Cold? Warm up here

Post-sabbatical re-entry is a #*%$&%$. There’s no other way to say it. The office is dusty; the plant is very, very unhappy. Your colleagues only barely remember you. None of the students looks familiar: what they look is cold, tired, and not quite ready for January.

But neither are you, so it’s a wash. UGH.

After a week of this, I was officially exhausted: the mental and emotional energy required to sustain a class that has little to give back is a lot even in the warmest, brightest months; in the cold months with lots of snow, strong wind chills, early darkness, and DID I MENTION THE COLD??? – it’s enough to make you think this:

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So while I was prepping for week two, I remembered a recent Tomorrow’s Professor post I’d read about different ways to warm a class up before getting started with the day’s proper labour. And I thought to myself:

Yup, I could use a nice warm-up, alright.

So I programmed a couple in. Here’s what happened.

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I use warm-ups in studio classes all the time, but in seminars they are not conventional. In lecture classes they are DOWNRIGHT WEIRD.

But I live for weird, man.

In my first class on Thursday (students = 12), I had only an hour, so a full-body check-in was not on the cards; you need at least 10 precious minutes for that. Instead, I took a page from the post and did a seated, basic, mental-state warm-up.

First, I asked everyone to say their names. (It’s week 2; do you know each other’s names yet? I didn’t think so. And neither do I!)

Then, we all had to complete this sentence: today, I am feeling XXX.

I started: I’m Kim, I’m the prof, and today I am feeling engulfed by chaos.

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(I googled “engulfed by chaos”, and this image of David Davis was THE FIRST thing that appeared. I am not making this up.)

As we went around the tables, we got some compelling answers: I’m feeling like a million bucks! (OMG, hooray!). I’m feeling extremely embarrassed. I’m feeling excited for the weekend. I’m feeling … busy.

Yup.

The Serious Professor part of my brain always tries to tell the rest of the brain, when I get tempted to warm stuff up, that it’s a waste of time. After all, we have so much Important Stuff to cover!

But here’s the truth of the thing: we had so much better a class after five minutes of sharing our feelings-in-the-moment than we had had on the previous three days, I could not help but assume a corollary. This tiny task, after all, not only humanizes us all (profs included); it bonds us.

We become a community.

In my second class, we had two hours – of Aristotle FOR CHRIST’S SAKE – and in a windowless room to boot. (I find it painful to recall that on my “to do different” list for 2018 in this particular class, top of the list was “find a room with windows!”. I mean, What The Holy Fuck, people! How can there be classrooms with no windows that have not yet been decimated? What year is this? What planet am I on?)

Which means: we really needed to warm up.

This second group is twice the size of the first one (students = 21), and god knows their names are not yet in my brain. So I seized this chance to play a name game, one I gleaned from a talk the phenomenal deaf artist Jenny Sealey gave at Queen Mary University of London this past June.

First, we gathered in a circle in the middle of the windowless, airless room. We all closed our eyes. The brief: imagine your sign-language name, the gesture that says: YOU. Then, make it.

Next, we went around the circle and said our names and made our signs. We repeated each others’ signs for good measure. So far, so manageable.

The third step, though, was the charm: starting to my left, each student had to say the name and make the sign of the person(s) before them, and then their own. The unlucky folks on my right had to do this for almost everybody – and then I paid the piper by doing every single student’s name and sign.

In fact, to be totally fair, we all made each other’s signs along the way, supporting each new student/victim in the queue; in this way, I made Taylor’s diving gesture, and Thomas’s bright flower, and Kylie’s heart, a whole bunch of times. By the time we were at my turn (big, crazy jazz hands, if you must know), it was easy – and everyone was laughing and clapping.

And, once more, we had a way, WAY more energized and interesting class than any of the three preceding ones.

Warm-ups don’t always work: the novelty wears off, the movement gets fatiguing by the time everyone is tired in the middle of term. But at their best they are ways to re-energize a listless group, or a listless teacher, and a great, fun way to make a class into a bonded community, even if only temporarily. Better learning is not guaranteed, but it’s definitely a possibility.

On that basis alone, warm-ups make for terrific pedagogy.

Stay cool!

Kim

 

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Learning from the un-schedule

Back in September I wrote about my cunning sabbatical plan to organize my life according to an “unschedule”: a daily planner that begins with life stuff, and fits work in around it (or leaves “free” time blank for work, should work wish to happen). I respond incredibly well to deadlines and boundaries, so this seemed the ideal solution to my perennial sabbatical problem: TOO MUCH UNSCHEDULED TIME (IN WHICH TO PANIC).

I’ve now been following, to greater or (mostly) lesser degrees each day, my unschedule for about 3 months; it’s therefore time for me to take stock, and to report on how it’s worked out.

Was it the raving success I was hoping for? Was it a total disaster?

As we might have predicted, it was a bit of both. Which is no bad thing!

First, the good news: I achieved pretty much exactly what I had intended the unschedule to help me achieve. I have a book due in February, of which I had written not one word when I created the unschedule back on 21 September. I now have just over 42,000 of the 50,000 words expected by my publisher, and the book is shaping up really well.

Next, the less good news: while the unschedule helped me to prioritize a very decent balance between “work” and “life”, as I noted in my last post “life” does not equal “rest”, and I did not manage to achieve much of the latter (so much so that my chronic joint problems have been acting up, and I’ve been at least as exhausted as usual much of the time).

That’s not reflective of a problem with my unschedule, though; in fact, it’s something the next version (see below) may help me address.

Third, the fine print: mostly the unschedule wasn’t something I was ever going to use as a schedule. It was, rather, a kind of self-initiated Rorschach Test. And in that, it succeeded brilliantly. Below, I’ll try to take stock of what it taught me about myself, and I’ll share my revised unschedule for winter.

To start, here’s a reminder of what my unschedule, circa late September 2017, looked like:

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The unschedule was never meant to be a test of my resolve; I did not create it in order to follow it to the letter. Quite the contrary: I made it in part to measure my aspirations for my sabbatical days against the reality that is my daily life. I expected the two not to line up perfectly, but I also hoped to learn from the comparison.

To that end, I decided, for the first 20 or so days on the unschedule (roughly, a month of workdays), to keep a brief daily diary with times and tasks noted. The two could then easily be compared to see where my time was actually going.

Here are a few photos of my notes from those early days:

Looking back on the notes, a few things stand out.

First, Stuff Happens. Moreover, the Stuff that Happens is probably not worth judging (because judging it won’t change it). So I got up later than scheduled many times; I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON, AT ALL. Trying to schedule myself to become a morning person is unlikely, at this stage in my life, to change me. Other mornings got taken up with personal things when the man I’m dating stayed over; I panicked about that a bit until I remembered that having a life (including a sex life!) ultimately makes work bearable. And, after a time, he and I settled into a routine where I would write and he would work, too, after breakfast; that solved it. Sometimes I had to travel, or there were meetings, or… or… or… Again: STUFF HAPPENS. What matters to me, looking back, is how I dealt with these intrusions into the hoped-for ideal, since the ideal wasn’t ever going to be fully achievable.

My diary entries also reveal that, despite getting up later than scheduled or having other things get in the way around my scheduled writing time, I still prioritized writing daily, for about 2 hours give or take. After the writing, more or less anything could happen: I’d penciled in workouts and/or house things, maybe more work for afternoons, but the reality, I found, was that after the writing had happened I felt a mix of satisfaction and relief that would then let me get on with my day, in whatever form it took.

Notably, I rarely missed walkies with Emma The Dog. This made her very happy. It also brought me joy, which I think is incredibly productive.

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(Emma on a woodland trail near our new home. She’s distracted by a squirrel, or something even tastier.)

I’m generally a very active person, and my original unschedule included a lot of workouts; the challenge, I found, was that my new living situation (I moved to a new city in August) necessitated me getting into fresh activity habits based on the resources around me. I can ride my bike anywhere, but not when the wind is blowing at 50kph – and it helps if I already know the route home, in case of emergency. I love to row, but with winter coming on I needed to find a reliable place for land training. There’s a yoga studio near my house, but I haven’t loved many of the classes I’ve tried there. I’ve been experimenting with stair climbing, since there’s a lot of that available free in my new neighbourhood. And I’ve been swimming more than I expected.

All of this means that I did not keep to my un-scheduled fitness plan, in part because of all the trial and error. The trade-off, however, was a lot of useful learning about my new surroundings, and some valuable time spent settling into my new place.

Taking stock of the patterns in my diary, one thing has become crystal clear: the ONLY thing that was essential for me every day was writing. I can’t tell you what a revelation this has been!

I have resisted for a long time the common advice given to academics to write every morning for an hour, to “pay yourself first”, just to sit down and do it. Staunchly, I  insisted that such a strategy would not work for me/that I didn’t need it/that my writing does not work that way/fill in any excuse here.

The truth, my activity log showed me, is that sitting down with only my computer (but no email!) for a modest but set amount of time each day is an incredibly productive way for me to write. Requiring myself to make the time to think and write, and thus to think by writing, meant my vision for the book evolved, deepened, and changed for the better as I went along.

Most importantly, after a good couple of hours’ writing, I always felt renewed and strengthened, much as I often do at the end of a good workout. This I found remarkable, surprising, and so valuable – so much so that writing will be at the heart of any “un-schedule” I make from now on.

I also learned one other very important thing about myself from my (predictable) failure to adhere to the letter of the unschedule. I learned that I over-schedule myself, no matter what I do.

If I have down time, rest time, I judge myself: MUST GET BACK TO SOME KIND OF WORK! This might be housework, work-work, or athletic work. I do not permit myself to just sit there with a cup of tea, staring out the window.

But why the hell not? If anything, the fact that – despite unschedule, and despite sabbatical – I am at least as tired as usual this December is indicative of the problem with this sort of thinking.

If I had rested more this past term, might I have been more “productive” in my work-work? Maybe. Truthfully, though, more productive was not what was needed: I objectively produced a hell of a lot of research-related stuff. Had I rested more, though, I suspect I might be better prepared, right now, both physically and emotionally for Winter 2018 – in which I will start commuting to my campus responsibilities in London, Ontario, and in which all manner of winter-related crap is bound to rain down (probably on the highway while I’m driving, among other places).

Rest is in itself productive! We know this – sort of. Culturally, we’re still learning this message; personally, I’ve realized that I need to trick myself into rest, because I am a type-A, professional, middle-aged North American woman and old habits die hard. That’s why my new, simplified, improved un-schedule contains Less Stuff, and more room to manoeuvre.

Kim's winter 2017 unschedule

You’ll note that there’s still something in every block of time (save two), but I’ve made the blocks larger and less specific on purpose. The point is: within that block, everything I’ve listed either has to happen (teaching) or is likely to get done (row, or yoga, or walkies – though only walkies is *truly* essential. Dog owners will understand).

The only other fixed thing, for me, is the writing: I’ve made it a reasonable amount on purpose, just one hour each morning of the week that I am not commuting to classes. I’m hoping thereby to maintain my good new writing practice, and to nurture its tangible benefits, while also freeing myself to move a bit more flexibly around other tasks (and hopefully give myself time for rest, too).

Have any of you tried the unschedule, or variations, since September? If you have, I’d love to know how it’s going. Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

And meanwhile, have a really, productively joyful holiday break!

Kim

 

On settling in

Happy September!

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, well, the answer is not on vacation (alas!). Although, nor is it: drowning in class prep and panicking over the re-entry. Because I’m on research leave (thank heaven!) until December.

Where I have been, instead, is moving house – not just to a new place, but to a new city. Nope, I’ve not got a new job – instead, this move is just for me. It’s the first move I have ever made (number 16!), in fact, that is just for me. Not for school, not for job, not because parents, not because partner.

It is purely in order to help me strengthen my work-life balance and improve the quality of my days and nights. Huzzah!

Of course, getting to that huzzah! has not been easy; moving is a total bitch. What with the emotional upheaval, the endless administration (hydro! internet! property tax! boxesboxesboxes!), the disruption of routines, the losing of things, not to mention the weird physical exhaustion and the all too frequent forgetting to eat…

Hell, with a list like that, it sounds *exactly* like I could very easily be gearing up for the teaching term, doesn’t it?

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I was thinking about this weird comparison this afternoon, and remembering what it felt like (five moves ago) for me to arrive both in a new, strange city, and in a new, scary job. Which led me to think, in turn, about those of you reading who may be in that very situation right now – having just moved your home, your life, maybe your family, and who are now getting ready to jump with both feet into new classrooms, new colleagues, new responsibilities and expectations.

You might be feeling overwhelmed. I sure was – back then, and last week, too. Herewith, then, some thoughts (cobbled together from my own rather impressive failures) on how to feel less freaked out, and a bit more settled in.

  1. Do one thing at a time. When I’m unpacking I always lose the plot: I’ll be unwrapping pots and pans one minute, then I’ll go to the bathroom, and the next thing I know I’m trying to sort out the medicine cabinet. Overwhelm breeds a lack of focus; it’s hard not to succumb. Remind yourself that if you do one thing at a time everything will get done – maybe not quickly, but then, it’s not a race. What’s most urgent? The plates and forks, for sure. Finishing the syllabus for day one. Or maybe getting your employee ID card and other HR business sorted. (Getting paid is A Good Thing – it is more important than perfectly polished prep, believe me.) Meeting each of your new colleagues in person can wait; so can that unfinished book chapter (oh yes, it really can). You’ll feel way more at ease by week three, at which point you can return to the missed stuff in peace. (Hint: if you’re truly fretful about missing a deadline or forgetting a task that you need to back-burner now, make a list of unmissable items – then paste that list into a calendar reminder for the first Monday in October.)
  2. Take breaks. During those breaks, eat something. I think I consumed maybe 5000 calories last week; that is not normal and I am not bragging about it. The lack of food correlated to my refusal to take regular breaks from the unpacking; I was convinced that if I just kept going and going and going the house would magically get sorted and life could continue as normal. (I do this every time. EVERY TIME.) Of course, what actually happened is that I got very tired and very hangry, and I cried a bit more than I should have. Had I stopped more often, sat down for 10 minutes, and had a sandwich and some tea, I guarantee I would have felt less sad, less weary, and less anxious. Food is miraculous that way. (Hint: if you’re like me, and you always do what your phone tells you to do, set an alarm for every hour or so. When it goes off, take a short snack or drink break. Don’t omit the snack/drink portion – trust me.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to tell people you’re new, and to ask for help. I’ve run into a lot of neighbours already; my new neighbourhood is dog- and kid-friendly, and there’s a big park up the street where everyone gathers. Folks keep asking me if I have been to X dog park, or Y grocer; when they do, I gamely say “I moved here five days ago! I know nothing! Tell me where that is and why I should go!” It’s not much different when you move to a new job, or a new department; people are going to assume you already know a bunch of stuff about which you have no actual clue. Now, especially if this is your first job, you might be tempted to pretend you’ve already totally got this, in order to appear massively competent and clearly not an imposter. That’s a mistake; trust me. (You are not an imposter; you are simply NEW.) You need someone to explain the photocopier to you, and to show you the quiet coffee shop away from the undergrad traffic. And to help you work out the classroom AV systems! Just ask; you don’t need to appear panicked about it, but you really don’t need to pretend you’re sorted when you’re not. (Among other things, that kind of pretending creates extra emotional labour, which nobody needs!)
  4. When you go home, be at home – even if home is still kind of a mess from the move. It’s hard to relax among boxes, I know – but when you leave the office, even if the prep isn’t quite done, do what you can to leave the job behind. Academics live our work; teachers live our work. But when your life has also just been upheaved, and your stuff is all over the place, and your partner/kids/animals feel the unsettlement too, give all of yourselves a break. Once home, eat the pizza and watch some Netflix. Then maybe tackle some boxes. Do not (do not!) check the work email; let the work of settling in come first. By midterms you’ll be checking that work email all the time, and that will be way, way easier to cope with once your home life is unpacked and nestled in.
  5. It’s totally ok to feel deracinated. This is the word for it, courtesy of my dear friend Steven. Uprooted, pulled from the tender shoots, yanked and tossed sideways. I remember my first year at Western, in an apartment way too big for my modest belongings, in the centre of a city where I didn’t know anyone. Once the teaching term hit I was on the ground, running all the time, trying to catch up to the self I thought I was expected by everyone else to be. Everything you’re feeling is normal – painful, scary even, but also normal. What’s more, everyone you work with knows that feeling, too; we were all new in the department, to the town, and in the classroom once. Try not to judge or blame yourself; there’s nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of here! Breathe through the feelings of anxiety, panic, uprootedness, and overwhelm. Take it one step at a time. And know the feeling will pass.

(Emma The Dog, unsettled, then settled… it’s going to happen. Don’t worry.)

Happy September!
Kim

PS: self-care is hard; I feel like I’m re-learning the basics all the time. Here’s some more advice you might like, from my clever and lovely friend Cate.

Top tips… for next time around

Last week of classes for us lucky Canadians! Which, of course, means we finally get to breathe, sleep, and stop being zombies. ABOUT TIME.

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Longtime readers know I often get all nostalgic at this time of year (spring fever?), thinking back on the goods and the not-so-goods of the year passed, and thinking ahead to better-luck-next-time. This year, I started heading back to the teaching future early, thanks to a lunch date with my friend and colleague Kate. We were meeting to talk about Kate’s class, which I had observed early in March; ostensibly I was writing Kate a letter of support for her upcoming promotion, but in fact I really just wanted to pick her brain about the awesome ideas I got from sitting in on her class. (Thanks, Kate!)

I emerged from lunch newly energised – and at the perfect time, because: ZOMBIE. I needed to write down my thoughts immediately, so I thought, hey, why not start with a post on the blog?

As I was driving from lunch to my office I made a mental list of the five things that I think I’d like to try out next time (AFTER MY SABBATICAL! AFTER MY SABBATICAL! DID I MENTION I’M GOING ON SABBATICAL??!!!!), thanks to talking about teaching over soup and beet juice with Kate.

Here they are.

1. Start with a warm-up

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A group of Western University students warming up with artists Mina Samuels and Jacqueline Dugal during a recent workshop on campus. Photo by Julia Beltrano.

This wasn’t Kate’s idea, ok, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a bit, and Kate reminded me of why. In her class, she set the tone for the whole period by pausing at the outset and marking the moment of beginning with some powerpoint slides designed to orient students, grounding them in the work ahead and helping them to understand where they had been, were now, and would be going. This kind of tone-setting is so useful, not least because it brings everyone together, in the space, as a community, and then prepares for the shared labour about to be undertaken.

When I teach studio classes I always begin with a warm-up. Sometimes it’s as simple as some yoga. Sometimes it’s a rousing game of “zip-zap-zop”. (That’s zip-zap-boing! to you Brits, thank you very much… although the Eastenders version is still kinda my favourite.) Maybe we might close our eyes and fall into each other, fear be damned.

The logic: studio classes are about body work, so let’s warm those old bodies up! But… seminar work is about our bodies, too! Which is to say: if we are tired, or poorly nourished, or stiff, our thinking is badly affected. So warm-up rules apply: let’s remind ourselves of the bodies that hold our brains, wake up our arms and legs, laugh a bit, share a moment. There shared knowledge begins.

2. Set ONE overarching outcome, in addition to the obvious

Kate and I talked about time management: how do we get through it all in just three hours per week? We talked about how much less content we teach now than when we started, 5 years ago, 10 years ago…. We talked about all the other things we want our students to take away – critical thinking skills; stronger research skills; better writing skills – that we feel like we just don’t have enough time to land fulsomely with them.

Then I said: hey, you know what? Maybe we only have time for ONE of those things, per class, per year.

We both went: “huh!”

So here’s my idea: set one outcome, a kind of ur-outcome, that rests above the other, more mundane ones that we have to include in our course outlines. Or maybe we don’t even put those other outcomes on the course outline (your mileage may vary, depending on your university’s policies, I know). Maybe we just write (for example):

In this course, students who commit to our shared labour will…

develop valuable teamwork skills, learning how to collaborate with others self-reflexively, and effectively.

And then we organise our assignments and in-class activities with that outcome in mind, trusting that the other stuff we’re expected to teach will come along with it – or will happen in another course in our program, because we’re labouring together, after all.

3. Write more, and more creatively, during class time

Kate and I both use versions of what I know as the “two-minute paper”, a chance in class to think while writing, and thus think/write before speaking.

My strategy: I pose a question about stuff related to whatever we’ve read/watched. I make the students write for two minutes before anyone can answer said question. I swear by this as a chance for students to gather their thoughts – whether or not they *actually* write stuff down – before I ask for replies, thus (among other things) circumventing the usual problem of the usual suspects raising their hands right out of the gate.

But the problem is this: some students don’t want to write in reply to the prompt/question. And often the students who DO want to write are the usual suspects. So it works… kind of.

Kate made me think about a couple of writing-related things during our lunch: first, that sometimes the best class writing might not be two minutes long. Sometimes it might be longer. Sometimes it might be five, ten minutes – in relation to an assignment, say, or maybe just reflecting on the state of affairs, the state of the day, how we’re all feeling. More time might be good time.

She also reminded me that, sometimes, the best writing is creative writing.

Academics often forget that we were once students. Students who found stuff academics find fairly familiar kinda… well… hard. Baffling. Frustrating. And when we were students, did we not want to express ourselves? Find ourselves? Discover our creativity, what we have to offer the world? Sure, it’s all very Dead Poets Society, but it’s also true: we are teaching young people who are struggling with big ideas and tired and looking for outlets to express themselves creatively whenever possible.

And that’s no bad thing.

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So maybe next year, my prompts will become less scholarly, and a bit more creative. That’s not to say they’ll stop being rigorous; they might just change their skin a bit, invite a bit more playfulness.

I’ll keep you posted.

4. Be a hard(er) ass

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During the class of Kate’s I attended, several students came in late. Kate glanced toward the door (everybody glanced toward the door) as this happened, but mostly she let it slide.

I do exactly the same thing, every time.

So I asked Kate over lunch: what should we do about students who come in late?

We talked about the labour of calling them out. About how tiring it is, for us, to get angry or lay down the law (whatever that might be). We noted the emotional labour of teaching-as-is; it’s already a hell of a lot, and dealing with thoughtless latecomers is an extra pain in the ass.

(Full disclosure here: I’m pretty sure I was a thoughtless latecomer at least once in my undergraduate career, if not, oh, 17 times.)

So then we said: hey, what if we didn’t – just DID NOT – deal with it? What if, instead of calling it out or ignoring it, we just stopped?

What if we said, on the course outline, and at the outset (fair warning):

Hey! Sometimes you might be late. When that happens, we’ll just STOP. Stop the class. Stop talking.

Not to embarrass you (you might be embarrassed, but, hey, that’s not the goal, though it has fringe benefits…), but because talking through your disruption is tiring and unproductive.

So we’ll pause. When you’re settled, we’ll start again.

Hey, being late happens. It’s happened to all of us.

Maybe just don’t let it happen again, if you can help it.

5. Build in time for spontaneity

I’ve been teaching full time for 12 years now. Every year, every week, I over-prep. I prep because the prep is for me – to make sure I don’t run out of stuff to say. Because that would be a catastrophe, right?

Kate reminded me of something I’d forgotten entirely: sometimes, often, the best learning happens spontaneously.

How do we build in time for that? Maybe by sticking it in the prep.

I’m serious! I’ve started including “if this, then maybe this… or if that, maybe not” moments in my prep, to remind myself that I’m always, already, being responsive to my students’ input, and sometimes that means throwing the whole thing out. But mostly it means being willing to be at sea for a while, to see where the conversation goes.

Usually, if the conversation goes sideways, I scold myself for not getting through the entire plan in my prep.

But what if the conversation going sideways IS the best possible version of the prep? Maybe I need to make more time, and space, for that.

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Happy end of term!

Kim

On outcomes

It’s arguably the most boring part of any course syllabus: outcomes. It’s also one of the most controversial; lots of us, I know, don’t want to be hamstrung by committee-sourced course or program objectives, in part because they seem so broad and vague as to do almost no work whatsoever (“to learn to think critically”; “to learn to write effectively”), and in part because a large part of academic freedom is the freedom to determine the course of a class’s journey on our own. That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also a core part of what it means to teach at university level. No two classes, even those with the same title, ever look the same. The instructor’s idiosyncrasies, along with the strengths, weaknesses, energy, and willingness of the students, make a university classroom experience what it is.

It sounds idyllic – and at its best it is. But when it’s not at its best, well, it can be terrible. For every professor that shapes a student’s future with an inspiring syllabus and a dynamic personality, there’s a professor who takes the scattershot approach, lectures veering onto wild tangents, no course objectives to be found as tethers to student needs or experience. And then there’s the part where students don’t always know what’s expected of them, even in the best of teaching circumstances, other than the non-negotiable: to show up and look like they’re doing something valuable…

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I know that one of the reasons course objectives are controversial for my peers in the arts and humanities is because the requirement to have them is typically imposed from the top down. Governments tell university administrators, who tell faculty, that we need some centralised measures to ensure we’re on track with broader learning goals. Those goals often feed strategic plans, and those plans lie at the heart of the neoliberal university – where some faculties are typically “winners” (typically not A&H…) while others are not.

Objectives and outcomes, in other words, are not politically neutral things: they form one core part of measurement-based education policy, in which academic labour becomes less and less about engaging in creative research and teaching, and more and more about demonstrating the “impact” of research and teaching in order to justify the “handout” of government dollars for higher education / in the name of what used to be understood as a core public good. UGH.

And yet, from a pedagogical perspective, they make lots of sense.

Objectives and outcomes keep university teachers accountable: not (just) to administrators or governments, but more importantly to our students and ourselves. For those of us lucky enough to be empowered to make our own objectives and outcomes, course by course and program by program, they are exceptional planning tools. We get to think deeply about what it is we actually want our students to do in our courses, and we get to then think about how different lessons and assignments might link up with these stated plans.

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I’ve made a point of foregrounding outcomes (what I hope students will end up with) as well as objectives (things we’ll do together to try to get to the outcomes) on my course outlines for a few years now. I learned their value – as I learned the value of a number of things I previously believed both hegemonic and overly centralising – while teaching in England, where the expectation that everyone will offer clear course outcomes has been moot for some time now. I take students through my outcomes and objectives at the start of every term; I highlight a crucial caveat – you can only expect to attain these outcomes if you “take our course seriously” – and then I invite them each to create an outcome (what I call a learning goal) for themselves and add it to their copy of the syllabus.

I try to keep my outcomes front of mind as I plan assignments and even class lessons. But I have to be honest; once I’ve ticked the box of making my lists of objectives and outcomes I often pat myself on the back, and then sort of conveniently forget about them. I trust that I’ve got such good and clear intentions for each class, of course my assignments and lectures and discussion plans will feed constantly into them.

But do they?

Last December I decided to test my capacity to teach to my own stated goals by asking the students in my fall term performance studies class to feed back on how well they felt they had met the course’s outcomes. I did not do this in a survey, or in class; rather, I created a final exam question about it.

That meant the students were required to think fulsomely about both the class’s outcomes and the means by which we tried to get there; they were also asked to consider both when we had and when we had not reached outcomes, and to reflect critically on outcomes-based learning as a process through which they, as students, had traveled.

Here’s the question I posed:

At the outset of our course, Kim offered the following potential “outcomes”:

Students who take our course seriously and commit to our shared labour can expect:

  • To be introduced to a host of contemporary performance theories and practices;
  • To develop the capacity to critique a piece of non-scripted, non-traditional performance;
  • To learn the value and power of collaborative teaching and learning;
  • To practice critical thinking using written text, video, and audio tools;
  • To continue to improve their research, writing, and editing skills;
  • To practice, develop, and improve public presentation skills;
  • To experiment with independent and/or team performance-making;
  • To take some risks, make some mistakes, and have fun!

Did you achieve them? Some more than others? Did you not achieve some? Using “thick description” of key moments in or outside class, talk about how a selection of these outcomes contributed, or not, to your learning in TS2202. You need not talk about all outcomes. You need not be positive about all outcomes! Nuanced, honest self-analysis is welcome.

Seven out of 20 students (a statistically impressive 35%) chose to write on this question. Grades ranged from 36/50 (for a thoughtful reply, but one missing a clear structure or detailed descriptions of learning events), to 48/50 (for a reply that was well structured and well detailed, and full of careful self-reflection). Students were not judged on whether or not they deemed outcomes to have been met or not; I was far more interested in hearing them talk about how, and why, either result may have obtained.

Several students talked about the value of learning about non-traditional forms of performance; one made the point of saying his directorial practice was shifting as a result of our class’s exposure to work far outside the Western dramatic canon. Another noted that non-traditional performance forms required us to explore non-traditional ways of talking about those things, and then commented on the fear, but also the excitement, of engaging in that kind of exploration.

Most students mentioned the power of taking risks and making mistakes (likely because I mess up a lot in class, and never hide it, my students tend to get comfortable with error). One student described a moment early in the semester when they had shared an intimate, taboo piece of personal history, and the positive impact they experienced when I did not judge, but turned that sharing into a teachable moment. Another talked about learning that their mistakes in class could all be “manageable” (probably the most important outcome any university student can take from any class, anywhere!). Still another offered this helpful reflection on the first day of class:

On the very first day when we were asked to act out the syllabus I made a decision to let myself take risks and be silly. I decided to really try to turn off that voice that says ‘oh don’t do that, you’ll look foolish’. … I went away with that quiet voice telling me I was ridiculous but I didn’t listen, and I looked forward to every class that followed.

In general each student selected a range of outcomes to talk about, with some outcomes getting more attention than others across all seven papers. Every single student, however, wrote about the “collaborative teaching and learning” outcome. Some expressed continued anxiety about group work, but also took the time, in the spirit of the question, to think about the positive (if still difficult) experiences of shared labour they’d had – learning to account for others’ perspectives and personalities, learning to deal with clashes of opinion, and learning that sharing and negotiating ideas does not require consensus or group-think to emerge.

My favourite reflection on our collaborative classroom practice was this one:

What was very evident throughout the year was the collaboration between teacher and students. I am currently taking an educational psychology course, and there were a lot of tasks we did throughout the course that are akin to optimal teaching. For example, the first day of class we partnered up to discuss any questions we may have had about the syllabus, known as reciprocal questioning, which encourages a deeper understanding of the material being discussed. This goes for many of our group interactions throughout the semester. You also relinquished some control in the course content by allowing us, in groups, to pick some of the readings. This elevated sense of control, or human agency, in our learning increases motivation and self-efficacy.

The student who wrote this response did something very special for me. They connected my classroom labour to the prevailing pedagogical research, and noted how the collaborative environment I create for my students is geared directly toward an outcome I’ve not yet identified: providing students with the opportunity to build agency, and take ownership over a lifelong learning process. I will be adding that outcome to future syllabi, you can be sure – and crediting the student (whose name I know) in the process.

I’ll be putting an outcomes question on the final exam again; I learned a great deal from it about where my students see the connections between my stated goals and our classroom labours. These connections are sometimes where and what I expect them to be, and sometimes not – which means these answers offer me very useful fodder for future classroom planning. I think I’ll tweak the question next time around, though, to encourage balance: I’d like to hear a) where students met an outcome, and how; b) where they did not, and why; and c) what else we might have done to meet an important potential outcome, stated or not.

Now, I’d love to hear about YOUR outcome labours. What do you do to set objectives and outcomes effectively? How do you test their efficacy? Please leave comments! I also want to thank all of the students in Theatre Studies 2202F (2016) for inspiring me to think more, and more carefully, about how I remain accountable to them, to their peers, and to myself in our shared learning environments.

Kim