*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?
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.
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.
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?!!)
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.