On Parenting and Academia

Readers, we are thrilled to introduce our first post by our very first Activist Classroom Writer in Residence, Julia Henderson!

Julia is currently a postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Communication Studies and the Ageing+Communication+Technologies Project at Concordia University in Montreal. For the rest of this semester, she is going to write one post a month for the AC. We’re excited to have another awesome voice in our growing community mix, and we couldn’t be happier to have Julia as our Winter 2020 anchor.

As regular readers know, we are spending this academic year thinking about ways to shift and expand the format of The Activist Classroom, in order to make it a shared, community space where multiple voices and media formats feel welcome and included. Late last fall we hit upon the idea of creating a Writer in Residence post; Kim had some funds she could draw on to support a commitment from a keen teacher this winter, and Julia jumped on the opportunity

Reinvention/renovation work is challenging, and our labours toward the future of the AC are ongoing. We are going to be reaching out soon with some reader surveys and other discussion opportunities where those of you who value the AC can weigh in on what you’d like its future to be. Please look out for notifications about those initiatives!

Meanwhile, enjoy this terrific first contribution from Julia. Note that this is the first part of a two-part post. The second part will be up later this week!

Happy reading,

Kelsey + Kim


I stood onstage at 8:30am in front of my “Intro to Theatre” class feeling foggy and uncentered. I started a sentence and forgot where I was going. I kept talking, circuitously, until I figured out some point that I could reasonably make. Before me fidgeted a sea of confused faces. I was teaching Romeo and Juliet for the first time, my husband was out-of-town, and my one-year-old had been up all night, vomiting every hour. In a colossal feat of parenting, I had left my sick child with his unamused nanny, dropped my older child at school with a lunch, and arrived on-time, if underprepared, for my class. Now I stood fumbling through explanations of themes, motifs, and symbols and wondering if my credibility would survive.

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Julia’s family currently (L to R: Omar aged 13, Adam also a post-secondary acting instructor, Julia, in stroller Hart aged 5)

Many instructors are also parents. Each of these roles on its own can tax our intellect, psyche, patience, and generosity. Combined, they can feel overwhelming. Looking back, I think, “Why didn’t I just cancel the class?” The truth is I felt shame and fear. I felt embarrassed for not having a better backup plan. I felt fearful that people would think I was not capable. I was afraid my students would be annoyed and my course evaluations or future course enrolment would suffer. And yet, I also felt guilty for leaving my sick baby with a sitter. The role conflict of being an academic and a parent is challenging. So, I have been thinking of ways to reframe my worry and fear, and perhaps to help affirm the value of parenting for others who teach in the academy. I want to explore what being a parent offers to the theatre and performance studies classroom, and also think about coping strategies to help parents succeed as post-secondary instructors. I hope this contributes to the value (and status) afforded to parents within academia.

 How Can Having Children Help Our Teaching?

Despite the challenges, I believe having children has made me a better instructor. I consulted a couple of colleagues who are also theatre studies instructors with children. Heather Fitzsimmons Frey is an Assistant Professor at McEwan University and has children aged 5, 8, 12, and 15. Katrina Dunn, Lecturer at University of Manitoba, has children aged 12 and 14. My own children are 5 and 13. With my colleagues’ input, I offer the following thoughts on the special skills that being a parent nurtures. This is not to say that anyone without children lacks these skills. Only that parenting often helps us expand these skills from wherever we were before we became parents.

Heather Fitzsimmons Frey     Julia Henderson        Katrina Dunn

Time Management

Being both a parent and a full-time academic requires us to have very strong organizational and time management skills. Fitzsimmons Frey, says it well, “Parenting makes me efficient with small moments.  I have learned to be productive with my planning, research, and writing in as short a free moment as 15 minutes. . . . I cannot afford to have “off” days, or to not be “into” the work.” Not only does this often make us well-organized instructors, it helps us model and teach organizational skills to students. Dunn adds, that we are often very clear about where and when to invest energy and can guide students in making good choices.

Insight into Diversity

Having children has opened my eyes to how very different brains can be. It has made me more aware of some of the variations in how developing people think, process, gain insights, reason, follow instructions, and hold information in their minds. We know few people in our lives as well as our own children. They can act as a bridge; we can see how they are like us and in what ways they diverge. I find this makes me more accepting of differences – because what is different (my child’s thinking) is also part of me (my child is literally half my DNA). Experiencing my children’s learning has helped me truly value and develop a wider range of approaches to instruction.


Through my children’s eyes, I see the world they stumble through—one full of media, stimuli, constant activity, and peers with very different expectations or resources. I see the challenges my children face that I never knew at their age. I see how the social complexities of their lives hurt their hearts. I see how sickness throws them. Because of my children, I am much more likely to see my students as people who need compassion. I am more likely to be patient, flexible, generous, and non-judgmental. I am kinder than I was before.

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Student visiting my office and greeting my hedgehog.


As my colleagues concur, as parents we talk to our children about theatre, our teaching, and our research. Our kids listen and often ask unpredictable, dynamic, and exciting questions.  As Fitzsimmons-Frey puts it “Those questions encourage me to make very clear, careful, specific answers.” I, too, find that the practice I gain through talking to my children about ideas of performance spills over to the classroom and improves my specificity, clarity, and creativity in teaching material.


Parenting encourages “presence.” As parents we often need to practice deep listening. This means listening not only to the content, but to the emotional tenor of the conversation. We hone our skills at picking up on what is not overtly expressed and asking non-judgemental questions. These skills can help us be fully present with students as well.


One of my favourite benefits of having children is the improvisational skills it has taught me. I’ve learned how to entertain if things do not go as planned (always useful when one’s tech fails), how to tell clear stories, and how to be physically precise. I never imagined I would be able to improvise in rhyme, song or iambic pentameter as well as I have learned to through parenting—handy skills for spicing up a bland class. Sometimes I just throw in spontaneous rhyme to be funny. But I like the haiku game. I teach them the elements of a haiku (5-7-5 syllable structure, 3rd is an observation of first two and often contains a surprise). Then I get them to choose themes from the play, or elements of the play’s world, and in groups improvise haikus. It can be a lot of fun! You can do it with iambic pentameter too, but students usually find that somewhat harder.

Access to Information

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A social media interpretation of Oedipus Rex. 

My children also give me excellent access to useful information; often it is generationally specific. They keep me informed of current social fads and trends, the cool and uncool social media platforms, the hippest apps, the most popular video games! Through my children, I also have access to the ingenuity of their teachers. On various occasions I have adapted learning activities my children have been assigned and used them with great success with my university students. My favourite such activity was for students to design a cell phone belonging to their character of choice from the play we are currently studying in class. They come up with a profile picture, a contact list, an example text exchange with another character, a couple of photographs, a play list of at least six songs, a relevant map, and three apps that their character might use. They present the project visually (I had one group hand it in as pieces of parchment), and they have to write a brief justification of all of their choices.

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Oooops, it’s 12:06 pm and I hear my five-year-old calling me from his bed – the role-shuffle continues. Thanks for reading! Good night and may the joy and fulfillment of parenting and teaching outweigh the stress you will undoubtedly also feel!

Look out for part two of this post, which will discuss “Hot Tips for Surviving as a Parent in Academia.”



Interview with Sarah Bay-Cheng

As 2019 drew to a close, I had the pleasure of chatting with Sarah Bay-Cheng, the current Dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University in Toronto and one of the co-hosts for On TAP, a podcast dedicated to issues in theater and performance studies and academia.

The following is the first of a two-part interview that covers everything from how different kinds of performance (theatre and sport!) have influenced Sarah’s teaching to how she applies her pedagogical approach in her new position as a dean.


KB: How does your work as a theatre and performance studies researcher inform your pedagogy? How has your approach evolved over time?

SBC: I don’t know that I can think about teaching outside of performance. I’ve always been teaching in performance or performance-related fields and I see teaching itself as an outgrowth of my early theatre training. I was not a very good actor, but I was a pretty good ham and show-off. I found that those skills leant themselves pretty well to animating classrooms and I’ve enjoyed that.

More recently, as I’ve moved into administration, I find that I often think and approach problems in ways that are closely aligned to how I approached problems in theatre and performance work. I see my current role as Dean as very similar to work that I did as a theatre director.

For example, I did one year of an MFA directing program at Purdue University before I left to do my PhD at the University of Michigan. When I was a little baby MFA director, the head of the directing programme, Jim O’Connor, looked at a project of mine and said: “So, Sarah, I see the work that the actors are doing. I see the work the designers have done. I hear what the playwright has written. Where is your work? What are you doing?” I remember being pretty flummoxed. On the one hand, there’s the thought: “Oh but it was my idea and my staging, my vision…” Certainly, that’s one way of thinking about the visibility of the director’s work. But, I would say that the real work is in all the invisible connections between the elements that you can see. It’s the fluidity of a performance. It’s the cultivation of collaboration; it’s the movement of the event as a whole. Where you see my work is where the points of friction have been worn down just enough to function smoothly but not so much that there are gaps or disconnections. For me, that was the real art of the director and I see my role as dean in much the same way.


Both as director and dean, I come into a space and meet a group of diversely talented and opinionated people who are more or less focused on the same problems and have similar questions or challenges. But each person sees those problems and challenges from very different angles, and everyone has very different things to offer. All of these things can be complementary but at any given moment will need more or less attention than another. Like most theatre productions, one needs to pay close attention to resources. And, there’s the perennial collaborative question: How do you get talented people with very strong ideas which might be diametrically opposed to one another to collaborate ?

My job as – what we might call a “creative administrator” – is to create a context in which people can build on their strengths. I need to figure out how to get everyone what they need to be successful, and to step in to resolve conflicts and problems when they arise. My job is to hold “the company” as collaborative community, but with clear direction on what we’re trying to do at any given moment. It’s not perfect, but I find that those metaphors, framework, and training from theatre have been helpful to me.

KB: So much of my pedagogical practice is informed by my experiences with theatre, and particularly sport. Where are some of your teaching influences not in the academy?

SBC: I played a lot of sports as a kid, including basketball very seriously through high school and was recruited to play in college. I ended up playing four years in undergrad and was captain for two of those. And a few years ago when my kids were younger, I had the opportunity to coach 7th and 8th grade girls’ basketball, which was joyful.


When I’m with my students, it’s like a kind of coaching relationship in which there is always a moment – and it’s like this with being a director too – where you want to capture their imagination. But, eventually you take your hands off and just coach here and there. And it’s the same thing in rehearsal process.

One of my teachers, Rita Giomi, used to say that you knew you had the best rehearsal when you said the least. And, it’s really true. It’s in those moment when your team or your cast are taking ownership of the project. And I think there’s a similar trajectory that I try to follow in my classroom.

In the beginning, I’m trying to animate the material and get people excited for what comes next. I’m not afraid to put myself out there or to be unconventional, especially when working with undergraduates. But then eventually it’s about turning control and ownership over to the students so that by the end of the semester I’m saying very little. Or, at least less. And that they are looking to me less and less. It’s very much about what students bring to each other and the group.

Team Captain Badge

As a dean, it’s a little different. My new role is more like that of a team captain. I’m not handing anything over to anyone. They already have it. When I played basketball, I was a point guard, and I see this job as very akin to that. My role is to have vision of the whole floor and to anticipate how the play is developing. What’s coming and what’s moving. Then, my job is to deliver the ball to the people that are going to be most effective and to faciliatate the flow of people working together. I see myself in that capacity – and probably also as head cheerleader. If you talk to me for five minutes (or follow me on twitter), I will tell you how amazing my Faculty is and how great my colleagues are and how lucky I am to be in this community right now, working alongside these talented people. And, it’s true.

KB: That’s amazing. Speaking to your new role, what’s gained and lost in your move to administration? 

SBC: The biggest thing that’s lost is time with students and direct connections to them. I just don’t interact with students very much anymore. I’ll have breakfast and lunch and a couple of “Coffee with the Dean” kinds of things. But, again, it’s more removed: the faculty, staff, and students are doing their thing, and I’m just trying to keep it all humming behind the scenes. It’s rewarding, but I really miss teaching. I may try to do some teaching over the next few years.

But, it’s important that I maintain capacity both in terms of my energy and my time and attention for my colleagues. I take my responsibility and my service to the Faculty very seriously. There are things that are going to come up that only I can address. I miss teaching, and I will look forward to doing it again in whatever capacity it’s there. But I also take a lot of satisfaction in working on developing the systems that I think are delivering a lot of great things to our students.