On teaching and the mental load, part 2 (some notes toward solutions)

Last week I wrote about teaching in relation to the gendered mental load – the experience, all too common among women, of both doing the work and managing the work, at home but also in the classroom. Of carrying more than their fair share of the burden, often invisibly, because of the subtle cognitive and emotional responsibilities that accrue to both domestic and pedagogical labour – and which for a variety of reasons are still assumed, even if largely unconsciously, by most people in our culture to be “women’s work.”

After reading that post, I bet a few of you were thinking: gosh, yes. I see some of that in my experience. But, Kim: what’s the solution?

If I had the solution, of course, I would be rich and famous – and probably hiding out on a remote island trying to stave off the angry, anti-feminist internet trolls.

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So no, answers have I none. I do, however, have some ideas about how we might do better at redistributing the mental load. And these come from my own recent experiences – on holiday, believe it or not.

From 1-11 July I was hiking and cycling in the Calder valley in West Yorkshire. (Calder is the ancestral home of the Brontë sisters, btw; these amazing women were POSTER CHICKS for the mental load, thanks to their arsehole, alcoholic brother Branwell. And Branwell, dammit! You would not be enjoying all this weird posterior fame if it were not for your shockingly talented and enterprising sisters. Jackass.)

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Anne, Emile, and Charlotte (right) vs Branwell (left) – as per the BBC, in the 2016 biopic To Walk InvisibleGreat fun – check it out.

Anyway, back to my holiday. I had put my out-of-office message on my work email and disabled it on my phone (which was along with me for navigation purposes); on my computer, I funnelled work emails into a holiday inbox (my computer was along with me because I’d planned to do some free writing toward a new book, between hikes and rides). I decided to check my personal email once a day, largely to get rid of spam and finalize some plans with friends post-holiday.

Things did not start smoothly. I was full of anxiety those first few days away. It was the come-down after two long weeks of teaching Western’s study-abroad class in London, England, during which time I’d been responsible for 12 Canadian students pretty much 24/7. Some of those students presented challenges for me – let’s just say they were struggling with their own mental loads, and as the prof-in-residence their loads were necessarily mine, too.

As I’d been teaching all day, every day in London I’d been managing other stuff, too – research projects in the air, a journal issue about to be released, two graduate students nearing completion. I’d worked through the day on my final Friday before vacation to tidy up as many loose ends as possible, but as I tried to settle into holiday rhythm I felt convinced I couldn’t just leave it all to be on vacation for 10 days. Too many people were counting on me!

Of course I’d done everything I could to clear my inbox; still, I felt nervous and uneasy.

On my fourth day away, overcome by this unease and against my self-imposed rule, I checked my work email’s holiday inbox. I reasoned with myself that I could delete the spam and would feel better for it not overflowing. (Spam is evil. EVIL EVIL EVIL.)

You can guess what happened next. I found an urgent email from a colleague, writing on behalf of one of my graduate students; that student had not received the work I’d sent back to them before my break, owing to an email glitch. The tone of my colleague’s message was polite, but it read to me like they assumed I’d dropped the ball on my student and left a mess for someone else to clean up.

So what did I do? Did I sigh, roll my eyes, and then say to myself: “damn! How annoying! Let’s shoot the work back again, with a copy to the colleague, and remind everyone of my holiday dates. Then let’s forget about it until the holiday ends”?

Nope. Of course not.

What I did was, I lost my shit.

First, I panicked. Then I emailed my colleague with details (let’s say excessive details) of all the work I’d been doing to support the student in question, while also teaching my study abroad course. I then re-sent all the work to the student, with copies to my colleague and another member of our admin team. I sent separate notes to the admin team member involved. I made a full evening’s work for myself, while on holiday, and produced in the backwash almost 48 hours’ worth of fretting to follow.

What happened in the end? My student replied with thanks, apologized for the email mishap, and my colleague replied supportively, too. Sensing my mood, on about my sixth or seventh email, they also reminded me to forget about all of this not-actually-big-deal, not-really-world-ending stuff and just enjoy my holiday.

Since this minor but telling email meltdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

What does it say about my mental load at work?

What does it say about my own expectations of myself in relation to that load?

What does it say about the systemic issues that shape both that load and my relationship with it?

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Things about which to lose one’s shit: maybe this. Maybe not email. (An image of an actual cobbled climb in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Really.)

Lesson number one for me was this: I made extra work for myself where I did not need to. I overreacted to a simple situation and created both stress and labour where none was required. I made extra work for myself by checking my email on holiday. I did not need to do that! I SHOULD NOT have done that! The world would not have ended had I not looked at my colleague’s email until my break was over. Armageddon was not even in sight.

So that’s it, right? I created my own mental load problem. The solution? Just say no! Simples, ja?

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Not so fast. Lesson number two: I did what I did because I live inside a work structure that creates an onerous mental load for me on a regular basis, to which I’ve become slowly and unknowingly accustomed.

I understand my responsibility, as a teacher, to be to tend that load at all times. And more: I have learned to peg my self worth to my tending of that load at all times.

After two weeks of supporting 12 young women in a huge, foreign city, my pastoral care radar was at its max. I was utterly drained.

Maybe I checked my email because my body thought that experience wasn’t yet over. Maybe I checked my email because I’d created some destructive muscle memory that needed satisfying.

Most likely I checked my email because, unconsciously, I believe that’s what “good teachers” do: they make themselves available to their students 24/7. They never let their students down. They bend over backwards. They sacrifice their breaks. They martyr themselves.

To say this is destructive, wrong-headed, and awful is both true and not helpful. Remember what I argued in my last post, when I cited research into student responses on course evaluations: as a rule, women need to work harder to be perceived as caring and supportive teachers at university level. Whether that scenario holds true in every classroom or not doesn’t really matter: women are by and large socialized to over-care. And we do it at our own expense, more often than not. (We are socialized to do that, too.)

How do we begin to fix this?

Let’s start with what we – women in situations similar to the ones I’ve been describing – can do to help ourselves unload some of that mental load. In my own case, step #1 would have been for me to leave my computer behind on my holiday. (Free writing? Who cares! Just take the holiday. THEN write.)

Step #2 would have been for me to delete my work email completely from my phone.

Step #3, upon finally receiving my colleague’s email, would have been to take a deep breath and go for a walk. Then after some reflection to reply as I suggested above: briefly, calmly, unapologetically, and with the missing work attached.

(I might also, at the same time, have noted to my colleague – a kind and sympathetic human who would have heard the message! – some ways that the tone of their email might have been adjusted to help me feel less burdened by the situation.)

How could I have gotten to a mental place where steps 1-3 might have been conceivable for me? That would have involved me, in the first instance, asking for more support during my study abroad labour: being extremely clear to the colleagues around me what I needed, and asking for those things, frankly and kindly and, again, without apology.

But of course, there’s a catch. Academics in general, and women (among other non-white-male) academics in particular, rely for their status and security upon appearing to be shit-together-don’t-need-no-help types; asking for help reveals weakness, which places us, potentially, at risk.

Now, some of you (just like me, as I just wrote that sentence) are likely thinking: but there’s lots of help available at my school. And my male (among other) colleagues are super kind and supportive.

Yup, sure, true. But guess what else? Our mental loads are learnedingrained; they are systemic and they are tenacious, regardless of the objective realities of our work situations, and regardless of the kindness of our male (among other) colleagues. (They sneak in. They aren’t so immediately easy to see as a colleague’s gesture of kindness.)

Which means that it’s not just down to us to get a grip and take a holiday and ask for help.

It’s actually down to our colleagues, our line managers, our chairs and deans and others in positions of power at our institutions to help change the culture of the mental load.

The key thing to remember about the mental load is that it is often invisible. We have to work, sometimes very hard, to bring it into focus.

So: those of us who carry a lot of load need to look straight at it, and question whether or not we should be carrying it. We need to ask ourselves why we are carrying it: who benefits from that carriage? At whose expense does it happen? Then, we need to take some action based on our responses.

This might be as small an action as speaking out about it, candidly, to loved ones and colleagues who can help. It might even involve speaking openly with our students about the mental load. (I’m a big advocate for that: students, once invited to see teachers as human beings, often do so, and do so with real empathy.)

Just as crucially, those who do not carry as much load need to look with nuance at the others around them, and question how much mental load those others are carrying – and on whose behalf. For some of us, in fact the first job might be to look at the load itself, maybe to see it for the first time. To consider carefully the labour behind the stuff that just magically, somehow, gets done. And to ask who the hell is doing it, if we are not.

And again, the imperative to take action pertains: to ask questions, to imagine alternatives. Maybe just to make fewer assumptions.

Finally, at the level of structure – department level, faculty level – we need to do this work, and officially. How about a wellness task force (gender-balanced) to look at mental load specifically, to parse carefully the inequities in certain kinds of labour in our immediate environments, and to recommend action toward redress?

Or, even simpler – and with fewer risks of offloading the work of thinking about mental load onto those already burdened with mental load – how about some informal but curated discussions about how our local loads are distributed? (For this purpose, I’m a huge fan of Lois Weaver’s Long Table format. It is amazing because nobody leads; everyone must invest and hold a stake. Try it.)

When I started my academic job I got two excellent but flawed pieces of advice. The first was: keep your head down and publish, publish, publish. The second was: do not make yourself invaluable, or you will be placed on every committee ever.

The first problem with this advice is not that it’s bad; it’s that it is systemically naive. It assumes I can live with appearing both selfish and not quite good enough. For a woman like me in the academy, both of those prospects are social, and emotional, poison. Unbearable.

The second problem with this advice is that it expects me to adjust myself to a flawed system; it does not expect the system to open its eyes to me.

But here’s the thing: it’s not that hard to see what others are doing, going through – and what each of us is not actually doing about it. You just have to look a bit harder, more carefully, at greater depth. As academics, isn’t that what we are trained to do?

To end, and in the spirit of lightening the mental load, some snaps from Yorkshire – after I finally threw the email out the window. Enjoy and feel free.

Kim

 

Theatre and performance vs the “crisis” in the Humanities (warning: this post requires you to think about doing something!)

Friends, I am excited to share with you a call for papers I’ve created for the fantastic, UK-based journal Research in Drama Education.

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The issue I’m guest-editing will appear in August 2019; its purpose is to gather exciting, stimulating, but above all useful best practices from around the world that demonstrate how theatre and performance makers, scholars, teachers, and community partners are helping to rewrite what has become our “common sense” refrain: …that Humanities schools, faculties, and programs at our colleges and universities are being marginalized by business- and STEM-forward administrators and government pressures, and that there is nothing we can do about it but grouse and cry while the ship sinks.

I know this “common sense” state of affairs is not really the case – that it is, rather, another situation where we have all swallowed a load of depressing Kool-Aid, largely out of sheer bone-weariness. (Fighting endless battles simply to demonstrate one’s relevance has a tendency to make one rather tired, and longing for a drink.)

How do I know this? Because I also know too many people (friends and colleagues alike; friends of friends and colleagues of colleagues) who are busy doing something, right now, about it. And even sometimes succeeding.

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What this issue wants to know is exactly what that doing-something-about-it looks like. It wants to hear from those of us in higher education’s theatre and performance (and dance and music…) trenches, but it also wants to hear – very much wants to hear – from administrators who have insights to share.

Above all, it argues that theatre and performance programs have an obligation to be at the heart of the 21st century, “neoliberal” university, not at its periphery – and it wants to know how to make that claim a “common sense” reality.

There are a lot of ways to contribute to this issue – I’m inviting scholarly articles, shorter case study articles, as well as creative expressions, dialogues, and a variety of things that might be web-only friendly. We are fortunate that RiDE has the capacity to make this issue a cross-platform publication, and that its audience is helpfully international and very diverse.

Below, I’m reproducing the issue’s core research questions, as well as information about how to submit a proposal (due 1 October 2017).

I’m also including a link to the full CFP, on RiDE‘s website, here.

I know many of you will have seen this come across your desks already – if you could take a moment now to forward this on to anyone you’ve thought perhaps might like to see it, but hasn’t yet seen it, I’d be grateful!

Sometime between now and October I’ll do another post on the issue’s topic, which will feature some personal stories about how I ended up getting the RiDE gig and coming up with this particular idea. I’ll also think ahead there a bit there to an event I’m planning in London, UK, in November, with connections to the issue.

Until then, questions most welcome!

Solidarity,

Kim

Theatre + Performance vs “The Crisis in the Humanities”: Creative Pedagogies, Neoliberal Realities*

*Call for papers in full available here: crde-cfp-crisis-in-humanities-2q2017

Research questions

  • What initiatives are already underway to ready schools and departments of theatre and performance for survival within the neoliberal university?
  • How are these initiatives received by stakeholders (students, teachers, artists, administrators, community partners) both inside and outside of institutional contexts?
  • How essential is interdisciplinary collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • How essential is community collaboration to the survival of theatre and performance labour in the neoliberal university? What models exist for such (successful) collaboration?
  • Within the initiatives and collaborations thus detailed, what room exists for creative, performance-driven critique of neoliberal structures? How is that room made? When and how does making such space fall short of goals?

Logistical Details

The issue will blend scholarly articles of approximately 6000 words with evidentiary documents of 1500-2000 words (brief case studies; module/course outlines; measurements gathered on behalf of initiatives; etc) and online materials. The latter may include recorded interviews, classroom or other performance clips, or creative data dissemination. The issue aims for a rich mix of scholarly discussion about the issues at hand, and practical, re-usable models and materials.

Contributions are welcomed from artists, teachers, and researchers, but also from administrators, students, community partners, Teaching and Learning Centre staffers, or more. (If you feel members of your team, or other officials at your university, might like to contribute independently or alongside you, please circulate this CFP to them!)

Collaboratively-authored works are very welcome.

Time frame

Please send proposals and/or descriptions of 300 words (for any of the above categories of contribution), along with a 150-word biography, to Kim Solga by 1 September 2017.

On flipping the theatre studies classroom… back again (part 2)

My last post reported on a workshop I recently co-organized with my colleagues Natalie Alvarez and Jenn Stephenson at the CATR annual conference in Calgary. The premise of the workshop was simple: it gathered teachers of theatre and performance history, asked us to think about the benefits of the “flipped classroom” model for our courses, and encouraged us to share our ongoing experiments in active learning.

Lots of great insights emerged, and I learned a bunch of terrific new things. We also, however, used the opportunity of the workshop to air some grievances about flipping, and the second half of our session turned into a really provocative discussion about the politics of the flipped classroom.

In this (second) post on the workshop I reflect on that discussion, and I end with some thoughts about the place (or lack thereof) of arts and humanities voices in the broader discourse around flipping.

***

We’d shared our research, talked about Grahame and Jenn’s blended learning experiences at Queen’s, and 90 minutes had come and gone. We took a break, and when we resumed it was time to talk about challenges we’ve encountered with the flipped model. (God, does Moodle ever suck! And students are crap at posting to WordPress.)

That’s when one of our auditors raised her hand and said…

“How is assigning readings beforehand, and discussing them together in class, different from ‘flipping’ the classroom?”

Then we all burst into fits of giggles, nods – and tears. (Well, not literally. But almost!)

What’s a flipped classroom? It’s a classroom in which students come having done pre-prep, reading or listening to content in advance. It’s a classroom where various kinds of group discussions and problem-solving activities take place, live, between us. It’s a classroom in which students are invited actively to engage in knowledge production, to use their embodied minds to test ideas on their feet, and to work collaboratively to challenge status-quo assumptions.

In other words: it’s a typical arts and humanities classroom.

More than that, in fact: it’s a very typical theatre and performance studies classroom.

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It’s not every A&H / T&P classroom, of course: I’m not suggesting that rote instruction, lecturing, and gob-smackingly boring sage-on-stage stuff doesn’t happen in the arts. On the contrary: I was subject to plenty of it myself when I was an undergraduate student, and I have seen it in more than one classroom I’ve peer-assessed as a tenured professor.

But let’s face it. Arts and humanities teachers invented the flipped classroom, and theatre and performance, along with all the other fine arts practices taught at college and university level, pioneered embodied learning. Whether we’re talking vigorous class debate about medical ethics on display in a contemporary British lit class discussing Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, improvisation in a directing class exploring the fate of the murdered wife Desdemona in Othello, or experiments with found objects in a creative writing class focused on contemporary poetry, the pedagogical basis is the same. Student labour is framed as thinking, writing, speaking, and sharing in the room on the day. It often involves in-class collaboration. It regularly involves play. There’s often a chance to report back, to create something to share, or at the very least to get up and move around.

Which is why our workshop quickly moved on from sharing our (rather dry) findings from the flipped classroom “lit review” that opened our session to sharing best practices already in our collective teaching repertoire. As Jacqueline Taucar helpfully observed, we need to ask whether it’s the “flipped classroom” – the shiny new model, complete with how-to kit – that gets results, or the active learning component at the heart of the flipped classroom that really fires students up.

Our hunch was the latter. And around the table, numerous terrific (and fun!) examples of great active learning exercises came to light.

  • Jenn talked about her first-year theatre history students exploring the concept of “historiography” in a practical way as they worked in teams to compare and contrast the assumptions framing two different chapters in their textbook;
  • Martin Julien shared a task that saw students interviewing one another about their understandings of feminism, then reporting to the class on their findings;
  • Tony Vickery wowed us all with a description of his performance studies class on fantasy and cosplay, where students build their own board games (strictly low-tech!) and then play one another’s offerings to test their effectiveness. (The board games are all based on one or two of the theories/practices read for class);
  • Marlis Schweitzer shared our colleague Richie Wilcox’s hilarious scheme for teaching complex performance theory, in which students get to create a retelling of a well-known fairy tale in the style of a theory “ism”. (Little Marxist Riding Hood: bring it on!)

Notably, virtually all of these examples involved minimal or no technology.

So why, you must now be wondering, did we all get together to talk about “flipping” our classrooms if we’re already experts and our teaching practice is already flip-friendly?

The answer is simple, frustrating, and symptomatic:

Because what we have long been doing has now got a name, outcome stats, administrative momentum, and a budget line.

We’ve all been told from above that this thing called “flipping” is something we need to know about. Students are consumers, and we need to offer best practices that lead to strong outcomes. (Duh.) Data (typically based on teaching in the sciences, which has recently discovered flipping and wants to share it with us) shows active learning works better than passive learning. So we’ve been instructed by our resident teaching and learning experts, and encouraged by our gung-ho administrators, to learn, all over again, what it is that we already know – now neatly packaged into a model that can be easily sold across disciplines and around the world.

Or, put another way:

Arts and humanities instructors have had our teaching mansplained to us by the neoliberal university.

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Let me be clear: I’m not saying flipped classrooms are bad things. They have many, many virtues – though they also have some significant blind spots, like assuming that the internet is a panacea as opposed to a massive time suck, that all lecturing is bad and uninteresting, and that all students learn better within “activity” frameworks. (All of these things are, um, not true.)

I’m also not suggesting that T&L centres and senior administrators are wrong to support active learning (not at all!), nor that I resent the discovery of active learning’s value in the sciences (holy mary jane, of course not!).

I’m also not trying to imply that teachers like me have been awesome at gathering data on our own classrooms and shouting about the success of our models. We do this, sure, but probably not enough; it’s obvious we need to do more of it, and perhaps do it better. Some of this problem is on us, and we need to get busy.

What really bothers me, and many teachers like me, though, is that our own universities rarely bother to notice the entire faculty (faculties, in my case) of “flipping” experts on their doorsteps. They don’t visit our classes, I doubt they read our teaching publications (check out the top theatre pedagogy journal in North America here), and all too often they don’t think to invite us to present on panels related to active learning models.

(Last autumn I was asked – thanks to my forward-thinking colleagues Aisha Haque and Nanda Dmitrov – to host a session on community engaged theatre and its classroom applications at Western’s big fall teaching conference. This was the first time such a session had been offered; a number of key people, very skeptical when the session was first floated, were surprised at how well it was attended and received. Again, I say: duh!)

Nope, we don’t routinely get asked or read or invited. Instead, we are routinely told:

  • that studying the arts can’t get students jobs;
  • that our research lacks “impact”;
  • that we work on obscure topics without enough practical merit to encourage students and their parents to invest time and money in our classes.

So here’s my provocation. Could it be that, in the arts and humanities, our “impact”, our “value”, and our “interest” to students in search of both learning and jobs (yup, both of them, folks) might lie in the exceptional classroom experiences we can offer, as well as the remarkable pedagogical models we have pioneered and are eager to share with students and peers alike?

Could it be that as teachers we might inspire, change lives, redirect interests, and model excellent pedagogy – and not just for future teachers, but for current teachers across the disciplines as well?

If this is a “creative” economy, after all, our active(ist) arts classrooms are where creativity comes to life.

And yes: if you ask us, we’ll very happily talk about our awesome, crowd-shared, long-tested models with you. We’ll even make you get up on your feet! Just ask.

Please.

Kim

Hands. Off. My. Saturday.

So last night I had a small meltdown. This was the third or fourth meltdown in as many weeks; it’s March (lately February) and I am incredibly overwhelmed at work and exhausted from winter’s pace and relentless cold, fatigue, and stress. (Even Emma the dog, typically a face of snow-covered splendour, hasn’t been her usual treat this season; mostly, I’m just fecking tired and ready for it all to end.)

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(Yup. That’s Emma. Ready for winter walkies… as usual.)

Last night’s meltdown was special, though, and in its specialness rather instructive. I was sending a series of emails related to a recruitment event happening on my university campus next week, seeking student and faculty volunteers to support our Theatre Studies table. While messing about with this event, I realised that I’d almost missed the fact that ANOTHER event, a regular and university-wide (and thus fairly high-profile) recruitment fair, was happening this week.

On Saturday.

Nobody had told me. Even though I am, with the help of a *very* small team of dedicated colleagues, running our theatre program solo right now. Which means, of course, that ALL of us needed to be mobilised, and quickly, and arrangements seen to STAT, so that we did not end up missing the thing entirely.

First, I freaked out. I am not embarrassed to say that I was trying to eat dinner at the time (this is what March amounts to for me, friends; sitting at the dining room table – HEY, AT LEAST I’M AT THE TABLE! – on a Monday evening, circa 8:30pm, stuffing leftover biryani into my face and drafting emails on my laptop all the while). Some rice and bits of cardamom may have been coming out of my ears. Suddenly, panic set in. It felt like – even though this is obviously mad-as-a-hatter territory – the program might live or die on its visibility at March Break Open House.

Next, I triaged the problem, realised whom I needed to contact and about what, and set about drafting a new round of messages. It was at this point, though – when I was emailing to ask various faculty and students and colleagues and friends which shifts they could cover – that I realised that what was going to happen this weekend to me was actually very, very bad indeed.

I was going to have to work on Saturday.

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I am an evangelist for Saturdays. Since graduate school, it’s been my one hard and fast rule: no work on Saturdays! I make exceptions only for immovable work events that also, ultimately, involve pleasure – conferences, for example, where I know a day spent listening to colleagues share their work will end with some kind of drunken debaucherie at, say, Au Pied de Cochon, or Olympia Provisions.

Why such a rule, above all other rules? Friends, it’s simple. Academics work ALL THE TIME. We live our work. The research is in our blood and bones. The things that give us joy also give us labour. It’s not hard – let’s be honest – to rack up 60, 70, 80 hours a week at this gig and barely notice, because hey, it’s also a pleasure to think about the artists we write and teach about while hanging around Facebook, and it’s easy to semi-draft the next paragraph of that overdue book chapter while walking the dog or bathing the kid or cooking supper. The work is everywhere. It never leaves us. We need to leave it – on purpose – or be doomed.

So ever since grad school, when I lived in a tiny, sweet apartment in downtown east-side Toronto (now part of the swish Distillery District, and utterly unaffordable to mid-career, middle aged me!), my rule has been that Saturdays are for Other Than Work, Period. I shop for food. I cook a lot of things. Emma the dog gets to visit the coffee shop I frequent in Wortley Village (London, ON) where I now live. There may be a martini or two come evening. Along with the Saturday Guardian, and maybe an episode or two of something new and yummy. (The Night Manager, oh my god!)

This Saturday, as it turns out, I’m going to have to fork over a few hours to work. And I just want to register how annoyed I am. Because, friends, time off is ALSO an activist issue, a feminist issue, on this International Women’s Day. We all know we work too hard – especially women, who still do the bulk of home and child care even while working professional, full-time jobs, and who are still shockingly underpaid for their labour.

And we all know, deep down, that after working too hard on stuff that really, truly, doesn’t matter THAT MUCH, we are far too drained to turn our attention to politically or socially activist matters, let alone matters of personal care. Overwork is a strategy by which we are conscripted into an army of consenting subjects, far too damn tired to stand up for inequality, for the rights of refugees, or against a complacent and increasingly right-wing political class; drained from the day, if you’re anything like me, you read the news online, sigh and rage a bit and wish you could find the energy to do something… before you then turn back to your “work”.

Dammit, Saturday. Come back. I need you more than ever.

Kim

 

On #DestinationTheatre (a field trip report)

One thing I’ll say about my life as an academic: it involves a lot of travel, and plenty of that travel is a real pleasure. Two weeks ago I was in London, England, at the school where I used to work, Queen Mary University of London. I was there with my colleague from Western’s new Theatre Studies program, MJ Kidnie, and our student Caitlin Austin. Our mission: to meet with a long list of theatre and performance people, from my gang at QM to folks at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Shakespeare Institute and the RSC, with whom we might partner as we build our new experiential learning course, Destination Theatre.

We spent the week in meetings, but we also had a barnstorming time wandering the city with Caity and seeing it through her eyes as though for the first time. (Both MJ and I have lived in London before.) We saw an awful lot of theatre – imagine going to the theatre for work! – from a stunning, gutting, critically acclaimed production of The Oresteia trilogy in the West End, to a gorgeous, moving play about dementia cutting through a family (The Father), to a raunchy, modish Measure for Measure at the always-hopping Young Vic. Above all, though, we laboured as a team: meeting and tweeting (@westernuTheatre) and story boarding, all in the service of imagining what our new course will look like once all the glittering potential is harnessed and the inspiring pieces are slotted into place.

MJ with the London Eye

MJ with the London Eye

Eventually, in winter 2017, Destination Theatre will have its first full outing: 25 students from across the university plus two instructors will jet over to Britain for two full weeks of theatre, workshops, artists’ talks, guest visits to some of the coolest back stages around, and seminars with some of the best performance scholars in country. Their experience will be all the more memorable because of Caity’s contributions during our recent reconnaissance journey; her student’s-eye view proved invaluable to the work of imagining this course’s future shape. She saw things we two mid-career teachers simply could not, and that seeing shifted our thinking in key ways.

Caity at Shakespeare's Globe

Caity at Shakespeare’s Globe

How did we come to bring a student with us to London to help us plan a course? Back in April MJ and I won a grant from Western’s International Curriculum Fund to support journeys to London and New York in order to create partnerships for Destination Theatre. Sometime in late summer, as we were reaching out to colleagues and pricing flights, I got an email from Caity about her upcoming course load. Going into senior year she was a credit short for her Theatre Studies major, and there were no courses on offer that she hadn’t already taken. We started hunting around for alternatives – in media studies, in sociology, you name it – that might fit. She did a load of legwork and presented us with options.

While this was happening, I remembered that Caity would graduate the year before Destination Theatre’s first journey abroad, and that she had been crestfallen last autumn when she found that out. I also remembered what a reliable, thoughtful, mature student (and incredibly hard worker) she was. I talked to MJ: instead of “taking” (or, rather, missing her chance to take) Destination Theatre, could Caity help us to build Destination Theatre? We hatched a plan for a reading course in which Caity would split her time between test-driving some of the readings and assessments we had in the works for DT, and doing internship labour for us. As part of the latter she would join us on the London planning leg, consult with us from her vantage point as a senior undergraduate, and then write a final report for the Theatre Studies Committee. And, of course, in the process she would experience her own London theatre “intensive”, helping us to spot must-haves as well as also-rans for the first cohort in 2017.

We floated the reading course idea to Caity; she was excited and keen – even though the course would without question prove more work for her than an ordinary half-credit. Armed with her enthusiastic interest and commitment to the task, we approached our undergraduate studies chair to formalise the arrangement.

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon...

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon…

I won’t lie: despite our faith in Caity and the great-on-paper plan for the work she would do for us in London, MJ and I were a bit skeptical about outcomes. We weren’t sure, going into the journey, that Caity would really be able to tell us anything we would not see for ourselves. After all, course planning is a large part of our jobs, and we are both quite good at it.

Caity, however, quickly proved us wrong.

...and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!

…and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was an outstanding secretary and third eye in all of our meetings with potential UK partners, a consummate professional as well as a genial participant. Most importantly, however, she consistently reminded us about the crucial differences between what students (and their parents!) will want from the Destination Theatre experience, and what we might value as teachers and administrators. For example: MJ and I focused a lot on costs, and assessed potential student housing with an eye to making the trip as cheap as possible for participants. But Caity reminded us that the cheapest option wouldn’t necessarily be the most attractive one for students: she bet that both students and parents or guardians would prefer to pay a few pounds more per night for secure, on-campus housing at Queen Mary, which would allow students to stay right next door to the spaces they would use for classes while in London.

She also reminded us that students will want to see as much theatre as possible while on the trip, but will also want to be tourists: for many of them, this will be their first journey to the UK. Old Londoners like MJ and me tend to disdain stuff like Madame Tussaud’s or the London Eye (the huge ferris wheel on the South Bank), and of course many university professors have bad allergies to anything that smacks of mass entertainment. But Caity was keen, and thoughtfully so: they might be tacky, sure, she told us – but that does not make tourist attractions less valuable for our purposes. Touristy things, she noted, are as big a part of the experience package we are building as any show is; they will be key to how Destination Theatre exposes students to a new, global city and its hugely diverse theatrical culture.

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In the spring I’m off to New York City to plan the second iteration of Destination Theatre. Caity’s “dry run” will be over by then, and I know I will miss having her along for the ride. Luckily, she spent part of the summer of 2015 in NYC on a short course at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and she knows Manhattan’s theatrical ropes pretty well. You can guarantee I’ll be grilling her for tips before I get on the plane.

 

Still learning all kinds of stuff from students,

Kim

PS: stay tuned for a post by Caity on her experience – coming soon!