It’s been just over seven years (SEVEN years!) since I began writing The Activist Classroom from my little office upstairs in my rented house in Balham, south London. After two semesters teaching at my new job at Queen Mary, University of London, I was fed up with a system that required me constantly to measure my productivity (and to attend meetings to talk about measuring productivity!) – so much so that I had no time to even think about teaching properly, let alone prep for it.
A lot has changed for me since then.
(One thing that will never change: my love for QM’s beautiful canal-side campus.)
Last June, the heroic Kelsey Blair approached me to ask about pivoting this site from a “blog” (soooo 2012!) to a community commons. I had actually been thinking about shutting the site down, but this was a golden opportunity to do something much better – to hand the space to a collective of shared voices, and create opportunities for different, hopefully much more diversely representative, content.
I found her some cash (not enough, but I’m grateful she accepted), and off we went.
Since then, Kelsey and I (TBH: mostly Kelsey!) have been working hard to change up our formats, to find ways to bring new voices on board without adding (too much) to everyone’s workload, and to gauge readers’ interest in participating in a range of ways in the discussions we curate.
We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished this year – I’m absolutely thrilled with all I’ve learned from the terrific interviews Kelsey has conducted, with the amazing insights (and fabulous visuals) of our first ever writer/teacher in residence, Julia Henderson, and with the contributions of many others who have shaped these past few months for us.
But yet: we want and need to do more, and to do better.
So, with an orientation toward next year (and beyond), we’ve set aside time this summer to reflect on the Activist Classroom.
We’re hoping you’ll help us.
We’ve put together a short survey to get a better sense of you, our readers: where you are in your careers, what you like and dislike about the work that appears in this space, what you’d like more of.
Our goal is to gather a stronger and more concrete sense of our readership and your needs, and to use this information to help shape the directions we go next.
The survey is going to be posted online until August 5th, 2020. You can access the form at the link HERE.
We know there are A LOT of surveys floating out there right now, and this doesn’t rank among the most important ones. It will take you 3-5 minutes, but if you’d prefer not to work on YET ANOTHER FORM, you’re welcome to email us directly.
Rest assured we will receive all feedback with gratitude, take it all seriously, and keep everyone posted in this space about the paths we are charting forward.
In the meantime: to all of you teaching right now, precariously or securely, overwhelmed or supported, or anywhere in between, we see you – and thank you as always for reading.
As I finish up my winter/spring “Writer-In-Residence” position with The Activist Classroom, Kim asked me to reflect on “what this online writing experience has taught me.” It is a trickier question than I at first thought. I applied for the position in the “Before Times”— pre-Covid-19. I thought it was going to be an engaging reflection on pedagogy during my Postdoctoral Fellowship. A low-key extra task I fit in between making regular trips to Concordia University, attending conferences, writing my book proposal, and forging ahead with my new research: making theatre with elderly people with dementia.
Everything has changed. My whole world, and everyone else’s, has changed.
So it is hard to separate what the online writing experience has taught me, from what the Pandemic experience has taught me or raised for me. So, I will reflect on a few things I have learned through writing online during a pandemic.
Is My Teaching Experience from the Before-Times Relevant?
I feel uncertain, curious, and a little insecure about whether my teaching experience pre-Covid still has relevance. So many conditions have changed for ourselves and our students. The one course I was involved in teaching last term ended early because of Covid-19 restrictions, thus I don’t have personal experience teaching during this time. I watch my children try to learn online, and I can tell you it is HARD. They hate it, in fact.
My most valued learning during the Pandemic has been through actively trying new things. Not sitting and thinking, but doing – engaging in private, domestic performances of sorts. I have hatched ducklings, baked bread, tried new instruments, drawn a series of portraits all for the first time.
I wonder how this can apply to teaching as we move forward with the new world situation. Rather than adapting old ways of doing things, do we need to facilitate students trying things that are completely new? Certainly, we need to keep experimenting and searching for new pedagogical models.
Writing A Blog Post is Harder Than I Thought
I have learned that writing a 1500-word blog post is harder than I thought. Based on how quickly I can whip off an abstract, I thought I would be able to write a post in a day, no problem. But I have found I need longer to ponder. I don’t know if this is due to the challenges of working from home during a pandemic. I start a post and then I need to let the ideas percolate before I return to it another day. I also worry more than I expected about setting the right tone, providing relevant advice, selecting the best images, etc. I have realized that with academic writing (i.e. journal articles and conference papers) I am acclimatized to the expectations. I think about the ideas, but I just know the style. Taking on a new format has made me aware of the skill set I take for granted in more traditional academic writing, and it has given me new respect for authors writing in other formats. It has also made me excited about expanding my writing repertoire.
More and more during these times, I try to embrace slowness. My friend Ash McAskill, a disability theatre studies scholar and activist, is exploring Slow Theatre Practice and Snail Dramaturgies (see p. 22). I think I am more like a cat than a slow and steady snail. I am languorous for periods of time, then capable of quick bursts of frenzied energy – mostly docile and loving, with the occasional rising instinct to attack.
Meow! (me as a cat)
With no space to be alone, and constantly caring for children, husband, and pets, I simply cannot be fast for long. I’m too overwhelmed. There are too many distractions. Accepting that this is not a personal weakness is HARD. It has meant that I have felt anxious about turning around blog posts quickly (despite Kim’s reassurances). The inequities for women in academia have not only become more apparent than ever to me, they have been enhanced during this pandemic, especially for women who are mothers or caregivers. I am working to value and explore slowness as a theoretical approach and also as an access strategy.
I LOVE Visual Storytelling and Not Everyone Shares This Preference
I have realized that I favour visual storytelling much more than I knew. I LOVE selecting images for my Blog posts! I have spent Isolation producing my first visual art project (@frontline_faces_of_covid19). The current lack of live performances has made me keenly aware that I am drawn to the visual aspects of liveness and theatrical performance, and that I much prefer writing performance analyses to close readings of text. I also discovered (for the first time!!!!) during Isolation that other people literally hear their own voice talking to them inside their head (mind blown!!!). I don’t: I see pictures. I am intensely visual!
This has taught me two things:
First, in future I will explore other forms of “writing” that allow me to capitalize on my strong preference for visual images. This excites me a lot!
Second, I will strive to be more aware of my visual predilection: (a) in my use of metaphors in my writing (wow are they ever visual!); and (b) in my techniques used to convey material in teaching and other live presentations. I realize that I lean toward presenting material in ways that could disadvantage those who are less visual. For example, I need to audio-describe my images more often and better.
Teaching and Writing Help Me Process the World Around Me
I have also become more aware of how teaching and writing in conjunction help me process the world around me. While I theoretically have more time for writing when I am not preparing lessons and teaching, I find writing harder because I am not in conversation with as many people. In particular, without my students I do not have access to nearly as wide a range of generational, cultural, and socioeconomic perspectives. I feel this lack.
And yet at the same time, I want to stay close to home. I have no motivation to attend live performance in public spaces at the moment; it scares me. Live theatre has shifted, for me, to at-home performances. It is my children putting on skits, it is playing music as a family, it is my husband reading out loud, it is the opera man walking past my house singing, it is the 7pm communal applause for health care workers with its clapping, cheers, and banging of pots and pans. I am experiencing a return to parlour theatre and community ritual. How can this be incorporated into the theatre and performance studies classroom? I don’t have the answer, but it is something I am pondering.
Thanks to Kim for the opportunity to be a guest Writer-in-Residence. I hope some of what I have to say resonates or inspires new thoughts for others.
These are difficult times and will remain such for a while. However, they are also times that bring much potential for shifting gears, re-imagining performances, and learning new approaches to pedagogy. I will continue to try to focus on that. Warm wishes to everyone!