My job and the climate crisis: thoughts on the structures that prevent us from going carbon-neutral

Two years ago last month I moved 125km down the highway from my campus office. I made this move for my own wellbeing: I was unhappy in the town where my university resides, and I wanted to be closer to the theatre and performance work in Toronto that I routinely see (and write about professionally). I also wanted to be closer to friends in Toronto, and to the ebb and flow of that city’s urban life.

There’s nothing controversial about choosing a city to live in, and then moving there; well, nothing controversial unless you’re an academic. Those of us inside the ivory tower learn quickly, when we apply to graduate school, that very little of the job is about picking a place to live; it’s all about picking the right program, and the right supervisor, at the university that’s a best fit for your research. WHERE that university is located is generally immaterial; in grad school, anyway, you can reason it’s an adventure and you’re there 5 years max.

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Another thing I get with my new home: close proximity to a landscape worth celebrating, playing in, and protecting. My work-life balance has really improved.

But if you follow this career path through, get *super* lucky and end up with a full time academic job, you realize the sting in this particular tail: the school that actually wants you and is about to throw an actual salary at you may not be in New York. Or Chicago, or San Francisco. Or Toronto. More likely it will be someplace quite far, both socially and culturally, from the places you most love and want to be. It may be really far from family and friends. It might even be in a community that is, at times, overtly hostile to your values, one that drains you from the inside.

But it’s still a job. Worse luck yet, it’s probably a really good job, a “dream” job. A job you need to take, because these jobs don’t grow on trees.

What happens to these insanely fortunate academics – people like me, with great jobs in cities they do not want to live in? Sometimes they make the best of it; I did for almost 10 years. Many of my friends in small-town or small-city universities tell me all the time how much they’ve grown to appreciate their new homes, and I respect that.

Sometimes they complain bitterly and on the regular, taking every chance to escape on city breaks at weekends (yup, also me).

And sometimes they decide to move away, and commute to campus part-time. This commute might be 50km, 100km, or 1000km long. Usually it’s a city-to-city commute, requiring cars, trains, and even airplanes to sustain.

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I googled “commuting is hell”.

There are lots of us commuting to my university; in fact, it sells itself to new recruits with its proximity to Toronto. A decent number of my departmental colleagues commute, and we are often kindly accommodated in our teaching and meeting schedules, others taking pains to recognize that we’re only within shooting distance of campus a couple of times a week.

So my commute is a privilege, and I recognize this. My ability to work half the time from home, the respect my employer shows for my commuting choice, and of course my financial ability to afford to commute: these are all things I know I have that many others do not.

But my commute has also opened my eyes, wide, to how poor our public transport systems and infrastructure in North America are, especially when you leave major urban corridors behind. It has opened my eyes to how hard it can be for my students to get to class on time, when they are relying on packed buses running tens of minutes behind schedule even in the heart of the city. It has revealed the incredible economic privilege it can take to get around exclusively by public transportation in this part of my country, when the car is often a far cheaper and easier (and bloody faster, more convenient) option.

It has also revealed to me what it might look and feel like to be not so fortunate as to be able to commute to one’s good academic job, but rather to be financially trapped in a place where the job is good enough, but the living is not really, on balance, living. (But hey, in the neoliberal universe, working *is* living, right?)

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Planes, Trains and Automobiles, 1987. Sadly, the train in this image looks way more modern than the average VIA service.

How do I get to work from my new home? For the first winter, I drove exclusively. This proved emotionally devastating in ways I did not expect. I was exhausted from the driving, even though there’s virtually no traffic on the very well-maintained highways lining my route. (Turns out going 120kph for 75 minutes is stressful. Who knew?) I kept leaving too late and running out of the house with the gas hob still on. (Fun fact: you can leave a gas burner, with nothing atop it, on for 12 hours and it’s fine.) Sometimes I was so drained from the teaching day that I’d get gas for the drive home and forget to shut the gas tank door.

So driving all the time wasn’t the best. It was, however, by far the cheapest option – at most $25 round trip in gas, vs at minimum $55 round trip on the train, and that’s the super-planning-ahead rate. By no small measure it was also the fastest and most convenient option. Still, I was increasingly aware of just how much bigger my carbon footprint was growing; between January 2018 and January 2019 I think I put 40,000km on my VW Golf. (That’s twice what insurance companies consider an annual norm for North America.)

Last winter, faced with my stark new carbon reality, I started investing in the train journey despite the costs and timing inconveniences. VIA, Canada’s national intercity carrier, serves my local commuter rail station with a service that goes a bare few times daily between Toronto and London, ON. I bought a raft of tickets during a Boxing Week sale, scheduling my outbound train for first thing in the morning and my return for last thing at night.

Why? Because these were the only services that fit with my (totally normal, mid-afternoon) teaching schedule, and they turned my four-hour teaching day into a 14-hour colossus.

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A glam shot of VIA’s “Rocky Mountaineer” snaking through the Jasper corridor. This is a holiday train. My train is not a holiday train.

The train proved saner, on balance, than the car: I could work on the train, relax and drink coffee rather than fretting about speeding, and I had plenty of time to schedule in stuff like yoga and visiting my elderly parents between classes and the departure home. So far, so middle-class work day.

But the train also came with added problems. For one, getting around town. I can walk to my campus office from the VIA station in about 50 minutes, which is pleasant on a warm winter morning but a real pain in the sleet and snow. The buses in London between downtown and campus are fine when they aren’t packed out and passing you by, but if I wanted to go from campus to my parents’ apartment the journey became a long, inconvenient ordeal for what is actually a 10-minute car ride. Taxis are ok, I guess, but they add up, and my commute was already costing me at least $300/month – not peanuts. Full size bikes are not allowed on the VIA, and there’s no bike share scheme in LonON.

I was feeling eco-friendly and also stranded.

When winter turned to spring and summer, my commute relaxed and I settled into research work in my home office, forgetting about the winter’s challenges. But then the extreme weather systems returned. “Climate change” became “the climate crisis”, and students rose up around the world to ask people of my generation to take it much, much more seriously.

Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral vessel, and got vitriolic attacks from privileged adults about the gall of her. I looked at her and thought two things: a) what an admirable young woman; b) wow, I wonder how many people on earth can commandeer a carbon-neutral sailboat for their trip to the UN.

This past August, I decided to commit to riding the train every day in term time that the option was available to me. I bought a Tern folding bicycle, taking the cash for the purchase from my commute budget. (These bikes are not cheap, and again I feel privileged to have been able to save for it.) I’ve now had a month of commuting with Titania (yup, I name all the bikes, and they are all bad-ass women), and it’s made a huge difference to my work days.

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Titania, my new Tern folding bike, on the platform at my local station.

My point with this post is not to humblebrag about my eco-creds, nor to celebrate the nifty expensive things I’ve done to enable my posh commute. Not by a long shot.

Instead, I want to highlight how challenging it has been, even for a very fortunate and well paid professional like me, to create a life where my job doesn’t stop me living in a place I want to be, and doesn’t in the process add thousands and thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

I also want to highlight how easy it is to look away from these problems when you have a certain level of privilege and can just get on with driving the car and throwing money at the problem. This looking-away choice does not make you a bad person; it makes you a human in this world, where the structures of living and working have for so long been directed away from community care, care of the planet, and care of one another. The “bad” choice is almost never really a choice; it’s half a necessity.

Contrary to the popular discourse surrounding her, if Greta Thunberg shows us one thing clearly it is that the climate emergency, like the neoliberal superstructures that have abetted it, is not something individuals can solve: the solution will take real change at the highest levels of government and a firm commitment from whole communities to come out in solidarity for change.

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A screenshot (likely illegal, tbh) of a fantastic recent cartoon about Greta Thunberg by First Dog On The Moon. Go here to read the whole thing.

Thunberg’s rise has demonstrated clearly that the climate crisis is not something all individuals are privileged enough to be able to address in equal measure; she knows she’s damn lucky to have had that carbon-neutral Atlantic crossing, and she is always at pains to remind people that her advocacy is not about her. Let’s not vilify her and students like her for their rising voices, and let’s not use their vocal protest as an excuse to do nothing ourselves.

Instead, let’s examine our choices not just for how they might change, but also for how they are structurally restricted from changing. Then, let’s use our discoveries about those structural problems to power further advocacy, on our campuses and in our broader communities, in solidarity with students, less fortunate friends and colleagues, and many more. We can do better by each other and by the planet – but, as with most things, only together.

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Tactics, Practical and Imagined

Summer is over; time to head back into the classroom – at least in my neck of the woods. Others of you may still be enjoying a much-needed holiday; still others may already be hard at work. Wherever you are in the cycle, though, no doubt you’re wondering where the summer went, and where you’ll find the time to do all the stuff looming up on the horizon.

 

What I did on my summer vacation: glamour shots of the Anglesey coast in northern Wales. Bye, summer…

At the start of last (winter) term I reflected in this space on planning my upcoming semester. I can report that the exercise I trialed and discussed (and which I got from academic coach Jo Van Every) was extremely useful in keeping me organized, on track, and also kind to myself as January slushed into February and slip-slid into March. (If you missed that post, click here.)

This time, I’m offering something different: a list of survival tactics.

Below, you’ll find another bit of swag from my newly-published issue of Research in Drama Education – the full text of a feature I co-authored with Sharon L. Green, Diana Damian Martin, Clara Nizard, Theron Schmidt, and Max Schulman, all of whom participated in the issue-themed roundtable I held (with Diana, Katherine Low, Rebecca Hayes Laughton, and Sylvan Baker) at ASTR last November. Following the text, there’s a link to the published article on the RiDE website, free to the first fifty who click.

This feature is called “Tactics: Practical and Imagined” and it distills in deliberately bite-sized form the core of the issue’s goal: to share with one another proven practical ideas, as well as just-yet-maybe notions, for getting through it all each day – and doing better by ourselves, our colleagues, and our students in the process.

Our collected tactics are personal and may often seem quite small in scope, but rest assured they are in no way designed to let our institutions or their increasingly commercialized cultures off the hook. What they are is realistic in their avowal that it’s often the day-to-day that breaks us – and therefore the day-to-day that needs to be made better as we struggle onward to change the future of our workplaces.

Please enjoy, pass along – and if you want a published copy, but the free download link has stopped working, just email me directly at ksolga@uwo.ca.

Solidarity!

Kim

***

Clara, thinking about care… especially of students.

Step away from commitments to rest. Keep the pot as close as possible to the stove-top (become feminist cooks). Find your ‘equity and diversity crew’. Babysit each other’s kids when away for work. Become a mentor. Pay students in training or cash. Have a citation policy in your research. Recommend books and events. Circulate resources. Go to events together. Put care at the front of your practice. Co-create assignments with students. Design a feedback model when collaborating.  Be wrong. Be Out. Drop-in ‘queer’ as often as possible. Have 1:1 meetings. Facilitate access to support. Be powered by joy. Talk about Weinstein. Discuss larger issues. Work with compassion. Make room for emotions. Be personal. Be reflexive. Experiment with forms. Craft alternative methodologies. Account for feelings. Allow people to enter discussion from a place of feeling. Have an open-door policy. Sit with people when they book mental health appointments. Walk people to their mental health appointments. Archive what you do. Share your archives. Make resources open-access. Build alliances. Curate feminist networks. Pass around tools. Pass around power. Develop feminist ears. Listen for the silence (harassment work). Do not stay in a job that personally damages you. Self-care is warfare. Transform the organisation that employs you. Make banners. Put up posters. Make theory work for you. Theory is a tool. Take theory seriously. Make better tables. Hang laundry outside. Organise Long Tables. Porch-sit.

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Images from our inaugural issue-themed workshop, at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in December 2017, are scattered throughout the published version of this feature; I include a few here. In this one, the brilliant Gary Anderson gives his keynote in his hotel room near Central (for good reason – trust me!).

Sharon, thinking about interdisciplinary collaborations.

How to bring others to the table?

Invite them. Meet them on their turf. Invite them early.

Spend time learning about what matters to them. Gauge their interest first, then invite them to participate in whatever way is meaningful for them (be prepared that this may be different than you expect).

Take someone to coffee and learn about their work and interests; ask them to be involved in something small and low stakes/low prep then use this as an opportunity to gauge continued, more in-depth collaborative interest.

Find and meet staff stakeholder, show them how collaboration/participation with your project will help meet their own goals.

Expect to spend a lot of time learning, cultivating new relationships, and drinking coffee.

Walk across campus and see what life is like from a new point of view.

Cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with both junior and senior colleagues; expect to be challenged, to change course, to learn new stuff.

Attend talks/lectures/events organized by other departments/colleagues, then stay after the talk to meet those colleagues and thank them for the event; do the same for student events.

Send an email note of thanks to a colleague for an event that you particularly enjoyed – tell them why it mattered to you.

Find out where the money is and how to get it to support your work. And when you get it, prioritize paying people for their labour.

Invite stakeholders or potential future collaborators to apply with you for funding a project; ask them how you and your work can also support their goals.

Pay attention to who is sitting at the table with you and who isn’t. Ask yourself how you can shift structures to be more inclusive if you don’t see and hear a diversity of ideas, points of view, and experiences.

Offer something concrete, if possible, to collaborators in return: guest talk in a class, give a backstage tour of an upcoming production, offer coaching a performance-based exercise in a non-performance class, or plan a joint field trip.

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Our amazing student/colleague Rebecca Hayes Laughton, who kept a visual record of the Central symposium for us, December 2017.

Kim, thinking about decolonizing teaching.

Be open and transparent with students at the beginning of each semester about your own goals, about the amount of work teaching is, about how you negotiate its labour – let them see you as a worker, not just a professor.

reconfigure your classroom space a few times in a few different ways so that everyone in the room can experience it physically from another point of view (including yours).

be willing to say you don’t know the answer; be willing to ask everyone to help you try to find the answer.

Invite colleagues to go out for coffee and talk about teaching.

stop colleagues in the hall or drop into colleagues’ office to ask how their classes are going.

visit the teaching centre on your campus to get connected to other colleagues in other disciplines who are interested in the questions you have about teaching.

Offer to speak with your graduate students about teaching issues and challenges, even if they are not your assigned TA.

check in with your graduate students about their wellbeing at key points in the semester.

set limits on the time you will spend on teaching tasks each week (prepping, marking, responding to emails) and try logging these limits in your calendar.

AND: If you feel the urge to bypass these limits, remind yourself that GOOD ENOUGH is good enough!

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One of many visual documents of our labour, December 2017.

Diana, thinking about working across contexts (between academia the wider cultural sector).

share the resources where possible to the benefit of those outside of the institution whose labour is fundamental to its pedagogical and research cultures. place pressure on transparency of pay and be aware that the university upholds hierarchies of knowledge – do not participate in that. work in alliance to change structures that do not foster multiple routes, forms and ways of work of academic practice. invite those who are critical and do not be defensive. circulate resources. be open with students, and do not traffic in narratives that are harmful or reductive. be an ally to colleagues and to students. make space for other ways of working. strive for plurality. share toolkits and knowledge. talk about failures and be accountable. name and make space for collaborators, especially those whose work is outside academia and who often get left out. learn ways and modes of listening; pay attention to where you are. make a case for knowledge-production as a shared endeavour. keep your door open. build alliances. work collectively. unpack affects and how they shape you and others – think about how they might be in the space differently. organise spaces for conversation. share opportunities and share your knowledge about processes, institutional jargon and structures, which are often impenetrable for students, early career researchers, and cultural workers on the outside.

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Rachel Hann claims her space, as Kat Low mugs in the background, December 2017.

Max, asking: how can we use first-year “intro to uni” courses to help reposition or reorient theatre studies (discipline, department, mission) within the institution, and within the community, in a productive way? 

There are inherent skills and capacities within theatre studies that make it an effective and nimble player on campus. It is especially in its practical and “applied” capacities that theatre can work toward larger campus-wide change by providing 1) opportunity and tools for dialogue, 2) general dissemination of information, 3) empathetic and embodied learning. How might we target moments of campus or community gathering as places where those skills (through Boalian exercises, ensemble creation, applied theatre exercises) can be of most use? Rather than focusing on specific courses or creating events in order to enact these practices, what curricular or administrative instances already exist that might benefit from our involvement?

An example. Many universities have a required course for incoming freshmen that act as an introduction to campus life as well as an introduction to some kind of critical thinking that they will use in their college careers. I wonder: how unified are these gateway courses across academia? At my university these courses are primarily team-taught pet projects with intriguing titles. But perhaps there is a way to strategically use these courses as a way of setting standards for discourse on campus.

“Intro-to-uni” classes are often focused on negotiating campus life, along with the development of skills necessary for success at the university more broadly. Imagine, then, a curriculum component or tool focused on embodiment and dialogue that was inserted into all freshman gateway courses? Imagine a group of thirty freshmen exploring concepts of diversity, independence, depression, STEAM vs STEM, and more through Boalian sculpting or curated improvisations.

The eventual (perhaps utopian) idea is that every student on campus will then have engaged in a version of an applied theatre studies curriculum, and developed basic tools of embodiment and observation, as core to their learning alongside standard Socratic dialogue or didactic practice. Perhaps, too, they will discover the power of the former early, and know that it is okay to jump in, make noise, stand up, step back, and breath.

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Theron, imagining the classroom as social practice.

Imagine the classroom as social practice. Consider that this class is not separate from the power relations we study but is an instance of them. Ask everyone to read Jo Freeman’s ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’. De-invisibilize the structures we are working with and within. Model different ways of thinking, sharing, responding, making decisions. Work in silent collaboration. Take an unguided walk together. Allow five minutes of uninterrupted speech from everyone, not just those used to talking. Cultivate active listening from everyone, not just those used to being quiet. Let silence be equally valued as a form of expression. Take turns demonstrating non-directive leadership, so everyone gets a go. Try out preferential voting systems rather than binary ones. Borrow from histories of consensus-based processes. Remember that ‘formal consensus works best in an atmosphere in which conflict is encouraged, supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, nonviolence, and creativity’ (www.ic.org/wiki/conflict-consensus/). Adopt principles from Open Space, such as: whoever is here are the right people; or, if you’re not getting or contributing something it is your responsibility to move to a conversation where you are – and if such a conversation doesn’t yet exist then it is up to you to start it. Craft neutral questions, or even try avoiding questions at all. Value the richness of individual experience and non-verbal knowledge. Explore resiliency as an anti-individualist practice. Use terms like ‘anti-racism’, ‘emotional labour’, ‘hidden curriculum’, and ‘intentional community’ so they become part of ordinary conversation.  Don’t mistake any structure for an ideal one, but compare the affordances of each, its inclusions and exclusions, its dramaturgy and its politics.

And then do the same in the department meeting. And then at the university council. When it looks less like a boardroom, it will act less like one, too.

[Read four more bite-size tacticals here. Link not working? Email me!]

 

Decolonizing the classroom, end of term edition (Pt 2)

In my last post, I wrote about my History of Performance Theory gang, the amazing term we had together, and the incredible achievement they walked away with: a bunch of As. I talked in particular about how low-stakes, grade-free tasks, and fulsome engagement and participation, were key to their success – not just in “earning” A-level grades, but in demonstrating A-level learning and growth.

A big part of their capacity to learn and grow in this way can be attributed to the amazing classroom space we moved into at mid-term – something I first wrote about here.

I clocked immediately, upon seeing that new classroom space in February and getting incredibly excited about its potential, that in it we would be able to work in fresh ways as a team, and use technology much more to our benefit than we had in our old, quite unloved, traditional quasi-seminar/quasi-lecture space.

Our old room, our new room. A huge difference.

What I had not realized right away was that this new space would also allow the students to get to know one another better, trust one another more, and collaborate more effectively together. This new, active-learning-oriented space was not just able to decenter me as the ‘expert’ in the room, and to re-orient our learning around student engagement and response; it actually had the capacity to shape classroom community in new ways, and in ways that opened students’ eyes to the power of each other’s knowledge and ability in ways traditional classroom environments simply do not do.

How did I learn this thing about my students, this thing that should perhaps be obvious?

I asked them.

Participation in this class was keyed not just to in-class or online engagement; it was also dependent upon students stepping up to really think critically about their own strengths and weaknesses as learners in our class, in two short participation-reflection papers (one at mid-term and one at the end of the year). When I realized late in the term that the students were genuinely exhausted (so far so normal), and thus probably would not give their final participation reflections enough time and effort to properly reflect on their participation in our class, I had a radical idea. I scrapped my plan to review and sum up our course readings in our last session together, and decided, instead, that we’d spend that session working together to reflect on our participation.

To shape that final lesson, I created four prompts for students to write around. These were:

  1. Think about your participation in class since reading week. What went really well? What went as well, or perhaps even better, than in the first half of the term?
  2. Now, think about what didn’t go so well. Where did you want to improve, but it didn’t quite work out as planned? What slipped, though it was going well before?
  3. Now, think about your experience as a learner. What’s your most significant take-away from our class? What piece of knowledge, or what experience, do you think will stay with you?
  4. One last question – for Kim’s benefit! Did our new WALS space affect how you engaged in our class? If so, how exactly? If not, what is still missing?

I gave students five minutes per prompt to write about the first two prompts, then two minutes for the third – plus a chunk of time to pair and share with the other students at their pods/tables – and finally five minutes for the last.

In response to the last prompt, in particular, the students told me things about their experience in their learning ‘pods’ that I could not have understood from outside those micro-environments.

They commented on how the pods’ orientation (everyone around a shared table – no choice but to sit with and look at others!) generated an atmosphere that was not just group-work oriented, but ‘relaxed’ – it helped lower the stakes, so learning could feel more comfortable, and it created an environment where there was no expectation that they would simply hear and write down knowledge spoken from a front-central area. One student noted – contrary to my expectations! – that because students were always sat at the same pods, they not only became closer with one another, but could also extend their discussions over time, picking up on earlier comments or ideas and moving them forward, even when I did not explicitly invite them to do this.

Students also wrote about how a room in which they were expected to sit together, facing each other – and were not forced, as we had been in our old room, to try to engineer seminar tables out of furniture that we typically (despite the hopeful photo above) found to be forward-facing – made the group learning components of our class feel more ‘organic’ and even ‘easy’. Note-taking gave way to complex group discussion; learning toggled between the shared white boards, where students visualized one another’s ideas, and the chat around their tables, making a learning impression deeper than notes alone might be able to create.

They talked, too, about the pleasures of the tech – the electronic white boards at each pod were a huge hit (making question-exploration and note-taking so much more fun), and the projectors and internet connectivity at each were celebrated for the roles they played in the students’ incredible final presentations, in particular. A couple of students suggested that, in my next class in the space, we spend a lesson or two early in the term just orienting ourselves, simply playing around with the technology, in order to discover its capabilities and what they might do for us as we work through the term. I love this idea!

One student, Katie Flannery, really captured the spirit of the group’s replies to prompt #4; I’ve asked for her permission to reproduce her comments here:

The WALS (Wide or Wonderful Amiable Learning Space):

My very random decoding of this acronym sums up how I feel about this room. I loved the space it gave us. We no longer had to take 15 minutes to move around furniture. The room was ready for us to engage with it right when we got there which is wonderful. “Amiable” because I felt comfortable right away. The placement of the tables and where you (Dr.Solga) are able to stand and teach/interact is ideal. It allowed an easy-flowing discussion as you can see every face in the class. “Learning” because I do believe the interactive technology advanced my learning. I liked how we could engage with the whiteboards separately in our own groups while simultaneously displaying it for the entire class. It made the transition from little groups to the whole group seamless. Another class I have had in one of these rooms also got us to do lots of movement activities. We would kind of rotate through whiteboards. A group would write one response down and have to then contribute next time to the following groups white board. This kind of activity allowed groups to really rely on each other. These rooms allow all the movement!

Katie celebrates another terrific white-board achievement.

So this is my take-away from the students’ take-aways from our wonderful, amiable learning space: the room gives students permission to recognize, respect, and learn from each other in ways that are not hierarchical and that authorize multiple voices and perspectives at once as critical questions come under our scrutiny.

When students sit in rows facing forward, or even in a traditional seminar-table setting, there’s always a ‘main’ voice – usually the teacher’s – and there are usually, too, the usual suspects: the clever kids who always seem to have the ‘right’ answer. In those spatial circumstances, it’s so easy for ‘regular’ students to distrust their own voices, or resent those of their louder peers. But when a learning space is comprised of multiple tables, and the prof is forced to become a roving participant and regular listener, the opposite obtains. Students learn more, full stop, get more interested, and do better.

A number of students, in response to my third prompt, commented on the meta-pedagogical qualities of our class; they talked about ‘learning how to learn,’ discovering what was possible in a classroom, and making connections between the work we were reading and the world around them in ways they had not ever done before. I’m convinced that, because the WALS space radically re-orients their (and my!) usual expectations of what a classroom should look like, it also encourages them to think about their physical and emotional classroom experience much more, and much more critically, than normal. This can only be a good thing.

Stay tuned for more WALS adventures as I have them!

Kim

 

 

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

In praise of resting

(NB: A version of this post originally appeared this morning on Fit is a Feminist Issue, the terrific fitness and wellness blog for humans of all genders curated by my colleagues Tracy Isaacs [Western University] and Samantha Brennan [University of Guelph]. Thanks to them both for the ongoing opportunity to reflect on the ways different aspects of my life interrelate! I’m reposting this here because, well, rest is both a feminist issue AND an academic issue…)

I’ve been finished my teaching for the winter term for about a month now. Finals are over and marked; my campus office (which is moving this summer back across the lawn to my faculty’s newly – and beautifully – restored heritage building) is packed up. The book I was writing all autumn and winter is done, dusted, and in production.

So why am I still so tired all the time?

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(Peppermint Pattie, head on desk and looking glum, says: SO TIRED.)

I’m not one to give myself a break – I’m a high-functioning type-A kind of woman, and I am as productive and successful as I am professionally because of this.

But life isn’t work. And I am also 43 years old. I can’t pull all-nighters anymore. And TBH most evenings I am ready for bed by 10:30 (no more clubbing for me).

Now, sleep I get quite a lot of – and FFI is a blog that supports good, effective sleep as part of our human wellness. (Sam has written before about being a champion sleeper. I envy her ability to conk out on airplanes!)

But REST is more than only sleep. And for me rest is another matter.

I was at my friend Nat’s house for supper two weeks ago and we talked about parenting and sleep deprivation. Nat’s kids are still quite young and the 3am wake-ups are still happening. She feels insanely sleep-deprived right now, as does her partner.

We all talked about the idea that, if it’s a matter of choosing between exercise and sleeping, the sleep-deprived should hit snooze rather than clamber out of bed early to run 5 miles. (Read more here about the interrelationship of sleep and exercise.)

Similarly, I once had a cycling coach who reminded me that resting is as important as training – resting is a key part of training, in fact. And resting means resting: it doesn’t mean digging up the garden, staining the deck, cleaning all the windows upstairs, or even walking the dog for two hours in the forest.

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(Emma the Dog on a path in Cootes Paradise, Hamilton, Ontario. “Whaddaya mean rest doesn’t include walkies??”)

Rest actually means sitting or lying comfortably and allowing your body to replenish itself. It means sleeping if sleep is what is required. It means eating good, healthy food in good proportions, and/or eating specific foods required for your body’s replenishment before another day of training hard. These might include proteins, or carbs, or a variety of things.

Ice cream or cake too, if you’re looking for a cheery treat! I always go for the milkshake, personally.

I have realized over the last month of being on my summer schedule that I’m not resting enough. I’m exhausted all the time because my brain convinces me that I need always to be working – if not tapping on my computer then digging up the garden or cleaning the windows or walking the dog. I also train a lot – riding and rowing 2-3 times a week each, with one rest day somewhere in there – and the impetus to get in the boat, or on the bike for at least 90 minutes at a shot (and usually more like 3 hours at a shot) also often feels like “work” pressure for me.

So no wonder I’m tired. I’m running on empty a lot of the time!

I woke up yesterday morning realizing that, in fact, the world would not end if I did practically nothing that day. My boyfriend was visiting; we could spend the day together being pretty chill (including lying in bed far longer than usual) and hanging out and the internet would not explode. My email (as usual) could wait. So could the other 450 urgent things that do not, ever never never, constitute an academic emergency.

(My therapist once helpfully reminded me: there is no such thing as an academic emergency.)

But when I looked at the clock and realized it was 10am I also felt a surge of guilt.

And here’s the rub. Yes, I need to recalibrate my relationship to rest, but it’s not just a matter of me making a series of individual choices – this isn’t all about me and it is not all about my free will.

It’s also related to the way our culture moralizes movement and rest – in the same way it moralizes food, something we talk about on FFI a lot. (See here, for example, a post by Tracy Isaacs about food being beyond “good” and “evil”.)

In the so-called “West” or “Global North” many of us live in cultures that believe rising late is “lazy,” while getting up early to head off to toil at our jobs is a virtue. School is a terrible one for this: is starts so very goddamn early!

But why?

Research suggests this belief in early-to-rise is not by any means universally supportable: teenagers, for example, actually need up to 10 hours of sleep per night, and their shifting body rhythms are at odds with the wake-up-early-rush-to-school pace our cultures usually enforce. No wonder they are all yawning in 8:30am Bio! (See here for more on teenage sleep needs.)

My own body clock, I’ve discovered thanks to the flexibility of my job, works like this: I want to go to bed between 10 and 11:30pm (it can vary depending on when I had my last cup of coffee in the day), and I want to wake up around 9am. 8:30am is also fine. But if my alarm is set for, say, 7am, I’m usually woken in the middle of a dream (REM sleep), and I’m instantly fuzzy. The day doesn’t improve from there.

I like to sleep late. I really do. This used to drive my mother CRAZY; it seemed, well, “bad” and “lazy”. (I remember her waking me up by spraying me with water from the plant mister. No, really. Waking up as punishment! Sounds about right…)

And yet: I’m still a high-functioning professional. I was an A student. And I’m a good cyclist. And a good friend and partner and teacher and writer and daughter and doggie guardian… and human being.

So let’s all try, together, to work on our relationship to the concept of rest. It’s something we lack in our academic jobs as much as in our daily lives, and the lack of it is enforced by a series of cultural norms (aka, the good old neoliberal university…) that also value capitalism, individualism, and (dare I say it) covert or overt forms of Protestantism – that value progress over process, over taking one’s time for discovery, and over the pace shifts required to nurture proper creativity.

I’ll write more about time and space later in the summer (after I’ve enjoyed more of it, and thought more about it, along with colleagues working on my new research project). For now, though: on your own rest days, remember to put your feet up, grab a book or the Netflix, and don’t forget the milkshake. Not because you “deserve it” – but because you are simply human.

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(A photo with two milkshakes in the foreground. On the left is a brown/chocolate one, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. On the right is a mint-coloured one with whipped cream and a mint leaf on top. In soft focus behind them and staggered to one side are two stainless steel mixing containers. I’d like the chocolate one, please!)

Be well-rested!

Kim