An Experiment with Attention Management

It is hard to believe the first month of 2020 is nearly over!

As many folks do, I had intended to use the turn of the calendar year to intentionally reflect on 2019. Truth be told, however, the fall of 2019 was a swamp of reflection, and I’m a little reflected-out. But, I’m still committed to shifting my working practices towards healthier, more sustainable habits.

So, rather than reflecting, in January 2020, I audited.

More specifically, I tracked my energy and attention expenditure in relation to research, writing, and prep time.

I was motivated to do so by my interest in the recent swell of thinking that attends to “attention management.” This includes Deep Work by Cal Newport and 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep by Jonathan Crary. The politics and motivations of the two authors differ considerably; Newport is interested in “hacking” the attention economy to facilitate the conditions of what he calls “deep work” or uninterrupted, focused, thinking and writing, while Crary’s work aims to understand, unsettle, and question the attention economy in relation to the circuits of capitalism.

But, the two books share an underlying argument: the attention of subjects enmeshed in late capital is incredibly scattered.

On the one hand, we have access to a wealth of information and communication. I just googled the weather in Paris (a balmy 8 degrees Celsius) and sent my mother an email, which presumably arrived in her inbox seconds after I sent it.

On the other hand, the communication and information never shuts off. Your family, friends, colleagues, and students are only ever an email away, but the reverse is also true: you are only ever an email away. So, even if you don’t check your email on weekends, you could be, and it takes a certain amount of energy to set and hold that boundary (this is one of the major takeaways from Crary’s book). As if that wasn’t enough, there are the many pits of distraction modern technology (like the web) offers (see: YouTube videos with cute animals or, in my case, Broadway musical theatre show clips).

Alongside other factors (like 24 hour grocery stores), these conditions make it very difficult to be fully focused on a single task, thought, or moment for a significant length of time.

The stream of thinking that attends to what might be called the “attention crisis” often advocates for attention management. This essentially means becoming aware of how and when our attention is divided and then intentionally limiting distractions in order to be more productive.

So, I decided to log my work blocks for the month of January.

My goal was to jot down when I sat down to work, what I did while I sat down to work, and to note when I finished working. I even bought myself a spiffy calendar notebook and a nice pen for the task.

Kelsey’s spiffy calendar

As I often find is the case with these kinds of things, the most interesting part of the exercise wasn’t the data it produced but the process. Attempting to track my attention effectively drew my attention to how often I toggle between tasks while working and how quickly I can slide from a legitimate writing-related search to mindless Internet surfing.

Most interestingly, it made me notice 1) How often I check my email, and 2) How much checking my email affects me emotionally.

The moment an email arrives in my inbox, it becomes part of my mental space. Even if I don’t focus on it, my knowledge of its existence weighs. And, if that email has content that I care about, I get jolted from one feeling state to another. Both of these experiences pull me away from the researching, writing, or prep I’d set out to do.

These aren’t major revelations, but the tracking really helped emphasize the significance of little habits, and has led me to make series of small changes to how I organize my working time. In no particular order, these include:

  1. Leaving my phone in another room while working.
  2. Selecting a playlist I’m going to listen to in advance, so I don’t  toggle to my music player once every three minutes.
  3. Using two Internet browsers: one for research and/or prep related searches and one for emails and surfing the web.
  4. Setting aside time to check my emails and not checking my email outside of these times. (I support this by closing the email tab on my browser, which is so small, but really helps).
  5. Setting time parameters for writing or prep time (“I’m going to sit and do this one thing from 9am to 11am”), setting an alarm to mark the end of that time, and then actually stopping when the alarm goes off.
  6. Paying attention to my energy midway and toward the end of a work session: if I find myself uncontrollably drawn to surfing the web, it’s time to get up and give myself a break.

To be honest, it’s a work in progress. Even though I’m noticing it more, I’m still amazed at how quickly and easily I start “multitasking.”

That said, the little changes I’ve made have resulted in a subtle but noticeable sense of relief when I sit down to do work.

Because, as it turns out, sustained focus is not only an “attention hack,” it actually feels good in my body.







Kim in Video: Feminism, Performance, Pedagogy

This week, I (Kelsey), am proud to share not one, but two (!), videos of Kim talking about her teaching and research.

The first is from a 3MT (3 Minute Thesis) kick-off event at Western University, where Kim teaches. As the name suggests, the point of 3MT presentations is for a researcher to provide an overview of their work … in less than three minutes. No small feat!

In the second video, Kim speaks directly to her approach to teaching, which charmingly begins with her describing herself as a “weirdo.”

(Aside from Kim: I obviously did NOT know they were going to lead with this line!! I’m also pretty sure I had forgotten I was going to be on film that morning, when I put that jumpsuit on…)

These videos might not have the robust arguments of twenty-minute conference papers or the details of hour-long lectures, but it is precisely the absence of these elements that makes them valuable.

Aimed at a general audience, spoken in plain language, and blissfully short, these videos take big ideas and condense them into big accessible ideas. I can imagine showing the first video to a first year undergrad class as an introduction, to a graduate class as a provocation, or to friends who are looking for an entry point for thinking about feminism. They are also highly circulate-able, which means they can participate in the “like and share” culture of social media, and by extension, public dialogue.

This isn’t to say that all our big ideas need to be communicated in three minutes or less. But, the videos do demonstrate the value of using different formats in public teaching practice.

Questions about anything in these videos? Reach out through our “contact us” page!


Interview with Amanda Leduc

Building off last week’s conversation between Kim and Colleen Kim Daniher, this week we’ve got another conversation in the form of interview between Kelsey and author Amanda Leduc. In it, Amanda and I chat about the pedagogy of fairytales, disability representation, writing tips, and responsible social media use for public figures.

KB: Let’s start by having you introduce yourself.

AL: My name is Amanda Leduc. I’m a writer based in Hamilton. In my day job, I work as the communications coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity, based in Brampton, Ontario.

I’m also an author. I published a novel in 2013 called The Miracles of Ordinary Men and have a new non-fiction book, coming out in February 2020, called Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. It’s about how the representation of disability in fairy tales has been historically less than positive but has also influenced how disability is portrayed in the media today. I weave that in with my own narrative as a disabled woman with cerebral palsy. Then, I have another novel coming out hopefully in the Spring of 2021.

Amanda Leduc

KB: As the curator for a pedagogy and performance blog, I’m interested in the teaching element of fairy tales. Do you think fairy tales have changed in terms of their teaching ability?

AL: Fairy tales have always had that didactic purpose. They exist to teach us morals about how to live in the world. In fact, one of the things that’s powerful about fairy tales is that they have a social purpose in terms of reaching for a world that’s better. The hero at the beginning of the fairy tale has a particular kind of life that they want to escape in some shape or form. And in the fairy tales that end happily, they manage to escape that life.

The interesting thing for me is that that model doesn’t really apply to the disabled body. You don’t have stories about how society needs to change. You have stories about personal transformation: the ugly beast is made beautiful at the end of the tale and marries the beautiful princess.

I was really transfixed by this idea that the disabled, othered, body has to change in a fairy tale in order for some sort of happy ending or conclusion to come about. It’s never society that changes. Disability is almost a character flaw or some sort of physical flaw that can be overcome if someone just wants to do it badly enough. When you, then, apply that fairy tale framework to the stories that we tell in modern day, a lot of those same threads continue to perpetuate myths and stereotypes of disability.

This is the kind of conversation that’s been going on in disability activism and disability studies for decades but in the mainstream world, it hasn’t been talked about as much.

The cover from Amanda’s upcoming book

KB: How do you see yourself intervening in that?

AL: I hope that my new book will get people thinking differently about the way the disabled body is portrayed in fairy tales.

Fairy hit us at such a young age that they really have a lasting impact on the way we move through the world. And the way that we approach certain kinds of stories. Their stories offer very pervasive, insidious, ways of teaching young children especially about disability. And very specific, hard, ideas, about what it means to be different in the world.

I think that’s changing, but it’s still there.

I also think we need to be increasing disability representation. There’s a real thing that happens where people like myself, who have a disability that is maybe milder than others, work to minimize their disability. I worked for a large portion of my life to pretend that my disability wasn’t there because I didn’t feel I could be accepted in the world as a person with a disability.

If we normalize disability and normalize the idea that the world is full of people who are all different shapes and sizes and have different abilities and do different things, it doesn’t become this othering. We all have different needs, and we can build a world that can accommodate those different needs but we have to do it together.

KB: Switching gears, many of our readers do a lot of writing. What are your top three tips for getting writing done?


      Step One: Put your bum in the chair. That has to happen.

The most dreaded piece of furniture for any writer.

             Step Two: Try to minimize distractions. I need to put my phone far away and turn off social media notifications on my computer. Disconnect the Internet if possible.

          Step Three: Create a ritual around the writing. I make sure I have nice cup of tea. I make sure the chair is comfortable and that the desk is clean. I put some nice music on. That helps it feel like an enjoyable experience. Because, you know, sometimes writing is not. So, at least if I have the trappings of things that I like around me, I can delve into the work. That might be frustrating but it’s still enjoyable on some level because I’m surrounded by things that I love.

KB: In addition to being a writer, you’re also an active social media user. Kim and I have chatted a lot about the quagmire of using social media as an information dissemination and pedagogical tool. What’s your experience of social media been like?

AL: Twitter has undergone a really interesting evolution over the last ten years. It used to be this optimistic and lovely place for people to come together with like-minded groups of people. Now, it has transmorphed into to a place that is better in some ways because it’s really offered a platform for communities that might not get the opportunity to speak otherwise, like the disability community, which is very active on Twitter. But, also just because you can say something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Screenshot from a video embedded in a super interesting article on twitter and violence against women from Amnesty International:

KB: What would your three social media tips be for educators and researchers?

AL: As someone who is specifically as an educator, you really have a difficult line to walk in terms of allowing some of your personality in your public profile. This is what endears people to you. It’s what helps build a community. But, also, you can’t reveal too much or be too “real” if you will. That’s hard.

          First, be sure to inject some personality into your social media but then also be very careful and strategic about the boundaries you put in place to protect yourself and others.

          Second, set out very clear boundaries for yourself: these are the kinds of interactions that I will not engage in.

          Third, one of the things that’s been most helpful for me is thinking of social media as a conversation. It has been just as fascinating to listen to Twitter conversations as it has been to participate in them. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. It’s important always to be listening as much, if not more, than speaking. Because it’s a learning process for all of us. Students and teachers alike.

Thanks, Amanda!

For more on Amanda’s upcoming book, Disfigured On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, go here.
















New Year, Old Memories

Last November I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research; while there I had the chance to catch up with one of the first students I ever taught in a classroom of my own.

Dr Colleen Kim Daniher, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, received her PhD from Northwestern University; before that, amongst many other things, she took  English 289E: Modern Drama (F/W 2005-06) with me at the University of Western Ontario, during my very first term on the tenure track.

Colleen Kim Daniher, in hands down the best prof headshot I’ve ever seen.

Colleen just completed her own first term on the tenure track, with a new baby to boot, and not long after we ate dinner together in D.C. she sent me a lovely, warm message telling me what my class had meant to her.

Any teacher knows what an honour it is to read such words; I was touched beyond measure. But I was also, slightly, amused – because that class was hands-down the hardest I’ve ever taught. It was trial by fire, mistake after mistake. To this day, Every Christmas I remember sitting in my bedroom in my rented flat in downtown London, Ontario on Boxing Day, holding the envelope full of anonymous midterm surveys I’d collected before the break, terrified (and I mean TERRIFIED: sweaty, heart racing, you name it) that they all read: YOU ARE A TERRIBLE TEACHER!!!

Not that kind. But you get it.

After reading Colleen’s note, and wiping the smile off my face, I had an idea. What if she and I did a reflection exercise about that class? Clearly it had an impact on her I didn’t readily recall, and clearly it took a toll on me she didn’t know about. Further, it’s obvious we both took major lessons from that year into our independent pedagogical futures. What were those lessons?

I decided to ask; Colleen was game. Herewith, the results.

1. What’s your strongest memory from English 289E: Modern Drama? What about this memory has stuck with you over all this time?


My strongest memory from English 289E was the way it asked me and my fellow English literature classmates to harness performance practice as a mode of dramatic analysis. I remember being confused and yet very taken with the idea that performance could be a way of interrogating text, an idea implicit to the weekly small group scene studies that were assigned throughout the course. The basic premise was that each week, a group of about five or six students in our class of thirty would stage an excerpt from a text we were studying that week. This group was called “The Company.” The class met twice weekly (for one whole calendar year!), so we would have a more conventional professor-run lecture on Tuesdays, and then on Thursdays, we, the students, would essentially lead the day’s conversation. First, “The Company” would perform their interpretation of their chosen scene for the entire class, then another small group of students (called “The Colleague-Critics”) would have to respond, leading the rest of the class in a discussion of the staging just witnessed. The groups were randomly assigned and fixed through the run of the semester, so you would get to know your group-mates quite well and rotate several times as a unit through both Company and Colleague-Critic roles.

It was unlike any class activity I had ever been a part of. I remember prior to my first small group performance (a staging of Ubu Roi) reading and re-reading the syllabus instructions, trying to “figure out” what the assignment was actually about. In hindsight, the hardest part of the assignment was shedding my presuppositions around performance as a (finished, polished) product. I can’t speak for the other students in the class, but the invitation to perform in a drama class was one that I was personally hungering for: I was a theatre nerd in a university without a formal theatre department. I got my kicks in the music department as a Voice major and in the student-run, on-campus theatre organization [Theatre Western]. However, what we were being asked to do with performance in the class was completely different than what I was used to as a fairly experienced musician and actor. We had very little rehearsal time, scripts-in-hand, and the barest of production values. The point, I would learn, was not to “put on a performance” but to think through performance in the act of its doing. It was a bit opaque at the time, but utterly intoxicating. In fact, this first taste of the conjoining of performance as a critical-intellectual endeavor and performance as an embodied practice is what I live for today as a Performance Studies scholar!

Also: Brecht! So much Brecht. Everything I now know about Brecht I learned in this class.

The muppets: seriously epic.


The methodology Colleen describes above was a hybrid of stuff I learned from one of my undergraduate mentors, Nora Foster Stovel, at the University of Alberta (where I completed my BA), and from my postdoctoral mentor, Jill Dolan, at UT Austin. Looking back through Colleen’s description I realize that what I was asking the students to do was basic practice-as-research (PBR), but at the time, believe it or not, I didn’t have that language to share! (I was trained in Shakespeare, kids.) I didn’t actually realize until now that it was as opaque as it seemed to Colleen and her peers; that said, my experiences of performances up to this point in my career had been less polish, more muck. No wonder we struggled!

My strongest memory of the class, meanwhile, is that moment on my bedroom floor I describe above, and the problems that led to it. While Colleen recalls perfectly the shape of the class’s learning week as it finally settled, we began in a much less tidy place. In the first term, I held a two-hour lecture in our Tuesday block, and the student performances happened on a Thursday. Quickly I realized that the students were struggling to figure out what kinds of questions to ask about their peers’ performances, how to extend the knowledge those performances were making. We had trouble filling the hour and I was devastated; they were looking at me for direction and I felt like I was failing. This problem consumed my first term at Western and produced more than a few nights in tears.

Eventually, after reading the mid-term anonymous feedback (SPOILER ALERT: not a terrible teacher!), I decided on a change: we’d swap the second hour of Tuesday for the performances, then come back Thursday and extend our learning by bringing the performance and our readings for the week into fulsome conversation. This took the pressure off the students to figure out all the performance things, and it helped me to model what performance research really looks like in practice.

It was the best teaching decision I ever made. It reminded me 1) not to be afraid to admit difficulties and make changes; and 2) to trust the students to show me the way.

2. What aspects of the class have you found yourself thinking about as you’ve developed a research and teaching career? IE: was something “inspiring” and in what way? (NB: I know this may be another way of saying question 1.)

I continue to teach and preach performance practice as a serious mode of intellectual engagement. As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, I teach courses that follow a very similar two-part model of instruction as English 289E: lecture/discussion one day a week, and an applied performance lab on the second day. In my classes (“Performance and Identity” and “Performance Art”) my students respond to the course material through discussion, writing, and the actual doing of performance.

Integrating performance practice in the classroom is sometimes the hardest thing, especially as a recently arrived teacher at a new institution (the logistics of finding space! of scheduling performance assignments!). But my training, first, as an undergraduate student in Modern Drama, then as a graduate student in Northwestern’s Performance Studies department, instilled in me a strong sense of the value of integrating performance practice and theory. For me, it’s a matter of the politics of knowledge transmission: I want my students to see and to understand that performance is a legitimate site of knowledge inquiry and production, not (only) a specialized domain of artistic activity. It’s an expressive tool and an analytic lens that can help us understand the world around us. And looking back, I can see that Modern Drama gave me my first taste of that specific orientation towards performance.

Dear Kim,

Here it is! My responses are probably too long, but it turns out I had a lot to say. Also, so much fun remembering : )

My takeaway: it was more fun being a student than a teacher ; )



Modern Drama in that first year on the tenure track was, for me, my first inkling that thinking seriously about the practice of teaching was going to become a central part of my academic career. Unlike Colleen at the time, I already had a sense of the importance of practice-based research creation (thank you, UofT and UT!), but what I didn’t have was the confidence of an experienced teacher.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it. After the winter break, when I explained to the students how things were going to shift in our schedule and why this shift was a good idea, I took the time to tell them (in aggregate, of course) about the things they had told me on their anonymous midterm surveys, and how their sharing had led me directly to tweaks I thought would benefit us all. Basically, I told them outright what I’d assumed they’d understood all along: that we were collaborators, a team, and their input was as crucial as mine to our shared learning success.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it.

Since then, I work in every new classroom to name collaboration as the core of my teaching practice: I introduce myself as a team member as well as a guide, I work on building classroom community in the early weeks of term, and I explain my process meta-cognitively as much as possible, also building in meta-cognitive reflection practices for students along the way. In my Theatre Studies classes, I don’t always now use the lab model Modern Drama followed, but we always do active learning labour and then think about the “how” and the “why” of our shared practice.

3. What’s your memory of Kim as a teacher? (Here, please be honest. I love when everyone says how amazing I am *coughs bashfully*, but that term was SO HARD for me. I’d appreciate honest recollections from the other side of the desk!)


Kim was easily one of the best undergraduate professors I had ever had. It was just so obvious how much she cared and how hard she was working for us as students. This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.

I remember the epic-long, publication-worthy performance responses she would give to The Company group members after our in-class performances; the incredibly detailed syllabus; her impassioned lectures on alienation effect and Elin Diamond’s “the true-real”; the thoughtfulness with which she worked with her graduate student TA. One thing that especially stands out to me is the informal course evaluation she offered to us at midterm; I can’t remember all the details now, but I think we answered three prompts: “what’s working, what’s not, and what would you change.” We came back from winter break, and then she actually went over our anonymized feedback with us, outlining how she would implement our feedback. And I remember the course (especially the scene study Thursdays) changing for the better from that point on.

This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.

Even then, I was so impressed that she cared to know what we thought before the course was over. Today, the informal midterm course evaluation is a key tool in my own pedagogical tool-kit! There are some semesters where I almost talk myself out of giving it, and then I think back to how seen and heard I felt in Kim’s class, and I am never disappointed with the results.


Oh my god the floundering! To this day I think of the crappiness of some of those classes, the epic time over-running, how I knew students must be so frustrated with how much I was very clearly overdoing it (#newteacher). Reading Colleen’s thoughts now – and about her memory of the midterm survey! Holy gosh! – honestly reminds me how valuable those early, overly earnest pedagogical tools were.

Many of them have morphed now, or fallen away from me; I rarely teach full-year classes anymore, so often talk myself out of surveying the students in mid-October or mid-February. Hearing Colleen’s take-away here – students need to feel seen and heard; they need to know they know things! That we are all learning together! – is a boost in the arm better than any flu jab. It’s a new lease on my own teaching.

Thanks, Colleen. Maybe from now on we can mentor each other.