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.

In Activism, So As In Fitness… And In Teaching (a post by friend of the blog Marjorie Hundtoft)

Many of our readers know that Kim often writes for the popular academic//fitness blog Fit is a Feminist Issue. A few days ago, FiFi blogger Marjorie Hundtoft, who teaches middle school in Portland, Oregon, wrote a superb piece about the links among activism, teaching, and fitness that really resonated for us with the conversation post we shared on 26 October.

Kelsey has been worried about losing the “activism” in her classrooms among all the Zooms and the COVID panics and all the other weighty stuff that is occupying our brains and sapping our energy stores as teachers right now; Kim offered some thoughts in response. Marjorie, though – who is living and working in one of several “ground zero” spots this US election cycle – had concrete ideas to share, and has graciously agreed for us to reblog her work here. We hope it is inspiring and joyful!

[The post below originally appeared here on 27 October 2020.]

A glorious sunrise over a verdant field. We here at the AC hope hard that tomorrow’s sunrise brings a truly brand-new day.

As we all look towards next week and what so many of us hope will be the end of an extraordinary chapter in American history, I find myself reflecting upon the last four years and how my life has been shaped in the face of such tumultuous times. I’ve always considered my work as an educator serving disadvantaged communities to be a form of activism and empowerment, but after the election of Trump, I found myself needing to do more.

I got involved in my union, started going to rallies and protests far more frequently, wrote more letters, signed more petitions, spoke out more often, and attended conferences to build my skills, network with other activists, and improve my effectiveness. During this time, I also became a better runner and a more consistent, and stronger, lifter.

These two parts of my world, my activism and my fitness, reinforce each other, give me strength, and feed my soul in complementary ways. In no particular order, here are some parallel truths I’ve noted between activism, living an active life and the perseverance, tenacity, and ups and downs of doing the work over the long term.

Everything counts. Do something.

Embrace practices that play to your strengths.

Embrace opportunities to bring up your weaknesses.

It’s never too late, and we’re never too old, to get started.

Focus on what can be done, not on what limits us.

There will be “seasons” to our efforts, which is absolutely ok. In fact, it’s necessary to acknowledge so that we have the energy to keep doing the work over the long haul.

Progress is rarely linear.

Having the time is about priorities and setting boundaries.

Most of our efforts would benefit from getting more high quality sleep.

It’s ok, and maybe even advisable, to specialize for a while and develop “your thing.”

Recovery is just as important as pushing hard.

“Balance” looks like different levels of effort and commitment at different points in time.

Don’t rely on motivation, which can be fickle; instead build routines and habits to keep doing the work when passions recede.

Nothing is more inspiring than finally getting started.

Accountability and community in the form of friends with shared values and shared efforts goes a long way.

A certain amount of discomfort is required in order for there to be growth and change.

Consistency trumps perfection.

Remember this work is a privilege.

Celebrate every victory, regardless of how small. (And then go out and do the next thing.)

And finally: avoid confusing the goal for the work. Even if I lift the weight, run the miles, and hold government officials accountable, the work is not over. Next week, whatever happens on Election Day, the work of my activism will continue. The skills I’ve learned in fitness to push through the hard times, to reprioritize my time as my needs change, and to focus on the process over the outcome have served me well as I’ve shifted my energies and gotten more involved in politics and advocacy. I really want to be on the winning team next week. I’m tired of feeling so angry, and hopeless, frustrated, and scared. My life in fitness has shown me that I can weather whatever challenges face me next, but I’m really ready to take a break from what feels like endless new hurdles and celebrate some victories for a little while! Whatever comes, I raise a glass to all of my fellow activists and the efforts you’ve made alongside me these past four years. It is an honor to do this work with you!

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found organizing fellow educators, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again, in Portland, Oregon.

The Survey Results Are In!

Friends, welcome to September 2020, which I’m sure looks very different to any September you’ve previously encountered. Personally, I’m missing the joy of returning to a campus where the fall colours are beginning to emerge, even as the sun still shines and its heat still warms the grass (while the geese run rampant, pooping all over it!). I’m also missing seeing my students live; I’m teaching a “hybrid” class this term, but it’s not the same, not by a long shot.

Like this. it’s a whole thing. They even have their own Facebook page!

Luckily, as autumn roles in here in central Canada, some things are still shiny and new; this includes the results from our summer readership survey. Thank you to all who participated!

Kelsey and I have pored over the details, and are making tweaks accordingly. From now on, you can look forward to two monthly posts, one of which will be a “practical tips and ideas” post, and the second of which will be a longer, narrative think piece. (You’ve told us both of these kinds of posts are most appreciated by readers.) Occasionally, we may include interviews or other post formats, but we’ll try to stick broadly to this model so that you know what to expect in your inbox.

We also want to introduce as many, and as many diverse, new voices as possible: this means platforming people of different backgrounds, ages, career paths, abilities, and so on. Because we know that contributing to a site such as this one is a commitment of time and energy, and because we know lots of folks are very overworked right now (especially folks who tick “diversity” slots at work…), we are aiming to make guest contributions as not-onerous, and as fun, as possible.

To that end, we are planning to curate “hot topic conversations” – perfect for the COVID moment, but massively useful for all the other teaching times, too. The plan: to convene roundtables on Zoom, record the discussion (with everyone’s permission, of course), and then share both the transcript and an audio-described video of the roundtable in this space. This format will allow us to gather and learn from a range of voices, but the time commitment will be manageable and the physical labour minimal. What’s more, we will gather “hot topics” (the themes of the panels) and potential panelists (to talk about those themes) separately, so that nobody feels they need to make themselves vulnerable around an issue they’d rather not discuss in public.

This is of course, like all our experiments over the past fourteen months, a work in progress, and to actualize it we need your help!

SO…

If you’d like to participate in a Zoom roundtable over a “hot teaching topic”, if you’d like to suggest a “hot teaching topic” for a roundtable, or if you’d like to contribute to the AC in another way, please let us know by heading to this link and filling out this VERY VERY VERY short form. (It’s really short.)

 

As well, if you indicated on our summer survey that you’d like to contribute to the AC in some way, we’d be very grateful if you’d click the link and complete the form too, so we know who you are!

Many thanks for your support of the AC, friends. We’re looking forward to growing in a healthy way and supporting you in turn through this very strange new school year.

With gratitude!

Kim + Kelsey

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!)

nytkids-dogfashion-05-superJumbo

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.

1950s-woman-looking-at-camera-housewife-vintage-images

‘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