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!
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”