’t perfect, but I am working on it | The Activist Classroom

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