Tips for “Breaking” Over Winter Break

The slow but steady close of the fall term means two things:

  1. All of the grading;
  2. The winter break is imminent.

In an ideal world, this would mean time to rest, reflect, and reset before the new calendar year. Practically, “winter break” is often laughable. Certainly, it is winter in December in the northern hemisphere but “break” implies a stop. For students, teachers, and administrators, scholastic and professional responsibilities often leak into the holidays, dripping all over personal, familial, and social engagements.

To get some advice, I reached out to a group of graduate, emerging, and early career scholars for advice about what they do and/or recommend for relaxing over the winter break.

Here is what they had to say:

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“Submit your final grades, wait 24 hours and then put your academic email on auto-reply that states you will not be checking your emails until the start of next term – and then literally don’t check it. If it is critical to reach you admin will call.

Then go for a walk, and another the next day. . . and so on.

Any reading must only be for pleasure.”

– Claire Carolan,

Faculty at UFV School of Creative Arts

“I recommend baking something sweet and yummy – instant gratification of the fruits of your labour!”

– Sandra Chamberlain-Snider,

PhD Candidate, University of Victoria

Image result for christmas baking

“Read something fun and non-academic – anything from a magazine to a fluffy romance novel.

Arrange a day where you get to sleep-in uninterrupted, and if at all possible have someone bring you coffee in bed (but not too early)”

– Julia Henderson,

Postdoctoral Fellow, Concordia University

Try to feel zero judgement for that which helps you unwind. Ignore your emails, read something fluffy, consume what you fancy, be alone when you need to be. Whatever comfort and coziness means to you: embrace it. Tuck in and enjoy

– Jocelyn Pitsch,

PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia

“I used to get fake nails put on so I literally couldn’t use my phone or computer. Helped with completely shutting off. And walks in the snow. And Audiobooks!”

– Jessica Watkin,

PhD Candidate, University of Toronto

“Crafts, cards, and YA novels!”

– Selena Couture,

Assistant Professor, University of Alberta

Image result for best ya novels 2019

Finally, here are some thoughts from us in the AC virtual office:

Kelsey: Our lives are filled with many different kinds of labours: teaching, administrative, research, writing, care, emotional, social, familial (and so many more). The winter break may bring an ebb in conventional “work” but it often involves an uptick in other kinds of labour.  And, for many, it is an emotionally thick time. Be honest with yourself about where your energy will need to go and where you want it to go. Set boundaries. Schedule accordingly. And, don’t forget that you’re essentially a really complicated plant: water, food, fresh air, and sunlight are more likely to help than hurt.

Kim: the older I get, the more I need rest, and I’m constantly reminding myself that rest is not “being lazy”; it’s in the service of being a better me, all of me. I take the lesson from my  beloved old dog, Emma: she sleeps like 15 hours a day. So in case Kelsey’s plant metaphor didn’t wind you up, try this: for a few days over the holidays, take the cue from your pet. When she wants to go walkies, make it the best walkies. When he wants to play with the mouse toy, be as playful as a tabby. When they are asleep, curl up beside them. And when they are staring out the window intently (“bird TV”), it’s time for Netflix.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Emma the Dog, helping schlep the Christmas tree, then having a well-earned nap.

 

Why Performance Enables, and Disturbs, Democratic Politics

At this critical moment in democracy, with elections looming in the UK and US, talking to student and each other about how political performance work can be fraught. In our guest post, Julia Peetz — Leverhulme Early Early Career Fellow in Performance and Politics at Warwick — offers a new perspective for thinking through the complexity of the relationship between performance and politics.

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Guest blogger, Dr. Julia Peetz

The most intriguing part of the permanent exhibit on the U.S. presidency at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. is the interactive ‘You Be the President’ display. Visitors choose a presidential speech whose script will appear on a monitor as they stand at a podium opposite and read the text out loud. When I visited, in March 2017, ‘You Be the President’ was particularly popular with kids.

I was in D.C. to conduct interviews with former White House speechwriters who had served presidents going back all the way to Ronald Reagan, so it’s safe to say I was preoccupied with the public performances of presidents. It struck me that this is what resonates as an impersonation of the U.S. president: rather than, say, sitting in the White House Situation Room surrounded by advisors and faced with making an important decision on national security or at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office looking through the President’s Daily Brief, you stand at the presidential podium and address the nation.

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It isn’t surprising that this interactive exhibit would highlight the words of presidents, some of which are indelible, taught in schools and carved into monuments. Public appearances are central to the president’s connection with the public, the only way most people come to know their president. And we like to tell kids that they could be president one day: it’s a promise or a threat, depending on how you look at it, that’s reinforced as they stand up at the podium. 

Despite all this, if we think more generally of politicians performing in public, the idea that these performances actually accomplish much of anything is usually dismissed. Commentators speak of the ‘theatre’ of politics, and what they mean is the public bluster of politicians, and their lies.

We don’t always applaud politicians for being good with words, either: Bill Clinton’s ability to ‘parse’ language earned him the nickname ‘slick willie’: he’d claim that there ‘is no relationship’ with Monica Lewinsky, deliberately in the present tense. President Clinton was a virtuoso at improvising: he would extemporize as much as a third of his speeches, but his speechwriters were aware that Clinton’s obvious way with language led people to view him with suspicion, too.

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In the public imagination ‘performing’ stands as the antithesis of accomplishing something of substance. When the president is speaking to the public from the presidential podium or participating in a televised debate during an election campaign, he is not making important decisions on national security in the Situation Room or evaluating the nation’s priorities from the Resolute Desk. Seeking the limelight is seen as a simple activity driven by base—or childish—impulses. It’s slightly embarrassing, not to mention hubristic, then, for adults to stand up and pretend to be Lincoln in Gettysburg. I didn’t see any who tried. 

With the 24-hour news cycle and the public ubiquity of politicians—especially U.S. presidents—, though, scholars have had to contend more seriously with the role performance plays in politics. Performance, perhaps rather obviously, has been linked to representation, in the sense that performing politicians represent their public offices, are frequently tasked with speaking on behalf of their constituencies, and represent themselves as credible and competent representatives of and to their constituents.

Because the U.S. president is the only person elected to represent the entirety of the American nation, it makes sense that presidents employ teams of speechwriters and have their speeches carefully vetted. In fact, earlier presidents (roughly those who were in office before Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), followed a pattern introduced by the earliest presidents and consolidated by Thomas Jefferson: they tended to avoid addressing the public on matters of policy. The Jeffersonian model largely limited presidential speeches to explicating the U.S. Constitution and held the president somewhat above the fray of partisan politics. 

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Both to those early presidents who carefully limited what they spoke about to the public and for later presidents who employed teams of specialized speechwriters, performance was an important matter. In representative democracy, political audiences evaluate the performances of those who claim they would make good political representatives and make their preferences felt through the power of the vote. Public performance thus plays a central, though of course not the only, part in determining how voters view their political representatives.

However, acknowledging the importance of performance in creating representative relationships between politicians and constituents is only half the story. It still does not explain why performance in politics should necessarily be viewed with suspicion. If performance is ‘only’ important, then (stage fright aside) why are adults so reluctant to engage with that interactive exhibit? 

This is where the topic becomes interdisciplinary: it’s where the structured thinking about institutions and their functioning from political science meets the more theoretically developed thinking around different aspects of performance from theatre/performance studies. 

In teaching about politics and performance, I’ve found it important to stress these different disciplinary perspectives and their priorities: political science is interested in institutions, how they function and operate on a structural level, where power is situated within them, and different ways of intervening in those arrangements. 

Theatre/performance studies is much more interested in perception than it is in institutions: how performance can shape and reshape people’s perception of the world or indeed why theatre and performance, overall, is viewed with such suspicion and contempt.

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As a result of its unique perspective, politics scholarship sees the ability of political audiences, who are in the position of judging whether their would-be representatives are acceptable or not, in relatively straightforward terms. It mostly puts aside the idea that political audiences often do not judge straightforwardly and instead feel a great deal of ambivalence, distrust and suspicion. 

But that ambivalence, distrust, and suspicion are fundamental to representative politics—and if we focus only on what performance does on the structural level of political representation, then we miss a great deal about its complexity. 

Historical scholarship shows that, as soon as a representative system was introduced after the French Revolution, for instance, contemporary commentators expressed acute and widespread anxiety over political representation, and this was linked directly to performance. The historian Paul Friedland argues that the new representative system ‘could base its legitimacy only on a tautology’: each representative was legitimate only because, and as long as, he was seen, in public by political audiences receiving his performances, to be legitimate.

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Perception matters: representatives have legitimacy as long as they are seen to be legitimate. What continues to be problematic about this is that political audiences often do not know their representatives personally, especially at the level of national and presidential politics. In other words, people have to evaluate their representatives from a distance on the basis of what they do, but also, crucially, on the basis of how they perform in public.

As a result of this, politicians’ performances have to fulfill two distinct tasks: they have to move crowds of people, in effect doing an actor’s job, but they also have to convince these crowds that the public persona performed is a true reflection of who the politician really is. 

Perhaps it’s for that reason, too, that the prospect of performing as the president is both daunting and slightly embarrassing for visitors of ‘You Be the President’: speaking the words of the president drives home that we know the public side, and really only that public side, of the president. We know the words of famous speeches, but we have to imagine what they felt as they performed them. Distrust and suspicion enter because we cannot bridge this gap.

The president’s work at the podium, then, is far from straightforward, simple, or lacking in substance. Indeed, to explain what performance does in representative politics means to explain how different academic disciplines frame their research questions and why certain questions cannot be satisfactorily addressed from within one discipline alone.

For further reading from Julia: here and here

Course Evals 2.0: Things We Can Do Now to Make a Flawed Process Better

Kelsey’s post last week, about managing end-of-term course evaluations, struck a chord with me. I’ve fretted about course evals for as long as I can remember; when the results come in, months after a class has ended, I get that panicked feeling in my stomach, the same one I used to get before a big paper was returned back when I was an undergrad myself.

Yes, reader: as a lifelong resident of the ivory tower, I worry about whether or not my students are going to give me an A. 

I’ve been teaching full time for almost 15 years now; I learned long ago that grades are an uneven, cruelly dopamine-laden way to measure student achievement. And yet – despite reams of literature that reflect the fallibility of end of term course evaluations, and their remarkable capacity to rehearse systemic biases based on race and gender – I can’t seem to stop myself scanning my results for the numbers and praying for rain.

After reading Kelsey’s post, I found myself reflecting on my relationship with course evals. Certainly there’s the stuff above, the unhealthy craving for the dopamine hit that comes with a positive response. But there’s also more.

Like many colleagues working toward best pedagogical practice, I’ve tried a range of different ways to gauge student experience at different points in the term. I’ve used my own, anonymous, mid-term evaluations, especially early on, when I wasn’t sure if anything I was doing in the classroom was working. I’ve invited students to reflect on their most and least favourite in-class activities, and even to vote for what we should or should not do on a given day. Recently, I’ve started using participation reflection papers, where, twice per term, students upload a 250-300 word piece (in any form they want – I stress this isn’t an essay) that considers how class is going in light of our course’s posted participation rubric.

My university (like yours, probably) has also gotten into the “better feedback” game: Western now has an online portal where students complete their evaluations and can access loads of information about what they are used for, plus helpful tips for effective feedback. This portal has a login tool for instructors, where we can add questions to the standard form, check response rates for open evals, and more. Students are incentivized to feed back with a gift card draw, guideline documents, and videos demonstrating the process. The system is very consumer-oriented, like most things in the neoliberal university, but it’s also far more user-friendly and open than the paper-based, computer-marked, sealed-enveloped systems of old.

What does all this fresh focus on good feedback mean? Is it translating into systemic change, or just lipsticking the pig? As I struggle myself with meaningful feedback that doesn’t send me into the “please give me an A!!” tailspin, I wonder.

And so, wondering, I turn to Facebook.

Over the weekend I asked colleagues on FB to let me know what they did to “hack” the course evals system at their joint; judging by the responses to that post, the answer was not that much. Certainly we insist to our students that their feedback matters; we offer time in class to fill forms in; we add questions when possible. Some of us, like Kelsey, take the initiative to ask different, not-formally-sanctioned questions, including at mid-term. But we are busy, and we are tired, and course evaluations are JUST ONE MORE THING that we need to worry about as the term rockets to a close.

In this evaluation exhaustion, we share much in common with the students, as I soon learned.

After spamming my colleagues, I asked some former students to feed in. My question to them was as follows:

More thinking about course evals. I’d love to hear from recent former students. Did you treat them seriously? As a chore? Were you cynical about their value? In a world of constant online reviews, etc, how do traditional evaluations rate?

The results I got here were fulsome, and very diverse. Two students told me they were committed optimists who took the exercise very seriously. Another told me his sister was a lecturer while he was at school, and therefore he understood from the inside what the stakes for professors were, which coloured his perception of evaluations. As he noted, from that both-sides perspective, he felt it was essential to be able to justify not giving a teacher top marks. (A welcome attitude, one that takes a teacherly perspective to teacher “grading”.)

Still another student confessed to using evaluations to reward good teachers and dig a bit at the bad ones, knowing that his feedback had a potential professional impact for both. (YIKES, but totally fair – that’s what we are asking students to do, right??)

Finally, one of my best-ever students shocked me by revealing that she did not give a flying frankfurter about any of it, and probably hadn’t filled out most of her evals anyway. (She really dug the gift card incentive, though.)

These diverse responses about the experience of course evaluations converged at one point, however: Timing. As cranky-pants Camille* (above), after confessing to eval ennui, added:

“if administration wants to have a genuine dialogue with students about how certain classes/professors may or may not be working, why don’t evals happen halfway through a semester? This gives everyone time to adjust on the fly. No one cares in the final weeks of class because nothing can be done to help the students that were struggling all along. The idea of course evals is wonderful, although I don’t think the way the system is currently set up ‘helps’ the students in any way.”

Mid-term check-ins are increasingly typical, but they aren’t yet the norm. At Western, instructors are invited to do an “optional” mid-term check in, but even though I’m fully committed to student feedback, I’ve never taken the option.

The timing thing stands out for me here not because it’s a great idea (OF COURSE IT IS), but because it gets at deeper issues, which Camille nicely bulls-eyes in the above comment. Do we want evaluations to be part of a dialogue about teaching and learning? If so, why do they still work like a multiple-choice, one-way street? Do we want evaluations to be materially helpful? If so, what are they doing at the end of the semester? We need to frame them, locate them, and structure their relationship to classes, to departments, and to the university community as a whole very differently if this is actually our aim.

After all this fulsome feedback from Camille, Jake, Jonas, Jack, and Thalia appeared in my FB feed, a couple of colleagues weighed in. One, playwright and Weber State theatre professor Jenny Kokai, wrote about her recent experiences on a committee rethinking evaluations at her school. (NB: there are a lot of these projects afoot, which I discovered when I went snorkelling for some of the research before writing this post. I was particularly impressed by the documentation around the recent pilot project at the University of Waterloo, just up the highway from my house.)

Dr Kokai pointed out that research reveals mid-semester feedback focuses on class effectiveness, while later semester feedback is generally tied to grade expectations. She also noted that metacognitive questions – about, say, students’ learning practices, and their parallel commitments to their own class labour – tend to offer a more holistic picture of student experience, while also benefitting students as a reflection experience.

I’ve realized over the course of preparing this post that it’s exactly this last thing – encouraging metacognitive reflection – to which I’ve turned my attention. As a teacher, it’s where I want to put my time and energy.

Why don’t I take the mid-term “feedback” option Western gives me? I’m too busy reading and writing back to students’ mid-term participation reflections!

In these documents I invite students to think about what’s working and not working for them in their current participation practice – I’ve taken to framing participation, and studenting in general, as a practice, in the same way I call my teaching a practice. (I repeat this to students as often as possible. All we can all ever do is PRACTICE!) These reflections are not anonymous documents, but – as with peer review, a post for another day! – I don’t think student feedback need be anonymous to be useful. In my class, you can get full participation marks only if you engage with the participation reflection exercise, but other than that these documents are not graded, and nobody is discouraged from being frank and clear about both strengths and weaknesses. Students write these reflections to themselves and to me, in the lowest-stakes possible way, and reveal where their wins and their struggles are; I then use that feedback as an opportunity to make suggestions, check in, validate their perceptions, and invite them to come sit down in office hours to figure stuff out. At the very least, I gain some tools that allow me to check in with them, in class, repeatedly until the end of the semester.

This week, our last of term at Western, both of my classes will do a guided reflection in class, where I will ask three slightly different questions: what went really well after your last check in? What didn’t get off the ground? And, most importantly: what have you learned about your own experience of learning that you can take with you into next term?

These reflections cannot replace fully anonymous feedback, of course, but they model the kinds of questions, and invite the kinds of mutual and dialogic class investments, that all evaluation tools need to aim for. The next step is to shift our evaluation structures systemically so that “feedback” becomes actual dialogue, and leads to a better understanding of what it takes to sustain a healthy learning environment from both ends.

*Thanks to Camille, and to everyone who responded to my queries, for their reflections and for granting me permission to cite them here.