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.

A Farewell, for now, from The Activist Classroom

Friends, we have news: after almost 10 years, the Activist Classroom is coming to an end. 

I know, Kermit. I know.

We won’t be updating the blog with new posts after this one, though we are in the process of curating past posts into an accessible archive. We’ll keep you posted on that.

What has prompted this move now? A few things. 

First, and probably most obviously, the pandemic has changed the landscape of all of our lives. Things that seemed, mid-2019, like the stuff of ordinary living and working no longer seem that way. The weight of each day falls a bit heavier on our shoulders; the labour of business-as-usual feels more laborious somehow. Students feel it. Teachers feel it. All humans, we wager, feel it. (We feel it.)

Second, after three years of valiantly trying to imagine the AC as a community space, a home for diverse voices, we’ve realized that the (voluntary) work of such a task isn’t something people are up for – very understandably. We’ve had some luck paying folks sporadically over the years for their contributions – most recently Julia Henderson, our fantastic teacher-in-residence in 2020! – but resourcing a space like this is hard work in itself, and we’ve had to calibrate recently whether or not it’s worth it to keep trying.

The many keywords of the activist classroom

And that brings us to our final, probably our most important, reason for bringing the AC to a close right now: we’ve realized that our voices are not the voices that need to be populating a space like this anymore.

Rather than trying to muster those voices into our space, which feels a bit too much like appropriation, we’d like to move over so that those voices can properly grow into themselves on their own (which they are already doing, of course, and brilliantly).

After 10 years and hundreds of posts, we’ve said a lot; arguably, we’ve said all we have to say. Kim and Kelsey are both eager to read other voices and many other stories, and we’ve realized that it’s not our role to “host” those voices – we need to let them own their own spaces by getting out of their way.

To conclude our journey, we’re offering this final post as a rumination on what an “activist classroom” might mean today, in 2022. We have composed the thoughts below as an email conversation between us, and we reproduce it as a dialogue here, in the spirit of the collaboration the AC has always tried to foster.

Enjoy, and as always, thanks so much for reading.

– Kim Solga and Kelsey Blair


KELSEY: Let’s start at the beginning, for context. Where did the Activist Classroom come from?

KIM: This – the blog – all started when I was 8 months into teaching at Queen Mary, University of London, in English and Drama: my dream job. I quickly realized that in the environment of the neoliberal British academy, carving regular time from the admin-heavy expectations of the job (emailing all the truant students!! Every week!! OH MY GOD!!) to think critically about teaching and learning felt like an activist move in itself.

But the term “activist” was always a controversial one for a teaching blog written by a white, feminist scholar who did not otherwise identify as an activist, and over the years the question of what “activism” means for us/for me has arisen from time to time. Our last guest post by Stephanie Dennie raised this issue; in fact, Stephanie asked me directly what “the activist classroom” meant before she started writing her post.

Kelsey, what did this term mean for you when you first approached me to become part of the blog?

The first image Kelsey posted when she joined the AC in 2019

KELSEYI was a reader of the blog long before I approached you to come on board. In my early reading years—during my MA if you can imagine that!—the concept of activism helped me articulate not-yet-fully-formed notions about learning spaces and intervention. By the time I got in touch with you, I was nearing the end of my PhD at Simon Fraser University and working as a sessional instructor at the University of British Columbia. I still wasn’t fully formed on the implications of the word activism. But, I had a clearer idea of how the concept might help me think about the classroom as a place of potential for challenging ideas, for intervention, and for forming briefly-lived collectives.

When you first started using “activist teaching,” what did it mean to you?

KIM: The phrase originated in a special issue of Canadian Theatre Review (CTR) I edited in 2011. In the editorial for that issue, I reflect on bringing the ethos of “performance as a public practice” – which is the name of the program at UT Austin where I completed my postdoctoral fellowship, with help from amazing humans like Jill Dolan, Charlotte Canning, and Deborah Paradez – to Western University, at a time when theatre at Western had formally disappeared as a program.

Of my first weeks in my new job at Western, I wrote in that editorial:

I knew immediately that by demanding the students learn by doing—by performing, embodying, making personal the very political work we would read together—I could help them to see theatre’s potent public strengths. We began (in the wake of Hurricane Katrina) with a simple exercise: what if you were a theatre artist in Houston, in Baton Rouge, or in Nashville, I asked them; how would you muster your resources to help the people of New Orleans? I was amazed at the eager, smart responses— something that continued each week thereafter, as students, divided into teams for the term, made outstanding poor theatre, and spoke with sensitivity about what they and their peers were accomplishing, for whom, and whether or not it mattered.

Later in the introduction, I also reflected on my “activist classroom” as a space in flux, ever evolving and growing. I put the issue together because I wanted to learn from my peers about what the term means to them, not because I wanted to define it for us. I asked some basic but for me still key questions: “What makes us good teachers? What makes our classrooms collaborative learning spaces? What makes our classrooms safe spaces to try out unsafe ideas? What makes our classrooms places where large-scale change can, in tiny steps, appear to begin? What makes our teaching activist, anyway?”

Looking back on the blog’s two origin points now, I can see how they dovetail. Teaching for me is about being humble enough always to want to learn more, to know your practice can’t be static if it is to be effective. That was the spirit of my CTR issue. At Queen Mary, while I loved my colleagues and the job was my dream gig on paper, I had so little time amidst all the admin to reflect with care on my teaching that I could feel myself draining of energy, of teaching vitality. That felt, to me, like the opposite of activism. I needed to jolt myself back to life somehow.

KELSEY: I very much feel your desire to remain energized, and its importance for the vitality of teaching. When I first started working as a sessional instructor at UBC, it was a goal realized: I pursued graduate studies, in part, so that I might be able to teach at university. Creating a brand new course (for me) and grading involved labour, but I was excited to be doing the work. I had energy, ideas, and time-consuming activities to give. It helped that I only taught one course a semester. But, over time, that changed. I transitioned through (and eventually out) of grad school and my teaching load increased. More courses means more prep, more marking, more students, and more administration.

With more of everything, the balance between engaged, effective, teaching and my role as an employee/worker (and particularly as someone in a contract position) began to wear. I really believe in the transformational potential of learning spaces – classrooms but also dance studios and gymnasiums and theatres – but I also believe in good working conditions and work-life balance. Looking back, I see how my professional experiences in the last few years have re-shaped how I envision engaged teaching practice and activism in the classroom.

For you, did the concept of activism, help “jolt” your teaching practice back to life? How has your conceptualization changed over time?   

KIM: When I reflect back on the posts I was writing in the early years, I realize a number of them touch on the ridiculousness of the neoliberal university, in which more and more labour is outsourced to faculty, industrial action is regularly threatened if not regular itself, and – especially – in which league tables, top-100 lists, student satisfaction surveys, and all manner of measurement tools invade to eat our time and take our attention away from the work of thinking critically and creatively and expansively about how to build a better world. This has, I think, been where my sense of teaching as activism remains: in a neoliberal academic system, we’re meant to be too busy to ask the kinds of difficult questions of our leaders and each other that might lead us out of the morass, that might invite different models of living and working, both inside and outside academia, to become thinkable.

The endless multitask of the neo-liberal university world

Activism, then, becomes looking at that system, recognizing the busy-work for the distraction it is, and asking the questions nonetheless. But, as you rightly point out, Kelsey, we are all tired – ESPECIALLY the junior faculty who are being asked to teach way too many courses per term on contract, are being routinely promised tenure-track jobs will open up around the corner, and are being routinely disappointed. The neoliberal academy rears exhausted, burned-out workers on purpose, and the people who are most in need of that system’s reforms are the ones least likely to have the energy or capacity to undertake it.

People like me – salaried, tenured, living an increasingly out-of-reach old-world academic dream – are the ones who need to be rattling the cages, but we’re also busy and exhausted a lot of the time, too. Exhaustion and a very human level of burnout-driven complacency is a deadly combination.

I think my activism as a teacher now (especially in this second half of my career, when my own seatbelt is securely fastened) needs to be about pressing on these systemic issues and hard, using the power I have accrued with my position at my university to push for meaningful change every chance I get, and to uplift individual junior scholars in the process as much as I can. That work is bootstrap work more than anything.

KELSEY: If there’s an upside of experiencing the wear and tear of the wheels of the neo-liberal university (and I’m not saying that there is), it’s that I think I’ve become more attuned to the intricacies of the machine. I can recognize a questionable policy or demand from a soccer field away and can quickly deduce their intended and unintended effects. This helps me empathize with students who often navigate the same structures from a different position within the system. As we know, empathy and recognition are helpful for spurring change, and I realize that I’ve been progressively re-orienting part of my activism toward how such structures do or don’t appear in my classrooms. I suspect this is why I’ve so frequently blogged about evaluation schemes and concession policies for the AC: such documents can be used as tools that help me and the students navigate how broader structures show-up in a course.

Soccer field as evil: the neoliberal university, especially for contract faculty.

Kim, are you doing anything right now that models your current “activism as a teacher”?

KIM: I’m engaged right now in a really exciting teaching research project called “Building a Creative Campus.” Me, a colleague from media studies, and three ass-kicking women research fellows from three different disciplines are doing campus-wide assessments of how people in Western’s community experience creativity in their daily lives: how they define it; where they get it; where and when they don’t get it enough; how more of it would help make their working lives better. This research is in service of supporting the build for a new, interdisciplinary, performance studies-led course for undergrads, but we quickly discovered – when more than 3000 people responses to our initial survey! – that our community members were hungry to talk about this issue, and about what they need more of.

Our results so far are preliminary, but they are also really consistent: people tell us they need more TIME and more SPACE, in their programs of study/in their departments and the programs they service, as well as in their lives overall, for creative, non-indexed, not-immediately-product-oriented play. They want to mess around, but there’s not room. They want to explore and discover, but all of that has been fully instrumentalized on our campus: one med student we spoke to yearned for a chance to make music, but there’s no provision in her over-packed course of study for it; another engineering student lamented he can’t seem to access his creativity and doesn’t understand why, but it seemed implicit that he wasn’t being offered room in his work to move as a non-engineering-researcher individual, or not enough room to explore the capacity he surely has to spread his wings.

This woman: resisting the impulse to instrumentalize

All this sounds really familiar to me: work harder to innovate more! Make us shinier now! But all our evidence points to people saying, how can we do that if can’t just PLAY, just mess around, for a while? Isn’t learning also just a lot of good messing around? (There’s a tonne of evidence for this now, and a terrific new book out – The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul – makes sense of it for a lay audience.)

I consider this project a major activist intervention, both in the results we’ll be able to share AND in the way my team has created a community of care in which we DO mess around a lot, in fact we model messing around while doing good, smart, interesting things. I want to promote messing around as GOOD, SOLID teaching and learning: that’s a goal for me in the short term, in my home campus community.

What about you, Kelsey?

KELSEY: As I started with above, part of my approach to activist teaching right now is to redistribute my activist energy towards more areas of teaching. Some of these—policy and course content—will show up in the classroom. Other areas won’t show up at all. In this latter category, I am focusing on the balance between my labour and good pedagogy. 

For example, I’m paying serious attention to the balance between active, engaged, in-class activities and my workload. Creative activities can add vitality to lessons. Who doesn’t love a good scavenger hunt, after all? But, if the lesson-prep is well beyond the hours of my job, then I’m perpetuating a different kind of power imbalance, where the teacher (me!) performs free labour in service the product being sold to the students (the class). This isn’t only bad for me. It sets an unfair precedent for my colleagues, who should not be expected to work overtime hours to lesson prep. 

In terms of content, I’m not doing anything as fancy as a university-wide research project! But, I am trying to incorporate more freedom for experimentation and play. Practically, I do this through in-class activities that encourage students to imagine and attempt. I bring in physical objects to interact with. I play games! And, sometimes, I very simply allow an activity or discussion room to expand, rather than powering on to the next item on the lesson-plan to do list. 

I do my best to separate imagination and play from evaluation. Some days, you may not be in the mood to play. That’s fine! You aren’t being graded on the playing specifically. You’re simply being given the opportunity to play as part of learning. 

As much as possible, I also allow students to choose elements of evaluation, like the content of an essay or the form of a final project. These strategies aren’t radical, but they’re important, particularly in a university-atmosphere that is sometimes seeming to get more serious by the day! 

KIM: That all sounds EXACTLY like you, Kelsey, and it’s one of the main reasons I’ve so enjoyed you being a part of the AC for the past three years.

Play games. Pick your own evaluation (at least some of the time)! Trust there will be a guide, but remember your learning practice is also in your hands.

Let the cool stuff expand when it comes; follow the map-lines of prep a bit less. This is such a valuable one: if I could tell my 2013 (hell, my 2005!) self something useful, it would be: TEACH LESS. Listen more.

I know you want me to be the one to end this post, Kelsey, but I have to ask. Any words of advice to your younger self? Or to yourself as you embark on the next part of the first part of your career?

Kelsey: To my past self: Slow down and let everything breathe. Let yourself breathe. Let the lessons breathe. Let the silences breathe. To my future self: Resist disillusionment. You have breathed enough to know that while the goings-on of a university classroom don’t matter all of the time, they can matter to somebody some of the time. Allow that to motivate listening, learning, challenging, and experimenting.

Thanks for your ideas, your candor, your inspiration and for letting me me — and all our readers — follow along your teaching journey, Kim!

Co-teaching, part 1: Kim’s madcap winter term adventure

Hello friends! It’s been awhile. Forgive our radio silence; both Kelsey and I ended up in the March from you-know-where. Whoever said the pandemic is over is definitely selling you something! In our hearts, our minds, our legs, and our abilities to multitask, it surely is nowhere near over.

Today, I’m bringing you the first of a two-part post, in which I share experiences I went through this winter as part of a co-teaching experiment that is currently funded by Western University’s Teaching Fellow’s program. Given MARCH (see above), I can preview this post by saying: it wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t WASN’T a disaster.

BUT: there’s always a silver lining, and in my books teaching isn’t worth doing if you can’t fail, and then get ready to re-up and fail better.

On the latter topic, look for part two of this post on Thursday, authored by my saviour/research fellow Stephanie Dennie. She’ll talk about the literature she read and the best practices she learned (and continues to develop) as part of our teaching team; she’ll also share her top tips for starting a co-teaching experiment of your own.


It’s mid-March. I’m in a classroom in a building I only just recently learned is located behind the parking lot where I occasionally leave my car when the parking lot I usually use at Western is full. There are students in an adjacent room trying to figure out how not to talk over one another so that they can get on the same page about what they are making, even though they are technically making two separate but related things. There are students in the room on the other side of the glass partition from me cooking along with gas, like they’ve always been besties and know exactly what’s the what. And then there are the students in front of me: the bulk of two classes, from my Theatre 2202 and my teaching partner’s Psychology 3895, fighting a civil war that’s just broken out over whether or not it’s OK for one group to use data collected by the other group to Do The Thing the course is designed to do: make a performance about experiences of homelessness and drug addiction in our city.

I stand to one side, next to a young Black woman who is itching to get a word in edgewise, my stomach doing tumble turns. Stephanie, our research fellow, steps in to try to reorient the conversation. No luck. Before the class ends, I have raised my voice in anger for the first time in my teaching career.

How the hell did I end up here??

Moira Rose knows. Although if this meme came with her screaming and tearing her hair out, it’d be that much more accurate.

For the past three years, I’ve been co-teaching a class with a colleague in Psychology – the thoughtful and kind Leora Swartzman – as part of an experiment in cross-disciplinary, community engaged learning. Our two classes – Performance Beyond Theatres (me) and Social Science in the Community (Leora) – are interested in making positive social impacts in our city (London, Ontario) using the tools our disciplines provide. We started out as a City Studio co-pro, but moved away from City Studio last fall to go it alone. Around the same time, I was fortunate to win a three-year fellowship appointment with our Centre for Teaching and Learning, and as a result we were able to hire research support to help us grow our ad-hoc experiment into something sustainable.

(Side note: I could have SWORN I’d written about this class before on the AC! I trolled – not that kind of trolling – through the archives from the start of our adventure to now, and found nada. I was shocked! But then I remembered our very first iteration of this project coincided with March 2020… and it all became clear. Any posts I’d considered about our collab were obviously eaten by the rabid COVID black hole.)

Leora and I fell ass-backward into this partnership initially. At our City Studio speed dating session in summer 2019, we both realized we wanted to work on the same community project – disseminating the City of London’s diversity and inclusion strategy. We teamed up via our community partner and got our hands dirty: Leora’s students did Psychology-side research with the City’s cultural ambassadors to develop an archive of work on sane-ism, ableism, racism and xenophobia in the city, while my students created performance actions to help illuminate and develop community understanding about these topics.

Sometimes. In theory anyway.

That first class iteration was not bad, though in hindsight the challenges we faced all paled in comparison with the challenge that was the onset of COVID about half way through the term; I’d be hard pressed to remember what was working and what wasn’t before we all got thrown into the Zoom room. (I will say that our students came up with some excellent projects despite the mayhem that was a global pandemic crashing at speed into their education; all the theatre students’ projects are archived here.)

In year two, we were working under semi-lockdown conditions, and my class was taught as a blend of online and in person (thanks to the amazing active learning space I’ve been blessed with throughout the last few terms). We suffered this time around, though, from the fact that my class was scheduled for fall rather than winter term (a pandemic compromise, alas), which meant that the collaboration my students and Leora’s students were meant to undertake – in which my students benefitted from over a term’s work of Leora’s students’ independent project research – got turned inside out. At the same time, Zoom wore on us: visits from community guests and partners were hampered by tech snafus, and communication problems created some hard feelings and required us to make difficult choices.

Going into year three, with the pandemic still raging, both Leora and I were a bit burned out. That’s when my fellowship provided us with an incredible blessing: the chance to hire a research fellow to help us figure out where we’d been, where we were going, and – crucially, as Stephanie will talk about on Thursday – why we’d decided this collaboration was a good idea in the first place. Realizing that we wanted to continue but weren’t really sure what we were trying to build, we knew we needed outside eyes and ears. We also knew we needed someone to manage the project and keep us on task for things like ethics applications – which were eating our brains, in particular Leora’s brain, even as we were trying to stay focused on the pedagogy part of the project. (In year two, so much of our time and effort went on admin that it’s no surprise the teaching-learning bits ended up tossed sideways.)

Luckily for us, Stephanie is great with animals.

Stephanie arrived on the project in September 2021, and she has been that person we knew we needed and so much more. Throughout last term she observed both us and our students in action, collected weekly reflections in order to gauge what was working and what not working for everyone, and, finally, she helped Leora and I to realize what we hadn’t known we didn’t know.

The two of us, it turns out, came at this chance three years ago to orient our students together around shared social justice and community-engaged goals without knowing the basics about each other: who we were as teachers, what our styles of conflict management are, and what happens when we get into situations in the classroom that require on the spot power-sharing, collaboration, and compromise.

That’s our work for the summer: going back to square one with one another, as teachers and as people. In the process, we’re also going to work on interleaving our syllabi and assignments, figuring out a more capacious model for joint class work, and we’re both going to plan to share more and teach our own proprietary stuff less. But above all, the work is interpersonal: we need to know who we each are so that we can fully trust one another when the poop hits the thingy next time. We need to be willing to be vulnerable together – and to fail together, better.

THROWBACK TUESDAY: On learning to say no, and to feel good about it too!

Friends! It’s READING WEEK here in Southern Ontario. I’m overwhelmed with stuff that bears no relation to my courses, so I’m glad I don’t have to teach this week; it frees up time for all the other crap on my plate.

What better time, then, to reblog this popular, collaboratively-sourced post on how to say no and like it, originally published in July 2016.

I’m still broadly very in favour of all the advice shared here, and I also commiserate with the me who wrote this post – I’m sure she would laugh sardonically to know that I’m still having problems, well, saying no.

However, I have one addition to the suggestions below around when and how to say no, and it comes from the fact that I’m now a full professor.

Being an FP means I can pick and choose where to put my labour, a privilege I do not take for granted. Which is why I now choose, above all, to put my labour places that can support the advancement and promotion of junior colleagues, including grad students, with a primary emphasis on supporting junior women and those from not traditionally privileged backgrounds. This is a really easy question for me to ask when any request crosses my desk: will someone whose work and presence in the discipline I value and admire benefit from my yes? If so, the answer is clear.

Whether or not you’re on reading week too, enjoy! And do share any yes/no wisdom, as ever, in the comments.


There’s an analogy I used when my mom first got sick, early in 2014, to help my dad realise that taking care of her was, of course, a good thing, but that he also had to take care of himself. In fact, he had to take care of himself first, so that he could also take care of her properly. It comes from that thing every air traveler loves to ignore with gusto: the safety briefing. It’s the bit that says: secure your mask before assisting others.


I’m very big on self care – in theory. I am very well aware that I’m of no use to my students when I’m sick or over-tired, or worn down emotionally (although do I cancel class? Nope). I also know that if I want to ride my bike faster (which I always do) I need to rest properly. (I write about cycling for Fit is a Feminist Issue if you want to learn more). So I would like to think that, in the event I was in a plane-travel emergency, I would absolutely, totally follow instructions and secure my mask first, before looking around to see whom I could help.

I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.

I’m a perennial yes-sayer. Ask me to do shit; chances are I’ll say sure, of course! Usually with enthusiasm; somehow I convince myself in the moment that it’ll be fun/good for me, so of course, bring it on! Sometimes with covert frustration, but firm in the belief that saying no would bring very unwelcome consequences indeed. What these are remain abstract, but I’m sure they are lurking in the underbrush, ready to bite me in the shins.

Where does this urge come from? Part of it has to do with cultural socialisation: women are socialised to say yes – or rather, we are socialised not to say no, except under extreme circumstances. (And, incidentally: the fact that women are socialised to say yes most of the time is part of what makes debates about sexual consent so tricky, the obviousness of “no means no” so hard to make stick.) Historically, women are the helpmeets, the obedient ones, the ones who clean up the shit with a smile so that everyone else in the household still feels good about themselves afterward. Ever notice how women who take care of themselves well by firmly insisting on their rights – to their own time; to their own bodies; to their human rights – are often labeled sluts or bitches or worse? Or trolled mercilessly online? These are the women who have learned against the odds to say NO, to set their own boundaries independent of patriarchal expectations.

But a big part of this urge to say yes, for me, is also down to the social lessons the academy teaches us, from grad school onward: that we always need one more publication, so if someone asks you to write a chapter for their obscure forthcoming collection of course you say yes; that we always need to earn the next round of glowing course evaluations or else be branded a bad teacher, so of course you make yourself available to your students 24/7; that we need to be seen to be team players, so of course you do that committee gig on overload. The academy breeds imposter syndrome; all the measures in place to judge our impact are designed to help us feel, consistently, not good enough. And that feeling creates the panicked urge just always, always to say yes, even when the yes drips with years of accumulated resentment.


I was warned at the start of my academic career to guard against being constantly asked to do stuff, and to learn to say no as often as yes in order to protect my time and my own best interests. (That is, to preserve enough time for me to do the 40% of my job that is research and publishing-driven. We’re not talking lolling on the couch eating bonbons, friends. I wish!)

I knew there was absolutely no chance I was going to become one of those people who doesn’t get asked; those people are demonstrably a) incompetent, or b) assholic when on committees. I am highly competent, more’s the pity, and I’m allergic to being mean to people (just one more way I have been well socialised as a woman in the workforce, let me say). But I figured, early on, that there was a fighting chance I could learn to say no and mean it.

Alas: somehow, along the way, I did not manage to acquire this crucial bit of academic survival kit – or perhaps I got hold of it, but never properly internalised it. Anyway, I didn’t recognise how seriously I’d misfired on this one until last year, when a handful of extremely large things (a book; the organization of a large conference; the launching of a new academic program) I’d said yes to over a period of about 18 months all came to a head at the very same time. Suddenly, I was living through the profoundly exhausting consequences of three separate yeses. And it occurred to me that no way could these consequences have been worse than what would have happened if I’d said no.

So, emerging from this self-imposed trauma, I decided I was going to teach myself how to say no and like it. Feel relieved and gratified by it. Feel not guilty about it!

To do this, I turned to a handful of my best loved and trusted colleagues, all women, and asked them these questions:

  • when was the last time you said no to something that really made a difference to your work-life balance and/or mental health? How did saying no “go”? (IE: how did you do it, and were there repercussions?)
  • when was the last time you WISH you’d said no to something? What would you do differently this time around, if you had it to do again? (Or: HOW would you handle it?)

I told them they could feel absolutely free to ignore the request; I did NOT want to add to anybody’s workload! I explained that I was crowd-sourcing ideas for this post, and that they should let me know if I could quote them, or paraphrase them, and whether or not I could identify them. (Most chose anonymity, but were happy to have me share their thoughts.)

I learned a lot of great stuff thanks to this exercise, and I’m eager to pass it on. Herewith, then, the distillation – plus a list of top tips you can pin up above your computer (I know I will).


One colleague at a similar stage in her career to mine noted that the biggest challenge, when it comes to saying no, is managing the temptation. Do I NEED to do this thing, or do I WANT to do it? And what exactly do I mean by these terms? Where do I place the distinction between them? She wrote:

As I think about it I realize that saying no feels pretty privileged. It is like the CV of failures. Privileged to say no because I don’t NEED to do that thing. But part of that I think is also calibrating what we mean by ‘need.’ My child-self mixes up ‘need’ and ‘want.’ Saying yes sometimes is a want rather than a need. Saying yes brings warm fuzzies of validation and achievement. … But beyond system imposed needs, I do think that the hardest thing is to self-calibrate those needs and wants. If I think about saying no as a privilege then saying no can feel pretty good too. I am fortunate that I get to say no.

These reflections on “no” as a privilege – one we need to be willing to grant ourselves, which is not often easy, but which remains a privilege nonetheless – coincide with the thoughts offered by one of my senior mentors, someone whose career advice I trust almost without fail. She noted that we always, always over-inflate the consequences of saying no, especially once we are at the very privileged stage, in North America, of having tenure:

In my experience, there aren’t repercussions for a ‘no’, beyond some generally short-lived grumpiness … saying no doesn’t ever mean you won’t be asked again … and again … in the months and years ahead.  Probably the most important thing to teach oneself is that it doesn’t have to be you – there’s always another person on the “ask” list.

Maybe that last statement is the critical one: there’s always someone else. We might not like to think we are dispensable, or replaceable – oh god, my imposter syndrome is calling! – but of course we are. Maybe embracing that reality could be, should be a good thing!

This leads to another key insight, offered by another senior mentor and friend. She struggles with health issues that impact her ability to work on a regular basis, but rather than making an issue of it she finds herself overcompensating by saying yes too often. For her, the struggle isn’t saying yes or saying no, but knowing her own body’s limits and respecting them, rather than trying to cover them up by repeatedly transgressing them:

The ‘how to’ isn’t hard: there are usually enough things on any academic’s plate that we can say ‘I can’t manage it at this time,’ or ‘I can’t manage it until x is done’ or ‘until we get a replacement for y who left’ or ‘there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.’

It may be that the question is ‘how much is enough.’ I mean that. And I recognise the absurdity in saying it when I write it, but I think it’s there.

“How much is enough for me?” “What do I mean when I say I need to do this thing?” Or, as a couple of respondents noted, will I enjoy this?

This last question is actually not superficial, but crucial. It’s directly connected to this one: will this thing, a lot of work or not, nourish me in a way that will allow me to do it well? That will allow me to learn from it and not resent it, and encourage others to do it well? As another peer noted very succinctly, I don’t do X because I hate it, and lots of people don’t hate it and would rather do it. I do Y because I love it and do it well; it’s a trade-off and one we should feel confident making. If everyone pulls their weight by doing (largely) the stuff they love, we will actually discover most of the bases will cover themselves.

To end, I’d like to share an extremely sensible list of things to consider before saying no, shared by my senior mentor with the iron-clad advice. This is a keeper, folks!

  1. Don’t say yes or no immediately.  Keep to a 24-hour rule.
  2. Ask yourself:  will I learn anything?  Is my voice necessary/useful?  Will it be fun (at least some of the time!)?  Could a colleague/graduate student benefit from this opportunity instead?
  3. Think about time: if I say yes, how will this fit in my schedule?  Do I need something in order to make it work (money, course release, grad assistant, stepping away from another committee or whatever)?*
  4. Good to remember: saying “no” might be a huge nuisance to the person asking, but it is never fatal.

(*She also notes: If you are being pressured for a “yes,” even when you’ve given a “no,” then ASK FOR SOMETHING that will help! If you don’t get something in return, then your contribution isn’t that important to the person asking, and you can say no secure in the knowledge that you made your willingness but also your needs clear.)

My thanks to everyone who replied to my request for thoughts on saying no, and especially to the beloved friend who wrote this, and made me laugh out loud:

Hi Kim,

Sorry for the slow response. This is a fascinating topic for your blog but I’m afraid I must decline writing at this point due, in large part, to the time needed to devote to the many other things I’ve failed to decline. Sigh. Happy to discuss strategies in person at some point, though.

I look forward to reading the blog.

And yes, we plan to chat it out – over drinks, natch! – sometime soon.

In solidarity,


Once yer back in the room… to zoom or not to zoom? (A meditation on hybridity)

My sabbatical ended in December, friends, and I’m back in full swing as term throttles toward Reading Week. (Don’t mention it: I might start twitching inadvertently and my brain may start leaking out of my ears.)

It’s been a hard re-entry, not helped by The Beer Virus Inc, as Kelsey and I call Corona, Omicron edition. At my school we did January on Zoom, after having term delayed by a week; as of last Monday we were back to live in person, trussed up in hard-shell N95 masks that make us profs look like we’re getting ready to remediate some asbestos in an abandoned factory. My face itches every time I put it on, and my ears ache after an hour. During breaks for group discussion I run into the hallway to yank it down and take five good, deep breaths.

And yet, OF COURSE it’s wonderful to be back in the classroom.

This woman could be me. Except she is saving your life, and all I can do is teach you Shakespeare. (Her name is Erica Parziale, and she’s an emergency management intern at Tufts Medical Center.)

Almost as soon as we returned to in person teaching, I began to field student requests to attend class on Zoom. I was prepared for this; I knew we might have to pivot back and forth depending on public health advice, so I set up a regular Zoom room for each of my classes just in case. I told students up front that if they fell ill or needed to isolate, but felt well enough to come to class, Zoom was always an option. They just had to let me know in advance.

That was back in November, when teaching was still a theoretical on the post-holiday horizon. While I was planning my classes and toggling between light prep, research projects, and dog walks, it hadn’t occurred to me that more than one or at most two students in any given week might need the Zoom option. It certainly hadn’t occurred to me that anyone might prefer it! But teaching is a game of shifting circumstances, and as term pressures bear down I’m finding that for a range of reasons – COVID exposures; COVID illness; unexpected family travel; pressing deadlines; STUFF – students are increasingly interested in the Zoom option.

At first I figured: well, I can, and I said I would, so why shouldn’t I? This was my attitude last week, in fact, when a snowstorm in Southern Ontario meant it was a gamble for me to try to get on the highway, and the only amenable trains had been inconveniently canceled for February. I quickly decided both of my Thursday classes would be on Zoom, but I confess I felt some guilt in making the call. I imagined my students would be bummed to pivot back to online after just one class, even if it was only for one day. That guilt made me even more committed to making Zoom an option for any one of us in class when we decided, for ourselves, that such was the best or safest call.

Guilt aside, I was surprised to hear another (and very compelling) perspective when I found myself that same snowy Thursday in a meeting with two colleagues I know well from other universities. Our pre-meeting chat turned to hybrid options in the classroom; both noted that they were opposed to teachers like me making Zoom an option when my university has been clear that instructors are not expected to teach in a hybrid way.

It’s not equitable, they argued; sure, you can do it, but that might mean students figure it’s easy, or expected, and then when an instructor with fewer resources or less ease with technology refuses to allow Zoom-ins, they might appear churlish in comparison. Both of my colleagues are senior administrators, and both added that this kind of dispute over equity in the COVID academy has been blighting their workdays and creating headaches across their campuses.

My gosh are there ever a lot of hybrid learning graphics about! This one featured a decent selection of different-looking humans, plus a cat and a cactus. I mean come on.

Fretful and chastened, I made sure to let both of my classes know that day that I appreciated their accommodation for my safety in the snow, and that while Zoom was an option we were privileged to enjoy, that was largely because of the resources available in our high-tech classroom this term. I tried to make this resource piece clear: I reminded the students that our university wasn’t giving me, or any teacher, any extra tools or support to make hybrid happen, so we can’t just expect everyone wants, or is able, to do it. We got lucky: that’s all.

At the same time, I decided to start asking others – peers and students alike – about their attitude toward the hybridity question. On the weekend another friend who is a senior administrator at a university near my home came for a doggie visit. She reflected on how much she wishes she could mandate hybrid models; it’s good for everyone, she argued. (At both of our universities, our strong and very much appreciated faculty unions have nixed any such mandate, for equity reasons.) We talked about how we both understand the labour challenges involved, but she noted that her own colleagues are full of good will and trying to make it work for students confined to their homes as much as possible. I reflected on the fact that it’s not really that hard to get students Zoomed in, especially if one’s classroom has a couple of screens, a rack computer, and at least one clever techie in the ranks.

Speaking with her, I felt vindicated in my choice to give my students the hybrid option.

And then Tuesday rolled around.

In one of my classes, this term I’m co-teaching with a professor of Psychology, and her community psych students are learning alongside the gang in my class on performance studies and applied theatre. On Tuesdays we hold joint sessions in her (less high-tech but bigger) classroom; this Tuesday, when our research fellow Stephanie and I arrived, students started to pop into the Zoom room in what felt like unexpectedly high numbers. Stephanie was left fielding the virtual gang AND the virtual speaker, trying to figure out on the fly how to put live and virtual students into the same breakout groups, and also managing problems with sound while fielding private queries in the chat.

I didn’t ask Stephanie, but I’m guessing she would have been into this as an option.

When we debriefed about Stephanie’s experience later, the hidden labour of the hybrid option hit me full in the face. She described feeling overwhelmed, unprepared, surprised and disheartened. She also let us know that at least one student had ended up stranded in Zoom no-person’s land, frustrated and without a group to talk to. I realized then that the live bodies on one side of the room and the black squares on the screen clearly heralded their own inequity, too, and normalizing that inequity might be a big mistake.

Week nine feelings, I’m guessing.

If this is week five, what happens in week nine, when the poop is hitting the thingy, term paper-wise, students are cramming or all-nighter-ing and struggling to get to class on time, and they just decide instead to pull the Zoom trigger? Sure, maybe lots won’t, but maybe they will. Would I have abused the Zoom option in, say, third year of my undergrad? You bet your life I would have done.

The horses have left the stable for me on this one, this year; I don’t feel comfortable withdrawing an offer I’ve made to either of my classes in good faith, however negligent I may have been in thinking the whole thing through beforehand. But I think some good learning may yet come from this.

In our team debrief this morning, my Psych colleague Leora, Stephanie and I decided that we’d continue to permit Zoom attendance in our Tuesday classes but only if students got in touch with their fellow group project members ahead of time and arranged for one of those members to bring them into the room on video. To save our emotional energy and reduce our ever-increasing mental load, we’re going to be frank with them: we’re always happy to have you, but if you want to attend virtually, you’re still going to have to do the work of getting yourself to class, and on time.

Friends, I’d be SO keen to hear how this situation is playing out at your institutions. Are you being asked to permit hybrid learning? Are you forbidden, and if so why? How are your faculty unions handling the workload-creep challenge that two years of online learning has created? Please do share in the comments.

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.