Decolonizing the syllabus, part 2: so it ain’t perfect, but I am working on it

Back in September I wrote about what I might characterize as my teaching, as well as my personal, goal for F/W 2018-19: to try to decolonize my syllabi as much as possible.

I talked in detail in that post about my brand-new course, “Toronto: Culture and Performance.” That class took a group of 40 students – plus one keen international graduate student auditor, one TA-extraordinaire, and me – to the city down the highways five times over the course of 13 weeks to see five amazing shows. We also read a diverse bunch of authors writing about Toronto’s theatre ecology, held a fantastic workshop with one of the Toronto Star‘s theatre critics, and created some pretty amazing final projects, including several remarkable creative ones.

I just loved that class and cannot wait to teach it again.

One of the reasons I loved it was because I felt, every week, like I was living up to my goal of working against the colonial drift. With the luxury of a totally new prep, a course I had designed entirely from scratch, I could map a landscape that looked as decolonized as I could hope for.

The course began by foregrounding Indigeneity as central to any labour on theatre and performance in a settler-colonial state; it continued by centralizing non-White and non-dominant voices in the majority of the work we read and saw. When we did encounter dominant or “mainstream” voices, we therefore had the tools to ask critical questions about how our expectations about cultural value and theatrical “quality” in Anglophone North America are shaped by the normalization of White, straight, and cis experience.

(I’m particularly proud of a class discussion we held after seeing Anosh Irani’s not-entirely-successful Mumbai + Vancouver-set Men in White at Factory Theatre. That discussion began with a completely reasonable [and predictable] group whinge about stock characters and a perceived lack of nuance, but eventually reached a deep reflection on how genre can be an agent of colonialism. We ended that day by asking why many artists of colour might feel a pressure, or even a need, to tell their stories inside the generic frame of Western realism, aka the “well made play”, even when that frame does not suit their stories.)

the-men-in-white

But, of course, not all courses do we get to bake from scratch, right? Some we inherit. Sometimes that inheritance is nimble and exciting. Sometimes it’s a dire mess, but the idea of  renovating it, especially under time pressure, is overwhelming.

Sometimes – and I think this is the worst scenario, personally – the course is FINE but also not the best it could be. You’re aware of this but you’re also exhausted. You *could* do something with it, but you could also leave it – the students will still learn. You’re still a good teacher; you’ll still get them to the questions they need to be asking.

This is especially hard and upsetting when the course is one that you, some time ago, designed from scratch.

I’d been planning, since September, to totally revamp my History of Performance Theory class, a winter term module I began teaching four years ago. This course has needed work for a while, and I’ve known it; it’s littered with Aristotle and The Usual Post-Aristotelian Subjects, it’s way too White, and it’s boring. I’ve struggled with the readings, struggled with finding effective ways to demonstrate the readings in practice, and struggled with setting performance-based assessments that effectively allow the students to enact, and thereby own, the theory.

trump

Trump and/as Aristotle. Sigh. What role the Dead White Dude in an anti-colonial performance theory syllabus?

Basically, the course is a dumpster fire, from my perspective. But, again: the students have consistently enjoyed it, and probably would do again. Nevertheless, I determined This. Was. The. Year. I would retool it completely! I would start in September!

But then, stuff intervened: personal stuff that had to be prioritized, in the moment, above redoing a winter teaching prep. When late December hit and I’d managed both to ride out that stuff and rest a bit, I realized I only had about a week to totally decolonize that nasty, white-washed pile of teaching poo sitting on the corner of my desk.

trumparistotle300

Nope. Still depressing.

What to do? I knew I couldn’t really do anything like a proper job of reorganizing the course in a week. Remarkably, though, it was when I faced down the reality of my shortened time frame that I finally realized how much of a process the decolonizing of this course – really, of ANY existing, kinda-fine-but-not-quite course – needed to be. This was a process I could begin in December 2018 with integrity, but not finish – perhaps not finish for some time. And maybe that’s ok.

So I got to work on the beginning.

First, I asked myself what I wanted a decolonized version of this class to look like. Beyond inviting students to read texts from multiple perspectives across the centuries, what did I want the class to do?

I came up with a list.

  1. The class needs to empower the students, giving them a sense of ownership over the material and their experience of it. (This is especially key in theory classes, which can be intimidating and quickly become divided: some “get it” right away, while others remain confused and feel bad about themselves as a result.)
  2. The class needs not to hierarchize readings, in which the old White guys appear to be “first” or “top” or “most key”.
  3. The class should not be entirely chronological. While some then-to-now is important for understanding globally rich concepts (like “mimesis” and its politics), working by theme rather than temporally means shifting students’ idea of where history “is” and whether or not we, too, are part of history right now.
  4. The class needs to be as much about learning to read theory, and to use it in ways that are fun and relevant, as about “taking in” the “great ideas” of historical thought. In other words: the class needs to take as given that theory is hard but worthwhile, and therefore it’s our shared responsibility to make sense of it as a team.

This list turned out to be a really helpful starting point. It allowed me to make a plan with both my and the students’ needs in mind. (Remarkably, I wonder: do I really always foreground student needs when I plan a class? DO I?) In turn this plan led to me to do three things toward decolonizing the syllabus that I’m feeling good about. It’s still early days, but so far so good.

Here’s what I did:

First, I turned to the question of readings. Back in October, when life things were really starting to hit the fan for me, I re-ordered the textbook I have previously used for this class: Daniel Gerould’s Theatre/Theory/Theatre. It’s imperfect but also just fine, and I figured that, if needed, I could make it work better for me than it had done in the past.

I was right: looking carefully at the table of contents, I realized that, while Gerould prioritizes the Anglo-European tradition, he does include a handful of non-Western sources in the book – enough to make a critical mass if used carefully.

theatre-theory-theatre

Professor Gerould’s theatre theory textbook. The introductions remain a highlight for me!

I selected a number of readings that I wanted to see on the course, ranging from Aristotle and Sidney (benchmark Western writers) to Brandi Wilkins Catanese and Jen Harvie (contemporary women writing about the politics of race and labour in performance, respectively). I slotted these into early and later weeks. (Here, the chronology makes sense for me, as Catanese and Harvie will allow us to return to “old” ideas late in the term and chart their contemporary iterations.)

Then, for the weeks in between, I returned to a practice I’ve used in the past (and which Anna Griffith also talks about in her December post on her performance history class). I’d let the students select half of the readings from a list I’d curate (thus offering them security in choice). I picked four weeks for “Students’ Choice” and gathered 12 potential readings for these. These potentials included a deliberately diverse range of authors: all of the non-Western readings in Gerould, plus an Indigenous, female, Toronto-based playwright, an Egyptian-Canadian, male artist from Vancouver, and a prominent feminist performance scholar. These weeks were broadly “themed” (IE: acting theory; theatre and social justice), but beyond that the options ranged from ancient to of-the-moment and everywhere in between.

In our second class of the term, we spent a full hour exploring our reading options in small groups and making selections. In three groups, the students read several pages of four potential texts, debated their relative merits, and then presented their top choices to the class. As I predicted, the students went for majority non-White, non-normative choices in every case – but they did so for a number of reasons (including complementarity, interest in the topic, readability, and more), and not just because I, the teacher, said that would be “good” for them to read “diverse” voices. (It turns out that’s what they wanted to do, in any case!)

So we’ve now got a really rich range of readings – Aristotle; Bharata; Jani Lauzon; Philip Sidney; Li Yu; Jill Dolan; Augusto Boal; Bertolt Brecht; Marcus Youssef; Catanese; and Harvie – in that order. And the readings are majority students’ choice, so the class can feel a sense of ownership over them. My hope is that the challenges the readings will pose will seem, if not more doable, then definitely more worth working on, because of that.

Second, I created a handful of research questions to serve as a lens we can use to approach any text. These are listed in the course description at the top of the syllabus, as well as at the top of the week-by-week schedule. They are:

Who or what is allowed to be represented, and why?

Is this representation “good” for us, and why or why not? What exactly should representation “do”?

Should audiences think, or feel? Enjoy, or learn? Is there a third option?

I’ve told the students that these questions return again and again in performance theory, and that we will encounter a number of responses to them. At the same time, we should be thinking about our own responses to them: who is represented around us now, and how, and to what end? Is this representation “good” for those who are represented? For us? Who decides? Why does it matter?

Having these research questions in place as a baseline means we always have somewhere to go, if things get complicated. Don’t understand why Aristotle keeps changing his mind about whether or not “spectacle” is ok? Ask yourself: who does he think should be allowed to be represented? What does he think the audience is supposed to get out of it? Why might he feel this way? These benchmark questions offer a reading lifeline, while also raising issues that are essential to get on the table if we are going to try to make sense of theory cross-culturally.

Finally, I devised a broad assessment framework: explain, apply, and extend. Actually, I’ve used this framework before, but never as holistically as this year. Rather than just set a task (or a series of tasks) where students need to explain, apply, and extend a piece of theory, I’ve this year turned the framework into a model for our classroom working practice across the term.

At the centre of this model are three 500-word tasks where students will “explain” a theory (very basic, but important – that’s the point), “apply” a different theory (find an example of the theory in practice, from anywhere they like, and talk about it), and “extend” a third theory (push or question its parameters).

To bolster students’ confidence and demonstrate these tasks thoroughly, each week I am organizing my class prep into three roughly 1-hour chunks, one devoted to each of the tasks for the theory up that week.

Because the “explain” and “extend” portions of this work are likely to feature a lot of me talking, I’ve decided the “apply” portion of each week should be driven by the class. Students are invited to post rough-and-ready demonstrations of the theory in practice to our class website by 10pm on Wednesdays, and not to worry about whether or not they’ve got it “right”. Every post, provided it includes an example and a short description of why it was chosen, earns 2% out of a possible 10% for the “online prompt response” assessment. So making five honest attempts to “apply” a theory earns full marks, because the point of this assessment is not to “get it,” but to contribute to our class discussion in a fulsome way. (Note: this assessment is not the same as the “apply” task I note above. It’s meant to be low-stakes practice for it.)

(One student’s clever “apply” post to our class website last week: Rose and the Doctor as evidence of what Aristotle means by “the probable.”)

I’ve done other things, too, to help shape a classroom environment that offers students as much ownership over their experience as possible, while also prioritizing typically unheard voices both in the room and in our readings: students will write participation reflections and come talk to me about their participation practice in my office at mid-term; there’s no final exam, but rather a group performance project that will allow students to choose a play (from three options) they want to work on, and select into a performance group based on that choice; we’re already in the habit of moving our classroom furniture each week into configurations that allow for student-centred learning.

I hope to write about these other things in later posts, and I’ll share updates about the class – how it’s feeling for me; how it’s going for the students – during the term too. I don’t pretend this is anywhere near what I’d like it to ultimately be, but I think it’s a good start. I’m also hoping the students will help me to see what needs changing as we go, so that I can keep this particular syllabus-decolonization project in motion.

Meanwhile, stay warm!

Kim

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2 thoughts on “Decolonizing the syllabus, part 2: so it ain’t perfect, but I am working on it

  1. this is a wonderful example of how really figuring out your learning objectives for a class can drive your preparation. I bet you spend less time and effort on the revamping than you might otherwise and get a better outcome.

    • Thanks for this, Jo! I had not thought of this angle, but you’re right: if I always know, for example, on prep day what the bigger goal for me and the students is, I spend less time going “what should we do with this reading?” and more time replicating activities that have helped me achieve that outcome in the past. Great point!

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