About Kim Solga

I am a university professor currently based in Hamilton, Ontario. I teach theatre and performance studies at Western University; previously, I was Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. On Wordpress, my teaching blog is The Activist Classroom; I'm also a regular contributor to the popular blog, Fit is a Feminist Issue.

TBT: An Experiment with Attention Management

Friends of the AC, it is hard to believe the first week(s) of 2022, in and out of the classroom, are nearly over. If you’re like us, you’re thinking it’s Groundhog Day. Here in Canada, we’re largely online again – grammar school kids, undergrads, everyone. Unlike the very first time, though, it’s not a brave new world powered by adrenaline and fear. And unlike the second time, it’s not like vaccines are just around the corner, little needles full of hope. This time, it’s hard to know where to find the hope, tbh, and it’s hard sometimes to get out of bed in the morning.

To help us usher in the 2022 winter term, hot mess express and all, we’ve decided to go back to the future. To January 2020 in fact – and to a pre-pandemic post of Kelsey’s about attention management. While of course the drains on our resources and brain-spans have accelerated acutely since then, looking again at this post reminded me that it contains some really great, basic, sensible advice for tuning out when the soundscape is all JUST. TOO. MUCH.

If you didn’t catch it the first time, we hope it can inspire you now. Enjoy!

***

By Kelsey Blair, 29 January 2020

It is hard to believe the first month of 2020 is nearly over!

As many folks do, I had intended to use the turn of the calendar year to intentionally reflect on 2019. Truth be told, however, the fall of 2019 was a swamp of reflection, and I’m a little reflected-out. But, I’m still committed to shifting my working practices towards healthier, more sustainable habits.

So, rather than reflecting, in January 2020, I audited.

More specifically, I tracked my energy and attention expenditure in relation to research, writing, and prep time.

I was motivated to do so by my interest in the recent swell of thinking that attends to “attention management.” This includes Deep Work by Cal Newport and 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep by Jonathan Crary. The politics and motivations of the two authors differ considerably; Newport is interested in “hacking” the attention economy to facilitate the conditions of what he calls “deep work” or uninterrupted, focused, thinking and writing, while Crary’s work aims to understand, unsettle, and question the attention economy in relation to the circuits of capitalism.

But, the two books share an underlying argument: the attention of subjects enmeshed in late capital is incredibly scattered.

On the one hand, we have access to a wealth of information and communication. I just googled the weather in Paris (a balmy 8 degrees Celsius) and sent my mother an email, which presumably arrived in her inbox seconds after I sent it.

On the other hand, the communication and information never shuts off. Your family, friends, colleagues, and students are only ever an email away, but the reverse is also true: you are only ever an email away. So, even if you don’t check your email on weekends, you could be, and it takes a certain amount of energy to set and hold that boundary (this is one of the major takeaways from Crary’s book). As if that wasn’t enough, there are the many pits of distraction modern technology (like the web) offers (see: YouTube videos with cute animals or, in my case, Broadway musical theatre show clips).

Alongside other factors (like 24 hour grocery stores), these conditions make it very difficult to be fully focused on a single task, thought, or moment for a significant length of time.

The stream of thinking that attends to what might be called the “attention crisis” often advocates for attention management. This essentially means becoming aware of how and when our attention is divided and then intentionally limiting distractions in order to be more productive.

So, I decided to log my work blocks for the month of January.

My goal was to jot down when I sat down to work, what I did while I sat down to work, and to note when I finished working. I even bought myself a spiffy calendar notebook and a nice pen for the task.

Kelsey’s spiffy calendar

As I often find is the case with these kinds of things, the most interesting part of the exercise wasn’t the data it produced but the process. Attempting to track my attention effectively drew my attention to how often I toggle between tasks while working and how quickly I can slide from a legitimate writing-related search to mindless Internet surfing.

Most interestingly, it made me notice 1) How often I check my email, and 2) How much checking my email affects me emotionally.

The moment an email arrives in my inbox, it becomes part of my mental space. Even if I don’t focus on it, my knowledge of its existence weighs. And, if that email has content that I care about, I get jolted from one feeling state to another. Both of these experiences pull me away from the researching, writing, or prep I’d set out to do.

These aren’t major revelations, but the tracking really helped emphasize the significance of little habits, and has led me to make series of small changes to how I organize my working time. In no particular order, these include:

  1. Leaving my phone in another room while working.
  2. Selecting a playlist I’m going to listen to in advance, so I don’t  toggle to my music player once every three minutes.
  3. Using two Internet browsers: one for research and/or prep related searches and one for emails and surfing the web.
  4. Setting aside time to check my emails and not checking my email outside of these times. (I support this by closing the email tab on my browser, which is so small, but really helps).
  5. Setting time parameters for writing or prep time (“I’m going to sit and do this one thing from 9am to 11am”), setting an alarm to mark the end of that time, and then actually stopping when the alarm goes off.
  6. Paying attention to my energy midway and toward the end of a work session: if I find myself uncontrollably drawn to surfing the web, it’s time to get up and give myself a break.

To be honest, it’s a work in progress. Even though I’m noticing it more, I’m still amazed at how quickly and easily I start “multitasking.”

That said, the little changes I’ve made have resulted in a subtle but noticeable sense of relief when I sit down to do work.

Because, as it turns out, sustained focus is not only an “attention hack,” it actually feels good in my body.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What if we just… stopped?

Let’s take a moment to go back in time. To October, when I wrote this post, about sabbaticals. I used the OED to make the argument that sabbaticals historically are, and therefore ought still to be, as much about rest as research, more slowing down than amping up. This has been my mantra this sabbatical (which ends in two weeks – DO NOT MENTION THIS), one I’ve been reminded of again and again as I try, fail, and try and fail again, to prioritize resting, living, being.

Many trials make a habit, I can hope.

Reminder number one.

I’m in the UK, in late October, for the first time in two years. Everything looks the same, yet everything is different. Nobody here is wearing masks. (Current mileage may vary – though I’m glad not to be in London now.) It’s like there’s an apocalypse but nobody got the message. Like visiting 2019, but in Bizarro-land.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan was, as far as I could tell, more or less the only person on the Tube wearing a mask (and a fetching London Underground one at that).

This temporal weirdness produces stress just when I don’t need it. On the way in from Heathrow on the Tube, spooked by the non-masky-ness and woozy from jet lag, I get off the train with all my stuff at Hounslow Central, sure that eventually a train will arrive carrying only the mask-compliant. Forced into realpolitik, I finally arrive at my family’s home, only to feel simultaneously trapped and at ease. Maybe I’ll spend the whole three weeks in here, just lying around on the sofa?… Though that would not allow me to get done the interviews I’ve come here to accomplish, in order to qualify this trip as a “work trip”. Never mind that these interviews, as we all now know, could just as easily take place on Zoom. (DO NOT MENTION THIS.)

But I am here to conduct interviews, and, just to be sure of my graft cred, I accept an invitation to give an in-person talk at my former school, Queen Mary University of London. A talk I have yet to write, of course.

After some coffee to wake me up, I wander into the bedroom and discover that the books I ordered from the Guardian bookshop the last time I was here have long since arrived, and are gathering dust. Among them? The Slow Professor, by Maggie Berg and Barbara K Seeber.

The SP was published almost 5 years ago now, and it feels simultaneously dated and never, ever so true. As Julien Lefort-Favreau wrote in his 2019 review, “The book poses a difficult question: To what extent do professors themselves bend to the ideology of growth without their knowledge?”

I’m well aware of the extent to which I “bend” to the ideology of growth, speed, and productivity in my academic job. Confession: I get a frisson of pleasure every time I have to complete my supposedly-dreaded Annual Performance Evaluation, because I perform really well. I look forward to getting my “A”! In other words: the problem is less about awareness with me than it is – like it is for so many of us – about what Lefort-Favreau accurately calls hegemony:

“To what extent are the teachers themselves accomplices in this imprisonment, as if they are afraid of being accused of being lazy, under the pressure of implied adversarial criticisms they have integrated? This is a classic case of hegemony, where adherence to dominant values becomes so powerful that it is indistinguishable, like the (stale) air we breathe.”

The growth/speed/productivity thing is naturalized for us – when we don’t comply, we feel weird. Resistance makes me queazy. This is how norms work: they hit you in your belly.

Reminder number two.

By Monday morning, three days after my UK arrival and with a weekend of friends and catch-ups behind me, I start to panic about Getting Down To Work. I send slurries of interview-related emails, open the file of conference talks that holds what I hope will be the seed of my QM paper, and even do some Zoom yoga over the lunch hour. Productivity 101. By evening, I’m knackered (still jet lagged!) and ready for a drink. (Even though I don’t drink on Mondays… DO NOT MENTION THIS.)

One of my friend and colleague Erin Julian’s cats takes in my talk as part of the Zoom virtual audience. She looks like she might have a question…

By week’s end, though, I’m in Brighton, by the sea. I’m sitting on the pebbled beach, holding a heart-shaped stone in my palm, looking into the late afternoon sun. My pal and colleague Ben is going to meet me shortly for a work party, but the truth is we’ll mostly just gossip. After all, we haven’t seen each other properly – screens do not count – in ages!

I start to wonder if, perhaps, this – THIS, here and now – is actually a perfectly valid reason for me to be here, right now. The OED, after all, reminds me that sabbatical is time for rest and travel. Not for travel for work. The latter may happen. The former should take precedence.

Me by the sea.

Over the following two weeks I grow less and less attached to my interview schedule. The ones that happen, happen. The ones I can’t seem to nail down? Forget it, for now at least. That’s what Zoom is for. I lean into the sea air (back in Brighton!), walk the darkening, late autumn streets of London. This is me challenging, as much as I can, the hegemony that governs my days, shapes my sense of self. If I am not rush-rush productive, am I still me? If I JUST STOP, if I decide DUCK IT, will I wake up in the morning rested, or feeling mildly ill, a changeling, or – a fraud?

Hegemonies may be naturalized phenomena, but Berg and Seeber also remind us that the culture of speed and productivity that shapes late capitalism is destroying our planet – and in 2021 that is happening right in front of our eyes. Our naturalized slavishness will one day, probably not long from now, literally destroy nature, destroy us. The natural becomes a contradiction.

Reminder number three.

Everyone always wants to catch up on their reading during their sabbaticals, yes? I’m no different. Toward the end of my time in London I forego The Slow Professor for another book about living well: Motherwell: A Girlhood, by the late Guardian journalist Deborah Orr. Motherwell is a memoir of growing up under patriarchy, with a mom who is the staunchest patriarch of all. Orr writes with clarity, wit, ferocity, and tenderness about loving her mom and so much about her, and also hating her mom and being unable to live beside her. The contradiction that is her childhood burns her prose into my brain. I finish the book on the plane.

Back home, I try leaning into contradiction – I figure this might actually help. I am Push-Push Kim, and there’s no way around that. Perhaps I could be Stop-Stop Kim as well, and just live in the tension, noting it, trying to understand it? I put Motherwell on the bookshelf I reserve for women’s memoirs, and I put The Slow Professor – still not completed – by my bed, in the pile where academic books usually go to die.

I operate on the one-in-one-out rule with this pile, so I shuffle through and see what’s cooking. I pull some non-starters that bored me stupid right out, and I read a couple of dust jackets to remind myself WTF I bought other ones in the first place. I settle on a newly curated pile. Several of these, I realize, are books by academics about living: Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The Right To Sex, by Amit Srinivasan.

Kimmerer on the left, her book cover on the right. There’s an audio book, friends! And shout-out to Cat Lady Erin (image of cat above) for the recommendation!

Kimmerer is my current bedtime inspiration. She is a citizen of the Potawatomi nation, a proud Anishinaabe woman, a home gardener, and a botanist trained in the Western academy, which tried to tell her from word go that her ways were not botany’s ways, that she couldn’t do ecology like that here. A scholar who called bullshit on that, then decided to reframe her college knowledge by learning her community’s language, and with it the lifeways it holds as knowledge. A teacher who roped her students into helping ready an old, off-grid farmhouse for a final Christmas celebration for an elder, a woman who could have easily been no more than a backwoods Kentucky neighbour. Someone for whom living is research practice, knowledge gathering as well as knowledge dissemination – as it is for so many Indigenous scholars.

Kimmerer doesn’t seem to experience her two interwoven worlds as contradiction; it’s just living. Living well and in balance, a key Indigenous principle, is something we all need to work at, something we need to remain consistently aware of. That’s because it’s something that affects others around us, our communities, our families, as well as our own bodies, and therefore deserves our considered attention and care. It’s not actually about stopping, nor is it about not giving a fuck. It’s about practice. And if we keep on it, eventually, I suspect, we’ll feel its goodness in our bodies.

(Speaking of not giving a …: this one is for fun. Happy holidays!)

Relax Your Head

It was my first visit to my new osteopath. After 18 months of bouncing around in my kitchen to Zoom cross-fit, I’d knackered my left foot. The inflammation was causing pain all up the side of my shin, and connecting to the Known Issue in my left hip. The earliest I could get an MRI was December. So I needed some assistance.

Crystal asked me to lie down on her table, and then she put gentle pressure on the trouble spots. In that way osteopaths do, she began sensing my story.

“Are you under a special amount of stress right now?” she asked me. “Your body is really amped up.”

I have no doubt she was right. But here’s the thing: no special stress at the moment, really. I’m on sabbatical.

Sabbaticals are gifts given by a combination of labour laws and historical workplace privilege to academics. They aren’t free: we’re meant to have projects to do that require concentrated research time; we earn sabbatical periods with accrued teaching time; and we take a pay cut during the sabbatical period. But still, they are gifts.

And I’m terrible at receiving them.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about sabbaticals:

The first definition of “sabbatical” in the OED, as a screen shot. It reads, among other things, “A. adj. 1. a. Pertaining to or appropriate to the Sabbath.”

I was surprised to learn of sabbatical’s religious roots; it had never occurred to me that “sabbatical” is of course derived from the “sabbath”! (I’m most moved by the 1892 reference to “calm … contemplation of his labours”; more on that in a minute.) The link is unexpected, but also instructive.

I’m not a religious person; I have a strong spiritual sense, or at least I believe I do, but I’m agnostic in practice. Which is one reason, I suppose, that I do not rest well; I do not have a sense of rest as something that calls me, the way (perhaps) acts of spiritual devotion linked to rest days might call others. I like to be busy; busy-ness is distracting and I find distractions calming. (I’m working on it in therapy, don’t worry.) Rest, in other words, is hard work for me, and it does not come naturally.

If I worship anything, it’s my bicycle – and the connection to the road, the earth, my community it offers me. Here, rest is essential: you can’t do the kind of riding I do (usually somewhere between 40km and 80km at a go) without resting regularly. There’s a lot of strong evidence about the essential role rest plays in building strength, capacity, and physical endurance – full rest days let cyclists like me go faster, climb stronger, and avoid injuries.

A cat in repose, head on a pillow. CATS JUST KNOW.

Rest is also more than muscular, though – it provides a way for athletes (of all kinds – including writing athletes!) to regroup, adjust their headspace, reduce their cognitive load, and refocus. (I recommend this wonderful piece by the psychotherapist Susan Tarshis on searching for rest in her life, her exercise, and her work.)

Do I rest well off my bike? Nope. I know I should, but somehow on “rest days” I feel like I should be… doing something. So I garden, or I sneak in a lifting workout, or I do a short row on my ergometer, or I try a spot of yoga (complete with headstands).

My partner tells me, wryly, that my Facebook status should permanently say “sore”.

Clearly, though, my employer isn’t granting me sabbatical leave to ride my bike or to convert to Catholicism or Judaism. I’m meant to be writing a book (which I also did on my last leave, when I taught myself the power of a regular, controlled writing practice). I’m also undertaking two new teaching-research projects, complete with a stable of five (FIVE!) graduate fellows.

Here’s what the OED eventually says about this more familiar kind of sabbatical:

The OED’s second definition of sabbatical, item c.: “designating a period of leave from duty granted to university teachers at certain intervals…”

I note here with interest that this definition of sabbatical indicates the leave is “for the purposes of study and travel“; I think back to the “calm… contemplation of labours” in the first, religious definition. There’s something moving about the “meta” aspect here, the idea that I might use a sabbatical to reflect on how it’s going, on how my working practice is or is not serving me; the idea that I might use this time to learn to be a better, more capacious, kinder (to myself!) version of Professor Kim – not just to do Professor’s Kim’s research projects.

I’m also caught out by the phrase “designating rest or absence…”: sabbaticals, even MY kind of sabbaticals are… about REST?!

The definition I’m quoting here is the origin of meaning for the very thing I’m currently undertaking; in other words, the world’s most historically thorough and reliable wordsmiths are telling me plainly that sabbatical leave MEANS a period of study, travel, and rest.

If you talk to anyone working at a university who is coming up to a sabbatical, they will tell you how desperately they need it.

They are exhausted from the emotional labour of holding up the students in their charge, all of whom are in a liminal transition space between childhood and adulthood and are consequently undergoing constant, often difficult change. The independence of university instructors means so much of what we do is homegrown (no set curriculum), and quality prep is loads of work that has to happen before we even get into the room with those students. And don’t even get me started on university administration.

Like academics everywhere, I’ve always experienced the first month or two of sabbatical as a kind of falling over. I’m drained and I know it and what I really, really, need is to rest. But I’m also an excellent subject of power, and the prevailing wisdom of this culture is GO GO GO; rest is to be regarded with some suspicion. This is the flip side of the world of the bike, the world of the sabbath, where rest is to be cherished and revered; this is the world of publish-or-perish, the world of economic neoliberalism, where only the busy people are regarded as good enough, as fully human.

So I feel like I should fall over… but I can’t let myself. There’s a book to write, right? And ethics protocols to craft and graduate students to hire and … and … and …

This dog. I want to be this dog.

The 24/7 world is a lie, though, and increasingly we get it. The most productive among us are the ones who rest and work in balance, who rest MORE than they work, in fact. All over the globe, corporations large and small are trialling the four-day work week, to massive success. (The link here is to a short BBC article; if you want a deeper dive, I recommend a listen to this podcast episode, from Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd at Reasons to be Cheerful.)

Academics have some of the most flexible working lives on the planet, and yet the old joke is that we work all the time. We fetishize work as a badge of honour; then, we pass the fetish on to our graduate students, and we find them in the library on Saturday mornings. Could it be that we fear if we don’t perform our commitment to constant graft, we might be found out as – GASP – privileged? Free to rest whenever we need it?

I wonder what it would mean, for me and for anyone of us who feels somehow bad about themselves when they are resting, to take the OED definitions of “sabbatical” to heart. What if we regarded our leaves as periods of time when our jobs shift deliberately from work to rest – from work to calm contemplation about the many things we need in order to be our full selves? What if our sabbatical “projects” were not books or articles, but the recalibration of our bodies, traveling to see family and friends, a stack of work-unrelated books to read for fun?

What if the whole reason for the sabbatical was, unabashedly, to rest?

I’m still working on this, of course; even as I write this post I feel uneasy imagining myself prioritizing rest over the other things on my to-do list. It’s a hard lesson to unlearn; we live in a world that has naturalized a carelessness of self (principally so that it can sell products related to self-care back to us). It’s a trick of power – and it’s a very effective one.

But then, I find myself thinking back to my last sabbatical. When I wrote more or less a whole book in three months, simply by devoting two hours, or 1000 words, each weekday morning.

And I wonder: what could two hours of solid, devoted rest each weekday morning achieve for my aching foot? My sore hip?

I might even be able to wear my favourite shoes when I head back into the classroom in January.

This is Freddie, my road bike, enjoying a view of the Yorkshire moors above Hebden Bridge. This was taken in the first week of my last sabbatical, in 2017.

SEPTEMBER 2021: Welcome!…back?

Hello friends, and welcome to autumn term 2021. Are we all seated comfortably, with our masks and seat belts comfortably adjusted?

Buckle up for another school year with the Activist Classroom!

And an adjustment it sure is. Both of us find it hard to believe that two years ago it was normal to head for campus, enter one’s office or one’s classroom, face other humans, and begin talking together.

Now, it it feels odd, disquieting, discombobulating: like we’ve lived an entire life between 12 March 2020 (that’s the day it all shut down for Kim, while she was riding the train home from her campus office in London, Ontario), and 4 September 2021 (that’s the day Kelsey marched into her brand-new office at Concordia University in Montreal, a school she had not even applied to work at back last March, and where she has been working entirely remotely since autumn term 2020 began).

Kelsey, the first time at her office (after being employed at the university for over a year).

That weird temporal drift you’re feeling? It’s real. It’s in our bodies, our brains; it’s in our cells, our neurons, our reflexes when we step off the sidewalk so someone can pass at social distance, when we turn away from other humans (even masked ones) on the subway.

And it’s going to take some time to unlearn.

You’ve probably been thinking a lot about this already, even if only indirectly – even if only through the twitches in your body. And if you’re like us, you’ve probably been inadvertently hoovering up media posts about coping with The Great Return – most likely while stuffing half a sandwich in your mouth between fielding student emails & administrative missives about vaccine and masking policies.

In this first post of the 2021-22 academic year, we’ve decided to share some of what we’ve been hoovering these last few weeks; then, we’ll each share one thing that we are hoping, and one thing each we’re fearing, as we take our first tentative steps forward/back/around in time.

Kim’s recommendations:

I get a lot of email newsletters from media orgs I trust, including the Guardian, the New York Times, and The Ink. I tend to go for letters that focus on gender, political and social equity, racial justice, and the climate emergency.

The Ink by Anand Giridharadas

This week, the NYT gender newsletter, In Her Words, published a piece on boundaries in the workplace: how people who identify as women in the US are fighting back against orders to return to the office full time, refusals to mandate masking up, and other practices that risk their own and their family’s/community’s health and wellbeing.

I recommend the piece highly for its practicalities, but also for its key take-away: in this unprecedented No-Longer-Before-Time, we get to say what we need, and we have the right to be heard and accommodated. (This is something disability activists have long known and told us, of course – may our voices lifted together continue their revolution!) We also have the right to expect that those up the chain will anticipate our needs and prepare accommodations so that we do not need to ask for them all the time.

Check the newsletter out here, and follow NYT gender on Insta here.

I’m also a regular reader of University Affairs (in fact, I have a piece coming out in UA shortly on editing as peer mentorship; I’ll share it when it’s out!). Recently, UA did a pair of very useful stock-takings: where are Canadian campuses on the fight against systemic anti-Black racism, and where are they in the long process of decolonization and reconciliation (which, to be very clear, is a VERY long road, one which most of us have only just begun walking)?

University Affairs: Ever useful.

While these pieces are not “about” COVID and The Great Return, they are very much about the urgent cultural shift that took place alongside the pandemic and shaped its wake: the need to, at last, look past the power of neoliberal capital and think about how our lifeways are failing huge swaths of our population, burying truths that need rising and acknowledging. One of the COVID silver linings, for me, is that these truths are in front of us now, and they will not go away without a fight.

For some of us who are enmeshed in decolonization and reconciliation processes on our home campuses, this stuff won’t be “news”, but it’s important I think to get a sense of how the larger conversations around these crucial topics are building in different places. In particular I find it valuable to hear from Black and Indigenous campus leaders on how it’s going for them and what else they need from us.

The pieces are here and here; I highly recommend them also to readers outside Canada, especially our UK readers who are working in their own contexts on decolonization initiatives.

Kelsey’s recommendations:

Neither of my recommendations are about university teaching specifically but I’ve found both helpful as we fall into another September.

The first recommendation is a piece in The Conversation by Daniel Heath Justice that offers an eloquent and clear set of steps for recognizing and addressing residential school denialism. The topic is specific to the territory now known as Canada but the article’s argument-counter argument structure offers an excellent model for refuting inaccurate and oppressive claims more broadly. I found it particularly helpful for thinking through potential applications in real world settings, which feels particularly pressing with a Canadian federal election on the horizon.

I need to give a disclaimer on the second recommendation: it is published by a magazine/blog that is owned and operated by a for-profit investing company (albeit a self described women-centered investing company). I have zero affiliation with the company, and beyond a quick website peruse, know little about them but ….

Ellevest’s post on practical steps for handling work overwhelm made its way to me, and I’ve included it here because 1. The start of semester can be, ahem, overwhelming and 2. I found the tips and advice realistic and useful.

Organization: One of Kelsey’s favourite ways to manage overwhelm.

Kelsey, what are you fearing?

Very practically: Classroom management in relation to Covid-19 protocols. My institution (and province) requires that masks be worn in class by students at all times. I’m not overly worried about students not wearing masks at all. But I am a nervous about how a behaviour such as a student repeatedly, not accidentally, having their mask below their nose might affect the classroom dynamic and put me in a rule-enforcer position.

More philosophically: That we will individually and collectively get worn down by the march of “the new normal” and that our compassion (for students, for colleagues, for ourselves) and our commitment to change and activism will become misplaced in the hubris of the everyday.

Kim, what are you fearing?

My two greatest fears at this point, in descending order, are:

1) that we will not learn and absorb the best lessons the last 18 months have offered us, especially what it means to have compassion for the whole human in the classroom and the academic workplace. (Snap, Kelsey!)

2) that we will not learn to live with this virus – because live with it we must, and we need to start now. That’s why vaccines are so, so crucial, and why scientists are heroes.

Back to school?: the question that has many of us re-examining, well, everything.

Kim, what are you hoping for?

I am on sabbatical this autumn; this feels a really lucky escape! That said, I’m on sabbatical for a specific reason: I have a book project and two teaching research projects that really need making headway on before January.

I’ve been thinking a lot about workload these days, precisely because mine is significant yet also incredibly flexible at the moment, and that’s a gift I struggle to accept. I’ve also been thinking about mental and physical wellness, because I’m at a moment in my life and in my body that demands such thinking.

I’m hoping that I may learn to accept the gift of flexibility in my sabbatical labour, along with the gifts of kindness and compassion when I don’t get it all done – in other words, that I’ll allow myself to make my own wellbeing project #1, with no guilt attached. (I’m going to write about this in an upcoming post; stay tuned for more.)

Kelsey, what are you hoping for?

Broadly, I hope that the waves of the covid ocean ebb and become part of a tide that doesn’t overwhelm our bodies, health care systems, and publics.

More specifically, after spending much of the last year in Montreal — which had strict health measures that kept me fairly isolated from the public — I feel like “back to school” stands in for “back to society.” I hope I bring the lessons and growth of the last year into my re-entry. I hope that I maintain my hard-fought enjoyment of downtime and my on-going relationship with balancing the different parts of my life.

In Loving Memory of Catherine Silverstone

Friends, it’s that time again: time for our summer hiatus. Those of you who have been longtime readers know that Kelsey and I have been on a journey these past two years to begin transforming The AC into a community-owned space, one that can reflect more than just the teacherly musings of two White women working in central Canada. That process has been up and down, but 24 months later, we have a plan. We will share more details about that plan as our work evolves, but we will say now that it rests on two principals: turning this space over to a broad range of new voices, and setting those new voices up for success by providing as much material support as we can.

Those two things – ceding space for new voices, and holding that space with proper support so that those voices can stand up and be heard – are essential components of all great pedagogy. I learned this from someone our community of theatre and performance scholars lost on 4 October last year: Dr Catherine Silverstone, Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Queen Mary, University of London.

Catherine smiles into the sun.
Dearly missed!

Although I was *technically* senior to Catherine when we worked together at QM in the early 2010s, I instantly found her to be a teaching mentor. Cat was, simply, the finest teacher I’ve ever known.

It was therefore my honour and privilege to be asked, shortly after Cat’s death, to prepare a tribute to her for Contemporary Theatre Review‘s Backpages section. I knew right away that the tribute had to foreground Cat the teacher, and I knew too that I had to involve her students in its making. In late October we gathered on Zoom, still wet with our tears, to share joyous memories of Cat’s leadership inside and outside the classroom, her remarkable humility and grace, and her exceptional capacity for listening, learning, and making space for and with students (including student-peers like me).

I received the offprints of our finished work yesterday, and it’s my pleasure to share (with permission) the text with folks here on the AC.

Read and remember a remarkable scholar and teacher; think of your own teaching mentors; and remember, too, the hard hard work we’ve all come through, knowing better days will come, and will come soon. See you in September.

Kim and Kelsey

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(To read this in print, or online as a PDF, please visit Contemporary Theatre Review [issue 31, numbers 1-2] via T&F journals here, or via your home library’s holdings.)

Pedagogies of Care: Remembering Catherine Silverstone

By Kim Solga, with support from Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer

A hot summer evening, and I’m rushing; I’m late for dinner with my new colleague Catherine Silverstone. I should have arrived ten minutes ago, but I misjudged, as usual, the length of my journey, and now I’m running desperately from London Bridge station, rounding at speed onto Bermondsey High Street, panicking as the minutes tick by. What will she think of me, stupidly late for a meal she’s arranged to help orient me to my new gig at Queen Mary? Sweat cleaves to me in the gently waning sunlight as I collide with bins and people along the pavement, finally arriving, panting, out of breath, mortified. 

And there she is: sitting quietly at a window open to the breeze, with a glass of wine and her phone, patiently waiting. Instead of even a hint of frustration she offers me the biggest smile, a chair, her open arms. If I’ve inconvenienced her there’s no sign of it; no sign of frustration or bother at all. I’m instantly calmer, and I’m instantly present to her. We begin to chat like old friends, even though we are not that – not yet anyway. But we will be.

This was the Catherine I knew: abundantly generous, consummately professional yet also high-spirited and cheeky, never less than fully human. No detail was too small for Catherine’s attention; all the little things, as she knew, mattered. And so did every student matter because, as Catherine understood, from our students we have so very much to learn. So, when CTR approached me to craft a short remembrance for Catherine, I knew it had to centre her students—as she never failed to do. I’ve shaped the reflections that follow from memories shared by Mojisola Adebayo, Catriona Fallow, Caoimhe Mader McGuinness, Sarah Mullan, Anna Sereni, Ben Walters, and Joseph Winer during a chat on 30 October 2020. My heartfelt thanks to them all.

Good Times

Many peers knew Catherine as a passionate, eclectic scholar, as at home with Shakespeare as with Derek Jarman. Her students, however, know something more: that for Catherine, there was no hierarchy among the many elements of her labour. All were—as she would turn her favourite phrase, with a glint in her eye—“good times.” 

Jarman and Shakespeare were as important to Catherine as the work of preparing quality class materials, of attending (as Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary) to student concerns over water fountains and malfunctioning microwaves, of reading PhD chapters with such care that each sentence might warrant comments or track changes (something lovingly known as “being Silverstoned”). This equivalence was, for Catherine, political: nobody has the energy to interrogate the elitist structures separating “the Bard” from the amazing queer artists who follow if they haven’t had a warm lunch or a proper drink of water. As HE teachers it was our duty to attend to it all.

The cover of Cat’s first book, Tragedy in Transition, edited with Sarah Annes Brown

What’s at Stake?

Ben remembers Catherine asking him this all-important question during a supervision; it resonates with all of us, and “it will never be out of me,” he notes. Catherine’s politics as a queer feminist were everywhere palpable; her firm sense of social justice informed all aspects of her practice as a teacher, a colleague, a scholar and a leader. Anna recalls how important Catherine’s sense of social justice was to her own decision, now, to pursue a career in human rights law; “If Catherine were in another job, she’d be a human rights lawyer!” Mojisola adds. For Catherine, politics was not a position one adopts; it was a practice one lives, folded and leaved into all aspects of being and working. At stake for her was the work of the political, not the glamour of ideology.

Anna and Mojisola remember that nobody was prouder of their queerness, more open about it, and yet for Catherine queerness was never about her, the work of anti-racist justice was never about her. Anna remembers Catherine’s classroom as a safe space in which to “learn to love one’s queerness”; Mojisola honours Catherine as someone with whom, as a Black woman, she felt safe “in terms of race,” someone who never boasted about her allyship: “she just got on with it.” She recalls that Catherine was always first to check her privilege as a white, educated person from a settler colony, always first to put her power to work for those with less. 

Teaching with People’s Palace Projects

Mojisola offers a remarkable example of this work in practice. As Director of Teaching and Learning, Catherine realized that a handful of students in the Queen Mary BA Drama program were on track to earn 2:2 degrees, but could do much more with a bit more support; she pulled their names, saw in them the traces of historical underprivilege, did some maths, and made it possible for them to be mentored to better degree outcomes. Quietly, no fuss—but lives were changed forever. Sarah remembers Catherine committing exactly the same graft to the work of TA support: she convened difficult discussions, took flak for the department, set boundaries, offered space to share openly, then made attainable promises around wages and conditions and got proper results for the young people who needed them most. “Doing the boring stuff, paying attention to details, looking at structure,” Mojisola notes, leaves in Catherine’s wake a legacy of what Sarah calls “real, tangible, difficult change.”

Pedagogies of Care

Our conversation, Ben reminds us, keeps coming back to this word: care. Every aspect of Catherine’s work for, and conduct among, her students and peers was infused with a “sense of civic care.” To be Catherine’s student was to encounter someone who was always willing to be vulnerable, because she saw herself as no more nor less than them. She was even more nervous than the MA candidate sat in front of her at interview, happy to share that she, too, found these sorts of formal public situations awkward, uncomfortable. She was someone who listened to your words with mouth slightly open, eyes alert, seeing you, hearing you—but properly. She was someone in whose classroom you knew you needed to be, because what teacher takes such serious interest in the most mundane things, always giving you the benefit of the doubt, listening with infinite patience, knowing she can never understand the circumstances shaping the moment in which you come to her in need?

Anna calls Catherine “powerfully unassuming”: extraordinary in her capacity to elevate our ordinary lives, to lift up tiny details for generous attention, precisely because it’s the little, human things that so affect our capacities to teach and to learn. Catriona, Sarah, and Caoimhe were all Catherine’s PhD supervisees at the same time, and yet, they recall now, they all emerged with independent writing styles, separate senses of scholarly self, because as Catriona puts is, “the way that Catherine shaped you as a scholar was about the way you think.” Mojisola calls this Catherine’s capacity to demonstrate the southern African philosophy of Ubuntu: “Ubuntu means, I am who I am because you are who you are. I am me through you and you are you through me.”

“Perhaps Your Problem Contains its Own Solution”

Catriona parrots this Catherine-ism and we all laugh, delighted for a moment, remembering. And then a pause. What, dearest Catherine, is the solution to this problem, this great loss of ours, our loss of you? There may be only one: to live your legacy as you would have done, with no ego, with firm allyship, with strongest commitment to the most vulnerable among us and also within ourselves. 

Mojisola made a list to help us imagine what this solution might look like. Catherine would have loved it (after being embarrassed for a moment to be caught in the spotlight, of course).

Listen without prejudice.

Listen without bias.

Listen without interrupting.

Attend to the detail.

Dig as deep as you can.

Don’t be afraid of boredom. (The boring stuff is what gets the job done.)

Turn the question around.

Wait patiently for the answers.

Accept people. Believe your students. Then they will feel believed in.

Don’t be afraid of the mundane work that is part of dismantling discrimination. 

Let your students teach you. Everyone is an expert in their own lives.

Give praise generously, when it is due.

Never forget to love, to be loved, and to dance.