A Farewell, for now, from The Activist Classroom

Friends, we have news: after almost 10 years, the Activist Classroom is coming to an end. 

I know, Kermit. I know.

We won’t be updating the blog with new posts after this one, though we are in the process of curating past posts into an accessible archive. We’ll keep you posted on that.

What has prompted this move now? A few things. 

First, and probably most obviously, the pandemic has changed the landscape of all of our lives. Things that seemed, mid-2019, like the stuff of ordinary living and working no longer seem that way. The weight of each day falls a bit heavier on our shoulders; the labour of business-as-usual feels more laborious somehow. Students feel it. Teachers feel it. All humans, we wager, feel it. (We feel it.)

Second, after three years of valiantly trying to imagine the AC as a community space, a home for diverse voices, we’ve realized that the (voluntary) work of such a task isn’t something people are up for – very understandably. We’ve had some luck paying folks sporadically over the years for their contributions – most recently Julia Henderson, our fantastic teacher-in-residence in 2020! – but resourcing a space like this is hard work in itself, and we’ve had to calibrate recently whether or not it’s worth it to keep trying.

The many keywords of the activist classroom

And that brings us to our final, probably our most important, reason for bringing the AC to a close right now: we’ve realized that our voices are not the voices that need to be populating a space like this anymore.

Rather than trying to muster those voices into our space, which feels a bit too much like appropriation, we’d like to move over so that those voices can properly grow into themselves on their own (which they are already doing, of course, and brilliantly).

After 10 years and hundreds of posts, we’ve said a lot; arguably, we’ve said all we have to say. Kim and Kelsey are both eager to read other voices and many other stories, and we’ve realized that it’s not our role to “host” those voices – we need to let them own their own spaces by getting out of their way.

To conclude our journey, we’re offering this final post as a rumination on what an “activist classroom” might mean today, in 2022. We have composed the thoughts below as an email conversation between us, and we reproduce it as a dialogue here, in the spirit of the collaboration the AC has always tried to foster.

Enjoy, and as always, thanks so much for reading.

– Kim Solga and Kelsey Blair


KELSEY: Let’s start at the beginning, for context. Where did the Activist Classroom come from?

KIM: This – the blog – all started when I was 8 months into teaching at Queen Mary, University of London, in English and Drama: my dream job. I quickly realized that in the environment of the neoliberal British academy, carving regular time from the admin-heavy expectations of the job (emailing all the truant students!! Every week!! OH MY GOD!!) to think critically about teaching and learning felt like an activist move in itself.

But the term “activist” was always a controversial one for a teaching blog written by a white, feminist scholar who did not otherwise identify as an activist, and over the years the question of what “activism” means for us/for me has arisen from time to time. Our last guest post by Stephanie Dennie raised this issue; in fact, Stephanie asked me directly what “the activist classroom” meant before she started writing her post.

Kelsey, what did this term mean for you when you first approached me to become part of the blog?

The first image Kelsey posted when she joined the AC in 2019

KELSEYI was a reader of the blog long before I approached you to come on board. In my early reading years—during my MA if you can imagine that!—the concept of activism helped me articulate not-yet-fully-formed notions about learning spaces and intervention. By the time I got in touch with you, I was nearing the end of my PhD at Simon Fraser University and working as a sessional instructor at the University of British Columbia. I still wasn’t fully formed on the implications of the word activism. But, I had a clearer idea of how the concept might help me think about the classroom as a place of potential for challenging ideas, for intervention, and for forming briefly-lived collectives.

When you first started using “activist teaching,” what did it mean to you?

KIM: The phrase originated in a special issue of Canadian Theatre Review (CTR) I edited in 2011. In the editorial for that issue, I reflect on bringing the ethos of “performance as a public practice” – which is the name of the program at UT Austin where I completed my postdoctoral fellowship, with help from amazing humans like Jill Dolan, Charlotte Canning, and Deborah Paradez – to Western University, at a time when theatre at Western had formally disappeared as a program.

Of my first weeks in my new job at Western, I wrote in that editorial:

I knew immediately that by demanding the students learn by doing—by performing, embodying, making personal the very political work we would read together—I could help them to see theatre’s potent public strengths. We began (in the wake of Hurricane Katrina) with a simple exercise: what if you were a theatre artist in Houston, in Baton Rouge, or in Nashville, I asked them; how would you muster your resources to help the people of New Orleans? I was amazed at the eager, smart responses— something that continued each week thereafter, as students, divided into teams for the term, made outstanding poor theatre, and spoke with sensitivity about what they and their peers were accomplishing, for whom, and whether or not it mattered.

Later in the introduction, I also reflected on my “activist classroom” as a space in flux, ever evolving and growing. I put the issue together because I wanted to learn from my peers about what the term means to them, not because I wanted to define it for us. I asked some basic but for me still key questions: “What makes us good teachers? What makes our classrooms collaborative learning spaces? What makes our classrooms safe spaces to try out unsafe ideas? What makes our classrooms places where large-scale change can, in tiny steps, appear to begin? What makes our teaching activist, anyway?”

Looking back on the blog’s two origin points now, I can see how they dovetail. Teaching for me is about being humble enough always to want to learn more, to know your practice can’t be static if it is to be effective. That was the spirit of my CTR issue. At Queen Mary, while I loved my colleagues and the job was my dream gig on paper, I had so little time amidst all the admin to reflect with care on my teaching that I could feel myself draining of energy, of teaching vitality. That felt, to me, like the opposite of activism. I needed to jolt myself back to life somehow.

KELSEY: I very much feel your desire to remain energized, and its importance for the vitality of teaching. When I first started working as a sessional instructor at UBC, it was a goal realized: I pursued graduate studies, in part, so that I might be able to teach at university. Creating a brand new course (for me) and grading involved labour, but I was excited to be doing the work. I had energy, ideas, and time-consuming activities to give. It helped that I only taught one course a semester. But, over time, that changed. I transitioned through (and eventually out) of grad school and my teaching load increased. More courses means more prep, more marking, more students, and more administration.

With more of everything, the balance between engaged, effective, teaching and my role as an employee/worker (and particularly as someone in a contract position) began to wear. I really believe in the transformational potential of learning spaces – classrooms but also dance studios and gymnasiums and theatres – but I also believe in good working conditions and work-life balance. Looking back, I see how my professional experiences in the last few years have re-shaped how I envision engaged teaching practice and activism in the classroom.

For you, did the concept of activism, help “jolt” your teaching practice back to life? How has your conceptualization changed over time?   

KIM: When I reflect back on the posts I was writing in the early years, I realize a number of them touch on the ridiculousness of the neoliberal university, in which more and more labour is outsourced to faculty, industrial action is regularly threatened if not regular itself, and – especially – in which league tables, top-100 lists, student satisfaction surveys, and all manner of measurement tools invade to eat our time and take our attention away from the work of thinking critically and creatively and expansively about how to build a better world. This has, I think, been where my sense of teaching as activism remains: in a neoliberal academic system, we’re meant to be too busy to ask the kinds of difficult questions of our leaders and each other that might lead us out of the morass, that might invite different models of living and working, both inside and outside academia, to become thinkable.

The endless multitask of the neo-liberal university world

Activism, then, becomes looking at that system, recognizing the busy-work for the distraction it is, and asking the questions nonetheless. But, as you rightly point out, Kelsey, we are all tired – ESPECIALLY the junior faculty who are being asked to teach way too many courses per term on contract, are being routinely promised tenure-track jobs will open up around the corner, and are being routinely disappointed. The neoliberal academy rears exhausted, burned-out workers on purpose, and the people who are most in need of that system’s reforms are the ones least likely to have the energy or capacity to undertake it.

People like me – salaried, tenured, living an increasingly out-of-reach old-world academic dream – are the ones who need to be rattling the cages, but we’re also busy and exhausted a lot of the time, too. Exhaustion and a very human level of burnout-driven complacency is a deadly combination.

I think my activism as a teacher now (especially in this second half of my career, when my own seatbelt is securely fastened) needs to be about pressing on these systemic issues and hard, using the power I have accrued with my position at my university to push for meaningful change every chance I get, and to uplift individual junior scholars in the process as much as I can. That work is bootstrap work more than anything.

KELSEY: If there’s an upside of experiencing the wear and tear of the wheels of the neo-liberal university (and I’m not saying that there is), it’s that I think I’ve become more attuned to the intricacies of the machine. I can recognize a questionable policy or demand from a soccer field away and can quickly deduce their intended and unintended effects. This helps me empathize with students who often navigate the same structures from a different position within the system. As we know, empathy and recognition are helpful for spurring change, and I realize that I’ve been progressively re-orienting part of my activism toward how such structures do or don’t appear in my classrooms. I suspect this is why I’ve so frequently blogged about evaluation schemes and concession policies for the AC: such documents can be used as tools that help me and the students navigate how broader structures show-up in a course.

Soccer field as evil: the neoliberal university, especially for contract faculty.

Kim, are you doing anything right now that models your current “activism as a teacher”?

KIM: I’m engaged right now in a really exciting teaching research project called “Building a Creative Campus.” Me, a colleague from media studies, and three ass-kicking women research fellows from three different disciplines are doing campus-wide assessments of how people in Western’s community experience creativity in their daily lives: how they define it; where they get it; where and when they don’t get it enough; how more of it would help make their working lives better. This research is in service of supporting the build for a new, interdisciplinary, performance studies-led course for undergrads, but we quickly discovered – when more than 3000 people responses to our initial survey! – that our community members were hungry to talk about this issue, and about what they need more of.

Our results so far are preliminary, but they are also really consistent: people tell us they need more TIME and more SPACE, in their programs of study/in their departments and the programs they service, as well as in their lives overall, for creative, non-indexed, not-immediately-product-oriented play. They want to mess around, but there’s not room. They want to explore and discover, but all of that has been fully instrumentalized on our campus: one med student we spoke to yearned for a chance to make music, but there’s no provision in her over-packed course of study for it; another engineering student lamented he can’t seem to access his creativity and doesn’t understand why, but it seemed implicit that he wasn’t being offered room in his work to move as a non-engineering-researcher individual, or not enough room to explore the capacity he surely has to spread his wings.

This woman: resisting the impulse to instrumentalize

All this sounds really familiar to me: work harder to innovate more! Make us shinier now! But all our evidence points to people saying, how can we do that if can’t just PLAY, just mess around, for a while? Isn’t learning also just a lot of good messing around? (There’s a tonne of evidence for this now, and a terrific new book out – The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul – makes sense of it for a lay audience.)

I consider this project a major activist intervention, both in the results we’ll be able to share AND in the way my team has created a community of care in which we DO mess around a lot, in fact we model messing around while doing good, smart, interesting things. I want to promote messing around as GOOD, SOLID teaching and learning: that’s a goal for me in the short term, in my home campus community.

What about you, Kelsey?

KELSEY: As I started with above, part of my approach to activist teaching right now is to redistribute my activist energy towards more areas of teaching. Some of these—policy and course content—will show up in the classroom. Other areas won’t show up at all. In this latter category, I am focusing on the balance between my labour and good pedagogy. 

For example, I’m paying serious attention to the balance between active, engaged, in-class activities and my workload. Creative activities can add vitality to lessons. Who doesn’t love a good scavenger hunt, after all? But, if the lesson-prep is well beyond the hours of my job, then I’m perpetuating a different kind of power imbalance, where the teacher (me!) performs free labour in service the product being sold to the students (the class). This isn’t only bad for me. It sets an unfair precedent for my colleagues, who should not be expected to work overtime hours to lesson prep. 

In terms of content, I’m not doing anything as fancy as a university-wide research project! But, I am trying to incorporate more freedom for experimentation and play. Practically, I do this through in-class activities that encourage students to imagine and attempt. I bring in physical objects to interact with. I play games! And, sometimes, I very simply allow an activity or discussion room to expand, rather than powering on to the next item on the lesson-plan to do list. 

I do my best to separate imagination and play from evaluation. Some days, you may not be in the mood to play. That’s fine! You aren’t being graded on the playing specifically. You’re simply being given the opportunity to play as part of learning. 

As much as possible, I also allow students to choose elements of evaluation, like the content of an essay or the form of a final project. These strategies aren’t radical, but they’re important, particularly in a university-atmosphere that is sometimes seeming to get more serious by the day! 

KIM: That all sounds EXACTLY like you, Kelsey, and it’s one of the main reasons I’ve so enjoyed you being a part of the AC for the past three years.

Play games. Pick your own evaluation (at least some of the time)! Trust there will be a guide, but remember your learning practice is also in your hands.

Let the cool stuff expand when it comes; follow the map-lines of prep a bit less. This is such a valuable one: if I could tell my 2013 (hell, my 2005!) self something useful, it would be: TEACH LESS. Listen more.

I know you want me to be the one to end this post, Kelsey, but I have to ask. Any words of advice to your younger self? Or to yourself as you embark on the next part of the first part of your career?

Kelsey: To my past self: Slow down and let everything breathe. Let yourself breathe. Let the lessons breathe. Let the silences breathe. To my future self: Resist disillusionment. You have breathed enough to know that while the goings-on of a university classroom don’t matter all of the time, they can matter to somebody some of the time. Allow that to motivate listening, learning, challenging, and experimenting.

Thanks for your ideas, your candor, your inspiration and for letting me me — and all our readers — follow along your teaching journey, Kim!

Co-teaching, part 1: Kim’s madcap winter term adventure

Hello friends! It’s been awhile. Forgive our radio silence; both Kelsey and I ended up in the March from you-know-where. Whoever said the pandemic is over is definitely selling you something! In our hearts, our minds, our legs, and our abilities to multitask, it surely is nowhere near over.

Today, I’m bringing you the first of a two-part post, in which I share experiences I went through this winter as part of a co-teaching experiment that is currently funded by Western University’s Teaching Fellow’s program. Given MARCH (see above), I can preview this post by saying: it wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t WASN’T a disaster.

BUT: there’s always a silver lining, and in my books teaching isn’t worth doing if you can’t fail, and then get ready to re-up and fail better.

On the latter topic, look for part two of this post on Thursday, authored by my saviour/research fellow Stephanie Dennie. She’ll talk about the literature she read and the best practices she learned (and continues to develop) as part of our teaching team; she’ll also share her top tips for starting a co-teaching experiment of your own.


It’s mid-March. I’m in a classroom in a building I only just recently learned is located behind the parking lot where I occasionally leave my car when the parking lot I usually use at Western is full. There are students in an adjacent room trying to figure out how not to talk over one another so that they can get on the same page about what they are making, even though they are technically making two separate but related things. There are students in the room on the other side of the glass partition from me cooking along with gas, like they’ve always been besties and know exactly what’s the what. And then there are the students in front of me: the bulk of two classes, from my Theatre 2202 and my teaching partner’s Psychology 3895, fighting a civil war that’s just broken out over whether or not it’s OK for one group to use data collected by the other group to Do The Thing the course is designed to do: make a performance about experiences of homelessness and drug addiction in our city.

I stand to one side, next to a young Black woman who is itching to get a word in edgewise, my stomach doing tumble turns. Stephanie, our research fellow, steps in to try to reorient the conversation. No luck. Before the class ends, I have raised my voice in anger for the first time in my teaching career.

How the hell did I end up here??

Moira Rose knows. Although if this meme came with her screaming and tearing her hair out, it’d be that much more accurate.

For the past three years, I’ve been co-teaching a class with a colleague in Psychology – the thoughtful and kind Leora Swartzman – as part of an experiment in cross-disciplinary, community engaged learning. Our two classes – Performance Beyond Theatres (me) and Social Science in the Community (Leora) – are interested in making positive social impacts in our city (London, Ontario) using the tools our disciplines provide. We started out as a City Studio co-pro, but moved away from City Studio last fall to go it alone. Around the same time, I was fortunate to win a three-year fellowship appointment with our Centre for Teaching and Learning, and as a result we were able to hire research support to help us grow our ad-hoc experiment into something sustainable.

(Side note: I could have SWORN I’d written about this class before on the AC! I trolled – not that kind of trolling – through the archives from the start of our adventure to now, and found nada. I was shocked! But then I remembered our very first iteration of this project coincided with March 2020… and it all became clear. Any posts I’d considered about our collab were obviously eaten by the rabid COVID black hole.)

Leora and I fell ass-backward into this partnership initially. At our City Studio speed dating session in summer 2019, we both realized we wanted to work on the same community project – disseminating the City of London’s diversity and inclusion strategy. We teamed up via our community partner and got our hands dirty: Leora’s students did Psychology-side research with the City’s cultural ambassadors to develop an archive of work on sane-ism, ableism, racism and xenophobia in the city, while my students created performance actions to help illuminate and develop community understanding about these topics.

Sometimes. In theory anyway.

That first class iteration was not bad, though in hindsight the challenges we faced all paled in comparison with the challenge that was the onset of COVID about half way through the term; I’d be hard pressed to remember what was working and what wasn’t before we all got thrown into the Zoom room. (I will say that our students came up with some excellent projects despite the mayhem that was a global pandemic crashing at speed into their education; all the theatre students’ projects are archived here.)

In year two, we were working under semi-lockdown conditions, and my class was taught as a blend of online and in person (thanks to the amazing active learning space I’ve been blessed with throughout the last few terms). We suffered this time around, though, from the fact that my class was scheduled for fall rather than winter term (a pandemic compromise, alas), which meant that the collaboration my students and Leora’s students were meant to undertake – in which my students benefitted from over a term’s work of Leora’s students’ independent project research – got turned inside out. At the same time, Zoom wore on us: visits from community guests and partners were hampered by tech snafus, and communication problems created some hard feelings and required us to make difficult choices.

Going into year three, with the pandemic still raging, both Leora and I were a bit burned out. That’s when my fellowship provided us with an incredible blessing: the chance to hire a research fellow to help us figure out where we’d been, where we were going, and – crucially, as Stephanie will talk about on Thursday – why we’d decided this collaboration was a good idea in the first place. Realizing that we wanted to continue but weren’t really sure what we were trying to build, we knew we needed outside eyes and ears. We also knew we needed someone to manage the project and keep us on task for things like ethics applications – which were eating our brains, in particular Leora’s brain, even as we were trying to stay focused on the pedagogy part of the project. (In year two, so much of our time and effort went on admin that it’s no surprise the teaching-learning bits ended up tossed sideways.)

Luckily for us, Stephanie is great with animals.

Stephanie arrived on the project in September 2021, and she has been that person we knew we needed and so much more. Throughout last term she observed both us and our students in action, collected weekly reflections in order to gauge what was working and what not working for everyone, and, finally, she helped Leora and I to realize what we hadn’t known we didn’t know.

The two of us, it turns out, came at this chance three years ago to orient our students together around shared social justice and community-engaged goals without knowing the basics about each other: who we were as teachers, what our styles of conflict management are, and what happens when we get into situations in the classroom that require on the spot power-sharing, collaboration, and compromise.

That’s our work for the summer: going back to square one with one another, as teachers and as people. In the process, we’re also going to work on interleaving our syllabi and assignments, figuring out a more capacious model for joint class work, and we’re both going to plan to share more and teach our own proprietary stuff less. But above all, the work is interpersonal: we need to know who we each are so that we can fully trust one another when the poop hits the thingy next time. We need to be willing to be vulnerable together – and to fail together, better.

Revisiting Warm-ups: Winter Teaching Moves for the Ages

It is late January, which means that many parts of Canada — no, we know Vancouver, not you — are covered in snow and filled with impossible frigid air.

And so, what better time than to revisit Kim’s post on warm-up exercises, originally posted in 2018. The post both mirrors Kim’s current return from a sabbatical (fun!) and also offers a very practical activity to jostle the mid-winter blues at the beginning of class.

Stay warm out there folks!


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 look 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:


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.


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.


(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.


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!


SEPTEMBER 2021: Welcome!…back?

Hello friends, and welcome to autumn term 2021. Are we all seated comfortably, with our masks and seat belts comfortably adjusted?

Buckle up for another school year with the Activist Classroom!

And an adjustment it sure is. Both of us find it hard to believe that two years ago it was normal to head for campus, enter one’s office or one’s classroom, face other humans, and begin talking together.

Now, it it feels odd, disquieting, discombobulating: like we’ve lived an entire life between 12 March 2020 (that’s the day it all shut down for Kim, while she was riding the train home from her campus office in London, Ontario), and 4 September 2021 (that’s the day Kelsey marched into her brand-new office at Concordia University in Montreal, a school she had not even applied to work at back last March, and where she has been working entirely remotely since autumn term 2020 began).

Kelsey, the first time at her office (after being employed at the university for over a year).

That weird temporal drift you’re feeling? It’s real. It’s in our bodies, our brains; it’s in our cells, our neurons, our reflexes when we step off the sidewalk so someone can pass at social distance, when we turn away from other humans (even masked ones) on the subway.

And it’s going to take some time to unlearn.

You’ve probably been thinking a lot about this already, even if only indirectly – even if only through the twitches in your body. And if you’re like us, you’ve probably been inadvertently hoovering up media posts about coping with The Great Return – most likely while stuffing half a sandwich in your mouth between fielding student emails & administrative missives about vaccine and masking policies.

In this first post of the 2021-22 academic year, we’ve decided to share some of what we’ve been hoovering these last few weeks; then, we’ll each share one thing that we are hoping, and one thing each we’re fearing, as we take our first tentative steps forward/back/around in time.

Kim’s recommendations:

I get a lot of email newsletters from media orgs I trust, including the Guardian, the New York Times, and The Ink. I tend to go for letters that focus on gender, political and social equity, racial justice, and the climate emergency.

The Ink by Anand Giridharadas

This week, the NYT gender newsletter, In Her Words, published a piece on boundaries in the workplace: how people who identify as women in the US are fighting back against orders to return to the office full time, refusals to mandate masking up, and other practices that risk their own and their family’s/community’s health and wellbeing.

I recommend the piece highly for its practicalities, but also for its key take-away: in this unprecedented No-Longer-Before-Time, we get to say what we need, and we have the right to be heard and accommodated. (This is something disability activists have long known and told us, of course – may our voices lifted together continue their revolution!) We also have the right to expect that those up the chain will anticipate our needs and prepare accommodations so that we do not need to ask for them all the time.

Check the newsletter out here, and follow NYT gender on Insta here.

I’m also a regular reader of University Affairs (in fact, I have a piece coming out in UA shortly on editing as peer mentorship; I’ll share it when it’s out!). Recently, UA did a pair of very useful stock-takings: where are Canadian campuses on the fight against systemic anti-Black racism, and where are they in the long process of decolonization and reconciliation (which, to be very clear, is a VERY long road, one which most of us have only just begun walking)?

University Affairs: Ever useful.

While these pieces are not “about” COVID and The Great Return, they are very much about the urgent cultural shift that took place alongside the pandemic and shaped its wake: the need to, at last, look past the power of neoliberal capital and think about how our lifeways are failing huge swaths of our population, burying truths that need rising and acknowledging. One of the COVID silver linings, for me, is that these truths are in front of us now, and they will not go away without a fight.

For some of us who are enmeshed in decolonization and reconciliation processes on our home campuses, this stuff won’t be “news”, but it’s important I think to get a sense of how the larger conversations around these crucial topics are building in different places. In particular I find it valuable to hear from Black and Indigenous campus leaders on how it’s going for them and what else they need from us.

The pieces are here and here; I highly recommend them also to readers outside Canada, especially our UK readers who are working in their own contexts on decolonization initiatives.

Kelsey’s recommendations:

Neither of my recommendations are about university teaching specifically but I’ve found both helpful as we fall into another September.

The first recommendation is a piece in The Conversation by Daniel Heath Justice that offers an eloquent and clear set of steps for recognizing and addressing residential school denialism. The topic is specific to the territory now known as Canada but the article’s argument-counter argument structure offers an excellent model for refuting inaccurate and oppressive claims more broadly. I found it particularly helpful for thinking through potential applications in real world settings, which feels particularly pressing with a Canadian federal election on the horizon.

I need to give a disclaimer on the second recommendation: it is published by a magazine/blog that is owned and operated by a for-profit investing company (albeit a self described women-centered investing company). I have zero affiliation with the company, and beyond a quick website peruse, know little about them but ….

Ellevest’s post on practical steps for handling work overwhelm made its way to me, and I’ve included it here because 1. The start of semester can be, ahem, overwhelming and 2. I found the tips and advice realistic and useful.

Organization: One of Kelsey’s favourite ways to manage overwhelm.

Kelsey, what are you fearing?

Very practically: Classroom management in relation to Covid-19 protocols. My institution (and province) requires that masks be worn in class by students at all times. I’m not overly worried about students not wearing masks at all. But I am a nervous about how a behaviour such as a student repeatedly, not accidentally, having their mask below their nose might affect the classroom dynamic and put me in a rule-enforcer position.

More philosophically: That we will individually and collectively get worn down by the march of “the new normal” and that our compassion (for students, for colleagues, for ourselves) and our commitment to change and activism will become misplaced in the hubris of the everyday.

Kim, what are you fearing?

My two greatest fears at this point, in descending order, are:

1) that we will not learn and absorb the best lessons the last 18 months have offered us, especially what it means to have compassion for the whole human in the classroom and the academic workplace. (Snap, Kelsey!)

2) that we will not learn to live with this virus – because live with it we must, and we need to start now. That’s why vaccines are so, so crucial, and why scientists are heroes.

Back to school?: the question that has many of us re-examining, well, everything.

Kim, what are you hoping for?

I am on sabbatical this autumn; this feels a really lucky escape! That said, I’m on sabbatical for a specific reason: I have a book project and two teaching research projects that really need making headway on before January.

I’ve been thinking a lot about workload these days, precisely because mine is significant yet also incredibly flexible at the moment, and that’s a gift I struggle to accept. I’ve also been thinking about mental and physical wellness, because I’m at a moment in my life and in my body that demands such thinking.

I’m hoping that I may learn to accept the gift of flexibility in my sabbatical labour, along with the gifts of kindness and compassion when I don’t get it all done – in other words, that I’ll allow myself to make my own wellbeing project #1, with no guilt attached. (I’m going to write about this in an upcoming post; stay tuned for more.)

Kelsey, what are you hoping for?

Broadly, I hope that the waves of the covid ocean ebb and become part of a tide that doesn’t overwhelm our bodies, health care systems, and publics.

More specifically, after spending much of the last year in Montreal — which had strict health measures that kept me fairly isolated from the public — I feel like “back to school” stands in for “back to society.” I hope I bring the lessons and growth of the last year into my re-entry. I hope that I maintain my hard-fought enjoyment of downtime and my on-going relationship with balancing the different parts of my life.

What we’re taking with us: three term-end tips from Kelsey (#ACsurvivalguide)

Holy smokes, we made it through another bizarre, shaped-by-the-pandemic semester!

Image Library | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC
This is the organic shape of Covid-19. The specific shape of your pandemic experience may vary.

I haven’t yet had time to do full reflection and inventory from the teaching year (aka, I’m still marking!!). But, already, I know that the last eight months have drastically impacted how I approach teaching. Here are the first three things I’m “taking with me” beyond this topsy-turvey COVID-19 era.

1. Slow down.

For many, this has been a mantra for the pandemic as a whole. For me, it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn (and relearn) throughout the year in the classroom.

I have a lot of energy as a human and a teacher. On top of that, I value multimodal learning that offers students a range of entry points to engage with material. By extension, my lessons have traditionally incorporated lots activities: there’s a cluster lecture, a close read, then a scavenger hunt!

Slow Down - ELGL
Good advice from a turtle.

Online teaching looked me in the eye and said simply: it’s too much.

Because, here’s the thing about virtual teaching: simple tasks, like sharing documents for peer review, take longer. This extra time-taking has forced me to slow my lessons down and give more time to fewer activities. You know what? My classes are better for it. The simplified lessons give students more time to engage with one another and sink into tasks. Moving forward, I will definitely pare down my lesson plans to hone-in more, and offer more time and scope for settling into the task at hand.

2. Do the same work for myself that I’d do for others.

Anyone who knows me knows that I like, and am good at, planning, scheduling, and organizing. When I first started teaching, I used to schedule and organize administrative tasks like marking. As I’ve transitioned from part time to full time teaching, my workload has ballooned, and I’ve often forsaken this prep work for myself.

“Organize” is one of my favorite eight-letter words.

This year, I had two courses with TAs. To support my TAs, and their transition to online teaching and marking, I did a lot of extra scheduling and administration such as providing detailed instruction sheets for their assigned tasks.

In doing this work for my TAs, I also did it for myself. Clear workload breakdowns in advance of performing said work? Super useful. Pre-written explanations for common structural or grammar issues? Way faster. And who came up with these teaching hacks? I did.

This reminded me that I need to 1) remember the value of front-loading administrative and planning work and 2) use my own skillset to not only support others but also myself.

3. Leverage the online tools.

In the fall semester, I took attendance manually (with the backup of zoom) in my classes. (For those concerned with access, there were alternate options for those that couldn’t attend live sessions). At the end of that semester, collating and cross-referencing my messy notes with zoom’s weird output format took me an eon.

The title of this children’s book, Just a mess, accurately describes my attendance-taking process in the fall semester.

For the second semester I had time to learn the attendance tool on Moodle (my school’s online learning platform). It took me twenty minutes to set up, and it allowed students to record their own attendance and log it in the system. Not only was this quicker and easier for everyone, it also helped ease student anxiety because they had access to their own attendance record.

It’s easy to huff and puff about technology, and there is no question that zoom freezes suck, but this was a good reminder that the tools can be helpful too – if we take the time to explore them a bit, when we have that time and space.

As I continue to get distance from the semester, I’m sure I will uncover more reflections to share. But these feel like a meaningful start and a good reminder that even in the strangest of times, there can be improvement and learning.