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.

OMG SPACE. Proper classroom space!

*Note: scroll to the bottom of this post for a 30-page preview of my new book, Theory for Theatre Studies: Space!

Every winter term, the faculty teaching at my university get a message from the people at WALS, the office in charge of Western’s Active Learning Spaces. The message invites us to apply to hold our next year’s class(es) in one of the several WALS rooms on campus.

Every winter term, I ignore this message. There’s a simple reason: I assume these rooms are Not Meant For Me. They are big; they hold a good number of students. My classes are small; they are arts-based and niche. Of course, I reason, working in one of these rooms would be absolutely ideal for the way I teach; but no way, I caution myself, would WALS give me one of these rooms. Why allocate precious classroom space that could hold 60 to a class with only 18 students in it? No chance, I tell myself. DELETE.

This winter term, though, I did something differently. I stopped myself from indulging in the defeatist, scarcity-driven reasoning in the paragraph above. I asked myself: what actually governs who gets WALS spaces? Perhaps I should find out?

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Students in a third-year class, Environmental Change, work in a WALS space at Western in 2014. Photo courtesy of the WALS Flickr gallery.

I emailed the person behind the message, a terrific, energetic, pedagogy-forward graduate student called Cortney. She told me – and reader, my jaw did drop – that the WALS rooms are assigned FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED. For reals. She then offered to take me on a tour of the brand-new WALS space in my newly renovated building, Western’s historic University College.

Cortney and I met up a couple of weeks later. I was astonished by the capacity of the room she showed me! It features seven pods, which is WALS short-hand for seven tables equipped with 6-8 chairs, their own projector, a white board that doubles as a screen AND an e-board, plus extra mobile white boards for playing around. There are connection hubs on the tables for all manner of devices, and a USB port for saving whiteboard work. Each pod also comes equipped with the capacity to run Solstice, the third-party software that allows students to beam the screens of their devices (phones/tablets/laptops) to their pod’s projector via an app to share with their groups.

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A glamour shot of my new space in Western’s University College. The natural light is especially welcome!

The room is also big, open, circular in flow, and clean. It is, in other words, the uncanny opposite of every other classroom space I have ever been assigned, at Western or anyplace else.

My first reaction to my WALS tour was:

HOLY SHIT. This classroom is unbelievable!

My second reaction was:

WHY ARE MORE CLASSROOMS NOT LIKE THIS???

I’m not going to delve deeply into the latter question today; the reasons are, I’m sure, more complex than I assume – though maybe not.

(I assume: because retrofitting space is expensive, and upgrading tech is expensive; because universities in my province, let alone everywhere else, are currently being squeezed YET AGAIN by another myopic provincial government; and because frankly, at the end of the day, teaching labour remains undervalued by most of the folks who control the money. Meanwhile, students and teachers, who know experientially the value of good, flexible space to the practice of effective pedagogy, have remarkably little say in how their work is organized physically. ARGH.)

Instead, I’m going to tell you what happened after I caught my breath. I immediately applied to have all of my 2019-20 classes held in the WALS space in my building (spoiler alert: IT WORKED!). Then, I asked Cortney if I could move my current undergraduate class – the history of performance theory class I was teaching in a tatty, furniture-stuffed, under-cleaned and under-resourced room in a nearby building – into my building’s new WALS space right away.

And she said yes.

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My ideal classroom – for all subjects! A light-filled, open-plan studio.

Right after reading week, my intrepid gang of performance theorists and I moved over to our new home. And what a transformation we experienced!

Right away we noticed a difference in our engagement and interaction during class time.

First of all, sitting around pod tables means students are easily organized to see each other, talk to one another (and not just to/at me!), and work together without any excess labour. In our old space, we spent easily 5 minutes at the top of each class trying to move the tables in the room into a seminar configurations, shifting excess tables and chairs as well out of the way as we could. It was annoying and often frustrating; the room showed us that it was not actually meant to be tinkered with, not that much anyway. As the term advanced and our energy levels declined, this work just began to seem onerous. The result? We started simply putting up with badly-arranged tables, spreading ourselves around the room in any way that seemed physically easiest. Conducive to group learning this was not.

In the WALS space, all that extra work was simply removed: now, we just walk in, watch the light come up, plop our stuff at our preferred pods, fire up Solstice on our phones and laptops, and get ready to talk, think, experiment, and learn.

Meanwhile, I noticed a huge difference thanks to the efficiencies the room afforded me as instructor. The instructor’s console is at the centre of the room, but it’s not intrusive; it’s also not organized for me to stand behind, the way a podium is. The console is where I decide what I should show on the screens around the room, when I’m managing the screens, and it’s a place for me to put my stuff. Other than that, it discourages lingering; there’s no way you could “lecture” from such a place. I’ve noticed myself toggling to information or prompts on our class website and then hurrying away from the console, because when I’m at it my back is to the students. (If the room were at capacity, my back would be to half the students, and I’d only be facing about 1/3 of them.)

Where do I position myself, then? I had to work this out over our first few classes. The 15 students in this class are positioned at the three pods “behind” the console control centre (in the left-hand area of the image above); at first I stood between the pods to talk. But then that started to seem weird: I was up and they were seated comfortably. I felt conspicuous.

In a traditional classroom space I would feel more at ease with a standing-sitting dynamic, because the architecture of such a space drives down toward the professor’s centre-front positioning and marks it as a focal point. With that spatial cue, prof standing and students sitting makes architectural “sense”. In this flex space, though, it just feels odd – because the “centre” of the room is not, in fact, the central console, but is divested among each pod. The students are at the spiritual, as well as the architectural, “centre” of the space, and they are seated. So, I realized, I need to be seated, too.

Now, when I prepare to talk to the whole room, I sit down, sometimes backwards on my chair (so I can lean on something!), and then I roll over to the space between the three occupied pods. (Wheels on chairs! Woo hoo!) I regularly reorient my chair physically depending on who is talking, and where they are seated. I move the chair around depending on whether or not a specific pod is reporting back on work. This way, I use my body in the space, and the affordances of the space, to demonstrate to the students their centrality to the space, in particular when their work is on display for the rest of us. I respond to their work, and they to my feedback and prompting, physically and affectively as well as intellectually.

And speaking of that work: we are all IN LOVE with the fabulous electronic white boards! The students have the capacity at their pods to toggle among white board mode, console-screen mode, and Solstice mode, and whenever we are doing group-based learning, I encourage them to shift to the white board and play around with their ideas. Erasing and starting over is easy, and we can share boards among pods, too (although we’ve not yet tried that pro move).

I haven’t yet taken a formal survey to get clear data about how the new space is working for the students, but my anecdotal sense is that they are as keen as I am on it. We are still discovering new tech and new possibilities, and I’ve also created a custom question for their course evaluations about the tech in the room. I’m jazzed for their feedback as I prep for next year. (About which… did I mention I’m excited?!!)

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Student Katie Flannery poses with her pod’s whiteboard learning about Bertolt Brecht.

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Student Ray Reid is feeling less dramatic, perhaps, about his pod’s white board work.

I think a lot about space as a theatre and performance researcher: about how space acts on us to organize our social interactions, and about how our social stratifications and raced, classed, and gendered affiliations dictate – often invisibly – who is “welcome” in certain spaces, and who is manifestly not. I find it remarkable, looking back from the comfort, ease, and adaptability of the WALS space, to think about how disaffecting, how unwelcoming in both a social and a political sense, many of our university classrooms remain. It’s as though they are “not” for learning at all.

This is bonkers! We want our students to discover their potential, to develop creative critical acumen, and to learn from one another as well as from our shared histories and contemporary conundrums. And yet we place them – or rather, we, as students and teachers, are placed – in rooms that often feel more like storage closets (at worst) or sterile meeting rooms (at best) than maker-spaces, zones of discovery.

As far as I’m concerned, all classrooms should be studios: built for the “ah-hah!”, kitted out to the highest possible standard, and arranged in a way that encourages the development of a healthy, supportive, group dynamic, so that we can all take safe risks together as we learn. It’s amazing how important the right space is for the doing of that kind of essential work.

Now, herewith: to celebrate the gift WALS has given me, I offer in return a bit of my new book Theory for Theatre Studies: Space. The “preview” link below will offer you the full introduction, as well as the first part of the book’s first section; the “buy now” link will take you to Bloomsbury’s online shop, where the paperback is on sale for just $11, and the e-book for $13.

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Preview | Buy Now

 

Enjoy!

Kim

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SNOW DAY!

Usually I would describe myself as snowed under.

Tuesdays are when I live this metaphor.

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I get up at 6am (NOT my chosen waking time, not by a long shot), having prepared my lunch AND supper for the day, arranged my books, and gathered clothes for various activities, all the night before. I walk Emma the dog, make coffee and a light breakfast, dress myself, shove everything into my backpack, and head for the train station a few minutes’ drive from my house.

I clamber onto the train at 7:25am, and work for the next 90 minutes en route to London, Ontario. I then walk the 50 minutes along the river to Western’s campus, and my office, where I get ready for a full day of office hours (10-12pm), meetings, teaching (12:30-4:30pm), and personal training before getting back on the train at 7:45pm. On the ride back home I eat my stashed supper, cold.

When I get home around 9:30pm, I’m absolutely cooked through. Emma the dog will probably get a walk before I fall into bed, but that’s it.

Yesterday was a Tuesday, but it was to be a special one. Instead of teaching 12:30-4:30, as usual, I would be taking my undergraduate students to Toronto, via chartered bus, to see Ravi Jain and Why Not Theatre’s intercultural and intersectional adaptation of Hamlet. My graduate class had been postponed to Friday (which was also to be a field trip). I was excited for this Tuesday, and its unique journey.

And then, an ice storm happened.

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This image is from the epic ice storm that hit Quebec in 1998. This week’s was not nearly this bad, but neither was it pretty.

I gradually woke up to the problem roaring up the great lakes around 6pm on Monday, when the “special weather statements” turned to “winter storm warnings” online, and when it occurred to me that schools across the region could well close for the day on Tuesday. I emailed both my dean and a friend who works in the experiential learning office at our university, and learned that if Western closed, I should without question postpone our field trip. By now it was around 10pm Monday.

I went to bed and tried not to worry. After all, Western ALMOST NEVER closes. (It is like a polar bear: bring on the ice and snow! We endure!) And the bus company had confirmed the trip was a go from their end – nothing to fret about.

Tuesday I woke as usual at 6am and walked Emma. The worst had not yet hit and things seemed oddly calm outside. I watched the Western home page every few minutes, with no change. I prepared to leave for the train station.

And then, at 6:45am, there it was: the announcement we were closed for the day.

Suddenly, it dawned on me: it was A SNOW DAY. I was an adult, and I was getting a snow day!

I did not need to get on the train. I did not need to go anywhere, at all, all day.

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(For those of you not from/in Canada or the northern half of the US, a “snow day” is a day when schools and some businesses shut because of treacherous winter weather that impedes safe travel. It’s like Christmas Day, basically, but with none of the pressure to cook a turkey and pretend that you like your relatives. If you are a kid, it is like winning the jackpot!)

Almost instantly, the panic I’d been feeling about messed-up field trip plans evaporated. A wave of relief flooded my body. The idea of staying home on a Tuesday came with such a sense of pleasure, of potential rest, of freedom, that I forgot I’d even worried about the knife the snow day had sliced into my carefully-laid class plans.

So, what did I do with this unexpected gift, my snow day?

First, I sat down with my coffee (tipped back out of my Hydroflask and into a carafe on the stove to stay warm) and emailed the bus company, the theatre company, and the students. I inquired about contingencies, and told the students to stay home, be warm, and check back later for updates.

I emailed colleagues I was to be meeting at 10am, and at 1pm, and asked about rescheduling options.

I posted some stuff to Facebook. (Everyone who was awake and ready for school or work was now at home with nothing, momentarily, to do – FACEBOOK!!!!!).

And then I went back to sleep.

Emma and I woke up again at 10:30am, and lay in bed watching the storm for a few minutes. I thought, peacefully, about how the rest of the day would, or rather could, unfold.

A snow day is like a gift from the universe; it’s a day out of time. Everything is on hold; everything that WAS going to happen today is going to have to happen tomorrow, or the next day, or later. Sometime, but not now. Think about it later. Today hangs in suspension. It’s wide open.

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I thought about working; what work needed doing? I always have a long list, after all (see above, re “snowed under”). I decided I’d prepare my Thursday class, something I hadn’t finished on Monday. Then, I figured, I’d see what I felt like.

I made some more coffee and texted my neighbour, who was also working from home. I invited her to come over for cocoa in the afternoon; I said, maybe, I’d make some cookies.

I got an email blast from our local donut shop; they were feeling the snow-day, ice-glazed-road hit, and having a buy-6-get-6-free sale to get rid of the morning’s baking. Amanda and I talked about perhaps taking the dogs up the road to get donuts; this plan eventually went south because the sidewalks became too slippery, but it seemed like the perfect snow day idea.

I sat down at my desk and worked on my prep, leisurely. Normally Mondays are my weekly prep days, and there’s enough to do that I typically start to rush and panic at some point. Today, though, no rush and no panic feelings came: free day, day out of time, meant feeling able to take my time, making time for the little extras, and taking care with them, too.

Around 3pm an email came through from a colleague in the UK, with a final edit of a chapter I’d submitted to him at Christmas. I decided I had the time and space to have a look at it right then and there. The changes requested were minor, and it was a pleasure, on this day of quiet semi-work-semi-leisure, to reread my text and adjust as I saw fit.

I fired the chapter back to him around 4pm, and texted Amanda to come for cocoa. Then I got the cookies (peanut butter) in the oven.

We drank our chocolate, ate treats, and gossiped for an hour; then she went home to watch a movie, and I braved the sidewalks with intrepid Emma the dog. Later, I did a workout on my home bicycle trainer, then prepared a frittata for supper. I enjoyed that with a nice glass of wine.

So that’s what I did on my snow day: I gave myself the freedom to feel its liberty, its time-less-ness. To work and not to work; to enjoy the gift of time I so rarely feel in a world of constant movement, piled-up-tasks, panic over deadlines. I let myself feel out of time’s rush, out of the freight of get-it-done, for a moment. It was incredibly restful – even though it was not a day “of rest”, strictly speaking.

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I do want to stop here and acknowledge that snow days, for parents, are a very different thing: kids are home and probably stir-crazy and there’s more, not less, juggling to be done as a result. I can only imagine my snow day with kids at the heel while I tried to prep, manage Emma, and contact field trip stakeholders; I suspect I would have felt a lot less free and a good deal more winded. There may not have been cookies.

What I’m describing in this post, then, is a kind of ideal snow day, not the one that happens for everyone or even captures a common reality.

My gift of a snow day, though, does provide an apt reminder, for all days. It’s a reminder to remember that we are all in this together, as when the ice traps us in our neighbourhoods and invites our shared commiseration and digging out. It’s a reminder that work does not need to be a constant rush, and does not need to be divorced from leisure. It’s a reminder that time does not need to hold us hostage the way it often seems to do. Likely, we can all make even just a bit more time, all the time, simply by shifting our attitudes toward the way time holds us, and our narratives about work and chores and family, in its grasp.

As it turned out, I managed to move our field trip to Thursday with almost no fuss. All that worry on Monday night had been for nothing; on the far side of the snow day, I was able to see that. Which is also, at this tough time of term, a gift.

Stay warm!

Kim

Decolonizing the syllabus, part 2: so it ain’t perfect, but I am working on it

Back in September I wrote about what I might characterize as my teaching, as well as my personal, goal for F/W 2018-19: to try to decolonize my syllabi as much as possible.

I talked in detail in that post about my brand-new course, “Toronto: Culture and Performance.” That class took a group of 40 students – plus one keen international graduate student auditor, one TA-extraordinaire, and me – to the city down the highways five times over the course of 13 weeks to see five amazing shows. We also read a diverse bunch of authors writing about Toronto’s theatre ecology, held a fantastic workshop with one of the Toronto Star‘s theatre critics, and created some pretty amazing final projects, including several remarkable creative ones.

I just loved that class and cannot wait to teach it again.

One of the reasons I loved it was because I felt, every week, like I was living up to my goal of working against the colonial drift. With the luxury of a totally new prep, a course I had designed entirely from scratch, I could map a landscape that looked as decolonized as I could hope for.

The course began by foregrounding Indigeneity as central to any labour on theatre and performance in a settler-colonial state; it continued by centralizing non-White and non-dominant voices in the majority of the work we read and saw. When we did encounter dominant or “mainstream” voices, we therefore had the tools to ask critical questions about how our expectations about cultural value and theatrical “quality” in Anglophone North America are shaped by the normalization of White, straight, and cis experience.

(I’m particularly proud of a class discussion we held after seeing Anosh Irani’s not-entirely-successful Mumbai + Vancouver-set Men in White at Factory Theatre. That discussion began with a completely reasonable [and predictable] group whinge about stock characters and a perceived lack of nuance, but eventually reached a deep reflection on how genre can be an agent of colonialism. We ended that day by asking why many artists of colour might feel a pressure, or even a need, to tell their stories inside the generic frame of Western realism, aka the “well made play”, even when that frame does not suit their stories.)

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But, of course, not all courses do we get to bake from scratch, right? Some we inherit. Sometimes that inheritance is nimble and exciting. Sometimes it’s a dire mess, but the idea of  renovating it, especially under time pressure, is overwhelming.

Sometimes – and I think this is the worst scenario, personally – the course is FINE but also not the best it could be. You’re aware of this but you’re also exhausted. You *could* do something with it, but you could also leave it – the students will still learn. You’re still a good teacher; you’ll still get them to the questions they need to be asking.

This is especially hard and upsetting when the course is one that you, some time ago, designed from scratch.

I’d been planning, since September, to totally revamp my History of Performance Theory class, a winter term module I began teaching four years ago. This course has needed work for a while, and I’ve known it; it’s littered with Aristotle and The Usual Post-Aristotelian Subjects, it’s way too White, and it’s boring. I’ve struggled with the readings, struggled with finding effective ways to demonstrate the readings in practice, and struggled with setting performance-based assessments that effectively allow the students to enact, and thereby own, the theory.

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Trump and/as Aristotle. Sigh. What role the Dead White Dude in an anti-colonial performance theory syllabus?

Basically, the course is a dumpster fire, from my perspective. But, again: the students have consistently enjoyed it, and probably would do again. Nevertheless, I determined This. Was. The. Year. I would retool it completely! I would start in September!

But then, stuff intervened: personal stuff that had to be prioritized, in the moment, above redoing a winter teaching prep. When late December hit and I’d managed both to ride out that stuff and rest a bit, I realized I only had about a week to totally decolonize that nasty, white-washed pile of teaching poo sitting on the corner of my desk.

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Nope. Still depressing.

What to do? I knew I couldn’t really do anything like a proper job of reorganizing the course in a week. Remarkably, though, it was when I faced down the reality of my shortened time frame that I finally realized how much of a process the decolonizing of this course – really, of ANY existing, kinda-fine-but-not-quite course – needed to be. This was a process I could begin in December 2018 with integrity, but not finish – perhaps not finish for some time. And maybe that’s ok.

So I got to work on the beginning.

First, I asked myself what I wanted a decolonized version of this class to look like. Beyond inviting students to read texts from multiple perspectives across the centuries, what did I want the class to do?

I came up with a list.

  1. The class needs to empower the students, giving them a sense of ownership over the material and their experience of it. (This is especially key in theory classes, which can be intimidating and quickly become divided: some “get it” right away, while others remain confused and feel bad about themselves as a result.)
  2. The class needs not to hierarchize readings, in which the old White guys appear to be “first” or “top” or “most key”.
  3. The class should not be entirely chronological. While some then-to-now is important for understanding globally rich concepts (like “mimesis” and its politics), working by theme rather than temporally means shifting students’ idea of where history “is” and whether or not we, too, are part of history right now.
  4. The class needs to be as much about learning to read theory, and to use it in ways that are fun and relevant, as about “taking in” the “great ideas” of historical thought. In other words: the class needs to take as given that theory is hard but worthwhile, and therefore it’s our shared responsibility to make sense of it as a team.

This list turned out to be a really helpful starting point. It allowed me to make a plan with both my and the students’ needs in mind. (Remarkably, I wonder: do I really always foreground student needs when I plan a class? DO I?) In turn this plan led to me to do three things toward decolonizing the syllabus that I’m feeling good about. It’s still early days, but so far so good.

Here’s what I did:

First, I turned to the question of readings. Back in October, when life things were really starting to hit the fan for me, I re-ordered the textbook I have previously used for this class: Daniel Gerould’s Theatre/Theory/Theatre. It’s imperfect but also just fine, and I figured that, if needed, I could make it work better for me than it had done in the past.

I was right: looking carefully at the table of contents, I realized that, while Gerould prioritizes the Anglo-European tradition, he does include a handful of non-Western sources in the book – enough to make a critical mass if used carefully.

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Professor Gerould’s theatre theory textbook. The introductions remain a highlight for me!

I selected a number of readings that I wanted to see on the course, ranging from Aristotle and Sidney (benchmark Western writers) to Brandi Wilkins Catanese and Jen Harvie (contemporary women writing about the politics of race and labour in performance, respectively). I slotted these into early and later weeks. (Here, the chronology makes sense for me, as Catanese and Harvie will allow us to return to “old” ideas late in the term and chart their contemporary iterations.)

Then, for the weeks in between, I returned to a practice I’ve used in the past (and which Anna Griffith also talks about in her December post on her performance history class). I’d let the students select half of the readings from a list I’d curate (thus offering them security in choice). I picked four weeks for “Students’ Choice” and gathered 12 potential readings for these. These potentials included a deliberately diverse range of authors: all of the non-Western readings in Gerould, plus an Indigenous, female, Toronto-based playwright, an Egyptian-Canadian, male artist from Vancouver, and a prominent feminist performance scholar. These weeks were broadly “themed” (IE: acting theory; theatre and social justice), but beyond that the options ranged from ancient to of-the-moment and everywhere in between.

In our second class of the term, we spent a full hour exploring our reading options in small groups and making selections. In three groups, the students read several pages of four potential texts, debated their relative merits, and then presented their top choices to the class. As I predicted, the students went for majority non-White, non-normative choices in every case – but they did so for a number of reasons (including complementarity, interest in the topic, readability, and more), and not just because I, the teacher, said that would be “good” for them to read “diverse” voices. (It turns out that’s what they wanted to do, in any case!)

So we’ve now got a really rich range of readings – Aristotle; Bharata; Jani Lauzon; Philip Sidney; Li Yu; Jill Dolan; Augusto Boal; Bertolt Brecht; Marcus Youssef; Catanese; and Harvie – in that order. And the readings are majority students’ choice, so the class can feel a sense of ownership over them. My hope is that the challenges the readings will pose will seem, if not more doable, then definitely more worth working on, because of that.

Second, I created a handful of research questions to serve as a lens we can use to approach any text. These are listed in the course description at the top of the syllabus, as well as at the top of the week-by-week schedule. They are:

Who or what is allowed to be represented, and why?

Is this representation “good” for us, and why or why not? What exactly should representation “do”?

Should audiences think, or feel? Enjoy, or learn? Is there a third option?

I’ve told the students that these questions return again and again in performance theory, and that we will encounter a number of responses to them. At the same time, we should be thinking about our own responses to them: who is represented around us now, and how, and to what end? Is this representation “good” for those who are represented? For us? Who decides? Why does it matter?

Having these research questions in place as a baseline means we always have somewhere to go, if things get complicated. Don’t understand why Aristotle keeps changing his mind about whether or not “spectacle” is ok? Ask yourself: who does he think should be allowed to be represented? What does he think the audience is supposed to get out of it? Why might he feel this way? These benchmark questions offer a reading lifeline, while also raising issues that are essential to get on the table if we are going to try to make sense of theory cross-culturally.

Finally, I devised a broad assessment framework: explain, apply, and extend. Actually, I’ve used this framework before, but never as holistically as this year. Rather than just set a task (or a series of tasks) where students need to explain, apply, and extend a piece of theory, I’ve this year turned the framework into a model for our classroom working practice across the term.

At the centre of this model are three 500-word tasks where students will “explain” a theory (very basic, but important – that’s the point), “apply” a different theory (find an example of the theory in practice, from anywhere they like, and talk about it), and “extend” a third theory (push or question its parameters).

To bolster students’ confidence and demonstrate these tasks thoroughly, each week I am organizing my class prep into three roughly 1-hour chunks, one devoted to each of the tasks for the theory up that week.

Because the “explain” and “extend” portions of this work are likely to feature a lot of me talking, I’ve decided the “apply” portion of each week should be driven by the class. Students are invited to post rough-and-ready demonstrations of the theory in practice to our class website by 10pm on Wednesdays, and not to worry about whether or not they’ve got it “right”. Every post, provided it includes an example and a short description of why it was chosen, earns 2% out of a possible 10% for the “online prompt response” assessment. So making five honest attempts to “apply” a theory earns full marks, because the point of this assessment is not to “get it,” but to contribute to our class discussion in a fulsome way. (Note: this assessment is not the same as the “apply” task I note above. It’s meant to be low-stakes practice for it.)

(One student’s clever “apply” post to our class website last week: Rose and the Doctor as evidence of what Aristotle means by “the probable.”)

I’ve done other things, too, to help shape a classroom environment that offers students as much ownership over their experience as possible, while also prioritizing typically unheard voices both in the room and in our readings: students will write participation reflections and come talk to me about their participation practice in my office at mid-term; there’s no final exam, but rather a group performance project that will allow students to choose a play (from three options) they want to work on, and select into a performance group based on that choice; we’re already in the habit of moving our classroom furniture each week into configurations that allow for student-centred learning.

I hope to write about these other things in later posts, and I’ll share updates about the class – how it’s feeling for me; how it’s going for the students – during the term too. I don’t pretend this is anywhere near what I’d like it to ultimately be, but I think it’s a good start. I’m also hoping the students will help me to see what needs changing as we go, so that I can keep this particular syllabus-decolonization project in motion.

Meanwhile, stay warm!

Kim

What happened when I sat down to plan my winter semester

This time last year I was a-giddy and a-gog with the achievement of my sabbatical just passed: 40,000 words toward the monograph for students, Theory for Theatre Studies: Space, that I completed in spring 2018. (It’s published next month, from the Bloomsbury imprint Methuen; pre-order a copy here!)

Theory for TS Space cover proof

That stellar word count was the result of me establishing, for the first time really in my academic life, a regular, sustainable writing practice: two hours or 1000 words per day, four days per week, throughout my leave. I was thrilled at how well it had worked for me, and I was sure I could sustain even a bit of that momentum going into the spring, summer, and fall terms of 2019.

Uh-huh.

Sure I could have – I am sure indeed I could have – except I didn’t exactly plan to, not properly. I created an “un-schedule” for myself for spring term, and another for summer, but didn’t stick to it; it sat on my desktop, glaring at me, but I never checked in with it. (Eventually, I became afraid to. Then I just sort of started ignoring it.)

Summer you’d think would be a great time to manage a writing practice in an easy-breezy way; after all, it’s when most academics do the majority of their writing. But how do we write, in summer? We write in a panic because deadlines are approaching. We write towards deadlines further down the line as they come into view, but probably we don’t get “enough” writing on those projects done for our liking, and then we start to panic come August and September. If you’re like me (and I assume you’re a bit like me, since I’m not that special, though I realize YMMV), and between big projects, you may just sort of unconsciously decide to eff the writing off a bit and concentrate on other things, like summer conference travel (WHAT A TIME SINK, YES?), “catching up” on admin, spending too much time on email, sort-of-but-not-really planning winter teaching, etc.

That was me over the summer: away for something like 5 weeks, including two full conference weeks, plus goodness knows where the rest of the time went. I know I did some copyediting and proofing and web-resource-gathering for the book (all valuable tasks, and ALL WRITING TASKS, I’ll add in case any of us doubt this). I know I thought about teaching at least some of the time. I know I answered a lot of email, much of it pertaining to the academic journal I edit (and which is valuable work, and sort of writing work, but also an incredibly time consuming service slog, and to be honest I’m not going to miss it when it’s over).

Then fall hit, and my dad got sick. Train. Off. Rails.

Now, dad is recovering and I had a good long winter sleep over Christmas and I feel better and brighter. And like writing again.

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(Thank heavens for the winter break. TIME TO HIBERNATE.)

So I asked myself: how exactly am I going to do that writing again? If I could, for sure, hold down a regular writing practice, how could I also ensure that I really did it?

Enter Jo Van Every.

My dear friend and colleague Jenn had recommended Jo to me before; Jo runs the Academic Writing Studio online, and supports scholars just like us in pickles just like mine. In October, Jenn alerted me to a workshop Jo was running in Ottawa in December; I eagerly signed up and started recruiting friends to come along so that Jo would have the critical mass she needed in order to make the thing a go. I was really excited to spend a day just thinking about what it was I wanted to be thinking and writing about at this stage in my career – one of the promises of the event. But then my dad’s surgery was scheduled at the exact same time as the workshop, in a city 600km away. So I had to pull out.

(Side note, because I’m pretty sure my dad is reading this. I don’t regret that choice! In fact, it had very positive consequences. Read on.)

Jo understood my difficulty completely, and very kindly gifted me, in lieu of my attendance, a basic membership to her online writing studio. I then received a number of resources from her via email, including a link to a recorded class called “Planning Your Winter Semester.” On New Year’s day, I sat down at my desk with my calendar to hand and all other distractions shut away, to listen to the class and make notes as needed.

Here’s what happened when I did that.

Plan, Wooden peg  and colorful words

Jo began by asking us what we had focused on in the fall semester; she suggested we make a quick list. Then, she asked us what went well in the fall, what we had read (if anything) new, and what the highlights of our personal life had been.

I really appreciated these early prompts; they allowed to me to make early realizations that were generative for the rest of the session. My notes for these prompts include a mix of things, but a few trends stand out.

I discovered not only that my focus in fall term had been on a lot of personal things – my dad’s treatment, and my boyfriend, whose schedule conflicts with mine so making time for one another is an active thing we both have to do – but also that I highlighted those as things I would focus on again in a minute.

I also highlighted some teaching things that were important to me, including my ongoing personal challenge to decolonize my class content and teaching practice. I noted, in fact, that one of the wins of the semester was learning that such decolonization isn’t always, or doesn’t always primarily need to be, about content; it can also, very importantly, be about the way a classroom is organized, and the ways in which students are encouraged to think about their labour as learners in a shared environment of discovery. (For more on this, see Anna Griffith’s brilliant December guest post.)

I also noted, in bold-faced all-caps type, that the highlight of my personal life in fall 2018 was taking a very short, entirely personal, and much-needed break to visit friends and family in England, between my dad’s surgery and an immovable exam commitment just before the Christmas break. The fact that I needed that break, and took it, even though the timing was awkward and the lead-up terribly stressful, was absolutely the best thing I did for myself last term.

(During my long weekend in London I visited the Christmas Slugs at Tate Britain. Hands down the best holiday deco EVER.)

We then moved on to reflect on what balls we had dropped in the fall term, acknowledging from the start that we all drop balls and that’s really ok. I noted a few, including the fact that I did not write AT ALL (caps in original!) last semester. Now, strictly speaking, this is a lie; I actually drafted and sent off a chapter on space, theatre, and gender, which was overdue but for which I negotiated a new deadline (and then met that deadline). A large part of that drafting happened during a one-day writing retreat I committed to in October, thanks to two of my brilliant colleagues in Arts and Humanities at Western.

(So: make a commitment to spend time with your writing (as in: put it in the calendar), meet the commitment (maybe because others are expecting you to? Maybe it’s just you doing the expecting? Maybe the calendar has a sharp stink eye?), and voila. Some words that will sometime not long from now be published. How’s that for a party trick?)

As we worked through our dropped balls, Jo encouraged us to think about how we would like to feel in winter semester – how it would feel to pick one of those balls up and start juggling it successfully again. (Jo works with the juggling metaphor a lot – I find it effective. She tells me juggling just one ball is A Thing, and I feel immense relief at that thought!)

This is what I wrote:

If I was a smooth juggler, how would that feel?

  • It would feel like a slower heart rate
  • It would feel like a good night’s sleep and a restful morning
  • It would feel like sunshine and walkies
  • It would feel like a fast ride on my bike

…during the winter semester I choose to feel slowed down, rested, like a smooth rider with sun on her face and warm wind in her hair.

Sure, that reads a bit corny. But I assure you in the moment it was revelatory. (I wrote in the margins, “I feel a bit teary right now!”)

I realized, during this exercise, that I COULD write in-term, and that I want to – that it would feel good to write again!

I ALSO realized that I desperately want and need to rest more, and better, and to focus on the pleasure I feel when I’m not working.

You’ll notice the phrasing in the quote above: I write that I “choose” to feel, not that I want or need to feel. This phrasing is also the result of Jo’s prompting, and I found it really helpful. Framing my wants and needs as choice – as me choosing to feel slowed down and rested, and making that commitment to myself on paper – moved me emotionally in a way that the slightly-panicked “WANT” and “NEED” phrasing did not. The latter phrasing feels reactionary, a burden; it feels affectively gluey. The choice phrasing feels more controlled, obviously, but also lighter: like the burden is not inevitable; the achievement of my goals need not be arduous.

Obviously choosing is one thing, and executing is another, especially when so much of our choices are delimited by work and family constraints. So, the rest of our session focused on turning these hopeful choices into some kind of plan for an achievable reality.

First, we listed all the things that we might need to do in the term – work, writing, teaching, family, you name it. The resulting list was long and scary, and Jo acknowledged that. She then reminded us that it was not fixed: we could add to it whenever we saw fit and we could reprioritize it whenever we saw fit.

She also said, to my mind really valuably: you also do not need to LOOK at this list all the time.

As we moved into the calendar-focused portion of the class, Jo asked us to put that list away, and make instead a new list, of things we might want to devote time and energy to in the term ahead. She asked us to highlight one thing that we’d want to prioritize above all else.

I chose two things: resting more and better, and writing regularly.

We went on to work through separate sections on writing, teaching, and service, starting with writing; we’d list what we had on our plates at the moment, where we’d want our priorities to be this term, and then we’d fill in our calendars accordingly. Jo encouraged us to block off our teaching time – office hours, prep time, AND class time – in our calendars so that we could actually see that time represented visually in our schedules. (I’m really bad at this – I never put class time or prep time into my iCal because it’s a “given”. Ditto office hours. Post-class, my calendar looks CRAZY FULL. Huh.)

She also encouraged us to think about what a reasonable commitment to our writing might be this term, and we spent time here.

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I decided I could block off one hour on a Wednesday morning (right now, in fact!), and one hour on a Friday morning, for writing and writing-related tasks.

Then I put it in the calendar, until Reading Week; during that week I blocked off a time to check in with my writing practice, make adjustments, and schedule writing time for the rest of the term.

Importantly, here, Jo reminded us that “writing” isn’t just sitting down to write a chunk of a chapter that will shortly be published. It’s about everything from planning to reading to abstract-writing to writing-for-teaching.

That built-in flexibility means not only does the blocked-off time in my calendar seem more adaptable to my weekly or monthly needs, but it seems less intimidating. I need to write for my Friday morning hour; this week, though, I’m feeling a bit brain-drained, so I’ll focus on reading the thing I’ve been putting off, for the project I’m in the beginning stages of planning. THAT COUNTS as a “meeting with my writing” (again, Jo’s helpful phrase).

Before the class ended, Jo devoted much-needed time to a section on self-care. She asked us all to think about what we already did, and what we needed to do, to feel as good as possible, even at the rough times of the semester. She asked us to reflect on sleep: how much are we getting? How much do we need? And she asked us to make some self-care goals.

Mine? To wake up every weekday morning feeling properly rested. And to take an actual break before, and after, each class I teach, so that I can “gear up” and “come down” in ways that respect the sheer exertion of teaching labour.

Finally, Jo asked a question that really resonated with me: How can I make the term easy on myself?

As I thought about this question I realized properly, for the first time, that I’m teaching two repeat preps this winter. Sure, as part of my project to decolonize my teaching, I’m adjusting one of them a fair bit. But the other – my graduate class – went very well the last time around; why should I change it? My instinct is always to over-tinker with teaching and re-write preps extensively. But honestly, why? The students are new and the stuff is new to them. They will learn! And, truly, they’ll learn better from me if I’m teaching from a place of ease and rest, rather than panic and exhaustion.

So I resolved, then and there, not to shake up the grad class beyond switching out a couple of readings, and adjusting the schedule according to the new term’s dates. I also resolved that the work of “decolonizing” my undergraduate theory class would have to happen in stages (really, that’s probably better anyway, right?), and that we would begin by introducing a handful of new readings at strategic points in the term, alongside readings I’ve taught before. I’m also returning to a past model of this class, where students help to select a number of the readings in week one, and we build a trajectory through the theory together. (More on this in my next post.)

These “resolutions” made, I felt lighter. I felt more in control of my schedule. I felt free to get up from my desk and harness Emma the Dog up for some long New Year’s walkies. And as we walked, I started to think about all the things I might do in those new slots in my calendar, marked “WRITING.”

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(Emma and I on a warm and no-white New Year’s walk along Lake Ontario.)

Best for the beginning of the term!

Kim

OMG CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME HOW TO GRADE PARTICIPATION???

This is a cry for help.

It’s the end of term. I’m absolutely thrilled: welcome back, weekday drinking! And I’m really tired. Where’s my pillow at, again?

But I’m also staring at my computer screen. Because I’ve got 40 students in my terrific Toronto: Culture and Performance class, and they’ve all been superb and committed and present, and now I have to give them “participation” grades.

Ah, participation. What exactly is it “testing” for? If you’re like me you’ve probably not spent enough time thinking about that question, or considering what we are trying to measure and reward with the inevitable “10% participation” line in the syllabus – the one that carries over from year to year with hardly a thought or a tweak.

That laziness comes home to roost this time of year. Because they can’t all get 100%, now, can they?

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So I’m being a touch disingenuous here. I’ve actually thought about participation a fair bit. In most of my classes it is a category pegged to real work and effort, not a nebulous thing that lets me quietly reward students I appreciate more than others, or unconsciously punish those who have pissed me off. (Yes, we all do this. No, we don’t mean to. Think about it.)

For example: in my OTHER fall term class, my second-year performance studies seminar, participation works like this.

We have a class blog. (All the class prep and para-discussion goes on the blog.) Every Monday I post a “prompt” related to the week’s reading, viewing, or topic in general. I ask the students to engage with an aspect of the work under consideration, and to do so in writing or by posting video or other media. I emphasize that this work should demonstrate a fulsome (not just passing) engagement with the topic or material – IE: that it should take more than a minute or two to do. But I also emphasize it is not “graded”; students should feel free to experiment, write as much or as little as they wish without fear of making grammatical errors, and take a risk if they wish (there are no wrong answers!). I place a deadline on the responses – they must be completed an hour before class – and I always incorporate them into my class prep, so it’s clear they’re not just make-work things.

The rule for this fall’s seminar was: respond to 5 prompts over 13 weeks and earn 100% in participation. That’s 20% per prompt. Come to class every day, prepared and on time, and keep your grade. Miss class without accommodation? Each miss takes 5% off your running total. Miss more than three classes without accommodation, and lose all your participation grades for the class.

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My logic for this structure was as follows. Coming to class matters a lot: seminars thrive on group discussion. Being prepared matters for the quality of discussion we have, and being on time is simply respectful. But the quality of in-class discussion is profoundly enhanced by thinking carefully and richly in advance about the work we’re going to do there – that’s the spirit of the flipped classroom in action. So the prompts were my way of saying: here’s something we’re really going to talk about. And the students’ responses were a way of saying: this is where we think we want to go with this. We’re into it!

And that, really, is what I am “testing” with participation: the willingness to have a real, considered, respectful conversation about a syllabus topic – to put something real into it, and get something real out of it.

Versions of this participation rubric have worked well for me over the past few years: sometimes the pre-prepped action relates to a prompt response; sometimes it takes the form of a performance. I’ve been learning and tweaking as I go, but I’ve been trying hard to eliminate the guesswork. Participation grades function best when they are pegged to rubrics, and when they reward heartfelt effort and genuine engagement with as much of the subjective stuff on my end either eliminated or curbed by the hard evidence of a student’s work on behalf of the course.

Flash forward to TOCAP, the big class on the screen in front of me. I didn’t do what I describe above for this class: too big; too much work. UGH! So what did I say about participation? I checked the outline just now. It says this:

To earn 100% for participation – and you really truly can (it happens all the time) – do the following things:

  • Come to class. Every day. If you have to miss, ensure you have accommodation from your academic counsellors (see below).
  • Read the stuff we’re reading. Think carefully as you’re reading. Maybe read it twice if it’s a challenge. Take some notes! Bear in mind that the reading load for this class is not heavy; readings have been scheduled to give you lots of opportunities to make time for them, and there are built in re-reading opportunities if you want to take them.
  • Contribute to class. This doesn’t mean talking a lot; talking a lot usually means you’re not paying attention to how much space you’re taking up. It also doesn’t mean nevertalking, though: lots of us are shy, but there will be many different ways in this class to share thoughts – including via silent writing, group chats, peer-to-peer conversations, and more. If you’re a shy person and you’re working hard to contribute, we will notice.
  • Take some risks! Falling on your arse doesn’t mean failing the course: it means you have to get up and try again. A risk is worth it if you learn something valuable about yourself in the process. And risks can be small: like speaking up when normally you don’t, or keeping mum when normally you talk over others. Risks can also mean trying to create a video when normally you wouldn’t, or writing your essay well in advance and bringing it to Kim or Courtney to talk about, when normally you’re a last-minute person. Taking a risk means actively taking up an invitation made by our class to push yourself a bit, rather than just showing up for the sake of it. Give it a try.

This all sounds great, and I’m sure it was reassuring. But it’s also not a rubric; it says NOTHING about how I’m going to measure these things. And that’s a problem – because right now I have to measure them.

Staring at the screen in low-level panic, I’m reminded that I need to figure out how to scale up my participation rubric experiments and fast.

There are best practices out there of course: here’s a good one from Faculty Focus this past May; here are four collated in a short article published by the Teaching Commons at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, ON. (I’m fond of the first one here, but click the second link in that bullet in order to read both the first noted article by Weimer, and the response by Slapcoff.) But the problem of scale still arises: in large classes, grading participation is significant extra work – or can be perceived that way (certainly at this time of the term, and certainly right now by me!).

This is why Slapcoff and Weimer’s linked reflections (in the first item above, as mentioned) make great sense to me: as writing assignments about participation, they offer excellent ways for students to reflect meta-cognitively on their classroom practice in a format we A&H professors are used to grading, and grading quickly. Better still, if these are (as Weimer suggests) papers written primarily for completion and reflection (like my students’ blog prompt responses), they need not be long, and they need not be marked for grammar. Feedback can happen in a peer-to-peer structure, or at strategic points in the term when life’s not too busy. It might be most fruitful, in fact, to schedule mid-term check-in meetings with students, where they bring a participation reflection with them, and talk them through in office hours. If the class is big, perhaps setting one or two sessions aside for this reflection work makes sense, too.

Options, for sure, if not solutions. What think you, dear readers? What do you do in larger-class scenarios to measure participation? What works, what’s too much work? What’s definitely not worth doing? Thoughts very welcome.

Kim