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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nope. Still depressing.

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

So I got to work on the beginning.

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

I came up with a list.

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

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

Here’s what I did:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, stay warm!

Kim

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What happened when I sat down to plan my winter semester

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

Theory for TS Space cover proof

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

Uh-huh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Jo Van Every.

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

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

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

Here’s what happened when I did that.

Plan, Wooden peg  and colorful words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best for the beginning of the term!

Kim

Decolonizing the syllabus, part 1

Welcome to autumn! I’ve been away for a lot of the summer, but I hope to post at least twice a month until April. As ever, if you wish to pitch a guest post, just use the “about” page to get in touch!

***

It started a while back, maybe two years ago. I stopped loving what I was teaching in my undergraduate-level Performance Theory seminar.

I taught from a textbook that is relatively diverse, all things considered – which is to say, it includes a handful of not-Western texts, mostly from before the 20th century. There are one (maybe two?) text(s) by women. It is a good book, though it was not designed as a comprehensive history; rather, it was designed as a “representative” one – representative, really, of the theatrical theory “we” have always learned, and are meant to pass along.

I have always taught in what I would characterize as a fashion skewed against accepted norms: I’ve flipped the classroom since way back, preferred the knowledge we make in class together to any knowledge I could impart in long lectures, and whenever my students and I have read “colonial” (read “canonical”, for the most part) texts, I have tried to uncover the places where those texts do things we might not expect, and provoke questions we may not have thought to ask. In particular, I flag up moments when persons unseen enter the text by stealth – women, queer persons, workers, persons of colour – and encourage students to talk about what their spectral presence might signify.

Of course, I also supplement the textbooks I use with things I’m reading in my research, and with articles and books that have been important to me throughout my career. Though my Performance Theory seminar is technically a “history of” class, I have always included at least four weeks on contemporary authors, drawing out questions of gender and sexuality, race and social status, labour and emotion as these things are considered and theorized by my peers in the discipline.

But roughly two years ago, this strategy stopped working for me. I felt far too keenly the whiteness, the maleness, the traditional-ness, of the early part of the course – and I felt uncomfortable about its influence on the term as a whole.

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That’s when I realized that what I needed was to decolonize my syllabus.

There’s a lot of talk right now about what it means to participate in living, breathing, ongoing forms of colonial injustice – to inhabit it, push back against it, question it, fight it, and survive it. Serena Williams’ recent travails at the French and US Open tournaments make a superb, painfully visible case in point. The treatment she has received in the press and on social media (for her completely legitimate clothing choices and for her entirely reasonable expressions of anger) smacks bitterly of race-based profiling that can be traced quite easily and directly back to the legacies of European colonialism beginning in the fifteenth century.

Even today, in 2018, Black women are treated with significantly more patronizing hostility than are white women, or men of any colour, full stop: that’s living, breathing colonialism, right here and now.

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Serena Williams is a strong Black woman and a star. She is consistently white-washed in gross and unfair reactions to her body, performance, and actions in the media. That’s our colonial present for you.

For us on Turtle Island (also known to some as North America), questions of decolonization are particularly urgent because the practices of settler colonialism impact the daily well being, the living memories, and the future potential of hundreds of thousands of our indigenous fellow citizens. Each of us on this land who does not trace our roots to an indigenous community on Turtle Island is a settler, though few of us realize what that means, or understand the uneven distribution of privilege it affords (in settlers’ favour).

For me as a resident settler Canadian, settler colonialism is an everyday reality to which it is all too easy to turn a blind eye. Therefore, it is a shared reality that also requires calling attention to, excavating, and thinking through in my classrooms. I need to do this excavating and thinking-through with and alongside my students, and decolonizing the structure of my classes is a necessary first step in that labour.

But: how to do that, effectively?

Around the same time that I became aware of my need and desire to make these syllabus (and attendant course) changes, I got an email from my dear friend and colleague Natalie Alvarez. She was convening an online working group with syllabus decolonization in mind, geared toward helping one another develop new ways to approach teaching theatre history in Canada. Would I like to join? I eagerly accepted the invitation, knowing my performance theory seminar would benefit immensely from this collaborative labour.

Most of us in the group are settler scholars; a couple of our brilliant and generous indigenous colleagues joined too, however, and one of them, Dylan Robinson, set the tone for our group with a pointed post about the central challenge we faced. Why start where we’ve always started? He asked. Why not upend entirely the field of inquiry, start with the “other” stuff and make it central instead of peripheral?

The most basic problem, he highlighted for us, is not that there are white dudes all over our courses (though that IS a problem, and jettisoning them is no bad thing). The most basic problem is that we let these white dudes set the tone, frame the question, and thus – as I had already felt uncomfortably in my seminar – shape the term’s work. Every time.

What if we let a woman of colour, or an indigenous scholar or artist, do that privileged labour instead? What if the white dudes were required to dialogue with them, rather than the other way around? What if indigenous world views became the backbone of the course’s ecosystem, and colonial knowledge systems were required to take a back seat for once?*

The incredibly talented Inuk musician and activist Tanya Tagaq – one of the fiercest forces of decolonization in Canadian music and performance. Check her out here. (You will not regret it.)

Dylan’s prompt left me feeling revitalized, and able to do the work ahead. Because my Performance Theory seminar is a second-term course, I decided to leave the questions of exactly which texts to assign in that course to percolate for a couple of months. Then, I set about planning the new course I’m teaching this fall.

“Toronto: Culture and Performance” is an experiential learning course in which I take 40 students the 200km to Toronto five times in the term to see theatre of all kinds and talk with artists and arts administrators. It’s a TONNE of work, but also a labour of love for me, as it’s an adaptation of the terrific and popular “London: Culture and Performance” module taught at Queen Mary, UL (where I used to work). As a bona-fide new prep, this course was the ideal place for me to trial a decolonizing classroom paradigm; moreover, because its syllabus is driven by what Toronto is showcasing on its stages this autumn, I already knew I was going to be programming a bunch of awesome intercultural work by amazing queer artists and artists of colour.

Wearing the hat Dylan’s post handed me, I decided immediately that we’d open the class with a trip to Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional indigenous theatre company, to see actor-writer Jani Lauzon’s new work I Call Myself Princess. To prepare, we will read brand-new work on the intercultural city by my settler colleague Ric Knowles, and we will look at indigenous performance through a specifically indigenous lens with a reading by Anishanaabe/Ashkenazi scholar and artist Jill Carter. From there, we will see a revival of the brilliant Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times, Toronto’s iconic queer house, and read about its history from lesbian artist-scholar Moynan King’s perspective; only then will we move on to more “mainstream” venues (and then, principally in order to talk about urban theatres and economics). Later, we will return to questions of intercultural practice at Factory Theatre, which has been for several years at the forefront of remaking Toronto theatre’s image as “The Great White North”. The end-of-term treat is Come From Away, the smash-hit musical about 9/11 in Newfoundland.

To set the tone for the term on the syllabus proper, I rewrote my course description as a series of questions for us to keep coming back to:

What’s a “global city”? Is Toronto one? How does the theatre that appears on Toronto’s stages contribute to, or maybe even contest, Toronto’s “global city” aspirations?

What’s an “intercultural city”? Is Toronto one? How do the performing arts help to shape the intercultural structures that now identify Toronto to Torontonians, and to the world? For whom are those structures liberating – and whom do those structures still leave behind?

What does economics have to do with theatre? Is theatre a viable business? How and when and why? What does theatre economics have to do with other kinds of urban economics – like, say, real estate?

What about memory? How does the theatre shape our memories (personal, communal, historical) of the city and its inhabitants? What about space? How does theatre literally help to “make” (that is, to shape and contour) a city like Toronto? What about labour? Who works in the creative economy in Toronto, what do they do, and how is their work valued (or not)?

Then, right after the logistical stuff about where the class meets and where to find me and my TA, Courtney, I offered four land acknowledgements. Here’s the preamble:

Land is a big part of what we are going to be talking about when we talk about Toronto, culture, and performance: who works on it, how their work is valued, who is recognized as fully human in the city, who is ignored, left out, stepped over. Acknowledging the politics of our inhabiting the land is an important part of starting our work on all of these scores.

Below are four land acknowledgements: from Western University; from Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto; from Kim; and from Courtney. On our first day together you’ll be encouraged to make your own land acknowledgement. It can take any form you wish, as long as it is both respectful and accurate.

My goal, in both making my own land acknowledgement and in foregrounding several different land acknowledgements on the syllabus, was to introduce the “politics of place” as central to our course labour, and also to introduce those politics as personal, as a responsibility for every one of us in the classroom. I wanted to make “place” personal, and to invite students to think about their relationships to land, and to the feelings “place” evokes for them, as a matter of the standard labour of a normal university course. I wanted to help them think – early and often! – about the unseen and maybe even unfelt elements of place that enable their connections to it. For that reason, we spent the first ten minutes of our first class warming up, creating sculptures with our bodies that represented the way we feel when we are in “our” cities (where our cities might be any city, big or small, that we call “ours”). We then spent the next half hour introducing ourselves by talking about our relationships to the places evoked by the body sculptures we’d made.

My goal in my classes is always to create a sense of community: of shared investment and shared learning, founded on respect and care for one another. This year, as I focus specifically on making my classrooms an inviting place to challenge the settler-colonial commonplaces many of us take for granted (and which enable so much of our settler privilege), I hope to help students develop respect and care not just for one another, but for the unseen faces around us on the (in southwestern Ontario, treaty) land we occupy.

I’ll write more posts about my decolonization project as the term advances, letting you know how it’s going, good and bad. I’ll also share some of the strategies I’m trying out in my Performance Studies seminar, where we have begun by intentionally marginalizing the traditionally most dominant male voices in the field, in order to open with perspectives on the discipline – and on the politics of discipline-making itself – by four female scholars, including two Canadians. Those women are all white, though – something I realized after the syllabus was set, and something that reminds me I’ve still got far to go.

With anticipation and hope for a good term,

Kim

*There’s a lot of writing about decolonizing the classroom on the web, with lots of different perspectives on offer. I quite enjoyed reading this, an account of a panel discussion on the topic earlier this year at Ryerson University in Toronto. The panel foregrounds the importance of indigenous/non-indigenous collaboration in the classroom and in pedagogical planning, something I very much endorse and would love to participate in.

 

 

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

 

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