On settling in

Happy September!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy September!
Kim

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

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Top tips… for next time around

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

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

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

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

Here they are.

1. Start with a warm-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both went: “huh!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s no bad thing.

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

I’ll keep you posted.

4. Be a hard(er) ass

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

I do exactly the same thing, every time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Build in time for spontaneity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy end of term!

Kim

On outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But do they?

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

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

Here’s the question I posed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim

Hack the final!

My department requires me to give a final exam in every one of my undergraduate courses at the second and third year levels. Technically this is an English Lit department, but it also manages the administration of our Theatre Studies program, on which I principally teach, and that means I’m required to give finals in all of my my lower-level theatre courses, at least for right now. What’s worse, university regulations require me to make the final exam in each class worth at least 30% of a student’s final grade. ACK!

This regulation has long struck me (even when I was primarily teaching English classes) as troublesome, and pedagogically unsound. I should say right away that I’m in no way against final exams per se; I recognise that they can be a very efficient way, especially in larger classes, to ensure students have covered a course’s broad bases and read key texts. They are a due diligence exercise for teachers and students, requiring one to connect learning expectations to potential outcomes, and the other to demonstrate that they have taken at least some of those expectations seriously.

But in classes based on the shared critical exploration of cultural works, and in particular works of art, exams have limited use value at the best of times. And in a course like my “Performance Beyond Theatres”, which introduces students to the discipline of performance studies and the practice of live art making through a political lens, final exams feel positively draconian.

My students and I have spent the term watching films from Paris is Burning by Jenny Livingston to What Would Jesus Buy featuring Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping; we’ve done a workshop on Augusto Boal’s image theatre technique; we’ve made video reports about cultural events around our city; we’ve taken a road trip to Toronto for Nuit Blanche; we’ve created group performance “actions” based on current issues on campus; and together we’ve worked through the (not inconsiderable) challenges of creating a marking rubric for such a personality-driven, aesthetically-focused creative task.

In short, we’ve been a team of forensic performance makers and hacktivists, a community more than a class. How could we possibly now sit down and write a final?

I first faced this challenge two years ago. My solution then was to request a take-home exam from my academic dean, which he kindly granted. I argued that a take-home would offer my students much more scope for creative reflection on the semester’s work and ease the burden of translating our unconventional labour into basic written form. To my surprise, though, some of the students felt pressurised by the take-home-ness of the exam. If it’s to be done at home by X date, what’s to stop you from taking 30 hours, rather than 3, to complete it? Should you let it eat your life? If you don’t, will you get a poorer grade?

So I switched up the hack. Instead, the following year, I invited my undergraduate students to crowd-source the final exam with me. It worked. Contrary to what the cynics in us might expect, students didn’t generally beg for easy; instead, they thought every bit as creatively about potential exam tasks as they had about our work throughout the year. The first creative commons exam I produced, in my performance theory class in 2015, included questions like: “create your own ‘Gerouldian’* introduction for one of the theorists on the second half of the course”, and “watch the following performance clip. Select a theorist from the course. Impersonate that theorist’s voice and attitude, as well as his or her ideological position. Critique the performance clip from his/her perspective.” The resulting exam papers were an absolute blast to read.

How go about crowd-sourcing a final? This past term, in Performance Beyond Theatres, we spent a chunk of the last day of the term dreaming up ideal kinds of questions we might like to face, and then we worked together on the questions themselves. I asked the students first to weigh in on our course blog with their preferred category of exam question (short answer? essay? creative option? what kind?), and then with their ideal question based on our term’s work. About 30% of the class chose to contribute this way; in class, we looked at the responses and then did the same exercise again, this time in teams.

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As we debriefed the exercise, I discovered that this group of students were keen on options: maybe an essay, OR a creative option, or both? Maybe some short answer mixed in, but again, optional – not everyone wanted that one, though some very vocally did. I suggested perhaps I could create an exam with a host of options, and students would be invited to mix and match questions, based on points value, to make up 100; this would leave the responsibility for a good range of responses up to the student, but would not pressure anyone to do any kind of task that didn’t suit their learning style. The room loved this idea.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: THIS KIND OF FREEDOM DEFIES THE PURPOSE OF AN EXAM! Honestly, I disagree. What’s an exam for? To test reading, synthesis, uptake? To find out what students learned and didn’t learn? Sure – all those things. But ask yourselves this: what do you remember of the courses you took as undergrads? I have a PhD and am a professor at a respected research university in central Canada; I remember literally FOUR pieces of content from my undergraduate career, only one of which has had any genuine relevance for me as a scholar (thank you, Dianne Chisholm!).

The stuff I really, really remember all has to do with the way I learned, the way I was taught, the collaborations I was invited to participate in, and the things I learned about myself through those collaborations. That stuff stuck with me – and it informed the teacher and researcher I became in a number of key ways.

My final exam hack, then, isn’t about creating an “easy” exam; it’s entirely about giving students ownership over the process, as well as a say in the nature of the course content and practice we are testing.

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As an exam-building team in PbT, we came up with a number of great essay and creative-option questions driven by exactly this logic. One question asked students to reflect on the “learning outcomes” listed in our syllabus, and to use a technique called thick description to examine moments from the term when those outcomes were met, or not. (The results of the seven answers to that question I received were fascinating; I’ll share them in a separate post soon.) Another option asked students to reflect on a recent moment from their personal lives that could be better understood and processed using a handful of the theories we’d read or art works we’d looked at together. Still another asked students to consider a recent global event (ex: Trump’s election; the Brexit vote; the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock) through the lens of our course work. My favourite creative option asked students to imagine two of the artists or theorists on our course as moderators for a Trump-Clinton presidential debate, and to create candidate dialogue based on their work. (Only one student took that option up, but hers was an utterly brilliant, smart and superbly crafted job. I laughed out loud while reading! She earned the highest grade in the class.)

There’s one more key to my final exam hack: students get to see the exam in advance. For the PbT gang, I posted the exam questions to our online learning portal the afternoon of our last class. I invited them to prepare as they wished; I emphasised that there was no “right” prep method, only the one that each student felt would best contribute to their own success. They might write answers up in advance and bring them on pieces of paper; they might plan outlines and bring those along on the day; they might re-read and re-watch course material, make fresh notes with the exam questions in mind, and bring those notes with. All books were permitted in the exam; so was food, music (in headphones), and anything else to make us more comfortable. I emphasised that this need not be a formal, hushed environment in which we fetishise sitting still and concentrating really hard; that was not the nature of our work together, so it ought not to feature in our test environment. The only rule: no disturbing those who wanted to work quietly. Some students chose to write the exam like any other, sure, but many appreciated the more relaxed environment. I know I did.

What was the result? The majority of students did very well indeed – their preparedness shone through and I saw real, marked evidence of their understanding the material. Many chose to quote readings directly, multiple times; a number made truly original connections amongst our course materials and came up with exciting new ideas. Most of all, I noticed that virtually everyone had fully prepped for the exam: books had sticky notes marking key readings; typed or hand-written notes featured bullet points and connecting arrows. A few wrote portions of their answers in advance, but this was not the norm. Mostly, the norm was fulsome readiness to explore the questions in the room on the day. I suspect that, having removed the fear factor (what will the questions be??!!), the exam hack gave students the confidence to know that preparedness would pay off, so they really, really prepared.

Will I keep doing this? As long as I’m required to give final exams in Theatre Studies classes, for sure. But to be honest I might enjoy doing it even if not required. I really like the opportunity hacking the final affords us to think critically, as a class community, about the intended purpose and outcomes of a final, especially in Arts and Fine Arts courses. Capstone tasks – from finals to presentations to portfolios – are inevitably based on a series of critical assumptions about how learning should culminate and be demonstrated; so much of our learning, though, is processual and driven not by content retention but by learning about the process of learning itself. How to “test” that? Maybe by testing the task, to see if it measures up.

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Kim

PS: for those of you keeping track, I am indeed preparing the third of my reflections on mobility, space, and access, featuring a review of the astonishing Shakespeare Trilogy at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Look for that in your virtual stocking next week.

*Daniel C. Gerould was my remarkable and respected colleague at the CUNY graduate centre until his death in 2012. He edited the popular textbook Theatre/Theory/Theatre, which features gossipy, delightful introductions for each of the authors he spotlights. In my performance theory course, we use that book for one half of the term before moving on to more contemporary writings.

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 1

I’ve been traveling in England this week, seeing friends I don’t often see. Such a pleasure! But a strange thing keeps happening: many of them have followed our hello hugs and smiles with questions about how I am doing, and queries about what they sense has been a very hard term for me. This is strange because I actually feel like my term was totally good; I’m in a pretty good place right now. Huh?

Their reactions have made me realise that I’ve been whinging a lot here, and on Facebook (which I use to keep up with far-flung friends, NOT for news purposes!), and probably unreasonably so. FB in particular is a platform that encourages catastrophic highs and damaging lows: hit “like” and its cognates to celebrate my totally amazing wins and my horrible devastations in equal measure! When things cook along normally that’s pretty boring, social-media wise; we don’t post that shit, because it would sink like a stone. No wonder all our lives seem like roller coasters now.

So, having to explain (a bit bashfully) to my dear pals that I’m actually doing pretty well has reminded me of how true that is, and in this year of years how lucky I am to be able to say that. I hold a very stable, well paid job in a stable democracy. I have access to free health care, and functional insurance if I get sick. I have my own, safe home. I have a strong support network. I hold two G7 passports, which means I get to move around the world virtually seamlessly, often without having to talk to any border guards when I do.

This morning, while walking along the South Bank on a rare sunny day, gazing over the millennium bridge at St Paul’s and watching the light dance on the dirty river, I totted up this good fortune. And I realised that my current well-being is rooted entirely in my spatial privilege. It is based, on one hand, on my total stability, my firm sense of self-in-place, and on the other on my mobility, my freedom to walk anywhere, fly anywhere, go anywhere I choose, when I choose. Here, I hasten to add that such mobility always relies first of all on that firm sense of em-placedness (my comfort and safety at home, my salary, my passports that root me in two nation-states): one cannot be without the other, even if you’re the fancy-free, nomad type.

It’s the end-of-year holiday season, which makes a perfect excuse for me to give thanks for the above spatial good fortune. I’d like to do that, here with all of you, by engaging in some critical thinking about space and movement over the next two weeks.

Regular readers know that I care about space a great deal as part of my teaching; for example, I’ve reflected before on how women (teachers and students) are and are not encouraged to take up spaces of authority in the classroom and beyond, as well as on how teaching spaces themselves affect the way we communicate and learn in class. As a preface to the posts to come, I want to claim that, just as being-in-space (safely, unencumbered) is a privilege we share as part of a community but enjoy largely individually, the way we as teachers make space for students – for their experiences, for their differences, as we encourage them to take up space in ways they might not previously have felt able to do – forms a core part of their learning process. It therefore should be central to our teaching practice.

Now seems an acute time to think about matters to do with space and movement in other ways, too: between the ongoing civil war and refugee crisis emanating from Syria, Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union, and the US’s election of Donald Trump to the White House (to name just three events), lots of us who previously enjoyed both mobility in space and security of place are now seeing those privileges radically curtailed. Many of us have been broken, and equal numbers of us empowered, by recent votes; those feelings, too, translate into spatial practice. In the US and the UK, instants of violence against racial, religious, and sexual minorities have been on the rise; those who believe such violence to be a public good clearly feel empowered to move and behave differently now, compared to six months ago. On the flip side, migrants and minorities in both countries are feeling much less safe in the very places they previously called home, and much less able to move around with the freedom (safety, security) the most privileged among us rarely think about.

What aspects of our spatial privilege do we take for granted? What aspects of others’ lack of this privilege do we simply ignore, or choose not to see? My claim here is that space isn’t just a non-thing, or an abstract thing: it is key to our human wellbeing, and its fracture is the beginning of human end. How might we, then, imagine a different, better way to be in, and move through, space together? (…Especially now that Mr Trump’s cabinet-elect appears uniformly to believe that our shared earth is not in a fundamental state of crisis, and that space is a thing to be conquered, not held and cherished.)

I’ll put some pressure on these questions and the issues surrounding them in the three posts to come this holiday period. On Friday, I’ll offer a reflection on a wonderful, inspiring workshop on “the politics of space”, which I attended two weeks ago at the Lightbox community arts hub in Detroit and which was led by the incomparable dance artist Barak adé Soleil. Next week, I’ll publish my reflections on Phyllida Lloyd and Clean Break theatre’s extraordinary Shakespeare Trilogy, performed by a mixed-race all-female cast at London’s Donmar Warehouse, which I saw last Saturday.

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Barak adé Soleil

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Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar

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Jade Anouka as Hotspur in Henry IV

Finally, I’ll start the new year with some thoughts on stuff I’ve learned this year – to my surprise, I have to admit – about the ways in which I lack mobility, and about the spaces in which I don’t feel free. There aren’t that many of them, but they exist; my encountering them this past year has been a blessing, because they’ve really got me thinking. I hope the resulting posts will help you think a bit more about your own experiences of space and mobility, too.

Meanwhile, a happy start to the holiday season, wherever it finds or takes you.

Kim