Fret less, teach better – and feel better (is it really that easy?)

Activist Classroom Reader, we have made it to December 2021 … which feels even more surreal than usual.

In writing my last post, I reflected on self doubt in my teaching this semester. As part of my writing, I did a search through the AC archives to see what Kim had written. And, behold! She had some really helpful musings on “failure,” prep, and self doubt from 2015 (!).

I found the post really helpful — both emotionally (teaching solidarity across time!) and practically. It also has the wonderful line “prep is the thief of time.”

In hopes that you, too, might find the post helpful, I’ve re-posted it below.

Enjoy!

So it finally happened: I had my first epic fail of the term. Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud were on the roster in Performance Theory this week, and on Tuesday our job was to get some preliminary definitions of their main stuff (“Epic Theatre” and “Theatre of Cruelty”, for those of you who are not already theatre geeks) on the table. We did a brainstorming exercise at the white board, which went fairly well. Then, according to my prep, we were supposed to do this:

Debrief.

Usually, I like a nice debrief. We talk about what we’ve been discussing/writing/sharing on our own/in groups/in pairs, and exciting new insights emerge. I jump around and get exercised about the groovy things the students have discovered; we laugh at my shenanigans, and then we learn.

This week, however, when I looked toward the white board the temperature inside my body suddenly rose a couple of degrees. It may have been that southwestern Ontario is unseasonably warm this week, and the building in which I work is ill equipped to handle autumnal climate fluctuations; or perhaps I had finally succumbed to a combination of Prof Flu and Plane Flu (I was in the UK last week; more on that in my next post). Anyway, the result was the same: blank of blanks.

Somehow, we got through Artaud. But I left Brecht – Brecht! My hero! – on the floor. A big, flat, dialectical dud in the middle of the sweaty room.

Class ended with me asking the students (all of whom are always so game to just go with what comes out of my mouth at any given moment – bless!) to free-write for two minutes in response to the Brecht reading they’d completed. I then ran away to my office and cowered behind the recycling bin for a bit, weeping. The pressure immediately to dive into my prep for Thursday and re-write ALL OF IT was overwhelming. But I resisted.

I’ve written before on the blog about epic classroom fails, and about the power of just throwing the damn prep away in order to improvise in the moment. I’ve also been concerned recently with “prep creep,” and with it my looming anxiety that I’m spending too much of my (increasingly precious) work time on prep. All of this occurred to me as I cringed at the memory of Tuesday afternoon.

There was a time when I would absolutely, without question, have gone home and rewritten the heck out of Thursday’s prep – anything to give myself the impression that I was “ready” to “fix” the problems that had arisen on Tuesday. Instead, this week – mindful of my crazy workload, of the power of prep creep, and of the fact that much of what went wrong on Tuesday had exactly nothing to do with my preparedness, and everything to do with what I was feeling (exhausted; a bit sick) – I simply said: fuck it.

I reminded myself: Thursday’s class is already pretty well planned. I’m going to forget about this one, bad day; I’m going to go back on Thursday and regroup; I’m going to do a version of what I’ve already planned, and it’s going to be Just Fine.

And here’s the shocker: it WAS fine!

I arrived to class Thursday afternoon and asked the students to share what they’d written at the end of Tuesday’s class. There was some really good material on offer, and we chatted for a bit about the ins and outs of Brecht’s theory. Then, I turned back to my prep, which called for us to watch two very different performances…

(Buffy is SO BRECHT. No, really.)

(Societas Raffaello Sanzio… freaking everybody out, but in a good way)

… and then to connect them to Brecht and Artaud, respectively. The students responded to the performances with enthusiasm, disquiet, and real verve. I trusted myself in the moment to make the connections I already knew were there, and to speak with passion about two theatre practitioners with whose work I’m well familiar. In short, I trusted the students, and I trusted me too. I glanced a few times at my prep document (of course I did!) but mostly I went off-piste, letting the students’ reactions guide our discussion. And it was absolutely fine. It was more than fine, in fact: we had a terrific class.

Prep is the thief of time: it is necessary, of course – but it’s also so, so easy to delude ourselves, on really bad days, into thinking that more and more prep will make a better and better class next time out. But will it? Is that “better” class really better for the students in the room, or does it just appear to be better from the perspective of the struggling teacher who strives to regain control over his or her feelings about the class, about how things are going?

This week I decided to wing it: partly out of desperation, and partly out of a small confidence that I knew my stuff well enough to get away with winging it. In the process, I realised that I need to trust myself more, full stop. The prep is there as a fail-safe, a backup, but let’s face it: I’m well trained in this work, and I need to be confident that I can communicate it to students – and have compelling conversations with them about it! – without a whole bunch of paperwork, and anxiety, getting in the way.

Why it’s taken so long for me to absorb this fundamental truth I have no idea; I chalk it up to the power of imposter syndrome. But truly, it’s been such a relief to realise, this week, that I did NOT need to do more work to salvage the class; all I needed to do was show up, be present and committed, and bring what I already had on hand to the table.

Gratefully!

Kim

Self-Doubt Sneaks Into the Classroom

As I was teaching yesterday, I glanced out the window and noticed snow falling from the sky.

“Something winter this way comes,” I announced to my class. They looked out the window with end-of-term-tired eyes and nodded.

The first snow of winter fell while Kelsey was teaching, which was surely some kind of metaphor.

I took the pause to check the little clock on the corner of my computer screen: still over an hour left. Would my plan for the rest of the class be enough to fill the time? I flicked through my lecture notes and performed imaginary math in my head: short lecture plus group activity plus class-wide conversation equals ….

Then, I noticed the students looking at me expectantly: the burst of wonder of the first snowfall had worn off. I dropped the math and picked up the lecture.

Time: ever the menace.

This is not the only time that I’ve got myself calculating time this semester. This fall, more than any other, I’ve found myself haunted by the ghost of teaching near-future. “Are you ready for class?” she whispers nervously. “Are you sure you have enough material?”

I’m not a teaching veteran like Kim. But, I’m not new anymore either. Why am I pestered by these thoughts now?

“It’s because you’re a little out of field,” I’ve told myself. Which is true. Even though I’m very qualified for my current course load, I haven’t taught in some of these subject areas in years. And, sure, I taught all of my current courses on zoom last year. But, this year is different: I’m in person; the time slots are longer, and there are LIVE HUMANS in front of me.

For most of the fall, this was my answer. But, as I asked myself this question after the first snow of winter, another thought crossed my mind: it’s because you’re scared of being found out.

Oh.

Even in scrabble, it feels like doubt should have a higher word score.

I have been around long enough to know: that’s the voice of imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome—the nagging feeling of doubting capacity and feeling like a fraud at work—has become something of a buzz word in the last ten years. And, its worthwhile to think critically about the term.

As Ruchika Tulshy and Jodi-Ann Burey argue, “imposter syndrome” is often used in relation to women and people of colour. The reasons for this, the authors suggest, are largely systemic and the solutions, therefore, should also target systems and structures.

Nevertheless, the concept helped me identify a specific kind of doubt, one that crept unnoticed into my pscyhe. And, it’s the unnoticed part that I find the most discomforting. Because, as a rule, my inner narrator is positive or neutral. Sure, I can lapse when I’m stressed but generally my conscious thoughts are constructive.

So, rather than thinking “I’m not capable of doing this” or “I’m a fraud,” I’ve been casually organizing a chunk of my teaching life – extra prep time, constant in-class stress – around feelings of fear and doubt.

My self-doubt, it turns out, is sneaky. She has burrowed beneath my conscious thoughts, where she can influence my actions

Self-doubt tip tip toeing into my body.

Which: of course! I KNOW that one of the most impactful manifestations of power is when it hides itself within bodies so that thoughts and actions appear naturalized. And even though I think and talk and teach about power and bodies all the time, I forgot that systems of power don’t only effect abstract bodies, they impact MY BODY.

The good news is, that, precisely because I teach and talk and think about power so frequently, I have a toolkit for counteracting power structures.

I’m currently working on re-orienting my actions and habits by resisting the urge to do more prep, by being okay with “not perfect” classes, by encouraging more participating from students. And, in doing a bit of digging, I found some of Kim’s old posts, which offer great insights (and some cross-temporal emotional companionship) on these subjects.

For our next post, we’ll feature one of these older posts.

In the meantime, I’m going to do a little searching, to see other not-so-helpful-feeling have burrowed their way into my actions so that I can do the work of promptly exhuming them.

Roundup Post: October Edition

It has happened: we’ve cleared into beyond the mid-semester mark of the Fall 2021 semester.

Kim is on the move during her sabbatical. Kelsey is clicking away with in-person teaching in Montreal. And, below, is a round-up of some our favourite pedagogical, performance, and activism articles from around the web.

Editing as Mentorship

Our very own Kim Solga has written a piece for University Affairs on editing as mentorship. As ever, Kim offers a unique, and activist-informed, perspective on how editing can be a collaborative, pedagogical, and yes activist approach for thinking about editing.

Mental Health in Canadian Universities

This week, the Walrus published an in-depth examination of mental health amongst students in Canadian colleges and universities. Written by Simon Lewsen, the piece offers an extended examination of mental and emotional health – and the challenges students face in accessing support – in the academy.

A Letter to a Colleague: Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant

Independent feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has long posted to her feminist killjoys blog. In late summer, she wrote a letter and tribute to fellow feminist and theorist Lauren Berlant, who passed away in late June. The letter offers a candid telling of the meaningful, if sometimes complex, nature of relationships forged in and through academia as well as a poignant letter to a colleague.

Experiencing the academy as a trans person

Kim is in the UK right now and was visiting colleagues from the University of Sussex on Thursday when philosopher Kathleen Stock resigned from that school after several weeks of controversy. Stock is a feminist philosopher who argues that allowing trans persons to self-identify their sexual identity will cause irrevocable harm to those born biologically female.

The row (transphobia? academic freedom?) at Sussex that was sparked by Stock’s work is a complex story that has been oversimplified in the media in unhelpful ways, so I won’t link to it here. But wherever you stand in relation to the issues at hand, I was reminded this morning that we all need to continue to pay attention to the material realities of what it means to be trans, as a student but also as staff and faculty, on academic campuses.

I found this great research, undertaken by Stephanie Mckendry and Matson Lawrence of the University of Strathclyde circa 2017: “Improving the experiences of trans and gender diverse staff in higher education” keeps our eyes on the key issue, even while Twitter catches fire with yet another zero-sum argument. Our trans colleagues, after all, aren’t memes or tweets; they are human beings with complex needs that we can all support with just a few simple adjustments to our daily practices.

Top tip: click on the “website” link in last paragraph of Mckendry and Lawrence’s article for many more easy to digest and share resources (like the excellent video embedded above). Great for sending out to colleagues!

Back to School: A Report from the Field

Most falls, “back to school” is an overused slogan used to sell pencils and autumn-toned sweaters. This year, it describes my actual teaching situation: I am back to teaching in-person in a classroom for the first time in nearly two years.

Returning to nursing school? Keys to success - American Nurse Today
“Back to school” means back to in-person for Kelsey this year.

I cannot say that the transition back into a classroom was entirely smooth. A perfect storm of seasonal allergies, some acid reflux, a cold, and projecting my voice in front of A GROUP OF CO-PRESENT HUMANS resulted in me losing my voice. Like truly: no voice. Given that I’ve been speaking nearly continuously since I uttered my first word (“dog,” much to my mother’s chagrin), the no voice thing was a shock to my system.

Other than my voice-loss, however, in-person teaching went relatively well. Below, I detail some of my observations from the first few weeks back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Before last week, I hadn’t been in a room with 70 people (the size of my largest class) since March 2020. I had anticipated that being around so many people might be a bit discombobulating. And, it was … for about three minutes.

Then, everything promptly felt very normal. This was representative of my experience overall the first two weeks. Yes, the students were adjusting to being back in a classroom, but, overall, they were keen to listen, ask questions, and engage. The lessons flowed, more or less, according to plan. Not one projector worked how it was supposed to.

Teaching 2021: the apex of hand sanitizer stations.

Indeed, other than the masks and the sheer volume of available hand sanitizer, I found that teaching in-person in 2021 felt very similar to teaching in person in 2019.

Some teaching strategies are more easily executed in-person

I appreciate the many digital tools available for various forms of group work and collaboration. I also know that online, hybrid, and blended teaching models have lots to offer and are here to stay. But I’m going to come out and say it: some things are easier and better in person.

Group discussions are significantly easier to prompt and manage. Small group activities, particularly those involving props, work better in-person. And class management — being able to assess how long students need to complete an activity; being able look out and see confused or bored faces; being able to notice a student’s raised hand mid-lecture — is, quite simply, much easier.

I will say, however, I miss zoom’s help with names. Having each student’s name permanently attached to their sternum (or wherever the bottom of their zoom frame lands) is really very helpful!

Students raising actual, rather than virtual, hands in class? What a thrill!

What you think about modes of delivery is strongly influenced by your own personal circumstances

Three years ago, if you’d asked a random professor, student, or administrator what they thought about hybrid, online, and blended teaching delivery options, you would probably have been met with a shrug or a blank stare.

Today, everyone has an opinion on modes of delivery. And I’m finding that most people’s opinions are based on their individual circumstances.

Students who work full time tend to prefer hybrid, online, and blended models. As do students and faculty with heavy care responsibilities or extended commutes to work. Folks who live near campus, have been isolated for much of the last eighteen-months, or identify as extroverts, on the other hand, tend to appreciate in-person classes.

Opinions on delivery models tend to stem from the deeply personal.

The fact that people prefer models that fit their own needs isn’t revelatory, of course.

But, I do think it’s noteworthy a lot of the arguments for and against different delivery models begin from the individual and extend to the collective rather than the other way around.

And, I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little worried about this trend. Of course, personal experience connects individuals to communities. But, also, what’s best my life isn’t a good gauge for assessing teaching and learning strategies more broadly. I’m hoping that as the Fall speeds along, the conversation might begin to change to focus on collectives and communities.

Systems are still very good at incorporating change into their frames

I teach three classes a week: one Tuesday, one Thursday, one Friday. I began to lose my voice after the Tuesday class. I was hoping that it would come back before Thursday, but it was not to be. So, Thursday morning, I made the decision to move my first class to zoom, where my students could turn up the volume on their devices and I wouldn’t be tempted to shout. This was, I thought, an upside to pandemic teaching: more flexibility and accommodation options, for both students and teachers.

Proving the perseverance of my optimism, I again hoped my voice would be better Friday morning. It was not. In fact, it was worse. I had to strain to speak, and even then, the sounds were thin and squeaky.

I debated whether to cancel the class. But, I hadn’t given the students much notice and cancelling when I could zoom felt like poor form. Also, I was once a fairly high level athlete who was told by many a coach to “tough it out” and play through illness and so I’m very bad at taking sick days. And, you know, I’m in a limited term appointment and am not super keen to draw attention to myself for cancelling last minute. So, I decided to hold the class on zoom.

My voice barely made it to the end. And, even though I drank my weight in honey-lemon tea and refrained from talking for the weekend, my voice was still hoarse the following Tuesday.

It's all about Sick Time.” - Cardinal Services
Sometimes, taking a day off is important.

The truth is: teaching on Friday made my voice worse, and I should have cancelled class.

This made me aware how easily systems adapt to integrate new tools and strategies into their logics. On the one hand, online teaching can create flexibility and accommodation for individuals. On the other hand, it can also discourage folks from taking days off because you can zoom-in from almost any circumstance, can’t you? But, not taking sick days serves the logic of the institution. Rest and healing are required for the health and wellness of students and teachers, as humans.

Despite the voice debacle, I’d say my first two weeks back in a classroom were good. And, they also helped me identify that I’d like to direct some of my activist teaching energy toward the systems that are shaping the “new normal in teaching” in, and after, the era of covid.

What we’re taking with us: three term-end tips from Kelsey (#ACsurvivalguide)

Holy smokes, we made it through another bizarre, shaped-by-the-pandemic semester!

Image Library | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC
This is the organic shape of Covid-19. The specific shape of your pandemic experience may vary.

I haven’t yet had time to do full reflection and inventory from the teaching year (aka, I’m still marking!!). But, already, I know that the last eight months have drastically impacted how I approach teaching. Here are the first three things I’m “taking with me” beyond this topsy-turvey COVID-19 era.

1. Slow down.

For many, this has been a mantra for the pandemic as a whole. For me, it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn (and relearn) throughout the year in the classroom.

I have a lot of energy as a human and a teacher. On top of that, I value multimodal learning that offers students a range of entry points to engage with material. By extension, my lessons have traditionally incorporated lots activities: there’s a cluster lecture, a close read, then a scavenger hunt!

Slow Down - ELGL
Good advice from a turtle.

Online teaching looked me in the eye and said simply: it’s too much.

Because, here’s the thing about virtual teaching: simple tasks, like sharing documents for peer review, take longer. This extra time-taking has forced me to slow my lessons down and give more time to fewer activities. You know what? My classes are better for it. The simplified lessons give students more time to engage with one another and sink into tasks. Moving forward, I will definitely pare down my lesson plans to hone-in more, and offer more time and scope for settling into the task at hand.

2. Do the same work for myself that I’d do for others.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like, and am good at, planning, scheduling, and organizing. When I first started teaching, I used to schedule and organize administrative tasks like marking. As I’ve transitioned from part time to full time teaching, my workload has ballooned, and I’ve often forsaken this prep work for myself.

“Organize” is one of my favorite eight-letter words.

This year, I had two courses with TAs. To support my TAs, and their transition to online teaching and marking, I did a lot of extra scheduling and administration such as providing detailed instruction sheets for their assigned tasks.

In doing this work for my TAs, I also did it for myself. Clear workload breakdowns in advance of performing said work? Super useful. Pre-written explanations for common structural or grammar issues? Way faster. And who came up with these teaching hacks? I did.

This reminded me that I need to 1) remember the value of front-loading administrative and planning work and 2) use my own skillset to not only support others but also myself.

3. Leverage the online tools.

In the fall semester, I took attendance manually (with the backup of zoom) in my classes. (For those concerned with access, there were alternate options for those that couldn’t attend live sessions). At the end of that semester, collating and cross-referencing my messy notes with zoom’s weird output format took me an eon.

The title of this children’s book, Just a mess, accurately describes my attendance-taking process in the fall semester.

For the second semester I had time to learn the attendance tool on Moodle (my school’s online learning platform). It took me twenty minutes to set up, and it allowed students to record their own attendance and log it in the system. Not only was this quicker and easier for everyone, it also helped ease student anxiety because they had access to their own attendance record.

It’s easy to huff and puff about technology, and there is no question that zoom freezes suck, but this was a good reminder that the tools can be helpful too – if we take the time to explore them a bit, when we have that time and space.

As I continue to get distance from the semester, I’m sure I will uncover more reflections to share. But these feel like a meaningful start and a good reminder that even in the strangest of times, there can be improvement and learning.