More collaborative writing

A few weeks ago I co-authored a review essay on the musical Fun Home with my student Rachel Windsor; that pleasurable, rejuvenating exercise was exactly what I needed at the end of a long and tiring term.

So I’ve been at it again: this time with a terrific postdoctoral fellow who works with me at Western University, Dr Erin Julian.

Erin and I are currently collaborating on a research project about diversity and inclusion at the Stratford Festival, a large repertory company grounded in the plays of William Shakespeare. Stratford has been working hard in recent seasons to shift its image as a straight and white kind of place, making big strides in hiring younger, more ethnically, racially, and gender-diverse cast members and thinking outside the old, familiar box of “what the playwright intended” (as if we could ever know that, anyway).

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(Please, people. We all know Shakespeare intended to go to the beach!)

All of these strides are great, of course. But what, Erin and I wondered, does it really mean to practice diversity and inclusion at Stratford, as opposed to just representing those things? That is, what does it take for a non-straight, non-white perspective to become the seed for work, the grounding place for a vision, and also (crucially) the starting point for new working practices, rather than just the thing a theatre company wants the public to see, perceive, or believe about it?

We can – and should, of course – ask the very same questions of our educational institutions, our employers, as well as our own classrooms.

As Erin and I developed our project’s research questions, we were inspired by the important work done by Toronto’s Modern Times Theatre Company in their “post marginal” initiative (read more about that here), and especially by the associated symposium, “Beyond Representation,” that took place in Toronto in April 2017 (read the final report from that superb event here, or check out video of the speakers and panels here). We were also inspired by the work of Keira Loughran, a playwright, actor, and director who works for Stratford as both the head of its playwrights’ unit and Forum public engagement series, as well as in her capacity as a theatre artist.

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(The fabulous Keira Loughran)

Just around the time that the “Beyond Representation” symposium got me thinking deeply about diversity as theatrical practice, Keira told me about her vision for her summer 2018 production of Comedy of Errors at Stratford. She wanted its world (called Ephesus in the text) to be gender-fluid, as well as generationally and ethnically crosshatched: in other words, a world that all of the characters could inhabit completely comfortably, in both their similarities (the play is littered with twins and mistaken-identity plots) as well as in their profound and meaningful differences. She told us about her plans for the script, for casting, and for building links with the trans community, particular via artist-consultants from that community who came on board once rehearsals began in March.

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(The fabulous Sunny Drake, one of the consultants on Keira’s production)

Erin and I decided that Keira’s production would be a brilliant way for us to dive deeply into the challenges practicing diversity in a thorough-going way, at all levels of theatrical development, can pose at a large, resource-rich, but also traditionally-minded and subscription-audience-driven festival like Stratford. We had some hunches about what these challenges might be, but we were also willing to be surprised about both the good and the not-so-good.

Truly, we simply wanted to take the measure: when you commit to working diversely and inclusively as a starting place, when that kind of work isn’t your workplace norm, what happens next?

We’ve been shadowing Keira’s process since early winter, including attending rehearsals and workshops, and we were thrilled to be invited to a dress rehearsal in early May. The show opens this week, and we’re excited to see how audiences and critics respond.

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(The promo image for Keira’s Comedy of Errors, featuring Jessica Hill and Qasim Khan as the central twins. It’s selling out – grab tickets soon!)

Erin and I also recognize, though, that with our privileged perspective as academic insider-outsiders comes responsibility: the responsibility to help audiences (including critics) to see something of the complexities of process lying behind the stage world they will encounter at Comedy of Errors. Keira’s version of Ephesus isn’t going to be what a lot of audience members will be expecting; how might we, with our nuanced sense of the production’s development, help them get oriented, find their feet in this different-looking place?

Audiences, we think, not only should know, but need to know at least a bit about how the incredible care taken and commitment shown by Keira, her cast, and her entire team to building a thoughtful, deeply humane world of body inclusivity has shaped the final product they will see. Seeing only the product is tantamount to seeing diversity only as representation, not as lived practice or indeed as workplace practice. In relation to this production, that feels wrong.

So last week we reached out to Keira to ask if she’d permit us to write a preview article for Stratfordfestivalreviews.com about our shadowing of the production, what we observed and what we felt about our observations. Keira – who is deeply aware that some Stratford audience members may feel somewhat alienated by the world her team has created – readily agreed.

I’m now really pleased to share the article with you. In addition to being a window onto a gender-diverse and non-conforming Shakespeare production, I hope it can also serve as a bit of a primer, inspired by Keira’s thoughtful directorial guidance, on how we might all practice body diversity and inclusion in more effective ways in our classrooms and rehearsal spaces – not just representing it, but living it with our students and thus modelling inclusionary perspectives and actions as new cultural norms.

As Keira’s process reveals, diversity practice is genuine, proper work, but it’s really not that hard to do: it simply requires us to begin, as Donna Michelle St-Bernard noted in her “Beyond Representation” keynote address last April, from this basic question.

What would happen if I imagined that I was ACTUALLY the centre of the universe?

I’d know I was not the most oppressed person in the room. I’d have to turn around to see who was behind me.

Click here to access my and Erin’s preview, “The Comedy of Errors: Building Inclusivity at the Stratford Festival.” Thanks in advance for reading!

Kim

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Collaborative Writing, with Undergrads

Those of you who read regularly know I’ve been jonesing for collaboration lately. I talked about it extensively in my recent post for Gary and Lena at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, and I reflected on my need for more of it in my last post, which focused on what’s next (or might be next) for my writing practice.

Then, a couple of weeks ago – just as the semester had reached the “oh lord, just shoot me now” point that is early April – an opportunity for an ideal collaboration, with a senior undergraduate student, fell into my lap.

Keith Tomasek at Stratford Festival Reviews had invited me a while back to review the Canadian premiere of Fun Home, the Lisa Kron/Jeanine Tesori musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name. (NB: Bechdel test? THAT Bechdel.) The tickets finally came through (along with yet another dump of late-season snow) and I realized I had a spare ticket to give away.

Cue the moment when I ALSO realized that my fourth-year honours thesis student, Rachel Windsor, had spent the last six months researching and writing about Bechdel’s memoir. Might she like to come along? She jumped at the chance – and also at the chance to help me out with the review. Her writing on the memoir was stellar, original; I knew she’d be a great collaborator, even if a novice reviewer. Our team was born.

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Here’s Rachel, in her headshot for our review.

The night of the show was another blusterer (thanks, winter. Fuck off now like a good pet, please), but we had a fabulous time. It was opening night, so the crowds were thick in the tiny main-floor theatre lobby, and many were dressed up and partying in the second-floor lobby bar. The cast began a little bit out of tune, but that lasted no more than a few minutes. In no time, the inescapable enthusiasm and raw talent of the young members of the cast (there are three children in the show) shone through, and we were laughing hard and clapping harder at the signature number “Come to the Fun Home” (Fun Home = Bechdel family funeral home) – with the young Bechdels Jackson-Five-ing it in and around the casket they are polishing.

After the show, Rachel and I walked back to Dundas Square and chatted about what we liked and didn’t like; what we’d expected, gotten, and not quite gotten, from the 90-or-so minute show. We hatched a plan to compare notes the next day.

The next morning, in the middle of one of my final exams, I had a bit of a revelation: what if Rachel and I restaged our post-show chat as a dialogic review? I sketched a raw outline and shot it over to her. She began filling in answers to my mock questions, and we were off.

The results are now up at Stratfordfestivalreviews.com, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s turned out – not least because this review practically wrote itself, what with the fun of re-enacting our dialogue on paper and the pleasure of working with a genuinely talented and capable collaborator.

Here’s a short excerpt; for the full review, please click here.

Kim: Rachel, you’ve been working on Bechdel’s memoir, on which the musical is based, for over a year. That’s a whole lot of back story to bring to an adaptation! Going into the performance, what did you most want to see translated from page to stage?

Rachel: I definitely walked into the theatre with a lot of anticipation! My own work on the memoir has to do primarily with its powerful engagements with trauma and memory – both Alison’s and her dad’s – so I was really hoping to see the actors grapple with representing these challenging concepts on stage.

Bechdel describes her work in the original memoir as “tragicomic,” but a large part of the premise of “Fun Home” is Bechdel’s own father Bruce Bechdel’s suicide. It’s hard to make that scenario lighthearted – which is at least somewhat necessary in a musical! – and so I was very curious to see how Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori would go about building this central, traumatic situation into the entertainment value that musicals demand.

Kim: I’m someone relatively unfamiliar with Bechdel’s memoir (your thesis introduced me to it, in fact!), but I’m familiar with Lisa Kron and her legacy as a member of the Five Lesbian Brothers performance troupe (in New York in the 1980s and 1990s). I therefore expected a story that would foreground lesbian experience from a specifically queer-feminist point of view, but also from a quite personal perspective. (Kron has written other popular autobiographical works, including 2.5 Minute Ride and Well.)

The musical’s primary focus, in fact, is on Alison’s coming-out story, and especially on the way that story intertwines with Bruce’s life as a closeted gay man. Given Kron’s background, that personal-is-political framing made sense to me. So did the use of three Alisons to add rich context and scope to this particular lesbian life.

(Small Alison is played by Hannah Levinson; college-aged [Medium] and adult Alison are played by Sara Farb and Laura Condlln respectfully. The latter two are regulars with the Stratford Festival, as is Evan Builing [Bruce], and Cynthia Dale [who plays Helen Bechdel]).

Fun Home, Toronto, Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson, Laura Condlln.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Rachel: The three Alisons were brilliant; thanks to them, the musical adaption really foregrounded the role and function of memory in the story. The graphic memoir carefully resists the kind of linear timeline that we associate with autobiography, and I think the adaption would have lost an important quality had it reverted to the traditional past-to-present structure typical of memoir storytelling.

And the Alisons interact! For example, I really enjoyed when adult Alison cringes hilariously at Medium Alison’s awkward attempts to woo her first crush. This strategy allowed the musical to employ a more embodied process of remembering, and to make room for lots of welcome laughter.

Kim: The musical dates to 2013. But, even in 2018, the commentary the musical embeds about the incredible personal challenges that coming out in real life entails is as essential for me as it ever was. I often worry that, for all the good it can do, the current media vogue for gender-queerness risks masking the fact that actually living a gay or trans life is not as easy as selling a look on TV. Queer and trans folk still face real barriers, enormous discrimination, and violence.

All that said, I also hoped for a bit more politics in the musical. Sometimes it felt too easy to empathize with Alison’s story – as though all human experience at bottom is the same.

Sara Farb’s stand-out performance as Medium Alison is a joy to watch and hear, especially as she belts out the lines to “Changing My Major,” the iconic song in which she “comes out” to herself after a night with her new girlfriend, Joan. But Farb’s gorgeous accessibility is also, politically, for me a bit of a liability.

A young woman who just wants to be able to draw cartoons and love another woman with her parents’ blessing: in 2018, who can’t get behind that message? But, of course, the story Bechdel tells is nowhere near that simple.

Rachel: I had similar feelings about the musical’s rendering of Bruce. I wish that we could have seen more emphasis on his affairs with underage boys.

The character Roy (played by Eric Moran) in the memoir is one of Bruce Bechdel’s current high school students. The musical ages him up to become a recently graduated student. But part of the discomfort of Bechdel’s memoir comes from the reader’s reluctance to understand Bruce as a predator, or even as a pedophile.

As readers, we can’t really fall into easy generalizations of Bruce as a one-dimensional villain, because he’s such a loving and inspiring dad to Alison. At the same time, though, the memoir constantly reminds us that Bruce groomed and took advantage of young boys throughout his life as a teacher.

In the musical, there is still a sense of that predatory nature in some of Bruce’s interactions with Roy. For example, there’s a moment near the end of Helen’s solo when Bruce offers Roy a drink – on the condition that he takes off his shirt. Still, I found the musical left out a lot of the immoral and criminal actions that make Bruce such a complex character.

I can’t wait to do this again! Maybe I’ll make a point of taking students to ALL my future commissions. Thanks, Rachel, for such a joyful and revelatory writing experience!

Enthusiastically,

Kim

Finding Precious Time! (Pt 2)

In the last post on the blog you will find some off-the-cuff, raw and honest reflections from Lena Simic and Gary Anderson based on the writing exercise I suggested in my 2016 post, “Write. Just Write. And Be Amazed”. Gary and Lena are writing about time: the way it overtakes us, in a job where the line between “work” and “life” is blurry (welcome to academia, friends); the way it is sized and measured, in an economy hell-bent on increasing productivity (sometimes for better, in the form of flex time and work-from-home; often for worse, in the form of job creep and assessment exercises); and the several ways we might do time differently, on our own terms, clawing back hours or days for less productive, potentially more radical and open and community-oriented uses. (Gary and Lena’s Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home aims to do just that, all the time.)

When I asked Gary and Lena if they would write me a guest post, they in return invited me to contribute to a book they are building, called “10”. Together, they suggested, we could reflect on the conundrum of time, from our different perspectives within academia: them as working parents (and Institute co-founders) in Liverpool, me as a single, mid-career scholar at a big research school in Canada. I said immediately I would accept that compelling collaborative challenge.

Here, then, is my first stab at a contribution to Lena and Gary’s offering. And it is, fittingly, about finding time through collaboration. I hope you enjoy it.

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***

Whenever anyone asks me to sum up the ethos of my teaching, I talk about collaboration: the students and me, working together to make new ideas. I do this, too, when I’m asked to talk about my research: I usually say I am a collaborative scholar, most at home co-writing or editing. I don’t identify as a typical academic: I’m not itching to write another scholarly monograph, and I don’t really like being in the archive or the library all by myself. I even get lonely in my office after everyone else goes home.

Time is a perennial problem for me, the way it is for so many of us: there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things that we need to do in order to fulfil the expectations of our academic jobs. But when I’m alone, time sometimes seems to creep, not rush: that creeping feeling reminds me of how lonely, isolating, and insular the labour of academia can be. I don’t, at those times, feel like I’m in a bobsled tunnel whooshing toward a hard, bumpy finish; I feel like I’m hanging in outer space, frightened about what’s below me. (Not even sure which way is up or down, truth be told.)

There’s a paradox here, I think: I’m at once incredibly harried, rushed all the time, exhausted. And yet at other times I feel suspended in air, rudderless, unsure that anything I do makes any difference. Both of these feelings are, for me, connected to outcome expectations: we must work more/harder/faster to do the job well; we must produce, just produce, more STUFF ANY STUFF to do the job well. Which means both of these things – rushing through time, suspended in time – are connected to feelings of dissatisfaction with my job. Both are connected to the pain of over-worked isolation.

When I feel that suspended-and-drifting feeling, to ward off the terror, I usually jump back into the work, always more work, surrounding me: at those times, I work to insulate myself from breakdown. That means time is also an emotional problem for me: afraid of the stillness, the silence, its loneliness, I seek the race and rush. At least it is familiar. And I have coping mechanisms.

I have just started commuting between my new home in Hamilton, Ontario and my job in London, Ontario. This is the first time in my life my commute to work has been longer than an hour, and dependent on a vehicle. Now, I race to get into the car to race the 85 minutes to my campus office and then I race through the day’s tasks in order to jump back in the car to race home again. Or anyway, sometimes it feels like that.

But what do I feel when I finally get home? I experience a rush of calm, to start. I unpack and undress. I walk the dog, who is thrilled to see me. I shower, I eat dinner. Later, I head up to my home office, which I’ve designed carefully to be as supportive and sustaining an environment as possible. It includes my desk and office cabinet, arranged against a long wall papered in a gorgeous graphic rendition of Charlotte Brontë’s garden. It includes plenty of books, neatly filed on shelves. It includes a chaise and coffee table for reading. It includes my dressing area, too – a place I can unwind as I undress, or as I dress up to reinvent myself. It’s a space of imagination.

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(My office wall/Charlotte’s garden)

As I’ve been writing this I’ve realized that, in my new space, I am at ease more often than not. It is a place I have carved out in order to shape the time I spend there into calmness, and into the kind of productivity that I want to direct my energies toward: public writing, writing for students, collaborative activities with friends and colleagues, and lots of rejuvenating activities for me (cycling and walking my dog and spending time with my good friends nearby).

I have realized, while writing this, that my new home, and especially my new office, could (should) be characterized as a collaborator in the life I am working towards living – the (new) life that prioritizes my needs and well-being first, the new life that makes space and time. (Those are its productivities.)

My commute, come to think of it, may also be a collaborator in this strategy. It’s easy to conceptualize the time that I now spend driving to and from work in another city as wasted or lost or barren time. But from the start I knew I would value that time, somehow – I sensed it would be good time. I knew that, alone on the road, just me and the drive, I would have space to breathe. Time to think. Room to decompress a bit. I asked around for awesome podcasts and loaded a bunch up onto my phone. These are windows on other worlds, lives, and experiences – worlds I otherwise might not have the time to visit or even recognize as a part of my own.

(Sidebar here: Ear Hustle, from Radiotopia, is simply outstanding.)

Maybe my car is now also a space of imagination, then: as I drive, it makes time. Time for me to be by myself, but also time for me to be other to myself. The commute offers me time to do nothing but go home. It offers me an hour and a half to leave the rush that is not sustainable, and to approach the space I am building to be, to become, sustainable.

(Another sidebar: the dog is totally a collaborator, too. You cannot rush a dog with a nose like Emma’s. The sniff takes the time it takes, yo.)

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I began this reflection about time, improbably, by talking about collaboration. What does collaborating with others have to do with time?

First, it transforms work time into social time, community time. Time to share. Time to be alive to otherness, to be outside of ourselves – rather than to be deeply, cruelly sunk into ourselves, the way we are when we are in the race and the rush, preoccupied with the crush on our shoulders.

Second, it makes time to spare: shared work is a load lightened. Yes, collaborative work creates other labours; when you work with someone else, the negotiation process can add to the overall time-to-product (time measured as productivity, maybe). But collaboration also creates a bond, a shared investment – time spent together with another thinking and feeling person, talking and thinking and building ideas. There is a gift in that bond: it is worth far more than the work that emerges.

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I am most proud of the work I have done in my career with others – both colleagues and students. So when I look at that work I think: that was time well spent, in every way – ways that can be measured, but lots of ways that cannot.

I’m still adjusting to my new commute, and to my new home. But I am going to keep thinking about my time in the car as a collaboration, my time in my comfy home office as a collaboration – moves toward sustainability, towards a new conception of how my work life is organized, both spatially and temporally. And I am going to continue prioritizing working with others over working solo – because I’d rather be in this together, with you, than in this spinning space, alone.

Stay warm!

Kim

 

Finding precious time!

Back in December I did some traveling. First, I visited Konstanz, the beautiful university town on the Bodensee in southern Germany, to host a workshop on arts pedagogy in the neoliberal public sphere. Then, it was off to the University of Sussex, and later to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, to hold two related events about the way forward for theatre and performance teachers, students, scholars, and artists inside the neoliberal academy (aka, the university that wants to train you for a job, probably in the sciences or business, and kill everything else that might be alive inside you. More or less).

These events were all related to the new research project I’ve just begun, in which I ask questions about how we are already, and better can in future, recognize and re-situate the transdisciplinary value of performance as a “mobile critical paradigm” in universities around the world that are currently hell-bent on destroying as much arts programming as possible. (Note: “mobile critical paradigm” is a term that comes from the brilliant book In Defence of Theatre, edited by my friends and colleagues Barry Freeman and Kathleen Gallagher. Thanks for this amazing inspiration, both of you!)

I had a wonderful time hosting these discussions, but they shared a quality that was not wonderful at all: bone-weary fatigue. My lovely, inspiring, resilient friends and colleagues and their students and junior colleagues are struggling so, so very hard to keep their heads above water even as everything they believe in is painfully devalued and possibly destroyed. Yet we remain hopeful, and we remain convinced (as we should be – we are resilient!) that we can turn this ship around and make space for broad and nuanced and critical and compelling arts and humanities discourse once again, soon.

If only we had more time. Time to think. Time to breathe.

(Thanks to the extraordinary Rebecca Hayes Laughton for her extraordinary work on the Central event. That’s her on the right. Above left, Kat Low and Rachel Hann express the pleasures of going off-brand.)

Fast forward to the end of 2017. I was late sending out my thank-you email to all of the wonderful allies who attended the two-day event at Central. In my message, among other things, I invited attendees to contribute guest posts to the blog in order to reflect on the many difficult and painful and critical and hopeful ideas we had circulated and argued over and cherished and fretted about.

Without much prompting, Gary Anderson and Lena Simic of the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home said they’d gladly take up this thrown-down gauntlet. I’m proud to publish their reflections here.

These reflections are about the most precarious of our institutional precarities: the struggle to find the time. To think, to reflect, to plot, to collaborate fulsomely, to dissent, to take action. Not that we are not doing these things; Gary and Lena most certainly are, along with their amazing four boys. But, as you’ll read below, it’s far harder than it should be – than it should be for any and all of us, if we are to retain the energy, the drive, the nourishment and the scope to generate from this moment of crisis real and lasting change.

What to do? Gary and Lena have ideas but no firm answers. They have also asked me to contribute some words to the project of thinking about this conundrum of time for an upcoming book of theirs, and I’ll share my reflections in response to that kind invitation in my next post.

But first, let’s hear from them. To create the pieces below, Lena and Gary followed my suggestions in a post on the blog in 2016 about low-stakes writing and what it can teach us; they each wrote for 30 minutes, observing on paper what came.

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Lena 

It was September 2014 and I was on my maternity leave with baby James. I was in Dubrovnik visiting my parents for a couple of weeks. We fell into a routine. After lunch, James would splash about in his little green boat and I would go, on my own, to the beach. I was lucky enough to have James looked after by my parents. I was alone. I’d go to Banje, Dubrovnik’s central beach, somewhat too crowded for my liking, but it was September, the light was gorgeous, really sharp, and I was alone. I had my book with me, Tender is the Night by Scott Fitzgerald. It was one of those books that I was reading very slowly in order to live in it and with it for longer. Deleuze spoke about the water-ski episode in the book as ‘ten pages of total beauty of not knowing how to age’. I was keen to learn about the disgrace and the shame of ageing, of trying to stay young, appearing fit. I was 39. My 40th birthday was in November that year. On the beach, I swam (3 times to the red buoy and back) and I read the book. Suddenly, I realized. I am not alone. I am with Dick and Nicole Diver. All my time is managed. I am swimming furiously, making the best out of my time. What if I just lay on the beach? I couldn’t do it. It was too crowded and too hot, a total waste of time.

In preparation for my 40th birthday performance 40 Minutes I used to go to the Institute every day for 40 days before my birthday, for 40 minutes and fill out a page of a 40-page notebook. I was creating 40 notebooks for my 40 invited friends. The time of 40 minutes was my methodology of creating/stealing time, being alone in the Institute and thinking/writing/performance making. I only worked on this performance in that given time – 40 minutes for 40 days, my 40th being the actual performance.

The Institute combines life and art, as well as life and work. Everything’s a project. This is exhausting. Last year, I wanted to quit the Institute. I wondered what it would be like not to frame our family life through it. It is true that the children are less involved these days, but they have grown up with the Institute, with a very particular activist family life. At our 2017 AGM Sid (10) said: ‘I don’t want it to end-end, I just don’t want to participate in everything.’ His other wish was to do a presentation again – he enjoyed being a part of Playing Up symposium with our presentation ‘Being and Things’ at Tate Modern in 2015.

The other day I got an email from a colleague who said that she can only, at the moment, perform her ‘basic contractual work obligations’. I found such liberation in that phrasing. It’s ‘work to rule’ – Gary said, reminding me about union disputes. Everyone knows we academics work so much more than our contracts stipulate. I am multitasking and channelling my energies into different work spheres: research, performance making, producing, teaching, mothering. Am I doing any of the activities well enough? And yet, all is so over-combined in my life.

One of my best friends from Zagreb works as a civil servant, with the Ministry of Finance. I am not actually sure what her job is. She studied law. She never talks about her work. It’s a waste of our time together. For her, work is elsewhere, compartmentalized into a different world. I envy her. In my world, all is too combined, too much fusion. Yes, I’m so good at not checking work emails after 5pm and never ever at weekends, but I have three more email addresses, WhatsApp, Viber, Instagram and a Facebook account. I think about my children and their future jobs. I am not sure my career is the one I’d advise anyone to follow.

I was inspired by Kim’s post ‘Write. Just write. And be amazed.’ I was reminded of my own methodologies of working with students on their essays and research papers, and myself in performance making. I remembered that my favourite writing is always in relation, when I write with/to my research collaborator Emily Underwood-Lee about maternal matters, when I write letters to my friend and colleague Zoë Svendsen. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s quote in A Room of One’s Own: ‘the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think’. I am yet to achieve either. The habit of freedom might be an ability to let go and be truly alone and unproductive. The courage to write exactly what I think is going to take a while, at least a little longer than 30 minutes.

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(Here’s Gary, talking us through, among other things, how to appreciate the otherness of the accidental cockroach, during the event I hosted at CSSD in December 2017. Most fun in a hotel room ever. Really.)

Gary 

Lena’s already started. Half an hour of writing in response to Kim Solga’s blogging. Lena’s furiously tapping away on her keys and I’m stuck writing about her getting ahead of me.

10 per cent. I have a problem with the way we are always compartmentalising stuff – like time, and schedules and how to divide up a day – because in the end I naively believe in a Spinozist universe of infinite substance. I want integration. I don’t want separation. Lena, correctly, tells me that this world view suits somebody who is actually quite lazy. It means I don’t really have to prepare for anything, structure stuff or plan. I can bump into things and try to transform them. Lena suggests this is my modus operandi. I don’t know if that’s fair but I do like the sound that bumping into stuff makes.

However, we’ve decided to divide our time into two portions: a 90 per cent and a 10 per cent. The 90 per cent is where our contractual obligations are fulfilled (our jobs at university) and the 10 per cent is where all the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home work for 2018 gets done. We made this arrangement under some duress whilst we argued and argued about who is the lazy one and who is the one who maintains everything – at our 2017 AGM in Dubrovnik – at the Biker’s Café.

There’s a history of decimation in world religions; the churches of the late middle ages thought it wise to decimate all parishioners to the tune of 10 per cent of their wealth. The churches grew astonishingly rich from this levy whilst the consequences for dissenting parishioners were severe. Penalties were dished out exemplar-fashion. Retrospectively, we’ve applied the word decimate to mean the killing of every tenth Roman solider who dissented.  Whether in Rome or elsewhere everyone soon got to know what being decimated meant. From the perspective of hegemony – you were ‘saved’. We have a similar methodology at home. All monies that come through us, from lecturer salaries to child benefits for our four children to any invited commissions, are decimated and put into the Institute. It’s a way of saving ourselves from the full onslaught of the current equivalent of the Roman Empire or the oligarchy of the late Middle age Christian church. We need saving from our late capitalist living all more or less 100 per cent covered by legal contracts and insipid insurance structures.

We’ve decided to extend the metaphor into our time. We are contracted to operate as full time employees of higher education establishments in/around Liverpool. That’s 35 hours per week. On Tuesday mornings we spend 3.5 hours on the work of the Institute. This short writing exercise, in response to Kim Solga’s blogging, is part of that 3.5 hours. We said we’d get everything done by then, between 9am and 12:30pm. The kids are all in school. We are at the kitchen table trying out a writing exercise ‘Write. Just write. And be amazed’, from The Activist Classroom blog. I’ve about 10 minutes left…

This is part of a book project we have decided to work on called ‘10’. A book of 10 ‘chapters’ each talking and writing through a key problem. We might call the book ‘10 Problems’. We don’t know yet. We need to decide everything within the 10 per cent of our 35 hours on a Tuesday morning: get the concepts of the book clear, do all the writing and thinking together and make sure everything is in place until publication and dissemination. It’s fun to work in this way sometimes. Feels like a joke at our employers’ expense, one they wouldn’t even be interested in, would just ignore or brush off as incomprehensible or ‘it’s what drama teachers do…’ That gives me a little bit of energy and focus.

This will go through a re-reading now, after the half hour is up, then will be shared with Lena, then we’ll try to pick out the best bits, then we’ll write a proposal for Kim’s blog based on what we’ve learnt or produced from this writing exercise. We started off with the idea that all of us, and all of our strategies and tactics for working, are simply over-productive; that we are struggling with a paradox: we need time in order to slow down, but that time would have to be scheduled into what is already no time left, again.

Time up.

***

Want to know more?

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, based in a family home in Liverpool, UK, founded in 2007 is an intervention into family life and the normative upbringing of children. The Institute identify as anarchist, anti-capitalist and feminist. Our interventions happen across various levels: through activities in our own home by way of performances, artists’ residencies, meetings, reading groups and through our participation as a family of performers at different art events, protests, festivals and academic conferences. The Institute’s activities involve taking the children to political demonstrations and learning together how to be critical citizens rather than passive consumers. The Institute is funded by 10% of the family’s net income (two university lecturer salaries, child benefit and any other artist commissions), and currently stands at around £530 per month. The Institute are Gary Anderson (45), Lena Simic (43), Neal (17), Gabriel (15), Sid (10) and James (4).

The Institute publications include art activist books 4 Boys [for Beuys] (2016), The Mums and Babies Ensemble (2015), and Five (2008-2012) (2014). The Institute have presented their work in various arts centre (Tate Modern, Arnolfini, Artsadmin, Live Art Development Agency, the Bluecoat, FACT, Tobacco Factory, New Art Gallery Walsall, Chelsea Theatre, Stanley Picker Gallery, East Street Arts, Wysing Arts Centre, 25 SG), academic and arts journals (Contemporary Theatre Review, Performance Research, RiDE, Feminist Review, Meta Mute, The Concept Store Journal, Liverpool Art Journal) as well as numerous national and international conferences.

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home are currently collaborating with Live Art Development Agency on Study Room in Exile, co-organizing Family Activist Network and co-editing (with Adele Senior) a special issue ‘On Children’ for Performance Research.

Tired already? Let Them Teach Each Other! (Trust me. It will be good for you.)

It’s the first week of October, so no denying it any more: school’s back in session. Shit has gotten real.

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I know I’m in the fortunate chair this term, on sabbatical. (Nope, I don’t plan to stop mentioning it anytime soon. Sorry!)

But that doesn’t stop me feeling the autumn vibe through friends, neighbours’ kids, and through the growing chill in the air. Which is why, when the latest Tomorrow’s Professor post, on encouraging students to teach each other, rolled across my desk Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice how ideal it is for just this moment in the term – when stress levels are rising, the thick of the marking and the prep is looming, and the chaos of midterms is starting to glance over the parapet.

The author of this particular post, “Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle,” is Tim Murphey, who teaches in the English Department at Kanda University in Japan. It comes from his chapter in the book Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education (Springer, 2017).

It’s normal for me to get inspired by TP posts throughout the academic year, but it’s not typical for me to base an entire post of my own around one. In this case I’m making an exception, though, because Murphey’s insights and evidence from his teaching experiments echo my own, very positive, anecdotal experiences with different forms of peer teaching in theatre and performance studies classrooms.

I’ve long felt peer teaching to be an essential means of activating deep student learning, especially when it comes to applying and extending complicated theoretical concepts. Put bluntly, students learn way better when they have to explain stuff clearly to each other; it means they have to internalize, vocalize, share, and collaborate – even if they kind of hate doing it in the moment. (And of course they do. Sitting at the back and sort of listening to the prof while actively cruising Facebook or Snapchatting with friends is way easier, duh.)

Murphey’s research concurs with this assessment of peer teaching’s impact on student outcomes, but his article also notes more, and deeper, benefits.

First, he talks about how valuable peer teaching can be for teachers, both in terms of saving us time AND in terms of making us better at our jobs.

Second (and throughout, actually), he focuses on how important the practice of peer teaching is as an ethical, and a democratic, practice – for students, but also for faculty. Everyone benefits, he argues, when we share the hard work of making sense of our world, together.

Which also feels crazy timely to me, ya know?

Herewith, then, a bit more from Murphey, and me, on each of these terrific ideas.

1. Peer teaching helps teachers teach better. It teaches us to give up a bit of control, and to get comfortable with the idea that maybe we don’t know everything and that’s ok. It also encourages us to reduce over-prep and spend our teaching time more wisely – working ideas through in the classroom, in the moment.

Just in time for early October, Murphey opens his introduction with this slightly painful truth:

Too often first time teachers, and even many experienced teachers, work much too hard preparing too much material for their classes to fill the allotted time. I myself confess to over-preparing and planning too many activities and materials.

I’ve also overprepped for years. (I call it “prep creep“.) Worse, I’ve been actively working NOT to over-prep for years, and yet, still, there’s that voice in my head. That voice that says…

You’re going to get to the end of the prep and have no more to say and there will be 10 minutes to go and everyone will look at you and know you suck and are an imposter.

Friends, that voice is wrong. It is an asshole, that voice. Total douchebag.

First, under no circumstances will you ever run out of stuff to say. I’m pretty sure that you got your degrees because you like to talk about your research and stuff, right?

Second – and this is The Great Paradox of Teaching – the more you write stuff down to say it, the easier it is to *actually* run out of stuff to say. The more activities you program for your active classroom, the more rushed everyone will likely feel. You will be anxious. The students will become cross and confused.

Nobody will be happier, or will have learned more, because of the excess stuff on your pages.

Here’s where peer teaching is a genius short-cut to help us get in the habit of more classroom improv, less over-prep. Yes, of course, helping students learn how to teach each other well takes careful set-up, and regular practice. You need to decide what the students will work on figuring out together, and you’ll have to give some thought to how they will get from point A to point B. You’ll need to offer some guidance along the way.

But a lot of that guidance will happen in the moment, and will be dependent on what the students say, and what they find they need as they unpick the problem you’ve set for them. You can’t prep for that; what you need is to develop confidence in your role as a guide. That takes practice in real time, in front of anxious or bored or anticipatory faces. It’s risky. It means being willing to mess up quite a bit. But it gets better and easier with time – it really, really does.

We might think it’s our job to stand up and spit up the knowledge, but that’s a ruse; in fact, our job is to be the expert learner in the room, not the person who has completed the journey of learning.

Which is, of course, the other reason peer teaching is so worthwhile: because it reminds us that we, too, are always on that journey with our students.

2. Peer teaching is just basic democracy. It’s sharing the knowledge and the challenges knowledge poses. It’s getting to the bottom of complicated things.

I don’t know about you, but as I read the headlines these days, I mostly think to myself: these skills, the ones that teach you about not being afraid to think hard, and to confront things that do not make sense, and to talk to other human beings about those things, and to work toward some kind of provisional answers, and then to toss them out and try again, just as hard and without losing heart…

… these skills are the only skills that matter right now.

Murphey quotes from Lee Shulman’s book Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education (2004, pp 36-7) in his epigraph, and I’ll rehearse the quotation here because it’s remarkable in its clarity and insight on the public and ethical and democratic value of shared teaching:

Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it.

Shulman’s framing of learning as property is exceptionally timely, as the endgame of neoliberal consumption practices loom, warlike, into view. Knowledge can’t be owned; it must be shared. When we try to own insight we produce tyranny, and tyranny is the enemy of further learning, of the freedom to debate, discuss, and disagree.

The only way we can help our students understand this is to share the process of making knowledge with them, again and again, messy though that process might be. We need to model knowledge-sharing practices in our classrooms, urgently, precisely because they seem so very far away these days, when we open Twitter, or click the news links in our Facebook feeds.

And then, once we’ve fumbled through the peer teach, and hit all the roadblocks, and struggled to find the answers, we need to talk with our students about why the messiness of sharing knowledge is a social good, and not a thing to be loathed and feared.

***

My sincere thanks to Tim Murphey for inspiring this post with a very compelling article. Please follow the links embedded above to purchase the two books referenced here, either for yourself or for your school’s library.

Meanwhile, if you use peer teaching practices in your classrooms I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments – models are always very welcome.

Kim