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.

Pedagogical spacing in the time of Zoom, part two

Last week, I thought about space, and about what a huge difference thinking differently about space can make to a classroom environment. Armed with the new spatial reality of COVID-19 quarantine, I returned to my memories of teaching in a dedicated active learning space (called WALS at my university) and reconsidered the lessons it provides me about how the space of teaching – the way we organize our shared physical reality – is central to pedagogical activation.

Now it’s Zoom-time, and working on Zoom can feel oddly like working in a non-place. (Hilarious sidebar: “utopia” comes originally from the Greek word for “nowhere”.) In our haste to “pivot” online in March we didn’t have a lot of room (physically or mentally) to think much past “get through the class”; now, though, online forward planning is all around us, and that means it’s time for us to figure out what the “space” Zoom affords can, and can’t, do for effective teaching practice.

One of the internet’s many images for “utopia”. Notice the several airplanes…

This week, using take-aways from my last post (have a look here; the tl;dr is in the pull quotes), I offer some preliminary ideas for how to challenge the “nowhere” pull of Zoom and re-orient our online teaching labour in ways that foreground the value of sharing physical space while learning.

1. DO NOT give up advocating for live, in-person classes.

My department was recently asked to come up with individual instructor plans for Fall. Would my class be online? Mostly online? Online with some key “live” components? Or priority-live? If the latter, I was asked to justify why.

I get this request – of course I do. But let’s not let the coercion of “justifying priority-live” erode our shared understanding, as teachers, of how important face-to-face is in the act of pedagogical engagement.

Online learning is, under the model we currently have, largely about transmitting content. That’s not teaching/learning – it’s reading. Learning in-place is about understanding our shared investments in knowledge; it’s about the importance of communicating with others, across difference, in building knowledge together. That work is spatially dependent, and spatially impactful. It’s live, in-person shit. (For more on this, I recommend late feminist geographer Doreen Massey’s 2005 book, For Space. On the pitfalls of online learning, see recent public writing by Naomi Klein and Mark Kingwell.)

“Online learning” could easily slide into passive, even propagandistic modes sold to us by semi-tech-savvy neoliberal leaders as “convenience” or “liberation”. It is neither; let’s not permit that to happen.

2. Make Zoom a SPACE of learning, despite appearances.

As online learning tools go, Zoom is actually pretty good: it allows us to be synchronous/in real time together.

(I know a lot of us have been strongly encouraged to avoid synchronous learning, but that’s a mistake if you ask me – especially in smaller classes. Let’s remember to advocate for synchronicity, too! The argument that asynchronous learning is best for online suits The Reality Before, when online learning was a choice made by people from specific demographics, not a necessity for all. The data will catch up – guaranteed.)

Zoom, thus, gives us the opportunity to interrogate the way online models shift our experience of learning together in-place, and perhaps even inadvertently highlights the key difference physical space makes to learning.

Authors and FOLD stars Jael Richardson (top right) and Amanda Leduc (bottom) chat with Steven Beattie about five years of the Festival of Literary Diversity, 4 May 2020, on Zoom. The synchronous, online FOLD 2020 was a HUGE success – thousands attended IN REAL TIME.

For one thing, when we Zoom, we’re sitting down! This is weird, and I don’t like it. The space of teaching, regardless of how we teach, is typically an active one: even if the students and I are seated at a seminar table together, there’s occasional getting up and sitting down, plus a lot of gesturing to emphasize ideas.

Over Zoom, seated and narrowly focused on a screen, we can easily physically contract. Our teaching and learning space then shrinks to the space of a chair and a frame, and it’s no wonder our affect folds inward.

My plan to counter this, in fall, is to begin each class with a spacing exercise. We’ll do a warm-up, just as we would in class; the only caveat will be that each warm-up will need to encourage us to use our learning space in novel, perhaps surprising, ways. I’ll also call for student input here: each week, I’ll invite guest warm-up curators to take over. (Students have the best warm-up ideas, by far.)

I’ll plan for this regular activity by asking the students, at the beginning of the semester, to ensure they have Zooming spaces that will permit them to stand up and move around (even just a bit), and that they will not be embarrassed to share. This might mean a bit of bedroom tidying or place-curation on their parts, but that’s ok – that’s part of the work of teaching and learning! And of course, I’ll share my reasoning with them. Which leads me to…

3. Introduce some “meta” to help students think about what it is they are missing, and why.

Not having a teaching space means an excellent opportunity to talk about that lack, about what’s missing from our shared experience. This talking, I think, needs to be ongoing, but it also needs to be seeded early.

I plan to spend a good part of the first session of any future online classes talking openly with students about our shared physical reality – what it means to each of us to “meet virtually”, what we gain and what we lose, and what my own research reveals about the way space shapes our shared, performative realities. (Which it really, really does. Just ask Judith Butler. I recommend her newish, very readable, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly [2015]. Consider assigning a chapter for your first class!)

Thinking meta-cognitively about teaching-as-space takes me back to the point in my last post when I talked about the need to work “on” space with the students in my active learning classroom. As I noted there, active learning classrooms can be initially baffling to anyone raised in lecture halls; Zoom is, in this fundamental respect, no different – and presents the same learning opportunities, albeit realized differently.

In other words, we need to spend time talking about space, no less on Zoom than elsewhere.

How are we feeling in our bodies?

Where are points of connection or disconnection from others?

Are we getting outside?

Can we step outside, together, for a minute?

What difference does that movement shift make?

These questions strike me as essential, if learning online is actually to take place. There are a lot of ways to activate them, and I’m hoping to think through options over the summer. I’ll come back to this issue in the fall and let you know where I’ve landed.

Meanwhile, though, as I said last time, I’d love to know what others are planning to do to re-orient Zoom-space and Zoom-time, and to continue to dis-orient the push toward a new, virtual norm (boo! hiss!). So, if you have ideas, please share in the comments!

Happy spacing,

Kim

Pedagogical spacing in the time of Zoom, part one

This is the first part of a two part post from Kim on learning bodies, spatial organization, and pedagogical reflection in the new teaching order. Check back next week for Part II!

***

I think we’ve officially shifted from “the great pause” to “the great login”. My back is fairly sore. I’m having a weird pain in my right knee. I blame Zoom.

I’m no fan of online learning, although I recognize it has many positives. It is accessible in ways that traditional, face-to-face learning sometimes can’t be. It is flexible, making space for those in tricky work or child-care (or elder-care, or other) situations. It is “independent” most of the time – which theoretically should be a very good thing.

The reason I dislike online learning is in some ways personal to my field: theatre and performance studies labour works best in the studio, full stop. But in other ways my dislike is not personal at all, but rather universal (I use this term with caution, rest assured) to our shared planetary experience.

One of these ways is the subject of this two-part post: online learning is a problem because it encourages us to forget about the difference SPACE makes.

In my last post, I talked about All Things Zoom-Teaching. I ended with some thoughts on the place of space in our larger discussions about what “pivoting to online” does to the pedagogical experience:

I’ve done a lot of reflecting over the past year on my embodied experience of teaching in [my new active learning classroom], a space where a) I’m not the physical centre of attention; b) students need to work together (at pods, where they are seated facing each other) pretty much all the time; and c) lecturing is simply not possible, really, because lecturing more or less requires a).

Now, fast forward 12 months: Zoom is an entirely different embodied experience of teaching, and now we’re having to do a whole lot more learning about the shape of the thing, what it’s doing to our bodies, to the choreographic whole.

If we’re going to have to keep online teaching all the things in September, we are going to need to talk, with our students and each other, a lot more about what this means to our bodies.

This reflecting has been humbling, profound – and ongoing.

Last weekend I was chatting with a dear friend in the UK; he’s a tech person but equal parts online cheerleader and skeptic. (I find the higher up you get in tech circles, the more true this becomes.)

I said to him, you know, the shape of quarantine – where we are all sequestered at home with individuals deemed ‘safe’, allowed out only with great caution, highly aware of our proximity to individuals deemed ‘risky’ – really brings into relief for me how much our identities as humans are tied to spacing; that is, to the practicing of place-making in relation to other (human and not-human) subjects in the world.

The tennis courts in my local park re-opened a couple of days ago. We are all OVERJOYED – not just because tennis feels “normal”, but because those spaces are tied to our sense of community-self.

This acknowledgement of space-as-matter(ing) is below the surface for a lot of us most of the time. It’s something most people right now are likely perceiving as fatigue, depression, anxiety, feeling “cooped up” – the host of affects that attend to this kind of radical shift in spatial norms. But for me (who has written a bunch of books and articles where spacing practices lie at the centre in one way or another) the perception of space’s ontological centrality is not just affective but also intellectual, and indeed pedagogical.

It’s caused me to reflect in fresh ways on my classroom experience in my active-learning (WALS) classroom over the last few semesters, and to think specifically about how that room encourages spacing practices that are at the heart of a great learning experience.

Once more unto the blog: this image of WALS UC 1110, my active learning classroom, has appeared here before. That’s the amazing Katie Flannery showing off her pod’s learning.

For example: I’ve realized that I need to actively choreograph the WALS space experience for myself and my students. This is more than just showing up and improvising; it’s a thing I need to pay attention to in the planning process, each and every week (as well as overall, before the semester begins).

Students’ pods, where up to 6 can sit together (see the image above), are ranged around the room; I need to face each student/pod as equitably as possible throughout the class. I therefore need to plan to move a lot; teaching thus becomes physically laborious, but that labour is essential or the room doesn’t “work”. I need to account for this physical labour in the exercises I program, but I also need to account for it in a parallel self-care plan, which needs to be part of the teaching schema I organize.

That is: I need to “prep” for self-care, for my own movement choreography and its impacts, just as I “prep” lessons for the gang.

The pods also need to be curated: I’ve learned the hard way that students get chummy quickly, and of course they default to sitting with pals as often as possible. If pals are at a pod together, that is license for hijinks! This isn’t to say students should not have agency in their in-class relationships, nor that they should be actively prevented from socializing in class (some of that is essential to paying attention, in fact). But it is a reminder that the pods need both my organizing hand, and a bit of mixing up – I need to build and shape and hone the students’ learning communities actively, along with them.

This too is work, the work of place-making, and it is pedagogically essential to a good learning community, and therefore to effective learning outcomes.

Alongside these revelations – that I need to account for my body in the learning space, and that I have to help the students to effectively organize their bodies in the learning space – I’ve realized that I also have to lay the groundwork early to shift students’ expectations of how our learning will look and feel.

The WALS space is a wonderful gift to us, but it is also not the norm; neither the students nor I are habituated to a de-centred learning set-up, nor are they used to thinking about teaching and learning as a spatial practice. (Thanks, years of stupid lecture halls.)

That is: I’ve realized I need to talk with my students, early and often, about the “meta” of teaching and learning, about how we learn as a function of space, and about what learning entails from our bodies in the different spaces where it takes place.

OK: so far so February.

But our new, public-health reality is Zoom-based, at least for now. So how do we port some of this reflective learning into The Great Login?

In the second half of this post, coming next week, I’ll think about how some of the take-aways I’ve highlighted above can work in Zoom-space. In the meantime, I’d love to know what others are planning to do to re-orient Zoom-space (and Zoom-time) in a way that is productive pedagogically. If you have ideas already cooking, please share!

Stiffly for now,

Kim

 

Five things I’ve learned about myself, as a teacher and a human, from doing All The Things on Zoom

It’s week whatever. I know; me too. The term is over, more or less, but you’d be hard pressed to convince The Kim Who Lived Through February; I mean, this has been the least noticeable end of term in history. I submitted grades for one of my classes on Monday afternoon and then went, huh. Whatever.

I know that we, like all other humans who write on the internet, have been talking a whole lot lately about how to survive The Great Weirdness; I’m sick of top tips, though, and truth be told I don’t have any new ones. (Wash your hands! Crochet a grocery store! Curate an online doggy fashion show!)

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June the Vizsla rocks the upper east side look; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/magazine/dog-fashion-shoot.html

So today, instead of more erroneous and boring tipping, I thought I’d share five random, funny, occasionally profound things I have learned about myself after weeks of Zooming my students and teachers (chiefly of the yogic variety, but also senior colleagues, trusted friends, and a badass trainer called Alex).

1. It’s surprisingly tiring.

This is not a thing I would have guessed. When I first learned (on a VIA train on my way home from teaching my last ever, maybe goddess save me, live class) five weeks ago that we were going online, I thought, “ha! I got this. I already have class websites. I’m dynamic and adaptable. Plus, I can now teach in pyjamas!!”

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Three teachers in onesies. Not me. Could be me, though.

Turns out, though, that engaging with humans over the internet, even when video (and, occasionally, funny hats and sunglasses) is involved, is much, much harder than IRL. The affect is completely off: I can’t feed off their energy, and ditto for them with me/each other. We sit and stare at portrait shots of one other on screen, a sea of faces freaking us all out, as we try to force ourselves into that powerful, live space of feeling as well as thinking through the work together. It’s damn hard.

The win here, of course, is that Zoom is FURTHER PROOF that theatre and performance are essential human learning paradigms. (Shout-out here to my colleagues Barry and Kathleen for putting this important piece of info in book form a few years back.)

The loss, of course, is that teaching online – unlike the IRL variety, which drives my adrenaline way up and causes me to become first very giddy, and then voraciously hungry – just makes me need a long nap.

2. My super-cute short hairdo is NOT actually low-maintenance.

Yes, I know: EVERYONE is experiencing hairmageddon right now. I feel you. The thing is, us short-haired kids really need the stylist on call; if I go 5 weeks without a snip I experience what’s known between me and my amazing stylist Erin as “critical hair mass” – the last day I can actually appear in public without a cut or else. Worse yet, the shorter the hair, the trickier the snip; it’s all short, but it’s not all the same short, people! This shit requires skill and dexterity!

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I know this hair looks easy-breezy… it ain’t easy. Me in a colleague’s epic sunnies in Stockholm during IFTR 2016.

I’m now at the stage where my hair is triggering my latent childhood trauma (I never, ever had good hair game), and I’m frantically googling “how to tie a scarf around your head 1940s style” before every Zoom meeting. Looking at yourself looking less than your best is demoralizing, and let’s face it: like all F2F media platforms, Zoom is built (cruelly, and I suspect intentionally) on the principal that all participants should have to go through the mirror stage the entire time.

Again, cue the napping.

3. At last: commuter legitimacy!

This is less what I’ve learned, than what I hope my colleagues are learning: that communicating over the internet is a very effective way to get a lot of routine stuff done, without requiring unnecessary trips into the office.

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‘You mean I can bake over Zoom? You don’t say!’ The post-war laydeez knew it all before us, peeps.

Here, I realize I am unique, and fortunate: I work from home a lot of the time, because professors have that luxury. I go to campus twice a week; that’s a 250km round-trip commute for me, which I make by car or train. I am able to live this distance from my campus office because of the flexible nature of our work, and I choose to do so because the hard-core-norm-core town where I teach is not a place I enjoyed living, or in which I felt in any way emotionally or artistically fulfilled.

Because of the above factors, commuters on my campus have been a fixture for decades, though some departments and faculties are more commuter-friendly than others. Now that we’ve ALL had to leave campus and work “remotely”, though, I’m hoping it will become increasingly normal to accommodate commuters at, say, irksome Friday morning committee meetings, after all the away folk have trained home Thursday night to spend time with their families and live their non-work lives.

Up until as recently as February I was made to feel the weirdo for being “the person on Skype”; I seriously hope that is now effing over. Because if one more person tries to subtly shame me, or any other commuter around me, for attempting to experience work-life balance as a person who does NOT prioritize living in a town “where it’s easy to raise a family” I may literally hit something with a sledgehammer.

4. Zoom-dogging it…

I’m a pretty proper teacher, most times (see haircut, above). I have a lot of great, quirky outfits and I love wearing them to teach. I’m also, however, a person who prioritizes ease (again, see haircut), comfort, and flexibility; in The Normal Times, you might find me heading down the hall at work, aiming for the bathroom with the shower in it, because I just finished a personal training session on the other side of town and then rode my folding bike up to campus, where I now need to clean myself up in order to put on the great, quirky outfit stuffed into my backpack.

There’s a paradox here, I know, and Zoom has brought it into stark relief. It turns out I care disproportionally about my hair (#childhoodtrauma), but if I can manage a clean, proper-fitting T-shirt for the upper-body portrait shot, it’s a win. Overall, on the online-teaching front, it turns out I actually could not give a fuck about style! I’m a Zoom slob – happiest when Emma the Dog zoom-bombs the yoga class by trying to lie down underneath my bridge pose – and I’m super OK with it.

Smart outfits are for walking out in, while swaying and sashaying; staying home = jammies, thank you very much.

And on that note…

5. More than ever, space matters to me.

Here we full-circle back to item #1, though I doubt we ever really left.

What are the feelings teaching elicits? How, practically and physically as well as intellectually, does it elicit those feelings? Is it possible to recreate that experience on Zoom?

This time last year I was reflecting on the amazing active learning space in which I taught my winter 2019 Performance Theory class. Since then, COVID notwithstanding, I’ve had the chance to teach four more classes in that same space, ranging in size from 15 to 40 students.

University College 1110, at Western U, March 2019; that’s Katie and Ray posing with their pod work, feeling the WALS (Western Active Learning Space) lurv.

I’ve done a lot of reflecting over the past year on my embodied experience of teaching in this room, a space where a) I’m not the physical centre of attention; b) students need to work together (at pods, where they are seated facing each other) pretty much all the time; and c) lecturing is simply not possible, really, because lecturing more or less requires a).

Now, fast forward 12 months: Zoom is an entirely different embodied experience of teaching, and now we’re having to do a whole lot of fast-paced discovery about the shape of the thing, what it’s doing to our bodies, to the choreographic-pedagogic whole.

If we’re going to have to keep online-teaching all the courses in September, we are going to need to talk, with our students and each other, a lot more about what this means for our bodies. Rest assured we’ll talk more about it here – I’ll write an expanded piece about this very issue soon.

What about you, friends? Any Zoom learning you would like to share? We’re all ears.

Stay safe!

Kim

Do we need to wait four more years? Lessons from The Wolves

Last night, Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary race, leaving Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to duke it out for a shot at Agent Orange in November. She was the last of a remarkably diverse group of contenders, ground-breaking numbers of whom were women. I read, crestfallen, all the commentary on the “fall” of Warren last night and this morning, as it tried to remind me that, in the end, being smart, experienced, level-headed, and a powerfully galvanizing public speaker was not enough, is never enough, for a women to overcome the “electability” factor.

Sitting at lunch yesterday with a feminist friend and colleague from the states, we commiserated; “I don’t think we will see a female president in our lifetime,” she said.

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These are The Wolves; keep reading. (Photo from the Howland Company production at Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, October 2018)

As she reached the final stages of this primary race, Warren stood unabashedly for every smart and capable woman who has ever been asked to stand down, implicitly or explicitly, because of her gender. She was a warrior on the stage, calling out privilege and hypocrisy. In one of my favourite moments from the primary race, she asked an Iowa debate crowd to look around them: “Collectively,” she said, the men on stage with her “have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in, are the women, Amy and me.”

True to this fighting form, Warren’s concession speech last night spoke directly to the pedagogical consequences of her departure. “One of the hardest parts of this,” she said as she conceded the competition, “is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.”

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Four more years? Or right f#$king now? The Wolves burst forth off Broadway in September 2016.

Given America’s penchant for supporting diversity in theory, and then choosing male, White supremacism in practice, I’m not sure four more years (as my friend and colleague noted) is going to do it. And the US is hardly alone here; Canada has had but one female prime minister, Kim Campbell, and she was the “fall guy” who took the political hit after the collapse of Brian Mulroney’s neoliberal Tories in the early 1990s. There are lots of other examples I could cite from the political landscapes of the so-called “developed West” (Julia Gillard, anyone?), but I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

(Thank heavens for, and long live the reign of, Jacinda Ardern, and shout out to the amazing women fighting for political justice in so many other countries around the world.)

So: let’s turn away from politics for a bit, and let’s think about that charge of four more, long years.

What can, and will, our young women learn in those four years about their strength and their power, as well as about the consequences of that old patriarchal saw, “likability”? How might we foreground – give space and light and air and time to – the former, and use them to challenge the misogynist perniciousness of the latter? What tools are already in place for us to share different kinds of lessons about our collective feminist capability, about young women’s overwhelming strength?

It so happens, this week of all weeks, that I spent part of Monday reading a terrific play, The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe. The Wolves follows the eponymous team of indoor soccer players, nine 16- and 17-year old young women, through the winter bowels of their season. They warm up, play, and warm down again; get sick and get better; discuss the difficult material they are learning in school (the show opens with a volley about the ethical complexities of the Khmer Rouge!); talk frankly about both their bodies (pads or tampons?) and about their creepy coach (who once asked them to warm up in their sports bras… He never appears on stage; he’s plainly not a factor in their incredible on-field success.). Finally, they weather a terrible accident together.

Contrasting shots of the same moment, Still Life with Orange Slices: off Broadway, left, and at Streetcar Crowsnest, right.

Across five scenes we watch them be, variously, athletes, students of the world, and complex individuals, together; there are tougher girls and quieter girls, the brainy girl and the new girl, but nobody is a stereotype – no-one is just one thing. They are a group, finding their (incredible, near-unbeatable!) strength together, coordinating their play together, growing into their power together. They are vulnerable but they are also a team of winners – and they know it.

I’m currently writing about The Wolves for a collection of essays about sports and performance; I was invited to contribute by colleagues who know I have a side-line in feminist sports writing. (If you’re reading this on Fit is a Feminist Issueplease check out The Activist Classroom, my other online home!) I gamely said yes to this invitation because the topic interested me, but I didn’t suggest The Wolves as my focus; the editors handed it to me, and until this week I hadn’t realized what a remarkable piece of teaching – let alone what a great piece of drama – it is.

Lots of young women have poor memories of grade-school gym class, and conflicted, if not difficult, memories of playing on sports teams as adolescents or teenagers. My own memories of childhood softball and floor hockey, high school track (VERY briefly), and university rowing (ditto) are of a reproduction of failure: I was larger than the average girl, I felt awkward in my body, my hand-eye coordination was a bit crap, and I received the kind of feedback from coaches (as opposed to, say, actual coaching from coaches…) that reaffirmed my cementing view of myself (fat/uncoordinated/not a good enough girl on-field or off). Eventually, even when I think (now) I could have succeeded brilliantly (track; rowing), I gave up, because I couldn’t overcome that inner sense of failure – not just failure as an athlete, but failure as a woman.

(Side note: none of the coaches I worked with helped, not women nor men. Amazing how well we reproduce patriarchy on the sports field, when we aren’t thoughtful about our words and actions! I can empathize fully with the Wolves; I’d have left my coach in the stands too, if I could have.)

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Hard play means conflict; negotiation; team work is hard. But these sisters are doing it for themselves – no creepy male coach required.

The Wolves ends with the kind of plot twist you might expect in a lesser piece of work, but as in its handling of young women athletes, here it defies expectations. Nothing gets wrapped up. Fights are not resolved; they are just sidelined while the team holds space for one another, with imperfect generosity. The young women warm up, move their bodies together, and talk. Then, all of a sudden, one of the team’s moms appears.

She is the only “adult” in the show, and she’s onstage only for about five minutes. But this is long enough for her to interrupt this young women’s space, this circle of astroturf and passing games and honest, difficult girl talk. She seizes the space, not aware at all of how she’s usurped it. The teammates sit and listen, stunned but unfailingly kind. Eventually, she leaves, and they elect to chant their battle cry. Huddled together, faces away from us, their song builds, their bodies bounce, then jump, then fly: WE. ARE. THE. WOLVES. WE! ARE! THE! WOLVES!

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Rehearsing for The Wolves in New York, 2016. 

I wonder, this morning, whether Elizabeth Warren is maybe that soccer mom at the end of the play. Whether she has perhaps underestimated the circle of women around her, misread the signs. Do we need to wait four more years to put a woman into “real” power, to overcome the ridiculous bullshit that is the “electability” factor? Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps we need to look away from the old messaging, and perhaps we also need to look toward new spaces to locate the women’s power that we can’t yet fully see. In Sweden, Greta Thunberg started skipping school, sat down in front of a government building, and started a global movement. On their suburban astroturf in the dead of winter, The Wolves sounded their battle cry, and changed the shape of “girl plays” forever.

Let’s listen to these powerful young voices, honour them in the spaces they have adopted as their seats of power, and encourage them to re-conceive what power means – over the course of these next four years, and beyond.

Not planning on waiting,

Kim

 

New Year, Old Memories

Last November I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research; while there I had the chance to catch up with one of the first students I ever taught in a classroom of my own.

Dr Colleen Kim Daniher, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, received her PhD from Northwestern University; before that, amongst many other things, she took  English 289E: Modern Drama (F/W 2005-06) with me at the University of Western Ontario, during my very first term on the tenure track.

Colleen Kim Daniher, in hands down the best prof headshot I’ve ever seen.

Colleen just completed her own first term on the tenure track, with a new baby to boot, and not long after we ate dinner together in D.C. she sent me a lovely, warm message telling me what my class had meant to her.

Any teacher knows what an honour it is to read such words; I was touched beyond measure. But I was also, slightly, amused – because that class was hands-down the hardest I’ve ever taught. It was trial by fire, mistake after mistake. To this day, Every Christmas I remember sitting in my bedroom in my rented flat in downtown London, Ontario on Boxing Day, holding the envelope full of anonymous midterm surveys I’d collected before the break, terrified (and I mean TERRIFIED: sweaty, heart racing, you name it) that they all read: YOU ARE A TERRIBLE TEACHER!!!

Not that kind. But you get it.

After reading Colleen’s note, and wiping the smile off my face, I had an idea. What if she and I did a reflection exercise about that class? Clearly it had an impact on her I didn’t readily recall, and clearly it took a toll on me she didn’t know about. Further, it’s obvious we both took major lessons from that year into our independent pedagogical futures. What were those lessons?

I decided to ask; Colleen was game. Herewith, the results.

1. What’s your strongest memory from English 289E: Modern Drama? What about this memory has stuck with you over all this time?

Colleen

My strongest memory from English 289E was the way it asked me and my fellow English literature classmates to harness performance practice as a mode of dramatic analysis. I remember being confused and yet very taken with the idea that performance could be a way of interrogating text, an idea implicit to the weekly small group scene studies that were assigned throughout the course. The basic premise was that each week, a group of about five or six students in our class of thirty would stage an excerpt from a text we were studying that week. This group was called “The Company.” The class met twice weekly (for one whole calendar year!), so we would have a more conventional professor-run lecture on Tuesdays, and then on Thursdays, we, the students, would essentially lead the day’s conversation. First, “The Company” would perform their interpretation of their chosen scene for the entire class, then another small group of students (called “The Colleague-Critics”) would have to respond, leading the rest of the class in a discussion of the staging just witnessed. The groups were randomly assigned and fixed through the run of the semester, so you would get to know your group-mates quite well and rotate several times as a unit through both Company and Colleague-Critic roles.

It was unlike any class activity I had ever been a part of. I remember prior to my first small group performance (a staging of Ubu Roi) reading and re-reading the syllabus instructions, trying to “figure out” what the assignment was actually about. In hindsight, the hardest part of the assignment was shedding my presuppositions around performance as a (finished, polished) product. I can’t speak for the other students in the class, but the invitation to perform in a drama class was one that I was personally hungering for: I was a theatre nerd in a university without a formal theatre department. I got my kicks in the music department as a Voice major and in the student-run, on-campus theatre organization [Theatre Western]. However, what we were being asked to do with performance in the class was completely different than what I was used to as a fairly experienced musician and actor. We had very little rehearsal time, scripts-in-hand, and the barest of production values. The point, I would learn, was not to “put on a performance” but to think through performance in the act of its doing. It was a bit opaque at the time, but utterly intoxicating. In fact, this first taste of the conjoining of performance as a critical-intellectual endeavor and performance as an embodied practice is what I live for today as a Performance Studies scholar!

Also: Brecht! So much Brecht. Everything I now know about Brecht I learned in this class.

The muppets: seriously epic.

Kim

The methodology Colleen describes above was a hybrid of stuff I learned from one of my undergraduate mentors, Nora Foster Stovel, at the University of Alberta (where I completed my BA), and from my postdoctoral mentor, Jill Dolan, at UT Austin. Looking back through Colleen’s description I realize that what I was asking the students to do was basic practice-as-research (PBR), but at the time, believe it or not, I didn’t have that language to share! (I was trained in Shakespeare, kids.) I didn’t actually realize until now that it was as opaque as it seemed to Colleen and her peers; that said, my experiences of performances up to this point in my career had been less polish, more muck. No wonder we struggled!

My strongest memory of the class, meanwhile, is that moment on my bedroom floor I describe above, and the problems that led to it. While Colleen recalls perfectly the shape of the class’s learning week as it finally settled, we began in a much less tidy place. In the first term, I held a two-hour lecture in our Tuesday block, and the student performances happened on a Thursday. Quickly I realized that the students were struggling to figure out what kinds of questions to ask about their peers’ performances, how to extend the knowledge those performances were making. We had trouble filling the hour and I was devastated; they were looking at me for direction and I felt like I was failing. This problem consumed my first term at Western and produced more than a few nights in tears.

Eventually, after reading the mid-term anonymous feedback (SPOILER ALERT: not a terrible teacher!), I decided on a change: we’d swap the second hour of Tuesday for the performances, then come back Thursday and extend our learning by bringing the performance and our readings for the week into fulsome conversation. This took the pressure off the students to figure out all the performance things, and it helped me to model what performance research really looks like in practice.

It was the best teaching decision I ever made. It reminded me 1) not to be afraid to admit difficulties and make changes; and 2) to trust the students to show me the way.

2. What aspects of the class have you found yourself thinking about as you’ve developed a research and teaching career? IE: was something “inspiring” and in what way? (NB: I know this may be another way of saying question 1.)
 
Colleen

I continue to teach and preach performance practice as a serious mode of intellectual engagement. As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, I teach courses that follow a very similar two-part model of instruction as English 289E: lecture/discussion one day a week, and an applied performance lab on the second day. In my classes (“Performance and Identity” and “Performance Art”) my students respond to the course material through discussion, writing, and the actual doing of performance.

Integrating performance practice in the classroom is sometimes the hardest thing, especially as a recently arrived teacher at a new institution (the logistics of finding space! of scheduling performance assignments!). But my training, first, as an undergraduate student in Modern Drama, then as a graduate student in Northwestern’s Performance Studies department, instilled in me a strong sense of the value of integrating performance practice and theory. For me, it’s a matter of the politics of knowledge transmission: I want my students to see and to understand that performance is a legitimate site of knowledge inquiry and production, not (only) a specialized domain of artistic activity. It’s an expressive tool and an analytic lens that can help us understand the world around us. And looking back, I can see that Modern Drama gave me my first taste of that specific orientation towards performance.

Dear Kim,

Here it is! My responses are probably too long, but it turns out I had a lot to say. Also, so much fun remembering : )

My takeaway: it was more fun being a student than a teacher ; )

-C

Kim

Modern Drama in that first year on the tenure track was, for me, my first inkling that thinking seriously about the practice of teaching was going to become a central part of my academic career. Unlike Colleen at the time, I already had a sense of the importance of practice-based research creation (thank you, UofT and UT!), but what I didn’t have was the confidence of an experienced teacher.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it. After the winter break, when I explained to the students how things were going to shift in our schedule and why this shift was a good idea, I took the time to tell them (in aggregate, of course) about the things they had told me on their anonymous midterm surveys, and how their sharing had led me directly to tweaks I thought would benefit us all. Basically, I told them outright what I’d assumed they’d understood all along: that we were collaborators, a team, and their input was as crucial as mine to our shared learning success.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it.
-K

Since then, I work in every new classroom to name collaboration as the core of my teaching practice: I introduce myself as a team member as well as a guide, I work on building classroom community in the early weeks of term, and I explain my process meta-cognitively as much as possible, also building in meta-cognitive reflection practices for students along the way. In my Theatre Studies classes, I don’t always now use the lab model Modern Drama followed, but we always do active learning labour and then think about the “how” and the “why” of our shared practice.

3. What’s your memory of Kim as a teacher? (Here, please be honest. I love when everyone says how amazing I am *coughs bashfully*, but that term was SO HARD for me. I’d appreciate honest recollections from the other side of the desk!)

Colleen

Kim was easily one of the best undergraduate professors I had ever had. It was just so obvious how much she cared and how hard she was working for us as students. This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.

I remember the epic-long, publication-worthy performance responses she would give to The Company group members after our in-class performances; the incredibly detailed syllabus; her impassioned lectures on alienation effect and Elin Diamond’s “the true-real”; the thoughtfulness with which she worked with her graduate student TA. One thing that especially stands out to me is the informal course evaluation she offered to us at midterm; I can’t remember all the details now, but I think we answered three prompts: “what’s working, what’s not, and what would you change.” We came back from winter break, and then she actually went over our anonymized feedback with us, outlining how she would implement our feedback. And I remember the course (especially the scene study Thursdays) changing for the better from that point on.

This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.
-C

Even then, I was so impressed that she cared to know what we thought before the course was over. Today, the informal midterm course evaluation is a key tool in my own pedagogical tool-kit! There are some semesters where I almost talk myself out of giving it, and then I think back to how seen and heard I felt in Kim’s class, and I am never disappointed with the results.

Kim

Oh my god the floundering! To this day I think of the crappiness of some of those classes, the epic time over-running, how I knew students must be so frustrated with how much I was very clearly overdoing it (#newteacher). Reading Colleen’s thoughts now – and about her memory of the midterm survey! Holy gosh! – honestly reminds me how valuable those early, overly earnest pedagogical tools were.

Many of them have morphed now, or fallen away from me; I rarely teach full-year classes anymore, so often talk myself out of surveying the students in mid-October or mid-February. Hearing Colleen’s take-away here – students need to feel seen and heard; they need to know they know things! That we are all learning together! – is a boost in the arm better than any flu jab. It’s a new lease on my own teaching.

Thanks, Colleen. Maybe from now on we can mentor each other.
-K