Interview: Charlotte Canning

At the beginning of 2020, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Charlotte Canning, professor in the Performance as Public Practice stream and Head, Oscar G. Brockett Center for Theatre History and Criticism at the University of Texas Austin’s Department of Theatre & Dance. We had a lively, fascinating, conversation about pedagogy, teaching-teachers, and teaching as public practice. The first part of the chat is below, with the second part to follow next week!

Dr. Charlotte Canning

KB: Can you introduce yourself? What’s your current position, and what sort of teaching do you do?

CC: I am the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor in Drama and have been on the faculty in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin since 1993.

One of the courses I teach is “Supervised Teaching.” This is a very bland title and an inaccurate description of the class. The class itself is really an introduction to teaching for graduate students. It’s required by the university. In our program, it is a very important part of our core curriculum because we invest very heavily in teaching as a mode of public engagement for scholars. We talk a lot about the scholar-artist-citizen-activist. Teaching is absolutely, in our opinion, central to that formulation.

It has really been an important course for the Performance as Public Practice students. Although, I should point out, it’s not just our students in the class. It’s for any graduate student in the department. That’s terrific, because it means we’ve got folks in the room who are coming from a range of disciplines. Unlike in, say, the history department, where everyone will teach history of some kind, when I taught it in fall 2019 I had playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, scholars and so on. So, you’re really having to think about pedagogy in certain kinds of holistic and heterogenous ways.

KB: Wow. I have attended several different graduate programmes and have never experienced that kind of a class. From the student’s perspective, what’s the feedback back been? What’s most useful? Least useful?

CC: I’m not sure what they think is the least useful. They’re too savvy to say that to me! But, from their comments, what I get is that one of the things they really value is the part of the class that they call the “micro-teach.” For the micro-teach, you submit a lesson plan for an entire day and then you teach ten minutes of that lesson plan to the class.

In Performance as Public Practice, this course rotates between three of us who teach it, depending on yearly schedules, etc. We share the same syllabus but each tweak it every time we get it. This year, I had the students work on creating a rubric for evaluating teaching. This was, in part, to demonstrate how, even though they’re useful, in a way, rubrics don’t really work. The exercise of creating it, using it, and then evaluating it was enormously helpful. It helped the students see that you do the best you can when you’re designing a rubric and then, in practice, you see what you should’ve valued and didn’t.

A randomly searched general essay marking rubric because … oh rubrics.

So, for the “micro-teach”, we had the rubrics that the students created plus colleague evaluations. I took notes as they taught. I evaluated the lesson plan and the self-evaluation they did. So, the feedback they got back was really comprehensive and, I think, really valuable.  They would love to do it twice but unfortunately there’s just not enough time in a semester to do the micro-teaches twice.

KB: What do you focus on in your feedback to these students?

CC: I try to do it in the context that we can all learn how to do this. Nobody was born knowing how to teach despite all the sentimental claptrap that’s out there. So, with each student, I push hard for them to think about how they can be an effective teacher. What, exactly, do they have? What do they bring to the table in the classroom that is very much theirs? Within each situation, I try to figure out how to support the direction in which they’re developing. I’m really lucky in that I’ve never taught the class where the students aren’t 100% committed. So, I’m never saying anything completely negative in my feedback. It’s more, “Take this and keep going” or “Don’t be afraid to do it, that was great.”

KB: What have you learned from teaching teachers?

CC: I don’t know what the teaching version of an editor is called, but in the same way that teaching writing makes you a better editor, I think teaching to teach — teaching teaching, you might call it — makes you a better teacher. That’s certainly been true for me. My syllabuses and assignments have gotten clearer and sharper. Teaching teaching makes me pause more often and be less sure  of myself – in the right way! Not a lack of confidence, but in the sense of being willing to stop and say, is that the right reaction? Is that what we should be doing? And, if the answer is no, it doesn’t undo me. I don’t feel like “oh my God, now I’ve done something terrible.” It’s like, “oh, okay, yeah, this needs to change.”

I have this story I tell. A few years ago, I was team-teaching a class with a colleague. It was online. We were doing a unit on acting. In the middle of it, we said, “Everybody stand up.” As we did that, I suddenly thought, “We have 700 students, we don’t know if all of them can stand up.” It gave me pause. We were ableists. But, it also made me ask: What do we mean when we ask the students to stand up? What do we mean theoretically? What do we mean in terms of what we expect to happen? I realized it was a physical coming to attention. It was about shifting the circumstances.

If I hadn’t made that mistake, I wouldn’t have truly thought through what I meant by “stand up” or confronted my ableist bias. That’s the kind of analytical skill that I’ve gained as a teacher by teaching teaching. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to think that through as well if I hadn’t had to be in front of students and talk about teaching all the time.

KB: I love that story. I feel like some of my best reflections have come from moments of breakdown. Those moments, while sometimes uncomfortable, have forced me to question myself: What was I trying to do there? What did I actually do? What’s the relationship between those two things. 

CC: Right! In this case: how do you shift the circumstances without depending on a single type of physical action? Is the physical action even the point?

KB: And, of course, it’s not.

CC: That was a great moment in terms of me thinking through what am I trying to do and why. That kind of reflection and evaluation is what I’ve got from teaching teaching.

***

Don’t forget to check back next week for the second half of the interview, in which Charlotte and I chat about public teaching, feminist pedagogy, and books!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s