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.

SEPTEMBER 2021: Welcome!…back?

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

Buckle up for another school year with the Activist Classroom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim’s recommendations:

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

The Ink by Anand Giridharadas

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

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

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

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

University Affairs: Ever useful.

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

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

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

Kelsey’s recommendations:

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

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

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

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

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

Kelsey, what are you fearing?

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

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

Kim, what are you fearing?

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

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

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

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

Kim, what are you hoping for?

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

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

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

Kelsey, what are you hoping for?

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

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

In Loving Memory of Catherine Silverstone

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

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

Catherine smiles into the sun.
Dearly missed!

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

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

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

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

Kim and Kelsey

***

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

Pedagogies of Care: Remembering Catherine Silverstone

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

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

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

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

Good Times

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

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

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

What’s at Stake?

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

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

Teaching with People’s Palace Projects

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

Pedagogies of Care

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

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

“Perhaps Your Problem Contains its Own Solution”

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

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

Listen without prejudice.

Listen without bias.

Listen without interrupting.

Attend to the detail.

Dig as deep as you can.

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

Turn the question around.

Wait patiently for the answers.

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

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

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

Give praise generously, when it is due.

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

Sharing our resources better: more thoughts on what to bring with us post-COVID (#ACsurvivalguide)

Kelsey,

In your last post you brought up the question of mentorship in the Zoom era, and what aspects of that often-frustrating but occasionally remarkable experience we need to port with us when the Tardis door opens post-COVID.

This week I want to think about another aspect of COVID teaching that has lessons to offer the After Times: sharing our resources more wisely.

It takes imagination, and generosity, to make a thriving (theatre) ecology.

My inspiration for this one comes from the large experiential learning class I’m currently teaching at Western, “Toronto: Culture and Performance”. (NB: I stole this title and concept shamelessly from my dear colleagues at Queen Mary University of London, Department of Drama, which runs a course of the [nearly] same name focused on London’s theatre ecology. What can I say? Winning formula.)

The Before Times: spectators experience “Death of the Sun” at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, 2016

In the Before Times, TOCAP (as I call it) took 40+ students from three difference academic programs, plus me and a TA, to watch live shows in Toronto, in Stratford, ON (at the Stratford Festival), and even in Little London, ON from time to time (comparison shopping across ecologies is very informative stuff). The course is very popular, but expensive to run: student fees (which we cap at CAD$150, or the equivalent of a textbook-heavy course in any other field) cover about 50% of the cost of buses, theatre tickets, and guest speakers, while the rest is made up from donations from the academic programs whose students join the class, plus funds from a pot within our shared faculty to which I need to reapply every year (a bit sheepishly).

The costs have proven worth it, though: we have seen outstanding work by a wide and diverse range of artists on the cutting edge of what our friend and colleague Ric Knowles calls “the intercultural city,” and students are given opportunities to think and work creatively, based on their own intellectual, cultural, and career interests, in a range of different assignments.

(Shows we’ve been privileged to see live in years past! Evalyn Parry and Anna Chatterton in Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times; the cast of Come From Away in their Toronto home; the banner for Hong Kong Exile’s amazing animated show No Foreigners.)

When COVID hit, in March 2020, the next round of TOCAP was scheduled for autumn. We quickly shifted things around to move it to winter term, hoping against hope that theatres would be “open” again come January. Of course, that did not happen.

What did I do? First, I took stock of what we had. In addition to a range of emerging online resources from Toronto theatre companies, most of which were being offered for free or PWYC to all comers, I also had 40+ students x $150 to spend. (This money is centrally collected by our registrar’s office, so was already in the bank.)

I then got to work exploring what was happening in the Toronto theatre ecology, online edition, and which companies our funds could best support as they navigated this incredibly precarious time.

I discovered: groups experimenting with online-hybrid formats that are likely to push the definition of theatre forward in the coming years (Factory Theatre, Nightwood Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre); groups that had archival resources to share and an eagerness to reflect on them with us (The Theatre Centre); and groups whose work on decolonizing theatre in Tkaronto (also known in English as Toronto) was ongoing, though increasingly through exhaustion, given the working conditions demanded by COVID (Manidoons Theatre Collective, Native Earth Performing Arts, and more).

Acts of Faith, by David Yee and starring Natasha Mumba, was a huge hit with the class. Factory Theatre commissioned and produced it as a to-camera, for-livestream hybrid work that was at turns deeply intimate and seriously creepy.

I reached out to these companies; I noted that we had $1000 per theatre to spend, and that we’d be happy to spread this money out across screening fees, speakers’ fees for artists to join us in class, and more.

“Into Mother’s Womb” by Natalie Sappier illustrates Aria Evans’ choreographic score The Price of Us Waiting, part of the Embodying Power and Place project co-supported by Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts.

Every company came to play! In the spirit of my ongoing work as a teacher to decolonize my classrooms, we opened with Native Earth Performing Arts’ 2020 Weesageechak Begins to Dance festival, a collection of pieces by emerging Indigenous artists that this year took place as a series of conversations online, including screenings of works in progress. We were joined in class by NEPA Artistic Director Keith Barker, who showed immense generosity of spirit as he talked about his journey into the arts and into claiming his identity as a proud Métis man, answered student questions with an open heart, and reminded us all that land acknowledgements are celebrations, not obligations.

Turtle Island: our shared home now. What can we do to celebrate and sustain our home?

Next we hosted friends from the Theatre Centre, Aislinn Rose and Adam Lazarus, who are behind the important Bouffon clown work Daughter. It’s an uncomfortable takedown of toxic masculinity in its most mundane form, and together in class we had a searching conversation about the costs vs benefits of performing a show that may cause some viewers harm, in order to open other viewers’ eyes to the harm they already cause. We screened Factory Theatre’s Acts of Faith, a live-to-camera show about a young Black woman’s agency made literally, dramaturgically, and thematically for the Zoom room, and then followed that up with a refreshingly tactile non-Zoom-based experience, Buddies in Bad Times’ Rhubarb! “Book of the Festival,” featuring a hardback full of relational and participatory pieces by LGBTQ2SIA+ artists that we can keep, hold, and return to again and again when, you know, ZOOM FATIGUE.

This week, we come back to questions of colonial legacies and settler responsibilities as we screen brand-new work by Indigenous women and two-spirit artists as part of the Embodying Power and Place project. Spearheaded by Nightwood associate artist and dramaturg Donna-Michelle St-Bernard and co-supported by Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth, this project features 12 pieces that respond to the 12 chapters contained in “Reclaiming Power and Place,” the report of the national (Canadian) inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The 2021 Rhubarb! Festival of queer performance art, curated by Clayton Lee. Good times away from the Zoom room!

We could not be more grateful for the shared time, effort, and labour all of these companies and artists have brought to our table, and each were grateful for the support that we were able to pass along to them in turn. Adam made me laugh when I made our $1K offer, expressing surprise at so much money for art, while Aislinn talked about using her speakers’ fee to support the purchase of much-needed new glasses. Nightwood figured out how to donate a portion of their fee to one of the charities to which they are directing donations for Embodying Power and Place, while also paying artists to join us as speakers. Native Earth Performing Arts performed, as always, its structural commitment to resource-sharing in the spirit of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum when it waived its screening fee for our access to Weesageechak; we redirected some of that money toward a screening of Manidoons Collective’s acclaimed performance bug (our capstone event, happening next week! See below – it’s public and FREE to register!), and we used the rest to pay for a session on decolonizing the work of theatre reviewing with Carly Maga of the Toronto Star.

On April 1 our class will host our final guests, Yolanda Bonnell, actor and creator, and Jay Havens, scenographer, as they share their acclaimed work bug and speak with us about decolonization and the theatre in Toronto and beyond. Please register to join this free, public event using the address in the image!

The class this year has looked unlike anything I’ve run before. Sure, we’ve seen the performances, just like always, and sure, we’ve done readings about the “global city,” the “intercultural city,” settler encounters with Indigenous performances and more, just like always. But it has not been business as usual in the Zoom room (as if it could be!).

For one thing, we meet just 1.5 hours a week, rather than a typical block of 3h/week. (That three-hour block is meant to accommodate theatre visits, after all!) Instead, I set pre-class prep tasks for the students two days ahead of our scheduled meetings; this gives them a chance to engage independently with the work on offer and do some independent writing, as their time and interests permit.

For another, most of our classes are comprised of Q&A sessions with artists: these are a chance for students to connect with creators, actors, directors, playwrights, and administrators. While I love the sound my own voice as much as the next prof, the truth is we are all tired, and right now what we need is opportunities to be inspired, to hear creative workers talk with joy about their practice and to offer us the chance to respond to and engage with that work in ways that light up our own creative sparks. More lectures? Not helpful.

Of course, I fully expect that, come evaluation time, a few students are going to say “Kim didn’t lecture enough,” or “we didn’t talk enough about the readings.” Maybe true; this is a patch-job class structure as much as it is a thoughtful and reasoned solution to a ridiculous global emergency. Next time out, I’ll aim for a bit more balance.

But never will I regret giving over the majority of my class time, and ALL of our class resources (plus some generously donated to support Manidoons’ visit with bug – please come!), to uplift the incredible work our artists do and the literally invaluable contribution they make to our wellbeing as humans, citizens, and communities – pandemic or none.

So what about you, Kelsey? What resources have you had to reallocate during this hairy pandemic school year, and how has that gone?

– Kim

Where’s my collaboration mojo?

Happy March, dear AC readers!

In our last post, Kelsey reflected on a specific collaboration conundrum, and work-life balance in the pandemic. Today, Kim thinks about academic collaboration a bit more philosophically… with help from an amazing artist, Amanda Leduc.

***

Two weeks ago, I attended a book launch on Zoom. Not my first rodeo, either: we’ve been festival-ing and launching and doing all the conference things on Zoom for coming up to a year now. (March 12 is my Zoomiversary; what’s yours, Kelsey?)

But this launch was different.

Sorry if you missed it! The launch for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, was Tuesday 16 February. There is a recording: view it here!

The celebration was for Amanda Leduc’s new novel, The Centaur’s Wife, an extraordinary work that reflects on love, desire, grief and loss through a lens equal parts magic realism, fairy tale, and disability justice. (I HIGHLY recommend you order it. You can also check out Kelsey’s interview with Amanda, from 2020, here.)

We opened in now-utter-familiarity: the host, novelist and activist for literary equity Jael Richardson, was dropped from her internet connection mid-way through her delightful introduction. Turns out her power had gone off; in haste (though with spectacular grace, it must be said), fellow author Larissa Lai stepped in without missing a beat.

The launch then began in earnest not with Amanda, but with two of her collaborators: Victoria Carr, the musical artist who narrated the audio book (The Centaur’s Wife is the first novel in Canada to be published in all accessible formats simultaneously), and Anne Collins, Amanda’s editor at Penguin Random House. Victoria shared a song and then spoke to Larissa about her engagement with the characters, the process of recording the audio book, and the importance of being part of a small but mighty movement for literary accessibility (thanks to Amanda’s own perseverance). Anne and Larissa then talked about the long, sometimes messy, and always rewarding process of working with an author to bring the kernel of an idea into being as a novel-length work, written and rewritten again over a nearly five-year period.

Finally, Amanda stepped in to receive our applause, answer many challenging questions, and offer clear-eyed and fierce reflections on the work of literary artists (now more than ever).

Amanda speaking about her 2020 nonfiction book, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, on TVO’s The Agenda.

I was riveted to the launch, and not just because Amanda is my friend and neighbour. It was compelling from start to finish precisely because it foregrounded literary arts as collaborative writing and publishing as the work of “a community,” as Amanda noted at the end of the event, directing our attention to the acknowledgements at the back of her book and inviting us all to read them.

It takes a village to make a book: we all know this, whether we write novels or nonfiction or monographs for other scholars or books for students or children. We all, in the scholarly publishing community, have our own acknowledgements pages. But Amanda’s launch reflected much more than the basics of this kind of book-as-village feel: it mirrored the fulsome, utterly joyous, depth-of-flavour-process that birthed her new book into being, and as I listened to and then reflected on the discussions about collaboration peppered throughout the launch, I started to reflect on my own collaborative journeys.

And I asked myself: what exactly are we – we academics, in particular – doing when we collaborate? How thick, how deep, are those processes for us? Especially when it comes to making books – books we might call “solo authored” on our CVs – where are our collaborators, and how do we make that process richer and more meaningful (not to mention more visible!) for all?

I’ve been an editor most of my career; I’ve written solo books too, of course, but I have gravitated toward (and, somewhat to my surprise, stayed with) editing in part because of the satisfaction it gives me to support another writer as they try to locate the core of their argument, and then reorganize the skeleton of their work better to support it. This work is often long, it’s often fraught, and – spoiler alert – I don’t think it’s aided in any way by the discursive frameworks that traditionally describe the academic writing process (aka: publish or perish, anyone?).

The scientists are not alone: this cartoon shows a racetrack-style setup, with a scientist with manuscript at one end, the words “paper accepted!” in lights at the other, and a collection of peers with instruments of torture ranged along the route. Save the grim reaper, all the cartoon scientists are white; this does not shock me.

Do you remember the first time you submitted a piece of work to an academic journal? You prayed for “accept”, braced for “reject”, and while you knew that “revise and resubmit” wasn’t ideal, it would be acceptable (after a day or two, and maybe after a good cry).

I remember mine: in the third year of my PhD I sent a lightly revised term paper (later to be published in Modern Drama, and I’ll come back to that) to Theatre Journal, one of the most prestigious venues in our field. I received a fast response: a reject from the then-editor, who had clearly sussed out that this was a term paper and needed a lot of work to be even peer-reviewable. TJ is a big journal, publishing four times a year and loaded down with submissions, so I don’t blame this editor (who was a volunteer!!) for ending at reject (plus a couple of sentences to ostensibly steer me toward revision) – although I do still think about the prof who encouraged me to publish the paper without offering me any further advice on how to do that. (Story for another time.)

I was devastated. But I was also aware that I was supposed to be devastated: only the best get published, right? You are clearly not good enough yet, Kim! Work harder! Graft alone to make that paper better! When it reflects that you are smart-smart-enough you will get the royal “accept”, and then you can feel like less of an imposter!

When the imposter syndrome expert realizes she has imposter syndrome… #realtalk

What a high, barred gate those three options, “reject”, “revise and resubmit”, and “accept” make together, yes? They keep out those who are not in the know; those who don’t have sympathetic mentors; those who do not come from academic or cultural privilege.

I learned this unspoken fact of academic life only through my connection to Modern Drama, where I was an editorial assistant: I was lucky enough to be working with then co-editor Joanne Tompkins on my research “day job”, which meant I could approach her for advice. I shared both the TJ editor’s note and my draft with her; she then took the time to teach me the difference between a term paper and an article (something every graduate student needs to learn sooner or later, btw, because it is not knowledge that sprouts unbidden from your degree certificate).

She guided me gently through a rigorous editorial process, then sent the paper for peer review at Modern Drama. It remains today one of the most downloaded papers in the history of the journal, and one of which I’m most proud.

Joanne is my editorial mentor, as I am mentor to others now. I’m not saying this to suggest that Joanne and I are special; we were/are able to do this kind of mentoring work because our work circumstances are fortunately such that we have the time to do the actual labour of editing – to undertake the kind of process Anne undertook with Amanda, a genuine, durational collaboration between author and editor, writer and curious, informed, but detached eye.

Penguin Random House editor Anne Collins.
Kim’s editorial mentor, Professor Joanne Tompkins (Queensland)

As Anne put it during the launch, we editors are privileged to invest in the work of authors for whom the piece under construction is owned, held dear; this allows us to hold and support them, cheer them on and push them harder, all the while letting them know that if the roof caves in someone is there with a fix, a hug, words of encouragement and a path forward out of the muddle. (I really like this metaphor of investment; it captures what I feel as an editor.)

In the academy, though, who really has this kind of investable time? Editing work is considered “volunteer” work among us profs, and detrimentally it often valued as such: I had to fight to make my editing labour “count” when time came for me to go up for promotion, and only one of the three external examiners of my portfolio made explicit note of my editing’s proper, collaborative value. We’re usually told not to bother editing: monographs or high-profile journal articles “count” for more than “edited” volumes, as though there is no work done in those projects. (HA!!!) Editing a journal? Be prepared for nobody at your institution to notice or care.

In other words: what (still) most “counts” in the publish-or-perish landscape is the labour you are expected to do alone, isolated, terrified even that the result will never be good enough.

Of course your finished book/article will bear the hands of others, and sometimes (rarely) those hands will be very hands-on, the hands of a supportive editor with the time and space to share. More often, though, they will be the hands of outsourced copyeditors paid a pittance, and publishers whose interest extends to “get the damn thing in on time”. At many crossover book publishers (Routledge, Bloomsbury Methuen, I’m looking at you), traditional peer review isn’t even guaranteed anymore, depriving us (when the reviewer is kind, when the reviewer recognizes their responsibility) of what little thoughtful third-party advice we could count on when it’s needed most.

This is a catastrophe. Editing labour is arduous but urgent and needs supporting and rewarding, at all levels of publication and among both academics and career editors. (When I talked to Amanda about this, she noted that Anne is herself a rarity in the world of fiction publishing.)

Further, sending graduate students out into the academic work world equipped with the belief that their careers stand or fall on the things they write while isolated, uncertain of their worth, and filled with anxiety is genuinely cruel and a recipe for ongoing exclusion and white-washing in the ivory tower.

Now might be a good time to remind ourselves that Amanda’s brilliant new book is at bottom about disability justice, about making space for others in worlds that demonize difference; it was made possible because Anne held Amanda, and Amanda worked with and for Anne, and through Anne’s support, over a period of years – culminating in a triumph.

How many of us can say that about even one piece of our academic writing? I’m genuinely curious.

What are your stories of collaboration in academic labour, friends? What are the highs? The lows? Is it getting better from where you sit, or worse? Let us know.

Welcome to the AC winter 2021 survival guide!*

Readers, welcome to 2021. Sort of like 2020, but colder, with more masks, and with slightly more hope.

The last few months have been a trial by bandwidth, and that’s not the half of it. Over the holidays Kelsey and Kim have been trying to work out what the AC can do to help us all weather the winter-semester storm as best we can. Welcome, therefore, to our ad-hoc AC survival guide, a series of short, dialogic posts in which we discuss emergent COVID-related teaching problems and what we’re doing to, um, cope.

Just to be clear, you do you. Both Kelsey and Kim endorse both Lisa Simpson and coffee as coping mechanisms.

Mostly we’re drawing from our experience, recognizing that it’s probably a lot like your experience. But we ALSO know that our experiences are specific to our bodies, lives, and circumstances: we are two white cis-women without kids home-schooling in the next room, and we are fortunate to have stable, well paid teaching jobs.

We know the experiences yielded by our privilege will inevitably mask stuff going on for others, and that’s why *we would LOVE it if you would reach out, in the comments, on FB or Twitter, or by email to tell us what’s going on with you, and what issues you’d like us to discuss in the survival guide in the weeks ahead.

Thanks in advance, and without further ado…

Lord help us all who did not train as lighting designers.

First up: Trouble in the Zoom Room

Dear Kelsey,

I’ve been trying to outfit my teaching space for routine large-class zooming (something I didn’t have to contend with last semester, when I was allowed to teach hybrid/in person). It has been… a time. I’m a bit, um, in need. And I know you are AMAZING at this kind of thing.

I had the great idea of turning part of my underused antique office cabinet into what I now call Dr Kimmy’s Cabinet of Zoom; the height and space of the top shelf are just right, and this way I can literally close the door on teaching or work calls when they are over. Ideal, yes?

Inspired by, but not the same as. Although I do consider Zoom a kind of horror flick at this point.

I thought I’d cleared the biggest hurdle when I landed a nice mic and webcam. The mic (a Blue Yeti Nano) and webcam (a Logitech Streamcam) are both terrific and improve the zooming experience immeasurably. But I forgot about one key thing: the part where I need to connect them both to my computer. Simultaneously.

My computer, for those interested, is a 2017 MacBook. It was purchased in a panic after I had a screaming row with my poor dad on the phone at my kitchen table, promptly dumped a full cup of coffee on my 2013 MacBook, and destroyed it completely.

My computer, alas, has only ONE port. It is a USB-C port. It is needed, in high-stakes high-energy webcam-plus-mic situations, as you might expect, to charge the damn computer. And of course, there is no dongle (aka “adapter”) on the market, not even from Apple, that will allow a 2017 MacBook with only one USB-C port to both run a USB-C peripheral device (like a nice mic, or a spiffy webcam) AND charge the battery at the same time.

This is what I’m dealing with. PC users, stop laughing.

My first question, then, is: WTF APPLE???

My next question – composed in haste while pushing the students into breakout rooms, disconnecting the peripherals, and plugging in the charger in order to suck at least a few more minutes’ worth of power into the laptop – is this:

Does ANYONE actually look good on Zoom?

Can a tolerable appearance (= not constantly looking at one’s image and worrying about the way the webcam has converted your ordinary human wrinkles into Utah-grade caverns) be achieved without a) enabling the ridiculous touch-up features (the feminist in me withers), and/or b) without suddenly, at 46, buying make-up for the first time and learning how to apply it? (The feminist in me slowly dies.)

The how-to videos suggest overhead lighting. For some reason, this makes things worse for me: not only do I not look better, but I HATE overhead lighting and so my desire to continue teaching into a screen drops precipitously as the will to go on leaks out of my toes.

They also suggest a snappy background, but I can’t achieve the coveted “all your books as background” look without fully rearranging my home office space, which is also my DVD-viewing nostalgia centre, AND my closet.

Well that would be convenient, wouldn’t it?

And don’t even get me started on what to wear!

Kelsey, help me do. What’s your solution to the multi-armed zoom monster? Do you have top tips on dongle use, lighting design, and best footwear for standing in one place for 90 minutes straight without wrecking your hips?

Gratefully,

Kim

Dear Kim,

Can we make a collective pact that when this whole thing *gestures wildly like a heron in a winter wind* comes to a close we will never speak of Zoom and its many distressing background issues again?

Great. Now, to your question: No, no one looks good one zoom. I’m sure numerous studies are being conducted on the subject (all held up in peer review, I imagine), and they will confirm this with hard, quantitative, evidence. For now, I offer my own Zoom space as solidarity.

Building off my ergonomic efforts last year, my Zoom space is fairly friendly to my body. The downside is that it’s a set design disaster. Because I spend many of my daylight hours in front of my desk, I’ve put the desk in front of the window (looking out right now far preferable to looking in… again). Sadly, because of the way the room is configured, this means my background isn’t uniform, and my mini freezer is directly in the middle.

A non-curated view of Kelsey’s potential zoom background, mini freezer included.

Helping matters, the overhead light is to the side of the desk, my floor isn’t flat so everything tilts, every so slightly, toward the center of the room, and I teach at night, so half the time the combination of overhead, computer, and outside light make my video tint blue.

So, what I’m essentially telling you is that a great deal of the time I appear on Zoom as a character from an early 2000s music video.

Also, hours into watching myself on zoom, I have come to the conclusion that everyone who has interacted with me came to long ago: goodness gracious am I expressive.

All of which is to say: I empathize.

To solving your issues, may I suggest a combination of strategy and surrender.

Strategy 1: Hide yourself from view.

While I think all of us should embrace our appearances and/or (in my case) very expressive selves, let’s be honest: it’s not totally ideal to be staring at yourself for hours a day. And you know what? Zoom has a button for that. You can toggle the view to hide yourself from view. I don’t do it super frequently, but it does offer one a break.

Helpful hint: check your frame before you turn yourself off.

Strategy 2: Fight the space.

Generally speaking this is terrible advice, but desperate times and measures here, my dear. I Zoom EVERY DAY. Attending to camera placement three times a day simply cannot be a thing. So, I’ve given up aesthetically pleasing furniture arrangement in service of a more reliable Zoom background; I’ve tilted the desk and monitor diagonally across a space where it would make way more sense for it to be parallel.

Kelsey’s “zoom cabinet,” aka: her office nook.

Strategy 3: Surrender. A lot.

Is my screen blue half the time? Why yes it is. Does my camera occasionally cut the top of my head out of frame? Yup. But, also, Zoom kicked me out of my own class meeting last week. So, really: not my most pressing issues.

And to borrow a move from your pedagogical playbook, I do think less than ideal Zoom aesthetics push back effectively against the creeping normalization of fake books backgrounds. Messy Zoom set-ups can remind folks that we’re all human and things are still weird, even in this new calendar year. Which, in this moment, is useful and even perhaps subversive (and feminist).

In short: fix what you can (may I suggest a new Zooming device?) and give in to the rest.

If nothing else, maybe you’ll learn to love overhead lighting? #2021goals

Over and out for now,

Kelsey